Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Coming On the Clouds of Heaven:

A Reply to Shabir Ally’s
Execrable Blasphemies and Calumnies
Against the Son of Man

Part IIIc

By Anthony Rogers

[Continued from Part IIIb]

False Christs
(Matthew 24:4-5)

And Jesus answered and said to them, “See to it that no one misleads you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many. (Matthew 24:4-5)

Here Jesus tells His disciples of tendencies that will characterize that generation before the end comes. The presence of these things in the interim period between His departure and return in judgment on Jerusalem and the Temple will not mean that the end is immediately going to take place, for “that is not yet the end” (v. 6) and “these are merely the beginning of birth pangs” (v. 8), but their occurrence does indicate that “the end” (of the age, v. 3) is on the way, and that it will surely happen. Indeed, as we will see later, some of these things occurred not only before that which Jesus said would immediately presage the end, such as false Christs, but they also continued to happen right up to and contiguous with that fateful event.

As we will see is the case with every single one of the things Jesus said would take place, that period did see a flurry of false Messiahs and false prophets. This is not surprising; the Jews of that time believed that the coming of the Messiah and the Messianic age was upon them. But as Jesus said, they did not recognize Him at the time of their visitation, but they would fall for fakes and charlatans. In fact, as it turned out, not only were there false prophets and messiah figures, and not only did people fall for them, but in various ways the false prophets and false Christs, or false expectations that the Messiah would come at that time and rescue Israel from Rome, greatly helped to precipitate Israel’s end.

A number of the false claimants in those days are mentioned in the New Testament itself; some of them will be mentioned at this point, while others will be mentioned when treating later verses in Matthew 24. It is important to note here, however, that the concept of the Messiah at the time was not altogether uniform, though their were some ideas that were widespread, and in some cases, and for some Jews, some of these different ideas overlapped or were seen as complementary. It is also important to note that the concept of an eschatological Messiah (or Messiahs) is not only present when that word itself is used. As John J. Collins, Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School, pointed out:

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls considerably expanded the corpus of literature relevant to the study of messianism. The number of occurrences of מָשִׁיחַ, messiah, in its various forms, is not great, but it illustrates well the range of reference to the term. One of the first scrolls published, the Community Rule, refers to the coming of “the prophets and the messiahs of Aaron and Israel” (1QS 9:2), and so testifies to the expectation of at least two messiahs, one priestly and one royal.59 Since מָשִׁיחַ is also used in the plural with reference to prophets (CD 2:9; 1QM 11:7), and the Melchizedek scroll (11QMelchizedek) identifies the “herald” of Isa 52:7 as “the anointed of the spirit” (… cf. CD 2:9), it is possible that the prophet may be a messianic figure, too. The scrolls, then, indicate a greater diversity of messianic expectations in Judaism around the turn of the era than was apparent before their discovery.60

The degree of diversity is inevitably bound up with the question of terminology. In modern parlance, the word “messiah” refers at the minimum to a figure who will play an authoritative role in the end time, usually the eschatological king. The Hebrew word מָשִׁיחַ, however, means simply “anointed” and does not necessarily refer to an eschatological figure at all.61 While it refers to a royal figure some thirty times in the Hebrew Bible, it can also refer to other figures, most notably the anointed High Priest.62 The association of the term with an ideal Davidic king derives from Ps 2:2, which speaks of the subjugation of all the peoples to God’s anointed. In the postexilic period, where there was no longer a king in Jerusalem, we occasionally find the hope for an ideal king of the future. Jer 23:5 can be read in this context: “The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” ….

It is not helpful, however, to restrict the discussion of messianism too narrowly to occurrences of מָשִׁיחַ or its translation equivalents (christos, unctus, etc.).63 On the one hand, since the term “messiah” is commonly used in later tradition for the ideal Davidic king of the future, passages such as Jer 23:5-6, which clearly refer to such a figure, may reasonably be dubbed “messianic,” even though the specific term does not occur. On the other hand, it is best to reserve the English term “messiah” for figures who have important roles in the future hope of the people. Even though historical High Priests are called מָשִׁיחַ in Daniel 9, they are not “messiahs” in the eschatological, futurist, sense of the term.64 The term “messiah” may be used legitimately, however, for the High Priest in an eschatological context, and for other eschatological figures, such as the Enochic Son of Man, who are sometimes designated as מָשִׁיחַ or its translation equivalents. The term cannot be extended at will. ... In short, a messiah is an eschatological figure who sometimes, but not necessarily always, is designated as a מָשִׁיחַ in the ancient sources.

It should be clear from these remarks, however, that “messiah,” even as an eschatological term, can refer to different kinds of figures, and that to speak of “the messiah” without further qualification is to speak ambiguously. ... One could, arguably, give a satisfactory account of Jewish future hope without using the word “messiah” at all.66 What matters is the expectation of a Davidic king, of an ideal priest, of an eschatological prophet. Besides, there was no Jewish orthodoxy in the matter of messianic expectation, and so we should expect some variation.

We shall argue, however, that the variation was limited, and that some forms of messianic expectation were widely shared. ... We shall find four basic messianic paradigms (king, priest, prophet, and heavenly messiah), and they were not equally widespread.67 (Admittedly, the heavenly messiah” paradigm is somewhat different from the others, since it is not defined by function, and can overlap with the other paradigms.68) (John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: Messianism in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, [1995], 2010), pp. 16-18) [note: the Hebrew characters in Collins’ text do not have the vowel pointings.]

59 The extent of this “bi-messianism” in the Scrolls has been much disputed…

60 A point noted by Morton Smith, “What is Implied by the Variety of Messsianic Figures?” Journal of Biblical Literature 78 (1959) 66-72

61 As noted repeatedly by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The One Who Is to Come (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007) 8-25

62 F. Hesse, “Chrio, etc.,” G. Friedrich, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974) 9.501-9. Gerbern S. Oegema, The Anointed and His People: Messianic Expectations from the Maccabees to Bar Kochba (JSPSup 27; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 23-27, lists several definitions of messiah that have been proposed.

63 Pace Fitzmyer, The One Who Is to Come, 1-7, who focuses obsessively on the use of the Hebrew word מָשִׁיחַ. The need for a broader basis is recognized by most scholars. See James C. VanderKam, “Messianism and Apocalypticism,” in John J. Collins, ed., The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism. Vol. 1. The Origins of Apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity (New York: Continuum, 1998) 193-228, especially 195; Hogeterp, Expectations of the End, 428-29.

64 It is somewhat bizarre that Fitzmyer, for all his rigor, regards Daniel 9 as evidence that “messianism truly emerged in pre-Christian Palestinian Judaism” (The One Who Is to Come, 64). He is led to this conclusion quite mechanically, by the fact that the noun is used with a verb in the future tense.

66 Compare Geza G. Xeravits, King, Priest, Prophet. Positive Eschatological Protagonist of the Qumran Library (STDJ 47; Leiden: Brill. 2003).

67 Compare F. Garcia Martinez, “Messianische Erwartungen in den Qumran-schriften,” Jahrbuch für Biblische Theologie 8 (1993) 171-208.

68 As noted by Al Wolters, “The Messiah in the Qumran Documents,” in Stanley E. Porter, ed., The Messiah in the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007) 75-89, specifically 81. Hogeterp, Expectations of the End, 429, objects to the fourth category on the grounds that different earthly types may incorporate heavenly dimensions.

For more on this issue, see the following article: Messianic Expectations in 1st Century Judaism

With this in mind, the following passages from the New Testament that speak about that interim period show just how true Christ’s words were:

And he [Gamaliel] said to them [the Jewish Council], “Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men [the apostles]. 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.” Acts 5:36

In another passage, Luke reports of one Simon:

Now there was a man named Simon, who formerly was practicing magic in the city and astonishing the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great; and they all, from smallest to greatest, were giving attention to him, saying, “This man is what is called the Great Power of God.” And they were giving him attention because he had for a long time astonished them with his magic arts. (Acts 8:9-10)

Later in the book of Acts when a Roman commander rescues Paul from a Jewish mob, the commander assumes that they were beating Paul because he was one of the pretenders who appeared in those days, one of the many whose false pretensions of delivering Israel from Rome, much like many thought the Messiah would do at His coming, served only to inflame Rome more and more against Israel:

As Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the commander, “May I say something to you?” And he said, “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?” But Paul said, “I am a Jew of Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no insignificant city; and I beg you, allow me to speak to the people.” (Acts 21:37-40)

Josephus mentions many such figures who unsettled Israel at that time, and even goes on to mention the same man mentioned by Luke in Acts 21, the man the Roman commander confused Paul with:

There was also another BODY of wicked MEN gotten together, not so impure in their actions [as the Sicarii – AR], but more wicked in their intentions, which laid waste the happy state of the city no less than did these murderers. These were such men as DECEIVED and DELUDED the people under pretense of divine inspiration, but were for procuring innovations and changes of the government; and these prevailed with the multitude to act like madmen, and went before them into the wilderness, as pretending that God would there show them the signals of liberty. But Felix thought this procedure was to be the beginning of a revolt; so he sent some horsemen and footmen both armed, who destroyed a great number of them.

But there was an Egyptian false prophet that did the Jews more mischief than the former; for he was a cheat, and pretended to be a prophet also, and got together thirty thousand men that were DELUDED by him; then he led them around from the wilderness to the mount which was called the Mount of Olives, and was read to break into Jerusalem by force from that place; and if he could but once conquer the Roman garrison and the people, he intended to dominate them by the assistance of those guards of his that were to break into the city with him. But Felix prevented his attempt, and met him with his Roman soldiers, while all the people assisted him in his attack upon them, insomuch that when it came to a battle, the Egyptian ran away, with a few others, while the greatest part of those that were with him were either destroyed or taken alive; but the rest of the multitude were dispersed everyone to their own homes, and there concealed themselves. (JW, 2.258-263)

Luke mentions that this false prophet rallied four thousand men behind him. The figure in Josephus is thirty thousand. While some would see this as evidence that Luke was wrong, and while others would chalk this up to a penchant for exaggeration on the part of Josephus, the following comments of F. F. Bruce are to be preferred:

According to Jos. BJ 2.261-63; Ant. 20:169-72, a false prophet from Egypt came to Jerusalem about A.D. 54, and led a multitude of 30,000 to the Mount of Olives, promising his followers that they could march in and seize the city when the walls fell down at his command. Felix sent soldiers against them, who killed 400 and captured 200. The Egyptian himself escaped and was seen no more. The tribune supposed that he had reappeared and was experiencing the resentment of the populace. Luke’s report seems to be quite independent of Josephus’s. Luke’s moderate figure of 4,000 followers is more likely than Josephus’s 30,000 (BJ 2.261); indeed, it is supported by Josephus’s own figures for those killed and taken captive. It has been pointed out that if, at some point in the transmission of Josephus’s text, the numeral was expressed by a letter instead of being spelled out, an original 4,000 would have been indicated by D, which could have been misread as L (30,000). The Egyptian has been identified with Ben Stada (bShabbat 104b) by R. T. Herford, Christianity in Talmud and Midrash (London, 1903), p. 345, n. 1, and J. Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth, E. T. (London, 1929), pp. 20-22. See further L. H. Feldman’s note a in the Loeb Josephus, 9, pp. 480f.

Bruce goes on to add the following comment, which is also of some interest and worth highlighting for it shows how these people were setting themselves up as the eschatological prophet and national deliverer:

exagagon eis tain eremon] As Moses had done, although this was the wilderness of Judaea. Josephus (BJ 2.259; Ant. 20.167f.) tells how many imposters at this time led people into the wilderness, promising to perform miracles (cf. Mt. 24:26). See P. W. Barnett, “The Jewish Sign Prophets, A.D. 40-70—Their Intentions and Origin,” NTS 27 (1980-81), pp. 679-97. (F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Michigan: Eerdmans, 1990), p. 452-453)

Josephus speaks of other pretenders at that time as well, who are not mentioned in the New Testament. In A.D. 45 or 46, Josephus reports:

Now it came to pass, while Fadus was procurator of Judea, that a certain magician, whose name was Theudas, persuaded a great part of the people to take their effects with them, and follow him to the river Jordan; for he told them he was a prophet, and that he would, by his own command, divide the river, and afford them an easy passage over it; and many were deluded by his words. However, Fadus did not permit them to make any advantage of this wild attempt, but sent a troop of horsemen out against them; who, falling upon them unexpectedly, killed many of them, and took many of them alive. They also took Theudas alive, and cut off his head, and carried it to Jerusalem. This was what befell the Jews in the time of Cuspius. (Jewish Antiquities, 20-97-99).

In another passage from Josephus where he again mentions one of the false prophets we have already met with in the book of Acts, he goes on to mention the existence of many more besides:

Now as for the affairs of the Jews, they grew worse and worse continually, for the country was again FILLED with robbers and impostors, who DELUDED the multitude. Yet did Felix catch and put to death MANY of those impostors every day, together with the robbers. ... And this seems to me to have been the reason why God out of his hatred of these men’s wickedness, rejected our city; and as for the temple, he no longer esteemed it sufficiently pure for him to inhabit therein, but brought the Romans upon us, and threw a fire upon the city to purge it; and brought upon us, our wives, and children, slavery, as desirous to make us wiser by our calamities.

These works that were done by the robbers filled the city with all sorts of impiety. And now these impostors and deceivers persuaded the multitude to follow them into the wilderness and pretended that they would exhibit MANIFEST WONDERS AND SIGNS, that should be performed by the providence of God. And many that were prevailed on by them suffered the punishments of their folly; for Felix brought them back, and then punished them. Moreover, there came out of Egypt about this time to Jerusalem one that said he was a prophet, and advised the multitude of the common people to go along with him to the Mount of Olives, as it was called, which lay near to the city, and at the distance of five furlongs. He said further, that he would show them from then how, at his command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down; and he promised them that he would procure them an entrance into the city through those walls, when they were fallen down. Now when Felix was informed of these things, he ordered his soldiers to take their weapons, and came against them with a great number of horsemen and footmen from Jerusalem, and attacked the Egyptian and the people that were with him. He also killed four hundred of them, and took two hundred alive. But the Egyptian himself escaped out of the fight, but did not appear anymore. And again the robbers stirred up the people to make war with the Romans, and said they ought not to obey them at all; and when any persons would not comply with them, they set fire to their villages, and plundered them. (Jewish Antiquities, 20.160-161, 166-172)

The early Christians took note of this flurry of false prophets that arose after Christ. For example Justin Martyr stated the following in his First Apology or defense:

… after Christ’s ascension into heaven the devils put forward certain men who said that they themselves were gods; and they were not only not persecuted by you, but even deemed worthy of honours. There was a Samaritan, Simon, a native of the village called Gitto, who in the reign of Claudius Cæsar, and in your royal city of Rome, did mighty acts of magic, by virtue of the art of the devils operating in him. He was considered a god, and as a god was honoured by you with a statue, which statue was erected on the river Tiber, between the two bridges, and bore this inscription, in the language of Rome:—“Simoni Deo Sancto,” “To Simon the holy God.” And almost all the Samaritans, and a few even of other nations, worship him, and acknowledge him as the first god; and a woman, Helena, who went about with him at that time, and had formerly been a prostitute, they say is the first idea generated by him. (Justin Martyr, First Apology, xxvi)

For those who recognize that Jesus is the Lord of history, it is hardly surprising to see that history bent to His will, and that His words to the effect that the time period before the Temple’s destruction and the close of the age would be a period of messianic fervor turned out just as He declared. All who presently reject Him should take heed, for they, too, will bow before Him and confess His Lordship. (Philippians 2:5-11).

[Continue to Part IIId]