Jesus was a Jew from Judea. Bethlehem is where Jesus was born. He was in Judea and Nazareth where he grew up, and he went about in Galilee and in Jerusalem of Judaea, where he died. It has been suggested that it was the Romans who renamed Judea "Palestine" in 135 CE after defeating the Jewish rebellion, known as the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135 CE). Contrary to this popular myth, the moniker "Palestine" was actually used way before the Bar Kokhba revolt, under the leadership of Simon Bar Kosiba- a tumultuous event often argued to be a significant turning point in Judaeo-Christian history.

I would like to thank Judge Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, Lawrence H. Schiffman, for his insights on one of the most fascinating and lesser-known charismatic Jewish leaders, Simon Bar Kosiba.

Although the Bar Kokhba revolt has no detailed eye-witness account such as that of Flavius Josephus for the First Rebellion, what did the ancient rabbis say about this revolt?

There are two trends regarding the way in which the Bar Kokhba Revolt is discussed in rabbinic literature. On the one hand, we encounter the notion that the leader of the revolt, whose real name was Simeon bar Kosiba, was thought by his followers and even by Rabbi Akiva to have been the Messiah, while other rabbis disputed that notion. In fact, some later rabbinic sources played upon the name Kosiba and the Hebrew root KZV, to lie or be false, proclaiming him a false Messiah after his failure. The other main motif in rabbinic literature is the tremendous price the Jews paid for rebelling--the total destruction that is also related in classical sources and that has been traced by modern archaeologists. So again, two motifs: Messiah/false Messiah and tragedy and destruction. An important subset of the way in which rabbinic sources relate the destruction of the land is the detailed description of the martyrdom of some of the rabbinic leadership during the Hadrianic persecutions intended to punish the Jews of the Land of Israel in the aftermath of the revolt.

Did Emperor Hadrian (Publius Aelius Hadrianus, (r.117-138 CE) ever propose the idea of allowing the Jews to rebuild the Temple as did his predecessor Emperor Trajan (Marcus Ulpius Traianus, r. 98-117 CE)?

In fact, despite the claims of some later sources, Hadrian did the opposite, which was a major factor in sparking the rebellion. Most probably, the perennial straw that broke the camels back (donkey would be more accurate) and set off the revolt in 132 was the decision of Hadrian to rebuild the city of Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina, and his plan to turn the Temple Mount into a temple to the Roman god Jupiter. When the revolt was finally put down, in about 135 CE, Hadrian continued this plan as recent archaeological excavations clearly show. His resolve to move in this direction further cemented the hatred of many Jews for the Roman Empire. This, despite the fact that in both the Great Revolt (66-73 CE) and the Bar Kokhba Revolt it seems that Jews were to be found not only as opponents of Rome but also as supporters.

It has been suggested that Hadrian followed exactly in the footsteps of the Seleucid Greek Empire of the second century BCE by specifically targeting Sabbath observance, circumcision, the laws of family purity, and the teaching of Torah. He assumed that the solution to a Jewish "problem" was by destroying Judaism. Can you elaborate?

There is a tremendous similarity between the steps taken by the Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes in reaction to the Maccabean Revolt (168-164 BCE) and those taken by Emperor Hadrian in response to the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Both of these rulers decided that the rebelliousness of the Jews itself resulted from their particular religious practices and beliefs. Hence, both rulers thought that in putting down the revolts and in punishing the Jews for their rebelliousness, religious persecution would be an effective tool. In both cases, they failed to understand that the persecution and attempt to stamp out Jewish practices and beliefs only increased the resoluteness of the Jews to retain their particular beliefs and practices.

According to Deo Cassius ― the revolt was very bloody and very costly. The Romans lost an entire legion in battle. The 22nd Roman legion walked into an ambush and was slaughtered and never reconstituted. By the end of the revolt, the Romans had to bring virtually half the army of the entire Roman Empire into Israel to crush the Jews. Any comments on this?

While it is possible that some of our accounts tended to exaggerate the initial Jewish success, it seems that the Romans were really caught off guard and that Bar Kokhba quickly controlled much of the province of Judea and parts of the Galilee as well. The Romans had to bring to bear massive force to reconquer the territory. The wide geographic spread of the revolt, as well as the destructive force of the Romans, can be seen both in the tremendous number of refuge caves that were dug under Jewish homes as well as in the evidence of widespread destruction of hundreds and hundreds of small Jewish villages at the hands of the Roman army.

It has also been suggested that the Jews came very close to winning the war. Thus, why did they lose in the end?

They were so close to winning the war, at least that’s what the rabbis thought, that the only explanation they could give for the Roman victory was the accidental killing of his uncle, Rabbi Eleazar Hamodai, by Bar Kokhba. In truth, just as in the earlier revolt that led to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, the Romans had no choice but to win this war since they feared Parthian incursions into their Empire from the east. The Land of Israel was a bulwark facing the Syrian Desert, and the Romans could not chance to allow it to fall into Parthian hands.

Do you believe that a definitive rupture arose between Judaism and Christianity during and after the Bar Kokhba revolt? Can you elaborate on both perspectives?

Since many Jews believed that Bar Kokhba was actually the Messiah, some scholars have suggested that the definitive break based on which Christianity was now to be seen as a separate religion occurred as a result of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. This view maintains that Christians could not participate in the revolt because they could not sign on to a cause that claimed that someone other than Jesus was the Redeemer. This theory is based on a report that some Jewish Christians fled the land of Israel to Pella, Transjordan during the Bar Kohba Revolt. But there is evidence that the Jewish-Christian schism was well underway even earlier, as I tried to show in a small book entitled “Who Was a Jew? Rabbinic Perspectives on the Jewish-Christian Schism.” On the one hand, there was a gradual realization by the early rabbis that Christian belief and practice were not compatible with Judaism. On the other hand, when under the influence of the Pauline approach Christianity turned to Gentiles, it soon became clear that the vast majority of Christians were simply not Jews from the point of view of Jewish law. Hence, by the time the Bar Kokhba Revolt took place, the schism was already growing into a chasm so that if anything, the Bar Kokhba Revolt completed a complex process already underway.

Emperor Trajan (r. 114 CE) embarked on a military campaign to crush the Persian (Parthian) Empire in the east (today Iraq and Iran). After initial successes, Trajan's legions suffered a series of defeats, and he was forced to retreat. He died while on this campaign in 117 CE. The Jews of the Parthian Empire fought side by side with their Persian allies and embarked on a series of behind-the-lines guerrilla actions. Did several Jewish Diaspora communities within the Roman Empire also rise up in revolt?

We know that a variety of Jewish communities in the diaspora rose up in violent revolt in North Africa, Cyprus and Egypt. Numerous inscriptions identify buildings as having been rebuilt after the Jewish revolts in those areas. In fact, in Cyprus, the Jewish community virtually never recovered and only now in modern times have some Jews begun to live in Cyprus. Most scholars do indeed believe that the difficulties Trajan had in his war with the Parthians were a major stimulus for these revolts. But we should under no circumstances forget that widespread anti-Semitism in the Roman world and the inability to enlist government officials in the defense of Jewish rights were among the most powerful reasons for the diaspora revolt.

In the 1960s CE, a cave in the Judean desert was found called the “Cave of Letters" because it contained a cache of documents which included several letters from Bar Kokhba himself, shedding extraordinary insight on his personality. Under his leadership, the Jews united in their final war against the Romans, and he remains one of the most important and enigmatic figures in Jewish history. Any further commentary would you like to add?

Actually, letters by Simeon bar Kosiba (Bar Kokhba) himself were found in two caves, Wadi Murabba`at in what was then Jordanian territory in the 1950s and later at Nahal Hever in Israel, in the 1960s. Further, all kinds of fascinating economic documents were also recovered from these caves and from other sites in the Judean Desert along with some biblical manuscripts. These materials have opened up for us all kinds of information about Jewish society, law, and language, in addition to the Bar Kokhba letters that tell us about the revolt. From these documents, we learn of the way in which Bar Kokhba’s agents ruled local communities of Jews during the period of his ascendancy. Further, we can trace in these documents, according to an assumed chronological order, Bar Kokhba’s increasing difficulty in fending off the Romans and in controlling his armies. As the war proceeded towards the eventual Jewish defeat, his letters became more and more desperate as it became clear that things were moving in the wrong direction for him. I have to say that it’s an amazing thrill to see the name of Simeon bar Kosiba on these letters and to realize that this person really did live in antiquity and that the revolt that he undertook, even if it eventually failed, was a major event in the history of the Jews and the Roman Empire.