The Bar Kochba Revolt

Messianic figure Simeon Bar Kochba led the Jews in a failed revolt against Roman rule.

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A Guerilla Struggle

The revolt did not begin until it had found its leader. From letters and documents unearthed in the Judean Desert we know the real name of the leader to have been Simeon bar Kosiba. The sobriquet Bar Kokhba, "Son of a Star," was given to him in accord with Num. 24:17 ("A star shall go forth from Jacob"), taken to refer to the messiah. The tannaim were divided, some supporting his rebellion, others not. Those who supported him saw him as a messianic figure.

The war began as a guerilla struggle against Rome in 132 C.E. Within a short time it had spread throughout the country, and the rebels took Jerusalem, which had not been heavily fortified by the Romans. It is possible that sacrifices were now reinsti­tuted and that work was begun on rebuilding the sanctuary. From the coins Bar Kokhba struck we know of his high priest, Eleazar, who must have taken the lead in efforts to reestablish sacrificial worship. Here we see a reflection of the ancient concept of two messiahs, a lay and a priestly figure, prominent in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and in certain Qumran scrolls.

We know from the documents that the country was organized into administrative districts, that taxes were collected, and that governmental operations were carried out by Bar Kokhba's supporters. Bar Kokhba observed Jewish law, and it may be stated that the documents confirm the close relationship be­tween this "messiah" and tannaitic Judaism. Parenthetically, the texts also show that Hebrew was very much a living lan­guage at this time, and that, along with Aramaic and Greek, it served a large segment of the population.

Little is known of the actual course of the revolt and of Rome's successful attempt to regain control. Hadrian sent one of his finest generals, and he suceeded in turning the tide by means of a series of sieges, starving out the rebels in their strongholds and places of refuge. Jerusalem was retaken and future Jewish settlement there was prohibited by Hadrian. The last fortress to fall was Betar, not far to the southwest of Jerusalem, which was captured by the Romans during the Summer of 136 C.E. By the end of the war many Jews had been massacred, the land had been devastated again, and distinguished rabbis had been mar­tyred. Indeed, the execution of these rabbis, together with the biblical story of the binding of Isaac, would serve as a paradigm for Jewish martyrdom (termed kiddush hashem, "sanctification of God's name") in the medieval and modern periods. Once again a Jewish attempt to defeat the Romans and to bring the messianic era had failed.

The Process of Rebuilding

As if history were repeating itself, recovery and reinstatement of Jewish self-governmen ensued once again. With the accession of the emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161 C.E.), virtually all of Hadrian's decrees were rescinded…The latter years of Roman rule, in the aftermath of the Bar Kochba Revolt and on the verge of the Christianization of the empire, were extremely fertile ones for the development of Judaism. It was in this period that tannaitic Judaism came to its final stages, and that the work of gathering its intellectual heritage, the Mishnah, into a redacted collection began. All the suffering and the fervent yearnings for redemption had culminated not in a messianic state, but in a collection of traditions which set forth the dreams and aspirations for the perfect holiness that state was to engender. As prayer had replaced sacrifice, Torah, in the form of the Mishnah, had now replaced messianism. A different kind of redemption was now at hand.

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Lawrence H. Schiffman

Lawrence H. Schiffman is the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University.