Cover Story

Messianic disappointment

Issue: "All in the family," March 2, 2002

Two other ways of staying alive amid persecution also emerged. Hope for a Messiah sprang eternal. The Messiah would not be the "suffering servant" Isaiah described and Christians embraced. (Rabbis interpreted the suffering servant as Israel itself.) No, the Messiah would be a political and military leader, and many hoped to fill that spot. They all failed, leaving most of their followers frustrated and disenchanted, and some suspecting that the Messiah already had come, in the person of Jesus.

Here's a brief lowlights film, beginning in A.D. 45 when the warrior Theudas claimed to be the Messiah; the Romans seized him, cut off his head, and carried it to Jerusalem. The warrior Menahem in A.D. 66 entered Jerusalem dressed as a king, but the Romans killed him. Shortly thereafter General Simon bar Giora issued coins bearing the Messianic slogan, "Redemption of Zion," and attracted some 40,000 zealots. He had initial success but the Romans defeated him also, as they did a North African weaver, Jonathan, who in A.D. 73 led Jews into the desert, promising to show them signs and wonders as a Messiah should. The Romans burned him alive.

None of the followers of these failures claimed to see their leaders resurrected. But the greatest disappointment of antiquity came in A.D. 132, after Rome's Emperor Hadrian banned circumcision and decided to rebuild Jerusalem as a pagan city. Simeon bar Kochba-certified as the Messiah by the revered Rabbi Akiva-led a revolt that was initially successful. But new Roman troops arrived and killed (often in exceptionally cruel ways) bar Kochba, Akiva, and several hundred thousand others, with that many again sold as slaves. Rome gave Jerusalem the name Aelia Capitolina and prohibited Jews from living there.

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To mention just a few other pretenders (who won local acceptance): In 458 Moses of Crete said that God would part the Mediterranean Sea so that he and his followers could walk from the island to Zion. Several hundred adherents showed their faith by diving off a towering cliff into the water. Almost all of them drowned, and Moses disappeared. Around A.D. 700 one Abu Isa' al-Isfahani proclaimed himself the Messiah, but Muslim forces wiped out his army in a mountainous battle. Abu disappeared, with several diehard followers saying he had entered a hole in the side of the mountain and would someday return.

In 1127 some Jews became destitute after incurring large debts to prepare for lavish Passover celebrations in anticipation of the Messiah's arrival that year. On a Passover evening at mid-12th century some waited on their rooftops in the expectation that angels would pick them up and fly them to Jerusalem. Near that century's end a Messiah-candidate arose in Yemen and told his followers to give all their wealth to the poor. When Arabs who captured him demanded that he prove his claim, he told them that if they cut off his head, he would immediately come to life. The captors obliged, but he stayed dead.

In 1280 Abraham Abulafia, stating that he was the Son of God, headed to Rome to convert Pope Nicholas III to Judaism, but the pope had him arrested. Abulafia's followers were chagrined, and the would-be redeemer died in disappointment in 1291. In 1500 Asher Lämmlin won large support for his Messiahship among both ignorant and learned Germanic Jews, but disillusionment set in two years later. Great excitement ensued in 1524 when Shlomo Molcho claimed to be the Messiah, but he was burned at the stake in 1532. A claimant in Palestine, Hayyim Vital, also left his followers disgruntled.

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