Messiah (mâšîah, "the anointed one"): Jewish religious concept, a future savior who will, in some sense, come to restore Israel. The nature of both the Messiah and the restoration was a matter of debate, and there were several claimants.
Simon ben Kosiba (132-135 CE)
Sources: 'Abot de Rabbi Nathan A 38.3; Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 57a-58b; Genesis Rabbah 65.21 (on 27.22); Lamentations Rabbah 1.16 §45 and 2.2 §4; Palestinian Talmud, Ta'anit 4.5 (commenting on Mishnah, Ta'anit 4.6); Palestinian Talmud, Nedarim 3.8 (commenting on Mishnah, Nedarim 3.10-11a); Seder Elijah Rabbah 151; letters from Wadi Murabba`at (ed. P. Benoit, J.T. Milik and R. de Vaux); fifteen letters from Nahal Hever (ed. Yigael Yadin); Appian of Alexandria, Syrian war 50; Cassius Dio, Roman history 69.12.1-14.3; Eusebius, History of the church 4.5.2 and 4.6.1-4; Fronto, Letter to Marcus Aurelius; Historia Augusta, "Hadrian", 14.2; Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah 2.15; Jerome, Commentary on Daniel 9.24-27; Justin the Martyr, First apology 31.5-6 and Dialogue with the Jew Trypho 108.1-3.
The story of Simon ben Kosiba's war against the Romans can be read here.
Comment: Jesus of Nazareth and Simon ben Kosiba are the only Jewish leaders who are positively identified as Messiahs in the Jewish sources: Jesus is explicitly called "Messiah" by Flavius Josephus, Ben Kosiba in several rabbinical treatises. In order to understand the following text, it must be remembered that Ben Kosiba was known under two other names: his adherents called him Bar Kochba, "son of the star" (a reference to Balaam's prophecy); and his enemies called him Bar Kozeba, "son of the disappointment" or "son of the lie". The editor of the Palestinian Talmud clearly belonged to the second group. He tells:
Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai taught: "Aqiba, my master, used to interpret a star goes forth from Jacob as a Kozeba goes forth from Jacob." Rabbi Aqiba, when he saw Ben Kozeba, said: "This is the King Messiah." Rabbi Yohanan ben Torta said to him: "Aqiba! Grass will grow on your cheeks and still the Son of David does not come!"note[Palestinian Talmud, Ta'anit 4.5.]
This text contradicts itself. In the first line, rabbi Aqiba (the president of the rabbinical academy at Yavne and the official religious leader of the Judaean Jews) expresses that he is disappointed in Simon ben Kosiba, but in the second line he is very enthusiastic. The only way to solve this inconsistency, is to accept that the editor of the Palestinian Talmud has changed the text on two places. Because there are parallel texts,note[E.g., Lamentations Rabbah 2.2 §4.] we may assume that the text originally ran like this:
Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai taught: "Aqiba, my master, used to interpret a star goes forth from Jacob as a Kochba goes forth from Jacob." Rabbi Aqiba, when he saw Ben Kosiba, said: "This is the King Messiah." Rabbi Yohanan ben Torta said to him: "Aqiba! Grass will grow on your cheeks and still the Son of David does not come!"
The editor of the Palestinian Talmud changed all references into "son of the disappointment" (Kozeba), but, however the precise wording of this testimony, it is clear that Aqiba said that Simon ben Kosiba was the Messiah and was corrected by rabbi Yohanan ben Torta. If our reconstruction is sound, we know that he proposed to call him "son of the star" (Bar Kochba). This nickname must have been very popular, because it is also used by the contemporary Christian authors Justin Martyr and Ariston of Pella:
Barchochebas, the leader of the revolt of the Jews, gave orders that Christians alone should be lead away to cruel punishments, unless they should deny Jesus as the Christ and blaspheme.note[Justin, First apology 31.6.]
The Jews were lead by a certain Bar Chochebas, which means Star.note[Ariston of Pella, quoted by Eusebius, History of the Church 4.6.2.]
A star is also what we see on the roof of the Temple, depicted on the coins which Simon ben Kosiba struck. All this can only mean that Simon ben Kosiba was indeed regarded as the man to whom Balaam's prophecy was applied, the Messiah.
These coins tells us more. In the first place, they show us the Temple and the Ark of the Covenant inside it. This shows that the restoration of the Temple was one of the aims of the rebellion. This is not necessarily a messianic aim, but it was a popular theme in the decades preceding the war of 132-136. For instance, an Aramaic translation (a "targum") of Isaiah 53.5 written about 100 CE, adds the words "and the Messiah will build the sanctuary".
Another point that deserves attention is the legend, which reads on the obverse "Simon, prince of Israel" and on the reverse "Year one of the redemption of Israel". From the Amidah or Eighteen prayer, we know that the word "redemption" had a very strong eschatological meaning. But it is not strictly messianic. On the other hand, the obverse legend can only be understood in a messianic sense, because the word "prince" (Nasi) is a common synonym for Messiah. It is therefore very difficult not to interpret Simon's coins as the coins of a Messiah.
Simon ben Kosiba wrote letters to his fellow rebels, several of which have been found by archaeologists. Again, he calls himself "prince" (e.g, "On the twenty-eighth marhesvan of the third year of Simon ben Kosiba, prince of Israel...").
Another aspect of Ben Kosiba's career that becomes understandable when we know that he was recognized as the Messiah, is the description of a miracle fraud:
That famed Barchochebas, the instigator of the Jewish uprising, kept fanning a lighted blade of straw in his mouth with puffs of breath so as to give the impression that he was spewing out flames.note[Jerome, Against Rufinus 3.31.]
This is of course a rationalization of a miracle story. The interesting point is that this type of miracle is exactly what the Messiah was expected to do:
Behold, when he saw the onrush of the approaching multitude, he neither lifted his hand nor held a spear or any weapon of war; but I saw how he sent forth from his mouth as it were a stream of fire, and from his lips a flaming breath, and from his tongue he shot forth a storm of sparks. All these were mingled together, the stream of fire and the flaming breath and the great storm, and fell on the onrushing multitide which was prepared to fight, and burnt them all up, so that suddenly nothing was seen of the innumerable multitude but only the dust of ashes and the smell of smoke.note[4 Ezra 13.9-11.]
One final piece of evidence may be introduced. As we saw above, the contemporary Christian author Justin stated that Simon ben Kosiba ordered Christians to be "lead away to cruel punishments, unless they should deny Jesus as the Christ and blaspheme". This only makes sense when Ben Kosiba feared a rival Messiah.