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by Rachmiel Frydland

Within the first century of our era, there were no fewer than ten pretended "messiahs." These Jewish claimants gathered large numbers of followers with promises of physical redemption and deliverance. Disappointment, sorrow, and sometimes total destruction followed. 1

   Three of the false messiahs are mentioned in the Brit Hadasha (New Covenant). Theudas boasted himself to be a "savior," and he attracted about 400 people. He was killed and his followers scattered. Then Judas of Galilee arose, probably contesting the Roman registration for taxation. He gathered a large following, but he too perished and his followers were dispersed. 2  The third figure mentioned is "that Egyptian. " who led people to follow him to the wilderness. He was pursued but escaped, and then went into hiding with a few of his followers. 3

   Outside of the New Covenant records we learn of Simon of East Jordan who crowned himself king. He burned the royal house in Jericho and the homes of the rich, before dying in combat. Another messianic claimant, "the wonder working Bedouin,” promised the people liberty if they would follow him to the desert, but he too was slain. 4

   According to the historian, Josephus, the Jewish people were aroused to wage war against the Romans in 68-70 C. E. because of a prophecy contained in the Holy Scripture that convince them to believe that there would arise a man who would rule over the whole world. 5

   One of the most famous of the false Messiahs, however, arose in the early second century.  he was Simon Bar Kosiba.  The Jewish leadership of the time under Rabbi Akibah proclaimed him Messiah.  His name, which can mean “son of a liar”, was changed to Bar Kochba, which means "son of a star." In support In support of his messiahship, a prophecy in the book of Numbers was applied to him :

   There shall arise a kochav (star) out of Jacob. 6

   Bar Kochba sought to overthrow the yoke of Roman rule and regain independence for the nation. A Talmudic passage  describes both his military zeal and his arrogance:

   There was Bar [Kochba] who had an army of 200,000 men who had a finger cut off of each of his men to show their prowess and fearlessness. ... When he went out to war he would say: Master of the Universe, do not help us and do not help our enemies. 7

   There was great confidence that Bar Kochba would succeed; in fact Jewish coins were minted with the inscription "year one” and "year two of the freedom of Jerusalem." 8 By 135 C.E., however, the campaign was utterly crushed by the Romans.  Tens of thousands were slain and a large part of the Jewish Community was driven from Jerusalem. Thousands of Jewish captives were sold into slavery; others were forced into slave ships and and many died at sea. 9 The Roman rulers changed the name of Jerusalem to Aelia Capitolina in an effort to wipe out its  spiritual significance for Jewry, and the figure of a swine was engraved on the marble gate that led to Bet-lechem (Bethlehem).

   In spite of the immense disaster brought on by Bar-Kochba, claimants to the office of Messiah continued to come forth in Jewish history. Probably the most prominent false messiah who came after Bar Kochba was the 17th century Turkish Jew, Shabbetai Zevi. He proclaimed himself to be the Messiah, and traveled widely to Egypt, Jerusalem, Constantinople, and other places. He attracted rabbis, scholars and common people, and concocted a strange mixture of teachings and bizarre customs, based in part on kabbalism, and, in part, on a manic-depressive psychosis.

   When finally he was arrested by the Turkish authorities and given the choice of being put to death or converting to Islam, Zevi chose Islam. His followers, however, continued to explain his conversion in a way favorable to his claims to messiahship, and Shabbateanism survived to the 18th century.10  Though there are no official claimants at this time, hassidic Jews (as in the Chabad movement) often look to their Chief Rabbi as a possible Messiah.

   Why did these false Messiahs attract such large numbers of Jewish people?  No doubt it is normal for an oppressed people to seek to throw off the yoke of oppression, and too long for liberation from foreign bondage. Moses showed the people what a “Redeemer" could do, and how a small number of people could escape the grasp of a powerful nation. The wars of the Maccabees also proved that a minority with God can be victorious over a heathen majority, because they believed that "with God all things are possible."

   The Jewish people related their oppression to national sin.  The Babylonian captivity resulted in a rejection of sinful idol worship in Israel, and a partial national and spiritual restoration followed. The Maccabees sought a purge of non-religious Jews, and again a partial restoration followed. The more the people believed they were faithful to the Torah, the more intolerable and impossible became the thought of heathens ruling over them.  They believed that if they resisted under a "Messiah," like Hezekiah and Judah Maccabee, God would vindicate them and give them the victory.

   Most of the false Messiahs also appealed to the Torah and to immorality of paying taxes. They said that it was not right to pay taxes to Caesar, since some of the money was also used to support heathen temple worship. This appealed to the masses, especially the economically depressed among them.

   Jewish leaders during the first century also deduced from Scripture that the time of the Messiah was near. The false messiahs did not, however, possess the characteristics of the Messiah of Scripture. They did not seek to prove their messiahship by their lineage, but instead the power of the sword, and by an appeal to physical deliverance.  The Messiah, however, was to have proof of his descent from King David.  He was to bring peace and a kingdom that was eternal.

   The inner spiritual person yearned for redemption, and the time seemed right.  Yet all have sinned, and there is no righteous person that does good and sins not. 11  In order to cleanse the people, animal sacrifices (korban) were offered daily in the Jerusalem Temple. These sacrifices alone were insufficient, as the prophets had already pointed out in their messages.  The people were offering sacrifices without sincerity. 12  Even with these sacrifices. there was still the longing for the Messiah in the hearts and hopes of the people.

   The prophets also foresaw that God would provide a special korban and kohen g’dol (High Priest) who had done no violence, neither was there any deceit in His mouth. 13  Of this one, the prophet goes on to say, Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him. ..When thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin. 14  Only such a pure and perfect sacrifice was acceptable to God for atonement.

   Yeshua (Jesus), the Nazarene, was different from the others.  Yeshua performed verifiable miracles; neither did He come in his own name but he came in the name of his Father in heaven. 15  He did not appeal only to the Jewish people, but attracted many Gentiles as well. While He was aware of the wickedness of Roman rule, He took the Roman denarius and pointed out that a truly spiritual person is not to be overly concerned with Roman money that bears the image of the heathen Caesar. The main concern should be to give to God what is God's. 16 He saw his own people in sin, and his call, therefore, was first for his own to repent, for the kingdom of God is near. 17  He declared that except you repent, you shall all ... perish. 18  Josephus the historian who was living during the early first century said :   In those days was Yeshua, a wise man, if we can call him man. He did miracles... .  He attracted many of the Jews and Greeks. He was Messiah. 19


1 See e.g., Aaron Zeev Aescoli, Jewish Movements (Bialik 1956).  [hereafter referred to as Messianic Movements]  2 Acts 5:37  3  Acts 21:38; Josephus, Antiquities 2, 20:8  Messianic Movements  5  Josephus, Wars 6;5,4  6  Numbers 24:17   7  Ta’anit 84:68, 4  8  In fact, recent archaeological evidence indicates he actually freed Jerusalem and governed during this time for a few years. Yigael Yadin, Bar Kokhba (Random House 1971)  9  Talmudic sources exaggerate the massacre: "Eighty thousand war companies entered the city of Betar and the Romans were killing men, women and children. until their blood was oozing out from the doors, windows and the pipes. The horse would drown in the blood to its nose and the blood would cause stones of 40 se'ah to roll away. and would proceed 40 miles to the sea. ... There is a tradition that the Gentiles fertilized their fields with the blood of Israel for seven years, not using any other fertilizer." (Ta'anit 68:4)  10  Encyclopedia Judaica, Shebbetai Zevi. p. 1220  11  Ecclesiastes 7:20  12  E.g., Isaiah 1:11  13 Isaiah 53:9  14 Isaiah 53:9-10  15  He alluded to the false messiahs who would come after him when he said "I am come in my Father's name, and ye receive me not; if another shall come in his own name, him will ye receive."   (John 5:43)  16  Matthew 22:21  17  Luke 21:31  18  Luke 13:1-5  19 Josephus, Antiquities 18:3,3. There are some authorities that believe the rendition, "He was Messiah" was a later amendation of the Josephus text.


What The Rabbis Know About The Messiah by  Rachmiel Frydland
reprinted with permission of The Messianic Literature Outreach


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