Friday, December 6, 2013

Masada - The Legend and the Truth

On an isolated mountaintop overlooking the Dead Sea is Masada, a symbol of Jewish independence and freedom. With sheer rock cliffs dropping 450 meters, the nearly impregnable fortress is stunning when seen against the majestic starkness of the Judean Desert.

It was on Masada that a small garrison of Jewish rebels held out against the Roman conquest in the year 73 CE. Three years after the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, Eleazar Ben Ya'ir and some 960 others of the Sicarii Zealots resisted the siege of Roman governor Flavius Silva and the mighty Tenth Legion of the most powerful army on earth.

Rather than allow themselves to be captured and taken off into slavery in the far reaches of the Roman Empire, the Zealots decided that it was better to die at their own hands as free men. After listening to an impassioned speech by Ben Ya'ir, the Zealots drew lots and then took their own lives.

This makes for an amazing story, something that still resonates in Israel today when new army recruits swear in with the vow, "Masada will never fall again". But how much of the Masada story is actually true?

Masada is one of the most visited tourist sites in Israel. A cable car at the main entrance to the site allows easy access to the top. The adventurous still prefer to climb the Snake Path up the mountain's side.

Climb to the top of Masada via the Snake Path or ride in the comfort of the cable car

In 1963, Masada was excavated by a large, international archaeological expedition headed by Professor Yigael Yadin. The dig, which lasted two years, proved the 'legend of Masada' to be true, and revealed hitherto unknown details. Or did it?

The story of Masada is known to us from the writings of Josephus Flavius, a Jewish/Roman historian who lived between the years 37 - 101 CE. Josephus was not present at the siege of Masada. As was common among early historians, Josephus undoubtedly embellished upon the Masada tale to his advantage.

The view from Masada, including a Roman army camp below

Josephus, whose original name was Yosef Ben Mattiayahu, was born in Jerusalem in the year 37 CE. His family, members of Judaism's priestly heritage, traced their ancestry back directly to the Maccabees. In the year 66 CE, following the Zealots' revolt against Rome, Josephus was appointed military governor of the Galilee district. He was in command of the northern fortress of Yodfat, which held out for 47 days against the Roman army led by Vespasian. After the fall of Yodfat, Josephus found refuge in a cave with other survivors. They decided to commit suicide rather than fall into the hands of the Romans, a position Josephus argued against. As one of the survivors of a lottery held to determine who would kill the others, Josephus surrendered to the Romans. Doesn't this story sound a bit similar to the Masada legend?

According to Josephus Flavius, Herod the Great fortified Masada between 37 and 31 BCE. It is entirely likely that the mountain already served as a border post during the Hasmonean era, at the time of the Maccabees. King Herod, who also built the Second Temple in Jerusalem, built himself an impregnable fortress at Masada, one which included terraced palaces on the mountain's cliffs.

General view atop Masada

Who were the Sicarii Zealots? They were a group of rebels under the command of Eleazar Ben Ya'ir that had escaped the destruction of Jerusalem to take refuge on top of Masada. They were not considered heroes by other Judeans at the time. In a raid on the nearby Jewish town of Ein Gedi, they killed nearly 700 of their brethren.

In the year 73 CE, Flavius Silva marched against Masada with 15,000 troops of the Roman Tenth Legion. The Romans established camps at the base of Masada, laid siege and built a wall around the mountain to prevent the escape of the Sicarii.

The siege continued, and the Romans began to build a ramp to assault the mountain from the west. They were utilizing all the modern military weapons and tools of the day, including assault towers and battering rams. It is doubtful that the Zealots could do more than throw stones or burning oil down at their enemy.

Reconstructed storerooms

According to Josephus, when the Roman conquest was imminent, the Zealots gathered to hear an impassioned speech by their leader. In his writings (War of the Jews: Book 7 - Chapter 8), Josephus listed the speech of Eleazer Ben Ya'ir:

"Since we, long ago, my generous friends, resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God himself, who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice.

"But first let us destroy our money and the fortress by fire; for I am well assured that this will be a great grief to the Romans, that they shall not be able to seize upon our bodies, and shall fall of our wealth also; and let us spare nothing but our provisions; for they will be a testimonial when we are dead that we were not subdued for want of necessaries, but that, according to our original resolution, we have preferred death before slavery."

According to the story, apparently told by two survivors to Josephus, the defenders of Masada then drew lots. Fathers killed their family members before taking their own lives. Stores were set on fire. When the Romans took the mountain the next day, they could not rejoice in the conquest nor take the zealots into captivity.

Roman ramp on the mountain's western side, seen from above

So, how much of the Masada story is true?

Historian Shaye Cohen, writing in the Journal of Jewish Studies in 1982, says that the archaeological discoveries of Yigael Yadin in the early 1960s bring into doubt the story of Masada as described by Josephus Flavius.

During the archaeological dig, Professor Yadin discovered three skeletons in the lower terrace of the northern palace and twenty five in a cave on the southern slope of the cliff. Yadin suggested that the skeletons had been tossed in the cave by the Romans, but Cohen finds fault with this possibility. Access to the cave was from a steep descent on the mountain side, making it illogical as a place to dump corpses. It was much more likely that the Romans would have thrown bodies off the side of the mountain. Cohen concludes that the skeletons in the cave must be the remains of Jews who attempted to hide from the Romans but were discovered and killed, or who possibly committed suicide. Why were only these skeletons found and not those of the 900 rebels from the mountaintop?

Mosaic floor on Masada

Let's consider a crucial question of the story - did the Zealots commit suicide? Cohen writes:

"First it is plausible. Many Jews committed suicide during the crucial moments of the war of 66-70, and, as we have seen above, many non-Jews also committed suicide rather than face their enemies."

Cohen then asks why Josephus would invent such a story.

"He wished to show that the way of the Sicarii is the way of death, but death comes in many forms, and the Sicarii did not have to commit suicide to make this point clear. Death in battle would have served just as well. Had the Romans massacred the Sicarii, Josephus would have had no reason to disguise this fact."

Cohen's article is full of additional considerations and his conclusion is that much of Josephus' account is false. According to Cohen, Silva did not order a premature withdrawal, and Eleazar did not have an opportunity for two magnificent orations (and who could have reported them so accurately?) The Zealots did not have the luxury of the leisurely slaughter of their wives and children. The scenario depicted by Josephus is therefore implausible, contradicted by the archaeological discoveries of Yadin and his team.

The truth about Masada

Writing in Rome for the benefit of his hosts, Josephus Flavius undoubtedly took major liberties in embellishing what had happened at Masada. Josephus wanted Eleazar, the leader of the Sicarii Zealots, to take full responsibility for the war.

Byzantine church on Masada

Historian Shaye Cohen concludes that some basic assumptions can be made:

* At least some of the Sicarii killed themselves and their families.

* Portions of all the public buildings on Masada were set ablaze, and since it is unlikely that the Romans would destroy their own loot, we may assume that this was the spontaneous act of the Jews.

* Some of the Sicarii tried to escape as confirmed by the twenty-five skeletons in the cave.

Josephus modeled much of the Masada legend on his own personal adventures. The story of the mass suicide, of rebels fighting against the Roman Empire and preferring death to enslavement, all were experienced by Josephus at the siege of Yodfat in the Galilee.

Josephus took pieces of history and tradition, added to them a fertile imagination and a flair for drama and exaggeration, and ended up providing us with an enduring Masada legend.

Masada is a fascinating place to visit, both due to its unique beauty as a desert fortress, and also due to the legend of its past. The northern palace, constructed by master builder King Herod, is an incredible piece of ancient architecture with a splendid view of the Dead Sea below. The synagogue on the mountaintop is considered to be the best example of the early synagogues predating the destruction of the Temple.

Embellishment or fiction, the Masada story is based on fact. There were a group of Zealots living on the mountain who vowed never to be enslaved under Roman rule. Their fanatic idealism has become a symbol of Jewish independence, and their freedom call is strong even in the modern age.

Terraces of the northern palace

Adapted from an article originally published on Israeli Culture at in March, 2000.

Additional information:

Masada National Park, official website

The Credibility of Josephus by Shaye Cohen

A Critical Analysis of the Masada Traditions

What other secrets will yet be revealed on Masada?


  1. Sometimes a legendary tale is truer than any mathematical certainty. .

  2. Thanks for this post.I'm currently reading "Zealot" and I feel like I'm finally understanding the context during the era which Jesus of Nazareth lived.This post dovetails nicely with the book.

  3. Indeed! Hope you enjoyed this article.

  4. 'I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely ...' Elazar's speech is memorable and powerful, even if it cannot be historically verified.

  5. I've never heard of Masada before until now. And I'm a big fan of the bible - the history in it. Thanks for sharing, Ellis.

  6. Interesting piece. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Whatever the truth of the story, it's a breathtaking sight! I'd highly recommend walking up in time to see the sunrise over the Dead Sea.

  8. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.