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Lee I. Levine. “Judaism from the Destruction of Jerusalem to the End of the Second Jewish Revolt: 70-135 C.E.” Part II

Bar Kokhba LetterExcerpted from Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism- a Parallel History of their Origins and Early Development. Ed. Hershal Shanks. Washington D.C.- Biblical Archaeology Society, 1993.

Jewish nationalist aspirations

The academy at Yavneh devoted itself politically to a policy of rapprochement and cooperation with Rome and religiously to the implementation of the necessary readjustments in ideology and practice so that Jewish life might thrive and develop in the post-Temple era. But a very different movement was operating elsewhere in Judea. In certain circles, Jewish nationalist aspirations were far from squelched by the defeat at the hands of Rome. While most Jews clung to the vague hope that somehow, sometime, Jerusalem would be reclaimed and the Temple rebuilt, there were others who continued to nurture the dream of obliterating (or at least drastically curtailing) Roman rule in Judea. The Second Jewish Revolt against Rome, also known as the Bar-Kokhba revolt of 132–135 C.E., was the political and military expression of this dream. 63

Unfortunately, our knowledge of this revolt—the events leading up to it, its leadership and the succession of events during this three-and-a-half-year period—is woefully sparse and fragmentary. In contrast to the two other major Jewish revolts in antiquity—the Maccabean, or Hasmonean, uprising against the Seleucids in 166 B.C.E. and the First Jewish Revolt against Rome in 66 C.E.—no historical account describes the background and progress of the Bar-Kokhba revolt. Nothing comparable to 1 and 2 Maccabees, which chronicles the Maccabean uprising, or Josephus’The Jewish War, which gives an extraordinarily detailed account of the First Jewish Revolt, exists for the Bar-Kokhba revolt. All that has been preserved are scattered references in later pagan, Christian and Jewish sources.

Quite recently, archaeology has been able to contribute new evidence, offering us a greater understanding of certain aspects of this revolt. However, the coins, papyri, milestones, caves and fortresses dating from this period that have been uncovered by archaeologists fall far short of providing a comprehensive or coherent picture. And without a substantial literary source to offer an adequate context for these finds, it is often difficult to draw firm historical conclusions. 64

Nevertheless, the new archaeological discoveries as well as recent reevaluation of the surviving literature have enabled us to correct—or at least challenge—some of the old assumptions about the Bar- Kokhba revolt. Until relatively recently, scholars have assumed that the entire province of Judea and most Jews living there were mobilized and actively supported the Bar-Kokhba revolt. This view is based on highly exaggerated accounts that magnified the suffering, tragedy and loss of life during the revolt. 65 Later rabbinic tradition adopted a generally critical attitude toward Bar-Kokhba—referring to him as Bar Kosba (Son of Lies);* it sought to discredit him and to demonstrate the futility of armed rebellion.

Similarly, the Church Fathers saw the Bar-Kokhba revolt as a futile attempt to restore the Jewish independence that had been taken away by God as punishment for the Jews’ denial of Jesus. Even the Roman historian Dio Cassius greatly exaggerated the scope of the violence, thereby enhancing the significance of the Roman victory; he speaks of the destruction of some 50 fortifications and 985 villages and the loss of 585,000 lives! 66

All these claims notwithstanding, there is practically no description of hostilities except in southern Judea (the biblical area of Judah). The archaeological material clearlycorroborates this picture. All remains of the Bar-Kokhba revolt, whether coins, caves of refuge, papyri or fortifications, have been found in that region. The Galilee, the second major area of Jewish population at thetime, remained virtually untouched by the devastation of the revolt and thus was able to assume a position of leadership as it absorbed refugees from the southern part of the country after the hostilities ended. The messianic nature of Bar-Kokhba’s leadership has also been called into questionrecently. There is no doubt that the revolt was under the leadership of one Simeon bar Kosba, known to us as Bar-Kokhba.

This is clear not only from the literary sources, but also from archaeological evidence. The coins and papyri (which record the name and title of Simeon bar Kosba) recently found in the Judean wilderness reflect a strong and unified leadership throughout the course of the revolt. Bar-Kokhba issued directives in a variety of matters ranging from religious and ritual concerns to taxation and military discipline. This situation, with Bar-Kokhba in clear command, stands in marked contrast to the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, which was characterized by anarchy among the Jewish forces and the lack of any overall planning or leadership before or during the revolt.

It is true that Rabbi Akiva, a leading figure at the Yavneh academy, hailed Bar-Kokhba as the messiah, but it is difficult to tell whether this belief was widespread. It may be that this was the view of Rabbi Akiva and his circle, not necessarily of the sages in general or of the people at large—or even of Bar-Kokhba himself. On his coins he called himself Nesi Yisrael (patriarch, or head, of Israel). The term has no overt messianic implications.

Moreover, Akiva’s role in the uprising has very probably been exaggerated. 67 It is true that he apparently proclaimed Bar-Kokhba a messianic figure. It is often forgotten, however, that the Talmud records an immediate retort by a colleague, Yohanan ben Torta- “Akiva, grass will grow on your cheeks [i.e., you will long be dead] and the Son of David will still not have come.” 68 Moreover, other rabbis cautioned against involvement with any kind of military or messianic aspirations. For example, Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah, Yohanan’s pupil, advocated peace and accommodation as against confrontation with Rome. 69 Certainly the principal thrust of the rabbinic endeavors at Yavneh before Bar-Kokhba (and in Usha**) was to forge a modus vivendi with Rome, eschewing any confrontation.

Rabbi Akiva’s many trips outside Judea have often been seen as an effort to galvanize support for Bar-Kokhba’s plans. This assumption, however, is entirely gratuitous, for in our sources these trips are associated only with legal questions or with sermons he delivered. Political concerns never appear in any of these traditions.

* On Bar Kokhba’s name, see endnote on page 196.

**Sages gathered at Usha in Lower Galilee, near Haifa, in about 140 C.E. following persecutions after the Bar-Kokhba revolt.

Causes of the Bar-Kokhba revolt

Perhaps the most frequent subject of discussion concerning the Bar-Kokhba revolt relates to its causes. In the past, scholars have focused almost exclusively on two causes. One was a decree of the Roman emperor Hadrian prohibiting the practice of circumcision; according to a fourth-century biography of Hadrian, this was the immediate cause of the outbreak of hostilities. 70 However, the Roman historian Dio Cassius, in his early third-centuryHistory of Rome,tells us that it was the announcement of Hadrian’s intention to build a new city to be called Aelia Capitolina on the site of Jerusalem that triggered the rebellion. 71 As its name implies (Aelia after Hadrian Aelius; Capitolina after the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus to be erected on the site of the destroyed Jewish Temple), it was to be a thoroughly pagan city without any Jewish association. Opinion has been divided over which was the real cause, or, alternatively, which was the primary cause of the revolt. Both may well have constituted indispensable ingredients leading to the outbreak of hostilities.

As we shall see, however, other basic conditions were also important in accounting for the revolt. Moreover, both of the decrees referred to above were part of Hadrian’s more general policy of Hellenizing and acculturating the oriental East to the norms and accepted behavior of Greco-Roman society. Circumcision, for example, was not peculiar to the Jews- Egyptians, Ethiopians, Arabs and Phoenicians also circumcised young males. The prohibition almost certainly did not apply only to Jews.

To reinforce Domitian’s earlier legislation banning castration—and viewing circumcision as a barbaric custom that conflicted sharply with the Greek ideal of the perfection of the body—Hadrian banned circumcision well. The Jews, however, regarded this decree as a severe blow to their religious self-definition and autonomy.

As to Hadrian’s declared intention to build a pagan city on the ruins of Jerusalem, he had previously established Greek cities and institutions throughout the Roman East. Even in Palestine, he had built major institutions in cities like Caesarea, Gaza and Tiberias. Therefore, announcing the building of Aelia Capitolina in place of Jerusalem was by no means out of the ordinary. For the Jews, however, this move was undoubtedly traumatic, recalling, for them, the persecutions under Antiochus IV (167 B.C.E.), when pagan worship was introduced into Jerusalem. Moreover, Hadrian’s plan dashed any immediate hopes the Jews may have had for the restoration of Jerusalem as a Jewish city and the rebuilding of the Temple.

While these decrees probably explain the specific timing of the outbreak of hostilities, Eusebius, the fourth-century bishop of Caesarea, in a passage often ignored, suggests that the revolt was not simply a sudden eruption of Jewish nationalist and religious fervor, but was rather the culmination of a decades-long period of discontent and unrest following the destruction of the Second Temple. 72

Eusebius also notes that because the Romans were apprehensive of any type of messianic or royal claims, they sought to track down those Jews of Davidic descent. 73 This concern, which probably had some foundation, was evident throughout the late first century under the emperors Vespasian (69–79), Domitian (81–96) and Trajan (98–117).

The aims of the Bar-Kokhba revolt

What were the aims of the Bar-Kokhba revolt? On the one hand, there was no doubt a strong element of protest against the decrees that had sparked the hostilities. Beyond that, however, and judging from the coin inscriptions, it is clear that Bar-Kokhba was striving for the “freedom of Jerusalem” and the “redemption of Israel.” What precisely this meant in political terms is not clear. It is hard to imagine that, with the Roman empire at its zenith, Bar-Kokhba aspired to overthrow Roman rule. Perhaps he sought to repeal recent imperial decrees (circumcision? the founding of Aelia Capitolina?) and to gain some kind of local autonomy. However, it is also possible that the leadership of this revolt was so intoxicated by religious dreams of national restoration that any kind of rational reading of the international political and military map was beyond its capacity. We simply don’t have enough information to decide this question with reasonable certainty.

Similarly, it is difficult to track the course of the revolt. Clearly, the outbreak of hostilities caught Rome unprepared, as happened not infrequently under the empire. The Jews appear to have won a number of victories in the very early stages of the conflict, although they never captured fortresses or cities. Based on recent archaeological evidence, Jewish military activity seems to have been centered around subterranean caves in southern Judea, where Jewish soldiers would hide, venture out and attack the enemy and then retreat for regrouping. How grave the situation was in terms of Roman interests is difficult to tell, but Hadrian was forced to dispatch one of his best generals, Julius Severus, to bring the hostilities to a quick end. The Romans conquered Judea, leaving the rebels to gather for a last stand at Bethar (in the Judean hills, to the southwest of Jerusalem). This stronghold fell in the summer of 135 C.E. The collapse of the Bar-Kokhba revolt spelled the end of active Jewish nationalism in antiquity. For 300 years, since the successful Maccabean revolt in the second century B.C.E., nationalist aspirations had been a significant factor in Jewish history, often finding expression in revolts or attacks on Gentile neighbors. With the end of the Bar-Kokhba revolt, a new period in Jewish history began in which active Jewish nationalist aspirations were in abeyance.

The aftermath

After the rebels’ defeat at Bethar, the name of the province was changed to Syria-Palaestina in an effort to obliterate the name Judea as well as any other reference to the Jews. Aelia Capitolina was built on the site of Jerusalem. The city bore a decidedly pagan character for the next several centuries, and Jews were banned from the city. After more than 1,000 years, the center of Jewish life now shifted from Jerusalem and Judea to the Galilee, which assumed a central role in Jewish Palestine for the next 800 years. The end of the Bar-Kokhba hostilities also saw the beginning of an exodus of Jews from their homeland to countries of the Diaspora. For the first time, we read of sages who took up residence in Babylonia.

In Palestine, the Jews were forbidden to observe some of their most traditional and basic practices, including prayer, study, circumcision, holiday observance, etc.,for a number of years. 85 Cumulatively, the two major revolts—the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (66–74 C.E.) and the Second Jewish Revolt under Bar-Kokhba (132–135 C.E.)—had far-reaching effects on Jewish life, spiritually, institutionally and psychologically. Yet, at the same time the Jews of Palestine were undergoing these traumatic upheavals, the groundwork for a renewal of Jewish life, its norms and values was being laid, slowly and carefully in Judea itself. This, in the end, is the profound historical significance of Yavneh.

General Sources

The sources used in this essay vary in terms of their dates and historical reliability. Contemporary ideological statements are the most reliable, for at the very least they tell us what one author who lived at the time thought and felt (e.g., the author of 4 Ezra or 2 Baruch). Of course, the problems begin when we try to generalize these ideas with regard to society at large- How many people actually felt this way or identified with this particular line of thought?

Most of our sources, however, derive from a later period than we are treating, and here caution must be exercised. This is particularly the case as regards rabbinic sources although it holds true for Roman and Christian material as well. Rabbinic material was transmitted for the most part orally and was edited over a very extensive period—i.e., close to a millennium—commencing at the turn of the third century C.E. Several considerations must be brought to bear in the use of such material for the period we are discussing. Generally speaking, the earlier the redaction the better; the closer the material is to the time it purports to represent the more limited the editorializing by later generations. This does not mean, of course, that all early material is historically reliable or, for that matter, that later material is ipso facto unusable. Ultimately, what is necessary is the use of comparative data—at the very least from within the same corpus and ideally from other independent sources—in order to offer some sort of affirmation to the material at hand. Historical reliability is immeasurably increased when a number of different accounts point in the same direction and to the same supposed reality. In the many cases where outside material is unavailable, a measure of skepticism is in order, without necessarily leading to a wholesale dismissal of the historicity of the material at hand. If the reported event is inherently possible, if it is not contradicted by other sources and conforms to a literary pattern, and if it is not identifiably tendentious, then the source is deemed reliable—for its overall picture if not for each and every detail.

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