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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

The Jewish Revolts of the Second Century

In the aftermath of Titus's capture of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Roman senate honored Titus and his father, the emperor Vespasian (69–79), with a grand triumphal procession, later memorialized in the Arch of Titus, which still stands in Rome. However, although the Roman army had succeeded in crushing the Jewish rebels, it failed to crush the spirit of rebellion, fueled in part by anti-Roman and militant messianic sentiments, which exploded again during the reigns of Trajan (98–117) and Hadrian (117–38). Papyri, inscriptions, and archaeological data, as well as the writings of Appian and Dio Cassius and of the later Christian historians Eusebius and Orosius, provide evidence of a massive uprising of the Jews of Egypt, Cyrenaica, and Cyprus.

The revolt probably began early in 115 and was quelled roughly two and a half years later. Although its causes are uncertain, long-standing tension between the Jewish and Greek communities of the region, especially in Alexandria, was a factor, and Palestinian Jewish refugees who had fled to Egypt and elsewhere after 70 may have fanned nationalistic and messianic sentiments. Even if the revolt began as a conflict between the Jewish and non-Jewish populations, however, Rome was soon involved. Trajan sent Marcius Turbo, one of the leading generals from his ongoing campaign against the Parthians, to suppress the rebellion. Dio names one “Andreas” as the leader of the uprising in Cyrenaica; Eusebius may be referring to the same individual as “Lucuas their king.” The significance of the designation king is unclear, but the uprising may have had messianic underpinnings, and, if so, Lucuas may have been regarded as a messianic figure by some. In either case, the data clearly reveal the widespread and devastating character of the revolt, including not only the deaths of thousands of Jews and non-Jews but also the great destruction by Jewish rebels of land and property, including many temples and sacred precincts. In its aftermath, the Jewish communities of Cyrenaica and the formerly populous Jewish communities of Alexandria and the Egyptian countryside decreased in number and significance. The situation in Cyprus was only slightly better.

Although the data are sketchy, it is likely that the Jews of Mesopotamia, newly annexed by Rome, participated in an anti-Roman rebellion that began in 116. It was suppressed by another of Trajan's leading commanders, Lusius Quietus, who was awarded with an appointment as the first consular legate of Judea. Quietus also took steps to suppress unrest among the Palestinian Jewish population.

This unrest probably in turn contributed to the outbreak of the third and final major Jewish anti-Roman rebellion, the war of Bar Kokhba. This uprising centered in southern Judea, the region of biblical Judah, and lasted from 132 to 135 CE. Here, too, the causes, character, and course of the revolt are imperfectly known. The pagan, Christian, and rabbinic sources are mostly later, are often inconsistent, and have their respective biases and concerns. But recent discoveries at sites in the Judean desert, including coins and letters from the rebel forces, have allowed historians to look anew at the revolt.

The leader of the revolt was Simeon bar Kosba, or Kosiba, referred to in Christian sources (and perhaps by those Jews who regarded him as the Messiah) as Bar Kokhba—literally, “son of a star.” Rabbinic sources portray the venerable Rabbi Akiba as having regarded Bar Kokhba as the Messiah, although many other sages did not. Indeed, the belief in Bar Kokhba's messiahship was not necessarily widespread among his followers. The coinage of the rebels identifies him as the nasi, or head, of Israel, and his letters further substantiate the scope of his authority among the rebels to whom he issued orders concerning military, economic, and religious matters.

The strength and early successes of the rebels alarmed the Roman government. Hadrian went so far as to summon, from the opposite end of the empire, one of his top generals, Julius Severus, then serving as governor of Britain. And Hadrian himself, writing from the front, failed to greet the Roman senate with the customary opening, “If you and your children are in health, it is well; I and the legions are in health”—another indication of the severity of the situation. According to the historian Dio Cassius, Hadrian's lapse was due to the great losses suffered by his troops. But the Roman army finally prevailed, defeating the rebels decisively at Bethar, southwest of Jerusalem.

The revolt had many causes. Anti-Roman nationalistic unrest and militant messianic sentiments were key factors, as probably was the confiscation of Jewish land by the Roman government in the aftermath of the First Jewish Revolt. The latter contributed to the growing impoverishment of the Judean peasantry, many of whom may have participated in the uprising. If Dio is correct, Hadrian's plans to build a Roman city on the site of Jerusalem precipitated the revolt, while a later source attributes it to the emperor's prohibition of circumcision.

In the aftermath of the revolt, the Roman government changed the name of the province from Judea to Syria Palaestina. Jews may have been banned from Jerusalem and its vicinity, although the degree to which such a ban was enforced by later emperors, as well as its duration, are unclear. Jerusalem was transformed into the Roman city of Aelia Capitolina, and it was given the coinage and architecture typical of Greco-Roman cities of this era, continuing Hadrian's policy of hellenization in the Roman east.

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