The Egyptian Prophet

Messiah (mâšîah, "the anointed one"): Jewish religious concept, a future savior who will, in some sense, come to restore Israel. The nature of both the Messiah and the restoration was a matter of debate, and there were several claimants.

The Egyptian prophet (between 52 and 58 CE)

Sources: Flavius Josephus, Jewish War 2.259-263 and Jewish Antiquities 20.169-171; Acts of the apostles 21.38.

Story: According to Flavius Josephus, there were many people during the governorship of Festus

who deceived and deluded the people under pretense of Divine inspiration, but were in fact for procuring innovations and changes of the government. These men prevailed with the multitude to act like madmen, and went before them into the wilderness, pretending that God would there show them the signals of liberty.note

He continues with the following story.

There was an Egyptian false prophet that did the Jews more mischief than the former; for he was a cheat, and pretended to be a prophet also, and got together thirty thousand men that were deluded by him; these he led round about from the wilderness to the mount which was called the Mount of Olives. He was ready to break into Jerusalem by force from that place; and if he could but once conquer the Roman garrison and the people, he intended to rule them by the assistance of those guards of his that were to break into the city with him.note

In his Jewish antiquities, Josephus retold the story. The number of followers seems to be less exaggerated and the prophet's threat to use violence are ignored.

about this time, someone came out of Egypt to Jerusalem, claiming to be a prophet. He advised the crowd to go along with him to the Mount of Olives, as it was called, which lay over against the city, and at the distance of a kilometer. He added that he would show them from hence how the walls of Jerusalem would fall down at his command, and he promised them that he would procure them an entrance into the city through those collapsed walls. Now when Felix was informed of these things, he ordered his soldiers to take their weapons, and came against them with a great number of horsemen and footmen from Jerusalem, and attacked the Egyptian and the people that were with him. He slew four hundred of them, and took two hundred alive. The Egyptian himself escaped out of the fight, but did not appear any more. And again the robbers stirred up the people to make war with the Romans, and said they ought not to obey them at all; and when any persons would not comply with them, they set fire to their villages, and plundered them.note

Comment: Like Theudas, the Egyptian prophet took Joshua (the man who made the walls of Jericho fall; Joshua 6.20) as an example. The Roman governor was rightly alarmed: like Joshua and Moses, the Egyptian claimed to lead the Jews to a promised land without enemies. This was clearly a messianic claim, even though Josephus does not mention it. The nameless Egyptian may have called himself "king Messiah", because Josephus uses the Greek verb tyrannein ("to be sole ruler") in the first quotation. It should be noted that the Mount of Olives was regarded as the place where God would stand on the Day of Judgment, fighting the battle against Israel's enemies.note