Too Many Messiahs
Messiah, the word means “anointed” and the title declares the promised deliverer of the Jewish nation prophesied in the Hebrew Bible. It’s a word we hear often associated with Christianity and the character of Jesus of Nazareth, but is it deserved? The New Testament is full of assertions that Jesus fulfilled many prophecies from the Old Testament and therefore was the promised Messiah, but a great many of those prophecies seem to be misinterpretations, corruptions, or not actually prophecies at all. (http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jim_lippard/fabulous-prophecies.html)
Aside from whether or not Jesus merited the title is the fact that he wasn’t even close to the only one to claim it. There where at least seven possible claimants to the title between the years of 4bc and 36 CE, Jesus of Nazareth being only one.(http://www.livius.org/men-mh/messiah/messianic_claimants00.html)
Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian most responsible for giving us a non-biblical source of information in this region at this time, records several other leaders of groups who likely saw them as the Messiah. These men led groups similar to, and in some cases larger than, the character of Jesus of Nazareth and in many cases they demonstrated actions and personalities more in keeping with the tradition of David (king, military leader etc)
One of these was Simon of Peraea. (Sources: Flavius Josephus, Jewish War 2.57-59 and Jewish Antiquities17.273-277; Tacitus, Histories, 5.9.) Simon was a slave to Herod the Great who named himself king after Herod’s death and led several thousand revolutionaries who attacked and burned the King’s palace at Jericho and several other royal holdings in the area. The account tells us that Simon was seen immediately as a threat and the Romans quickly mobilized to destroy him. Simon was beheaded in 4bc and every one of his followers was crucified. It should be pointed out that Josephus gives more words to the tale of Simon than he does to the story of Jesus. Does this mean he gave it more importance? Maybe not, but it does demonstrate that he didn’t give any SPECIAL importance to Jesus’ claim.
Athronges ( Sources: Flavius Josephus, Jewish War 2.60-65 and Jewish Antiquities17.278-284.) was a shepherd who declared himself king and messiah and along with his brothers and their followers led a rebellion against Rome and their puppet king Herod Archelaus, son of Herod the Great. According to Josephus their rebellion killed a great many of both the Romans and the king’s forces. Athronges’s rebellion might have gone on for as long as two years, using raiding tactics against Roman supply trains and other targets before it was finally whittled away by the legions. Josephus’ account does not tell us what became of Athronges himself but it does say that two of his brothers were killed in various battles, one was captured and one surrendered when it became clear the cause was lost.
While both of these figures and the character of Jesus of Nazareth may have claimed or been claimed to be the messiah by others none of them actually meets the requirements laid out by the prophets of the Old Testament. The text lays out very specific requirements and ways by which the Jews will know the Messiah:
1) He must be Jewish. (Deuteronomy 17:15, Numbers 24:17)
2) He must be a member of the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10) and a direct male descendent of both King David (I Chronicles 17:11, Psalm 89:29-38, Jeremiah 33:17, II Samuel 7:12-16) and King Solomon. (I Chronicles 22:10, II Chronicles 7:18)
3) He must gather the Jewish people from exile and return them to Israel. (Isaiah 27:12-13, Isaiah 11:12)
4) He must rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. (Micah 4:1)
5) He must bring world peace. (Isaiah 2:4, Isaiah 11:6, Micah 4:3)
6) He must influence the entire world to acknowledge and serve one G-d. (Isaiah 11:9, Isaiah 40:5, Zephaniah 3:9)
All of these criteria for the Messiah are best stated in the book of Ezekiel chapter 37:24-28:
“And My servant David will be a king over them, and they will all have one shepherd, and they will walk in My ordinances, and keep My statutes, and observe them, and they shall live on the land that I gave to Jacob My servant…and I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant and I will set my sanctuary in their midst forever and My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their G-d and they will be My people. And the nations will know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when My sanctuary is in their midst forever.”
If an individual fails to fulfill even one of these conditions, he cannot be the Messiah.”
A later figure than any of the three already mentioned comes much closer to meeting the requirements laid out above than the Nazarene, Simon, or Athronges. His name was Simon ben Kosiba and he was active against the Romans in Jerusalem a full century after the supposed time of the death of Jesus. Ben Kosiba appears in several Jewish sources as well as early Christian and Roman sources. In 132 ce he led a successful rebellion against the Romans routing the Tenth Legion and retaking Jerusalem. He reintroduced sacrifices at the place where the temple had once stood and was declared the Messiah by Rabbi Aqiba the official religious leader of the Jews in this age, though of course there were those who disputed it.
Simon ben Kosiba waged one of the most costly and successful campaigns that the Romans faced in Judea. So successful that the Emperor Hadrian was forced to bring in three legions and several auxiliary units of reinforcements as well as one of his best generals from Britain to meet the challenge.
Even with all of this manpower however the fighting was brutal and in the end the Romans were forced to wage a slow and ugly war of attrition using terror and atrocity to dishearten the Jewish rebels. Cassius Dio the Greek historian put the number of Jewish dead at 580, 000 and said that fifty of their most important outposts and 985 well known villages were destroyed. (Cassius Dio, Roman history 69.13.2-3) For three years however there was an independent Jewish state where there had only been a Roman client kingdom for centuries before. ben Kosiba’s revolt came closest of any messianic claimant in antiquity to meeting the old testament requirements.
Why did so many men in such a relatively short time seek, or have given to them, the title of Messiah? The answer, put simply is hope, anger, frustration, oppression, and desperation. The Jewish people were an oppressed people in their own land, ruled by a line of gentile kings supported by a foreign army. They were heavily taxed, their traditions, and indeed their very way of life was, it must have seemed to them, polluted every day by these alien invaders. Is it so surprising that rebels should arise, or that they should use the religious zeal of their fellow Jews to recruit followers and strengthen resolve?
Like so many other examples older traditions stolen, mutated and adapted into Christianity the use of the title of Messiah was no more than a way to make it easier to fold Jewish adherents into the flock, to incite existing passions and make assimilation easier. The fathers of Christianity used the apparent messianic nature of the character Jesus to justify the stature they gave him, but it wasn’t a unique title, and it wasn’t a title that he had any right to. The man Jesus no more met the requirements of being the Jewish Messiah than any other claimant in history thus far; and in fact that he didn’t even do as well as some others. As with every other claim made about the character Jesus when the evidence is looked at dispassionately we get, to paraphrase Shakespeare “A tale full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”