Epigraphy in Context: The Bar Kokhba Revolt

An inscription from Tel Shalem shifts the narrative of a 2nd-century CE Jewish revolt

You’re in your family’s attic, with a flashlight and a single goal: find the puzzle your great-great-aunt used to love when she was a kid, the one she referenced in her diary. It’s gotta be up here somewhere you think, coughing from the dust.

Suddenly, on the floor in the corner, you spot a random puzzle piece. That looks promising. You put it in your pocket. Looking closer, you see another piece across the room, peeking out from under a box.

Hours later, you’re back at the kitchen table with a handful of pieces that look to be what you were searching for. You even have a corner piece – and yet, it doesn’t seem to have the same pattern on it as the others. You try to imagine the scene that might bring these pieces together, something with dogs on it like the diary mentions. Can you do it? This corner piece really narrows down the possibilities for what this picture could have looked like. But then, Grandma comes up behind you and looks over your shoulder; you know, she says, that corner piece could definitely be from a different puzzle I had as a young girl.

You start sketching the puzzle you see in your mind. But what should you do about this corner?

A jigsaw puzzle of ancient papyri fragments. Decipher this text — if you dare!

Historians and epigraphers face debates like this with every piece of evidence they find. In this story, think of the attic like a set of archeological digs. Your puzzle pieces are bits of tombstone, pottery, and columns with words and pictures carved into them, worn with time and broken. You know that each piece has a puzzle it belonged to, a historical story it fits into. Yet, it’s often hard to know if the story it comes from is the same as the one you are trying to put back together.

For example, let’s consider the story of the Bar Kokhba revolt, a Jewish uprising against the Roman Empire in 130-135/6 CE. In order to figure out what happened, we have access to both literary and epigraphical evidence. However, most of the literary records we have from the revolt consist of fleeting references. These function much like your great-great-aunt’s diary; she wasn’t trying to describe the puzzle so her descendants would know the details. It’s not even clear that the puzzle you found is the one she’s talking about. And yet, your best hope for figuring out what the puzzle looked like is to match her diary to the puzzle pieces you have, and hope they line up. Scholars have tried for years to match ancient textual references to the fragmentary epigraphical and archeological evidence we have, arguing every step of the way about which pieces of evidence count, and which shouldn’t.

Papyrus fragment discovered in Nahal Hever, the “Cave of Letters.” 1

As a result of this process, historians have come up with wildly variable theories about the Bar Kokhba revolt. Not even the chronology of what happened is clear! 2 The stories told about this time are often formed in light of present-day ideologies, to various degrees reflecting the author’s political leanings and their modern societal views. As a reader, it can be hard to separate the evidence a scholar is using from the bias of their interpretation.3 Luckily for us, having epigraphic data makes this easier.4

So let’s return to our analogy, and the evidence: the old diary represents a bunch of ancient writers such as Cassius Dio5 and documents discovered in Nahal Hever that seem to connect to the revolt.6 The puzzle pieces are old coins minted by the rebels7 and cave systems that may have served as hideaways.8 You are the historian. What is the infamous corner piece?

In 1978, archeologists discovered fragments of an inscription that presumably belonged to an arch built for the Roman Emperor Hadrian around the time of the Bar Kokhba revolt (tsha0002). In 1999, historian Werner Eck triumphantly filled in the missing words from the arch, basing his analysis on Roman formulae used for inscriptions.9 Given this full dedication to Hadrian, Eck used historical context to place the arch at the end of the revolt, and to place the end of the revolt in 136 CE.10 So what’s the big whoop, you ask? This arch comes from Tel Shalem, an historically little known place far outside of where scholars previously thought the revolt took place. That’s right – Eck analyzed this arch as evidence that the Bar Kokhba revolt covered a much broader region and subset of the population than our other puzzle pieces alone suggest.11 Eck painted a picture of large-scale rebellion, Roman panic,12 and violent destruction that encompassed all of Judea.

Monumental Latin inscription discovered in Tel Shalem.
Part of a triumphal arch commemorating Hadrian’s victory over the Bar Kokhba revolt. 13

The excitement of this conclusion is undeniable. We start envisioning a romantic tale of full-fledged rebellion, guerilla warfare, and epic battles where an underdog violently struggles for six years before being tragically and ruthlessly defeated. The Empire versus the entire province of Judea, not just a fringe group of unhappy vagrants. At least, that’s where several historical fiction writers have gone with the story.14 And yet, remember the questions we asked about the corner puzzle piece you found in your attic? Those questions don’t disappear just because they make us sad. Questions of authenticity, dating, or completeness that might drastically change the picture you’re reconstructing – they never truly go away. That is what it means to be an epigrapher, an historian, and a scholar.


Bourgel, Jonathan. “The Destruction of the Samaritan Temple by John Hyrcanus: A Reconsideration.” Journal of Biblical Literature 135, no. 3 (September 21, 2016): 505–23. doi:10.1353/jbl.2016.0032.

Eck, Werner. “The Bar Kokhba Revolt: The Roman Point of View.” The Journal of Roman Studies 89 (1999): 76–89. —- “Hadrian, the Bar Kokhba Revolt, and the Epigraphic Transmission,” in The Bar Kokhba War Reconsidered: New Perspectives on the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome, ed. Peter Schaefer (Tuebingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003), 151-170.

“The Inscription Dedicated to Hadrian from the Tel Shalem Arch – FOLLOWING HADRIAN.” Accessed June 28, 2017. https://followinghadrian.com/2014/10/30/the-inscription-dedicated-to-hadrian-from-the-tel-shalem-arch/.

Isaac, Benjamin, and Aharon Oppenheimer. “The Revolt of Bar Kokhba: Ideology and Modern Scholarship.” Journal of Jewish Studies 36, no. 1 (April 1985): 33.

Mor, Menahem. The Second Jewish Revolt. Vol. 50. The Brill Reference Library of Judaism. BRILL, 2016.

Schafer, Peter, ed. The Bar Kokhba War Reconsidered. Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 100. Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2003.

“Village Razed, Rebel Beheaded.” The BAS Library, August 24, 2015. http://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/33/5/7.

Further Reading

Alon, Gedalia. The Jews in Their Land in the Talmudic Age, 70-640 C.E. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, the Hebrew University, 1980.

Applebaum, Shimon. Prolegomena to the Study of the Second Jewish Revolt (A.D. 132-135). British Archaeological Reports, 1976.

Bowersock, Glen W. “The Tel Shalem Arch and P. Nahal Hever / Seiyal 8,” in The Bar Kokhba War Reconsidered: New Perspectives on the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome, ed. Peter Schaefer (Tuebingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003), 171-180.

Cotton, Hannah, and Ada Yardeni, eds. Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek Documentary Texts from Naḥal Ḥever and Other Sites: With an Appendix Containing Alleged Qumran Texts. The Seiyâl Collection 2. Oxford : New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, 1997.

Millar, Fergus. A Study of Cassius Dio. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964.

Porat, Roi, Hanan Eshel, and Amos Frumkin. “The ‘Caves of the Spear’: Refuge Caves from the Bar-Kokhba Revolt North of ʿEn-Gedi.” Israel Exploration Journal 59, no. 1 (2009): 21–46.

Yadin, Yigael, Hannah Cotton, and Andrew Gross. The Documents From the Bar Kokhba Period In the Cave of Letters: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Nabatean-Aramaic Papyri. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2002.

  1. Author unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
  2. See Schafer’s preface for a summary of current debates and the impact of variable data and theories. 
  3. For example, let’s think about our analogy. Imagine that your family collects puzzles with kittens on them, and with the corner piece you found, an image of a kitten is a possibility for this puzzle that you think belonged to your great-great aunt. Well then, you might be inclined to disregard the evidence of the diary (saying it portrayed dogs) and focus on the corner piece that suggests kittens, so this puzzle becomes evidence of a family tradition. See Issac 34-35. 
  4. The preservation of epigraphic evidence, for example, leaves less room for bias than the preservation of written histories. Whereas written data must be re-copied and/or translated, and passes through many historical filters, epigraphic evidence is a direct reflection of its creator. In addition, when reading scholarly interpretations, it is easier for us to look at the exact evidence that the author is analyzing (Issac 36). 
  5. For an exploration of Cassius Dio in relation to the extent of the revolt, see Mor 149-152 and Eck 1999. 
  6. See works by Hannah Cotton and Yigael Yadin. 
  7. Issac 41-42 
  8. See Roi Porat 2009, also Issac 38-44 for a discussion of the cumulative sources and their interaction. 
  9. See “The inscription dedicated to Hadrian from the Tel Shalem Arch” for image rendering and contextualization of the arch and the pieces that were found. 
  10. That’s a year later than historians had previously thought! 
  11. In his 1999 article, Eck makes an interesting argument regarding previous numismatic (coin) data. Basically, historians found a set of coins minted by rebels. These coins were in a specific geographic region, and we assumed that this region outlined the geographic extent of the revolt. However, Eck argues that these coins outline only territory controlled by the rebels, not including all lands where fighting occurred (81). 
  12. See Eck 1999 
  13. By Oren Rozen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons 
  14. Mor, 2 

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