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Bringing Bar-Kochba to Life: The Findings at Murabba’at

What did we really know about Bar-Kochba for two thousand years? The material in rabbinic literature was brief and the passages had a legendary quality (e.g., he had 200,000 soldiers with amputated fingers and another 200,000 who had uprooted cedar trees in Lebanon). There were only brief references to him in church fathers. The Roman historian, Dio Cassius, (circa 200 C.E.) gave important background information about Hadrian’s war against the Jews, but did not mention Bar Kochba. Josephus, whose writings included the events of Masada in 72-73 C.E. died before the time of Bar Kochba.

The only tangible evidence that we had of a Jewish revolt at the time of Bar Kochba (132-35 C.E.) were thousands of coins. From these coins, we at least learned that he had a first name, “Shimon,” and that he titled himself,  “Nasi Yisrael.” Some of the coins also had another name, “Elazar Ha-Kohen.”

Yigael Yadin summarizes: “But when all the fragmentary tales and traces of Bar-Kochba were assembled, they amounted to no more than the lineaments of a ghost. He figured in Jewish folklore more as a myth than as a man of flesh and blood, as impersonal as a Hercules or a King Arthur.”

But then, the discoveries at the caves of Murabba’at changed all this! (After the caves at Murabba’at were discovered, caves at other sites were discovered that shed further light on Bar Kochba. One such site is Nahal Hever. But, I am going to focus on Murabba’at in this column.)

In the fall of 1951, four caves were discovered by a bedouin at Murabba’at (technically: “Wadi Murabba’at.”) This was a few years after the initial findings of texts in caves at Qumran. This new site was about 11 miles south of Qumran. (The Qumran findings had motivated the bedouin to look in other caves!)

In December 1951 and January 1952, the scholar, Roland De Vaux, was shown a few documents by an antiquities dealer that had the original Hebrew name of  “Bar Kochba” on them. (I will explain further below). This was a very dramatic find! De Vaux bought what he was shown and was able to be led to the caves, together with another scholar that he brought along. (When the two of them got there, they found 34 bedouins fleeing from their illicit exploration!) Shortly thereafter, a team led by the above two scholars were able to investigate these four caves. A fifth cave was discovered in 1955.

The four caves revealed evidence of occupation from many different periods: 1) the fourth millennium BCE, 2) the period from 2000-1500 BCE, 3) the eighth or seventh-centuries BCE, 4) the Hellenistic period, 5) the Roman period and 6) the Arab period. But the most interesting material came from the Roman period, as these caves were used as outposts by Jewish fighters allied with Bar Kochba during the Jewish revolt that he led against the Romans.

Among the findings from this period were: 1) fragments from Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy and Isaiah, 2) tefillin fragments, and 3) contracts and deeds of sale in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.

According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica (12:528), “the tefillin are of the type which became standard from the beginning of the second-century C.E. onward, unlike those found at Qumran, which belong to an earlier type and include the Ten Commandments.” Similarly, the texts of the Tanach found at Murabba’at are closely related to our texts today, and are significantly closer than the Tanach texts found at the Qumran. (The Qumran Tanach texts are earlier, dating from the third-century BCE to the first century CE.)The fifth cave revealed a scroll of the Trei Asar, containing a substantial portion of nine of the 12 books.

But the most important finds in these caves were two letters dictated by Bar Kochba to the Jewish leader at this site, Yeshua ben Galgoula. (More letters from Bar-Kochba were found later on at Nahal Hever.)

Here is the text of one letter: “From Shimon ben Kosiba to Yeshua ben Galgoula and to the men of the fort, peace. I take heaven to witness against me that unless you —— (word is illegible) the Galileans who are with you every man, I will put fetters on your feet as I did to ben Aphlul.”

The second letter reads: “Take cognizance of the fact that you must arrange for the five kors of wheat to be sent by the (members of) my household. So prepare for each of them, his lodging place. Let them stay with you over the Sabbath. See to it that the heart of each is satisfied. Be brave and keep up the courage of the people of the place. Peace! I have ordered whosoever delivers his wheat to you to bring it the day after the Sabbath.” (This text is according to Encyclopaedia Judaica 12:529. Parts are speculation.)

According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica article: These caves “seem to have been the last redoubt of (Yeshua) and his men and their families. The Romans pursued them there and wiped them out, as they did to their comrades in Nahal Hever. Some of the manuscripts bear signs of having been violently torn up by the invaders.”

Regarding the name of the leader of the Jewish revolt, the non-Jewish sources had called him “Kochba”  or “Bar Kochba,” which suggests “ככב” as the root. But in rabbinic literature, this name was spelled with root “כזב”: “Koziba.” With the Murabba’at and Nahal Hever letters we now have — for the first time —, letters with the actual spelling of his name. We see that the middle letter is always a “samech.” The second word of his last name was pronounced: “Kosiba.” A widespread view is that the other two versions of his name were based on puns. The one based on the ”כוכב“ (meaning astar) spelling, was probably what his supporters called him (based on Numbers 24:17). This name spread to the gentile sources as well. But in rabbinic literature, since his rebellion ended in failure, they always used the root “כזב” for his name — a root which was synonymous with “falsity” and “lying.”

In his book, Yigael Yadin tells the story that when he showed Ben Gurion some of the documents in Aramaic, Ben Gurion’s angry reaction was: “Why did they write in Aramaic and not Hebrew?!” It was as if Ben Gurion was expressing anger at the members of his staff for doing this! (Ben Gurion did not seem to care, or did not realize, that Aramaic was probably more widespread among Jews in Bar Kochba’s time than Hebrew was.) Yadin’s 1971 book is aptly titled: “Bar-Kokhba: The Rediscovery of the Legendary Hero of the Last Jewish Revolt Against Imperial Rome.”


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. For more of his articles, please visit his website: www.rootsandrituals.org. Like “Kosiba,” the name “First” is also useful for punning!

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