On my recent trip to Israel I wanted to buy a local souvenir to remind me of my trip and integrate with my faith. Among the gems hidden among the tourist traps were several antiquity shops. Some people purchased Widow’s Mites or Denarius or other such items (I purchased a bronze Roman ring that I lost when we moved a few months ago). I wanted something different. When I saw a coin from the second year (AD 133) of the Bar Kochba revolt, I knew that was the souvenir I wanted.
Who was bar Kochba and why did he revolt? Glad you asked. Simeon ben-Kosiba, renamed Simeon bar Kochba (’son of a star’ which is a Messianic allusion from Numbers), was a Jewish revolutionary. He was proclaimed by many as the Messiah and the populace rallied around him as they prepared to throw off pagan powers. In 132, new coins were minted with the year 1 on them, signifying the beginning of the new nation under the man who would would, in the tradition of the Maccabees, bring about God’s deliverance.
The revolt shook the Roman Empire to its core. Recent archaeological evidence shows how much the Jews rallied behind their leader and how the Romans initially faced some difficulty. After gathering themselves, the Romans crushed the Jews (hundreds of thousands were supposedly killed) in 135. Survivors were exiled from Jerusalem as it was rebuilt as a pagan city.
Why is this important, beyond the historical interest? Because it is the story of a man who was hailed as a Messiah, had a three-year reign, was killed by the Romans, and the movement died, never to be revived. One hundred years earlier another less-popular man had a similar mission, with a few modifications, and today his followers number in the billions. What’s the difference? The claims in what happened after they died.
I have the Bar Kochba coin to remind me, in contrast with the results of his rebellion, of the transformative power of the resurrection of Jesus and the billions that, after his death, claim him as their Lord. With Jesus, no one took up arms (save one or two misguided apostles), no one minted coins signifying rule, and no one lost their life in battle. Instead, people have put down their arms, given their coins and possessions to Caesar and the poor, and lost their lives in service to others.
As usual, a few quotes from N. T. Wright say it better that I could (emphasis mine):
In particular, we have no reason to suppose that after the crucifixion of a would-be messiah anyone would suppose that he had been exalted to a place either of world rulership or divine lordship. Nobody, so far as we know, ever suggested that this was the case after the deaths of Judas the Galilean, Simon bar-Giora, or Simeon ben-Kosiba. Actually, such a suggestion would most likely have been regarded as at best ridiculous and at worst scandalous. The failure of such men to lead a successful messianic movement debarred them from further consideration as candidates for such a position. Even if someone had made such a suggestion, however, they would not then have gone on to say that this person had been “raised from the dead.” Belief in exaltation alone would not lead, in the world of first-century Judaism, to belief in resurrection. If, by contrast, we suppose that the followers of a crucified would-be messiah first came to believe that he had been bodily raised from the dead, then we can trace a clear line by which they subsequently would have come to believe that he must be the Messiah. And if he was the Messiah, then he was also the world ruler promised in Psalm 89 and Daniel 7, and thus he was exalted over the world, and so on. All our texts suggest that this actually was the train of thought that the early Christians followed.
And again, challenging those who deny the literal physical resurrection of Jesus in favor of a metaphorical sense:
Once again, let us be clear. If, after the death of Simon bar-Giora in Titus’ triumph in Rome, or if, after the death of Simeon ben-Kosiba in 135, you had claimed that Simon, or Simeon, really was the Messiah, you would invite a fairly sharp response from the average first-century Jew. If, by way of explanation, you said that you had had a strong sense of Simon, or Simeon, as still being with you, still supporting and leading you, the kindest response you might expect would be that their angel or spirit was still communicating with you—not that he had been raised from the dead. So far as we know, the followers of the first-century messianic or quasi-messianic movements were fanatically committed to the cause. They, if anybody, might be expected to suffer from cognitive dissonance after the death of their great leader. In no other case, however, right across the century before Jesus and the century after him, do we hear of any Jewish group saying that their executed leader had been raised again from the dead.
The very fact that they are Christians today shows early on people were convinced God had worked mightily and powerfully through him and that he is the ruler of the world. That’s what I want to remember, and I’m glad I have the coin as a physical reminder.