The Jewish rebels against Rome left us virtually no records other than the political slogans inscribed on their coins. I call them ancient tweets because they pithily express the political ideology of these last expressions of Jewish sovereignty until the rise of Zionism in modern times, nearly 1,900 years later.
In part one, I described two rebel concepts broadcast to the ancient Jews through coins, which were the most effective mass media of the day.
First, the rebels insisted on Hebrew as the language of the state and on their coins, at a time when Aramaic and Greek predominated. Second, the rebels named their new state Israel, though they lived in a Roman province called Judea. Israel was a connection to the First Temple and as the name for the entire people, was an attempt to internationalize the revolt and recruit Jews outside Judea in the rival Parthian empire.
Here we will discuss two other concepts on revolt coins. Together they define the political legacy of the rebels to all of us who live in modern Israel.
Nasi as the title of the secular political ruler
The First Revolt had no paramount leader. Both Josephus and the rabbis describe infighting among rival groups, which may be reflected in two sets of rebel coinage minted during the Roman siege of Jerusalem.
The Second Revolt did have a paramount leader: Shimon ben Kosiba. His letters were found in a Judean Desert cave and the stories in rabbinic tradition indicate a rough-hewn, blunt-spoken soldier with some charisma. He took the title “nasi” or prince.
The silver coins of the first year of this revolt mention the name of Eleazer HaCohen, who remains unidentified but not Shimon. Minting silver was a key attribute of sovereignty and was more prestigious than bronze. Apparently, Ben Kosiba, who is only mentioned on the bronze coins of year one but thereafter on both silver and bronze coins, needed some religious legitimacy at the start of the revolt.
The word “nasi” has a root meaning of someone who’s elevated and the word appears 132 times in the Bible to generally mean the head of a clan, tribe or people. In the Numbers, Chapter 7, nasi’im are defined as “the chieftains of Israel, the heads of the ancestral houses, those who stood over the counting [of the census],” in other words, sheikhs. In the late Second Temple times, the title of nasi was used to denote the head of the Sanhedrin, the highest rabbinical court of law.
Ben Kosiba returned the title of nasi to the Biblical meaning of a secular political ruler, a prince but not an anointed king.
There is no contemporaneous evidence, such as coins, Judean Desert letters or other writing, that Ben Kosiba claimed to be a messiah. That is a late rabbinic tradition. In the Talmud, he is derisively called Bar Koziba (son of a lie) and the early church fathers used the name (also derived from rabbinic sources) Bar Kochva or son of a star.
But he didn’t use it in his surviving letters. In a midrash written down hundreds of years after the revolt, Rabbi Akiva is mocked by another rabbi who questions Akiva’s supposed claim that Ben Kosiba is the messiah. It should be seen as part of the sages’ deliberate efforts to move the people towards political quietism as a means of survival.
Akiva was the foremost rabbi of his time, whose methods of Torah interpretation were adopted by later generations. That he had also joined the struggle for political independence and died as a martyr is part of his enduring charisma.
Today, the nasi is the president of Israel, connecting to Ben Kosiba’s usage of the title as secular head of a sovereign state.
‘Herut’ or political independence as the national goal
The core meaning of herut, personal freedom and the opposite of slavery, was well established before the time of the revolts. Contemporaneous with the revolts, the rabbis were recreating Passover, the holiday of spring Temple sacrifices and of eating matzah, into the holiday of freedom from slavery. The Mishna states, “He brought us out of slavery to freedom (herut).”
The rebels enlarged the concept of herut to mean the collective political independence of the nation. Bronze coins of the First Revolt proclaim “Year 2 of the Independence of Zion” while those of the Second Revolt say “Year 2 of the Independence of Israel.” These are the most common revolt coins.
Josephus, who was present on the Roman side during the siege of Jerusalem, writes that he shouted appeals to the rebels on the ramparts to lay down their arms. “It might be a fine thing to fight for independence,” he recalls calling out but this revolt against the might of Rome was “not so much love of freedom as deliberate suicide.”
For the rebels, the concepts of the personal freedom of individual Jews and the political independence of the nation were intertwined, as they would later be in the minds of modern Zionists.
The sequence of coin slogans might tell us something about the rebels’ perceptions in the First Revolt. By the fourth year of the First Revolt when Jerusalem was under siege, one set of bronze coins ceases proclaiming independence and starts calling for the redemption of Zion.
Zion literally was the name of one of the core hills that forms Jerusalem but was also used as a symbol for Jerusalem with nationalist connotations. Apparently, the rebels or at least one faction were now seeking divine intervention.
We don’t know if Ben Kosiba succeeded in liberating Jerusalem. The scarcity of Second Revolt coin finds in Jerusalem makes its liberation at best a brief episode. However, Roman sources do describe bloody guerrilla fighting in that revolt, when at least one entire legion disappeared and was never reconstituted, before the Romans surrounded Ben Kosiba’s troops at the Judean mountain fortress of Beitar.
The Zionists, especially the Revisionists, revived the political meaning of herut and it became the name of the Revisionist newspaper and political party, just as Beitar became the name of its youth organization.
There is no reason to be sentimental about the rebels. They failed. The Romans destroyed the Jews’ cult center, confiscated its treasure and paraded its centerpieces around Rome, just as they did in other pacification campaigns. After the Second Revolt, they went further to ban these people from Jerusalem on pain of death, changed the name of the province and destroyed hundreds of towns, villages and farms, enslaving and killing hundreds of thousands.
Unlike many other squashed rebel peoples, the Jews kept their religion and culture alive. For that, we have the rabbinic sages to thank. Not forgotten in Jewish collective memory and preserved on revolt coins were specific concepts of political sovereignty. For that, we have the rebels to thank.
Is it anachronistic to ascribe the creation of a nation-state and a nationalist ideology to the Jewish rebels of 2,000 years ago? Historians don’t think so. But pick up Josephus’s The Jewish War and read it for yourself. The rebels’ concerns and ambitions often seem contemporary.
Perhaps the Jewish revolts were inevitable. When the Romans abolished the system of client kingdoms (including Herodian Judea) and moved to impose direct imperial rule throughout its eastern empire, the Jews were not one of the peoples likely to acquiesce with their gradual assimilation into Greco-Roman culture and eventual disappearance.
This is what happened to the Nabateans and many others. Some Greek-speaking Jewish communities also didn’t survive the twin Roman pressures of assimilation and oppression. But the Jews as a people were always going to fight back and survive. It took nearly 2,000 years but ultimately, the Jews won.
The writer, a former United States diplomat, is a lecturer at Shalem College and the managing editor of The Jerusalem Strategic Tribune.