FALSE CHRIST, ψευδόχριστος, G6023, one who makes a spurious claim to be the Messiah. The OT anticipates or allows others to promote him as such. Jesus Christ cautioned against impostors (Matt 24:24; Mark 13:22). More than twenty have been in the limelight.
The false messiah is distinct from an antichrist. The former is an impersonater or impostor usurping the title or allowing others to herald him as such. The latter, antichristos, mentioned only by John (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7), does not emphasize impersonation as much as opposition by one who is against Christ (J. Broadus, Matthew, p. 488; Trench, SNT, p. 107). He opposes Christ by doctrines about His person and work which are contrary to truth, as in the Gnostic heresies. Antichrists active in John’s day (1 John 2:18, 22) were characterized by the same spirit as the supreme antichrist whose career will be just before Jesus Christ returns (2 Thess 2; Rev 13:1-10).
False christs have differed from one another in several ways: (1) in motives, some seeking prestige, others deliverance from oppression, or clever mockery; (2) in methods, some using violence, others appealing to fasting, prayer, and a miracle that failed to occur as announced; (3) in line of messiahship, some proposing to be messiah of the house of David (2 Sam 7:4-16), others of the house of Joseph as an Ephraitic messiah; (4) in claims, certain ones heralding themselves out of self-deception or to exploit the hopes of the people, others being announced by followers and riding the crest of popular opinion, still others claiming to be a forerunner or prophet with Messiah Himself to be manifested on some date or by some miracle; (5) in influence, some swaying Jews in Pal., some in different lands, some in several countries; (6) in emphasis, certain ones being religious reformers, some political messiahs, others both; (7) in end, some vanishing to unknown places, some fading into obscurity, others being put to death by armies, royal power, or their own disappointed but wiser followers; (8) in beliefs after their deaths, some being rejected as impostors by certain of their group, others supposedly rising from the dead but without any substantial evidence, still others expected to reappear but never did so.
A few examples may be cited:
Theudas (c. a.d. 44; Acts 5:36) promised to divide Jordan for his followers to cross. They massed for a miracle, but Rom. troops massacred many and took others captive. Bar Cochba (c. 132) was named “son of a star” in expectation that he would fulfill Numbers 24:17. He led a Jewish rebellion, conquering Jerusalem for three years, where he was hailed as king and messiah. Romans retook Jerusalem and he was later slain at Bither, a stronghold, with five to six hundred thousand followers. Moses Cretensis (c. 440) assumed the name “Moses” on the island of Crete, capitalizing upon a Talmudic computation of Messiah’s date. Many Jews gathered at his assurance that the sea would open for a march dryshod to Pal. Some leaped into the water and were drowned. “Moses” vanished from the scene. David Alroy (c. 1160), a Pers. Jew, led a revolt against the Moslems. His death is obscured by different traditions, and his movement came to nought. Asher Lammlein (1502), a rabbi in Italy, claimed to be a forerunner, with Messiah to appear if people would fast, pray, and give alms. A pillar of cloud and fire would lead them to Pal. Then Lammlein disappeared. Sabbethai Zebi (1626-1676) took the title “king of the kings of the earth” in Smyrna, attracting many Jewish followers. Later, he defected to the Moslem faith under charges by the Turkish government. He was beheaded. Some of his group claimed to be Messiah after him.
Other notable names have been: Menahem (a.d. 60s), Julian (529), Serene (720), David el-David (1199), Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia (1240-1292), Nissim ben Abraham (1290s), Moses Botarel (1393), David Reubeni (1525), Isaac Luria (1534-1572), Hayyim Vital Calabrese (1543-1620), Abraham Shalom (1574), Mordecai Mokiah (1680), Jacob Frank (1726), and Moses Hayyim Luzzatto (1707-1747).
H. Graetz, History of the Jews, 6 vols. (1891-1898); check index for individual names; Jew Enc, “Pseudo-Messiahs,” vol. X (1905); HERE, “Messiahs (Pseudo),” vol. 8 (1915); Universal Jew Enc, “Messianic Movements,” vol. 7 (1942); A. Edersheim, LT, I, 171-179 (1956); A. H. Silver, A History of Messianic Speculation in Israel (1959 rp).