2022-09-11

The Simon Bar Kochba Rebellion

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by Neil Godfrey

The types of the Bar Kokhba tetradrachms are eloquent: the Temple facade with the slogan “Jerusalem” is meant to replace the portrait and name of the Emperor (fig. 1, 1-2). On the reverse the palm branch and citrus fruit used during the Feast of the Tabernacles together with date and era are meant to replace the Roman pagan deity and accompanying Latin or Greek inscription. (Mildenberg, 325)

(Continuing the series outlining key points of Thomas Witulski’s case for a contemporary interpretation of the Book of Revelation: the two witnesses being Bar Kochba and Eleazar.)

Back to Josephus. Year 70 CE. The siege of Jerusalem.

Josephus writes that he had pleaded with his countrymen to give themselves up to the Romans and save their Temple. The zealots, led by John, despised his words. But many, including those of the upper classes, did choose to side with the Romans.

(111) As Josephus spoke thus, with groans and tears, his voice broke down with sobs. (112) Even the Romans were moved by his distress and admired his determination; but John’s men were the more incensed with the Romans and eager to get hold of Josephus. (113) However, many citizens of the upper class were moved by this address. Some of them were too frightened of the partisan guards to move, though they had given up themselves and the city for lost; but there were others who, watching their opportunity to escape, sought asylum with the Romans. (114) Among them were the high priests Joseph and Jesus and several sons of high priests, namely three sons of Ishmael who was beheaded in Cyrene, four of Mat­thias and one of another Matthias. This man had run away after the death of his father who had been murdered with three sons by Simon son of Giora, as explained above. Many other citizens of good family went over with the high priests. (115) Caesar received them with all possible kindness and, realizing that foreign customs would make life distasteful for them, he sent them to Gophna and ordered them to remain there for the time being; he even promised to return every man’s possessions as soon as he could after the war. (116) So they retired willingly and with complete confidence to the little town that was allotted to them . . .  (Jewish War, VI – Cornfeld edition)

If the above account can be trusted, it appears that many religious leaders and landowners sided with the Romans and retained or had their status and possessions returned to them at the end of the war.

. . . it does not seem unlikely that many of these “new settlers”, so useful and acceptable to the Romans, remained rooted in their new locations, becoming masters of properties whose original owners had either been slain, or taken prisoner, or had fled the country. (Alon, 63)

Others were not so fortunate:

Naturally, there were Jews whose land was confiscated outright by the Roman government itself. This was the treatment meted out to anyone suspected of anti-Roman activity. The process continued even after the fighting was over. After Vespasian had taken Beth Aris and Kfar Taba in “Idumaea”, having killed ten thousand in the process and captured one thousand Jews whom he sold as slaves, “he expelled the remainder and stationed in the district a large division of his own troops, who overran and devastated the whole of the hill country.” (Alon, 62)

and

The war thus brought in its train major changes in the distribution of land ownership through: 1) the loss of ownership-title by those who remained on the land, and who could thus be thrown off their property at a moment’s notice; 2) total confiscation from resisters and political undesirables; 3) government lease or grant to non-Jews . . . ; but occasionally as out-right grantees), who would then clear the Jewish inhabitants right off the land; and 4) simple transfer of title from Jewish to non-Jewish owners. (Alon, 63)

In a later rabbinic account we read a memory of those days:

One of the wealthiest men of Jerusalem before its destruction, Nakdimon b. Gorjon, most probably perished during the siege of the capital. After the catastrophe his daughter is found by R. Johanan b. Zakkai and his disciples starving and picking grains of barley from horses’ dung, and, when questioned by the rabbi, explained that the money of her father and her father-in-law was all gone. Such cases of utter impoverishment may have been numerous, while such as continued on their property may also have been many. (Büchler, 30)

But many Judeans were not opposed to Rome and only wanted peace. We have accounts of some of them attempting to undo the marks of circumcision — as well as some being re-circumcised when the rebellion broke out. A Sibylline oracle from Egypt’s Judeans praised Hadrian in quasi-Messianic language. Even rabbinic literature documents memories of Hadrian in positive terms. After 70 CE many Judeans did re-establish a religious life that can be interpreted as the formal beginning of rabbinical Judaism. See articles on Johanan ben Zakkai and related links. (Each of these points could be extended to a post of its own but I am trying to just skim along the highlights of W’s discussion.)

Still, Hadrian’s program ran into a diametrically opposing religious outlook of many other Judeans: Ezekiel 37 promised Israel would be freed from the gentile nations and submit only to God; God would be the one to protect and save them, not Hadrian.

For Thomas Witulski (Apk 11 und der Bar Kokhba-Aufstand : eine zeitgeschichtliche Interpretation) it is important to see the visit (adventus) of Hadrian in the above context. The character of such a visit could quite conceivably have provoked an uprising of nationalist-religious Jews who were disadvantaged as a result of the impoverishing situation following the war with Vespasian and Titus. One can imagine the bitterness of these Judeans not only against the Romans but particularly against their compatriots who profited from Roman rule.

The Bar Kochba Rebellion

The coins and letters of Bar Kochba make it clear that Bar Kochba’s aim was the liberation of Judea from Rome. Coins were dated accordingly:

  • year One of the Redemption of Israel
  • year Two of the Freedom of Israel
  • and undated as “For the Freedom of Jerusalem” (Mildenberg, 329)

Tenant farmers who had once paid dues to Roman or Roman-supporting landowners continued to pay the same dues to Bar Kochba when he took control of their territory. So the program was not land reform but transferring ownership from Rome to Judea. The coins minted by Bar Kochba depicted the Temple, the temple utensils and symbols of Yahweh’s covenant with Judea.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bar_Kokhba_Revolt_coinage

Historian Lucette Huteau-Dubois in a 78 page article that is available online seeks the causes of the Bar Kochba war in long-standing and mounting pressures on the Jewish people since the defeat of 70 CE.

That there are confusions of persons and dates, errors of detail and imprecision, is not in doubt. But all these scattered allusions seem to me to be based on a basic fact: a revolt in Judea; a limited revolt, certainly, negligible in comparison with the enormous massacres of Cyprus and Cyrene, a revolt quickly put down by the ruthless Quietus. It seems difficult to accept that, while the Jewish world was in turmoil everywhere, Palestine alone did not move. And it is in this climate of hatred and repression that Hadrian’s reign begins, marked, without doubt possible this time, by the last great revolt in Judea, that of Simon bar Kokhba. (p. 168, translation)

And the Jewish people were bitterly divided:

But in fact these feelings of hatred for the Romans and messianic hope were not unanimous. The attitude of the Jews towards their conquerors, and hence the relations between occupiers and the occupied must be nuanced according to the sects to which to which they belonged. (156, trans)

Similarly, Shimon Applebaum (whose book is still on its way to me, so unable to dig deeper into the context of W’s references),

S. Applebaum interprets the Bar Kokhba uprising as a decisive and final rebellion that ultimately resolved ״a prolonged period of unrest which increasingly assumed the character of guerrilla warfare”; in this context, Applebaum refers in particular to Talmudic evidence for the activity of brigands and references that indicate activities of the Roman military in Judea in the period between 70 and 132 AD. (Witulski, 269, citing Prolegomena to the Study of the Second Jewish Revolt.)

Theological interests of the rebels

Unlike the Judeans who sought to co-exist with Rome, the rebels had a strong interest in restoring the Temple cult which they advertized on their coins.

The name of Simon Bar Kochba dominated the issues of the coins but there was one other name that also appeared, though less often: Eleazar the Priest.

Dated year 1 (132/3 CE). Obv.: ‘Year 1 of the redemption of Israel’, grapes. Rev.: ‘Eleazar the Priest’, palm tree. (Tom Vossen)
Eleazar is only attested on coins of the first year of the revolt: in the following years, this person could only be attested on so-called ״hybrid coins”, i.e. coins whose sides were struck by dies that did not belong together and therefore documented different minting periods… In addition, there are also coins on which the side bearing his name has been defaced, especially from the latter: ״From these coins it emerges that this Eleazar lost favour with Bar Kokhba, and therefore his name was omitted on the coins after the first year”. Different here P. Schäfer, Aufstand, 100 with reference to L. Mildenberg. Y Meshorer and B Kanael: “…The coin legend ‘Eleazar the priest’ is found …. as well as the image of the temple, on coins of all three years, and relatively rarely in the 2nd, but strikingly again in the 3rd year”. (Witulski, 275)

. . . [Eleazar] occupied a position of primacy within the priestly circle apparently surrounding the political and military leader Bar Kokhba and enjoyed considerable importance as the theological spiritus rector – at least in the first phase of the uprising. On the other hand, there is no evidence for the assumption repeatedly put forward in research that Bar Kokhba and the priest Eleazar together with Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph formed a leadership troika. (W, 274f)

and

According to historical logic, since Bar Kokhba’s every intention was to conquer Jerusalem and build a new Temple, he was obliged to appoint a priest who would stand by his side at the time of action. (Meshorer, 142)

Who was he?

This brings us to the second imprint of the issuing authority on the Bar Kokhba coins: the name “Eleazar Ha-Kohen.” Who was he?

Some say Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah; others suggest Rabbi Eleazar ben Harson, while still others point to Rabbi Eleazar Ha-Moda’i. Of the first it can be said with some certainty that he died before the war broke out, as I have demonstrated elsewhere. As for Rabbi Eleazar ben Harson, he is a rather shadowy figure of legend, to whom the Aggadah attributes 11 years in the High Priesthood before the Destruction!

That leaves us with Rabbi Eleazar Ha-Moda’i. There is no real evidence that he was a kohen, but no proof that he was not. And since tradition places him in Beitar at the time of the siege, and couples his name with the fateful final days of the war, we may surmise that he is the Eleazar of the coins — always remembering that this is no more than an informed guess.

Whatever the identity of that priestly figure, one thing is certain: he represents to the people a higher authority. One thinks back to the pre-Hasmonean period, after the end of Persian rule, and remembers that for several centuries the High Priest functioned as the sole supreme ruler of the nation. Even afterwards, the Hasmonean ethnarchs (nesi’im) always stressed their own role as High Priests. The coins of John the Hasmonean (Yohanan Kohen Gadol) bear no other title. Still later, when their descendants became kings, Jannaeus, or Yannai, and Mattathias Antigonus imprinted on the Hebrew text of their coins the title Kohen Gadol (High Priest). [But see Witulski’s comments summarized below.]

So it is almost a certainty that the inscription “Eleazar Ha-Kohen” on Bar Kokhba coins is a means of legitimization of the new Jewish authority, which the people would expect to consist of two supreme echelons: the civil and the priestly. This is not, however, to be taken as proof that the Temple (or even a temporary altar) had been rebuilt, and the sacrificial cult restored. There is no shred of evidence for such a conclusion. However, it is quite possible that steps were taken to reorganize the upper priesthood in readiness for the devoutly anticipated restoration. (Alon, 623f)

But that second last paragraph by Alon can be misleading. Eleazar was never identified as a “high priest” but only as a priest. (Only a restored temple would justify such a title.) For W, this confirms the view that Simon Bar Kochba was the leader and that he rejected the idea of a true diarchy, of nominally equal political and religious authorities. The Church father Justin seems to support this understanding given that he claims no other than Bar Kochba as the leader of the war against Rome.

Another detail related to Justin’s record is what he does not say: he does not claim Bar Kochba claimed to be a messiah. If he did have messianic ideas, it is very odd that Justin failed to mention them when he wrote of his persecution of the Christians. There is no contemporary record that Bar Kochba ever made messianic claims. Hasmonean times had been a time of a king and high priest yet Bar Kochba did not even claim to be a king. He presented himself only as a Prince. One might conclude that he was deliberately avoiding a return to a Hasmonean-like era. He may have taken his cue from Ezekiel 46 since there we read of a prince — neither a messiah nor a descendant of David — being the leader of the people of Israel under God. All the contemporary evidence indicates that Simon Bar Kochba saw himself as nothing more than a human leader without messianic or Davidic pretensions. If you are wondering about the star that you recall seeing on his coins, note the following:

In the past, much emphasis was put on the alleged star seen above the temple on the coins (fig. 1, 3-9). But for nearly a century numismatists have stressed the fact that the star is actually just a rosette. Other pieces have a wavy line or a cross in the same place, which proves that there is no symbolic value in any of the three designs seen above the temple. (Mildenberg, 315)

Nor could Bar Kochba be bracketed with the messianic zeal we find in some of the Qumran texts. Bar Kochba extended his reach to non Judeans or pagans as allies in his war.

So though Bar Kochba in hindsight may have been considered to have been a messianic claimant, there is no evidence from his time to support that view. He comes across through his coins and letters as a pious and strong leader but nothing more.

The War

This brought on a war of no slight importance nor of brief duration, for the Jews deemed it intolerable that foreign races should be settled in their city and foreign religious rites planted there. So long, indeed, as Hadrian was close by in Egypt and again in Syria, they remained quiet, save in so far as they purposely made of poor quality such weapons as they were called upon to furnish, in order that the Romans might reject them and they themselves might thus have the use of them; but when he went farther away, they openly revolted. To be sure, they did not dare try conclusions with the Romans in the open field, but they occupied the advantageous positions in the country and strengthened them with mines and walls, in order that they might have places of refuge whenever they should be hard pressed, and might meet together unobserved under ground; and they pierced these subterranean passages from above at intervals to let in air and light.

At first the Romans took no account of them. Soon, however, all Judaea had been stirred up, and the Jews everywhere were showing signs of disturbance, were gathering together, and giving evidence of great hostility to the Romans, partly by secret and partly by overt acts; many outside nations, too, were joining them through eagerness for gain, and the whole earth, one might almost say, was being stirred up over the matter. Then, indeed, Hadrian sent against them his best generals. First of these was Julius Severus, who was dispatched from Britain, where he was governor, against the Jews. Severus did not venture to attack his opponents in the open at any one point, in view of their numbers and their desperation, but by intercepting small groups, thanks to the number of his soldiers and his 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. Very few of them in fact survived. Fifty of their most important outposts and nine hundred and eighty-five of their most famous villages were razed to the ground. Five hundred and eighty thousand men were slain in the various raids and battles, and the number of those that perished by famine, disease and fire was past finding out. Thus nearly the whole of Judaea was made desolate, a result of which the people had had forewarning before the war. For the tomb of Solomon, which the Jews regard as an object of veneration, fell to pieces of itself and collapsed, and many wolves and hyenas rushed howling into their cities. Many Romans, moreover, perished in this 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 legions are in health.”

. . . .

This, then, was the end of the war with the Jews. (Cassius Dio, 69:12-14)

The high losses reported by Cassius Dio are confirmed by other (literary and archaeological) sources:

  • a letter from M. Cornelius Fronto (tutor) to Marcus Aurelius refers to high losses in the war
  • forced recruitments are attested, especially in Italy, for 132-134 CE.
  • Hadrian had to transfer fleet soldiers from the Misenum fleet, giving them Roman citizenship and transferring them to the land force of the tenth legion in Palestine: “only conceivable in an extremely precarious situation, namely the Bar Kochba rebellion” (Eck, 31 quoted by W – translated). Other sources also indicate heavy recruitments at this time for this region.
  • the transfer of Severus from Britain to the less important province of Judea was another indication of the gravity of the situation
  • evidence of the rebellion extending into Arabia
  • Hadrian abandoned his usual restraint and had himself acclaimed as Imperator II — another sign of the magnitude of what had been overcome.

The indications of W. Eck as a whole lead to the conclusion that the Bar Kokhba rebellion was far more than just a local conflict, but rather affected and shook the imperium Romanum in its entirety and was regarded by the Roman side as a great danger for the stability of the eastern border and thus for the existence of the empire as a whole. In order to put down the rebellion, which at least parts of the population of the province of Arabia had joined, and to reclaim Bar Kokhba’s territory, the region of Judea, the core of the Roman province of Judaea, it took several years, considerable military resources and a military strategy that avoided any risk in view of the obviously high Roman losses at the beginning of the conflict, a conclusion that lends considerable credibility to Cassius Dio’s statements, at least on this point. (W 302f — Eck’s and other works not yet accessed)

To be concluded in the next [brief! – promise] post.


Alon, Gedalia. The Jews in Their Land in the Talmudic Age, 70-640 C.E. Jerusalem : Magnes Press, the Hebrew University, 1980. http://archive.org/details/jewsintheirlandi00v1alon and http://archive.org/details/jewsintheirlandi0002alon.

Büchler, Adolf. The Economic Conditions of Judaea After the Destruction of the Second Temple. Wentworth Press, 2019 [1912].

Huteau-Dubois, Lucette. “Les sursauts du nationalisme juif contre l’occupation romaine : de Massada à Bar Kokhba.” Revue des études juives 127, no. 2 (1968): 133–209.

Mildenberg, Leo. “Bar Kokhba Coins and Documents.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 84 (1980): 311–35. https://doi.org/10.2307/311055.

Witulski, Thomas. Apk 11 und der Bar Kokhba-Aufstand : eine zeitgeschichtliche Interpretation. Tübingen : Mohr Siebeck, 2012. http://archive.org/details/apk11undderbarko0000witu.

. . .

Cassius, Dio. Roman History, Volume VIII, Books 61-70. Harvard University Press, 1798.

Josephus. The Jewish War. Edited by Gaalya Cornfeld. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1982.


 

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Neil Godfrey

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