Religious Zeal: It’s Not What You Think

Zealots And Zeal

ZealotWith all the attention that Reza Aslan is receiving over his new book, Zealot: The Life And Times of Jesus of Nazareth, I thought we could take a closer look at “zeal” itself. What is it and why does it have so many negative connotations? What does the Old & New Testament have to say about it? Finally, if the Bible calls its adherents to be zealous, what exactly is it asking people to do?

The writers of the New Testament wrote from within the thought worlds of their audiences, but also with an eye, looking back, to the story of Israel in the Old Testament.  Paul, author of most New Testament books, wrote from within the echo chamber of the Old Testament constantly.  His earlier life, being marked by the Torah, was no less marked by it after his conversion.  Though, after encountering Christ, he had a markedly different sense of the purposes and teachings that the Torah held than before.  Concepts, practices, theological trajectories – all of these were radically transformed in his conversion.  They had taken on a whole new nuance after he met Christ.  One such concept that was “converted” along with Paul was his understanding of zeal.

Zeal for Today

In today’s world, zeal can stir up ideas related to religious sects, terrorist agendas, excessive ideologies, or just a lack of common sense replaced by careless energy. Zeal can issue fear or be issued by fear. Voltaire, a progenitor of the French Enlightenment, once pronounced, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” We fear zeal, at times reverently and at other times in dread. When was the last time you heard the word zeal mentioned at a dinner party, or merely mentioned at all?  Maybe it’s time to regain a sense of what zeal actually is, or at least come close.

Synonyms for zeal are ‘urgency,’ ‘intensity,’ ‘fanaticism,’ ‘fervor,’ among many others.  Though these are closely related terms, the concepts that bring zeal into focus most clearly are ‘passion’ and ‘diligence.’ Diligence happens to be one of the main theological virtues, while passion (also a term in need of nuancing) is the extent to which one is willing to suffer for a cause, hence the passion week of Christ.  So, while zeal is typically thought of as an aggressive term, its companions of diligence and passion help us to appreciate the self-giving side to zeal, a side that was revealed through the conversion of Paul the Apostle.

Pauline Zeal

Theology of Paul ApostlePaul defended his pre-conversion credentials in that he, “progressed in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my people, being exceedingly zealous for my ancestral traditions…” (Gal. 1:14) and “as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church”(Phil. 3:6).  For those zealous within Judaism, they believed to have received their marching orders from Yahweh himself, for God himself was a zealot, zealous being the same word as jealous.

‘God as a zealot’ is not to be confused with the political affiliation that Josephus writes about of the Zealots, a factional group in Israel during the era of Christ who sought to overthrow Roman oppression through violence and acts of terror.  Much more rooted in the declaration that God is a jealous God, the tradition of being zealous for “ancestral traditions” was necessary to protect the identity of Jewish nationalism and the religious devotion expressed in unquestioned obedience to Yahweh.  The primary temptations that drew Israel from being zealous for Yahweh were the worship of other gods and intermarriage with other nations.  As James Dunn writes, “Israel’s ‘zeal’ for Yahweh and his Torah was a reflection of Yahweh’s zeal for Israel.” (The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 351)

Old Testament Origin

Not only was Yahweh zealous, but there were heroic examples to follow in the history of Israel like Elijah, Jehu, Simeon and Levi, but none more famous than Phinehas (Num. 25:6-13). Phinehas is best known for driving a spear through both an Israelite man and a Midianite woman after they’d entered a tent together in the midst of an act of Israel’s repentance. God declared of him, “he was as zealous for my honor among them as I am…. he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.” (Num. 25:11b;13b)

Biblical Zeal: A Definition

There are three poignant features of zeal drawn from these stories. James Dunn distills these values, practiced by Paul before his conversion as,

  1. An unremitting commitment to maintain the distinctiveness of Israel’s religious and national boundaries.
  2. A willingness to ensue the use force to ensure these boundaries.
  3. The readiness to direct this violence not only against Gentiles but also against fellow Jews.

After his conversion, Paul’s zeal is converted to,

  1. an unremitting commitment and calling to preach the Gospel, rooted in the story of Israel, to the Gentiles beyond Israel’s boundaries. (Gal. 1:16)
  2. A willingness to endure violence, persecution and even death to preach the Gospel beyond the national and religious boundaries of Israel in obedience to Christ. (2 Cor. 12:10)
  3. The readiness to absorb the violence of persecution for the sake of Christ, in self-giving love and sacrifice, especially from one’s own community as Christ himself did.  (Eph. 5:1-2)

Zeal For The Family of God

In collusion with Paul, we are called to embrace a zeal to see brothers and sisters reconciled…because they already are, in Christ.  At times, we may feel the need to protect our boundaries of conviction even against our own “family.”  There are legitimate concerns in any family that require having boundaries within one’s familial circles, but are those concerns grievous enough to form hard-lined boundaries, keeping some in and others out. These concerns can sometimes be labeled fears. Fears tend to be managed with fear or with apathy or at times with a zeal that mirrors the kind Paul demonstrated before his conversion – a willingness to protect the boundaries at all cost, even against our own family.

Colossians 1:17 and the example of Christ’s self-giving love demonstrate a different path though for us.  When we disagree for very good reasons over very important issues, Christ first calls us to an unremitting commitment to Christ’s priestly prayer for Christian unity in John 17.  He calls us to be willing to suffer on behalf of the unity of the body, even if that suffering is to come from another part of Christ’s body.  He calls to us to a converted zeal, the zeal that Paul’s ministry was defined by as he wrote in Romans 12;

“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.” 
     – Romans 12:9-13

As we pursue zeal, let it be a zeal for each other over and against our positions, rather than a zeal for our positions over and against each other.


For Further Reading:

  1. The Theology of Paul the Apostle by James G. Dunn
  2. The Zealots by Martin Hengel
  3. The concept of “Zeal” in Second-Temple Judaism and Paul’s critique of it in Romans 10:2 by Vincent Smiles


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