This week there was tremendous excitement as the Israeli Antiquities authority revealed that it had uncovered four remarkably preserved Roman swords and a pilum head from a remote cave near the Ein Gedi reserve in the Judean desert. The high level of preservation is due to the dry conditions in the location. Besides the amazing discovery of the artifacts themselves, which date back almost two millennia, one must ask why finding artifacts from this period is so emotional and exciting for Israeli archeologists? The answer can be found in what the Bar Kokhba Revolt itself symbolized to the modern Zionist movement. Yael Zerubavel observed that,
The Zionist search for roots in the ancient national past clearly led to the enhancement of Bar Kokhba’s positive image…Bar Kokhba was a “giant” figure who represented the greatness of the ancient Jewish past.
“From Shimon bar Kosiba, Prince over Israel, Shalom!” These words, written at the beginning of a papyrus document in the second century CE and discovered in a cave in the Judean desert by Yigal Yadin, renowned archeologist and former IDF Chief of Staff, in 1960, electrified the Jewish nation. Israel’s media interrupted scheduled broadcasting and extensively covered the story for days on end. Yadin was granted an audience with the President of Israel, Yitzchak Ben Tzvi, where he announced: “Your Excellency, I am honored to be able to tell you that we have discovered fifteen dispatches written or dictated by the last President of ancient Israel 1,800 years ago.” By so doing, Yadin symbolically erased the rupture of eighteen hundred years of life in exile.
In contrast to the tendency of the rabbinic tradition to gloss over the revolt, early Zionists eagerly seized on the story as proof that Jews, when faced with persecution, were capable of fighting for their dignity and self-respect. Max Nordau an early popular Zionist leader, wrote in an essay about “muscle-Jews” that: “Bar Kokhba was the last embodiment in world history of a bellicose, militant Jewry.” Many Zionist sports clubs that sprang up in the interwar years in Europe were named Bar Kokhba, in honour of the legendary hero who symbolized the “new Jew.” They saw him as the antithesis of the weak Diaspora Jew, constantly fleeing persecution, as portrayed scornfully by Chaim Nachman Bialik in his epic poem, “In the City of Slaughter.”
What especially kept the Jews in a constant state of ferment against Rome was their demand for freedom, the dual freedom of the nation and the individual. The story of the Bar Kokhba revolt came to symbolize the hope that as the Jews returned to their homeland, they would be able to regain their honor by reclaiming their land, their language, and their ability to defend themselves. Binyamin Lau observed that,
The Zionist movement emphasised the historical connection between the Bar Kokhba Revolt and the modern struggle for Jewish independence. The Israeli national dream was kindled by the embers of the Bar Kokhba Revolt.
When Yigal Yadin, a representative of the new Jewish State and a general in the new Jewish army, symbolically uncovered the words of the last Jewish general in Israel, and whenever artifacts from this period, including the four swords revealed this week are discovered, it was almost as if they had been waiting to be reclaimed by their spiritual descendants. Yadin wrote:
It was centuries of persecution of the Jews and their yearning for national rehabilitation that turned Bar Kokhba into a people’s hero, an elusive figure who [sic] they clung to because he had demonstrated, and was the last to demonstrate, that Jews could fight to win Jewish and political independence.
Some of the above article contains excerpts from my book “Jewish Journeys, The Second Temple Period to the Bar Kokhba Revolt, 536 BCE- 136 CE” (Koren: 2021) which is now also available on Kindle.