Written by R.e. Glenn, The Philosopher Monk
A friend and I ended up finding ourselves in a heated discussion regarding, among other diverse topics, Jesus and the concept of the messiah in history. When I had mentioned that Jesus wasn't the only one claiming, whether he said it himself or others said it about him, to be the promised/prophesied messiah. The one with the capital “M”. He seemed amazed when I had mentioned that there were several others around the time (1st century CE) who were performing miracles, leading and teaching followers, having the mantle of 'messiah' attatched to them, and who, in many such cases, ended their lives under the execution of crucifixion.
His response felt like an indignant attack on what he seemed to see as a completely ridiculous, idiotic, how-could-you-be-even-remotely-serious thought and how dare I even bring up such an unfounded conspiracy theory. He said, “NAMES! Tell me their names! If they existed, tell me their names!”
At the time, I didn't have the time to go through my library to provide him some names, but that's what I'll attempt to do here. Keep in mind that this isn't an exhaustive, or even remotely complete listing, just a few examples of Jesus-like persons around the time that Jesus and the Jewish state were in apocalyptic “end times” tumult.
It is a miracle that we know anything at all about the man called Jesus of Nazareth. The itinerant preacher wandering from village to village clamoring about the end of the world, a band of ragged followers trailing behind, was a common sight in Jesus's time–so common, in fact, that it had become a kind of charicature among the Roman elite. In a farcical passage about just such a figure, the Greek philosopher Celsus imagines a Jewish holy man roaming the Galilean countryside, shouting to no one in particular: “I am God, or the servant of God, or a divine spirit. But I am coming, for the world is already in the throes of destruction. And you will soon see me coming with the power of heaven.”
The first century was an era of apocalyptic expectation among the Jews of Palestine, the Roman designation for the vast tract of land encompassing modern-day Israel/Palestine as well as large parts of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Countless prophets, preachers and messiahs trampted through the Holy Land delivering messages of God's imminent judgment. Many of these so-called false messiahs we know by name. A few are even mentioned in the New Testament. The prophet Theudas, according to the book of Acts, had four hundred disciples before Rome captured him and cut off his head. A mysterious charismatic figure known only as “the Egyptian” raised an army of followers in the desert, nearly all of whom were massacred by Roman troops. In 4 B.C.E., the year in which most scholars believe Jesus of Nazareth was born, a poor shepherd named Athronges put a diadem on his head and crowned himself “King of the Jews”; he and his followers were brutally cut down by a legion of soldiers. Another messianic aspirant, called simply “the Samaritan,” was crucified by Pontius Pilate even though he raised no army and in no way challenged Rome–an indication that the authorities, sensing the apocalyptic fever in the air, had become extremely sensitive to any hint of sedition. There was Hezekiah the bandit chief, Simon of Peraea, Judas the Galilean, his grandson Menahem, Simon son of Giora, and Simon son of Kochba–all of whom declared messianic ambitions and all of whom were executed by Rome for doing so.
Excerpted from: “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan [Text above can be found in the Introduction.]