The Bar Kokhba Documents, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1994.


Nahal Hever

Nahal Hever. By Benno Rothenberg /Meitar Collection / National Library of Israel / The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, CC BY 4.0,

The emergence of the new consensus becomes even clearer when we look at the documents found in the Bar Kokhba caves located along the shore of the Dead Sea, south of Qumran and north of Masada, primarily at Wadi Murabba‘at and Nahal Hever. Some of these documents, which allegedly came from Wadi Seyyal (Nahal Seelim), were actually stolen by Bedouin from Nahal Hever and smuggled across to Jordan. These texts had been left behind by those who rebelled against Rome under the messianic pretender Simeon bar Kosiba, called Bar Kokhba, in the second Jewish revolt of 132–135 C.E. During the revolt, the rebels hid in caves overlooking the wadis above the Dead Sea. Very recently, a number of other such documents were found in a cave near Jericho, suggesting that such hideaways were located all along the Dead Sea.

After the failure of the Great Revolt and the fall of Masada in 73 C.E., Rome empowered the Pharisaic-rabbinic leaders to manage the internal affairs of the Jews in Palestine. Needless to say, this political authority allowed the emerging rabbinic movement to make its own tradition—a continuation of Second Temple period Pharisaic Judaism—the norm for virtually all Jews in the Land of Israel.

Yet despite this political alliance, some Jews, both among the Pharisaic-rabbinic leaders and outside this elite, continued to believe that the Roman yoke had to be thrown off, for both religious and nationalistic reasons. These ideas were certainly linked with the belief that overthrowing Roman rule would usher in the messianic era. In this sense, the second Jewish revolt carried forward the distinct eschatology of the War Scroll. By about 125 C.E., preparation for the revolt was in full swing, no doubt spurred on by the unsuccessful Diaspora revolt of 115–117 C.E.

Until the letters in the caves near the Dead Sea were discovered, Bar Kokhba’s real name was not known. The letters contain the first mention of his full name, “Simeon bar Kosiba.” We now realize that the talmudic Rabbis were hinting at this name in connecting the rebel leader with the Hebrew root kzv (to be false), referring to his false messiahship. But to some of the Rabbis, he was known as Bar Kokhba (son of a star), an allusion to the star prophecy of Numbers 24-17, “A star rises from Jacob, a scepter comes forth from Israel,” which was interpreted as prophesying a future messianic redeemer. In the Zadokite Fragments (7-18–21), this same prophecy had been considered a reference to the Interpreter of the Law, a quasi-messianic figure.

Yet despite these messianic hopes, the revolt, after initial successes, eventually failed. By the time it was crushed by the Romans, the Jewish insurgents had appointed a high priest, perhaps because sacrifices had been reinstituted, and minted their own coins. Substantial numbers of documents, both from Bar Kokhba’s government and from private individuals, survived in the caves. The human remains found in the caves reveal that the rebels hiding there fell to the Roman sword. The texts demonstrate the continuing rise of the rabbinic consensus, even within a context of interaction with and influence from non-Jewish neighbors.

These documents mention the first rabbi known to us from nonrabbinic sources, suggesting that the rabbinic class did extend beyond the teachers named in the Mishnah and other rabbinic works. We also learn that Bar Kokhba encouraged his followers to observe the holiday of Sukkot, commanding that he be sent the lulav and etrog (palm branch and citron), as well as the myrtle and willow branches used for this holiday, and requiring that produce be properly tithed.

But the finds tell us much more. From the numerous contracts in the collection, we learn that the Jews of the Dead Sea region, most prominently those who lived in the oasis of Ein Gedi, practiced both in general terms and in many specifics the legal system sketched out in the Mishnah and early rabbinic sources. In this legal category we find trade documents as well as marriage, divorce, and various other types of contracts. On the other hand, we find some contracts using Greek law and others that are syntheses of Jewish law and Greek law. Some documents reveal economic and social interaction between Jews and Greek-speaking pagans or Arabs. We find evidence of some Hellenization among the Jews in language and other affairs. Yet despite such outside influences, it is clear that by the time of the revolt, the normative Jewish legal system, later represented in the Mishnah, was already in use, albeit in an earlier and less standardized form.

These materials also indicate that the biblical text was becoming increasingly standardized. Biblical material such as the Twelve Prophets Scroll from Wadi Murabba‘at is essentially identical to the Masoretic text. Indeed, the Masoretic text had become so well established by that time that other text types are not in evidence at all. The competition had been entirely eliminated. The early Masoretic text that at Qumran had been dominant among other textual forms, and at Masada had been almost the exclusive biblical text, by this time had truly become the authorized Jewish Bible.

But the process had gone even further. The Greek Twelve Prophets Scroll from Nahal Hever (part of the so-called Seiyal collection) shows evidence that Septuagint texts of the Bible were being revised to conform to the Masoretic text, for those Jews who demanded Greek Bibles equivalent to the Masoretic Hebrew. So thoroughly in fact had the Masoretic Bible triumphed over competing texts that all Jews, even those speaking Greek, insisted on the text type that was accepted and required by the Rabbis.

In the wake of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, the Rabbis ruled that the emerging Christian community was not to be considered part of the Jewish people. Their decision rested largely on nontheological grounds, namely, that the church, even in the Land of Israel, had become largely gentile. Furthermore, the Christians had refused to support the Jewish revolt, spurning its messianic overtones. Thus, the earlier schism that had merely separated the two communities finally became irreparable.

The Bar Kokhba period represented a watershed in the shaping of Jewish identity. Not only the Christians but also the Samaritans—the surviving remnant of ancient North Israelites—were now regarded for all intents and purposes as non-Jews. The rules of Jewish identity were firmly in place. Overall, the Bar Kokhba documents testify to the continued triumph of the rabbinic consensus, which, though not eliminating all other forms of Jewish thought entirely, certainly became the dominant form of Judaism by the end of the second century.

The Qumran corpus, with its varied sectarian literature, richly represents the complex tapestry of competing Jewish approaches in the Second Temple period. By the time of the Great Revolt, the Qumran group had completed its original compositions. In the revolt itself, the Essenes and sectarian groups such as the Dead Sea sect disappeared as independent entities, as did the Sadducees, who lost their natural power base when the Temple was destroyed.

As a result of the elimination of its Jewish competition, the continuing standardization of the biblical text and of Jewish law, and a political alliance with the Romans, the Pharisaic-rabbinic movement was able to strengthen its dominant position within Judaism. By this time, Christianity had absorbed certain apocalyptic ideas of the Second Temple period; Judaism, intent on defining itself against the newly emerging religion, accordingly wrote these ideas out of its tradition. By the time of the Bar Kokhba revolt, the last vestiges of Second Temple sectarianism were gone from Judaism. The new consensus was essentially complete. From the crucible of sectarianism, revolt, and restoration had emerged the mature Judaism of the Mishnah and Talmud, which came to serve as the foundation of the Judaism we know today.

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