The A-Z of Believing: Z is for Zealotry
Ed Kessler, head of the Woolf Institute, presents the final part in a series on belief and scepticism
For modes of faith let graceless zealots fight; his can’t be wrong whose life is in the right.
– Alexander Pope
The words “zealot” and “zealotry” have had bad press. This is partly because of the fanaticism of an ancient group of Jewish nationalists, the “Zealots”, who, 2,000 years ago, fought violently against Roman rule. Such was their belief that Jews should not pay tribute to Rome, nor acknowledge the Roman emperor as their master, that they undertook guerrilla warfare against the Romans and terrorised fellow Jews who opposed them. The first centuries BCE and CE were a period of strife in the Holy Land and the Zealots wreaked havoc.
One of Jesus’s apostles, Simon, was a Zealot, and Jesus was crucified between two lestai, Greek for zealots. The Romans viewed Jesus as a threat, perhaps also as a zealot. After his death, Jewish Zealots expanded their violent insurrection but the Romans crushed them and destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE. Shortly afterwards, they made a last stand at Masada, near the Dead Sea, holding off the Roman army for over a year before carrying out mass suicide.
Since then, there have been many examples of violent religious zealotry, resulting in war, the burning of cities and the destruction of sacred places. One example is the Crusaders who captured Jerusalem in 1099 and killed Muslims, Jews, and native Christians indiscriminately; another is their modern Muslim equivalents, al-Qaeda and Isis.
So, yes, it’s understandable that zealotry has had bad press. However, we call them fanatics or terrorists because there is a fundamental difference between zealotry and fanaticism. Fanatics adhere to a set of beliefs or practices that are extreme. Whilst fanatics are zealots, not all zealots are fanatics. For the most part, zealots recognise they are part of a larger system, which they need to change from within. Martin Luther King comes to mind, as does Mahatma Gandhi. Fanatics, on the other hand, see only their own point of view, and consider it their religious duty to break the law, often violently.
Whilst you may not have heard of the ancient Zealots, I suspect you will be familiar with this quotation from the King James Bible: “Thou shalt worship no other God for the Lord whose name is Jealous is a jealous God.”
Jealous and zealous etymologically derive from the same root, qana in Hebrew and zelos in Greek, meaning both “zeal” and “jealousy”. For many of us, the thought of a “jealous” god is strange as the word is almost entirely negative in English. Who wants to worship a “jealous” or “zealous” god? As Shakespeare wrote in Othello: “O, beware my lord of jealousy, for it is the green eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds upon.”
Yet, the biblical term actually implies something quite different: that God has entered into a committed relationship with the people of Israel as intimate as marriage. The prophets described God as a husband and father, attentive and faithful, with ardour and devotion. In this sense, a jealous god meant a passionate god.
In 1611, when the Authorised Version of the Bible was published, the translators had this understanding of jealousy or zealotry, quite different from today. What we forget in 2019 is that meaning changes over time, especially over 500 years. These translators understood the term in terms of a deep passion, which they considered as a positive attribute. A passionate person was to be honoured and trusted.
Of course, passion can be misdirected, but the point is that the word carries positive connotations: passion drives us to support a cause, to perform at our best; and being passionate is part of the human condition – at least from the perspective of the Abrahamic faiths. I do not mean romantic passion, but a passion for life and a desire for purpose. Even if we can’t have it in our own life, we find it elsewhere, which is perhaps one reason why reality TV is so popular. Don’t we all enjoy – at least occasionally – vicariously living through someone else’s experience?
Some of us exhibit this passion by supporting our football team and shouting until we’re hoarse. Others stand in line for hours, sometimes all day, for tickets to a concert of a favourite band. These people are excited and passionate, or they would never spend their time and money this way. Relative to religious conviction, this is the act of a zealot, not a fanatic.
The line is crossed the moment intolerance for a religion other than your own raises its head; when we are not only passionate about our own, but when we condemn the religions of others.
One of the most important biblical passages for Christians is Isaiah 9:6-7. The verses are interpreted as foretelling the coming of Jesus but also serve as a reminder, to all people religious or otherwise, of what zeal, not fanaticism, can achieve:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.
The prophet Isaiah brings you to the end of this A-Z of Believing. Thank you for joining me as we journeyed from A to Z, from Atheism to Zealotry. My final request is to ask you to remember that the end can be where you start. In the words of TS Eliot, “to make an end is to make a beginning”.
Isaiah put it another way: “Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: ‘I am the first and I am the last, And there is no God besides Me.” Similarly, Jesus is described as “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end”.
My hope is more limited – may this A-Z simply be the end of a beginning.
Listen to each episode of ‘An A-Z of Believing: from Atheism to Zealotry’ on the Woolf Institute podcast site or wherever you get your podcasts
Written and presented by Dr Ed Kessler MBE, founder and director of the Cambridge-based Woolf Institute, this compelling guide to religious belief and scepticism is a must-read for believers and nonbelievers alike.
Founded in 1998 to explore the relationship between religion and society, the Woolf Institute uses research and education to foster understanding between people of all beliefs with the aim of reducing prejudice and intolerance.
Dr Kessler says: “Latest surveys suggest that 85 per cent of the world’s population identify themselves as belonging to a specific religion, and in many parts of the world the most powerful actors in civil society are religious. Understanding religion and belief, the role they play and their impact on behaviour and decision-making is, therefore, vital.”
Dr Kessler – who was awarded an MBE for services to interfaith relations in 2011 – is an affiliated lecturer with the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University, a principal of the Cambridge Theological Federation and additionally teaches at the Cambridge Muslim College.
He says: “This A-Z of Believing aims to show how the encounter between religions has influenced and been influenced by the evolution of civilisation and culture, both for good and for ill. I hope that a better understanding of believing will lead people to realise that while each religion is separate, they are also profoundly connected.”