The Apostate Messiah


Here’s a (relatively) little known historical episode, as related by Karen Armstrong in A History of God. In the 17th century a Jew named Sabbetai Zevi proclaimed himself to be the Messiah. Sabbetai (one of many spellings) was embraced by both rabbis and common Jews, throughout Europe and elsewhere.

Sabbetai Zevi grew up in the Jewish community in Smyrna, in what is today Turkey. Today he would probably be diagnosed as manic-depressive, as he had “periods of deep despair, when he used to withdraw from his family and live in seclusion” which were followed by “an elation that bordered on ecstasy.” During his manic days Sabbetai would “deliberately and spectacularly break the Law of Moses: he would publicly eat forbidden foods, utter the sacred Name of God and claim that he had been inspired to do so by a special revelation.”

After a bunch of other stuff occurred (including getting kicked out of Smyrna and freaking out a lot of more conservative Jews) Sabbetai ended up going to Palestine. There he met a charismatic, mystical young Rabbi named Nathan of Gaza, who encouraged Sabbetai to declare his Messianic status. Naturally, a lot of Rabbis denounced him as false, but belief in Sabbetai spread far and wide within a short time frame.

This highlights a common theme of Armstrong’s work: ideas of God and how God works in the world develop and spread as a result of their pragmatic value in a particular culture, not because they are internally consistent or well thought out.

Sabbetai chose twelve disciples “to be the judges of the tribes of Israel, which would soon reassemble” in Israel. The Messianic fervor that gripped much of Europe in 1666 (the fateful year when Sabbetai announced he was the Messiah) was based strongly on the idea that the Jews would be brought back to the Holy Land. About Sabbetai’s followers, Armstrong writes,

His supporters came from all classes of Jewish society: rich and poor, learned and uneducated….In Poland and Lithuania there were public processions in his honor. In the Ottoman Empire, prophets wandered through the streets describing visions in which they had seen Sabbetai seated upon a throne. All business ceased; ominously, the Jews of Turkey dropped the name of the sultan from the Sabbath prayers and put in Sabbetai’s name instead.

Understandably, when Sabbetai got to Istanbul, the sultan was pissed. The sultan had him arrested for rebellion and imprisoned in Gallipoli. His followers held faithfully to their hope that this all part of the plan. While he was in prison, Armstrong reports, Sabbetai began signing his letters “I am the Lord your God, Sabbetai Zevi.” No ambiguous “Son of Man” claims here.

But, fatefully, on being brought back to Istanbul for trial, Sabbetai was back in a depressive phase. One has to wonder how history would be different if he had been in a manic, prophetic phase. Forced to choose between death (which might have made him a martyr or a savior) and conversion to Islam, Sabbetai put on the turban and took a second wife as his harem. His followers were crushed.

But while most of them fell away and became disillusioned, a core of the truly dedicated (or delusional) remained:

The experience of redemption had been so profound that they could not believe that God had allowed them to be deluded. It is one of the most striking instances of religious experience of salvation taking precedence over mere facts and reason. Faced with the choice of abandoning their newfound hope or accepting an apostate Messiah, a surprising number of Jews of all classes refused to submit to the hard facts of history. Nathan of Gaza devoted the rest of his life to preaching the mystery of Sabbetai: by converting to Islam, he had continued his lifelong battle with the forces of evil. Yet again, he had been impelled to violate the deepest sanctities of his people.

Hundreds of Jewish families (largely in Turkey and Greece) converted to Islam, follow Sabbetai’s example.

And here’s the parallel, if you hadn’t already caught it. Sabbetai, in some ways, represents what a Messianic figure like Jesus looks like when living in a time period where the documentation is more current, more thorough, and more reliable. He also demonstrates the amazing ability of a faith community to reconstruct facts and theological explanations in a way that can justify practically any happenstance. Notably, the early Christians were considered to simply be a part of the Jewish community for the first few years of their existence, Jews who had a Messiah.

The “scandal of the cross,” as Paul put it, was a huge stumbling block for most Jews, because their understanding of what a Messiah would be (understandably) didn’t involve crucifixion. By inventing the doctrines of Christianity, such as atonement, Paul and other early leaders took the spiritual, redemptive experience that Jesus’ followers had made and explained it in a way that was reconciled with his death and (spiritual) resurrection.

Religion is primarily a coping mechanism–a very effective one. People’s main complaint (and fear) of a world without belief in the supernatural is a sense of free-floating emptiness, where all action are equally justified and equally meaningless. Raised in a religious culture where we imagine a firm foundation, the prospect of relativity is simply unacceptable. Trained to set our standards for morality and meaning to a standard that is as unfathomable and unattainable as it is eternal, we are fearful of the prospect that both morality and meaning are only as real as we are willing to make them. But this is the task of humanity, if it is to be honest with itself.

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