Roman presence at that time was much more intense in Israel. And we see this when we examine some reactions of the most fanatical elements of the Jewish people. What is most important at this time for what interests us here––Israel's relationship with Hellenism in a broad sense––is the first appearance on the public scene of the "zealots."
Although Josephus (Jewish War II 118) calls this group a "sect" (he calls it a "philosophical school"), it is well known today that this group was not a sect in the strict sense of the word, since from a religious ideological point of view they identified with the Pharisees. They differed from the Pharisees by transferring their ideas to politics and action, opposing the Romans with violence. Even the outbreak of the revolt did not cease to remain active: Even the sons of Judas the Galilean were crucified by A.D. 46–48. After Herod's death, the history of Judea was marked by certain revolts––not many, but sufficient enough to maintain the spirit of inner rebellion of the masses against Rome, which represented not only an oppressive power but an irreligious spirit and contrary to the will of God over Israel.
The doctrine with which the zealots justified their warlike actions is crucial to understanding the Jewish opposition to Roman domination, and with it to all that it considered pagan and "Hellenistic." Judas of Gamala, or Judas the Galilean, ardently maintained that the people of God could not be counted by the Romans, who were considered godless and wicked, in order to impose new tributes. Judas was the first to spread among the people the religious basis that founded all kinds of anti-Roman rebellion in Israel in the first century: "It is not possible that the holy land has any other king and lord than Yahweh; Israel is the country of God and tributes are only to be paid to his representatives; the Jews have an obligation to cooperate, even violently with their arms, to implant the reign of God in the land that God has given to the people of his choice."
The spirit that is synthesized in these phrases illustrates the necessary "messianic" drive for the war against Rome in A.D. 66–70. Certainly the movement of Judas the Galilean was easily crushed by Roman weapons, but his motto was more difficult to silence: "Letting the land of Yahweh pass into the dominion of another lord is next to death." Its ardor in the defense and fulfillment of the Law––the so-called zeal for Yahweh––are the roots of the religious-political movements that were most disastrous in Jewish politics in the first century.
W. Grundmann, in his chapter "Grupos y fuerzas, puntos de vista y directrices," from Leipoldt-Grundmann's work, El mundo del Nuevo Testamento (1:301) comments on the spirit of zealots:
"In their view, the Kingdom of God in Israel was incompatible with any other domination . . . For centuries Israel had lived under foreign domination and under it had served its God, accepting their subjugation as something that God permitted, or as a punishment. The zealots broke with this tradition and from this rupture came their zeal for the exclusive monarchy of God and their resolve to suffer persecution, if necessary, for it, as well as sacrificing money, property, or life for this creed . . . Even with martyrdom they proclaimed their zeal for God and expiated the sins of Israel. Conversion had in them the serious modality of denying obedience to earthly powers and of adhering only to the Law of God. The repercussion of these doctrines was all the greater because it sprang from the very core of Jewish beliefs."The nucleus of the doctrine of the zealots took only about fifty years to become a general atmosphere among the majority of the Jewish population not only in Galilee but in all Judea and other territories in Israel during the first century. The pious Jews began to feel more vividly than ever before that they were living in an occupied country. They had been dominated by Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks for centuries, but now the control of the Romans over the territory of God, over the holy city and its Temple, was perceived as an unbearable abomination.
Since there was a general conviction that the situation was so bad, more than a few thought that God would soon remedy such a state contrary to their desires since the chosen people could not keep the Law without hindrance. Thus, many began to desire in their heart that a war of national liberation would take place, that God––with his special help––would be in charge to bring the war to a most satisfactory end.
On the other hand, it is unquestionable that the flowering of this doctrine is explained in the context of a strongly eschatologized and messianic ideological atmosphere as it existed in Judea during this period. This atmosphere had been prepared by the flourishing of apocalyptic literature since the third century B.C. until the second century A.D., a period in which terrible clashes took place between the Jews and the powers that dominated them, Greeks first and Romans later.
The religious-psychological state of great masses in Judea of the mid-first century of our era might seem difficult to understand. The truth is that the eschatological and messianic temperature was high, so much so that a tiny and almost unaided people dared finally, within a few decades, to face Rome at the height of its power. The Empire was like the last kingdom of darkness, which had to be fought so that the new messianic era, the Kingdom of God, would dawn.
Undoubtedly, within this framework of tense eschatological expectation we must also include Jesus' preaching of the Kingdom of God, which took place approximately in the third decade of the first century. For the apocalyptic mindset, that period was a moment of anguish on the earth, the last labor pains for the birth of a new aeon. Jesus did not think he had to get involved personally in politics in order to usher in the kingdom. But the messianic movement of the zealots and then of the assassins (supported by a good part of the Pharisees) came to think that human collaboration was imperative and would hasten the coming of the reign of God.
The movement of the Maccabean brothers was strictly nationalist, but they quickly realized that in order to succeed it was necessary to provide a political basis for the insurrection. This allowed them to adjust to the harsh reality without any special difficulties. The zealots, by contrast, were an almost purely religious apocalyptic movement, which led to political blindness and suicide.