Over the years, I have heard the objection that Jesus is just one of many messianic figures in the first century. In this objection, it is assumed that there is nothing unique about Jesus. In other words, He is just another messianic figure that challenged the political powers of his day.
Quite frankly, the statement, “Jesus is just one of several messianic figures in the first century” is not only patently false but also a gross oversimplification. Just because someone leads a messianic revolt does not qualify them as “the Messiah” (notice the capital “M”).
There is a significant comment made in Acts 5: 33-39, by Gamaliel I, who was a key rabbinic leader and member of the Sanhedrin:
“But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law, respected by all the people, stood up in the Council and gave orders to put the men outside for a short time. And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him. But he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing “After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census and drew away some people after him; he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered. “So in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God.”
It can be observed that Gamaliel was aware that there had been other Jewish revolts that featured a messianic element. Unfortunately, these revolts had all failed. Even the Jewish historian Josephus mentioned that Judas of Galilee had rebelled against Quirinus’s census and ended in defeat. (Antiquities 18: 1)
Josephus lists some of the figures who claimed royal prerogatives between 4 B.C.E and 68-70 C.E but are not called “the” or “a” Messiah.
1. In Galilee 4 B.C.E.: Judas, son of bandit leader Ezekias (War 2.56; Ant.17.271-72) 2. In Perea 4 B.C.E.: Simon the Herodian slave (War 2.57-59;Ant 17.273-77) 3. In Judea 4 B.C.E.: Athronges, the shepherd (War 2.60-65;Ant 17.278-84) 4. Menahem: grandson of Judas the Galilean (War 2.433-34, 444) 5. Simon, son of Gioras (bar Giora) (War 2.521, 625-54; 4.503-10, 529; 7.26-36, 154) (1)
Out of the all the messianic movements within Judaism, I will mention some that I believe are rather significant.
Simon bar Giora of Geresa (as mentioned above)
According to Josephus, Simon led a rebellion against the Romans in the spring of 69 C.E. (J.W. 4.9.12 §577). Among the leaders of the rebellion “Simon in particular was regarded with reverence and awe . . . each was quite prepared to take his very own life had he given the order” (J.W. 5.7.3 §309). Finally defeated and for a time in hiding, Simon, dressed in white tunics and a purple mantle, made a dramatic appearance before the Romans on the very spot where the Temple had stood (J.W. 7.1.2 §29). He was placed in chains (J.W. 7.2.2 §36), sent to Italy (J.W. 7.5.3 §118), put on display as part of the victory celebration in Rome (J.W. 7.5.6 §154), and was finally executed (J.W. 7.5.6 §155). (2)
Simon Bar Kochba
It is still disputed whether Simon Bar Kokhba ever made an open proclamation to be the real Messiah who would take over Rome and enable the Jewish people to regain their self-rule (A.D. 132-135). Even a prominent rabbi called Rabbi Akiba affirmed him as the Messiah. Justin Martyr even noted that Bar Kokhba commanded Christians to be led away to terrible punishment unless they denied Jesus as their Messiah.” (Apology 31.6) Unfortunately, the revolt led by Bar Kochba failed and as a result and both he and rabbi Akiba were slain. Even though it is said that Rabbi Akiba hailed Bar Kokhba as the Messiah, (cf. y. Ta‘an. 4:5), the slaying of Bar Kokhba had nothing to do with any accusation of blasphemy. He did not make the same messianic claims of Jesus by asserting His authority to be the Son of Man, nor did he ever claim to have the authority to forgive sins. According to Jewish law, the claim to be the Messiah was not a criminal, nor capital offense. Therefore, the claim to be the Messiah was not even a blasphemous claim. The war ended in 135 CE. Simon was subsequently remembered as Simon ben-Kozebah (“son of the lie”). (3)
Another messianic figure was Sabbatai Sevi. Sevi was a seventeenth-century Jewish teacher who claimed to be the Messiah and was heralded by a contemporary named Nathan. It is said after Sevi’s death in 1676 that his brother found his tomb empty but full of light. If anything, the Sevi story sounds like it was borrowed from the resurrection story about Jesus. The Sevi story has little historical backing. In contrast to the resurrection claim of Sevi, in the case of Jesus, there are multiple eyewitness appearances after his resurrection (see 1 Cor. 15). What is more ironic is that Sevi later left the Jewish faith for Islam.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
Within Judaism, there is a sect called Hasidic Judaism. Within Hasidic Judaism, there are leaders who are called a “tzaddik” which is Hebrew for “righteous men.” A tzaddik is sometimes viewed as a Rebbe which means master or teacher. By the way, in the book of Acts, it was during Stephen’s famous speech that he refers to Jesus as a tzaddik : “Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers.” (Acts 7:52)
Such an example of a present day tzaddik was seen in Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1951-1994), the leader of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidim. Some of the followers of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson think He is the Messiah and that He will come back from the dead (Schneerson died in 1994). Some in the Lubavitcher movement have even asserted that Isaiah 53 can be used as a proof text that the Messiah will rise from the dead. Of course, this has led to great controversy. Some in the Orthodox community have complained that the attempt to portray Schneerson as one who will rise from the dead and return a second time has too much in common with the Christian claim about Jesus.
What About Jesus?
The Tanakh discusses the timing of coming of Messiah (Gen. 49:8-12; Deut. 18:15-18; Dan. 9; Haggai 2); Gen 12:1-3: Forming of Israel will lead to Jewish Messiah who will enable millions of non-Jews to come to know the one true God; the manner of Messiah’s death and rejection: (Isa. 52:13-53:2; Psalm 22); divinity of Messiah (Gen. 49:8-12: Dan 7:13-14; Isa. 9:1-9).
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