May 18

Bar Kochba and Messiah ben Joseph?

If Kochba was not a Davidide (descendant of David) how could Rabbi Akiva declare bar Kochba as the Messiah? His messianic credentials were established by referencing the prophecy concerning a star out of JACOB (Num 24.17) not (for example) referencing 2 Sam.7 or the Judah prophecy in Genesis 49.  This makes it unlikely that he was from Judah.

In a previous post we speculated that bar Kochba was from the tribe of Simeon. His origins are not clear and our speculation is based purely on his name (Simeon) and his zeal for the torah possibly making him a member of the “scribal tribe”.    Reland believed that Bar- kochba probably bore this name, as originating from Kokab, a city and region beyond the Jordan. He made his descent of such special importance, because he sought for a deeper meaning in the coincidence of the name of his birth-place with that of the subject of the prediction Num. 24.[1] Michael Avi-Yonah surmised that this new  prince (nassi) of Israel was descended from David, and his kinship  with Rabbi Eleazar of Modein suggests that he had Hasmonaean blood.[2]However, a Davidic descent seems highly unlikely. His status was established not through lineage (which would surely have been mentioned if it were true) but by Rabbi Akiva’s theological support. How then could a Rabbi support a non-Davidic messiah?  Is there a precedent?

It was at this point that I came across the book Messiah ben Joseph by David C. Mitchell.[3]

Mitchell says,

“There is in rabbinic literature, a figure called Messiah ben Joseph. This Messiah comes from Galilee to die, pierced by ruthless foes, at the gate of Jerusalem. Upon his death, Israel are scattered amidst the nations. But his death, as we shall see, confounds Satan, atones for sin, and abolishes death itself. And then he is raised to life again”.

Mitchell quotes Torrey;

“The doctrine of the two Messiahs [i.e. ben David and ben Ephraim] holds an important place in Jewish Theology... It is not a theory imperfectly formulated or only temporarily held, but a standard article of faith, early and firmly established and universally accepted”.[4]

It is obvious that some sections of the Jewish community split the messianic functions into two distinct roles, that of suffering servant (ben Joseph?) and that of victorious ruler (ben David). Some scholars argue that “two messiahs” is a late doctrine (to explain the Kochba failure?) but Mitchell argues that the “two messiahs” doctrine is early. The exact origins of Messiah ben Joseph are a matter of debate among scholars. It has been suggested that Messiah ben Joseph arose out of a Jewish collective memory of Simon bar Kochba.[5]


Of course, if Jesus was understood as “messiah ben Joseph” then Kochba could argue that he was “messiah ben David”   (if he was descended from David?).  Kochba would never accept the role of “suffering servant” (ben Joseph?).

The situation is rather confusing because Jesus was not regarded as either messiah ben Joseph or messiah ben David by the nation.  Jesus was simply not accepted at all (by the religious elite).

So, then, the Num 24.17 prophecy suggests a non-Davidide, which would make an identification of Kochba with messiah ben Joseph likely – but in a militant (rather than suffering role).    The situation regarding Jewish messianic belief in the second century is confusing (to say the least) and we cannot discount cross-fertilization (from Christianity).  Perhaps the “doctrine” was more flexible and not as theologically rigid as some scholars presume. For example, Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 52a records of a dispute between Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas and other unnamed rabbis. Rabbi Dosa takes Zechariah 12:10 to apply to the mourning for Messiah ben Joseph, while the rabbis think the mourning is for the evil inclination. The talmudic redactor sides with Rabbi Dosa: the mourning is for Messiah ben Joseph. (Mourning the Evil Inclination, he adds, would be absurd.) It then speaks of how Ben Joseph's death frightens Messiah ben David, so that he urgently prays for his life to be spared.[6]  Zechariah 12 constantly mentions the “house of David”, “Jerusalem” and “Judah” how then can the rabbi’s apply it to ben Joseph?   Frankly, it is a mess.  However, I have settled for Akiva regarding Kochba as a militant “ben Joseph” or “ben Ephraim” in other words, a non-Davidic “messianic” ruler over all Israel.

[1]   Reland (Geogr. II. p. 727), cited from Christology of the Old Testament by Hegstenberg, Ernst Wilhelm, 1802-1869 (Alexandria, D.C., W. M. Morrison,1836)


[2] Michael Avi-Yonah, ed., A History of the Holy Land (Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Publishing House, Ltd.; and New York: The Macmillan Company, 1969), pp. 162-67

[3] David C. Mitchell, Messiah ben Joseph,(Campbell Publications, 30 May 2016).

[4] Ibid, Mitchell, pg 1 citing, Torrey 1947: 253.

[5] See also, Wikipedia contributors. (2018, April 18). Messiah ben Joseph. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:50, May 15, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Messiah_ben_Joseph&oldid=837011450

[6] Ibid, Wikipedia

Mar 18

Bar Kochba

Shimon ben Koussaba as personification of the Torah

Yehuda Shenef has independently reached similar conclusions regarding Bar Kochba. I have taken the liberty of summarizing two pages from his German book –interspersed with my own comments (in blue):  Yehuda Shenef points out that Kochba’s patronymic   כוסבה [Koussaba]  בן  [ben]   שמעון [Shimon] equates to 611 which is the same value as  תורה (torah = 611) – the Hebrew word for law (Kochba thought of himself as the torah made flesh). The torah contains 613 commandments (not 611) but the ever inventive rabbi’s (cf., Rabbi Hamnuna) explained that the verse (Deut 33.4) states that whereas 611 commandments were instructed via Moses, the first two of the Ten Commandments were given directly to the people by God. Of course, 611 does not equal the 616 variant found in the Apocalypse. Shenef proposes ר שמעון as 666, which he equates with “rabbi Shimon” but one would expect “rav” (not simply ר). He does note a fairly large number of rabbinical scholars named Shimon in the time of the Mishnah as it was the most common name among the Tannaim (the tribes of Simeon and Levi were originally scribal and priestly tribes). Shenef examines the name of Esther (a star) known as a deliverer from Persian genocide in Biblical and Talmudic Literature (thus possibly highlighting connections with the Babylonian/Parthian inspired Bar Kochba deliverance) and Shenef equates האסתר (the star = value 666), the beast (=666) and rabbi Shimon (=666). Yehuda Shenef, 666, die Zahl des Menschen: Das Mysterium der Apokalypse im Spiegel Jüdischer , (BoD – Books on Demand, 1 Feb. 2016) , p211- 212…..will probably update my abstract by including this info as a footnote.