Simōn is the Greek form of the Hebrew Sumeōn (Simeon), the name of the second-born son of Jacob and Leah, meaning “he has heard” (an implicit allusion to answered prayer; cf. Gen. 29:33).1 One of the two apostles who wore this name, to distinguish him from Simon Peter, is labeled “zealot" (Greek zēlōtēs) by Luke (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13). Matthew (10:4) and Mark (3:18) employ the more obscure Aramaic qualifier Kananaios (from Kananitēs), which is rendered in many English versions as "Cananite." This could indicate that Simon was from Cana of Galilee,2 but the term is more likely derived from the Hebrew qana, meaning “zealous” or "zealot."
Why this particular moniker is appended to Simon’s name is uncertain. Perhaps it was indicative of his great enthusiasm and intensity.3 The tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church is that Jesus’ first miracle in Cana (John 2:1-11) was at Simon’s wedding, after which Simon’s burning zeal as a follower of Christ became most evident. But it is hard to imagine that he was significantly more zealous than every one of his colleagues, especially the other apostle Simon.4 Moreover, there were numerous occasions when this description just would not have been applicable.5
Alternatively, he may have been a member of the infamous Zealot faction – the freedom fighters engaged in the Jewish resistance against the Romans. The fact that fellow-apostle Matthew maintained a less-than-flattering title from his former life (Matt. 10:3) lends credence to this idea. Jesus drew his immediate followers from the region of Galilee, which was the birthplace of the Zealot movement (cf. Acts 2:7; 5:37; Josephus, Ant. 18.1.1, 6).6
According to the mid-second century Gospel of the Ebionites, Simon Zelotes was called by the Lord at the Sea of Tiberias (Galilee) around the same time as James, John, Simon [Peter], Andrew, Thaddaeus, Judas Iscariot, and Matthew. Seeing that the Zealots were vehemently opposed to the Romans and their collaborators, including those who gathered government taxes, it would have been interesting to see how Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector reacted toward one another when first brought together. The only thing we know for sure is that under Jesus’ influence and tutelage, they were unified co-workers, laboring side by side in the Master’s service.
Simon sincerely believed in Jesus (John 2:11) and acknowledged him as God’s Son (Matt. 14:33). Simon left his dubious past behind to be a loyal disciple (Luke 10:28), exchanging his sword of hostility for the sword of the Spirit (cf. Eph. 6:17). He faithfully proclaimed the gospel of God’s kingdom (Luke 9:1-6) and baptized penitent believers (John 4:2). Following Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension, Simon continued faithfully proclaiming the gospel of God’s kingdom and baptizing penitent believers (Acts 2:14-41; 4:29; 6:4, 7; etc.).
After Simon’s departure from Jerusalem, traditions about him vary. He reportedly preached in Egypt before partnering with Thaddaeus Judas (identified in several Old Latin manuscripts as “Judas Zelotes [the zealot]”).7 They are believed to have labored together in Persia, Armenia, and Beirut (Lebanon) of Syria and were both killed with an axe in the year 65 in Beirut.8 It has also been alleged that Simon journeyed to the Middle East and Africa and then died by crucifixion in Jerusalem or Samaria. Other traditions claim that he was sawn in half in Suanir, Persia, or perhaps martyred in Caucasian Iberia (Weriosphora) or Britain (Caistor). Another version is that he died peacefully in Edessa.
If Simon had in fact been involved in the fierce Zealot movement, he went from a life of bitterness and bloodshed to a very different way of destroying his enemies …. winning them over as brothers. “And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11). Consider further what happens when a first-century Jewish insurgent is joined to a collaborator with Rome. One would naturally expect hatred, resentment, hostility and strife (cf. Mark 15:7), but when the Lord Jesus Christ is involved, extraordinary things can happen.
“But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another! …. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:15, 24).
--Kevin L. Moore
2 This is how Jerome (347-420) interpreted the designation, although Kanaios would have been the more appropriate term had this been the case. The renderings “Canaanite” (KJV) and “Cananean” (RV) are also used. Some have attempted to identify the apostle Simon as Jesus’ brother Simon (cf. Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3). But this is most improbable, seeing that the Lord’s brothers did not believe in him as the Christ even after the twelve had been appointed (John 6:67; 7:5). Others have equated him with Nathanael (John 1:45) or with the son of Cleopas/Alphaeus and the brother of James son of Alpheus (Mark 3:18).
3 Cf. Acts 21:20; 22:3; 1 Cor. 14:12; Gal. 1:14; Tit. 2:14.
4 See The 12 Apostles (Part 2): Simon Peter, Jesus Called Him "Peter" Only Twice, The Tough Love of Jesus, and Christ's Inner Circle.
5 E.g. Matt. 14:26; 16:8; 17:19-20; Mark 4:40, 41; 6:50; 9:32; 10:32; 16:11-14; Luke 8:25; 9:45; 24:11, 37, 38; John 6:19; 20:19.
8 This is a very late tradition, attributed to Jacobus de Voragine’s medieval Legenda aurea or Legenda sanctorum (the Golden Legend, ca. 1260).