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Kochba |
Ancient Israel

Kochba is drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 75, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The giant Kochba’s nine-fingered army defies Rome until his temper foils him

Kochba - Ancient Israel’s last president

Kochba - Ancient Israel’s last president
An aerial view of Betar, in the Judean hills, the remains of the headquarters for the rebellion against Rome by Simon Bar Kochba, self-proclaimed “President over Israel.”

He was so powerfully built, it was said, that he could snatch from the air huge stones hurled against him by Roman catapults and then fling the boulders back at his attackers. According to another tale, he found the strongest and fiercest men for his rebel army by proclaiming that only those who severed one of their own fingers were eligible–and thousands, eager to serve at his command, willingly passed the painful test. He and his nine-fingered men led a highly successful revolt against the Romans for nearly four years, setting up efficient Jewish administrative centers deep within the Roman empire, and even minting coins proclaiming independence for the Jewish state. He fell from grace, taking the Jews with him, because he killed a holy man in a fit of temper, and he died in the coils of a giant snake.

That’s some of the mix of fact and legend surrounding Simon Bar Kochba–also known as Simon Bar Koziva, Shimeon Bar Koshba, or Shimeon Ben Kosiba. He is credited with leading the spectacular second revolt of the Jews against Rome, beginning in a.d. 132, and continuing to 135. Much of his history is uncertain, if not clearly mythical, and until the middle of the twentieth century, there was considerable doubt about whether he had ever lived at all.

Yet live he did, as was revealed by astonishing discoveries in caves near the Dead Sea in the 1950s, when archaeologists came upon some thirty-five documents dating from Bar Kochba’s time, including a number of letters, written by Bar Kochba himself, describing himself as “President over Israel.”

The contents of the letters are unremarkable, dealing with such things as the ownership of a cow and the shipment of wheat; none mentions any specific battle, and they are all undated. But when Yigael Yadin, the archaeologist whose expedition turned up the letters, presented photos of them to Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in 1960, members of the Knesset and the cabinet who were present were at first struck dumb. Then, Yadin recalled, “the silence was shattered by spontaneous cries of astonishment and joy. That evening the national radio interrupted its scheduled program to broadcast news of the discovery. Next day, the newspapers came out with banner headlines over the announcement. This was not just another archaeological discovery. It was the retrieval of a part of the nation’s best heritage.”

Most contemporary sources now see the Bar Kochba rebellion as having been provoked by unendurable pressure applied to the Jews by the Roman emperor Hadrian. When he took power in a.d. 117, Hadrian seemed to sympathize with Judaism, and was even said to have promised the Jews that they could rebuild the Jerusalem temple leveled by Roman forces in a.d. 70–probably for political reasons and possibly under the influence of the Jew-baiting Roman historian Tacitus. However, Hadrian changed his mind, enacted a law against castration that forbade circumcision as well, began deporting Jews, and started construction of a new city, Aelia Capitolina, on the old Jerusalem site, with a temple to the pagan god Jupiter where the Jewish temple had once stood.

The rebellion simmered for years, erupting full-force in 132, when Bar Kochba organized a guerrilla army that may have numbered as many as 100,000 men, and began seizing towns and territory. Eventually, the rebels held some fifty strongholds in Palestine, along with 985 towns and villages–including, according to some but not all accounts, Jerusalem itself.

In this, Bar Kochba was aided by the much-admired Rabbi Akiva, who became his armor bearer and proclaimed him the Messiah. Bar Kochba fought the Romans for three-and-a-half years and, according to the Jewish Talmud, became so convinced of his own powers that he arrogantly ordered God to stay out of his affairs, demanding, “Lord of the Universe, neither help nor hinder us.”

Bar Kochba had strong religious support from the sage Eleazar, his uncle, who sat in sackcloth and prayed continually. When the Romans learned of Eleazar’s role in boosting the rebels’ morale, they dispatched an agent to the city of Betar. There, the agent publicly approached Eleazar and pretended to whisper something in his ear. Bar Kochba’s men, of course, seized the agent, who falsely told them that Eleazar was about to hand the city over to Rome. Enraged, Bar Kochba confronted Eleazar, dismissed the holy man’s denial of the accusation, and kicked him so hard that Eleazar died.

Betar fell to the Romans shortly afterwards, and the rebellion ended with the slaughter of an estimated 580,000 Jews. The blood that flowed was said to be so heavy that it rose to the level of the horses’ nostrils, and coursed from Betar into the Mediterranean Sea with so much force that it carried boulders along with it. For their part, the Romans lost so many of their own that when the emperor reported his victory to the Senate, he omitted the traditional, “I and the army are well.”

Bar Kochba was killed–beheaded by the Romans in some accounts, strangled by a giant snake in others. With the now leaderless revolt put down, Hadrian plowed Jerusalem under and clamped down even more tightly on Judaism, barring Jews from the entire region of the Holy City, forbidding not only circumcision, but the study of the Torah, the keeping of the Sabbath, and even the making of any Jewish calendar.

Bar Kochba’s defeat “marked the end of Jewish hopes for an independent state for almost 2,000 years,” writes Rabbi David E. Lipman in his essay The Bar Kochba Revolt. “We didn’t have our own country again until May 14, 1948”–when the modern state of Israel was proclaimed in the Middle East.

The rebel leader’s followers had changed his actual name, Bar Kosiba, to Bar Kochba, meaning “son of a star,” underlining their conviction that he was the Messiah. But in the Jewish tradition he is denied such a title, for the Messiah is still to come.

This is the end of the Kochba category article drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 75, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about Kochba from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at