Bar-Kochba


Bar-Kochba
(Shimeon bar-Kosiba)
(1–2 century)
   Leader of second Jewish revolt, 132–5. Bar-Kochba survives in the collective Jewish memory as a national hero and, next to Judas Maccabeus, a symbol of the constant struggle for liberation from imperial masters. Yet he remained until recent years a remarkably shadowy figure. Moreover, little is known about the origins and course of the three-year rebellion he led. It had no chronicler like JOSEPHUS, who compiled a detailed contemporary account of the first Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66–70.
   Even his name was a mystery, until the letters discovered in Judean desert caves near the Dead Sea in the last two decades. Eusebius, the third-century Church Father, refers to him as Bar-Kochba, which in Hebrew or Aramaic means ‘son of a star’. This is followed by St Jerome in the 4 century. The name has messianic overtones, and later Jewish writers link it with a remark attributed to the spiritual father of the revolt, Rabbi AKIBA BEN-JOSEPH, who is said to have spoken of Bar-Kochba as the ‘anointed king’. On the other hand, the early talmudic writers call him Bar-Kozima, a name close to Bar-Kochba in spelling, but meaning ‘son of a deceiver’. It has been assumed that this name reflected the disillusionment and despair that followed the crushing of the revolt and the devastation of the country by the Romans. It now appears from the newly-found letters in Hebrew and Aramaic that his name was Shimeon bar-Kosiba, and that he took the title, Prince over Israel. This would correspond to the inscription on coins which he struck at the time.
   The first revolt led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 and was finally extinguished with the dramatic episode three years later, when the last pocket of Zealot resistance was overcome on the rock of Masada. The political autonomy of Judea had come to an end. At Jabneh, in the coastal plain, a group of rabbis headed by jo-CHANAN BEN-ZAKKAI established a centre of religious authority and study. Forty years of sullen truce marked the relations between Imperial Rome and its Jewish subjects in Judea and other territories in the Near East. In 115, the religious intolerance of Trajan’s administration provoked Jewish disorders that spread from Cyrenaica (North Africa) to Cyprus, Egypt and Mesopotamia. They were ruthlessly suppressed. Soon after, in 117, Trajan was succeeded by Hadrian, one of the ablest and most energetic emperors in Roman history. Hadrian made extensive journeys through his realm, from Britain in the west to Asia Minor in the east. About 130 he visited Jerusalem and struck a coin depicting Judea as a woman captive standing before the emperor. Some historians have suggested that he sparked off the war that broke out soon afterwards, by announcing a plan to build a new Roman city, Aelia Capitolina, on the ruins of Jerusalem, including a temple to Jupiter on the site of the Jewish Temple. It is also suggested that there were at that time edicts that struck at the practice of the Jewish faith, such as a ban on circumcision. It is more likely however that these measures belonged to the period of harsh repression after the rebellion.
   Bar-Kochba appears to have been the national commander of the rebel forces from the beginning, though there is no record of his origin, background or age. He received the blessing of the Jewish religious authorities and gained the open and powerful support of the outstanding rabbi of the age, Akiba ben-Joseph. The uprising was well organized, and spread rapidly through the Judean hill- country and the coastal plain. The Romans were taken off guard. The XXII Legion incautiously marched into the rugged hill terrain and was badly mauled. Bar-Kochba’s guerrillas started to close in on Jerusalem and the Roman governor, Tinius Rufus, decided to evacuate the x Legion that formed the garrison of the city. The Jewish rebels joyfully occupied it. Judea was declared independent and that year proclaimed Year One of the Redemption of Israel. Special coins were issued carrying the words ‘Shimeon, Prince over Israel’. Bar-Kochba set about organizing an administration, a tax system and local governors. Rome took alarm at the sudden crisis in its small Judean province, with its implications for the whole empire. Fresh legions poured into the country from Syria, Egypt and Transjordan. Hadrian’s best general, Julius Severus, then governor of Britain, was brought to Judea to take charge of operations. The emperor himself joined him there and remained for some while. Severus’ strategy was to avoid costly seek-and-destroy engage-ments against the insurgents. Instead, he used the large military machine at his disposal to regain control of the country piecemeal, by cutting off and starving out one town and village after another. Faced with this slow and relentless pressure, the Jewish forces had to yield ground steadily. Jerusalem was lost, and Bar-Kochba and his remaining supporters finally driven into the fortress of Bethar, a few miles to the southwest of the city. The Romans built a siege wall around it, and in the summer of 135 they broke through into the fortress. Bar-Kochba and all his men were slain.
   Rabbi Akiba and a number of other rabbis involved in the rebellion were cruelly put to death, and became known in Jewish tradition as the Ten Martyrs. As a result of the war, Judea was ravaged and most of its Jewish inhabitants killed off or taken into slavery. In the ensuing centuries, the centre of Jewish life in the country was to shift northward to the Galilee. One part of the country in which the revolt held out to the end was the desolate region overlooking the Dead Sea. It is a lunar landscape of cliffs honey-combed with caves and intersected by deep wadis or canyons opening out to the shore. Only the lush oasis of En-Gedi provides a startling splash of green against the dun-coloured escarpment.
   In the 1950s, archaeologists on the Jordan side investigated the caves in the area. Of the ancient letters found in this area, two were from Shimeon bar- Kosiba to Yeshua ben-Galgoula, the commander of the local fort. One is an order to send a quantity of wheat. The other is a presumptuous demand to act against ‘the Galileans who are with you’. (It is quite unclear who these Galileans might be.)
   In 1953 and 1955, an Israel team under Professor Yohanan Aharoni surveyed the wadis near En-Gedi. It was clear that the Bedouin had already explored most of the caves. But there was plenty of evidence that the inhabitants of En-Gedi in Bar-Kochba’s time had taken refuge in certain caves and had been starved to death by Roman detachments camped on the ridges above the openings. In one of them, the ‘Cave of Horrors’, forty skeletons were found, including women and children.
   In 1960 it was decided to carry out a thorough search of all the caves in this area. It was divided for the purpose into four parts, each to be worked by a separate team, assisted by the Israel army, using helicopters, ropes, ladders and mine detectors. Among the many finds of archaeological interest - including a unique hoard of chalcolithic bronze cult objects - the most important were those by Professor Yigael YADIN’S team in the ‘Cave of Letters’, a hundred feet below the remains of a Roman encampment.
   In a niche in the cave they found baskets of skulls wrapped in mats, each with its jawbone missing, and covered heaps of bones together with the jawbones. The skeletons included those of women and children. Elsewhere were the remains of clothing, footwear, household implements and personal belongings. Buried in the floor of the cave and found with the help of a mine detector was a hoard of Roman bronze vessels, with the images of the deities defaced - no doubt captured from some Roman camp and then used by Jews. In a brown leather pouch wrapped in sacking were the personal papers of an orderly woman of property called BABATA, daughter of Shimeon ben-Menachem.The thirty-five papyri in this bundle consist of her marriage contract, deeds of title to property and legal documents from the period immediately before Bar-Kochba. Historically the most important find was a bundle of papyri wrapped round four wooden slats, and tied together with two pieces of string. They turned out to be sixteen letters or orders from Shimeon Bar-Kosiba to his two officials or local commanders in En-Gedi, Jehonathan son of Be’aya and Masabala son of Shimeon. They appear to have been dictated to various scribes in Aramaic or Hebrew and are written in cursive script. The four slats are pieces of a single letter written on wood.
   The letters are usually brief, brusque in tone and sometimes contain threats against the recipient if the orders are not carried out. They refer mostly to urgently needed supplies or to punishment of shirkers and others who may have taken refuge in peaceful En-Gedi from the fighting areas. The general impression is of a tough and hard-pressed leader already moving into the desperate last phases of the rebellion. A quantity of wheat belonging to one Tanhum (or Hanun) is to be requisitioned and sent to Bar-Kochba in safe custody. No shelter is to be given to men from the town of Tekoah near Bethlehem - and if any are found in En-Gedi, their houses will be burnt down. A certain Yeshua is to be arrested and sent back to Bar-Kochba after taking away his sword. Young men are to be sent as reinforcements against the Romans. Four donkey loads of salt must be sent. An En-Gedi property owner called Eliazar ben-Hitta must be sent to Bar- Kochba immediately. (In a later search this man’s deeds of lease-hold for properties in En-Gedi were also found.) The ‘four kinds’ used for the celebration of the harvest festival of Succot (‘Tabernacles’) - palm branches, citrons and twigs of myrtle and willow - must be sent to Bar-Kochba’s camp. (This letter is addressed to a person called Jehuda son of Menashe.)
   The most touching and reproachful letter to the two officials concerns a boatload of cargo landed on the Dead Sea shore at En-Gedi, but not forwarded by them. The opening lines of this letter read: ‘From Shimeon bar-Kosiba to the men of En-Gedi, to Marsabala and to Yehonathan bar-Be’aya, peace. In comfort you sit, eat and drink from the property of the house of Israel, and care nothing for your brothers.’
   Regarding the excitement caused in Israel by the publication of these letters, Yadin wrote afterwards: ‘Obviously this was not received as just another archaeological discovery. It was the retrieval of part of the nation’s lost heritage…’

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

Look at other dictionaries:

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