Sponsored by BYU Studies—The story says a group of Jewish rebels committed mass suicide at Masada 2,000 years ago. But what does archaeology say about it?
Join archaeologist Jodi Magness as she discusses her book, Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth (Princeton University Press, 2019).
Who is Jodi Magness?
I am Professor of Early Judaism (Judaism in the time of Jesus) in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I specialize in the archaeology of Palestine (modern Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories) in the Roman, Byzantine, and early Islamic periods.
I wanted to be an archaeologist since I was 12 years old, thanks to a seventh-grade history teacher who introduced the class to ancient Greece. At the age of 16 I moved to Israel on my own, where I finished high school and earned a B.A. in archaeology and history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. There I had the good fortune to study with Yigael Yadin, the excavator of Masada. Eventually I returned to the US, where I earned a Ph.D. in Classical Archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania.
After a post-doc at Brown University, I taught Classical Archaeology at Tufts University for ten years, before accepting a position at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2002.
How the nature of your Huqoq research change in 2012?
In 2011 I began excavations at Huqoq to ascertain the fate of Jewish villages in Lower Easter Galilee after they came under Christian rule in the fourth century CE.
(Question: did Jews suffer under Christian rule or not? Our discoveries at Huqoq suggest that these Jewish communities continued to prosper and flourish under Christian rule).
That summer, we found the east wall of a monumental, Late Roman (fifth century) synagogue building. The following summer (2012), we reached the synagogue’s floor and discovered it was paved with mosaics. Every year since then we have exposed additional sections of the mosaic floor, revealing an unparalleled series of biblical and non-biblical scenes (visit www.huqoq.org).
I run the Huqoq Excavation Project as a field school for undergraduate students, supported by a consortium of universities around North America that includes Brigham Young University. Matthew Grey – a senior staff member who supervises excavations in the synagogue area – is a professor at BYU, and he brings BYU students to work with us every summer.
In fact, the first mosaic in 2012 was discovered by Bryan Bozung, who had just graduated from BYU (in Economics!).
When I began the Huqoq Excavation Project, I planned to excavate half of the synagogue and leave half unexcavated so future archaeologists could check my results. However, once we discovered the first mosaics, I realized we had to excavate the entire building. Otherwise, another archaeologist wanting to discover mosaics would move in the next day, defeating the purpose of leaving part unexcavated for future generations.
Who was Yigael Yadin and what role did he play in what we know about Masada today?
Yigael Yadin was arguably Israel’s most famous archaeologist. In addition, he served for a time as Chief-of-Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and late in his career he founded a political party. Yadin excavated a number of important sites around Israel including Hazor (a large biblical tel in Galilee) and the Cave of Letters in Nahal Hever by the Dead Sea (which yielded remains from the time of the Bar-Kokhba Revolt/Second Jewish Revolt against the Romans).
However, Yadin is probably best-known for his excavations at Masada, which he directed during the years 1963-1965. After those excavations Masada was developed into the tourist attraction it is today.
Yadin was a brilliant scholar with an impressive command of other disciplines. For example, he wrote his dissertation on the War Scroll from Qumran, and his publication of the Temple Scroll from Qumran remains authoritative until now. Few scholars today—and even fewer archaeologists—have the expertise and breadth to produce a publication of the Temple Scroll like Yadin’s, which draws on a wide range of literary sources including the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature.
I knew of Yadin before I enrolled at the Hebrew University, and I felt excited and privileged to study with him. As I write in my book, Yadin was a gifted public speaker. His classroom lectures were riveting.
However, he was not approachable. Yadin was the only teacher who my classmates and I addressed as “Professor,” whereas we called the other professors by their first names. He would stride into the classroom and assume a position at the front and begin talking.
He seemed like the general that he was. I have heard that he ran the Masada excavations like a military camp.
When did you first co-direct an excavation and what challenges most surprised you?
I co-directed three excavations (the Roman siege works at Masada; Khirbet Yattir; Yotvata) before directing an excavation on my own at Huqoq.
Directing an excavation is challenging. Ironically, the farther up the chain of command one moves in an archaeological project, the less archaeological field work one does. By this I mean that the more responsibility one has, the less one is able to do actual digging.
I enjoy digging. But as director, I am constantly being pulled in different directions—answering questions from area supervisors and other staff; hosting visitors; and dealing with logistical matters.
Being the director of an excavation is sort of like being the CEO of a company—coordinating lots of personnel as well the actual field work. I am fortunate to have an excellent staff who make my job easier.
The biggest challenge for any director is raising the funding for the project. The Huqoq excavations currently cost close to a half a million dollars per year, nearly all of which I raise myself (to donate visit www.huqoq.org). The money comes from a variety of sources, including student and consortium fees; grants; and private donations.
Introduce Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth. Why is “myth” part of the subtitle?
The publisher gave the book its title—that’s why “myth” is part of it (!).
My idea for the book was to use the story of Masada as a lens through which to tell the history of the Jews in the late Second Temple period (first century BCE-first century CE). This makes sense because Masada was first fortified in the Hasmonean period (by one of the descendants of the Maccabees) and was the last fortress to fall to the Romans after the end of the First Jewish Revolt – corresponding to the chronological parameters of Josephus’s account of the First Revolt in his seven-volume work, The Jewish War.
The story of Masada actually involves more than one myth. The first is Josephus’s story of the mass suicide of the Jewish rebels at the end of the Roman siege, which may or may not have occurred.
The second myth is a modern one: how Masada became a symbol of the State of Israel due to the supposed heroicism of the ancient Jewish rebels, who preferred to commit suicide than be enslaved or killed by the Romans.
Briefly summarize the First Jewish Revolt and explain how these people came to be found atop Masada.
In 66 CE, the Jews of Judea revolted against Rome. The revolt officially lasted until 70 CE, when the Romans took Jerusalem and destroyed the Second Temple. However, after the revolt ended, three former Herodian fortresses that had been occupied by rebels during the revolt continued to hold out: Herodium (near Bethlehem); Machaerus (in modern Jordan); and Masada.
After 70, the Romans sent troops to take these three fortresses, beginning with Herodium and then Machaerus.
In 72 or 73 CE (there is a debate about the chronology), Roman forces arrived at the foot of Masada—the last fortress still in the hands of Jewish rebels—and began a siege. At this point, Masada was occupied by diverse groups of Jewish men, women, and children (according to Josephus, numbering 967 altogether), who had taken refuge on top of the mountain.
How did Josephus obtain such a detailed account of what he purports happened at Masada?
Josephus drew on various sources—most of them unknown—for his writings in general. One important source, for example, is a lost biography of Herod written by Nicolaus of Damascus. Nearly all ancient writings—like Nicolaus’s—have been lost. Josephus’s works were preserved by Christians (who copied them over the centuries) because they are considered an important witness to the time of Jesus and especially the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy that the Second Temple would be destroyed.
Josephus’s sources on the siege of Masada presumably included Roman military records, and perhaps the first- or second-hand accounts of survivors (according to Josephus, a couple of elderly women and some children hid out in a cave/cistern and surrendered to the Romans). Josephus does not claim to have been present during the siege, and we do not know if he ever visited Masada himself before that (errors in his description of Herod’s northern palace suggest Josephus was never at Masada).
One of the reasons for the controversy about the mass suicide is that Josephus is the only ancient author who tells the story. Is this because Josephus made it up? Or is it because the siege of Masada was an unimportant, minor “mopping-up” operation in the eyes of the Romans?
Either way, this means we have no other ancient literary sources to confirm Josephus’s account.
What are some examples of inconsistencies between the writings of Josephus and the discoveries of archaeologists?
In my opinion, Josephus’s descriptions of archaeological sites (or more precisely, what are now archaeological sites) including Masada are remarkably accurate, and the archaeological evidence of the Roman siege at Masada also is consistent with Josephus’s description (omitting the story of the mass suicide, for which the evidence can be interpreted in different ways).
One possible minor inconsistency is Josephus’s reference to the Romans using ballistas (stone cannon shot) and catapults (large arrows fired from a torsion bow) in the siege at Masada. Whereas Yadin found ballista stones at Masada, there are no catapult bolts (in contrast, both were found at Gamla in the Golan, which was also besieged by the Romans during the First Revolt).
Originally, I thought this was because Josephus’s description of the siege at Masada is formulaic (and therefore inaccurate), but now I agree with Gwyn Davies that the Romans collected the stray catapult bolts after the siege ended (they left a garrison camped atop Masada for a couple of decades afterwards).
The latter scenario would support the accuracy of Josephus’s description of the siege.
How does Josephus say the mass suicide occurred?
According to Josephus, Eleazer ben-Yair, the leader of the rebels atop Masada, convinced the men that they should deprive the Romans of victory by committing suicide before the fortress fell.
Accordingly, all the men first killed their wives and children.
Then the men got together and drew lots, and ten of them killed the others.
Then the ten remaining men drew lots again, and one of them killed the other nine and then himself.
According to this story, only one person—the last man—died at his own hand.
Can archaeology answer the question about whether there was a mass suicide at Masada?
In my opinion, archaeology is not equipped to answer the question of whether or not there was a mass suicide at Masada.
Two examples will suffice.
First, in a room near the large bath house in Herod’s northern palace complex, Yadin found a group of potsherds inscribed with Hebrew names, including the name “Ben-Yair,” which he identified as the “lots.” The problem is that there are 12 inscribed potsherds (ostraca) in this group, not 10. Yadin dismissed one as never having been completed and argued that the one inscribed “Ben-Yair” should also not be counted either, leaving 10. However, potsherds inscribed with Hebrew names were found elsewhere on top of Masada, where it is clear they were used for various purposes such as meal ration tickets. Joseph Naveh, the Israeli epigrapher who published the ostraca, was unable to conclude that these were indeed the ten lots.
Second example: Yadin did not find the remains of 967 skeletons in his excavations at Masada. Instead he found three skeletons—a man, woman, and child (apparently Jewish rebels)—buried in the collapse of the lower terrace of Herod’s northern palace, and a small group of skeletons in a cistern on the side of the mountain, which could be Jews, Romans, or even Byzantine monks. No other human skeletal remains were found. Yadin, who believed there was a mass suicide, argued that the Romans would have burned or buried the corpses in a mass grave after the siege ended, especially since they left a garrison camped on top of the mountain afterwards. However, the same would be true even if there was no mass suicide – in this event some of the rebels would have been captured and enslaved, while Romans would have disposed of the corpses of those killed.
If you could go back in time to Masada with one research question in mind, what would you most want to discover?
Currently, I am fascinated by the possibility that Herod claimed to have fulfilled the expectations associated with a Davidic messiah, and also associated himself with divinized rulers such as Alexander the Great and Augustus. This is seen most clearly in his monumental tomb and final resting place at Herodium (I have an article in the Journal of Ancient Judaism forthcoming on this topic).
I think that Herod’s manipulation of the landscape might have been one way to support his claim—after all, who but a divine power can bring water and vegetation to the desert?
Therefore, I would be interested in seeing Masada’s appearance 2,000 years ago, and the impression this would have made on ancient visitors to the site.
This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.