Jewish Revolts Essay

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Josephus best tells the first military struggle of the Jews against Rome in his Jewish War history, but a background history can be ascertained from the New Testament and the Pseudepigrapha. Both sources tell of a fractured political and religious society, at first ruled by a local ruler (Herod) and then ruled by imperial agents of varying qualities (for example, Pontius Pilate was offensive to Jews). Taxes were high, and Romans tended to discriminate against non-Hellenized Jews. Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls testify to many sectarian divisions within the Jewish faith. Josephus speaks of public discontent taking the form of riots, banditry, and fanaticism.

When the war broke out under Nero’s reign in 66 c.e., Jews at first were united and held the upper hand. Political intrigue at home kept the Romans from reasserting themselves for two years. The tide quickly turned with Vespasian, and later his son Titus, in charge of the Roman legions. The traditional date for the destruction of the Temple is a solemn fast day for observant Jews, also the very date that the Romans burned the city and desecrated the Temple Mount 60 years later. Only the Western “wailing” Wall of the Temple was preserved. When Jews were driven out of Jerusalem in 70 c.e., they took refuge at Masada, a wilderness cliff fortress. There, after a long siege, all 1,100 holdouts recognized their certain fates and committed suicide.

After the failure of this revolt Jews found themselves without a temple, without clear religious leadership, and without a political and economic infrastructure. Their ruling council, the Sanhedrin, was disbanded; sacrifice and pilgrimage in the city of Jerusalem was eliminated or drastically reduced; and the Roman legionnaires were given the most valuable and sacred of the Jewish land. After a certain period of time even the historical record is silent.

Hostility against Romans must have simmered, however, because later historical records tell of a second uprising of Jews against Rome, beginning outside Palestine. Fighting first began in Mesopotamia and Judaea, but then open warfare broke out in Egypt, Cyprus, and Libya. The Roman emperor Trajan responded by dispatching his trusted and ruthless generals Martius Turbo and Lucius Quietus. Romans retaliated by slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Jews throughout the troubled areas. The Great Synagogue of Alexandria, one of the wonders of the world, was razed. In Cyprus it is said that no Jew remained alive. The hated general Quietus was made governor of Judaea.

The next period of time was presided over by the emperor Hadrian. The main Roman history comes from Dio Crassus, some 100 years later and incomplete, and from very late Jewish and Christian sources. Hadrian took a different tack than his predecessor Trajan. He dismissed Quietus as governor and executed him. He appointed two Jews as his liaisons and openly encouraged the redevelopment of the city of Jerusalem. According to the rabbis, the Romans gave permission for the rebuilding of the Temple.

Then Hadrian’s conciliatory attitude toward the Jews changed. First, he proposed that the Jewish Temple should be built somewhere else than the Temple Mount. Then his daughter was murdered, and his Jewish liaisons bore the blame. Hadrian took strong measures against the Jews in rapid succession: He forbade outside Jews from returning to Palestine, forbade Jewish religious observances, and decided to erect a pagan temple where the Jewish Temple was. Intense negative reaction laid the conditions for the third revolt.

Only the Jews and the Christians mention the name of the instigator of this war. His nom de guerre was Bar Kokhba (Shimon bar Kosiba). Bar Kokhba was at first remarkably successful: He defeated the Tenth Legion in Jerusalem and then chased the Romans out of the important areas of Judaea. He attracted some 400,000 Jewish recruits, who then defeated the Roman military reinforcements brought in from Syria, Egypt, and Arabia. Within one year he recaptured 985 villages and constructed 50 fortresses. Bar Kokhba proved himself an able bureaucrat in the early days of his government, setting up administrative systems and land division. He also restamped Roman coins with the mottos “Freedom of Jerusalem” and “Freedom of Israel.”

In the face of such an emerging state Hadrian had to send in his best general, Sextus Julius Severus, recalling him from Britain. Because Bar Kokhba had learned techniques of guerrilla warfare, Severus had to fight patiently and slowly. Severus put down the insurgency largely by starvation, siege warfare, and propaganda, because the Jews had taken refuge in isolated terrains and in rugged natural strongholds, such as caves and cliffs. When Jerusalem was taken in 135 c.e., the insurgents made their last stand in Beth-Ter, a well-protected town southwest of Jerusalem. Though they withstood the Romans for a long time, in the end the townspeople ultimately turned on Bar Kokhba and killed him.

After the siege Hadrian razed Jerusalem and made good on his promise to put a Roman temple on the Temple Mount. And he decreed that no Jew could ever again enter the city or even lay eyes on it from afar. After the Bar Kokhba war, Jewish and Roman relations entered into a long period of mutual enmity.

In the beginning of the third revolt Bar Kokhba was so impressive in battle that messianic speculation swirled about him. Many rabbis apparently openly embraced him as the messiah. Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph, who approved of the revolt, applied to his name a messianic title: Bar Kokhba, “the son of the star.” Probably most of the Palestinian sages had similar views at first. One noted rabbi demurred, saying, “Akiba, grass will sooner grow on your chin, before the Messiah comes.” Akiba died along with an estimated 500,000 others in Palestine when Bar Kokhba was defeated. Countless others, including many rabbis, were sold into slavery. Rarely is the name Bar Kokhba used in Jewish sources, while it is the normal name given in Christian sources. Rabbinic texts bitterly refer to him as Bar Koziba (son of the lie), a pun on his name bar Kosiba.

References:

  1. Reznick, L. The Mystery of Bar Kokhba. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1996;
  2. Schwartz, Seth. Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 B.C.E. to 640 C.E. Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001;
  3. Smallwood, E. M. The Jews under Roman Rule. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1981.

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