Roots of the Rebellion: False Messiahs

In addition to Jesus, there were other people claiming to be the messiah in the first century. Each of this examples are from humble origins (shepherds, etc.), sought to set themselves up as kings, and developed a peasant following.

Under the procurator Fadus (44-46) a messianic prophet appeared. Theudas convinced many Jews he could part the Jordan River. The Romans attacked the crowd, killing many, and beheaded Theudas. (Antiq. 20.97-99, Acts 5:36). Theudas is known from Josephus (Antiq. 20.5.1 §97-98). In this passage, Theudas led a revolt during the reign of Fadus, A.D. 44-46. This is obviously a problem, since Gamaliel is giving this speech at least ten years before Theudas rebelled.  For someone like Bruce Chilton, this makes the account in Acts anachronistic  and unreliable, despite the
fact that Gamaliel’s standing in the Council is consistent with other sources (ABD 2:904). This problem is usually explained by noting that the name Related imageTheudas is a common name in first century inscriptions. In addition, the period after the death of Herod the Great saw many rebellions, so it is likely that Gamaliel refers to a leader of one of these earlier rebellions. Judas the Galilean lead a tax-revolt about A.D. 6, described by Josephus (Antiq 18.1.6, §23). Like Thuds’, he died and his followers dispersed.

Under the procurator Felix (52-60), prophets once again lead people into the wilderness promising that God was about to send signs of deliverance. Felix sent troops and once again killed large numbers. As Josephus says, “But the number of the robbers whom he caused to be crucified was incalculable, as also that of the citizens whom he arrested and punished as having been in league with them” (JW 2.13.2).

Another messianic pretender, known only as “The Egyptian” led a crowd in an attack on Jerusalem. Josephus reports 30,000 were in the crowd, but Acts 21:38 indicates only 4000 were involved. The Romans arrested many, but the Egyptian escaped. (JW 2.13.5, Acts 21:38).

Simon Bar Giora (Simon, son of the proselyte; died in A.D. 70). Simon represents the largest of the messianic movements (Josephus, JW, 4.9.3).  He fought against the Romans and helped unite the Zealots to a certain extent.  He eventually controlled Jerusalem, and took to wearing a white tunic and purple cape and called himself the “King of the Jews.”  He eventually surrendered to the Romans and was taken to Rome and ceremonially executed.

Josephus, JW, 4.9.3  (503) And now there arose another war at Jerusalem.  There was a son of Giora, one Simon, by birth of Gerasa, a young man, not so cunning indeed as John [of Gischala], who had already seized upon the city, (504) but superior in strength of body and courage; on which account, when he had been driven away from that Acrabattene toparchy, which he once had, by Ananus the high priest, he came to those robbers who had seized upon Masada.  (505) At first they suspected him, and only permitted him to come with the women he brought with him into the lower part of the fortress, while they dwelt in the upper part of it themselves.  (506) However, his manner so well agreed with theirs, and he seemed so trusty a man, that he went out with them, and ravaged and destroyed the country with them about Masada; (507) yet when he persuaded them to undertake greater things, he could not prevail with them so to do; for as they were accustomed to dwell in that citadel, they were afraid of going far from that which their hiding-place; (508) but he, affecting to tyrannize, and being fond of greatness, when he had heard of the death of Ananus, left them, and went into the mountainous part of the country.  So he proclaimed liberty to those in slavery, and a reward to those already free, and got together a set of wicked men from all quarters.

The story of Simon Bar Giora has several similarities to the execution of Jesus, although Jesus never made his claim to be the king of the Jews as explicit as Simon did. Each of these men portrayed themselves as a new Joshua or David and managed to gain a following large enough to attract the attention of the Romans, and in each case the Romans treat these false prophets and messianic pretenders as rebels against Roman power.

10 thoughts on “Roots of the Rebellion: False Messiahs

  1. I can imagine the trust that the Jewish people may have had for a rebel such as Simon Bar Giora. For a person of his stature, it only makes sense that the Jews believed him to be the Messiah. He was a great liberator and was someone who was actually willing to stand up against the Romans (until he surrendered). I can’t help but think maybe he was a little crazy. Like Dr. Long said, not even Jesus vocalized his claim of being king of the Jews as intensely as Simon…even going to the extend to appear in robes resembling a Judean king.

  2. It is interesting how so many of these people rose up to claim themselves as a messiah that would liberate the Jews from the rule of Rome. It shows clearly what many of the Jews thought the messiah would be like and what he would do. The people were so ready and expectant for this to come to pass that a number of individuals were able to fake it and grab power. I would think however after so many pretenders were executed that either the con artists would see that the scam is not worth it or that the general population would reconsider their expectations of the messiah. But when Christ the true Messiah does come preaching love and salvation instead of violent liberation and actually performs miracles in their midst most people deny Him because He does not meet their expectations.

  3. I can certainly see how it would have been difficult to determine exactly who the Messiah was during this period. The Jews were anxiously awaiting the prophecy and promise for the Messiah and they probably had ideas of how and what he should look like. Simon Bar Giora may have showcased many of the qualities and characteristics that were expected for the Messiah; and it is definitely likely that the people would not have expected the Messiah to come in such a humble way as Jesus did. It is very likely that many people, such as Simon Bar Giora, actually believed that they were God’s chosen one. It would have been very confusing to know who it was for sure!

  4. There were so many “messiahs” during the time of Jesus. It makes me wonder why, of all of them, Jesus was the one who endured in the memory of people. Some of it may have to do with his social/ethical/moral preaching, which was presumed markedly different than the others. But not only this, the claim of his followers that He was raised from the dead was very different than the rest of them. Not only were the disciples willing to die for this claim, but they were very bold in spreading this idea.

    I find it interesting that there is so much apocalyptic expectation today. I keep seeing this reoccurring Facebook advertisement on my wall. It is a video about the seven trumpets being literally fulfilled right now! It seems there is so much urgency about the last days in certain branches of Christianity. Is this in any way connected to the same expectation in Jesus’ day?

  5. Phillip, either your readers are not reading very closely or are being gracious to you. I think you may agree you’ve mis-worded your first paragraph in a couple ways, the main one making Jesus out as a false messiah.

    Your points are the kind of thing that few Christians know about the time of Jesus and the real nature of “messianic prophecies” in the Heb. Scriptures. Until the extensive work of Paul and the Gospel writers (apparently among others) in seeking OUT parallels to Jesus, it WAS pretty oblique and unsettled just what the messiah would appear like. (And, in my view, there was a lot of writing TO the prophecies, esp. in Matt., who makes no bones about that agenda).

    I thinks it’s in the the Dead Sea Scrolls that we can ascertain that some even expected two complementary messiahs to fulfill the prophecies. So even the “righteous remnant” (or those trying, as humbly as possible, to be so) could not form a consistent view on what God had been trying to get across. Interesting.

    • You might be right on both counts…I think I will edit that to make it more clear – other people claiming to be the messiah, etc. Thanks for that (and the kindness).

      The DSS certainly have the dual messiahs, I have always thought they read the Hebrew Bible the same as Christians did, that there were two roles for the messiah in prophecy, so they solved the problem with two messiahs; Christians have one messiah, two different arrivals so that the first is priestly (the cross) and the second is davidic (the second coming).

      • That’s a nicely summarized way of explaining it and noting the difference. Still VERY puzzling to me what the Synoptics, I think mainly Matt. and Mark, are intending to get across (Mt. 24, Mk. 13). This sure SOUNDS like what already had happened in the destruction of 70 AD. Personally, I see no good reason to take it as prophetic by Jesus, roughly 40 years prior (most of his disciples would be elsewhere or dead, tho, if Jesus spoke it as recorded, he may well have expected it much sooner. I DO think he was “apocalyptic”).

        And what is the “days cut short”? Merely that Rome, after 70/73 (Masada), did leave some Jews in the land, though it remained occupied? This is puzzling either way one takes it: prophetic or historical put into prophetic form. My “decisive conclusion” is this: There is still SO much we can’t perceive or understand in how/why/for-what-exact-purposes the Gospels were written and how the authors thought they would be taken at the time (genre and potentially creative new forms?), that we remain largely agnostic as to just what went into their creation and how to take it all. (For those not aware, this comes from someone who’s studied and re-studied it in the texts MANY times… including a bit of Greek.. and MANY commentators, etc., for a good 5 decades.) Still, I think basic Jesus-following is rather simple, though challenging! (“Simple” until you get to military and political applications and such.)

  6. It is interesting to see the amount of people who claimed to be the messiah. What stood out to me the most from this article is how similar the execution of Jesus and Simon Bar Gloria were. For instance, Simon Bar Gloria referred to himself as the king of the Jews and later surrendered himself to the Romans to be executed. This is very similar to what happened to Jesus. However, as we all know, only Jesus turned out to be the real king of the Jews out of all the so called “messiahs.” Simon was not the only person who claimed to be the messiah. There was also one known as the “Egyptian” who led an attack on Jerusalem. This article does a great job of highlighting how common it was for people to claim that they are the messiah. I could not help but think of Matthew 7:15 where Jesus says “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” I would argue that this is still a prominent issue in society today. However, instead of people claiming to be the messiah, they claim to know better than God and they make themselves into a “god.”

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