The Jewish War, the Revolt under Bar Kokhba, the long consequences & Historical Importance (2)

The Jewish War, the Revolt under Bar Kokhba, the long consequences & Historical Importance (2)

 The Jewish War And The Revolt:

The revolt was religious. The rebels were convinced that this was the apocalyptic War predicted by prophets like Daniel and Zechariah. Their coins show a star on top and the Ark of the Covenant inside the Temple; the legend is written in archaic Hebrew letters. Some coins were struck with the legend ‘Eleazar, the priest,’ which strongly suggests that a new high priest was elected. Soon, the whole of Judea had been stirred up. The Jews everywhere were showing signs of disturbance. They gathered and gave evidence of great hostility to the Romans, partly by secret and partly by open acts. Many others, too, from other people, were joining them of eagerness for profit one might almost say that this war business was stirring up the whole world. Bar Kochba captured Palestine a little at a time. He would take over fortress after fortress, city after city. Pretty soon, Bar Kochba had overthrown all of Palestine for the Jews. The Jews were once again independent. 

 Now that things were going wrong, governor Tineius Rufus responded harshly. After receiving reinforcements, he moved out against the Jews, treating their madness without mercy. He destroyed thousands of men, women, and children in heaps and enslaved their land under the law of War. Simon Bar Kochba was so successful that Emperor Hadrian was obliged to dispatch his best generals to suppress the rebellion. Julius Severus, the governor of Britain, was one of them. Technically, his new command was a demotion because Britain was a very prestigious province; it indicated the severity of the situation. Other generals were Publicius Marcellus and Haterius Nepos, the governors of Syria and Arabia. Bar Kochba knew the Romans would send a large expeditionary force and prepared himself.

Along with aiding pagan armies, the Roman army launched their counterattack against Bar Kochba. Much like Bar Kochba’s army, the Roman army didn’t attack them with one big battle. The rebels did not dare try to risk open confrontation against the Romans but occupied the advantageous positions in the country and strengthened them with mines and walls so that they would have places of refuge when hard pressed and could communicate with one another unobserved underground. They pierced these subterranean passages from above at intervals to let in air and light. 

From the account of the Greek historian Cassius Dio (Roman History 69.12.1-14.3)[4], 580,000 Jews were killed, and 50 fortified towns and 985 villages were razed. Jerusalem also was razed, a short-lived attempt was made to prevent Jews from living in the area, and a new Roman city, Aelia Capitolina, was built in its place. Yet so costly was the Roman victory that Emperor Hadrian, when reporting to the Roman Senate, did not see it fit to begin with, the customary greeting “I and my army are well.” And is the only Roman general known to have refused to celebrate his victory with a triumphal entrance into his capital. We can then deduce that the ensuing war effort of the Jews was extensive, widely supported, and fanatical. But they seem to have failed to take Jerusalem; this seems the only possible explanation for the fact that the rebel coins have been found everywhere in Judea except for its capital.

On the other hand, there is some (non-conclusive) evidence that a new high priest was elected, which suggests that the Jews controlled the site of the Temple at least for some time. However, it may be sure that Simon Bar Kochba and his men were able to control the countryside. Legal documents signed by the ‘prince of Israel’ show that the imperial estates were confiscated and leased out to Jewish peasants. 

In December 133 or January 134, Julius Severus superseded Tineius Rufus as governor of the war zone. He commanded a large army. Three legions were deployed: VI Ferrata X -hastily strengthened with marines from Italy- and XXII Deiotariana. No less than seventeen auxiliary units were known to have fought in Palestine. Legion XXII was probably annihilated by the Jews since there were no indications of its existence after this War. New reinforcements were sent, the legion II Traiana Fortis. There were indications that units from other legions were involved in the struggle, possibly III Cyrenaica III and IIII Scythica. The Romans suffered from workforce shortage for the first time in more than a century; two senators started to conscript Italian boys. Hadrian’s generals were forced to form smaller units to intercept small groups of rebels. In this War, the highest ranking officers had to stand by doing nothing, while the under-officers had enormous responsibilities. Famine, disease, and fire proved better weapons than swords and lances. Severus did not venture to attack his opponents in the open at any one point. Given their numbers and their fanaticism, but by intercepting small groups, thanks to the number of his soldiers and under-officers, and by depriving them of food and shutting them up, he was able, rather slowly, to be sure, but with comparatively little danger, to crush, exhaust and exterminate them. Remarkably few Jews survived. Fifty of their most important outposts and 985 better-known villages were razed. Five hundred eighty thousand were killed in the various engagements or battles.

The Romans took back the Galil, Yehuda; eventually, the Roman army forced Bar Kochba into a small fortified city in Jerusalem called Betar. It was said that Betar was impenetrable. Every day during the Roman siege around Betar, a man named Rabbi Elazar Hamoda’i prayed to God that they should live another day. Rabbi Elazar prayed to God daily, “Do not sit in judgment today.” One day a Kussi snuck into the city. He pretended to whisper into Rabbi Elazar’s ear. When Bar Kochba heard of this, he questioned Rabbi Elazar. Bar Kochba asked Rabbi Elazar what was said to him by the Kussi on that day. When Rabbi Elazar replied that nothing was said to him, Bar Kochba kicked Rabbi Elazar, and immediately, he died.

The Romans resorted to terrible atrocities to win the War. Bodies were left unburied for several years. There are three reports that children were wrapped in Torah scrolls and burned alive. [5]. This may be exaggerated. Still, the Roman legionaries were capable of acts like these. Many Jews started to regret the rebellion. A new pun on Bar Kochba’s name became popular: some called him Simon bar Kozeba, the ‘son of the disappointment.’ 

Like all wars, it was a human catastrophe. The Christian author Hieronymus (second half fourth century) wrote that the ‘citizens of Judea came to such distress that they, together with their wives, children, gold and silver remained in underground tunnels and the deepest caves. [6] Archaeologists have been able to confirm this statement when they found human remains, cooking utensils, and letters in caves at Wadi Murabba’at and Nahal Hever. Slowly but surely, the Romans gained the upper hand. Simon Bar Kochba made his last stand at Betar, three hours southwest of Jerusalem. The defenders are recorded to have caught the missiles from the Roman catapults and hurled them back. The siege lasted a long time, until the winter of 135/136 (Simon Bar Kochba was still able to send letters on 6 November 135). The rebels never surrendered but died from famine and thirst. Among the dead bodies, the legionaries recognized that of Simon, the son of Kosiba. When they brought his head to Emperor Hadrian, he said: ‘If his God had not slain him, who could have overcome him?’ 

The Ninth of Av was a very gloomy day for the Jews; it was the day of the destruction of the first and second asenv,hc. The fall of Betar was said to be due to three main events. The first was that the siege of Betar left the Jews inside the city starving and exhausted. Second, a spy from Betar told the Romans a secret way to get into the city. The third was that perhaps Bar Kochba was not the actual protection of the Jews. Rabbi Elazar was. He was a righteous man and prayed for the welfare of the Jews and himself every single day. On the battlefield, about half a million Jews were found dead. The rest of the Jews were sold as slaves, hid in caves, or fled to other countries. Bar Kochba was found dead in the front. However, he was not found to be killed by a Roman; he was found strangled by a vast serpent. 

 Hadrian realized that the Jews would never see Rome as a mother country. He realized that the Jews would always see the Romans as Tyrants. Hadrian finished the construction of the city made for Jupiter called Aelia Capitolina, where Jerusalem once stood. The Jews exiled from Jerusalem were forbidden to go near the city. The Jews yearly on the Ninth of Av would bribe their way into the city. And mourn over the city that was once the center of their religion. Hadrian issued a bunch of prohibitions against Judaism. He forbade Circumcision, keeping the Sabbath, and the making and keeping a Jewish calendar. Though not making a calendar may not seem like such a harsh punishment, it is. Without a Jewish calendar, you cannot fix dates for the Jewish Holidays, which means you cannot keep them. He also prohibited studying and teaching. So, in short, Hadrian prohibited Judaism. Even though the revolt yielded disastrous results, the Jews had no other alternative. 

 Aftermath Of The War:

In the aftermath of the War, Hadrian consolidated the older political units of Judea, Galilee, and Samaria into the new province of Syria, Palestine. The new provincial designation, derived from the ancient sea-faring Philistine people who anciently occupied the coastal plain, had long been current as a geographical term but possessed little political connotation. It has since become a standard designation in European and Arabic languages. A common modern designation, “Land of Israel,” did not become widely popular among Jews until Talmudic times but is attested to much earlier, e.g., in the twentieth and twenty-first verses of the third chapter of the Gospel of Matthew in the Christian New Testament.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on Deuteronomy 8:10, states that the mandatory fourth blessing of the Birkat HaMazon was instituted after Bar Kochba’s revolt to remind the Jews not to try to take possession of the land of Israel without God’s involvement; presumably the Messiah. This background explains Rabbi Hirsch’s and other Orthodox leaders’ anti-Zionist stance (and that of some Orthodox groups today). 

 Long-Term Consequences And Historic Importance:

Constantine, allowed Jews to mourn their defeat and humiliation on Tisha B’Av at the Western Wall once a year. Jews remained scattered for nearly two millennia; their numbers in the region fluctuated with time. Modern historians have seen Bar-Kochba’s Revolt as being of decisive historical importance. The massive destruction and loss of lives occasioned by the revolt have led some scholars to date the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora from this date. They note that, unlike the aftermath of the First Jewish-Roman War chronicled by Josephus, the majority of the Jewish population of Judea were killed, exiled, or sold into slavery after the Bar-Kochba Revolt, and Jewish religious and political authority was suppressed far more brutally. After the revolt, the Jewish religious center shifted to the Babylonian Jewish community and its scholars. Judea would not be a center of Jewish religious, cultural, or political life again until the modern era. However, Jews continued to live there, and important religious developments still occurred there. The Jerusalem Talmud was compiled in the 2nd–4th centuries in Galilee. Eventually, Safed became known as a center of Jewish learning, especially Kabbalah, in the 15th century.

Historian Shmuel Katz writes that even after the disaster of the revolt:

Jewish life remained active and productive. Banished from Jerusalem, it now centered on Galilee. Refugees returned; Jews who had been sold into slavery were redeemed. In the centuries after Bar Kochba and Hadrian, some of the most significant creations of the Jewish spirit were produced in Palestine. Then, the Mishnah was completed, the Jerusalem Talmud was compiled, and the bulk of the community farmed the land.

He lists the communities left in Palestine: “43 Jewish communities in Palestine in the sixth century: 12 on the coast, in the Negev, and east of the Jordan, and 31 villages in Galilee and the Jordan valley. (6)

The disastrous end of the revolt also occasioned significant changes in Jewish religious thought. Messianism was abstracted and spiritualized, and rabbinical political thought became deeply cautious and conservative. The Talmud, for instance, refers to Bar-Kochba as “Ben-Kusiba,” a derogatory term used to indicate that he was a false Messiah. The deeply ambivalent rabbinical position regarding Messianism, as expressed most famously in Rambam’s (also known as Maimonides) “Epistle to Yemen,” would seem to have its origins in the attempt to deal with the trauma of a failed Messianic uprising.

However, the Bar-Kochba Revolt symbolized valiant national resistance in the post-rabbinical era. The Zionist youth movement Betar took its name from Bar-Kochba’s traditional last stronghold, and David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, took his Hebrew last name from one of Bar-Kochba’s generals. Over the past few decades, much new information about the revolt has come to light, mainly to the discovery of several collections of letters, some possibly by Bar Kochba himself, in the caves overlooking the Dead Sea. [7] These letters can now be seen at the Israel Museum. [8]


  • [4] Cassius Dio, Roman History 69.14.3 “Many Romans perished in the War. Therefore, Hadrian, in writing to the Senate, did not employ the opening phrase commonly affected by the emperors: ‘If you and your children are in health, it is well; I and the army are in health.'”
  • [5] Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 57a-58b; Lamentations Rabbah 2.2 §4; Seder Elijah Rabbah 151
  • [6] Commentary on Isaiah 2.15
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