The Bar Kochba Revolt

 The Jewish messianic idea of the Second Temple period was held together by
the inextricable tie between the religious and national elements of Jewish
identity. Jewish resistance to Roman rule, from the time of Herod, had been
fed by ideologies that understood the political and the religious as two
fundamentally intertwined strands. It was that gordian knot of Jewish
identity that Rome had to hack apart if Jewish resistance was to be
completely squashed. With the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, contrary
to Roman expectations, Jewish resistance continued to burn like brush fires
fed by desert winds. Both in Israel and in the Diaspora, Jews clashed with
their non-Jewish neighbors, and with the peace-keeping legions of the Roman

The reasons behind the outbreak of the Bar Kochba Revolt are difficult to
pinpoint. The Bar Kochba Revolt represented the last in a line of Jewish
revolts against Roman rule.  The sources, both Roman and Jewish, provide no
complete, integrated picture. Unlike the Great Revolt, even with all of his
defects, there was no Josephus to record the Bar Kochba Revolt.

With the death of Trajan in 117 CE, Hadrian ascended the throne.  Rejecting
the further expansion of the Roman Empire, Hadrian's policies emphasized
the strengthening of the current empire, and a policy of tolerance towards
the native peoples under Roman rule. Having realized that Roman military
might alone would not ensure the unity and stability of the Empire, Hadrian
sought to both fortify the Hellenistic-Roman cultural underpinnings of the
Empire, as well as to allow local cultural expression. As a central part of
his policies, he voluntarily relinquished all Parthian territories
conquered by Trajan. More importantly, he set out to reconstruct the cities
of the Roman provinces, including local temples and shrines. On the one
hand, the rebuilding of native holy  sites throughout the Empire granted
imperial respect to local cultural-religious autonomy. On the other hand,
the reconstruction projects emphasized Hellenistic-Roman cultural models.

Although Rabbinic sources portray Hadrian as a murderous, wicked tyrant,
his early policy decisions regarding the Jews and Judaism reflect a
liberal, conciliatory approach.  Lucius Quietus, Procurator of Judaea, was
removed. Quietus was responsible for the brutal Roman suppression of the
Revolt between 114-117 CE. No doubt that Hadrian removed Quietus for his
own political ends, however, among the Jews, Quietus' exit from Judaea was
welcomed. In Alexandria, the Revolt of 114-117 CE had left the once
prominent community in shambles. As part of restoring public order, Hadrian
cracked down on anti-Jewish violence in Alexandria. Laws were promulgated,
and heavy punishments exacted on those seeking to take revenge against the
remainders of Alexandrian Jewry.

Jerusalem itself became a special project for Hadrian. Before the
destruction in 70 CE, Jerusalem stood as one of the most glorious cities of
the East.  Almost fifty years later, the former grandeur was but a memory.
Bereft of any sizable population, Jerusalem was a ruin. Hadrian set out to
rebuild the city, as a Roman colony.  Settlement and immigration were to be
encouraged. Rumors began to spread that Hadrian would rebuild the Temple.
Was Hadrian a new Cyrus?

The rebuilt Jerusalem was  to be called Aelia Capitolina. Aelia was the
family name of Hadrian. Capitolina referred to the three Capitoline
dieties: Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. Jerusalem was to be rebuilt as a
Hellenistic-Roman city.  Even within the context of a thoroughly Roman
city, it is possible that Hadrian planned to allow the reconstruction Beit
HaMikdash (the Jewish Temple).  However, as was custom throughout the Roman
world, all local shrines contained symbols of their allegiance to the Roman
state, and performed sacrifices in honor of the Emperor. Whether or not
Hadrian planned to rebuild the Jewish Temple, or to build a shrine to
Jupiter on Mount Moriah is unclear. Once again, the lack of sources from
the period hamper our efforts at reconstructing the events. However, in any
case, neither scenario would have been acceptable to the Jews. If we recall
the outbreak of the Great Revolt (66 CE), any Roman attempt to alter the
Temple site or the Temple service, especially any attempt to link Jewish
worship with the Roman cult of state worship would be seen by the Jews as
grounds for political action against Rome.

Hadrian took one more fateful decision that paved the path to revolt in
Judaea. In 131 CE, he outlawed circumcision.  In retrospect, as far back as
the Macabees, Hellenistic culture saw circumcision as barbarous,
self-mutilation. Of course, for the Jewish people, circumcision (brit
milah) represented the eternal covenant between God and Israel, from
Abraham throughout the generations. Although sterilization, castration, and
circumcision, was made illegal by Rome under the Emperor Domitian (81-96),
there was an understanding by the Roman authorities that the Jewish
religious practice of circumcision was exempt from the ban. Hadrian, as
part of his desire to civilize and unite the Roman Empire under the wings
of Hellenistic culture, removed the special legal status granted to the
brit milah.

The figure of Bar Kochba is as equally enigmatic as the reasons behind the
outbreak of the revolt itself. Even his name is unclear, and it's different
versions point to the fierce debate within the Jewish world over the wisdom
of challenging the power of Rome. From the documents uncovered by Yigal
Yadin at Nahal Hever, it seems that his birth name was Shimon Bar Kosiba.
His followers proclaimed him - Bar Kochba. The name is a reference to the
verse in Numbers 24:17 -

"there shall come a star (kochav) out of Jacob, and a scepter out of
Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the
foundations thereof. And Edom shall be his possession, Seir also, his
enemies shall be his possession; and Israel will do valiantly.

Clearly, he was a charismatic leader; a figure who impressed even those
Jewish leaders who questioned the wisdom of revolt.  One rabbinic source
describes that Bar Kochba would catch catapult stones on his knee and hurl
them back at the Romans (Midrash Rabba Eicha).  Another source, the
Christian Jerome (Fourth-Fifth Century CE) describes that Bar Kochba would
keep lighted blades of straw in is mouth to create the impression that he
was breathing fire.  Even with taking the obvious hyperbole into account,
it seems that Bar Kochba was a forceful, rousing leader.  If Bar Kochba was
the military commander of the Revolt, many of the Sages, including Rabbi
Akiva provided the religious-ideological support for the Revolt. "When
Akiva beheld Bar Koziba he exclaimed, "This is the King Messiah." (Midrash
Rabba Eicha)  Akiva's support for Bar Kochba was not shared by all the
sages. We do not know to what extent they encouraged or discouraged the
Revolt. There were those who questioned the wisdom of presenting Bar Kochba
in messianic terms. "Rabbi Yohanan Ben Torta replied, 'Akiva, grass will be
growing out of your cheeks and still the messiah will not have come."
(Midrash Rabba Eicha)  For the advocates  of Bar Kochba,  presenting him in
messianic terms was a strategy to bolster morale,  and to enlist the Jewish
masses. In the estimation of Bar Kochba's detractors, the employment of
messianic motifs created a wave of rising expectations, that in the case
that the Revolt would fail, would drag the Jewish people down into deeper

The Bar Kochba Revolt began in 132 CE shortly after Hadrian finished an
Imperial tour of Syria and Judaea. The element of surprise gave the Jewish
rebels the upper hand in the early phases of the revolt.  Weapons were
illicitly  produced. Throughout the Judaean hill country, at sites like
Beit Guvrin and Amatziah, burrows and caves were excavated by rebel forces.
Long, narrow, winding passages with hidden entrances were used as shelters
and bunkers. Attacks on Roman positions and convoys were carried out at
night. Realizing the objective, superior power of Rome, the rebels relied
on their superior knowledge of the natural terrain, on the element of
surprise, and on their messianic motivated faith.

Contemporary scholars debate whether or not Bar Kochba was able to
recapture Jerusalem itself. It is clear that Bar Kochba, early on in the
Revolt, acted more like a head of state than a rebel commander. Among the
documents discovered in the Judaean Desert's Nahal Hever were documents
signed by Shimon Bar Kosiba. Attached to the signature is the title - Nasi
Yisrael - King (or Prince) of Israel.  The documents contain military
orders, but also reveal that Bar Kochba began the establishment of a civil
administration. He appointed officials to oversee local government. Coins,
a stamp of sovereignty, were minted.  Usually, Roman coins were re-minted.
The images and markings  were scraped clean, and symbols of the new Jewish
government replaced them.  The Bar Kochba coins bear the slogan - "For the
Redemption of Israel." The dates of the coins correspond to the years of
the Revolt -  from "Year One for the Redemption of Israel."

The success of Jewish rebels only added to their popularity, and served to
boost Jewish morale. Hadrian sought to extinguish the flames of revolt
before they spread beyond the borders of Judaea, before the Parthians were
able to take advantage of the unstable security situation close to the
Roman-Parthian hinterlands. At the beginning of Revolt, two legions were
stationed in Judaea.  In an enormous effort to silence Judaea, eight
additional legions were sent from the far corners of the Empire - from
Gaul, Arabia, Macedonia, Egypt, and the Danube. One entire legion, the
Twenty Second was obliterated by Bar Kochba's fighters. When Hadrian wrote
to the Senate to inform them of the state of affairs, he chose not to
employ the traditional prologue - "If you and your children are in health,
it is well; I and the legions are in health."

Julius Severus was brought from Britain by Hadrian to command Roman troops
in Judaea. A scorched earth policy was employed. Each stronghold and
fighter's den was captured and wiped out. The population of Judaea was
decimated. Hundreds of villages were razed. Dio Cassius speaks of over half
a million dead. At the slave markets of Hebron, Jewish life had become so
cheap that one could buy a Jewish slave for the same price as a daily
ration of animal feed. (Roman History LXIX 12-14) At the fortress of
Bethar, according to Jewish tradition on the Ninth of the month of Av, the
same day as the tradition marks the fall of both the First and Second
Temples, Bar Kochba was defeated.

With the aftermath of the Revolt, Hadrian initiated a policy designed to
totally remove even the slightest chance of renewed Jewish revolt.
Prohibitions against Judaism were bolstered. Celebration of festivals,
study, and the ordination of rabbis were outlawed. Ten of the outstanding
rabbinic figures of the age, including Rabbi Akiva himself, were tortured
to death in the games arena at Caesaria. Hadrian understood that
ultimately, the iron bonds between the people of Israel and the Land of
Israel, between the Jewish people and Jerusalem were the sacred roots from
which sprouted the buds of revolt. In an attempt to break the bond, it
became illegal to use the name Judaea. The province was renamed
Palestine-Syria. It became illegal to use the name Jerusalem. At Aelia
Capitolina, Hadrian proceeded in the building of the Roman city that he had
planned before the Revolt. A Roman coin shows workmen and a team of oxen
plowing the new border of Aelia Capitolina. On the Temple Mount, from the
ruins of Beit HaMikdash, Hadrian dedicated a new Temple to Jupiter. Jewish
life in Judaea was destroyed.  In Jerusalem itself, there was no Jewish
community from the end of the revolt until the Muslim conquest in the
middle of the 7th century. For over 500 years, Jews were banned from
Jerusalem. New centers in the Galilee grew to replace the old. Regardless
of the admirable intentions of Bar Kochba's troops, the damaging
repercussions of the revolt's stunning defeat continued to echo throughout
Jewish history over the last 1900 years.