Part 3. Popular Self-Proclaimed Messiahs in the Time of Jesus

In first century AD Israel three kinds Jewish leaders gained popular followings. There were leaders of outlaw bands, there were religious prophets, and there were messiah figures. We previously covered the bandits here and the prophets here. Today we are writing about messiah figures who promised to deliver the Jews from Roman rule, from burdensome taxes, and from the ruling Jewish families who controlled the temple income. A dark alliance had been devised between Herod and the top-tier Jewish families. The high priest and these families made a fortune from the worshippers who purchase animals for the necessary sacrifice. In addition, the temple treasury served as a deposit bank. It also preserved a written record of debts. All of these assured the upper priestly class of a firm financial footing.[1] In 66 AD a popular uprising marched on the temple and succeeded in destroying the record of debts. In the decades prior to the Revolt there were many protest movements led by prophets and messiahs, and in this context we read the Gospels.

Popular Messianic Movements. At Jesus’ trial, the high priest asked, “Are you the Messiah?” “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes. “Why do we need any more witnesses?” (Mark 14:61-63). Jesus was the one true Messiah. But there were several popular Jewish messiah figures, almost all of them from the peasantry, who, in the words of Josephus, “laid claim to the kingdom,” “donned the diadem,” or were “proclaimed king” by their followers.[2] The Jews remembered the messiahs of the Old Testament, especially David (he is called the Messiah in Psalm 18:50, Psalm 89: 49–51, and Psalm 132:10 and 17, though the English translation “anointed” obscures the title). Cyrus was another Messiah (Isaiah 45:1). These past Messiahs raised Jewish hopes that God would send a Messiah and deliver them from the evil times that had befallen them. At Qumran the messianic expectations were at a fever pitch. In the final holy war against the Kittim (the Romans) the eschatological high priest marshals the formations and leads the troops of God.[3]

Popular Messianic Uprisings at Herod’s Death. After Herod’s death in 4 BC, the throne passed to his son, Archelaus. This set off a lot of protests, such that it was evidently remembered 30 years later when Jesus told the parable, apparently about Archelaus, in Luke 19:12 ff.[4] In any event Archelaus avenged himself on the protesters, massacring thousands at a Passover celebration in 4 BC. Hope for deliverance came in the form of messianic movements. Josephus is our source:

There was Judas, son of brigand-chief Ezekias. Judas organized a number of desperate men at Sepphoris in Galilee and raided the palace. Taking all the weapons there, he armed his followers, plundered everyone he encountered, and made no attempt to be virtuous. There was also Simon, a servant of king Herod. Spurred on by chaotic conditions, he dared to don the diadem. When he had organized some men, they proclaimed him king. They set fire to the royal palace in Jericho, and to numerous other royal residences in many parts of the country, plundering as he went. But the royal troops men him and Simon fled. Gratus intercepted him and beheaded him.[5]

Horsley comments:

From these brief accounts, we can glean a few important points about these popular messianic movements and the royal pretenders at their head. First, they are centered around a charismatic king. Second, the people were not looking to the gentry of “distinguished” families for leadership, for most of the latter either owed their position to Herod or were otherwise involved in collaboration with the Herodian-Roman regime. The royal pretenders were men of humble origins, as David had been. Third, the members of these messianic movements were primarily peasants. These revolts occurred in the countryside. A large number may have been “desperate men.” The goal of these movements was to overthrow the Herodian and Roman domination and to restore the traditional ideals of a free and egalitarian society.[6]

There were several mass movements composed of Jewish peasants from villages or towns such as Emmaus, Bethlehem, Sepphoris—people rallying around the leadership of charismatic figures views as anointed kings of the Jews.[7]

Simon bar Giora’s surrender and execution. The movement led by Simon bar Giora was the longest-lived of all the messianic movements mentioned by Josephus. He and his followers held out in the temple until September of 70 A.D., when the Romans overran the city and plundered and burned the whole city. Josephus records his dramatic surrender:

So Simon put on white tunics with a purple cape fastened over them, and popped out of the ground at the very place where he temple had once stood. At first, those who saw him were dumbfounded and stood stock-still, but after awhile they came nearer and asked who he was. Simon refused to tell them, and instead ordered them to summon the general. They ran to get him, and Terentius Rufus, left in command of the garrison, soon arrived. After learning the whole truth from Simon, he bound and kept him under guard and sent an account of his capture to Caesar.[8]

Caesar ordered Simon bar Giora to be brough in chains to Rome. Josephus writes that after Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus, who had commanded the Roman troops in the fighting, had processed through Rome:

The triumphal procession concluded at the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, where it came to a halt, for it was an ancient custom to wait there until someone announced the death sentence for the enemy’s general. This was Simon bar Giora, who had taken part in the procession among the prisoners, with a noose around his neck, all the while being tortured by those who led him. Here he was slain to universal acclamation. The sacrifices were begun and the princes departee for the palace.[9]

Horsley comments:

These two events, Simon’s ceremonial surrender and his ritual execution at the climax of the triumphal procession, reveal both that Simon understood himself as the messiah and that the conquering Romans recognized him as the leader of the nation. When Simon suddenly appeared, in the place where the temple had stood, clothed in royal robes, he may well have been sacrificing himself as an offering to God. In any case, he appears in royal robes as the king of the Jews. Similarly, from the Roman side, whereas John of Gischala was simply imprisoned, Simon was ceremonially captured, scourged, and executed as king of the Jews.[10]

Blincoe. It thus becomes clear that around the time of Jesus there were many popular figures who gained a following from people that believed their claims. The Gospels speak about these: “False messiahs and false prophets will arise and show signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible the elect” (Mark 13:22).

[1] Richard A. Horsley and John S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus, 1st Harper & Row paperback ed., New Voices in Biblical Studies (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988). 9

[2] Ibid.88

[3] Ibid. 103


[5] Richard A. Horsley and John S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs:. 112

[6] Ibid. 115-6

[7] Ibid. 116

[8] Ibid. 126

[9] Ibid. 126

[10] Ibid. 127