Masa­da: From Jew­ish Revolt to Mod­ern Myth

By – July 29, 2019

In the cat­e­go­ry of only in Israel” is sure­ly Yigael Yadin, the archae­ol­o­gist who became a pub­lic fig­ure and whose dis­cov­er­ies thrilled the entire nation and remain leg­endary. His exca­va­tions at Masa­da in the 1960s and the two-thou­sand-year-old sto­ry of Jew­ish resis­tance against the Romans that his find­ings doc­u­ment­ed, spoke to the new state and its many cit­i­zens who rose from the Holo­caust to build their country.

Yadin’s stature was not only as an archae­ol­o­gist but also as an aca­d­e­m­ic, a mil­i­tary man, and lat­er, a politi­cian, includ­ing a stint as deputy prime min­is­ter. But it is Masa­da, a UNESCO World Her­itage Site, that has remained his lega­cy; even today the desert moun­tain-top is one of the most pop­u­lar tourist attrac­tions in Israel. The sto­ry of 967 Jews who, fol­low­ing the destruc­tion of the Sec­ond Tem­ple and of Jerusalem, held out atop Masa­da against thou­sands of Roman sol­diers, then com­mit­ted mass sui­cide rather than sur­ren­der, con­tin­ues to inspire and fascinate.

In 1974 to 1976, one of Yadin’s under­grad­u­ate stu­dents at the Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty of Jerusalem was Jodi Mag­ness, whose endeav­ors con­tin­ued far beyond those ear­ly stud­ies in archaeology.

In her new book, Masa­da: From Jew­ish Revolt to Mod­ern Myth, Mag­ness re-exam­ines the sto­ry of Masa­da, set­ting it in its his­tor­i­cal con­text dur­ing the peri­od of the Sec­ond Tem­ple. As part of this she includes the fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ries of 19th cen­tu­ry explor­ers who trav­elled to the area, many search­ing for bib­li­cal sites, but on their return pro­vid­ed valu­able infor­ma­tion about the inhos­pitable region. She address­es ques­tions some schol­ars have today about the accu­ra­cy of the sto­ry of mass sui­cide, tak­en from the mul­ti-vol­ume The Jew­ish War by the Jew­ish his­to­ri­an Flav­ius Jose­phus. Yadin relied on it as the only account writ­ten con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous­ly about the siege of Masada.

Mag­ness, who in 1995 co-direct­ed exca­va­tions at an area of Masa­da that had not yet been ful­ly explored, dis­cuss­es the dif­fi­cul­ty with the his­to­ry as record­ed by Jose­phus, yet in the end does not take a posi­tion either way. It turns out that archae­ol­o­gy is not as straight­for­ward as an out­sider might assume. Arti­facts can be inter­pret­ed in mul­ti­ple ways, and in this instance, can­not prove or dis­prove Josephus’s account. Is he a reli­able his­to­ri­an, as we under­stand that today? The answer, she con­cludes, is beyond her exper­tise as an archae­ol­o­gist. She there­fore leaves it to schol­ars of Jose­phus to determine.

Mag­ness has man­aged the dif­fi­cult feat of writ­ing for both the schol­ar and the inter­est­ed non-spe­cial­ist read­er. There is plen­ty of archae­o­log­i­cal detail and descrip­tion, which comes with the his­to­ry of the area as well as top­ics such as how the Jews got to Masa­da, how they sur­vived, and how the desert fortress became part of the foun­da­tion­al sto­ry of the mod­ern state of Israel.

Gila Wertheimer is Asso­ciate Edi­tor of the Chica­go Jew­ish Star. She is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has been review­ing books for 35 years.

Discussion Questions

In Masa­da: From Jew­ish Revolt to Mod­ern Myth, Pro­fes­sor Jodi Mag­ness, a for­mer co-direc­tor of exca­va­tions at the site, gives an engross­ing account of the his­to­ry of the leg­endary moun­tain-top redoubt.

Using the site’s arche­o­log­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies as her palette, the author paints an engag­ing pic­ture of what it might have been like to live there at the time of the first Jew­ish revolt against Rome. As to the myth” of the book’s title, Mag­ness exam­ines whether, as leg­end has it, more than nine hun­dred Jew­ish men, women, and chil­dren com­mit­ted sui­cide rather than sur­ren­der to the Romans, a sto­ry based whol­ly on the uncor­rob­o­rat­ed account of Jew­ish his­to­ri­an Flav­ius Jose­phus. Although the author con­cludes, after exam­in­ing dif­fer­ent inter­pre­ta­tions of the arti­facts, that the ques­tion is beyond archeology’s reach, the read­er will be enter­tained and informed, and come away with a deep­er under­stand­ing of the story’s sig­nif­i­cance to the State of Israel, itself besieged and sur­round­ed by enemies.