His birth name was Simon bar Kozeba, but the great Jewish sage of the day, Rabbi Akiva, christened him “bar Kokhba,” meaning “Son of the Star,” a Hebrew wordplay on a verse from the Book of Numbers that says “A star (kokhba in Hebrew) has shot off Jacob.”
For more than three years, from 132-135 CE, Simon bar Kokhba led Jewish forces in a remarkably successful revolt against the overwhelming power of the Roman Empire — piling up victories (and Roman corpses), setting up a provisional government, minting his own coins (thousands of which remain on the market) and inspiring the Jewish people with visions of biblical prophecy and political liberation.
Bar Kokhba and the Jewish rebels were fueled by a longstanding hatred of Rome, which for nearly two centuries had kept Israel under its imperial heel. Over the years, various rebels and so-called messiahs emerged to try to deliver the Jews from this yoke. One Jewish hope, Judas the Galilean, was killed about 4 BC, and a generation later messiah from Galilee, the carpenter’s son from Nazareth, was nailed to a cross by the Romans.
But there’s a twist to the story, one revealed recently in the ancient Jewish writings known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered accidentally in the caves near Qumran overlooking the Dead Sea, by a Bedouin goat herd in 1947, but not translated for decades.
What emerged in the new translation caused a sensation: the revelation in the scrolls that Jews of the first century CE were actually looking for two messiahs. One would be a priestly leader and prophet who would raise up the faithful Jews and renew the faith of Abraham. The other, however, would be a monarch who would free the land of Israel and rule over a restored biblical kingdom.
Did Jesus of Nazareth and Simon bar Kokhba fit the bill, each in their own way? But why did the name of Jesus survive, and inspire a new religion, while Simon bar Kokhba disappeared from history?
The answer to this question lies in a dark forbidding cavern in the blistering desert east of Jerusalem, and it’s at the heart of the Jewish-Christian divide. In the 1960s, an Israeli archeologist found a trove of letters — the largest cache of ancient correspondence ever uncovered in Israel — that included messages from Bar Kokhba.
Four decades later, convinced that more evidence of Bar Kokhba’s reign was overlooked, Richard Freund returned to the desolate area with the latest in modern equipment, including ground-penetrating radar. And he discovered much more about the mighty Simon bar Kokhba.
The cave mouth is high up a craggy cliff face, and rare birds nest in the cool darkness, protected today by strict laws that mean wildlife officials must keep a lookout to prevent the archeologists from entering whenever a bird is spied bringing food back to the nest.
Despite the obstacles, Freund’s team found yet another cache of artifacts and produced a sharpened new view of Bar Kokhba’s revolt and place in Jewish history — including evidence of Judaism’s final breach with the religion founded by the first messiah, Jesus.
“I think the split occurred right in the middle of the Bar Kokhba rebellion,” Freund told us, “when the Christians said ‘This is not our Messiah’ and the Jews said ‘This is going be the liberation we have been praying for all these years.'”
Bar Kokhba’s letters show him warning his followers not to trust the “Galileans” — a common name for the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. The Galileans, who already were being called Christians, were in the ascendancy. While the Romans were fighting the Jews, the Christians were gaining power and influence and converts in the heart of the Roman Empire.
This was not their war with the Romans, for the Christian messiah was the Prince of Peace, and they would win in the end, with history-changing results. And without the support of the Galileans, Simon bar Kokhba’s revolt was doomed.
All of the above from the story “In Israel, unearthing the tale of a Jesus rival named Simon bar Kokhba” by Michael McKinley.
The Jewish sage Rabbi Akiva indulged the possibility that Simon could be the Jewish Messiah, and gave him the surname “Bar Kokhba” meaning “Son of the Star” in Aramaic, from the verse from Numbers 24/17: “There shall come a star out of Jacob”.
Yose ben Halaphta, in the Seder ‘Olam (chapter 30) called him “bar Koziba” meaning, “son of the lie”.
Bar Kokhba and Jesus were not the man described in Isaiah 53 who is G-d’s vessel for the redemption of the Jewish people who have returned to him in Israel from the diaspora. The Jews had not been scattered among the Nations to the four corners of the world for the regathering in Israel never to be exiled again in the days of Bar Kokhba and Jesus.