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More Jewish Revolts, Bar Kokhba and Dispersals

In 115, the emperor Trajan moved against the Parthians and overran Mesopotamia. Jews in Mesopotamia preferred Parthian rule to Roman rule, and military plans by the Parthian Empire against Rome included sending discontented Jews from Mesopotamia to encourage revolt in scattered Jewish communities within the Roman Empire. And it worked: numerous Jewish communities rose against the Romans. On the island of Cyprus and at the city of Cyrene (on the coast of North Africa), Jews massacred gentiles in great numbers. Trajan ended his war against Parthia and brought the great weight of Rome's military might down upon the rebellions. Rome let local gentile majorities have their revenge. In Cyprus, every known Jew was killed and a law was passed forbidding any Jew, even from a shipwreck, to set foot on the island.

Fourteen years later, Trajan's successor, Hadrian, visited Jerusalem and ordered it rebuilt as a Roman city, to be called Aelia Capitolina. And, while he was in the area, Jews planned yet another rebellion. The revolt's leader was Simeon ben Kosiba, known by his admirers as Bar Kokhba (Son of a Star). The foremost rabbi and Judaic scholar Akiva hailed Simeon as another King David the Conqueror, sent by God – in other words, that Simeon ben Kosiba was the Messiah.

In the year 132, after Hadrian had returned to Rome, the revolt began. The Roman legion on the outskirts of Jerusalem was caught by surprise and was driven from its encampments. All fighting was directed against the Romans, and Simeon ben Kosiba was able to establish a government in Jerusalem. He laid plans for rebuilding Solomon's temple, and a new coin was issued describing Simeon ben Kosiba as the president of a redeemed Israel.

The empire was not held together by patriotism. It was held together by fear and a threat of violence, and Emperor Hadrian had to demonstrate to others that it could hold on to a province such as Judea. Hadrian sent new armies into Palestine. Lacking allies, or not being part of a greater war against Rome, this latest rebellion proved as hopeless as those before it. In two years the rebellion was crushed. Perhaps as many as 580,000 Jews died fighting, including Simeon ben Kosiba. It was the last of the Jewish rebellions. The Romans again glutted the slave markets with Jewish captives. Jerusalem was rebuilt as Aelia Capitolina and colonized with non-Jews, and the penalty for Jews entering the city was death. Judea was removed from the map. The prohibition against circumcision was renewed and celebration of the Jewish festivals, observance of the Sabbath, study of the Torah and possession of a scroll of Jewish Law became punishable by death. Judaism was outlawed in the hope that it would cause Jewish survivors elsewhere in the empire to fall away from what Hadrian saw as a troublesome creed.

Crushing an idea was difficult, and intellectual work among the Jews survived. Babylon rather than Jerusalem became the center for the preservation of Jewish tradition. The Talmud produced there was more detailed than previous versions and regarded as authoritative, and in the coming centuries it became the main source of instruction for Jews outside of Palestine.


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