by Nachman Ben-Yehuda
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Wed, 14 May 2008
There are many apparent anomalies in the Masada story, and
many of these can be traced to Israeli archaeologist and former Hagana* commander,
Yigael Yadin and his interpretation of the
* Hagana: Jewish paramilitary organization in what was then the
British Mandate of Palestine from 1920 to 1948, which later became
the core of the Israel Defense Forces.
Although a revered figure in Israel, he has
been accused of interpreting his finds to fit a heroic mythos of
Masada created by "moral entrepreneur" and educator, Shmaria Guttman.
As to his motives for doing this, sociologist,
"nationalistic, ideological motivation played a very major
part in the decision to excavate Masada".
He also says that it was
perceived that Israel needed myths to help it,
"shape a central
process of nation and state-building... to shape identities and
create cohesion by fostering a strong sense of a shared past".
Israel needed to promote the self perception that it was surrounded
on all sides by enemies dedicated to its destruction and, therefore,
"a new type of Jew, somebody that was willing to fight and
die for his own country".
Yadin interpreted the events at Masada in
a way that provided the requisite role model.
Yadin had held formative roles in the creation of Israel and he
viewed the excavations as a "patriotic issue" which justified lying
and suppression of truth for political goals. An entire generation
of Israeli Jews digested the spurious myth and it became fixed - a
permanent ingredient of their identity as Israelis.
The reader is urged to pick up a copy of Ben-Yehuda's book
Sacrificing Truth - Archaeology and the Myth of Masada for the whole
story in detail.
The Masada Myth
The expression "the Masada Myth" 1 has become quite common among
Israelis, and yet, the exact meaning of that expression is not
entirely clear. In this short paper I shall try to describe the
nature of the Masada myth, when it was created and why.
The logical structure I shall pursue here is the following.
would like us to get acquainted with that historical narrative of
Masada that is not considered a "myth" - that is, with Josephus
Second, where and how do we learn about the myth?
Third, what is the myth?
Fourth, why and when was the Masada
mythical narrative created?
The Masada Narrative As Described By Josephus Flavius
While the issue of the credibility of Josephus has never been fully
and satisfactorily resolved, more researchers seem to accept his
There also seems to be two different schools of thought
regarding the reading and interpretation of Josephus. One school
tends to infuse much interpretation into Josephus Flavius and reads
him very liberally.
The other school emphasizes that one should read
and interpret Josephus "as is," that is as close as possible to the
text itself, without allowing for much free interpretation.
What Does Josephus Say?
The Masada narrative must be contextualized within the relevant
historical period otherwise it is meaningless. Masada was part of a
much larger Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire between the years
66-73. That revolt ended in disaster and in bitter defeat for the
Jews. Masada was only the final defeat in the much larger
suppression of that revolt.
Different ideological groups of Jews existed during the time of the
Of those, four are singled out as important. It appears that
the two most relevant groups are the Sicarii, and much more so, the
Zealots who apparently carried the main burden of the revolt.
Josephus makes a clear distinction between these two groups.
Throughout Josephus' books, the connection between the Zealots and
the Sicarii is not always entirely clear, but when Josephus
discusses Masada his use of the word "Sicarii" to describe the
Jewish rebels there is quite consistent.
Prior to the beginning of the revolt, Masada was taken over by force
- probably by the Sicarii (headed by Manachem) in 66 A.D., (e.g.,
see Cotton and Preiss 1990). In fact, this very act may have
symbolized and marked the beginning of the Jewish Great Revolt.
The Sicarii in Jerusalem were involved in so much terrorist activity
against Jews and others that they were forced to leave the city some
time before the Roman siege there began. They fled to Masada. There,
under the leadership/command of Eleazar Ben-Yair (a "tyrant" in
Josephus' terminology) they remained (perhaps with some non-Sicarii
who may have joined them) until the bitter end when most of them
agreed to kill one another.
While the Sicarii were in Masada, it is clear that they raided
nearby villages. One of the "peaks" of these raids was the attack on
According to Josephus, the Sicarii on Masada attacked Ein-gedi in the following ferocious manner:
"...they came down by night, without being discovered... and overran
a small city called Engaddi, in which expedition they prevented
those citizens that could have stopped them, before they could arm
themselves and fight them. They also dispersed them, and cast them
out of the city. As for such that could not run away, being women
and children, they slew of them above seven hundred"
Afterward, the Sicarii raiders carried all the food supplies from
Ein-gedi to Masada.
There are different versions about how long the siege of Masada
lasted. Josephus does not discuss this issue. However, it is very
obvious that the siege did not begin immediately following the
destruction of Jerusalem. First, the fortresses of Herodium and
Machaerus were conquered, and then Lucilius Bassus (who was sent to
Judea as legate) died and was replaced in command by Flavius Silva
(who succeeded him as procurator of Judea).
Silva had to gather his
forces and only then launched the final attack on Masada. All these
processes took time.
Most researchers seem to accept that the siege and fall of Masada
only took a few months - probably from the winter of 72/73 A.D.
until the following spring - a matter of 4-6 (maybe 8) months.
fact, Roth's impressively meticulous study (1995) states:
All in all, a nine-week siege is the likely maximum, a four-week
siege the likely minimum, and a siege of seven weeks the most
probable length for the siege of Masada. Postulating a siege of some
seven weeks fits in well with the date given by Josephus for the
fall of the fortress, whatever calendar is being used.
Moreover, this conclusion is supported by the recent geological
attention paid to the fact that the massive siege ramp on the west
side of Masada is based on a natural huge spur.
If so, then the
Roman army did not have to build the big siege ramp from the bottom
of the mountain, but only to add the actual ramp on top of that
natural spur. This means that constructing the ramp took a
significantly less effort than previously assumed by some (see
Gill's 1993 work).
While in Josephus's description of the siege of Jerusalem he
describes rather courageous raids made by the Jewish defenders of
Jerusalem against the Romans, no such descriptions are available for
the siege on Masada. This is a significant omission because after
Jerusalem fell, the Roman army went on to conquer three other
One was Herodium, which fell rather quickly. The other
was Machaerus where the Jews put a courageous fight including raids
against the Roman army.
Moreover, Josephus had a clear "interest" to
present the heroic fight put by the Jews so as to demonstrate just
how much more heroic was the Roman army that conquered them. His
failure to mention any active fights or resistance (or raids) by
Masada's defenders against the Romans is not insignificant.
while the impression one typically gets through the historian's
description of fights, battles and struggles, is that there was a
war around Jerusalem, no such impression is projected about the
Roman siege of Masada. In other words, there really was no "battle"
We must remind ourselves at this point that there are plenty of
historical examples of real, remarkable and heroic "fighting to the
Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans at the
pass of Thermopylae; the last stand at the Alamo
the readiness of
the American commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Bastogne to
"fight to end" during the German counter-attack in the Ardennes in
the heroic stand of the U.S. Marines on Wake Island in 1941
the Jewish revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto, against all odds and the
death of Biblical Samson together with his enemies.
Thus, using a
strictly Jewish analogy, when the Sicarii were faced with the
choice, they selected suicide rather than the destiny of Samson.
What Josephus has to say about the suicide is that after the Romans
entered Masada and discovered the dead bodies:
"Nor could they [the
Romans] do other than wonder at the courage of their [the Sicarii]
resolution, and at the immovable contempt of death which so great a
number of them had shown, when they went through with such an action
as that was"
The absolute resolution and courage of the Sicarii and their act of collective suicide in Masada raised,
apparently, much respect and wonder among the Romans and in Josephus
Flavius. Indeed, it should. But, the analytic jump from "respect" to
"heroism" is not made by Josephus. It was socially constructed.
Indeed, elsewhere Josephus describes the Sicarii killing one another
"Miserable men indeed they were!"
The unpleasant impression is that the Sicarii on Masada, so adept at
raiding nearby villages, were not really good fighters and, in fact,
avoided opportunities to fight.
Josephus points out, in particular,
that Eleazar Ben-Yair had to make two speeches in order to persuade
his people to commit that suicide. He even "quotes" those speeches
at length. The implication, obviously, is that the Jewish rebels on
Masada were originally quite reluctant to commit themselves to
Josephus states that there were close to a thousand Sicarii on top
These people were not all warriors. There were women and
children there, and perhaps other non-combatants. How many actual
fighters were there is unknown. Although Josephus does not state the
specific size of the 10th Roman legion, which carried out the siege
on Masada, it seems safe to assume that it was probably composed of
a minimum of 6,000 soldiers (the estimate found in the literature).
However, the size could have reached 10,000 too.
It is imperative to emphasize that there were seven survivors from
the collective suicide. This is an important point because the
details about that last night of the Sicarii on Masada were provided
by one of the women survivors.
Thus, when we carefully examine the main ingredients of Josephus's
narrative about both the Great Revolt and Masada, a portrait of
heroism in Masada is simply not provided. On the contrary.
narrative conveys the story of a doomed (and questionable) revolt,
of a majestic failure and destruction of the Second Temple and of
Jerusalem, of large-scale massacres of the Jews, of different
factions of Jews fighting and killing each other, of collective
suicide (an act not viewed favorably by the Jewish faith) by a group
of terrorists and assassins whose "fighting spirit" may have been
Moreover, and specifically for Masada, Josephus's
implication is that it was not only the nature of the rebels there
that was problematic, but their lack of a fighting spirit too.
Josephus implies that the 10th Roman legion came in and put a siege
around Masada. That siege was not too long and was not accompanied
by any major fighting.
When the Romans managed to enter the fortress
they found seven survivors and the remains of the Jewish Sicarii
(and perhaps some non-Sicarii, too) who had committed collective
suicide. This act itself clearly instilled in both the Roman
soldiers and Josephus a respect for those rebels.
From the Roman military perspective, the Masada campaign must have
been an insignificant action following a very major war in Judea - a
sort of a mop-up operation. It was something the Roman army had to
do, but that did not involve anything too special in terms of
military strategy or effort.
In fact, Shatzman (1993) notes that the
Roman siege of Masada was quite standard. Reading Josephus's
narrative raises the immediate question of how could such a horrible
and questionable story become such a positive symbol?
After all, the
heroism in the Masada narrative and in the context is not at all
self evident or understood.
How Do We Know What The Masada Mythical Narrative Is?
Now that we are acquainted a bit with the historical account about
Masada, the next question is to what extent are Israelis familiar
with this account? How close is their knowledge of Masada to the
actual historical account? More important, how do we know what these
Israelis (and others) know?
To discover the answers to these
questions, I examined the different cultural manifestations of the
account. That is, the methodological question became focused on how
cultures manufacture and transmit knowledge to their members. In the
case of Masada, that question was not difficult to answer. I made an
in-depth inquiry into almost every possible cultural facet that
could have references to Masada, and examined how the Masada account
was described there.
This examination was both historical and
cross-sectional, and consisted of examining written sources
(newsletters, books, pamphlets, newspapers) as well as interviews.
The cultural elements that I checked were:
Youth movements. The major seven youth movements in Israel
(secular and religious) were examined.
The use of Masada by the pre-state Jewish underground movements
The ways that Masada was used in the Israeli army.
The way Masada is presented in textbooks for schools (elementary
and high), as well as in reference texts and Encyclopedias.
The way Masada was presented in the printed daily media during
the 1963-1965 excavations of the site (religious and secular).
The way Masada is presented to tourists who visit the site; in
printed manual tour guides; the numbers of visitors to Masada; the
development of Masada as a site for tourists.
The way Masada is presented in various art forms: children's
literature; adult fiction; poetry; theater; movies; pictures;
sculpturing; science fiction. Examining all these areas gives us a
very powerful cultural analysis as to the amount of consistency
between the account given by Josephus Flavius and the nature of the
presentation of Masada in the Jewish Israeli culture. Moreover, this
cultural analysis also exposes the ways in which Masada was
The Masada Mythical Narrative
It should come as no surprise to find out that the most obvious
conclusion from the cultural analysis is that the way Masada is
presented in the various cultural manifestations that I examined is
not at all consistent with the account provided by Josephus Flavius.
As compared to Josephus, the Masada mythical narrative constitutes
significant deviation from the historical account.
Three main elements from Josephus' historical account are, more or
less, kept in the mythical narrative.
The Jewish rebels who took part in the Great Revolt against the
Roman Empire found themselves at the end of the rebellion on Masada
The Roman imperial army launched a siege on the mountain in order
to conquer the place and capture the rebels
When the rebels realized that there was no more hope of either
winning or holding out against the Roman army, they chose to kill
themselves rather than surrender and become wretched slaves.
These details can be found in nearly all forms of the mythical
narrative, both written and oral.
Viewed in this manner, it is
indeed easy to be impressed with the heroism of the rebels on top of
Many other no less important elements from the historical account
are typically omitted altogether from the mythical account.
Moreover, these omissions are frequently accompanied by factually
unsubstantiated, imaginary (and sometimes quite creative, one must
Omissions and Factually Unsubstantiated "Information" Added to the
In the first place, the fact that the events at Masada were the
final act in a failed and disastrous revolt against the Roman Empire
is not proven. The wisdom of that revolt, and the questionable way
in which it was organized and fought, are typically not spelled out
explicitly. Generally added to this omission is the fabrication that
the rebels on Masada arrived there after the destruction of
This is significant since it implies that these "poor
heroes," who fought so hard in Jerusalem, were barely able to escape
the Roman army. However, having succeeded in doing so, they chose to
continue the fight elsewhere. Almost completely ignored is the fact
that the Sicarii on Masada were forced to leave the city by the
other Jews in Jerusalem who had had enough of them and their leader
The Sicarii were, in fact, forced to flee Jerusalem before
the Roman army put a siege on the city. It was at this time that
they found refuge on top of Masada.
Second, the true identity and nature of the "rebels" on Masada is
not usually revealed. As we have seen, they were Sicarii, and what
Josephus has to say about them is not exactly flattering. They were
a group of thieves and assassins who killed and robbed other Jews.
Very few accounts of the events mention them, or their nature. The
terms generally used to describe them, such as "defenders of
Masada," "fighters of Masada," and, most frequently, "Zealots," are
deliberately deceptive. The last term - following Josephus - is
Third, the raids carried out by the Sicarii at Masada on nearby
Jewish (?) villages, and their massacre of the settlers at Ein-gedi,
which testifies to their nature as brutal assassins, robbers, or
terrorists, is almost universally ignored.
Fourth, the length of the Roman siege of Masada, most probably
between a few weeks to perhaps four months, at least in accordance
with Josephus, tends to be ignored. The siege is usually described
vaguely as "long" or as having "taken years," or else as having
lasted between one to three (more typical) years.
Fifth, the fact that no battles around Masada are described by
Josephus Flavius is ignored. Also ignored is the implied possibility
that the Sicarii may have been less than enthusiastic about fighting
the Roman army. In fact, many versions of the mythical narrative
either imply or state explicitly that those on Masada during the
siege fought the Roman tenth legion, carrying out raids on its
troops, its war machines, etc.
Thus, a real battle is hinted at;
some creative writers have even suggested that Masada was the center
of operations against the Romans. This is pure invention. However,
given the fact that archaeological excavations have failed to
provide any confirmation of a real battle, this scenario is more
than likely pure fabrication.
Nevertheless, while it is probable
that there may have been a fight in the last stage of the siege when
the Romans were actually in the process of breaching the wall, prior
to that time there was no significant opposition from the besieged
"heroes" of Masada.
Sixth, attempts are made to "undo" the suicide either by using
expressions that ignore the exact nature of the act, such as "died
heroically," "chose death over slavery," etc., or by emphasizing
that Ben-Yair's followers killed each other and not themselves; that
is, of course, except for the last person.
Seventh, the hesitation of the rebels to commit suicide and the fact
that it took Eleazar Ben-Yair two speeches in order to persuade them
to do so is typically disregarded. Only one speech, if any, is
usually mentioned. This, of course, is much more consistent with a
tale of heroism; after all, heroes do not hesitate.
Eighth, Josephus's report of seven survivors is rarely mentioned and
it is often emphasized that all of those present on Masada committed
suicide. Usually the whole matter of survivorship is ignored
although at times mention is made of "one survivor" (an "old lady"),
or of "no survivors." Once again, this approach suits the heroic
theme much better: heroes do not hide underground "cowering" in fear
for their own survival.
Finally, the choices left open to the rebels on Masada are usually
presented as having been limited to two: surrender or death (meaning
suicide). Other possible (and glorious) alternatives, such as
actually fighting to the end (as suggested by Josippon) or
concentrating forces in one spot in an attempt to create a diversion
that could have allowed for the escape of many, including the women
and children as suggested by Weiss-Rosmarin, are completely ignored.
Also ignored is the possibility (albeit less desirable one) of the
rebels trying to negotiate with the Romans (in fact, such a
negotiation did take place at Machaerus).
Other Methods Used in Construction of Mythical Narrative
Omission and addition are not the only methods used in the social
construction of the mythical narrative.
Emphasis has also played an
important role. For example, most sources that propagate the Masada
myth present a picture of a small group of rebels against a huge
Sometimes, even figures are provided: 967 rebels against
thousands (10,000-15,000) of Roman soldiers. While these figures are
probably accurate, their very emphasis tends to reinforce an element
that is one of the hallmarks of modern Israeli Jewish identity - the
struggle of "the few against the many".
If I wanted to synthesize and re-construct the Masada mythical
narrative, with its preservation of true facts, its omissions and
its additions, into an ideal type it might look something like this:
"After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, the remaining
Zealots escaped to Masada. The Romans put a siege on Masada. The
Zealots fought valiantly and raided the Roman positions over a
period of three years (and thus Masada served as a center of a
rebellion against the Romans for three years). However, when they
realized that there was no longer any hope to win and that the
choice was either death or wretched slavery, they all chose to kill
Thus, by preserving some elements, by ignoring, in a systematic
fashion, the more problematic aspects, and by adding liberal
interpretations and fabrications, the heroic Masada mythical
narrative was formed.
The combined effect of the above-mentioned omissions, additions and
selective emphasizing is the creation of a heroic tale. Moreover,
this heroic tale is typically told on the site itself, in the
presence of the ancient ruins. Typically, it is told as part of a
swearing-in ceremony (in the army); a long and arduous trek in the
Judean desert or some other educational activity.
This method of
combining the experiential part of an actual visit to Masada with a
logically constructed heroic tale, helped into being the suspension
of disbelief and the transmission of the Masada mythical narrative.
When And Why Was The Masada Mythical Narrative Created?
It is not too difficult to establish the fact that the Masada
mythical narrative was created by secular Zionism. (Religious Jews,
Zionists and non-Zionists were, to a very large extent, not part in
the creation of the myth. Many even objected fiercely to the myth).
It is clear that the Masada mythical narrative began to be created
at the turn of the century. It received a big boost in the 1920s.
Before he 1920s Masada, as an heroic tale, was used in a debate
between two famous secular Zionist ideological leaders (Achad Ha'am
and Berdyczewski). In 1923 the excellent Hebrew translation of
Josephus by Dr. Simchoni was published. In 1927 Y. Lamdan published
his most popular Masada poem.
Moreover, two key and powerful secular
Zionists who were promoting Masada as a heroic tale, Shmaria Guttman
and Prof. Yoseph Klosner, were operating in the late 1920s and early
Clearly, the crystallizing Zionist movement was desperately looking
for heroic Jewish tales.
It needed these tales for a few reasons:
To counteract the poisonous European anti-Semitic image of the Jew
To create a new secular Jewish consciousness and identity
To establish a strong and unquestionable bonding of the Jews to
Palestine (then) and Israel (later).
The need for this bond became very acute in the early 1940s when the
threat of a Nazi invasion of Palestine was imminent (from Rommel's
These years saw the crystallization of the Masada
mythical narrative in its most powerful form. The creation of the
myth then, no doubt, was justified from a functional point of view
as it helped many members of the Yishuv to face some truly
formidable historical challenges. Thus, the Masada mythical
narrative has become a major and important ingredient in shaping the
national and personal identity of the new secular and Zionist Jew -
proud, rooted in his/her land and willing, indeed able, to fight for
this land to the end if necessary.
Clearly, the Masada mythical
narrative has a strong generational effect for some generations who
were influenced by it the most (including that of the author).
identity connection is exactly the element that explains the
negative emotional reaction stirred by connecting the word "Masada"
with "Myth" and thus implying something that is untrue.
The archaeological excavations of the early 1960s headed by Prof.
Yigael Yadin helped to solidify the myth. However, following the Six
Days War (1967) the opening up of new sites as well as some profound
changes in Israeli society, created a process where, starting in the
late 1960s, Masada lost its sacred place in the secular Zionists
pantheon of heroism. Basically, Masada was transformed from a shrine
of heroism and a sacred place for pilgrimage into a tourist
The overwhelming majority of people visiting Masada
these days are non-Israelis.
This paper is based on my 1995 book:
The Masada Myth. Collective
Memory And Mythmaking In Israel.
When a reference to Josephus Flavius is made, the text used is
The Complete Works Of Josephus, by Josephus Flavius, Translated into
English by Wm. Whiston. I used the 1981 edition published by Kregel
Publications (Grand Rapids, Michigan). I deliberately used this
edition for several reasons. The small group of professional
scholars who specialize in Josephus use a reference system of book
and paragraph numbers, which I decided not to employ for two main
First, most naive readers are unaware of this system (which is
confined to the above scholars) and its use in a publication
intended for a more general audience will surely confuse the reader.
I thus preferred to use a text that is easily available and a
citation mode that is accessible to all.
Second, uncovering the myth of Masada requires that we attempt to
know what the myth makers at the time knew. Hence which version of
Josephus was used is a crucial issue. The edition used above was
clearly used by myth makers, as well as Simchoni's translation. The
fact is that without Josephus we know very little. Virtually all our
knowledge of the period and the relevant events is based on
He is - fortunately or unfortunately - the main,
and in most respects the only, historical source. If Josephus had
not written a history, there would "be" no Masada, Sicarii, revolt,
and so forth. I thus take Josephus's version as a fundamental
baseline, regardless of its "truth" value (unless, of course, one
can come up with persuasive arguments as to why what he says, or
which parts of what he says, are wrong.
Unquestionably, as an historical source, Josephus provides a
problematic account. But, it is the only historical account we have.
Historically speaking, it is the only detailed "truth" we have about
the Jewish Great Revolt and Masada.
Selected Bibliography On The Masada Myth
Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. 1995). The Masada Myth: Collective Memory And
Mythmaking In Israel. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.
Bruner, Edward M. and Phyllis Gorfain (1984): "Dialogic Narration
and the Paradoxes of Masada" Pp. 56-75 in Plattner Stuart and Edward
M. Bruner (eds.): Text, Play, And Story: The Construction And
Reconstruction Of Self And Society, Washington: The American
Cotton, Hanna and Yehonatan Preiss. 1990. "Who conquered Masada in
66 A.D. and who occupied it until it fell?" ZION, 55:449-454
Doty, William G. 1986. Mythography, The Study Of Myths And Rituals,
Alabama: The University of Alabama Press.
Gill, Dan. 1993. "A Natural Spur at Masada" Nature,
Lewis, Bernard. 1975. History: Remembered, Recovered, Invented,
Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Paine, Robert. 1994. "Masada: A History Of A Memory" History And
Roth, Jonathan. 1995. "The Length of the Siege of Masada" Scripta
Classica Israelica, 14:87-110.
Schwartz, Barry, Yael Zerubavel, Bernice M. Barnett. 1986. "The
Recovery of Masada: A Study in Collective Memory," The Sociological
Quarterly, 27(#2): 147-164.
Shargel, Baila R. 1979. "The Evolution of the Masada Myth," Judaism,
Shatzman, Israel. 1993. "The Roman Siege On Masada" Pp. 105-120 in
Hurvitz, Gila (ed.) The Story Of Masada: Discoveries From The
Excavations. Jerusalem: Hebrew University; Antiquities authority;
the Society for Studying Eretz Israel and Its Antiquities. (Hebrew).
Vidal-Naquet, Pierre. 1983. "Josephus Flavius and Masada," ZEMANIM,
Zerubavel, Yael. 1995. Recovered Roots: Collective Memory And The
Making Of Israeli National Tradition, Chicago: The University of