The Bar Kochba Revolt

Messianic figure Simeon Bar Kochba led the Jews in a failed revolt against Roman rule.

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Reprinted with permission from From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple & Rabbinic Judaism (Ktav).

The debacle of the first revolt against Rome was followed by a period of relative calm. Yet during the years of rule by the autonomous Hillelite patriarchs and the leaders of the tannaitic academies, problems were brewing, both inside and outside the Land of Israel. These developments took place despite the separation of Judea from the province of Syria and the appoint­ment of higher‑level Roman governors of senatorial rank. In particular, the need to pay a capitation tax to the Temple of Jupiter in Rome must have made the Jews very unhappy.Coins from the time of the Bar Kochba revolt, marking the events.

Messianic Yearnings

It was not until the reign of the Roman emperor Trajan (98-­117 C.E.) that the problems came to the surface. In 115‑117 C.E., while Trajan was occupied in Mesopotamia, Jews throughout the Diaspora rose up against their non‑Jewish neighbors in a violent confrontation. Before long pitched battles were being fought in Egypt. The Jews of Cyrene (in North Africa) were said to have massacred their neighbors. Similar disturbances fol­lowed in Cyprus and Mesopotamia. The Roman general Lucius Quietus, ferocious in putting down the Mesopotamian revolt, was rewarded with the governorship of Palestine. When Hadrian became emperor in 117 C.E. he had to spend his first year mopping up the last of the rebels. The Land of Israel seems to have been involved in these battles only to a limited extent.

What is especially significant in these disturbances is the evidence that they were fueled by the very same messianic yearnings that had helped to fan the flames of the Great Revolt, and would soon lead to the Bar Kokhba Revolt. To be sure, other social, economic, and political causes were at work, especially a general decline in relations between Jews and their neighbors in the Hellenistic world, but when these finally led to the of a rebellion, it was the belief in a messianic future that made possible the leap of faith to the belief that the revolt might succeed.

Early in the time of Hadrian there was an abortive attempt to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple, believed by some scholars to have had Hadrian's support. The failure of this effort was another great disappointment for the Jewish community of Palestine. Soon after, Hadrian founded a city of his own in Jerusalem called Aelia Capitolina, where he erected a temple to Zeus. It is also probable that Hadrian prohibited circumcision even before the Bar Kokhba Revolt, although some see the outlawing of circumcision as a measure enacted after the upris­ing had begun, much like the persecutions of Antiochus IV. It was in this context, as well as on the basis of the strong messianic yearnings we have observed already, that some ele­ments in the Jewish population of Palestine began preparing for revolt in the 120's.

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Lawrence H. Schiffman

Lawrence H. Schiffman is the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University.

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