The Jews fought two major wars against their Roman occupiers.
The First Jewish War ended in 70 AD when the Roman General Titus stormed Jerusalem and destroyed what is known as the Second Temple. The temple’s destruction fulfilled what Jesus had prophesied in Matthew 24:1-2.
The Second Jewish War was fought during the reign of Hadrian who personally took the field. The war lasted about 4 years (132-136 AD). The Jews were led by a mysterious figure know to history as Bar-Kokhba. The catalyst for the war was a Roman ban on circumcision, a practice the Romans found barbaric calling it the mutilation of genitals!
I say Kokhba was mysterious because until fairly recently not much was known about the war or about the man who defied Rome, Bar-Kokhba.
I was curious about Kokhba because my interest in Roman and Jewish History but also because I’m a Christian pastor who seeks to learn about the messianic claims of the various Jewish leaders who fought courageous wars against the world’s first super-power.
I ran a search for information and came across and then purchased through Amazon a book titled Bar-Kokhba-The rediscovery of the legendary hero of the last Jewish Revolt against Imperial Rome by Yigael Yadin.
Yigael Yadin (1917-1984) himself is a bit of legendary hero to modern Israelis.
Yadin served in the Haganah a paramilitary organization meaning “the defense.” Yadin joined the Haganah at the age of fifteen during the British Mandate over Palestine (1920-1948). The Haganah would become the core of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) after the War of Independence (1948).
Yadin was Chief of Operations during that war and after independence he became the IDF’s Chief of Staff a position he held for three years. He retired from the military at age 35 and became an archaeologist, the profession he is most remembered for.
Evidence surfaced that the caves along the Dead Sea had served as refuges for Jewish freedom fighters in both wars had already been discovered by Bedouins who sought to make some money by selling relics to antiquity dealers in Jordan. Yadin got wind of this and wondered if the ambitious Bedouins may have overlooked some of the caves and possibly overlooked some things in caves already explored. Yadin then organized and managed to oversee two expeditions to the area with the help of the IDF in the early 1950′s.
Yadin’s hunch proved to be accurate and important discoveries were made that proved conclusively the caves had been used by the Jewish rebels. Among the more important finds were numerous papyri documents that dealt with Kokhba as ruler of an independent Judea from 132-135 AD. Yadin’s book is the account of these discoveries and a fun read for anyone with an interest in digging up the past.
Bar-Kokhba means “son of a star” in Hebrew or Aramaic and it is a messianic reference.
Kokhba’s real name was Simon ben Kosiba. Nothing is known about Kosiba prior to the war but it is clear he emerged as the leader of it and was a bit of a tactical genius holding off at least 8 Legions (or parts of 8 Legions) as well as 17 Auxiliary Cohorts. Evidence exists that the Jewish rebels destroyed at least one Roman Legion (XXII Deiotariana) no small accomplishment for ill armed rebels.
There is an interesting little map (and aerial photographs) of a small Roman military camp that was used by an auxiliary unit to block access out of the caves in which the Jewish rebels had taken refuge. The camp is small, only big enough for 80-100 soldiers, about the size of one century.
Some of the documents that bear Kokhba’s name also have his title, the prince of Israel a reference to the Old Testament Kings of Israel especially Saul, another man of war.
This points to the popular Jewish notion that the messiah would be a man of war sent to deliver them from the Romans and restore the kingdom. It is the primary reason most Jews rejected Jesus as the messiah. His “kingdom is not of this world” remarks must have angered them greatly as he dashed their expectations of him.
If you believe the land promises to Israel are still valid as I do then you’ll know that one day Jesus will restore Israel but the current state of Israel may or may not be it’s precursor.
Kokhba was so successful in evading Rome’s massed armies that Hadrian sent his best general to put to down the revolt. Eventually Hadrian would take the field himself and take credit for the victory.
The Roman’s were quite brutal in putting down the revolt killing without discrimination men, women and children often in the most gruesome fashion. Roman retribution included selling survivors into slavery and dispersing others around the Empire (the diaspora).
In fact Hadrian sought to destroy Judaism entirely banning the teaching of the Mosaic Law and the owning of scrolls. Pagan temples were erected over Jewish holy sites and a temple to Jupiter was built over the site of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. See Jona Lendering’s excellent article for more information.
The war was a disaster for Rome tying up a significant portion of their thinly spread out army for a prolonged period of time. Not only that but the Romans also lost a high number of soldiers putting down the revolt. It’s hard to find another campaign in Roman Empire History that was that costly. (Eight Legions represents approximately 1/3 of the Empire’s Legion strength. At full strength the force would have numbered 32,000 men. The addition of seventeen auxiliary cohorts would have pushed the total to around 50,000 soldiers, an enormous total for the time period.)
It was Hadrian who renamed Judea to Palestine, an allusion to a long-departed people who once lived in the land. Few people recognize that Palestine, as a national identity is a Roman invention designed to remove the Jews from their homeland. The remaining population would have been mostly Greek or Greek\Syrian. The land did not become “Arab” until later.
Changing the name of the land did not change the identity of the Jewish people who one day would return to their homeland, a homeland Yadin himself would fight for.
Today Bar-Kokhba is a national hero in Israel, a tiny nation surrounded by enemies bent on its destruction. Kokhba lost his life in the Battle of Betar and whatever else might be said about him (he was tyrannical and arrogant) he did represent the few against the many just as modern Israel does.