The notion that the Antichrist, when he appears, would seek to convince the Jews that he is their long-awaited Messiah is unquestionably the earliest view of the church.
It should first be noted that we should never look to the church fathers alone as a way to determine the truth of Scripture. The early church fathers were fallible like all of us, and sometimes got certain points of doctrine wrong. Any doctrine must be determined solely through the study of the Scriptures. (I will spend considerable effort trying to do just that in the next chapter.)
That being said, finding agreement from the earliest writers of the Christian church can help bolster one’s case and offer assurance that it isn’t a new doctrine. Agreement among the church fathers can be especially noteworthy if the view was held by the majority of writers, particularly those who lived during the first few centuries after the apostles.
Of particular note among the church fathers who believed that the Antichrist would present himself as the Jewish Messiah are Irenaeus and Hippolytus. These are the two earliest church fathers to write extensively about the Antichrist. This is given extra weight when considering that both of these men can trace their teachings directly back to the apostle John through Polycarp, who was a disciple of John, who, in turn, discipled Irenaeus, who taught Hippolytus.
Some of the other church fathers I would include here are Tertullian, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Damascene, Rufinus of Aquileia, Sulpicius Severus and Victorinus of Pettau. I suspect there would be many more names to add to this list if we knew what more of them thought about the Antichrist. But, unfortunately, very few church fathers wrote extensively about their views on this point.
I will start with a few quotes from the writings of Hippolytus, not simply because he was one of the first to mention the Antichrist in his writings, but also because he wrote more about eschatology than any of the others:
Christ arose from among the Hebrews, and he [the Antichrist] will spring from among the Jews.1
For in every respect that deceiver seeks to make himself appear like the Son of God.… The Saviour was circumcised, and he [the Antichrist] in like manner will appear in circumcision [He will be Jewish].2
But seeing now that we must make proof of what is alleged at greater length, we shall not shrink from the task. For it is certain that he is destined to spring from the tribe of Dan.3
Hippolytus states not just that the Antichrist will “spring from among the Jews,” but also that he believed Antichrist would specifically come from the tribe of Dan. Although Hippolytus may have had “pet theories” about the Antichrist—like this theory that he will be from the tribe of Dan, which may or may not be accurate—he did not base his belief about the Jewishness of the Antichrist on his “pet theories.” Instead, he used them only to support and bolster the case of his main thesis, which he and other church fathers derived from more common places like Daniel 11, John 5:43, 2 Thessalonians 2, and others.
Hippolytus is not the only church father who directly stated that he believed the Antichrist would be ethnically Jewish. There are a number of others:
Antichrist will be possessed by Satan and be the illegitimate son of a Jewish woman.—John Chrysostom
Even the Antichrist will enter Jerusalem, where he will enthrone himself in the temple as a god (even though he will be an ordinary man of the tribe of Dan to which Judas Iscariot also belonged).—Methodius of Olympus
The following quotes also demonstrate the prevalent view of the church fathers that the Antichrist will seek to convince the Jews that he is their Messiah:
The Jews accordingly did not receive the Lord Jesus Christ who was the Son of God and God, but receive the impostor who calls himself God. For that he will assume the name of God, the angel teaches Daniel, saying these words, Neither shall he regard the God of his fathers.
Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God or that is worshipped, so that he sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God; in the temple of God he said; not our temple, but the old Jewish temple. For he will come not to us but to the Jews: not for Christ or the things of Christ: wherefore he is called Antichrist.
But in a peculiar and special sense he who comes at the consummation of the age is called Antichrist…he will come to refute the impious Jews. For the Lord said to them: I am come in My Father’s name and ye receive Me not: if another shall come in his own name him ye will receive.—John Damascene
The Lord also spoke as follows to those who did not believe in Him: “I have come in my Father’s name, and ye have not received Me: when another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive,” calling Antichrist “the other,” because he is alienated from the Lord. This is also the unjust judge, whom the Lord mentioned as one “who feared not God, neither regarded man,” to whom the widow fled in her forgetfulness of God,—that is, the earthly Jerusalem,—to be avenged of her adversary. Which also he shall do in the time of his kingdom: he shall remove his kingdom into that [city], and shall sit in the temple of God, leading astray those who worship him, as if he were Christ.—Irenaeus of Lyons
Antichrist, the son of perdition will be born in Corozain, will be brought up in Bethsaida and shall begin to reign in Capharnaum, according to what Our Lord Jesus said in the Gospel: “Woe to thee Corozain…woe to thee Bethsaida…and thou Capharnaum that art exalted up to heaven, thou shalt be thrust down to hell.” (Luke, 10:13) Antichrist shall work a thousand prodigies on earth. He will make the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead rise, so that even the Elect, if possible, shall be deceived by his magical arts. Puffed up with pride, Antichrist shall enter in triumph the city of Jerusalem and will sit on a throne in the Temple to be adored as if he were the Son of God. His heart being intoxicated with arrogance, he will forget his being a mere man, and the son of a woman of the tribe of Dan.—Zenobius of Florence
It should be mentioned that there was a minority view among the church fathers that the Antichrist would be Nero, the Roman Emperor, who by that time had already been killed. But those who believed he would be the Antichrist argued that he would rise from the dead at some point. Interestingly, even those church fathers who believed the resurrected Nero would be the Antichrist also believed he would still have to convince the Jews that he was their Messiah.
The relatively few men who argued this point came up with imaginative ideas of how this scenario could come about. What I would like to draw your attention to is the fact that they went to the trouble to argue such an improbable scenario about how Nero could convince Jews that he was the Messiah, and how that shows they took for granted that the Antichrist had to be a Messiah to the Jews:
Now that one of the heads was, as it were, slain to death, and that the stroke of his death was directed, he speaks of Nero. For it is plain that when the cavalry sent by the senate was pursuing him, he himself cut his throat. Him therefore, when raised up, God will send as a worthy king, but worthy in such a way as the Jews merited. And since he is to have another name, He shall also appoint another name, that so the Jews may receive him as if he were the Christ. Says Daniel: “He shall not know the lust of women, although before he was most impure, and he shall know no God of his fathers: for he will not be able to seduce the people of the circumcision, unless he is a judge of the law.” Finally, also, he will recall the saints, not to the worship of idols, but to undertake circumcision, and, if he is able, to seduce any; for he shall so conduct himself as to be called Christ by them.—Victorinus of Pettau
To restate the importance of this point: The fact that these church fathers who argued that Nero would be the Antichrist felt compelled to concoct a scenario in which a resurrected Nero takes on a Jewish name and becomes a “judge of the law” shows how entrenched or non-negotiable the idea that the Antichrist must at least claim to be Jewish was in the early church. There is no other reason to argue for such an unlikely series of events.
Other early church fathers like Tertullian and Lactantius4 believed that the Antichrist would be Jewish, yet still wanted to incorporate the view that Nero would play a role in some way. Tertullian envisioned the scenario this way:
The Goths will conquer Rome and redeem the Christians; but then Nero will appear as the heathen Antichrist, reconquer Rome, and rage against the Christians three years and a half. He will be conquered in turn by the Jewish and real Antichrist from the East, who, after the defeat of Nero and the burning of Rome, will return to Judea, perform false miracles, and be worshipped by the Jews.
I suggest that of the relatively few church fathers who wanted to expand on what I might call the “pop” view of the day—that Nero would be involved in the last days—many still did not let that take away from their opinion that the Antichrist would be a false Jewish messiah. Instead, they came up with various ways to make both lines of thinking work together.
I think it can safely be said that the early church believed the Antichrist would be Jewish, or at least that he would need to pretend to be Jewish in order to convince the Jews that he was their Messiah.
Why did the early church fathers believe so strongly that the Antichrist would be a false messiah to the Jews? We will now look at the Scriptures they quoted in support of their beliefs about this. Since I will spend a lot of time in later chapters discussing these verses (and a number of others), I will refrain from commenting on them here, and I will simply list some of the passages the early church fathers have cited as support for their belief. To restate my goal, please note that some of these passages make a stronger case than others. Also, the church fathers have left out other verses that I think apply. I am simply constructing a list of the verses the church fathers used, and at this point, I am doing so without judgment as to their validity:
I have come in My Father’s name, and you do not receive Me; if another comes in his own name, him you will receive. (John 5:43)
Neither shall he regard the God of his fathers. (Daniel 11:37)
Wilt thou yet say before him that slayeth thee, I am God? but thou shalt be a man, and no God, in the hand of him that slayeth thee. Thou shalt die the deaths of the uncircumcised by the hand of strangers: for I have spoken it, saith the Lord God. (Ezekiel 28:9–10)
And he shall plant the tabernacles of his palace between the seas in the glorious holy mountain; yet he shall come to his end, and none shall help him. (Daniel 11:45)
Thou shalt not be joined with them in burial, because thou hast destroyed thy land, and slain thy people: the seed of evildoers shall never be renowned. Prepare slaughter for his children for the iniquity of their fathers; that they do not rise, nor possess the land, nor fill the face of the world with cities. (Isaiah 14:20–21)
…Who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God. (2 Thessalonians 2:4)
Therefore when you see the “Abomination of Desolation,” spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (whoever reads, let him understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. (Matthew 24:15–16)
Then he shall confirm a covenant with many for one week. (Daniel 9:27a)
Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades. (Luke 10:13–15)
Dan shall be a serpent by the way, A viper by the path, That bites the horse’s heels So that its rider shall fall backward. (Genesis 49:17; see also Jeremiah 8:16)
In the next chapter, I will add quite a few more verses to this list and begin to lay out the case that at least some argue strongly that the Antichrist will present himself as the Jewish Messiah..