Bar Kochba is one of the more elusive figures of Jewish history, and carries with him political, historical and religious symbolism all his own.

'Bar Kochba' is the name give to Shimon bar Koziba, a Jewish military leader who, from the years 132-5 C.E., successfully freed Judea (including Jerusalem) from Roman domination.

Although he was able to rule for a short time -- and was even acknowledged as the messiah by some Jews -- the Roman army eventually beat down the rebellion, killing bar Kochba himself, and expelling the Jews from Judea.

Shimon bar Kochba
? - 135 C.E.

Numbers 24:17
I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel

Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit 4:5 (68d)
Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai taught: "Akiva my master would expound the verse 'a star (heb: Kochav) will come from Jacob' as 'Koziba will come from Jacob.'

When Rabbi Akiva would see Bar Koziba he would say, 'There is the King Messiah.' "
Rav Yochanan ben Torta said: "Akiva, grass will grow from your cheeks and still the son of David will not come!"


After the Jewish revolt of 66-73 CE and the destruction of the Temple, the Jews of Judea were in disarray. They came under the direct rule of Rome, rather than a puppet-king as before. Yochanan ben Zakkai led a drive to maintain the structures of Judaism in a post-Temple framework, which we now know as Rabbinic Judaism.

In the rest of the Roman Empire, Jews had a pretty bad time. Trajan brutally put down Jewish revolts, destroying the Jewish communities of Cyprus, Crete, and most dramatically of all Alexandria, previously the biggest Diaspora Jewish community in the world.

Hadrian became Emperor after Trajan, and it isn't clear how he felt towards the Jews. Some historians point to Hadrian's apparent willingness to allow the rebuilding of the Temple; others give more credence to the story that he planned to convert Jerusalem (still desolate after its sacking in 70C.E.) into a Roman polis. These is also some suggestion that he tried to ban or in some way limit the practice of circumcision.

Star Child

It is against this background that Shimon bar Koziba appeared. He emerged as a commander of guerrilla troops, committed to the liberation of the people of Israel. He was so successful that some of the Rabbis named him bar Kochba, which means "the son/child of a star", to recall the prophecy in the Torah (see above), and to therefore imply that he was the messiah.

Fantastic stories are told about bar Kochba. Lamentations Rabba, a midrashic work, says he would "catch the missiles from the enemy's catapults on one of his knees and hurl them back, killing many". There is also a story that he used to suck on a piece of burning straw, so it would appear like he was breathing smoke. Other tales are about the selection of his army, which according to legend either had to have a finger cut off, or be able to uproot a Cedar tree.

Bar Kochba took for himself the title 'Nasi', equivalent to prince or president. There is good archeologial evidence of coins and letters that he signed in this way.

The revolt

There are no reliable records of the bar Kochba revolt; in fact, there are very few real records of any sort. The impression given is that the revolt started unexpectedly and progressed quickly. Certainly it succeeded in taking a large area of territory, including Jerusalem, where an altar was set up again. Dio Cassius explains that rather than mounting regiments to beat Rome in open battle, the rebels took a town at a time, keeping strong positions and fortifying weak ones.

Bar Kochba minted coins with his name on, declaring the year as 'Year one of the Redemption', and had a very brief time as ruler of Judea.

The quelling

After a time, Hadrian's patience ran out, and he sent Sextus Julius Severus, the governor of Britannia, to quell the revolt. He realised that attacking the rebel outposts directly would be really costly in terms of losses. So instead, he planned to isolate the outposts, in the hope of starving the Jews out, and then attacking any rebel forces seen in the open.

It was essentially a good strategy, with 2 flaws. One was that it was slow -- in fact, it took 3 years to complete the job. The other was that it meant watching the whole country, especially as many of the outposts were hidden, and connected by a maze of tunnels through the Judean hills. This manpower gap led to twelve legions -- something like half of Rome's regulars -- being deployed in the area.
By 135C.E., only one rebel stronghold remained; the city of Betar. There was a protracted siege there. It was finally broken on the 9th of Av (a Thursday), and by all accounts there was a terrible massacre conducted there by the Romans. The midrash talks about horses wading up to their nostrils in blood, and stains that went for miles. The impression is certainly one of horror. Bar Kochba himself was killed here and after his death the revolt was essentially over.

According to Dio Cassius, 580,000 Jewish combatants were killed, and many others starved to death. In the wake of the revolt, the Jews were expelled from Judea to prevent them being able to act on their desire for independence again. Jerusalem was ploughed over in 136C.E., and rebuilt as the Roman polis Aelia Capitolina, and Judea was renamed Syria Palaestina after the Phlistines - this is where the name Palestine comes from.

For the Jews, this was seen as the final realisation of the destruction of the Temple. Rabbinic texts call bar Kochba 'bar Kozeva', the son of lies. The image of the Jew as a warrior was over. The next thing that might reasonably be called a Jewish revolt was the Warsaw ghetto uprising.

http://jewishgates.efficientweb.com/file.asp?File_ID=578 -- special thanks for the translation of the midrash used above.

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