My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This was better in concept than execution. The only Jew I knew much about who claimed to be the Messiah before reading this book was Shabbatai Zvi. I was really intrigued to learn about other false messiahs in other times and places, as well as what motivated them and what became of them. Some of those would-be Messiahs are in here; some were hucksters and some sincere but crazy. Almost all came to bad ends. Their stories are really fascinating but reading this book just gives you enough info to intrigue, as the focus is on quantity of messiahs rather than quality of scholarship or writing. I'd love to hear more, for example, about the one who convinced people he was the messiah "because he could fly." It would be interesting to see the sources - who said they saw him flying? What did that look like? Are there existing accounts of skeptics who thought he was somehow faking it? In general, the messianic claims are just stated, with little reference to contemporaneous sources and few quotes.
More of a problem is that to try to make the numbers larger, he includes major Jewish religious figures, scholars, and writers who never claimed messianic status. Rabow says that some Jews at the time considered the likes of Joseph Karo, the Ari (Isaac Luria), and others to be the Messiah. However, he doesn't support that claim well, again not quoting often from original documents, and it seems to me that it muddies the waters to include people who made no messianic claim and had no actual group of followers who called them Messiah.
All that said, it was a fun read and a very quick one. And the introduction, in which he explains the Jewish concept of the messiah and how it differs among different communities and has evolved over time, is a simple yet cogent treatment of the topic.
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