BAR KOCKBA LAST PRINCE OF ISRAEL
by Maurice A. Williams
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The defeat of Judea and the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 by the Roman general Titus is well known in history because of the detailed eyewitness account of Josephus. There was another far more calamitous defeat of Judea sixty-five years later, but the war under Bar Kochba is not as well known because there are no eyewitness accounts of it. His defeat, however, was the final defeat of the Judean nation. Most of the survivors were exiled into slavery by the Roman authorities, and other peoples were brought into Judea to replace them. So effective was this final exile that even as late as 1856 there were only about 10,500 Jews in their entire ancestral homeland.
The first mention of Bar Kochba in history is around A.D. 128 when he became leader of the Judean resistance after the Romans executed the influential Judean patriots Ishmael and Simon. This was a period of turmoil for the Judeans. Their relationship with Rome had been particularity bitter because of the earlier war; the Temple was in ruins, as well as most of Jerusalem. They wanted the Temple rebuilt, but the Roman emperors were minded to put up a temple to Jupiter rather than perpetuate the Judean religion. Injustices were perpetrated by both sides, and by the time Bar Kochba is first mentioned in history, only about 58 years after the fall of Jerusalem, there were already many small bands of Judean patriots engaged in armed conflict with the Roman authorities. Up to that time Bar Kochba was a leader of one of them, but with the death of Ishmael and Simon all the others began to look to him for leadership, and he was able in a very short time to organize them into a regular army.
All through the year 129, Bar Kochba trained his army, organized his chain of command, and prepared for the revolution, and the following year began to attack troops from the Roman tenth legion and defeat them, which added considerably to his fame and popularity. By A.D. 130, many in Judea were viewing him as a second Maccabeus, the popular hero who three centuries earlier had liberated their nation from the Greek Empire. There were also rumors that he was a descendant of the Maccabeans, and that his ancestry could be traced back to King David. Some even thought he was the messianic prince come to deliver them as was prophesied.
By the year 131, Bar Kochba's fame and influence reached throughout the general area. The tenth legion, which could no longer control him, was withdrawn from Jerusalem and was replaced by the renowned sixth legion "Ironsides."
Bar Kochba set up his administration headquarters in the city of Ein Gedi, about twenty-five miles south of Jerusalem near the west shore of the Dead Sea. By this time, his army had grown to 400,000 fighting men. He had his men stockpile whatever provisions they could lay their hands on. They also prepared emergency shelters and food storehouses in remote areas near the city. These were in almost inaccessible caves high on the walls of steep cliffs where it would be impossible for the Roman Army to pursue them.
They also prepared forts and strongholds throughout the country and dug underground tunnels wherever these might give them an advantage when the fighting begins. To make sure they had enough weapons for their offensive, they asked the Judean craftsmen who were producing weapons for the Roman army to deliberately make weapons with flaws so that the Romans would send them back for repair--just in time for the offensive. They planned their offensive for the fall of 132 right after the crops were harvested. By October they were ready. They attacked the sixth legion near the site of the present large Israeli airport at the city of Lydda (Lod in ancient times), and they easily defeated them. When the twenty-second legion was rushed in to crush the revolt, it was annihilated. Within a few months, Bar Kochba's forces had succeeded in liberating, not only Jerusalem and Judea, but also almost all of the area once ruled by King David.
No one has passed down a description of what he looked like, but he was said to have been a very powerful man who could induce fear into battle hardened Roman soldiers. He was able, somehow, to return the Roman stone ballistae flung at him by using his knees. It was said that he killed several Roman soldiers in this fashion. Being brave himself, he insisted on bravery from his men and expected them to demonstrate their own personal bravery by subjecting themselves to the pain of having one of their fingers amputated. As many as 400,000 men were willing to submit to this to prove their loyalty to him.
Another insight into his character comes from an old Judean legend, recorded in the Midrash Lamentations, that one time when he and his forces were on their way to engage the Roman army an old man called out to him: "May the Creator be your help against them!" Bar Kochba's reply was the boastful prayer: "God, You needn't bother to help us. Just don't help our enemies." At some point in his career, probably after he was accepted as Prince of Israel and while the die was cast in the rebellion against Rome, Bar Kochba decided to call upon all Judeans to show their loyalty to the Judean nation. It is not known exactly what he expected of them, but the Church fathers reacted strongly to his expectations. Perhaps it was the forced conscription of all able-bodied Judean men, including those who were Christian, into his army. Whatever he expected, the Christian Judeans considered it an act of blasphemy and a rejection of Jesus. The Church father, Justin, a martyr who lived during the Bar Kochba era, wrote that Bar Kochba ordered Christians to be sentenced to terrible punishment if "they did not deny Jesus Christ and blaspheme him." His remark was quoted by the early Church historian Eusebius who wrote that Bar Kochba persecuted the Christians and killed them if they refused to help him against the Roman troops.
Recent excavations in Israel have unearthed some letters and documents of the Bar Kochba era. They reveal that Bar Kochba was in the habit of issuing brief and direct orders; that he expected absolute discipline; and that he was ruthless with those who dared to disobey him. One recently discovered letter from Shimeon ben Kosiba (Bar Kochba's real name) to Yeshua ben Galgoua (who was military chief at Ein Gedi) threatens Galgoua with imprisonment if he does not mobilize all of the Galileans who are in his area.
During the time Bar Kochba was consolidating the affairs of the newly independent State of Israel, Hadrian was weighing the consequences of allowing the Judeans to remain independent. He had many indications that if Judea wins independence other provinces might also revolt to gain theirs. This would undermine the stability of the whole empire, so Hadrian decided that the revolt must be put down. Since Bar Kochba's forces won some decisive victories over the provincial armies, Hadrian decided to call in his most renowned general, Julius Severus, from the frontiers of Germany. Severus had successfully subdued a widespread German revolt by destroying all the villages used by the German tribesmen to launch their attacks. There are various estimates about the size of his army against Judea, as little as thirty-five thousand men-in-arms according to some, as many as one hundred thousand according to others.
Sometime in A.D. 133, he marched his army in from the north and invaded Galilee. Although he brought in a large army, and Bar Kochba had an even larger army, the two armies never opposed each other in a large-scale field engagement in order to fight a decisive battle. Bar Kochba chose to strike with small hit-and-run forces and conducted a guerrilla campaign launched from many villages and strongholds throughout Israel. Severus, for his part, according to the Roman historian Dio Cassius, did not dare to attack his opponents in a full?scale battle because of their numbers and their desperation. Instead he surrounded any city, town, village, or fort that the rebels used as a sanctuary, attacked it, slaughtered women, children, and livestock as well as Bar Kochba's fighting men, demolished the fortifications, burned their homes, and leveled the city to the ground.
Severus swept his army through Galilee, the valley of Jezreel, through Ephraim, and the Judean hills and finally arrived in the environs of Jerusalem late in 133 or early in 134. The survivors of Bar Kochba's fighting forces kept retreating to safer ground until, by early 134, they had fallen back to Jerusalem and the high hills south of Jerusalem towards the Dead Sea. Jerusalem could not be properly defended because most of it was still in ruins following the war of A.D. 66?70. So Bar Kochba retreated to Ein Gedi, twenty-four miles southeast of Jerusalem, where he had already set up his seat of government. This retreat occurred early in 134 A.D.
By summer of 134, Roman pressure on the city of Ein Gedi had mounted to such an extent that Bar Kochba was forced to retreat with his forces to the smaller but better fortified city of Bethar, about twenty miles northwest of Ein Gedi and about seven miles southwest of Jerusalem. It was very close to Bethlehem, only a few miles away. The city was mentioned in Joshua 15:59, so it is a very ancient city, and it still exists today under the modern name of Bittir. Bethar had a very strong fortress built on a hill and enclosed by a wall, which ran an overall length of 3280 feet. The area within the wall comprised twenty-five acres. The fortress was protected by deep chasms along its walls on the east, west, and north sides. On the south side there was relatively level ground, but this was strengthened against assault by a moat sixteen feet deep, forty-nine feet wide, and 262 feet long running across the southern face of the fortress.
By August 9, 134, Severus placed Bethar under siege. August 9 is a fateful day in Judean history. The Temple fell to Rome on August 9, A.D. 70. Before that, on August 9, 586 B.C., Solomon's Temple fell to the Babylonians. The siege lasted for exactly one year, and Bethar fell to the Romans, once again on August 9th. The plight of the Judeans under siege at Bethar was terrible. The Romans were intent on destroying the rebels, and the Judeans were intent on fighting to the end. By summer of 135, they ran out of food. Famine set in. On the fateful day of August 9, for some inexplicable reason, Bar Kochba, in a fit of rage, killed Eleazar the Priest and shortly afterwards was killed himself.
There are conflicting reports handed down through tradition. It seems Eleazar was a loyal follower of Bar Kochba, perhaps being the High Priest, or at least holding a high-ranking priestly office. He was one of the many Judean priests who were convinced that Bar Kochba was the Messianic Prince. It appears that when the famine became severe, there was some talk of surrender on the part of the Judeans, but Bar Kochba would not permit it. On August 9, Bar Kochba suspected Eleazar of plotting surrender with the Romans. One version from folklore has it that a spy from the Romans, in order to incite division among the Judean leaders, falsely convinced Bar Kochba that Eleazar was negotiating surrender. Bar Kochba confronted Eleazar with the accusation, and Eleazar denied it, but Bar Kochba immediately flew into a rage. He kicked Eleazar hard enough that Eleazar was killed.
When the Romans stormed Bethar on August 9, they massacred practically the entire population of the city. Men, women, and children were slain. Small children and infants were picked up by their feet and their heads dashed against large rocks. The Jewish Midrash claims that on a single large rock three hundred infants were killed this way, and the rock became covered with spilled brains.
School age children were wrapped in their school?scrolls and burned to death. Others, as well as their teachers, were speared to death along with the fighting men. There was so much bloodshed during the assault that blood discolored the river flowing through the city. The Midrash states that the river became one part blood to two parts water, and so much blood seeped into the surrounding ground that the Gentiles used the soil after the war as fertilizer for their vineyards. The river was choked with corpses as it flowed out of the city. When the Roman Calvary crossed the river on horseback during the assault, their horses waded up to their bellies (one source says up to their nostrils) in the blood-red water.
By the time the fighting had ended, 985 Judean towns and villages and 50 fortifications had been razed to the ground, and the fighting had killed 580,000 Judeans. Still other Judeans died as a result of hunger and disease caused by the war. Out of a prewar total Judean population of 1,500,000, only about 800,000 were left. A very large number of the Judeans were sold into slavery to disperse them into other lands. So great was the number of Judeans on the slave market that the price for slaves throughout the empire slumped. Of the Judeans who were left behind, many, who could afford to do so, voluntarily migrated to other lands.
After this large slaughter and deportation, Rome then encouraged foreign peoples to move into the area so that the remaining Judeans would become only one population factor among many others. From that time until recent times, the Judeans were no longer a decisive factor in their ancestral homeland; they remained a minority of the population right up to the nineteenth century. In 1856, for example, there were only 10,500 Jews in all of Palestine. In the late 1860’s, the emigration of Jews from Europe began. Some of them formed Jewish colonies in Palestine. By 1897 there was a total of 50,000 in Palestine, and at the start of World War I there was 90,000.
The destruction and dispersion of the Judean nation is, I believe, one of the main themes prophesied in the book of Revelations. It has been overlooked in many commentaries on Revelations because so little of the details about the career of Bar Kochba have been preserved in historical documents compared to the wealth of information preserved about the war of A.D. 66-70. The Judean nation survived the earlier war. It did not survive the war against Bar Kochba. And the vast majority of Jewish people remained in exile for seventeen centuries before, starting only about one hundred years ago, their descendants began to return to their ancestral homeland to rebuild the modern state of Israel.
Maurice A. Williams
author of “Revelation and the Fall of Judea”
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