⇒See also the McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia.
1. Christ's Warnings:
In His discourse on the last things, uttered by Him on the Tuesday of the week of His Passion, Jesus solemnly forewarned His disciples that many would come in His name, saying "I am the Christ," who would deceive many; that there would arise false Christs and false prophets, who would show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect; that, therefore, if any man said to them, "Lo, here is the Christ," or "Lo, there," they were not to believe it (Mt 24:5,11,23-25; Mr 13:6,21-23; Lu 21:8).
2. Early Notices:
The warning was needed. De Wette, Meyer, and others have, indeed, pointed out that there is no historical record of anyone expressly claiming to be the Christ prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. This, however, is probably only in appearance (compare Lange, Commentary on Mt 24:3). Edersheim remarks: "Though in the multitude of impostors, who, in the troubled time between the rule of Pilate and the destruction of Jerusalem, promised Messianic deliverance to Israel, few names and claims of this kind have be en specially recorded, yet the hints in the New Testament, and the references, however guarded, in the Jewish historian, imply the appearance of many such seducers" (Jesus the Messiah, V, chapter vi; in 1906 edition, II, 446). The revolts in this period were generally connected with religious pretensions in the leaders (Josephus, BJ, II, xiii, 4--"deceived and deluded the people under pretense of Divine inspiration"), and, in the fevered state of Messianic expectation, can hardly have lacked, in some instances, a Mes sianic character. Judas of Galilee (Ac 5:37; Josephus, Ant, XVIII, i, Ac 1:1-26, Ac 6:1-15; BJ, II, viii, Ac 1:1-26) founded a numerous sect (the Gaulonites) by many of whom, according to Origen (Hom on Lk, 25), he was regarded as the Messiah (compare DB , under the word). The Theudas of Ac 5:36, "giving himself out to be somebody," may or may not be the same as the Theudas of Josephus (Ant., XX, v, 1), but the latter, at least, made prophetic claims and deluded many. He promised to divide the river Jordan by a word. Another instance is the "Egyptian" for whom Paul was mistaken, who had made an "uproar" (Ac 21:38; the Revised Version (British and American) "sedition")--one of a multitude of "impostors and deceivers," Josephus tells us, who persuaded multitudes to follow them into the wilderness, pretending that they would exhibit wonders and signs (Ant., XX, viii, 6). This Egyptian was to show them that, at his command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down (BJ, II, xiii, 5). Of another class was the Samaritan Dositheus, with whom Simon Magus was said to be connected (see refs to Eusebius, Origen, Hippolytus, Clementine writings, etc., in DB, under the word). He is alleged to have been regarded as "the prophet like unto Moses," whom God was to raise up.
The most celebrated case of a false Christ is that of Bar-Cochba (to give the name its usual form), the leader of the great insurrection under Hadrian in 132 AD (Eus., HE, IV, 6; for Jewish and other authorities, see the full account in Schurer,HJP , I, 2, pp. 297 ff, English Translation). The insurrection was on a scale which it required the whole force of the Roman empire to put down (compare Schurer). The leader's own name was Simon, but the title, "Bar-Cochba" ("son of a star"), was given him with reference to the pr ophecy in Nu 24:17 of the star that should come out of Jacob. Rabbi Akiba, the most celebrated doctor of his time, applied this prophecy, with that in Hag 2:6-7, to Simon, and announced him as the Messiah. He is commonly known in Jewish literature as Barcosiba, probably from his birthplace. Immense multitudes flocked to his standard, and the Christians in Palestine were severely persecuted. Coins were issued in his name. After tremendous efforts the rebellion was crushed, and Jerusalem was converted into a Roman colony (Aelia Capitolina), which Jews were forbidden to enter.
4. Jewish Pseudo-Messiahs:
Among the Jews themselves, in later times, many pseudo-Messiahs have arisen. An interesting account of some of these is given by Mr. Elkan Adler in his Introduction to the volume, Aspects of the Hebrew Genius (London, Routledge, 1910). "Such there had been," this writer says, "from time to time ever since the destruction of the Temple." In the 16th and 17th centuries, however, the belief in pseudo-Messiahs took new and remarkable shapes. Among the names mentioned is that of David Reubeni, or David of the tribe of Reuben (1524), who ultimately fell a sacrifice to the Inquisition. Under his influence a Portuguese royal secretary, Diego Pires, adopted the Jewish faith, changed his name to Solomon Molko, and finally proclaimed himself the Messiah. In 1529 he published some of his addresses under the title of The Book of Wonder. He was burned at the stake at Mantua. "Other Kabbalists, such as Isaac Luria and Chajim Vital and Abraham Shalom, proclaimed themselves to be Messiahs or forerunners of the Messiah, and their works and manuscripts are still piously studied by many oriental Jews." The chief of all these false Messiahs was Sabbatai Zevi, born at Smyrna in 1626. "His adventures," it is said, "created a tremendous stir in western Europe." He ultimately became an apostate to Islam; notwithstanding which fact he had a line of successors, in whom the sect of Donmeh, in Salonica, continue to believe. Another mentioned is Jacob Frank, of Podolia, who revealed himself in 1755 as the Holy Lord, in whom there dwelt the same Messiah-soul that had dwelt in David, Elijah, Jesus, Mohammed, Sabbatai Zevi, and his followers. Jewish literature in the 18th century is full of controversial writing connected with Sabbatianism. As a special source of information on modern false Messiahs among the Jews, Lange mentions the serial Dibhre 'emeth, or Words of Truth (Breslau, 1853-54).