A Prophet Reborn as a Con Artist: The Strange Story of Moses of Crete

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law by Rembrandt.

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law by Rembrandt.

Every couple of years, a doomsday preacher makes headlines by announcing that the end of the world is near.  The majority (myself included) laugh them off as cranks, but a minority are at the very least afraid that they might have something, while an even smaller minority take their dire predictions seriously. When the day inevitably comes and goes without incident, the faithful are left to try and rationalize their prophet’s failure, while the bulk of his followers move on. Then the next doomsayer makes his prediction, and the cycle begins again.

The doomsday prophet trend is far from a modern phenomenon. Perhaps since humans have been able to conceive of the larger world and their place in it. Certainly there are many, many examples in history of doomsday prophets who have led their people to ruin and destruction in the name of misguided belief. This is not a topic explored much here on Oddly Historical, so I thought I might begin with a rather obscure false prophet from the 5th century CE. While not a doomsday prophet per se, he shared much in common with such modern day “holy” men: a messiah complex, a message that attracted a devoted following, actions that led to the destitution and/or demise of his followers, and a complete inability to take responsibility for his actions. His name was Moses of Crete, and in 448 CE he claimed he would lead the Jews of Crete to the Promised Land.

 

Moses, Reborn

Many devout today look to scripture to try and calculate when the end will come. There was a similar trend in the 5th century among the Jewish community, except rather than attempting to calculate the end of time, devoted Jews attempted to use the Talmud to calculate when their Messiah would come. The Jews had been scattered after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE after a Jewish revolt in Palestine. Many longed to rebuild what had been lost, and to have their Promised Land returned to them.

A man among the Cretan Diaspora claimed he could do just that. His origins have been lost to history, but he came out of obscurity to fulfill the Talmudic calculations of a Jewish messiah. He asserted that he was Moses. Not any Moses; the Moses, the Old Testament figure who led his people from the bonds of slavery to the Promised Land of Palestine.

Moses of Crete said he would do the same for the Jews of Crete. He traveled all over Crete, attracting followers all the while. He persuaded his followers to give up all of their property and follow him, promising that if they did so he would part the seas and lead them over dry land back to Jerusalem.

When the time came for the miraculous event, Moses led his faithful to a high cliff over the sea. What followed was a scene of horror: the foremost of the faithful threw themselves off the cliff into the seas below, smashing themselves on the rocks or drowning in the tumultuous seas. If it weren’t for fisherman nearby, more would have died. Those who survived returned to tell the remaining faithful of their prophet’s failure. When the enraged followers tried to find their former leader and punish him for his deception, they found he had slipped away without a trace. His disappearance, as sudden as his arrival, led many to believe that Moses of Crete had been a demon made flesh, bent on the destruction of the Cretan Jews. In reality, Moses was a con artist and a deceiver who, like his modern day counterparts, played on the vulnerabilities of his audience to bend them to his will. Diabolical he may have been, but his evil was very human.

 

Sources

Lendering, Jona. “Moses of Crete (448 CE).” Livius.org. January 30, 2016. http://www.livius.org/men-mh/messiah/messianic_claimants18.html

“Pseudo-Messiahs.” JewishEncyclopedia.com. 2002-2011. January 30, 2016. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/11425