Messiah comes from the Hebrew word for "anointed." (It's pronounced ma-shee-ach in that ancient tongue.) In biblical times, it was a fairly workaday concept, referring to anyone chosen by God. David became mashiach (God's anointed king) over Israel after the prophet Samuel poured oil on David's head (depicted above).
In those days there was only a fuzzy picture of the afterlife and no concept of aftertimes. But then the Hebrew prophets began speaking of a future that would be better than the rather shabby present the Israelites were living. Isaiah prophesied that the future rule of Israel would be based on justice. Later, Ezekiel had his vision of the valley of dry bones, a portent that the Jews, exiled to Babylonia, would experience a national rebirth in the land of Israel.
By the 1st century, Roman occupation led to a flourishing belief in the messiah among the Jews of Israel. He would be a descendent of King David, defeat Israel's persecutors "“ that would be Rome -- and restore Jewish independence in the land. A savior.
For Christians, the issue was settled between Christmas and Easter. But for Jews, the question remained open and, for the next 2,000 years, particularly in periods of harsh persecution, slaughter or expulsion, Jews experienced repeated messiah moments. At best, they didn't end well. Here are 10:
Messiahs flourish in the land of Israel before the first Jewish revolt against Rome breaks out in the year 70. Jesus announces, "The Kingdom of God is at hand." The Romans execute him.
Rabbi Akiva, one of the most revered sages in Jewish history, declares Shimon bar Kokhba, charismatic military leader of the third Jewish revolt against Rome, to be the messiah. Three years later, bar Kokhba is killed as the Romans defeat the Judean forces. The Romans execute Rabbi Akiva by flaying him alive.
False messiahs appear in Persia and Syria. In Persia, Abu Isa is succeeded by his disciple Yudghan, who is succeeded by his disciple Mushka. Otherwise, enjoy little success. Meanwhile, in Syria, Serenus promises to expel the Muslim rulers of Israel and garners followers from as far as Spain. When captured by the caliph, Serenus tells him he was just kidding. The caliph, who enjoyed a good laugh as much as anyone, turns Serenus over to the Jews "“ whose religious practices he derided "“ for punishment.
Preeminent scholar Maimonides (also known as Rambam) includes the belief in the messiah in his 13 articles of faith, still upheld by traditional Jews. A rationalist, he also condemns messianic speculation as futile and irrational.
At least nine messianic movements shake Jewish communities from Spain to Babylonia. In Kurdistan, David Alroy is proclaimed the messiah and leads a revolt. He is killed, probably by his father-in-law.
David Reuveni presents himself as the emissary and brother of the ruler of a Jewish kingdom in Arabia. With his disciple Shlomo Molcho "“ leader of a movement that believes Reuveni is the messiah "“ Reuveni attempts to convince the Holy Roman emperor to liberate Israel from the Turks. Both men eventually are imprisoned, tried by the Inquisition, and executed.
In Salonika, Shabtai Tzvi declares his messiahship in a "marriage with the sacred law." Jews pack their bags for Israel. In 1666, under threat of death from the Turkish sultan, Shabtai Tzvi embraces Islam.
Jacob Frank declares himself the successor of Shabtai Tzvi and conducts orgies to bring redemption through impurity. Many of his followers convert to Catholicism and become members of the Polish nobility.
Some of the rebbe's followers still say he was the messiah. No word if they ever found the donkey.