June 20, 2024
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The Story of Masada: A Reevaluation

The Roman campaign against the Jews at Masada took place in the winter-spring of the year 72-73 (or 73-74). When the Jewish revolt against Rome erupted in 66 C.E., bands of Jewish rebels were able to take over some fortified sites from Roman garrisons. Three such fortified sites were still in Jewish hands after the Jewish revolt ended in 70. But the Romans were quickly able to take over the first two. Only Masada remained. (The name “Masada” derives from “metzudah”=fortress. “Masada” is how the Romans wrote the name in Latin.)

Ari Shavit writes in “My Promised Land”: “For centuries, Jewish history largely ignored Masada. The tale of its zealots was perceived as a tale of suicidal extremism.” But he continues: “In 1923, Josephus’ ‘The Jewish War’… was translated into Hebrew. In 1925, the Zionist historian Joseph Klausner wrote with great affection about the zealots of Masada. Two years later, Yitzhak Lamdan published his tragic poem ‘Masada.’ As Jewish nationalism was revived, so was interest in the remote, forgotten site and all that it embodied.”

Here is a summary of the final events at Masada in a 2019 book by Jodi Magness (“Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth”): “Two thousand years ago, 967 Jewish men, women, and children reportedly chose to take their own lives rather than suffer enslavement or death at the hands of the Roman army. They were the last holdouts of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, which had ended officially three years earlier, in 70 CE… During the revolt, these families found refuge atop Masada… Now, however, they were besieged by an overwhelming Roman force, and it was clear that the fortress would fall. At this critical moment, the rebel leader, Eleazar Ben-Yair, gathered the men together and convinced them to commit mass suicide.”

Josephus reports two speeches given by Ben-Yair. Here is an excerpt from the first: “We determined neither to serve the Romans nor any other save God… Let us not now, along with slavery, deliberately accept the irreparable penalties awaiting us if we are to fall alive into Roman hands… We have it in our power to die nobly… Let our wives thus die undishonored, our children unacquainted with slavery…”

When all were eventually persuaded, each man killed his own wife and children. Then the men gathered together and drew lots, determining which ten would put the others to death. The remaining men drew lots, and one man killed the other nine before taking his own life.

If everyone at the site killed himself, how do we know about the speeches and the story? Josephus writes: “They had died in the belief that they had left not a soul of them alive to fall into Roman hands; but an old woman and another, a relative of Elazar, superior in sagacity and training to most of her sex, with five children, escaped by concealing themselves in the subterranean aqueducts, while the rest were absorbed in the slaughter.” In the morning when the Romans advanced and saw nothing but solitude and flames, these women and their children emerged and “informed the Romans…one of the two lucidly reporting both the speech and how the deed was done.” (Presumably, he means the sagacious woman was the reporter.)

How do we know if this story is true? Our only source for it is Josephus.

Much archaeological work at the site was done by Yigael Yadin from 1963-65. His approach was to accept the basic elements of Josephus’ story.

One key find, in Yadin’s words, were: “Eleven small, strange ostraca, different from any other, which had come to light in Masada. Upon each was inscribed a single name, each different from its fellow, though all appeared to have been written by the same hand… Among these eleven inscribed pieces of pottery was one bearing the name ‘Ben Yair.’” Yadin concluded that it is possible that these ostraca reflect the final ten lots that were cast.

But the archaeologists who excavated after Yadin were much more skeptical. Magness writes that the archaeological evidence is not conclusive. The real issue is the credibility of Josephus and that she prefers to leave to specialists in Josephus.

The following are some of the problems with Josephus’ story:

-If the ostraca that Yadin found were “lots” connected to the final evening, they should have numbered either several hundred (the first sortition) or ten. Whether these ostraca were lots or simply tags used for other purposes (e.g., food distribution) remains an open question.

-The whole idea of anyone remembering and recounting two long speeches is hard to believe. Moreover, it seems from Josephus that Eleazar was speaking only to the men (VII, 322). How could that woman, despite her sagacity, have even heard these speeches? Moreover, even if she was eavesdropping, she could not have known about the actions of the last ten men. Josephus wrote that these women and children had “escaped by concealing themselves in the subterranean aqueducts, while the rest were absorbed in the slaughter.”

-Josephus was writing his “The Jewish War in Rome.” He does not claim to have spoken to that sagacious woman. (Was she even brought to Rome?) His only source about the final events would have been what Romans told him about what the woman said to them. This is hardly reliable.

-The Masada story is told at the end of Josephus’ “The Jewish War.” It has been suggested that he invented the story to give his work a dramatic ending.

-Josephus tells an interesting mass suicide story about the city of Jotapata (=Yodefat). Before he became a traitor and sided with the Romans, Josephus was the Jewish military leader of the entire Galilee. This included Jotapata. As the Romans destroyed the city, Josephus tells us that he and 40 others were able to take refuge in a deep pit. When they were discovered by the Romans and were shortly to be taken, the others wanted to kill themselves. But Josephus did not want to die and was willing to turn himself in to the Romans. (The Romans had conveyed a message to him that they wanted to capture him alive. This was not to punish him. Rather, it was due to admiration of his valor.) He told his fellow Jews that he was willing to kill himself but he came up with a lottery idea: “Let us leave the lot to decide the order in which we are to kill ourselves; let him who draws the first lot fall by the hand of him who comes next.” The others agreed. But at the end of this process, “by fortune or by the providence of God,” he was left alone with one other and then he convinced the other to remain alive with him! The comment in the Loeb edition of Josephus here is: “The historian’s veracity in this narrative is not above suspicion.” If his story about Jotapata is not credible, he loses credibility in the suicide story he tells about Masada.

An important article on Josephus’ mass suicide story at Masada was written by the scholar Shaye Cohen (Journal of Jewish Studies, 1982). He makes many of the above arguments and several more. Nevertheless, he is not willing to conclude that the story was entirely an invention of Josephus. He thinks that some of the Jews at Masada did kill themselves and their families, but Josephus turned it into a suicide of all. This made the story more compelling.

Unfortunately, we will never know the truth.

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected].

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