A Critical Analysis of the Masada Traditions

The Masada tradition comes from the conclusion of Josephus’ The Jewish War. Josephus reported how the Sicarri, led by Eleazar, had seized the mountain fortress of Masada at the beginning of the Jewish revolt in 66. They used it as a base for raids during the war. After the fall of Jerusalem, the new Roman governor Flavius Silva besieged Masada. The Romans built a ramp on one side of the mountain, brought up their forces and battered a hole in the wall. The defending Sicarri built a second wall behind the breach which the Romans set on fire. The Romans withdrew for the night. Inside, Eleazar made a speech, acknowledging that the war had been wrong and had brought disaster on the Jews, and persuaded the defenders to commit suicide rather than be captured or killed by the Romans. The men killed their families and made a heap and burned all their possessions. Ten men, who were chosen by lot, killed the rest of the men. One of the ten killed the other nine and then killed himself. When the Romans attacked in the morning, they found 960 corpses and seven survivors who hid and told the Romans what happened. The Romans “admired the nobility of their resolve”. (1)

Some details of Josephus’ account can be readily verified. The Romans did besiege and capture Masada. The sites of the army camps and the siege wall, which they built(2), are still visible. The ramp, which the Romans constructed to reach the summit of Masada, is still there. Josephus gave the impression that the entire ramp was built by the Romans, so historians have assumed that the siege must have lasted three years in order to build it. In fact, the ramp is built on a natural spur, so much of the material was already there. Jonathan Roth has estimated that the ramp could have been built in as little as eight days. Dan Gill believes it would have taken about a month, so the whole siege may have only lasted four to seven months(3). However, Josephus, himself, did not say how long the siege lasted, only the date on which it finished(4). In fact, he did not devote much space to the actual siege and the construction of the ramp(5), which suggests that it may not have lasted very long.

Josephus recorded that after the Romans had reached the top and breached the wall, the Sicarri built a second wall which the Romans set on fire. A gust of wind from the north blew the flames towards the Romans, threatening to destroy their siege engines. Then, the wind turned to the south, blowing the flames in the other direction, which Josephus wrote showed that God was on the side of the Romans(6). When the archaeologist Yigual Yadin was excavating on Masada from 1963 to 1965, they experienced the same wind changes, showing that Josephus’ description of the dramatic wind change in this area was plausible(7).

The main point of controversy about Masada is what happened after the Romans breached the walls, whether or not the defenders really did mass suicide as Josephus described. An extreme view is that the mass suicide never happened, but the Romans massacred the defenders and covered it up (8). Preceding his account of Masada Josephus described the Roman massacres of 1700 Jews at Macharus and 3000 at the Forest of Jardes (9). Killing Jewish rebels was not something the Romans felt ashamed of and needed to cover up.

Trude Weiss-Rosmarin suggested that Josephus may have fabricated the mass suicide because he felt guilty about the suicide of his own men at Jotapata which he survived (10). However, if the account of mass suicide at Masada was fabricated, why not the one at Jotapata? Josephus did not appear to feel guilty about his actions. He had seen how the revolt had brought destruction on his people and the temple. He now believed the revolt had been wrong and felt vindicated in defecting. Even if he did feel guilty about the suicide at Jotapata, that hardly explains why he would invent a mass suicide at Masada. He would have more likely covered up the events at Jotapata.

Weiss-Rosmarin was also sceptical about Josephus’ account arguing that the “fully armed” and “well equipped with arms” Sicarri should have been able to keep fighting after the wall had been breached (11). However, Yadin’s excavations revealed the defenders mainly had bows and arrows, which would have been effective for shooting at the Romans from behind the wall, but few swords and spears which they would have needed in hand-to-hand fighting with Roman soldiers (12). The Sicarri must have known they would not have been able to defend Masada once the Romans had broken through.

Shaye Cohen has listed other accounts in the ancient world of the inhabitants of a besieged city or fortress committing suicide rather than be killed or captured by the enemy. Some of these accounts have been embellished, exaggerated or made up altogether (13), but that, in itself, does not prove that Josephus’ account has also been falsified .Cohen points out that many motifs and terms in Josephus have parallels in the other accounts. These literary parallels do not necessarily mean that Josephus made up details about Masada, but rather that people in similar situation do similar things. Cohen mentions that the defenders at Masada and Abydos in 200 BC both built an inner wall after the original wall had been breached (14). Of course besieged defenders would try to seal a breach in the wall.

Cohen writes that “ancient historians generally approved of collective suicide”(15), so ancient society, as a whole, presumably also did. The fact, that ancient historians recorded such incidents, even if they may have embellished their accounts, does not mean that collective suicide was a literary motif, which never actually happened, but was, instead, an acceptable option under the circumstances and did happen.

Weiss-Rosmarin also argues that the mass suicide could not have happened because Jewish law forbade suicide (16). However, there were precedents of Jews committing suicide, rather than being captured or killed, going back to King Saul(17), and more recently, in two incidents of collective suicide recorded by Josephus at Jotapata (18). It is plausible that the defenders at Masada, who also faced imminent capture and death, would also consider suicide. The Sicarri’s belief, that they should submit to God alone, and no human master( 19), made them more likely to commit suicide to avoid sinning by being captured and made slaves.

The authenticity of Eleazar’s speech, persuading them to commit suicide, has been questioned. It is unlikely that the reported female survivor could have accurately recalled all of Eleazar’s 2000 word speech, or even if she could, that the Romans would have transcribed it. At least some of it must be Josephus’ creation. David Ladoucer has pointed out that the speech contains allusions to Euripides and Plato (20). It may seem unlikely that a zealous Jew would say such things, so Josephus has apparently Hellenized the speech. On the other side Josephus was still Jewish and he knew about Euripides and Plato in order to incorporate them into the speech. Even if Josephus did Hellenize or embellish Eleazar’s speech, that does not necessarily mean that he did not make a speech persuading them to commit suicide.

Cohen argues that the speech was a creation of Josephus who wanted Eleazar to admit that the revolt had been wrong and that God had rejected them because of their sins(21). However, Josephus did not claim that his portrayal of Eleazar’s speech was 100% accurate, but he described it as the substance of, that is, along the lines of, what Eleazar said(22). It was not an acceptable practice for ancient historians to simply invent speeches to suit their own intentions and agenda. They were expected to “suggest what would have been appropriate to say in the situation or they report basically what was actually said.”(23) If Josephus made up a speech by Eleazar, acknowledging their sins and persuading them to commit suicide, it was because he believed Eleazar really did make such a speech. Eleazar had seen the revolt fail, Jerusalem and the temple destroyed and now they were facing defeat and death. It is quite plausible that he would have felt and reacted just as Josephus portrayed.

Cohen questions when Josephus records that the Romans withdrew while the second wall was burning and waited until the morning to attack. It would have made more sense strategically to storm Masada as soon as the fire died down and not give the Sicarri time to refortify the gap (24). He argues that Josephus had to invent a delay for Eleazar to make his speech, persuading them to commit suicide, and to carry it out. He also thinks it unlikely that the Romans on the other side of the wall did not notice the fires or the Jews killing each other (25).

Instead, Cohen suggests that there was no delay. The Romans stormed Masada, killed some defenders while others committed suicide or set fire to the buildings. Josephus supposedly improved the story, making Eleazar accept responsibility for the war and that God had rejected them. “Condemned by his own words, Eleazar and all his followers killed themselves, symbolizing the fate of all those who would follow in their footsteps and resist Rome.”(26)

If that was what really happened, Josephus could have just said so. The Romans storming Masada, massacring some of the defenders while others killed themselves could have just as easily shown the fate of those who resisted Rome, as if they did not already get the message from the destruction of the Temple. Josephus could have even inserted a speech by Eleazar, acknowledging their sins while the second wall was still burning.

Yadin’s excavations revealed that some Sicarri had burned their possessions in their living quarters (27). It seems unlikely that while the Romans were storming Masada, some defenders went off, gathered up their possessions and burned them. The burning of their possessions suggests there was a delay after the second wall was breached like Josephus recorded. They realised they had lost and burned their possessions.

It may not make sense for the Romans to withdraw, but people do not always do things which make sense. Perhaps they were waiting for the fire to die down. The Romans on the other side of the wall maybe did realise the Jews were killing themselves and they knew what to expect when they entered the next day, but Josephus made them unaware and surprised for dramatic effect.

Josephus recorded that the Romans lost 12 soldiers at the battle at the Forest of Jardes preceding the events at Masada (28). He did not mention any Roman casualties when they entered Masada. This suggests that there was no resistance because the defenders were already dead.

While the other accounts of mass suicide during sieges, which Cohen says were exaggerated or invented, were not contemporary, but were written up to hundreds of years after the events, The Jewish War was published less than five years after the events at Masada(29). Josephus could not have “improved” on events at Masada without antagonising the Roman soldiers, who were still alive and knew what “really” happened and would not have appreciated having their victory, the last battle of the war, written out of history by Josephus.

Cohen also argues that Yadin’s archaeological excavations have cast doubts on Josephus’ account. Josephus said that the defenders gathered all their possessions into one pile and burned them when they were, in fact, burned in several places. He said that the last Jew set fire to the palace, but all the public buildings had been set on fire(30). These are minor discrepancies. Unlike the fall of Jerusalem, Josephus was not an eyewitness to the events at Masada. He was relying on second-hand information, so some embellishments were more likely to develop. The fact that the Sicarri burned their possessions in several piles, not one, does not necessarily mean that they did not commit mass suicide.

Josephus also wrote that Eleazar told them to destroy everything except the food, but Cohen says that “many storerooms which contained provisions were burnt”(31). However, there were two empty storerooms which Yadin suggested could have contained the food which the Sicarri left and the Romans later removed(32).

When Yadin excavated Masada, they did not find the 960 skeletons which proved that the defenders had committed suicide. In the remains of the palace Yadin reported that they found three skeletons, a man, woman and child, which he assumed were some of the defenders (33). In fact, they only found two skeletons and a woman’s hair. Joseph Zias and Azreil Gorski have suggested that the skeletons were Roman soldiers, who had been killed when the Sicarri captured Masada, and the hair belonged to a non-Jewish woman whose head had been shaved in accordance with the Jewish law for treating female prisoners(34). On the other side of Masada 25 skeletons were found in a cave below the casement wall. They had not been buried reverently, that is, Jews had not buried other Jews, but they had clearly been dumped there, suggesting they were bodies of the Sicarri which the Romans had thrown there (35). This has led to speculation that there may have been far fewer defenders(36). However, in contrast to the 1700 killed at Machaerus and 3000 at the Forest of Jardes, the figure of 960 killed at Masada and seven survivors is more precise, which suggests that Josephus was citing an official Roman report and should have been truthful (37). It is more likely that the rest of the corpses were simply thrown over the side (38). The 25 bodies in the cave were probably found in that area of Masada and dumped in the cave because it was more convenient.

Josephus demonized the Sicarri in The Jewish War. When he introduced the events at Masada, he referred to their barbarity, avarice, wickedness and cowardice (39). However, during Yadin’s they found remains of a prayer shawl (40), jars which had been designated for tithing (41), fragments of 14 religious scrolls, including Leviticus, Psalms, Ezekiel and Jubilees (42), a synagogue, which had at least been partly constructed by the defenders (43) and two ritual baths, one of which was in the casemate wall, where the Sicarri had built living quarters, so it had to have been built and used by them and was not from before the revolt (44). The Sicarri were not little more than criminals, but were apparently more pious than Josephus acknowledged. Like the Maccabees 200 years earlier, they were religiously motivated rebels. The difference was that the Maccabees won, but the Sicarri lost.

In concluding, archaeology has confirmed some details of Josephus’ account of Masada, neither confirmed nor disproved others, and exposed some errors, but these errors are not serious enough to suggest that the defenders did not commit mass suicide after all. Suicide was practised by Jews when they were about to be captured or killed by their enemies, so it is plausible that the fanatical Sicarri would have committed suicide in the circumstances they faced at Masada. What is not plausible is that there was really a battle on Masada with no Roman casualties, but for no apparent reason, Josephus robbed the Romans of their victory, turning it into an anti-climax of a mass suicide and got away with it.

 

Notes

(1) Josephus, Jewish War, 7:8:1-9:2

(2) Josephus, Jewish War, 7:8:5

(3) Gill, D., “It’s a Natural”, Biblical Archaeology Review, 27:5 (2001), pp 22-32

(4) Josephus, Jewish War 7:9:2

(5) Josephus, Jewish War, 7:9:5

(6) Josephus, Jewish War, 7:9:5

(7) Yadin, Y., Masada (London: Sphere, 1961), p 34-35

(8) Ladouceur, D., “Josephus and Masada” in Feldman, L. and Hata, G. (editors), Josephus, Judaism and Christianity (Brill: Leiden, 1987), p 95

(9) Josephus, Jewish War 7:6:4-5

(10) Feldman, L.K., “Masada: A Critique of Recent Scholarship” in Neusner, J.(editor), Christianity, Judaism and Other Greco-Roman Cults (Brill: Leiden, 1975), p 234

(11) Ibid., p 233-234

(12)Yadin, Masada, p 96

(13) Cohen, S., “Masada: Literary Tradition, Archaeological Remains and the Credibility of Josephus”, Journal of Jewish Studies, 33 (1982), pp 386-393

(14) Ibid., p 392-393

(15) Ibid., p 391

(16) Feldman, “Masada: A Critique of Recent Scholarship”, pp 233-234

(17) 1 Samuel 31:4

(18) Josephus, Jewish War, 3:7:34, 3:8:1-7

(19)Josephus, Jewish War, 7:8:6

(20) Ladoucer, “Josephus and Masada”, p 97-98

(21) Cohen, “Masada: Literary Tradition, Archaeological Remains and the Credibility of Josephus”, p 404

(22) Josephus, Jewish War, 7:8:6

(23) Newell, R.R., “The Forms and Historical Value of Josephus’ Suicide Accounts” in Feldman, L.H., and Hata, G. (editors), Josephus, the Bible and History (Brill: Leiden, 1989), p 285

(24) Cohen, “Masada: Literary Tradition, Archaeological Remains and the Credibility of Josephus”, p 398

(25) Ibid., p 396-398

(26) Ibid., p 403-404

(27) Yadin, Masada, pp 154,205

(28) Josephus, Jewish War 7:6:5

(29) Feldman, “Masada: A Critique of Recent Scholarship”, p 237

(30) Cohen, “Masada: Literary Tradition, Archaeological Remains and the Credibility of Josephus”, p 394

(31) Ibid.

(32) Yadin, Masada, p 95

(33) Ibid., p 54-58

(34) Zias, J., and Gorski, A., “Capturing a Beautiful Woman”, Journal of Near Eastern Archaeology, 69:1 (2006), pp 45-48

(35) Yadin, Masada, pp 193-194, 198

(36) Feldman, “Masada: A Critique of Recent Scholarship”, p 245

(37) Newell, “The Forms and Historical Value of Josephus’ Suicide Accounts”, p 289

(38) Cohen, “Masada: Literary Tradition, Archaeological Remains and the Credibility of Josephus”, p 394

(39) Josephus, Jewish War, 7:8:1

(40) Yadin, Masada, p 54

(41) Ibid, p 94-95

(42) Ibid., p 171-189

(43) Ibid., p 181-184

(44) Ibid., p 164-167

Bibliography

Books

Yadin, Y., Masada (London: Sphere, 1961)

Articles

Cohen, S., “Masada: Literary Tradition, Archaeological Remains and the Credibility of Josephus”, Journal of Jewish Studies, 33 (1982) pp 385-405

Feldman, L.H., “Masada: A Critique of Recent Scholarship” in Neusner, J. (editor), Christianity, Judaism and Other Greco-Roman Cults (Brill: Leiden, 1975), III pp 206-217

Gill, D., “It’s a Natural”, Biblical Archaeology Review, 27:5 (2001), pp 22-31, 56-57

Ladoucer, D., “Josephus and Masada” in Feldman. L., and Hata, G., (editors), Josephus, Judaism and Christianity (Brill: Leiden, 1987) pp 95-113

Newell, R.R., “The Forms and Historical Value of Josephus’ Suicide Accounts” in Feldman, L.H. and Hata, G., Josephus, the Bible and History (Brill: Leiden, 1989) pp 278-294

Zias, J. And Gorski, A., “Capturing a Beautiful Woman”, Journal of Near Eastern
Archaeology, 69:1 (2006) pp 45-48

One thought on “A Critical Analysis of the Masada Traditions”

  1. Masada by Professor Yadin is my favorite book and I have owned a book of Josephus’ complete works that includes The Jewish Wars. But a few questions still bother me:

    1. It doesn’t ring true that since Josephus was not on Masada when the bloody events occurred. He gives only one woman’s alleged “recitation, word for word,” of Commander Eleazar ben Yair’s two allegedly lengthy a d detailed speeches to his besieged zealots l, exhorting them to kill their families and then themselves rather than be taken by the enemy. It wasn’t made clear exactly where Josephus and she met to report the events. Also, most–or even the gist of the speech may have been from memory but we don’t know but that she may have been hiding and heard bits and pieces.

    2. Josephus’ propensity for adding drama in my voluminous book of all his works dwarfs even the Bible in size. But back then, most Greek (e.g. Herodotus) and Roman historians’ (e.g. Livy, Suetonius, Plutarch) stretching of truth was de rigueur–written mostly to impress, amuse, and flatter their high-ranking rulers.

    3. Professor Yadin’s book contains no evidence of the hundreds of martyrs’ bones except those of (a) 24 people who were living in a cave far down the southwest side of the cliff and obviously slaughtered by the Romans but had been unaware of the goings-on topside such as ben Yair’s speech and (b) a family of three in one of King Herod’s terraces, and (c) some locks of braided hair and plenty of pottery. Nor did Yadin even refer to digging for the very bones that should of be all places there on Masada. He referred only to Josephus. Yet because he was renowned as being a meticulously thorough paleontologist I searched in vain through my copy. Back then it seemed Yadin and Josephus were the only books I could find about Masada and so because Josephus was Yadin’s only source, he took it as gospel truth. He was so moved by the words Josephus put into ben Yair’s alleged two rambling speeches (for such a tough, laconic warrior like ben Yair) that he quoted it all for us readers straight out of from Josephus’ book. The two long-winded speeches credited to ben Yair (freedom or death) seem to be as controversial in the annals of Jewish history as Travis’ speech and drawing a line in the Alamo sand are to Texans, I suppose.

    4. Josephus writes that many of the Romans, after blasting Masada to smithereens and obviously reaching the top where they might begin the gruesome massacre, they picked their way at night down that precarious cliff back to camp, picked up some ZZZs, got up the next morning, ate their Roman Meal gruel, then hiked back up in the morning to finish them off–these Romans so hell-bent on annihilating the Masada defenders. The top was already being burnt by hundreds of Roman arrows and other fire-borne weapons anyway. This does not ring true. I think some defenders did commit suicide and some were slaughtered by Romans.

    The other night (January 6, 2019) on the Smithsonian channel I recorded and have re-watched “The Siege of Masada” and my questions were brought up so I began to surf the Net. There are articles and books I would like to read too, such as Cohen’s and some of those referenced in this very stimulating article.

    Masada, like the Alamo, has truth in it. I trust that hundreds, perhaps even the missing 939 of the 969, were killed, some by their brethren or Romans because I doubt all 969 had time to succeed in an exquisitely planned mass suicide before being slaughtered by at least some Romans. Unlike the report of the Alamo’s few survivors and the Mexican generals themselves, Masada has only the word of one frightened woman (one of five or six survivors) and a publicity-happy historian to whom she alone was able to report. The Alamo’s 200 dead are really there, enshrined at the site, the evidence is clear.

    One theory I have is that almost all (except those found by Yadin’s crew) were burned to ashes by the Romans. Some if all or most of the families bravely performed the ritual suicide and their bodies were found by the Romans, who apparently remained up there in the hot sun for a few monhs. Obviously, they had to dispose of the bodies. They did not just hurl them in their hundreds off Masada’s cliffs and there are no human bones to support that theory. Also, Romans were said to be greatly amazed by the people’s courage in escaping inevitable slavery, rape and torture, so the Roman custom of cremation would be a way of both honoring the people themselves and disposing of the corpses. Perhaps that part of Josephus’ tale of Masada might be a fact, if it was what General Flavius Silva may have told Josephus.

    However any chose to die, by suicide or fighting, one piece of identification was discovered that indicate one man’s choice. Yadin found physical evidence of possible lots being drawn: the name of the commander, Eleazar ben Yair on one of them, found in the archaeological digs. It sure wasn’t his coffee mug.

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