The Bar-Kokhba Revolt

I create darkness; I create evil; I, the Lord, do all these things (Isaiah 45:7).

Matthew 10:34 “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth. I came not to send peace, but a sword.”

The Bar-Kokhba Revolt (AD 132 – 135)

Simon Bar-Kokhba

The Bar Kokhba revolt marked a time of high hopes followed by violent despair. The Jews were handed expectations of a homeland and a Holy Temple, but in the end were persecuted and sold into slavery. During the revolt itself, the Jews gained enormous amounts of land, only to be pushed back and crushed in the final battle of Bethar (southwest of Jerusalem).

When Hadrian, who was known to have a gentle disposition and lauded throughout the great empire as a benefactor, first became the Roman emperor in AD 118, he was sympathetic to the Jews. Jewish legend says that R Joshua b. Hananiah was on friendly terms with him, hence Hadrian granted permission for the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their Temple. The Jews’ expectations rose as they made organizational and financial preparations to rebuild the Temple. The Jews’ expectations rose as they made organizational and financial preparations to rebuild the Temple. But when the malevolent Samaritans, using their old technique as in Ezra 4:13, convinced him not to.

“Be it known now unto the king, that if this city be built and the wall finished, they would not pay tribute imposed or toll,” said the head of the Samaritans to Hadrian.

“What is to be done since I have already issued the decree?” Hadrian replied.

“Say unto them: either change the site of the Temple or enlarge it by five cubits or diminish it by five cubits then they of themselves will abandon the Temple.”

Thus the Samaritans ruined the Jewish aspiration as Hadrian quickly went back on his word. In doing so, Hadrian had disregarded the peculiarities of the Jews and requested that the site of the Temple be moved from its original location and that the Temple should be built either smaller or bigger by five cubit or so other than what the Jews had planned, any of such alteration meant of course the Jews could not accept.

The Jews took up arms and assembled in the Valley of Rimmon, on the celebrated historical plain of Jezreel; and a rebellion seemed imminent. They were prepared to rebel until Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah (d. 131) calmed them. But the Jews remained quiet only on the surface; in reality, for over fifteen years they prepared for a struggle against Rome. The weapons that the Romans had ordered to be made by them were intentionally constructed poorly, so that they might keep them when rejected and returned to them. They converted the caves in the mountains into hiding-places and fortifications, which they connected by subterranean passages.

The Jews organized guerilla forces and, in AD 123, began launching surprise attacks against the Romans. From that point on, life only got worse for the Jews. Hadrian brought an extra army legion, the “Sixth Ferrata,” into Judea to deal with the terrorism. Hadrian hated “foreign” religions and forbade the Jews to perform circumcisions. He appointed Tinneius Rufus governor of Judea. Rufus was a harsh ruler who took advantage of Jewish women. In approximately AD 132, Hadrian began to establish a city in Jerusalem called Aelia Capitolina, the name being a combination of his own name and that of the Roman god Jupiter Capitolinus. He started to build a temple to Jupiter in place of the Jewish Temple.

Despite the arrival of significant Roman reinforcements from Syria, Egypt and Arabia, initial rebel victories over the Romans established an independent state over most parts of Judea Province for over two years, as Simon bar Kokhba took the title of Nasi (“prince”). As well as leading the revolt, he, with an army of over 200,000-400,000 soldiers, was regarded by many Jews as the Messiah, who would restore their national independence. This setback, however, caused Emperor Hadrian to assemble a large-scale Roman force from across the Empire, which invaded Judea in AD 134 under the command of General Sextus Julius Severus. The Roman army, better equipped and trained, was made up of six full legions (each around five thousand soldiers during the early Roman period) with auxiliaries and elements from up to six additional legions, which finally managed to crush the revolt.

BustAs long as Hadrian remained near Judea, the Jews stayed relatively quiet. When he left in AD 132, the Jews began their rebellion on a large scale. They seized towns and fortified them with walls and subterranean passages. Under the strong leadership of Shimon Bar-Kokhba, the Jews captured approximately 50 strongholds in Judea and 985 undefended towns and villages, including Jerusalem. Jews from other countries, and even some gentiles, volunteered to join their crusade. The Jews minted coins with slogans such as “The Freedom of Israel” written in Hebrew.

Simon Bar Kokhba took the title Nasi Israel and ruled over an entity that was virtually independent for two and a half years. The Jewish sage Rabbi Akiva identified Simon Bar Kosiba as the Jewish messiah, and gave him the surname “Bar Kokhba” meaning “Son of a Star” in the Aramaic language, from the Star Prophecy verse from Numbers 24:17: “There shall come a star out of Jacob”. The era of the redemption of Israel was announced, contracts were signed and a large quantity of Bar Kokhba Revolt coinage was struck over foreign coins.

With the slowly advancing Roman army cutting supply lines, the rebels engaged in long-term defense. The defense system of Judean towns and villages was based mainly on hideout caves, which were created in large numbers in almost every population center. Many houses utilized underground hideouts, where Judean rebels hoped to withstand Roman superiority by the narrowness of the passages and even ambushes from underground. The cave systems were often interconnected and used not only as hideouts for the rebels but also for storage and refuge for their families. Hideout systems were employed in the Judean hills, the Judean desert, northern Negev, and to some degree also in Galilee, Samaria and Jordan Valley. As of July 2015 some 350 hideout systems have been mapped within the ruins of 140 Jewish villages.

Following a series of setbacks, Hadrian dispatched General Publus Marcellus, governor of Syria, to help Rufus, but the Jews defeated both Roman leaders. The Jews then invaded the coastal region and the Romans began sea battles against them. The turning point of the war came when Hadrian sent into Judea one of his best generals from Britain, Julius Severus, along with former governor of Germania, Hadrianus Quintus Lollius Urbicus. By that time, there were 12 army legions from Egypt, Britain, Syria and other areas in Judea until nearly one third of the Roman army took part in the campaign against Bar Kokhba.

Due to the large number of Jewish rebels, instead of waging open war, Severus besieged Jewish fortresses and held back food until the Jews grew weak. Only then did his attack escalate into outright war. The Romans demolished all 50 Jewish fortresses and 985 villages. The main conflicts took place in Judea, the Shephela (between the Judaean Mountains and the Coastal Plain), though fighting also spread to Northern Israel. The Romans suffered heavy casualties as well and Hadrian did not send his usual message to the Senate that “I and my army are well.”

The final battle of the war took place in Bethar, Bar-Kokhba’s headquarters, which housed both the Sanhedrin and the home of the Nasi. Bethar was a vital military stronghold because of its strategic location on a mountain ridge overlooking both the Valley of Sorek and the important Jerusalem-Bet Guvrin Road. Thousands of Jewish refugees fled to Bethar during the war. In AD 135, Hadrian’s army besieged Bethar and on the 9th of Av, the Jewish fast day commemorating the destruction of the first and second Holy Temples, the walls of Bethar fell. After a fierce battle, every Jew in Bethar was killed. Six days passed before the Romans allowed the Jews to bury their dead.

Following the battle of Bethar, there were a few small skirmishes in the Judean Desert Caves, but the war was essentially over and Judean independence was lost. The Romans plowed Jerusalem with a yoke of oxen. Jews were sold into slavery “for the price of a horse” and many were transported to Egypt or marketed at Gaza. Judean settlements were not rebuilt. Although Jewish Christians regarded Jesus as the Messiah and did not support Bar Kokhba, they were barred from Jerusalem along with the other Jews. Jerusalem was turned into a pagan city called Aelia Capitolina and the Jews were forbidden to live there. They were permitted to enter only on the 9th of Av to mourn their losses in the revolt. Hadrian changed the country’s name from Judea to Syria Palestina.

In the years following the revolt, Hadrian discriminated against all Judeo-Christian sects, but the worst persecution was directed against religious Jews. He executed Jewish scholars, made anti-religious decrees forbidding Torah study (including forbidding YHVH name being uttered) in synagogue, Sabbath observance, circumcision (claiming it as an undesirable form of mutilation), Jewish courts, Jewish Calendar and other ritual practices.

Many Jews assimilated and many sages and prominent men were martyred including Rabbi Akiva and the rest of the Asara Harugei Malchut (the Ten Martyrs), glorified in legend, in those days suffered death for their faith; for it was the aim of the Romans to destroy the very essence of Judaism by preventing the study of the Law. Other prohibitions were promulgated concerning the Sabbath, circumcision, tefillin, and mezuzah, and constituted a mass of ordinances usually embraced in the term “the Hadrianic persecution.”

A positively inhuman prohibition was issued which prevented the Jews from walking in the vicinity of Jerusalem, so that they could not even pour out their griefs on hallowed soil. The former plan of Hadrian was now also put into execution: after the plow had been drawn over the Temple mountain, Jerusalem became a pagan city under the name of “Ælia Capitolina,” and the temple of Jupiter towered on the site of the ancient Temple, with a statue of Hadrian in the interior.

This age of persecution lasted throughout the remainder of Hadrian’s reign, until AD 138. The Jewish angle at Hadrian is 180 degrees from where he started: now he is considered the most violent and cruel of emperors. This persecution, however, did not last long, for Antoninus Pius revoked his cruel edicts.

Final accords

According to a Rabbinic midrash, the Romans executed eight leading members of the Sanhedrin (The list of Ten Martyrs include two earlier Rabbis): R Akiva; R Hanania ben Teradion; the interpreter of the Sanhedrin, R. Huspith; R Eliezer ben Shamua; R Hanina ben Hakinai; R Jeshbab the Scribe; R Yehuda ben Dama; and R Yehuda ben Baba. The Rabbinic account describes agonizing tortures: R Akiva was flayed with iron combs, R Ishmael had the skin of his head pulled off slowly, and R Hanania was burned at a stake, with wet wool held by a Torah scroll wrapped around his body to prolong his death.

Bar Kokhba’s fate is not certain, with two alternative traditions in the Babylonian Talmud ascribing the death of Bar Kokhba either to a snake bite or other natural causes during the Roman siege or possibly killed on the orders of the Sanhedrin, as a false Messiah. According to Lamentations Rabbah, the head of Bar Kokhba was presented to Emperor Hadrian after the Siege of Bethar.

Matthew 10:34 “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth. I came not to send peace, but a sword.”


~ by Joel Huan on July 8, 2020.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: