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date: 06 December 2023

Bar Kokhbafree

Bar Kokhbafree

  • Werner Eck


Shim‘on Bar Kokhba lead the rebellion of a part of the Jewish people, who organized an independent Jewish state for the short period from 132 to 136, during the reign of Hadrian. The rebellion which was finally crushed by the Roman army with heavy effects for the Jewish heartland in the province Judea.


  • Jewish Studies

Updated in this version

Text and bibliography expanded to reflect current scholarship.

Bar Kokhba (“son of a star”) is a sobriquet given to Shim'on, the leader of the Jewish revolt from 132–136. In his own letters, his real name is—in Aramaic/Hebrew language—Shim'on bar/ben Kosiba (P. Yadin 50; XḤev/Se 30, et al.); in Greek sources he is called Βαρχωχεβας‎ (Justin, Apol. 1.31.6; Euseb. Hist. eccl. 4.6.2; 4.8.4), or Χοχεβᾶς‎ (Sync. 660) or in Latin Cochebas (Hieron. De vir ill. 21); for all forms of names see PIR2 B 53; S 746.

The Personality of Shim'on Bar Kokhba

The name Bar Kokhba (“son of a star”) carries a positive messianic association; it should go back to Rabbi Akiba, with reference to Balaam’s statement in Numbers 24.17: A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the sons of tumult. Akiba is said to have awarded him the title Messiah: “This is the king: messiah.” However, this assignment to Rabbi Akiba is probably unhistorical; it is an ascription made by later rabbis.1 Bar Kokhba himself used the title ha-Nasi, Prince of Israel, as his documents show.2 Much later, when everybody could see how terribly the Jews in the province of Judea were affected by the rebellion, other rabbis called him “Bar Koziba,” (“son of the lie”).3 As Nasi, he is not only the leader of the uprising, but the one who restores the old religious and political order of Israel. Although he himself did not regard himself as the Messiah, it does not preclude others from seeing this figure in him.

The Reasons for the Uprising

Two sources talk about the reasons for the outbreak of the revolt. According to Cass. Dio 69.12.1, the foundation of Aelia Capitolina caused the insurrection, while according to HA v. Hadr. 14.1, it was the prohibition of circumcision. While the statement of the HA can be understood far more as a punitive measure after the end of the war, the statement of Cassius Dio, who as a Roman senator could very easily have obtained relevant information, is more plausible.4 Exactly when the founding act for the colonia was carried out and thus the name was determined, is not attested; in summer 130, when Hadrian sent a letter from Jerusalem to Hierapolis in Asia, the foundation was not yet implemented, since Jerusalem is named as the place of sending (SEG 55, 1416 = AE 2004, 1424). The colonia still minted coins during Hadrian's reign, but since they are not exactly dated, they may have been minted even after the end of the war, so they say nothing about the time of the legal foundation of the colony.5

Chronology of the Uprising Led by Bar Kokhba

The beginning of the uprising falls in spring 132 AD; for the earliest document that Bar Kokhba mentions contains the date: “first day of Iyyar, in the first year of the redemption of Israel [by Simeo]n bar Kosiba, Prince of Israel.”6 The uprising must therefore have already begun before.7

The military operations lasted about four years. The year four of the redemption of Israel and year four of the freedom of Jerusalem, which extends from March/April 135 to February/March 136, is testified by papyrus documents as well as coins issued by Bar Kokhba and his administration: the fighting could have lasted until spring 136. This is also shown by Roman documents. For at the victorious end of the war Hadrian accepted the acclamation as imperator II; but still, on January 20, 136, this title is missing in the official documents of the imperial chancellery.8

Thus for Rome, the war ended only afterward, since the acclamation was only accepted when all fighting actions had ended. According to Mishnah, Ta'anit 4.6, Bethther (Betar), the last defensive position of Bar Kohkba, not far from Jerusalem, is said to have been conquered on Ab 9 (July/August) 135, with which the war would have ended; also according to Eusebius (Euseb. Hist. eccl. 4.6), the war allegedly ends with the conquest of this fortress. But the documentary sources show that the battles did not end with the conquest of Bethther, but lasted, if the time in Mishnah, Ta'anit 4.6 is correct, more than half a year.

The Territory Affected by the Uprising

Bar Kokhba and his followers never ruled the entire province of Judea. The northernmost finds that refer to his rule come from the area between Nahal Shiloh and Nahal Qana north of Jerusalem near today's Nablus.9 The center was located in the region south of Jerusalem, from the Dead Sea in the east to the area just before the western coastal region, which itself was not reached. The area can be delimited mainly by the finds of Bar Kokhba coins, which circulated only in this directly ruled area, but not outside.10 Likewise, the numerous finds in caves of the Judean desert, especially in the wadis leading to the Dead Sea, indicate that the rebels retreated there, at least in the later period of the uprising. Finally, the majority of the hiding places, which were used by the population in times of danger, and which were mostly located directly underneath above-ground settlements, are located in about the same area where Bar Kochba coins were found.11 However, this does not exclude the possibility that individual groups were also active in military undertakings outside this area.12 Even if the communities in Galilee did not take part in the uprising, individual groups from Galilee had joined Bar Kokhba.13 The city of Jerusalem was never taken by the rebels.14 There were connections across the Dead Sea, as shown not only by the letters of Babatha, but also by the references to the transport of goods on boats from a port probably in the area of Ein Gedi.15 Many of his letters report the transport of goods to the places where Bar Kokhba was located, among them are two mentions of salt.16 Also, inhabitants of the Peraia beyond the Jordan took part in the uprising, since private land there was later confiscated by the Roman fiscus.17

Within this territory, Bar Kokhba seems to have exercised complete control; different places, where his subordinates did their work, are mentioned in his letters. Inside this territory he tried to force all those living there to join the insurgents. According to Justin, whose Apologia appeared soon after the war, he persecuted Jewish Christians when they did not separate themselves from their faith and join him (Apol. 1.31.6; Euseb. Hist. eccl. 4.8.4; cf. Hieron., De vir. ill. 21); that even within that area not all inhabitants voluntarily adhered to him, can be inferred from the interpretation of coin hoards.18 How heavily his rule was enforced is also apparent from the fact that even the private contracts were dated after the era of redemption of Israel or freedom of Israel.19

The Organization of the New Political Community

The new chronology cited at the head of the documents shows the willingness of the rebellious part of the Jews to present themselves as an independent political unity. This is also evidenced by the coinage that proclaims the message: “The redemption of Israel,” or “For the freedom of Jerusalem”; on the coins, a Paleo-Hebrew script is used, certainly a consciously nationalistic choice. Eleazar Ha-kohen, the priest, and Shim‘on, prince of Israel or only Shim‘on, appear as the persons responsible for the coinage. El‘azar appears only in the early periods of coinage, after which his name disappears.20 What can be inferred from this finding for the beginnings of the organization of power remains open.21 Eleazar must in any case have occupied a leading position next to Bar Kokhba for some time. The coins themselves are over-stamped Roman denarii, but there are also coins from cities in the province such as Ascalon or Gaza.22 The overstamps are signs of one’s own “sovereignty.”

Weights were also produced; so far at least ten have become known. On the weight CIIP IV 3426, from Ḥorvat Alim, appears again “Shim‘on ben Kosiba, Prince of Israel” together with two further officials, who are called parnas; one carries the name “Shim‘on Dsnw.” Other people called parnas are found in Hebrew papyri: a Horon, son of Yisma’el, and a Yehonathan.23 Several of the letters of Bar Kokhba are addressed to the just-mentioned Yehonathan and Masabala, who in Ein Gedi perform tasks in the organization of the insurgents, as well as a Yehudah bar Menashe in Qiryath ‘Arabaya.24 He is to procure myrtles and willows for the individual units of the Jewish armed forces, while Yehonathan and Masabala are to deliver palm branches and citrons.25 They also supervised the balsam plantations, which, apart from the levying of general taxes, probably formed an essential source of income for the insurgents.26 Other documents report about leases of land in Ein Gedi.27 But Yehonathan and Masabala receive orders not only from Bar Kokhba, but also from a Soumaios, to whom they should also supply myrtles, willows, palm branches, and citrons for Sukkoth.28 Furthermore, an Annanos writes to Yehonathan on instructions from Shim‘on.29 From these documents a defined hierarchy can be inferred, although the structure is not clear. Shim‘on’s subordinates in Ein Gedi should also arrest and bring to him an Eleazar bar Hitta, a wealthy land owner in Ein Gedi, who opposed Bar Kokhba, and they should confiscate his property.30 He also lets other “guilty” people come to him under guard. In order for his instructions, which, surprisingly, refer to many trifles, to be obeyed, Bar Kokhba threatens several times with severe punishments in case of disobedience.31

The position of Bar Kokhba as the sole representative of the insurgent political unity is also made clear by the fact that he appears in the introductory formula of contracts etc., such as in XHev/Se 7, 8, 11, 49 or P. Yadin 43, 47, just like before the revolt the Nabatean kings or the Roman emperors. He himself issues a letter of protection for Galileans, thus showing that he exercises the highest authority.32 Other letters, without exact content, are addressed to him XHev/Se 30 or written by him XHev/Se 36.

Rome's War against the Insurgents

When Hadrian visited the province in the summer of 130 (Cass. Dio 69.11.1), there was obviously not yet a trace of the uprising.33 Quintus Tineius Rufus, who was consular governor in the province possibly since 129, but certainly since 130 (CIIP II 1276), is probably meant above all when Cass. Dio 69.13.1 claims: “At first the Romans took no account of them,” which at least means that the uprising was not taken seriously.34 That is not quite surprising in view of the strong military power in the province with two legions and 15 auxiliary units, altogether about 20,000 soldiers. But the troops of Bar Kochba must have achieved great success quite quickly through decentralized attacks on smaller Roman units distributed across the country. Bar Kochba succeeded in that by surprise attacks, which were facilitated by the many undergroundinstallations, the so-called hiding places (Cass. Dio 69.12.3). The losses of the Romans must have been enormous, which would have strengthened the self-confidence of Bar Kokhba and his followers.

Whether Hadrian himself returned to Judea again because of the uprising remains controversial; if he did, it was before April 133, when he returned to Rome (AE2011, 1104); after that he did not leave Italy again. Hadrian quickly and unconventionally closed the gaps in the legionary forces by transferring soldiers from the fleet of Misenum to at least the legio X Fretensis in Jerusalem; these soldiers had to receive Roman citizenship before the transfer.35 But other units too must have suffered heavy losses early, probably still in 132 or the beginning of 133, as must be concluded from the frequency of military diplomas 25 years after the years of the war in Judaea.36 Above all, however, Hadrian dispatched troops from other provinces, especially from the Danube region, both legionary vexillations and auxiliary units, to the area of the insurrection. In addition, the governors of the neighbouring provinces, Poblicius Marcellus in Syria and Haterius Nepos in Arabia, were ordered to intervene in the battles; whereas Marcellus certainly left his province Nepos probably had to fight with Nabataeans who had joined the uprising.37 The most important measure, however, was that Sextus Iulius Severus replaced the previous governor, Tineius Rufus (Cass. Dio 69.13.2 f.).38 Against the general rules of advancement, he was sent from his governorship in Britain to Judea, where he adapted his warfare to the guerrilla methods of Bar Kokhba. He avoided open fighting and proceeded against the small groups, which he also starved in the hiding places, as well as in the end those who had fled to the caves of Wadi Naḥal Ḥever and Wadi Seyal and elsewhere in the Judean desert.39 The increasing military difficulties of Bar Kokhba and his followers are probably reflected in the increasingly harsh tone of the Nasi's letters. An emergency situation in a fortress is reported in 134/135.40 At the beginning of 136, the resistance was broken everywhere, the insurgents were either dead or had fled beyond the Euphrates. Hadrian accepted a second acclamation as imperator and awarded the highest decoration, the ornamenta triumphalia, to Iulius Severus, Poblicius Marcellus, and Haterius Nepos.41 In addition, a triumphal arch in honour of Hadrian was built near Tel Shalem to commemorate the end of the war.42

The Consequences in the Province and for the Jewish People

The consequences in the actual area of Jewish settlement in Judea proper were catastrophic. According to Cass. Dio 59.14.1f., fifty of the most important strongholds of the Jews were conquered and 985 villages were razed to the ground, 580,000 Jews were slain, and many others died by famine and disease. The Jewish heartland, Judea proper, was depopulated, as modern archaeology has shown. Only at the end of the 2nd century did villages grow up again. The imperial property expanded considerably and was used for the settlement of veterans.43 Presumably Hadrian forbade circumcision as a punishment for the Jews, a prohibition that was soon lifted by Antoninus Pius; though a general persecution may not have existed, the Jews probably were forbidden to enter Aelia Capitolina.44 The renaming of the province as Syria Palaestina was intended as a punishment, but was probably more a result of the wishes of the non-Jewish inhabitants of the province.45 Galilee developed in the following centuries as the center of Judaism in the province.

Primary Texts

  • Cotton, Hannah M., Leah di Segni, Werner Eck, Benjamin Isaac, Alla Kushnir-Stein, Hagai Misgav, Jonathan Price, Israel Roll, Ada Yardeni Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae A Multi-Lingual Corpus of the Inscriptions from Alexander to Muhammad. Vol 1,1. Berlin: De Gruyter 2010 = CIIP.
  • Ameling, Walter, Hannah M. Cotton, Werner Eck, Avner Ecker, Benjamin Isaac, Alla Kushnir-Stein, Haggai Misgav et al. Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae. A Multi-Lingual Corpus of the Inscriptions from Alexander to Muhammad. Vols. 2–4. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2011 - 2018. = CIIP.
  • Benoit, Pierre, Józef T. Milik, and Roland de Vaux. Les Grottes de Murabbaʿât (Discoveries in the Judaean Desert II). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961.
  • Cotton, Hannah, and Ada Yardeni. Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek Documentary Texts from Nạhal Hever and Other Sites, with an Appendix containing Alleged Qumran Texts (The Seiyâl Collection II). (Discoveries in the Judaean Desert Vol 27), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. = XḤev/Se.
  • Eck, Werner. Judäa - Syria Palästina. Die Auseinandersetzung einer Provinz mit römischer Politik und Kultur. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014.
  • Schäfer, Peter, ed. The Bar Kokhba War Reconsidered: New Perspectives on the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003.
  • Yadin, Yigael, Jonathan Greenfield, and Ada Yardeni. The Documents from the Bar Kokhba Period in the Cave of Letters: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Nabatean-Aramaic Papyri. Judean Desert Studies vol. 3, Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2002. = P.Yadin_ 5/6Ḥev 42.63.


  • Cotton, Hannah M. “The Bar Kokhba Revolt and the Documents from the Judaean Desert: Nabataean Participation in the Revolt (P. Yadin 52)”.” In Bar Kokhba War Reconsidered: New Perspectives on the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome, ed. Peter Schäfer, 133–152. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003.
  • Eck, Werner. “Ein Prokuratorenpaar von Syria Palaestina in P. Berol. 21652”. Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 123 (1998), 249–255. (Updated in Eck, Werner. Judäa–Syria Palästina, 266–274).
  • Eck, Werner. “The Bar Kokhba Revolt: The Roman Point of View.” Journal of Roman Studies 89, 1999, 76–89.
  • Eck, Werner, and Gideon Foerster. “Ein Triumphbogen für Hadrian im Tal von Beth Shean bei Tel Shalem.” Journal of Roman Archaeology 12 (1999), 294–313.
  • Eck, Werner. “Der Bar Kochba Aufstand, der kaiserliche Fiscus und die Veteranenversorgung.” Scripta Classica Israelica 19 (2000), 139–148. (Updated in Eck, Werner. Judäa–Syria Palästina, 275–283).
  • Eck, Werner. “Der Bar Kochba Aufstand der Jahre 132–136 und seine Folgen für die Provinz Judaea/Syria Palaestina.” In Iudaea socia: Iudaea capta, ed. Gianpaolo Urso, 249–265 (Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2012). (Updated in Eck, Judäa–Syria Palästina, 229–244).
  • Eck, Werner. “Hadrian, the Bar Kokhba Revolt, and the Epigraphic Transmission.” In In Bar Kokhba War Reconsidered: New Perspectives on the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome, ed. Peter Schäfer, 133–152. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003, 153-170 (Updated in Eck, Judäa–Syria Palästina, 212–228.
  • Eck, Werner. “Iulius Severus, Statthalter der Provinz Iudaea/Syria Palaestina, und seine Militärdiplome.” In Judäa–Syria Palästina by Werner Eck, 245–255. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014.
  • Eshel, Hanan, Magen Broshi, and Timothy A. J. Jull. “Four Murabba‘at papyri and the Alleged Capture of Jerusalem by Bar Kokhba.” In Law in the Documents of the Judaean Desert, ed. Ranon Katzoff and David M., Schaps, 45–50. Leiden: Brill, 2005.
  • Eshel, Esther, Hanan Eshel,and Gregor Geiger. “Mur 174: A Hebrew I.O.U. Document from Wadi Murabba'at.” Liber Annuus 58 (2008), 313–326.
  • Horbury, William. Jewish War under Trajan and Hadrian, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
  • Isaac, Benjamin. “Roman Religious Policy and the Bar Kokhba War.” In Bar Kokhba War Reconsidered, ed. Peter Schäfer, 37–54. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003.
  • Isaac, Benjamin, and Aharon Oppenheimer. “The Revolt of Bar Kokhba: Ideology and Modern Scholarship.” Journal of Jewish Studies 36 (1985), 33–60.
  • Kloner, Amos, and Boaz Zissu. “Hiding Complexes in Judaea: An Archaeological and Geographical Update on the Area of the Bar Kokhba Revolt.” In Bar Kokhba War Reconsidered, ed. Peter Schäfer, 181–216. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003.
  • Labbé, Gilbert. L’affirmation de la puissance romaine en Judée. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2012.
  • Leibner, Uzi. “Excavations at Khirbet Wadi Hamam (Lower Galilee): The Synagogue and the Settlement.” Journal Roman Archaeology 23 (2010), 220 ff.
  • Martone, Corrado. Lettere di Bar Kokhba. Brescia: Paideia, 2012.
  • Meshorer, Ya‘akov. A Treasury of Jewish Coins from the Persian Period to Bar Kokhba. Jerusalem: Yad ben-Zvi Press, 2001.
  • Mildenberg, Leo. The Coinage of the Bar Kokhba War. Aarau: Sauerländer, 1984.
  • Millar, Fergus. The Roman Near East, 31 BCAD 337. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Mor, Menahem. The Second Jewish Revolt. Leiden: Brill, 2016.
  • Novenson, Matthew V. “Why Does R. Akiba Acclaim Bar Kokhba as Messiah?” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman Period 40 (2009), 551–572.
  • Oppenheimer, Aharon. “The Ban of Circumcision as a Cause of the Revolt: A Reconsideration.” In Bar Kokhba War Reconsidered: New Perspectives on the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome, ed. Peter Schäfer, 55–70. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003.
  • Oppenheimer, Aharon, and Nili Oppenheimer. Between Rome and Babylon, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005.
  • Schäfer, Peter. Der Bar Kokhba-Aufstand: Studien zum zweiten jüdischen Krieg gegen Rom. Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1981.
  • Schäfer, Peter. “Bar Kokhba and the Rabbis.” In Bar Kokhba War Reconsidered: New Perspectives on the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome, ed. Peter Schäfer, 1–22. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003.
  • Stemberger, Günther. “Die Verfolgung der jüdischen Religion unter Hadrian. Zwischen Wirklichkeit und Martyrologie.” Scripta Classica Israelica 33 (2014), 255-268.
  • Weikert, Christopher. Von Jerusalem zu Aelia Capitolina. Die römische Politik gegenüber den Juden von Vespasian bis Hadrian. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016.
  • Wise, Michael O. Language and Literacy in Roman Judaea: A Study of the Bar Kokhba Documents. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.
  • Witulski, Thomas. Apk 11 und der Bar-Kokhba-Aufstand: eine zeitgeschichtliche Interpretation. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012.
  • Zissu, Boaz, Boaz Langford, Roi Porat, and Amos Frumkin. “Archaeological Remains of the Bar Kokhba Revolt in the Te'omim Cave (Mugharet Umm et Tueimin), Western Jerusalem Hills.” Journal Jewish Studies 62, (2014), 262–283
  • Zissu, Boaz, Roi Porat, Hanan Eshel, and Amos Frumkin. “Finds from the Bar Kokhba Revolt from Two Caves at En Gedi.” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 139 (2007), 35–53.
  • Zissu, Boaz et al. “Coins from the Elqana Cave in Western Samaria.” Israel Numismatic Journal 18 (2014), 146–155.