Shortly after graduating from college, I was discussing Jesus with a co-worker of mine. He said that one reason he would not believe that Jesus was the Messiah was because lots of people had come along through history and claimed to be the Messiah. I’ll be honest; at the time, I had no idea what to do with that rebuttal. I had already encountered plenty of atheists who rejected any notion of God. And I had even encountered a few religious pluralists who wanted everyone to just pick whatever path suited them. But I had never heard someone reject Jesus because there were other “Jesuses,” and I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that.
It is a valid point for consideration though. If other people also claimed to be the Messiah (or Savior, or the path to God), why do Christians insist on worshiping this particular Messiah? If others made the same claims as Jesus, who’s to say the claims of Jesus are any more true than the others?
Interestingly, my friend is not the first person to consider the implications of other people’s claims as Messiah. The well-respected Pharisee Gamaliel brings up this same issue in Acts 5. The Pharisees had arrested the apostles and forbid them from speaking the name of Jesus again. But the apostles were not deterred. They continued to preach Jesus, obeying God rather than men. This enraged the council and high priest so much that they wanted to kill the apostles. This was no idle threat either; they had just executed Jesus.
Acts 5:34-39 says, “But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, stood up and gave orders to put the men outside for a little while. And he said to them, ‘Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!’”
Apparently, shortly before the ministry of Jesus, two other men had risen up claiming to be the Messiah. These two men had most likely gained some following to instigate a political uprising against Rome. First-century Jewish historian Josephus indicated there were lots of uprisings around this time, saying there were “ten thousand disorders.”1 We don’t know for sure how each of these men died, but it is possible they were executed by Rome.
Gamaliel points out, however, that though these men gained a following (Theudas even had 400 followers), after they were killed, the followers scattered and the movement fell apart. That proved there was nothing really significant to the leader. The people may have been excited for a time about a captivating leader but the substance of the movement was not lasting. Therefore, those individuals were clearly not the true Messiah of Israel.
Using that logic for the apostles, Gamaliel points out that they have killed the leader of this group of followers. If there were nothing really to this message of Jesus, if He really wasn’t the Messiah, then these followers would scatter just like all the ones that had come and gone before. But if these followers truly won’t go away – as appears to be the case since they won’t stop preaching about Him – then maybe this wasn’t just some false prophet. Maybe this particular leader really was the Messiah.
Granted we have the advantage of hindsight. We know that instead of stamping out this movement about Jesus, it continued to spread and grow all over the world. This alone does not prove Christianity to be true but it certainly begins to validate the sincerity of the message. The execution of the leader and the threats against the leader’s message did not deter the followers from still spreading the message.
This was not the only time false prophets had come forward claiming to be the Messiah. For the Jewish people who rejected Jesus as the Messiah, they were still waiting for one to arrive. In the year 720, a Jewish man, Serene, came forward claiming to be the Messiah. He tried to lead a crusade into the Holy Land to recapture the area from the Muslims. His mission failed and he was executed by the Muslim calpih.
Later, a man named Obadiah claimed to be the Messiah. He led a failed attempt of a revolt with his 10,000 followers. Later still in 1160, David Alrui claimed to be the Messiah. He was murdered in his sleep by his father, who wanted to put an end to his false ministry.2
There were many who came before and many who came after Jesus claiming to be the Messiah. If we apply Gamaliel’s test though, we can see only one of those who claimed to be the Messiah passed the test. These leaders all died and remained dead. And after their deaths, their followers fell away, and their message faded away.
This was not the case with Jesus of Nazareth. He was executed but rose from the dead. His followers did not scatter, but rather were emboldened in the face of great persecution to continue to spread the message of Jesus.
Gamaliel’s test is not the only test we can apply to determine the validity of Jesus’ claim as Messiah. As with all of those false prophets, anyone can claim to be the Messiah. The tricky part is in backing up that claim. Jesus did not just arrive on the scene, announce He was the Messiah, and lead a revolt. Jesus taught as one with authority. He demonstrated His power over all nature. He made the blind see, made the lame walk, and healed leprosy. That these things happened were not even refuted by the Pharisees. They didn’t argue that a miracle had not taken place, they argued that it shouldn’t have taken place on the Sabbath.
Jesus calmed the wind and the waves with His voice. He multiplied the physical existence of bread and fish to feed the thousands. He proved His authority over the spiritual world as He cast out demons. He showed His strength over death itself as He brought the dead back to life. Then Jesus Himself resurrected and He revealed His resurrected body to hundreds of people.
These are the things that validate Jesus’ claim as the Messiah. He could prove His authority and power over all things of this world, making Him the only true Messiah. It is for this reason the disciples did not scatter when Jesus was executed. It is for this reason that the message of Jesus did not fall away. Why would it when Jesus has proven Himself to be more than a human? As Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
1 David J. Williams (1 August 2011). Acts (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Baker Books. pp. 109–. ISBN 978-1-4412-3745-3.
2 Linda Lacour Hobar, The Mystery of History Volume II. (Dover, Delaware: Bright Ideas Press, 2004), 343-344.