Historical Conditions for Popular Messianism — Christian, Muslim and Palestinian

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by Neil Godfrey

A number of readers have questioned my own questioning of a popular belief and claim by Richard Carrier that

Palestine in the early first century CE was experiencing a rash of messianism.

I suggest on the contrary that evidence for popular messianism does not appear until the Jewish War in the latter half of the first century. See post + comment + comment and links within those comments to earlier posts. Certainly popular counter-cultural leaders prior to that time (but still well after the time of Jesus) did not imitate any known Danielic or Davidic notion of a messiah expected to challenge Rome.

In this post I will address some general background information that we have about popular messianic movements. If we are to be good Bayesian thinkers then we need to set out as much background knowledge as we can before we begin. This post will put two or three items on the table for starters. Other background data has been covered to some extent in the above linked “comment(s)” and “post”.

Medieval Messianism

cohnA classic study of popular millennial movements is Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium . After surveying such movements in the Middle Ages Cohn concludes:

They occurred in a world where peasant revolts and urban insurrections were very common and moreover were often successful. . . .

“Revolutionary millenarianism drew its strength from a population living on the margin of society – peasants without land or with too little land even for subsistence; journeymen and unskilled workers living under the continuous threat of unemployment; beggars and vagabonds – in fact from the amorphous mass of people who were not simply poor but who could find no assured and recognized place in society at all. These people lacked the material and emotional support afforded by traditional social groups; their kinship-groups had disintegrated and they were not effectively organized in village communities or in guilds; for them there existed no regular, institutionalized methods of voicing their grievances or pressing their claims. Instead they waited for a propheta to bind them together in a group of their own.

Because these people found themselves in such an exposed and defenceless position they were liable to react very sharply to any disruption of the normal, familiar, pattern of life. Again and again one finds that a particular outbreak of revolutionary millenarianism took place against a background of disaster . . . 

Excerpt From: Cohn, Norman. “The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages.” iBooks. (My own bolded highlighting)

Examples of those camel back-breaking disasters and related messianic movements:

  • Plague –> the First Crusade and the flagellant movements of 1260, 1348-9, 1391 and 1400;
  • Famines –> First and Second Crusades and the popular crusading movements of 1309-20, the flagellant movement of 1296, the movements around Eon and the pseudo-Baldwin;
  • Spectacular rise in prices –> the revolution at Münster.
  • Black Death –> The greatest wave of millenarian excitement, one which swept through the whole of society . . .  and here again it was in the lower social strata that the excitement lasted longest and that it expressed itself in violence and massacre.

Islamic Messianism

filiuA more recent work I am currently reading addresses popular apocalypticism cum messianism among Muslims: Apocalypse in Islam by Jean-Pierre Filiu. Here we the messiah in question is most often the Mahdi who is to appear in apocalyptic times and begin to restore true religion. I have not yet read the chapter on Shia Islam so this post limits its comment to the Sunni branch.

Again we find an external stimulus to set the ball rolling among a critical mass of the population to begin to speak of a sub-culture or “movement”. This took place in 1979 when Egypt, the leader of the Arab world, broke ranks and made peace with Israel. Egypt was expelled from the Arab League. Jihadists assassinated President Sadat and went on to commit outrageous atrocities throughout Egypt and including its capital city Cairo. Hundreds died in a violent clash between the security forces — the army and the police — whom the public had trusted to eliminate the terrorists! It was in that traumatic context that the first popular books anticipating both apocalypse and messianic rescue were printed, reprinted, and reprinted.

It takes little imagination to suspect the horror of 9/11 and the West’s violent response catapulted interest in the same type of literature across the Middle East.

The extension to Iraq of what the American government called the global war against terror proved to be an extraordinary source of encouragement to apocalyptic speculation in the Islamic world in the years that followed. (p. 119)

And it continued to avalanche as more chaos erupted:

It was less the fall of Saddam Hussein than the prolongation of the American occupation of Iraq that triggered the explosive growth of this mass literature. Large sections of the Sunni population in the Middle East turned away from the usual forums for political analysis, and even from militant propaganda, in order to wallow in the paranoid vision of a world in which Islam’s chronic weakness became the surest guarantee of its ultimate triumph. (p. 140)

Palestine the Exception

One might wonder on reading the above paragraph in isolation whether a parallel might be found in the “prolongation of the Roman occupation of Judea” around the turn of the millennium. But that would be to miss the context. The common factor in the messianic/millennial/apocalyptic popular movements is social disruption, a shattering of safety, security, identity. Where military occupation has become a part of one’s way of life then messianic reactions do not necessarily break out.

In support of this Filiu observes that the one place in the Middle East where such messianic anticipation has not occurred is Palestine!

Generally speaking, inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza seemed less fond of apocalyptic imaginings than people in neighbouring countries. Radical messianic bestsellers could be purchased in Palestine, though not uncommonly they were sold in a plain unmarked wrapper. (p. 135)

What that suggests to me is that we see yet again a rash of popular hopes arising when situations radically change for the worse. But where things continue on as normal (even if that normal is an ongoing multigenerational occupation) realism sets in and despite all the prophecies in the classical sacred texts that invite believers to exercise their imaginations that just does not happen. Same-same for generation upon generation and no sudden apocalyptic fervour. Sudden changes in the status quo with a great power barging in and changing everything — apocalyptic and messianic expectations flourish.

Were there sudden overturnings of everyone’s world in early first century Palestine during the generally accepted life time of Jesus? If not, how likely is it that we should expect a flurry of messianic expectations at that time and place?

The Classical Texts & Scriptures

Another aspect of Islamic messianism concerns the role of conservative scholars. Generally this group has attempted to fight against the wild popular apocalyptic scenarios found among “the masses” by appealing to more sober interpretations of prophecies in the Quran and hadiths. They have also published counter claims attempting to point out that the legitimate interpretations of the prophecies have their fulfilment set in the far off indeterminate future.

It has been a long while since I’ve read Cohn’s book or other historical works on “sectarian” movements in the Middle Ages but I think I am right in recalling that the mainstream Church was sometimes threatened by these alternative movements and did work at subduing them with “true doctrine” — just as conservative imams have tried to do in the Muslim world.

For these reasons I think that the mere existence of ancient prophetic texts cannot be held up as evidence that they inspired popular messianic movements. Throughout most of the history of these scriptures they have been cared for and interpreted by conservative elites.

Interestingly in both the Medieval and Muslim messianic movements inspiration for the various prophecies has been drawn not from the sacred texts alone but also from a mix of other unconventional writings: Nostradamus, Protocols of the Elders of Zion, astrology, numerology, Bermuda Triangle and UFO literature, as well as from the scriptures of other faiths.)

Radicalisation and Sects

But what about those cults today that attract new members who suddenly become crazy for the imminent end of the world? I suggest that these are less “popular messianic movements” than organisations for the meeting of individuals who are radicalised — and who very often drop out after a few years. The long-time members of these groups do not seem to exhibit the behaviour or mentality of what we normally associate with genuine messianism. Individuals who experience this kind of extremist and anti-social radicalisation would appear to undergo at a personal level some of the trauma we saw above that generates messianism on national and regional levels. See, for example, any of the recent posts addressing this kind of conversion process (Who joins cultsHow Radicalization HappensHow Young People Become Radicalised). I would not call this phenomenon a “mass” or “popular” messianic movement.


I don’t know if we have evidence for the conditions that we would expect to precipitate popular messianic movements in early first century Palestine. Certainly we do in the later part of that century, and we can see evidence from that time of a tendency to see contemporary events as fulfillments of prophecies with the expectation of a messianic deliverance. We also find evidence of a tendency to anachronistically anticipate those events back into the early first century and the time of Jesus.

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18 thoughts on “Historical Conditions for Popular Messianism — Christian, Muslim and Palestinian”

    1. John the Baptist is presented in the gospels as a theological foil for Jesus. Jesus comes out of the Law and the Prophets. The Baptist’s function is theological and constructed to express the views of the evangelists after 70 CE.

      If Josephus gives us an historical account of John the Baptist then we can be confident he was not an apocalyptic or messianic preacher.

      If Josephus does not give us a historical account then we have no more historical evidence for John the Baptist than we have for Judas or Lazarus.

      I also suggest that our background knowledge about messianic cults should cast doubt on the historicity of the gospel depiction (at least that of Mark and Matthew) even if we had reason to lend their accounts historicity (which we don’t — see paragraph 1). The history of other messianic movements leads us to expect most people would not be interested in taking such a message seriously unless circumstances led them to it.

      For JB representing a popular messianic movement we would have to think that “all of Judea” and everywhere else went out to hear him preach — yet Josephus gives not a hint of such a message moving large masses.

  1. It just occurred to me that maybe the first Christians thought Jesus is related to the “Suffering Servant” (Israel) of Isaiah 53 because in some ways Jesus “represented” Israel. For example:

    Here are some similarities between Jesus and Israel I found online:
    (1). Israel had a Joseph (Genesis 30:24)
    And she called his name Joseph; and said, The LORD shall add to me another son.
    Jesus had a Joseph (Mathew 1:16)
    And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.
    (2). Israel’s Joseph had dreams (Genesis 37:5)
    And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it his brethren: and they hated him yet the more.
    Jesus’ Joseph had dreams (Mathew 2:13)
    Behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream…
    (3). Israel went into Egypt (Genesis 46:5-6)
    And the sons of Israel carried Jacob their father, and their little ones, and their wives…and came into Egypt.
    Jesus went into Egypt (Mathew 2:14)
    When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt.
    (4.) Israel came out of Egypt (Exodus 12:51)
    The LORD did bring the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt by their armies.
    Jesus came out of Egypt (Mathew 2:15)
    And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.
    (5). Israel was baptized (Red Sea) (1 Corinthians 10:2)

    And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea.
    Jesus was Baptized (Mathew 3:16)

    And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water.
    (6.) Israel is called God’s son (Hosea 11:1)
    When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.
    Jesus is called God’s Son (Mathew 3:17)
    And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
    (7). Israel is called God’s firstborn (Exodus 4:22)
    And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the LORD, Israel is my son, even my firstborn.
    Jesus is called God’s firstborn (Romans 8:29)

    For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.
    (8.) Israel was in the wilderness for 40 years (Hebrews 3:17)
    But with whom was he grieved forty years? was it not with them that had sinned, whose carcases fell in the wilderness?
    Jesus was in the wilderness 40 days (Mathew 4:1-2)
    Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights…

    (9.) Deuteronomy given in the wilderness (Exodus 24:12)

    And the LORD said unto Moses, Come up to me into the mount, and be there: and I will give thee tables of stone, and a law, and commandments which I have written; that thou mayest teach them.
    Jesus uses Deuteronomy to resist temptation (Mathew 4:4-10)

    But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God…It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God…for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.
    (10.) The Law was taught on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:12)
    And the LORD said unto Moses, Come up to me into the mount, and be there: and I will give thee tables of stone, and a law, and commandments which I have written; that thou mayest teach them.
    Sermon on the Mount teaches the Law (Mathew 5-7)
    And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: And he opened his mouth, and taught them,
    (11.) God made a blood covenant with the 12 tribes (Exodus 24:8)
    And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD hath made with you concerning all these words.
    Jesus made a blood covenant with His 12 apostles (Mathew 26:28)

    For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.
    (12.) Israel is called God’s vine (Psalm 80:8)
    Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt: thou hast cast out the heathen, and planted it.
    Jesus is called God’s vine (John 15:1)
    I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.
    (13.) Israel was called the seed of Abraham (Isaiah 41:8)
    But thou, Israel, art my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend.
    Jesus is called the seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:16)
    Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.
    (14.) Israel started a person and became a people
    Example: Israel (Jacob) grew into the 12 tribes of Israel
    Jesus started as a person and became a people
    Example: The church is referred to as the body of Christ

    1. If you are interested in my responses to those various rebels and agitators then do check out the earlier posts I have linked to in the above post. Those individuals are regularly cited as evidence for Jesus’ time (this series of posts began in response to Carrier’s reference to them) and I explain in my earlier posts why they do not support the thesis they are said to support. They are not from Jesus’ time at all and in fact do not suggest any interest or knowledge of a Danielic or Davidic messiah. Further, though it is argued that Josephus refrains from calling them would-be messiahs for political reasons that very argument is undercut by other evidence that Josephus has no problem attributing popular messianism to rebel Jews when it suits him.

  2. Someone made a good observation on here recently, that any event in the gospels purporting to fulfill OT prophecies, is probably fabricated for that purpose.

    1. It probably made Jesus an easier sell to the educated Jewish and gentile class to argue Jesus was fulfilling this or that prophesy, or was a new and better Moses, etc. The Jewish religion was well respected among gentiles for its great antiquity. Selling Jesus’ message was of prime importance for the first Christians:

      (1)The Great Commission

      16 Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. 17 When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted.

      18 And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore[a] and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen. Matthew 28:16-20 (NKJV)

      (2) Sending out Emissaries (Deuteronomy 1; Luke 10:1-3, 17-30)

      Just as Moses had chosen twelve spies to reconnoiter the land which stretched “before your face,” sending them through the cities of the land of Canaan, so does Jesus send a second group, after the twelve, a group of seventy, whose number symbolizes the nations of the earth who are to be “CONQUERED,” so to speak, with the gospel in the Acts of the Apostles. He sends them out “before his face” to every city he plans to visit (in Canaan, too, obviously).

      To match the image of the spies returning with samples of the fruit of the land (Deuteronomy 1:25), Luke has placed here the Q saying (Luke 10:2//Matthew 9:37-38), “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few; therefore beg the Lord of the harvest to send out more workers into his harvest.”

      And Jesus’ emissaries return with a glowing report, just as Moses’ did.

  3. On the other hand . . . .

    Having completed Jean-Pierre Filiu’s book on Islam’s popular messianic movements I am reminded of the apocalyptic fervour that apparently gripped some groups in the United States in particular as the year 2000 approached. Such a phenomenon would parallel Carrier’s (and other’s) speculations that Danielic time-tables would have motivated messianic expectations around the time of Jesus.

    Perhaps so. But before being persuaded conclusively on that line of argument I’d like to compare the religious scene in the United States with that of first century Palestine. I’m sure there would be at least one or two points of difference. One obvious one is brought out by Filiu’s own research: quite often history has seen the fanning of messianic enthusiasm as a direct result of publishing companies stimulating such an interest to sell new books. The interest has been artificially created in both the Muslim and Christian worlds.

    But then again, I am reminded there was a general expectation that the world would end in the year 1000, too (it didn’t) — and I doubt the commercial marketing was a stimulus to that mood at that time.

    However even where such popular views are extant history has tended to demonstrate clear evidence of them because it is virtually inevitable that some persons do take advantage of that public mood. And that’s where rebels or agitators arise often with disastrous consequences. So we return to the time of Jesus and its lack of evidence for any such popular sentiment or agitation for messianism in the historical record.

    The above comment is a “thinking aloud” spiel. No doubt I’ll think and read more about this question over time.

  4. In the early section of his book [OHJ p 69-70] Carrier mentions the allusions to 4 ‘messiahs’ in the writings of Josephus.
    Although avoiding the use of the word ‘messiah’ Josephus describes each of the ‘troublemakers’ as appealing to actions, places and motifs that are symbolic of the early OT conquest of Canaan [sic] by Joshua aka Jesus who delivered the ‘promised land’ to ‘his people’.
    A brief and rough synopsis:
    The Samaritan – promised to reveal the relics of Mt Gerizim to his followers alluding to Joshua blessing the people from Mt Gerizim after crossing the Jordan [Deut 27.12]
    Theudas – said he would part the Jordan as had Joshua [Joshua 3]
    The Egyptian – preached from The Mount of Olives as Zechariah 14.1-9 says will be done ‘on the day of coming for Yahweh’ and claimed he would topple the walls of Jericho as did Joshua
    An “imposter’ promised his followers ‘salvation’ if they followed him into the ‘wilderness.

    But each of these 4 wannabees run foul of the Roman legions.
    Carrier suggests they time was not ripe for a messiah of the old style to tackle the Romans militarily but that there was an available niche for one such who operated outside the idea of military success but offered metaphorical and symbolic salvation that did not have to confront legions.

    1. I’ve addressed these individuals in depth in other posts I have linked in the above article. They are regularly trotted out as evidence for popular messianism in the early first century even though not one of them is from the early first century or time of Jesus.

      They are closer to the outbreak of war and thus more likely indicative of pressures that were building up to that event.

      Nor do they act out any Danielic or Davidic type of messianic activity.

      Nor does Josephus remain tightlipped or fearful to suggest pretenders had messianic overtones as we so often read because he quite bluntly states that messianic aspirations coincided with the outbreak of the War. In this respect he is consistent with what we read in Suetonius and Tacitus — that messianic aspirations were related to the outbreak of the war.

      The way these aspirations are described suggests that they were not attached firmly to any one particular individual (or rivals) but were hopes that the divinely ordained figure would appear at the critical time to lead the Jews to the conquest of Rome.

      There was a niche for a quietist messianic group but that is most likely (compare my preceding post on this topic) to have emerged in the wake of the war. It is pure speculation (and contrary to what we know of messianic movements) to think one existed for decades prior to the war. Messianic movements by their nature offer hope for resistance and defiance — which was said to characterise the early (yet post Pauline) Christians.

      The metaphorical adaptations of hopes traditionally follow in the wake of literal hopes being dashed. That fits a post 70 setting perfectly. It also fits the allegorical and midrashic character of Mark where the hewn out tomb and destroyed temple imagery overlap (Isa. 22:16 LXX).

      It is “possible” that there were messianic movements in the supposed time of Jesus but we have no evidence for them. The evidence we do have points to such a development in association with the War — which also coincides with the approximate time of the first gospel.

      1. It would be interesting to compare the messianism of the first century with that of sabbatai zevi and then Jacob Frank in the 17th century. We’re there similar disruptions or social conditions to explain these movements?

        1. I am currently reading Holiest wars: Islamic Mahdis, Their Jihads, and Osama bin Laden by Timothy Furnish to complement my previous read of Apocalypse in Islam by Filiu and already I see a difference between “popular messianism” and “elitist messianism”.

          The first two movements I have just read about relied upon savage repression to maintain and build a large following in their early years. They “never really caught on among the wider population.” One of these, the Mahdavist movement in 15th/16th century India, appeared to have been inspired by magical calendar dates of prophetic significance and fizzled out to nothing after the failure of Jesus’s (sic) return.

          I’ll be interested to compare these movements with others, some of which presumably will have a more widespread popular enthusiasm behind them.


          The next Mahdi in Furnish’s book is Abu Mahallah of 17th century Morocco. His movement was a more popular one and — surprise surprise — was associated with the sudden withdrawal or betrayal of Muslim rulers from his home area and its handover to newly arrived Christian imperialist powers. One imagines this would have been quite a shock and outrage to Muslim locals.

  5. Hi Neil,

    more clues that may confirm your thesis are as follows:

    It has been argued that both Judas and the Fourth Philosophy were not historical realities, but merely inventions of Josephus; see J.S. McLaren, ‘Constructing Judean History in the Diaspora: Josephus’s Accounts of Judas’s, in J. Barclay (ed.), Negotiating Diaspora: Jewish Strategies in the Roman Empire (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2004), pp. 90–108.

    This scholar argues:

    This study shows that we can no longer assume that this Judas presented by Josephus is an historical figure who engaged in some activity in 6 CE. It is not simply a case of claiming that Josephus may have exaggerated the account of Judas’ career and its impact by adjusting a few details here and there. Rather, Josephus’s apologetic has constructed Judas, making him a vital part of the explanation of what happened in Judaea in 66-70 CE. Who he was, what he did and what he advocated, if anything at all, need to be established afresh, outside the framework provided in War and Antiquities.
    (p. 108, my bold)

    Why did Josephus invent Judas the Galilean and the Fourth Philosophy?

    Because the Pharisees as Josephus in person were the same real inventors of the guiding principle of the fourth philosophy: ”only God as master”.

    The Roman Josephus was to recycle himself and hide his past as pro-Zealot Pharisee.

    So Judah had to be a Pharisee, too.

    So Judas had to be invented adn put in the 30’s CE and not in 66 EC, when historically Josephus was a fiery Zealot (with a lot of Pharisees like him).

    So Judas was to be active in Galilee, well far from Jerusalem, where instead historically the Zealot Josephus was active.

    And despite the invention of Judas by Josephus, his accusers in Rome continued to defame him for his Zealot past. Josephus had to get off to a compromise.

    Now, in his new book, the guilt of the ”fourth philosophy” is not only of Judas, but also of his companion Zadok.

    Now Judas is not from Galilee, but more precisely from Gamala (contradiction: Gamala is not in Galilee, however, it is still far from Jerusalem).

    The article of prof McLaren points to a development of messianic movements (by Pharisees too) in association with the War — precisely your same thesis.

  6. The unnamed Samaritan prophet – c.36AD, Prefecture of Pilate; Theudas – c.55AD, Prefecture of Festus. Judas of Galilee, 6AD, seems to have spawned something that involved his family over a couple of generations. Daniel was written in the context of the successful overthrow of a Greek empire and the ostensible return of the land to God. Josephus refers to these characters as imposters. What was their imposture? I think you are in danger of the kind of hyper-specificity that makes out Romulus and Dionysos are absolutely in a different class than Jesus because they only share 80% plus characteristics with one another and him. Of course Josephus minimises what these people were about; he is trying to make out the rebellion had nothing to do with the leaders of his religion, himself included. But look at the actions he describes – magic-ritualistic reenactments of Judean and Samaritan origin myths in mistaken expectation of godly intervention. Remind me again who else was supposed to be knocking about in the prefectures of Pilate and Festus.

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