Is the story of Masada a Myth? – Unveiling the Enigma
Masada is one of the most fascinating sites to tour in Israel. It combines enchanting desert landscapes, rare archaeological findings, and mostly a dramatic and tragic story. 2,000 years ago, hundreds of Jewish rebels and refugees fled to Masada, escaping from the Romans, and eventually favored death over enslavement. But how reliable is the story of Masada? Its primary historical source is the first-century Jewish Historian Josephus. Although he lived when the event occurred, he wasn’t an eyewitness, nor did he never visit Masada. He wrote the events of Masada in Rome based on sources that he does specify. Except for a hint in the writing of Pliny the Elder, there is no other source to mention the battle of Masada. How can we be sure Josephus’ account is reliable?
The Archaeological Testimony
Masada was extensively excavated in the 1960s, revealing a wealth of finds. Do they support Josephus’ account? Let’s first review the archaeological evidence that aligns with Josephus’ descriptions:
The Archaeological Finds That Match Josephus’ Account
* As Josephus wrote, the site was a high plateau, accessible only from two ends, had a peripheral wall, a water system, and a Herodian palace at its northern edge (Wars 7:280-291),
* Throughout the site, the archaeologists found much supporting evidence of hundreds of Jewish refugees who gathered and resided in Masada for an extended time. They settled in Herod’s palaces, converted a stable into a synagogue, added structures, and left a wealth of finds behind.
* As Josephus wrote, the Roman force was at least the size of a legion. They circled Masada with a siege wall and built eight military camps that held 6000-8000 combatants. It’s possible that they also brought some Jewish prisoners from Jerusalem for siege-related work. They indeed constructed a formidable ramp against the western side of Masada. The archaeologists even found wooden beams placed in its base to support it.
* The wall that faces the ramp is missing, and it is the only place where there is a missing section in Masada’s walls. Moreover, many ballista stones were found north of the wall, likely remnants from the assault.
* Josephus wrote that the last stage of the suicide was done by drawing a lot and that the last rebel was to kill his comrades, set the palace on fire, and commit suicide. In a room near Masada’s central bathhouse, archaeologists found a cache of 12 potsherds bearing names or nicknames, including “Ben Yair.” Yadin proposed that these may have been the lots to determine who would be the last to rebel. “Ban Yair” was perhaps the shard of Elazar Ben Yair, the leader of the rebels, who participated in the last cycle of the suicide.
* In the lower-tier bathhouse of the northern palace, the archaeologists found a sandal of an adult, a sandal of a child, and an adult female’s head knot. Yadin suggested these were the remnants of the last rebel and his family, as described by Josephus.
* Josephus wrote that the Romans left a garrison at the site after Masada’s conquest. Few finds made at the site indicate small-scale human presence on Masada also after 73 AD.
The Archaeological Finds That Don’t Match Josephus’ Accounts
These repeated cases where Josephus’ testimony is matched by the archaeological evidence is compelling. It enhances the accuracy and credibility of Josephus – and the narrative of Masada. However, since Yadin’s excavations, additional research and critical examinations of Yadin’s work have been conducted. The main criticism revolves around the following:
* Josephus describes a stone pavement over the ramp to facilitate the raising of the siege tower, but no evidence of such pavement was found.
* Josephus describes an intense fire at the breach point, but no traces of any conflagration were detected.
* Josephus portrays the rebels as a passive group that did not fight back or launch counterattacks against the Romans. However, large rolling stones on the summit indicate the rebels’ intention to fight back.
* Furthermore, the defensive wall of the northern palace had a siege battery laid over it, and arrowheads were found in it. This indicates a battle took place over the northern palace, contra Josephus.
* Throughout the site 250 pottery shards with names or letter combinations were found. The supposed lots and all the other inscribed pottery shards may have been related to food rations, or some other function. Moreover, Josephus writes that only ten participated in the last lot, but the cluster of potshards was a total of 12.
* The human-related finds in the northern palace are not skeletal remains and may have been dragged there by hyenas.
* Moreover, despite the intensive excavations, no skeletal remains were found anywhere on Masada’s summit. What happened to the 960 rebels and refugees who died on Masada according to Josephus? Skeletal remains of 25 individuals were found in a cave over Masada’s southern edge. Most were of adult males, but six were of women and four of children. Could these be the remains of some of the rebels who committed suicide? In my opinion, it is more likely that these were rebels and refugees who died during their prolonged stay at Masada. It was before the Roman attack, and so their family members could bury them appropriately. Surprisingly, pig bones were also recorded in this cave. It’s possible that these bones were deliberately added by Roman soldiers after the site’s conquest to desecrate the Jewish burial.
In attempt to explain the gaps between Josephus’ account and the archaeological record, I wish to point to the following:
* As mentioned before, Josephus was never at Masada, and wasn’t present also during the battle. It’s possible he received inaccurate information regarding the flooring of the battery and the wall’s burning. Alternatively, he might have added these details to dramatize the battle and flatter the Romans for their military ingenuity. It’s important to remember that Josephus wrote his books in Rome, after being captured by the Romans. His writings in general are cleverly flattering the Romans while documenting the bravery, heroism and dignity of his own people.
* It’s plausible that not everyone participated in the mass suicide, and some may have fought to the bitter end. Josephus aimed to embellish the narrative, and the mass suicide story served two purposes:
- a) It conveyed the message that anyone rebelling against Rome will face a gloomy end.
- b) It glorified the rebels and their dignity for favoring death over enslavement.
Still, I do believe that most of the rebels and refugees committed suicide, as it is hinted in the writings of Pliny the Elder. Pliny the Elder was a first-century Roman historian and encyclopedist. In describing the Dead Sea area, he mentions the Jewish rebels corrupting the Balsam plants “As they have corrupted themselves.” (NH 5:73). Perhaps his hinted to the Jewish suicide on Masada?
* The absence of any skeletal remains may actually be easily explained. After its conquest, a Roman garrison stayed in Masada. It’s reasonable to assume that they threw the corpses off the cliffs because of the stench they were causing. Their remains were carried by winter flashfloods and devoured by desert scavengers. 2,000 years later, there is no chance of tracking any of it.
While Masada’s story is generally accurate, doubts about specific details arise from the archaeological findings and inconsistencies in Josephus’ account. Nevertheless, the tragic events that unfolded at Masada are undeniable. The story of Masada as a whole is a valid event. It is a dramatic and tragic story and an awe-inspiring site.
A tour to Masada can be seamlessly integrated into a day tour of the Dead Sea region, offering a comprehensive exploration of this iconic location.