Counterfeits! – A Study of Israel’s False Messiahs

The uncertainty surrounding the dawn of the Third Millennium AD has many people wondering how near we are to Messiah’s return. Concerning the signs that would indicate His Second Coming was near, Yeshua began His Olivet Discourse with a solemn warning: “See to it that no one misleads you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will mislead many.Notice that the subject of His prophecy didn’t begin a warning about the potential world-wide disruption of Y2K, nor the role of the Roman Catholic Church in the great Apostasy to come, nor the potential perils of ecumenism, the European Economic Union, the Council on Foreign Relations, or a United Nations army. The first sign He warned us to watch for was the proliferation of false messiahs during “Achareet Ha-Yameem” (the Last Days).

The history of the Jewish people is replete with false messiahs. I’d like to consider what a few of these men and their movements had in common, so that we can understand how their deception could be embraced, how the damage they wrought might have been avoided, and how loving the truth will guard us from repeating these tragedies.

Christians and Messianic Jews, focused as they are on interpreting the Last Days, are sometimes surprised to learn that there were false messiahs around the time of Yeshua. The New Testament records three of them: Theudas, Judah the Galilean, and one unnamed Egyptian Jew.

Judah the Galilean
Judah the Galilean is mentioned in Acts 5:37. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, also made reference to Judah the Galilean, stating: “Judah the Galilean told Jews about ten years before the birth of Jesus that it was shameful for them to be ‘consenting to pay tribute to the Romans and tolerating mortal masters after having God for their Lord'” (1). It is interesting to note that Judah apparently had a false prophet by the name of Saddok. Very likely Saddok presented himself to the people as being Elijah, who, according to Scripture, was to precede and announce the coming of the Messiah (2). The pattern of false messiahs having false prophets was to become all too familiar. Judah and Saddok are credited by Josephus with having founded the Zealots, a group we are introduced to in the New Testament.

Theudas is mentioned in Acts 5:36. In his historical work, Antiquities, Josephus also wrote about Theudas who, around 45 AD, influenced “the majority of the masses to take up their possessions and to follow him to the Jordan River.” He claimed that the Jordan would part for them at his command. Obviously it didn’t, and he and many of his followers paid for their foolishness with their lives (3).

An Unnamed Egyptian Jew
A third false messiah is mentioned in Acts 21. Rabbi Paul was nearly killed by a hostile mob. The Roman commander stationed at the Temple arrested Paul. When Paul said something to him in Greek, the surprised commander replied, “Do you know Greek? Then you are not the Egyptian who some time ago stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the assassins out into the wilderness?” Of course, Paul assured him he was not that man. Josephus wrote of this incident as well, though exaggerating the number of followers of this unnamed Egyptian Jew as about thirty thousand. This man led his followers to the Mount of Olives, threatening to force entry into Jerusalem and liberate it from Roman occupation. Many of his followers were killed in the ensuing battle.

Shimon Ben-Kosiba

It is ironic that Shimon Ben-Kosiba, one of the most famous of Israel’s false messiahs, is actually regarded by the Jewish community as a hero! The Jewish revolt against Rome which began about 66 AD ended tragically four years later with the decimation of the Jerusalem Temple. It was not, however, the last attempt at Jewish national sovereignty. Another revolt began in 132 AD, led by a Jewish general by the name Shimon ben Kosiba. As early as 115 AD Kosiba had defied Emperor Trajan. At that time, and again in 132, Kosiba was successful in his military exploits. Early on it appeared as though, under Kosiba’s command, the Israeli military might successfully defy Rome.

The Jewish people were understandably eager to be free from the oppressive Roman occupation of Israel. However, this zeal for sovereignty so heightened people’s messianic expectations that, when Kosiba met with initial victories, Rabbi Akiva recklessly declared him “Bar-Kochba” (“son of a star”) – a title taken from Numbers 24, a prophecy which referred to the Messiah. In so doing, Rabbi Akiva became a false prophet, and Kosiba a false messiah. Kosiba made no effort to disavow the title bestowed on him. It is worth noting that, up to this time, Messianic Jews had been fighting right alongside their non-messianic brothers. But once Akiva’s pronouncement was made, that became impossible, and the Messianic Jews withdrew their support and involvement in the revolt. They could not, in good conscience, be aligned with one they knew to be a false messiah.

The mighty Roman Empire was not about to permit one of its smallest vassal countries to defy it, and within three years, the Jewish revolt was decisively crushed. Kosiba was killed. Akiva was tortured and put to death. Thousands of those who fought under the banner of this false messiah were likewise put to death.

Shabbetai Zevi (1626-1676)
Shabbetai Zevi was born in Smyrna Turkey, allegedly on Tisha B’Av (a day associated with the most tragic events in Jewish history. Many sources affirm this, though the date may have been fabricated, owing either to his infamy, or else to a tradition that the Messiah would be born on the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple). At a young age, Zevi was identified as a prodigy. He entered into rabbinical studies under Joseph Escapa, who was at that time considered the most illustrious rabbi in Smyrna. However, Zevi left the Yeshivah (Jewish school for higher religious education) at fifteen years of age, preferring to live an ascetic life of solitude and to be his own teacher. At eighteen he was ordained as a “hacham” (literally a “wise one” – similar to being ordained as a rabbi).

Zevi was given alternately to bouts of euphoria and melancholy. In modern terms, he would have been diagnosed as manic-depressive. About the same time he was ordained, Zevi’s psychotic episodes worsened. During his times of euphoria (referred to by his disciples as “illumination”), Zevi would disparage the Torah, coming up instead with new and bizarre rituals. He advocated sexual license, and exhibited a disturbing obsession with attempting to pronounce the Ineffable Name of God (the Tetragrammaton – the Yod Hay Vav Hay). At first very few people took Zevi’s behavior seriously, knowing him to be mentally ill.

In 1648, when news of the massacres of the Jews in Poland reached Turkey, Zevi’s bizarre public episodes became more frequent and pronounced. Not long after this, news began spreading that a “man of God” called Nathan had appeared in Gaza. Nathan supposedly was able to perform miracles, and could disclose to each individual the particular formula for the “tikkun” (“restoration”) that their soul needed. Shabbetai Zevi traveled to Nathan of Gaza, hoping to be cured of his mental illness. Instead of remedying the situation, Nathan made it worse by urging Zevi to pursue his messianic visions, and appointing himself Zevi’s prophet.

The Shabbatean movement (followers of Shabbetai Zevi) officially began in May of 1665, when Zevi publicly declared himself the Messiah. By October of that year, reports of “the messiah” and news of miracles and visions swept across Europe. Groups of emissaries were sent by Jewish communities from all parts of Europe to Turkey to pay homage to the one many were calling “our king.” In September of 1666, Zevi was summoned by the Sultan to Constantinople, where he was given the choice of execution or conversion to Islam. Zevi chose conversion. The effect of his conversion to Islam was devastating. Many within the Jewish diaspora became disillusioned, and a great schism occurred. Many saw the whole episode as a debacle, while others maintained that Zevi had only converted to Islam on the surface, but was continuing his true work surreptitiously. The Doenmeh were groups of Jewish people who followed Zevi’s example and publicly converted to Islam, but secretly continued in their own form of Judaism, still clinging to Zevi as the messiah. Interestingly, small pockets of Doenmeh actually survived into the Twentieth Century!

Shabbetai Zevi died in 1676, shortly after his fiftieth birthday on, of all days, the Day of Atonement. A number of letters he wrote during his last years indicate that he continued to believe he was the Messiah. During the last ten years of his life he allegedly had revelations of the mystery of the Godhead, which he imparted to his followers, which amounted to heresies. According to Zevi, the God of Israel was not actually the Creator, but rather “a second cause,” a kind of demi-god. Naturally, this met with revulsion and violent opposition from the mainstream Jewish community. After his death, Nathan of Gaza spread the idea that Zevi had actually ascended to heaven and was deified. Nathan, as it turns out, was much more of a strategist than Zevi, and really is the one responsible for the spread of the Shabbatean movement. Nathan himself died just a few years later, in 1680.

Jacob Frank
Jacob Frank (1726-1791) was born Jacob ben Judah Leib. From age nineteen until nearly thirty, Frank earned his living selling cloth, precious stones and other goods. His travels took him from Bucharest to Turkey. Frank associated with Shabbateans from his youth. Not long after joining the Shabbatean sect, Frank gained a reputation as a “prophet” having, it was thought, special powers and inspiration. Frank is described as a man of “unbridled ambition” and domineering “to the point of despotism” (4). He had a very powerful personality, and people were swept up in his magnetism. He was regarded by many in the Shabbatean sect as “a new transmigration or a reincarnation of the divine soul which had previously resided in Shabbetai Zevi” (5). Frank readily accepted this appellation.

Frank lapsed into the same form of heresy as Zevi, teaching that the God of Israel was not the First Cause, but rather subordinate to the true Creator. In secret, he presented himself as the Messiah, God in corporeal form. Also like Zevi before him, Frank converted (on pretense) to Islam in 1757. Later, in September of 1759, Frank was baptized as a Catholic, and thousands of Jewish people followed his example. In the city of Lvov alone, 500 people were baptized. But this was no different from his previous conversion to Islam. It was only a pretext. Secretly, Frank continued to teach that he himself was the Messiah, while publicly making every effort to present his teachings as Catholic theology. But the facade didn’t last long. Later that year, six of Franks new “Catholic converts” confessed to having all the while believed that Frank was the living incarnation of God. When this information became public, Frank was arrested, subjected to a thorough investigation, and sent into exile for thirteen years. Frank eventually died in Germany in 1791.

In every case, the effect of false messiahs on the Jewish community has been devastating. The discovery that these men were not the true Messiah led to widespread disappointment and division. People were left in despair, having invested their hopes, their energies, and in some cases, their worldly possessions, in these men.

Another effect of false messiahs was that it left the largely Roman Catholic leaders of Europe, as well as the Islamic leaders of the Middle East, feeling smug and disdainful toward the Jewish people. As a result, anti-Jewish legislation became more common and severe through much of the world. Perhaps saddest of all is that many Jewish leaders over the years have all but abandoned hope in the Biblical promise of the Messiah, preferring not to risk further division and decimation in the Jewish community should another false messiah arise.

How could our Jewish people embrace these counterfeits? How is it that we have been repeatedly deceived? How can we avoid these same mistakes? If we’re to have the answers to these questions, it is important that we consider what these movements and their leaders had in common:

  1. These were ambitious individuals who were accountable to no one.
  2. Rather than allowing the Scriptures to be their guide, people allowed circumstances to dictate their expectations.
  3. Lack of knowledge of the Scriptures, especially those prophecies concerning the Messiah, coupled with looking to extra-biblical sources for authority, (for example, the Zohar), allowed people to be more readily deceived.
  4. The emphasis on personal, subjective, emotional experiences, as over the unchanging word of God.
    For example, the Encyclopedia Judaica states that “as part of his mission he (Jacob Frank) journeyed to the grave of Nathan of Gaza…” (6). In a striking parallel, it is worth noting that one modern televangelist tells of having visited the graves of Catherine Kuhlman and Amy Semple McPherson and that he “felt a terrific anointing,” claiming that “the anointing has lingered over Amy’s body” (7).
  5. Esoteric “knowledge” allegedly available only to an elite group, served as an enticement to join the movements. Furthermore, considerable pressure was put on people to either “get with the program” or else risk missing out on God, and be labeled as “unspiritual.”
  6. The fixing of dates for Messiah’s coming was characteristic of some of these movements, as was the belief that our efforts can hasten His coming.
  7. Most significantly, these (and other) false messiahs were able to draw and deceive people who had already rejected Yeshua as the Messiah. When we shun the truth, we become vulnerable to a lie.

There are false prophets and false messiahs on the scene even today. Their methods follow much the same pattern, and their victims have many of the same fallacious notions and lack of knowledge of the Scriptures, as those who preceded them. Only as we look to the Word of God and embrace the truth found in Yeshua of Nazareth, will we be immune to the lure of false teachers.

End Notes

  1. Josephus, Wars, 2:118
  2. Malachi 4:5, 6
  3. Josephus, Antiquities, 20:97ff
  4. Encyclopedia Judaica, 1972, Keter Publishing House, Jerusalem, Ltd., Israel – Vol. 7, pg. 56
  5. ibid, pg. 56
  6. ibid, pg. 56
  7. Christianity in Crisis, A Harvest Audiobook, Hank Hanegraaff, c. 1993, Harvest House Publications