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The Messiah’s Prophet

Lawrence Bush
December 9, 2017

Nathan Ghazzati, known as Nathan of Gaza (1643-1680), the leading prophet of Shabbatai Zvi, the self-proclaimed (and widely embraced) messiah of 17th-century Judaism, was excommunicated by the Rabbinical Council of Constantinople on this date in 1666, three months after his master converted to Islam rather than be executed by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV. Nathan of Gaza was a kabbalistic theologian and mystic of esteemed reputation who became the first Sabbatian follower and helped Zvi develop some of the ecstatic teachings of his movement. He also became Shabbatai Zvi’s publicist, visiting cities in Europe, Africa, India, and the Middle East, and writing letters and tracts promoting a Jewish theology infused with Lurianic mysticism, an overturning of the authority of Jewish law, and other heresies. It was largely through his efforts that Zvi was embraced as the true messiah by numerous rabbis and Jewish communities around the world. Nathan of Gaza insisted that Zvi’s conversion was part of his messianic plan, but most Jews found it deeply disillusioning.

“The Sabbatian movement was a movement for spiritual redemption and religious renewal, whose principal aim was to deliver religion from its petrification and its errors, and revive religion, faith and the true Godhead. Sabbatianism is thus one of many such trends that sought to remedy the crisis of faith which beset Jews in the late 17th century. . . . Nathan of Gaza’s most prominent contribution lay in shaping a fideist, heterodox prototype of ‘The Man of Faith,’ whose religious experience revolves around the sacramental belief in a flesh-­and-­blood messiah. . .” --Abraham Elqayam, “The Mystery of Faith in the Writings of Nathan of Gaza”

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.