By Harris Lenowitz. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. viii, 297 pages.
Harris Lenowitz, professor of Hebrew at the University of Utah, has researched early accounts of so-called Jewish messiahs. His book is worth adding to the library of ministers or teachers though the average reader may find the scholarship burdensome.
Lenowitz crowns his endeavor with the editorial comment, “The ephemeral worth of such doomed creatures as our messiahs seems, finally, to be unequal to the real suffering endured to bear them.” His hypothesis is that times of oppression and communal suffering of our people set up the conditions necessary to spawn individuals who give hope to the masses. The person assuming the role of messiah addresses the situation of the day, offers complete change, and issues a call to follow which is fueled by the emotional characteristic of desperation.
Much of what Lenowitz has to say regarding false messiahs (including David Alroy, David Reubeni, Isaac Luria, Shabtai Zvi, Yakov Frank, and Menahem Schneerson) rings true. As he describes their false claims and misguided efforts and the justification for some of their excesses (or in the case of some, downright sin or apostasy), one can keep in mind the attributes of the false messiahs and compare them to the only true Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.
His index lists over seventy messianic personages, some of whom we would not classify as messiahs: for instance, Moses, Aaron, David, and Amos. He cuts such a wide swatch by defining the role of messiah as encompassing the positions of king, prophet, and priest. In that way he then can look backward through our history and anoint any prophet, priest, or king as a messiah.
Jesus is included in his list of messiahs but the gospel accounts are reduced to a bare minimum. Lenowitz acknowledges Jesus’ existence and certain historical details gleaned from the gospels. He includes the resurrection accounts, not as historical facts, but as the mark of a new element of the messiah requirement: to overcome death. Thus Lenowitz sees Yeshua as a new type of messiah, with unique characteristics adopted by future figures aspiring to messiahship. Believers see Yeshua not as some prototype, but as the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a Suffering Servant, a personal redeemer to bring peace between God and humans.
As far as Lenowitz’s observation that the times produce the fertile ground for the sprouting up of messiahs, we have the story of Scripture that when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His son, born of a woman, born under the Law (Galatians 4:4).
This historical walk through the wax museum of false messiahs can help equip the reader to engage in dialogue with those who think they have the truth when it comes to denying Yeshua’s messianic claims. Yeshua is indeed unique in history among all claimants to the position of messiah.