by Nachman Ben-Yehuda
American Sociological Association, Volume 18, No. 1 (Autumn 2003)
14 May 2008
On the last day of October, a cavalcade
of foreign dignitaries and Israeli officials joined hundreds of
ordinary citizens making their way to the top of a plateau
overlooking the Dead Sea. They gathered to proclaim this secluded
fortress, called Masada, one of the world's most important
historical sites - a place worthy of global attention and
The United Nations, which put the Israeli mesa on the
list of World Heritage Sites, chose the place in part to commemorate
the Jewish rebels who held the lofty stronghold, and eventually
perished there, in the waning days of a revolt against the Roman
Empire in AD 73.
In its report on Masada, the UN concludes that "the
tragic events during the last days of the Jewish refugees who
occupied the fortress and palace of Masada make it a symbol both of
Jewish cultural identity and, more universally, of the continuing
human struggle between oppression and liberty.
Making Masada into a World Heritage Site was the last step in a very
long process, which began in the early decades of the 20th century
mostly by secular Jews. The goal of this process was to turn Masada
into a heroic memory. I have devoted some years of research to try
and figure out how and why this process unfolded. In my first book
on this topic
The Masada Myth (1995).
I traced the development of
the myth. This fascinating development was conceptualized within the
framework of collective memory. Having finished that project,
another riddle came up.
Between 1963-1965 Masada was excavated by a
team of professional archaeologists headed by the Late Hebrew
University professor turned politician, Yigael Yadin. I became very
curious how was it that professional archaeologists gave such strong
support to a mythical tale. Trying to decipher this riddle
culminated in my 2002 book
Sacrificing Truth. The two books ask
different questions and use different methodologies.
short piece will detail the essence of my work on Masada.
Let me begin with a physical description of Masada. Masada is a
butte fortress nearly 100 kilometers southeast of Jerusalem, about a
90-minute drive from the capital. This rocky geological formation is
located about 2 kilometers from the west shore of the Dead Sea, and
about 17 kilometers south of Ein Geddi, in one of the world's
hottest places (daily temperatures between the months of May -
October average typically between 33 to 40 degrees centigrade).
height of the butte is about 320 meters from top to bottom. On its
top there is a diamond-shaped, flat plateau. Its long axis is about
645 meters and its widest axis is about 315 meters (see Livne 1986).
The butte itself is very steep, and is accessible by foot either by
climbing the eastern "snake path" (the preferable way) or, from the
west side by means of climbing the natural spur upon which the Roman
army built its siege-ramp. There is also a modern cable car, which
makes reaching the top of Masada from the East side very easy.
The name of the butte and fortress in Hebrew is METZADA (pronounced
ME-TZA-DA). The word METZADA is a derivative of the Hebrew word
METZAD, or METZUDA, literally meaning a fort, fortress or
stronghold. The translation of METZADA to Greek is Masada (Simchoni
The Greek translation kept its sound in English and so
METZADA has become popularly known as Masada.
There is one historical textual source for Masada - the writings of
Josephus Flavius. "Erase" Josephus and there is not much we know
about what happened in Masada. Questions about the reliability and
credibility of the historical narrative provided by Josephus
continue to haunt us, and - I suspect - will continue to occupy a
small army of scholars in different disciplines.
For lack of other
contemporary textual evidence, I suggest that we take Josephus' text
as an historical base line. That is, take his account at face value
as true, unless there is unambiguous and compelling evidence to
caution us to be careful with his historical account.
For example, Josephus tells us that before the collective suicide on
Masada, the last Sicarii commander of the fortress - Elazar Ben-Yair
- made two speeches. Josephus quotes these two speeches.
Unfortunately, Josephus was not there. However, he was a
contemporary, he could have guessed what such a speech could have
been like, and one of the survivors of the suicide (there were 7)
could have told the Romans about the speeches.
Clearly, one needs to
take the specific content of these speeches with caution.
What does Josephus tell us about the events in Masada?
The events in Masada cannot, and should not, be separated from the
context. Between AD 66-73 the Jews in Judea revolted against the
Roman Empire that controlled the region. The Roman Empire in the
first century AD was at its peak of power, stretching from England
to Mesopotamia and controlling a mighty and ruthless military
Josephus expresses great doubts he had at the time about
the logic - politically and military - of that revolt. Moreover, it
is clear from his description that extreme groups dragged the Jews
into this doomed revolt. There were a few groups involved in the
incitation to revolt, two of which are relevant to Masada: the
Zealots and the Sicarii.
While Josephus does not always make a clear
distinction between the two, when he discusses Masada his usage of
the term Sicarii is very consistent.
The Sicarii was a group whose name came from Sica, a small dagger
members of this extreme group used to hide underneath their robes
and assassinate their opponents in Jerusalem and elsewhere.
Eventually, because of their ruthless nature, assassinations and
terror, members of this group headed by Elazar Ben-Yair escaped from
Jerusalem to Masada (it is unclear exactly when, or how, the Sicarii
took control of Masada).
This escape took place before the Roman
army put a siege on, and in AD 70 destroyed, Jerusalem. That
conquest entailed burning the temple and butchering the inhabitants.
Josephus describes how the Sicarii on Masada would not come to the
help of the besieged in Jerusalem; how they raided nearby villages,
including Ein Geddi (where they murdered 700 women and children and
robbed their supplies). As the Roman army was crushing the revolt,
advancing from north to south, more and more Jews were drawn into
that revolt, with tragic results. The Romans were systematically
destroying any resistance.
After the fall of Jerusalem, not much was left. It took the Romans
some time to decide to crush the last three fortresses that remained
unsubdued: Macherus, Herodion and Masada. Masada was the last.
Although we do not have an exact date, somewhere between the end of
AD 72 and early AD 73, the Romans moved their 10th legion (Fretensis)
The siege probably took about 7 weeks (Roth 1995)
and Masada fell on the night of the fifteenth of Nissan (Xanthicus).
Prior to that, Ben-Yair made two speeches to his Sicarii begging
them to commit suicide so as not to fall slaves to the Romans. Out
of the 967 rebels on top of Masada, 960 killed one another and 7 hid
themselves and survived to tell the story.
Contrary to his description of the Roman siege around other
fortified targets (e.g., Jerusalem, Gamla, Yodfat, Macherus) where
the Roman army faced fierce resistance, no such resistance is
described around Masada. The implication is that the Sicarii, so
adept at assassination and terror, lacked fighting spirit when it
came to face the Roman army. Neither did they resist the Roman army
for three years nor did they stage a last stand battle but preferred
suicide. Even a Biblical Samson end (that is, kill oneself together
with one's enemies), was not considered.
Josephus expresses respect
for those committing suicide but no more than that.
Thus, the historical narrative found in Josephus is sad and tragic.
He describes a doomed revolt, fights among the Jews, and a bitter
disastrous end of the revolt, which ended with the torturous death
of a very large number of Jews and the destruction of the temple. As
a final act, three years after the revolt was crushed, we have a
collective suicide of a group of extremist Jews on Masada.
Josephus' perspective, the end of Masada was unheroic and
One needs to be reminded that until the 20th century, the Masada
historical narrative was largely in deep sleep among Jews. Was the
historical narrative, as told by Josephus, the one Jews have been
exposed to? Certainly not. The Masada historical narrative is
definitely not a tale of heroics. On the contrary. And yet, Masada
has been described, and is widely regarded, as a place of supreme
How was such a tragic and frightening narrative transformed
into a heroic tale? Why? When?
To answer these questions a series of methodologies was used. To
begin with, it was necessary to go back in time, search archives,
newspapers and history books in order to find out when changing the
Masada historical narrative took place. I located its origin in the
beginnings in the second decade of the 20th century.
As I moved
forward in time, it became clear that the early crystallization of
the myth took place in the 1920s, but picked up momentum in the
1930s. In the early 1940s the myth was pretty much crystallized and
ready. It had a few salient figures supporting it, but the major
figure was one Shmaria Guttman whose role in originally helping the
myth into being cannot be underestimated. Luckily, I could interview
him, twice. The methodology for these questions thus included
textual (written and transcribed interviews in the media) analysis
and interviews (e.g., with children's book authors).
Clearly, the myth began to decline in the mid-1960s. It was also
very obvious that the myth was developed and disseminated by secular
Jews. Observant Jews were not fond of the myth, and ultra orthodox
Jews even criticized it. For the latter, the idea of militarily
challenging the Roman Empire, the collective suicide or the
assassinations committed by the Sicarii were acts viewed with scorn
rather than awe.
Now that we had the dates, we could ask the why question. The answer
was obvious. As the Zionist national movement, dominated by secular
Jews, began to preach and later practice the return of Jews to their
homeland, they had not only to face the anti-Semitic stereotypes of
Jews as "non fighters" but also to give the young generation of
Israelis some heroic narratives.
In this way a mystical connection
with past could be achieved and a new consciousness of the new Jew
could be forged. This functional necessity became much more pressing
in the early 1940s when the small Jewish community in Palestine was
facing the possible invasion of the Nazi Korpus Afrika commanded by
The peak days of the myth thus stretch from about the 1940s
to the 1960s.
Following the 1967 war (the "Six days War") new sites of heroism
were accessible, new mythologies were created, and the importance of
When I say "peak" or "declined" I refer to
measuring such indices as:
visits of Israelis to Masada
youth movements on Masada
swearing-in military ceremonies
The next question is what is the Masada mythical narrative?
out, I examined tour guide books, elementary and high schools
history textbooks, history textbooks, encyclopedias; we examined
children's literature, movies, the arts, I joined tour guides on
Masada and listened to what the guides had to say, we checked the
way Masada was presented in the Israeli army, in youth movements, in
the media, and in the pre-state underground groups.
When we look at
all these sources, what the nature of the Masada Mythical narrative
is becomes clear. Thus, if we take the many different sources of
where the Masada myth appears and summarize them, then the essence
of the Masada mythical narrative may be sketched briefly as follows:
The leaders of the popular Great Revolt were Zealots - adherents of
one of the Jewish ideological trends of the period. The imperial
Roman army crushed the revolt, conquered and destroyed Jerusalem
together with the Second Temple of the Jews. The Zealots who
survived the siege and destruction of the city escaped to the
fortress of Masada, a stronghold difficult to reach atop a mountain
near the Dead Sea.
From there, the Zealots harassed the Romans and
created such a threat that the Romans decided to make the tremendous
military effort required and destroy Masada. Consequently, the
Romans gathered their army, made the long and arduous march in the
Judean desert and reached Masada. There, they surrounded the
fortress and put it under siege. After three years of heroic battle
by the few Zealots against the huge Roman army, the Zealots on
Masada realized that their situation was hopeless.
They faced a grim
future: either be killed by the Romans, or become slaves.
Ben-Yair, the commander, addressed his followers and persuaded them
all that they had to die as free men. They thus decided to kill
themselves, a heroic and liberating death, rather than become
wretched slaves. When the Roman soldiers entered Masada, they found
only silence and dead bodies (Ben-Yehuda 2002:46).
Historical Masada has thus been transformed from a narrative of a
disaster and became a symbol for a heroic last stand. In the words
of another famous Israeli icon, the former chief-of-staff and
politician Moshe Dayan (1983:21):
Today, we can point only to the fact that Masada has become a symbol
of heroism and of Liberty for the Jewish people to whom it says:
Fight to death rather than surrender; Prefer death to bondage and
loss of freedom.
Clearly, the popular, widespread Masada mythical narrative retained
some elements of the historical narrative in it, but in the main, it
is significantly different from what Josephus tells us.
It takes a
long, complex and at some points unclear historical sequence and
reduces it to a simple and straightforward heroic narrative,
characterized by a few clear themes. It emphasizes that a small
group of heroes, who had survived the battle of Jerusalem, chose to
continue the fight against the Romans to the bitter end rather than
The Masada mythical narrative is thus constructed by
transforming a tragic historical event into a heroic fable. The
hapless revolt is transformed into a heroic war. The questionable
collective suicide on Masada is transformed into a brave last stand
of the few against the many.
Some illustrative transformation themes are:
contrary to Josephus,
the rebels are referred to as "Zealots" (for their "zeal" for
freedom) instead of the Sicarii
the massacre in Ein Geddi
the siege on Masada is prolonged to three years
speeches of Ben-Yair are telescoped into one and the seven survivors
disappear - heroes, after all, do not hesitate and do not choose
life over suicide
Masada is frequently portrayed as a rebel base
for operations against the Romans
in fact, no evidence exists for
The result is the construction of a very powerful, persuasive and
consistently heroic tale. Moreover, many times this mythical
narrative was told to young people after a long and arduous trek in
the Judean desert.
The plan used to call for climbing to Masada just
before the sun rises over the Dead Sea in the east, and standing on
As the yellowish dreary desert wakes up, on top of the butte,
the cold breeze of the morning, with torches still burning, the
mythical narrative is told. The suspension of disbelief in this
orchestrated Schpiel is complete, and a strong feeling of national
solidarity was achieved.
Trust me, in my youth I was one of those
young Israelis undergoing this dramatic event.
The archaeological excavations
Masada was excavated a few times, but the main excavations took
place between 1963-1965 under the tight supervision of prof. Yigael
Yadin. The next question was how come these excavations gave such a
strong support for the myth?
The methodology here was different. The excavators of Masada met
every day, at the end of the day, to discuss the findings of the
day. These daily sessions were recorded and transcribed. The
Institute of Archaeology at Hebrew University allowed me full and
free access to these transcriptions. Examining these transcripts, in
fact, opened a fascinating porthole into the daily discussions and
debates about different findings on Masada.
One can actually
understand how the archaeologists were conducting their daily
science on Masada. From that point on, what I did was to check each
and every source that I could locate, as per find, to examine how
the find was presented and how its interpretation developed. The
follow-up ended in the 1990s when the final findings from Masada
When examined in this way, it is easy to see
archaeologists, time and again, sacrificed truth for a myth.
Again and again, as I demonstrate in my 2002 book, one can see how
the different artifacts found on Masada were interpreted so as to
support the myth. This included suppressing some findings, ignoring
alternative and competing explanations, and suppressing any
criticism of Yadin's version.
Indeed, much of the criticism about
these excavations came from outside Israel.
It is interesting to
note that when, in the 1990s, the final reports of the excavations
were published (long after Yadin died and could no longer exert any
influence), almost none of Yadin's interpretation found its way into
these publications. Thus, in the final analysis, and to the credit
of the editors of these detailed reports, science did triumph.
Let me use one illustration. On Nov. 26, 1963 the excavators found
on the lower level of the northern palace three skeletons: a woman
age 17-18, a child age 11-12 and a man age 20-22. Yadin is recorded
as saying that this can not have been a family. Some pieces of armor
were found near the skeletons. Nothing more was added to the find.
Yadin began to evolve an interpretation of this find and in 1966 (in
a book) already suggested that these bones may have been those of
the last fighter on Masada and of his family.
In 1971 (in an
encyclopedia) he declared that the bones belonged to "an important
commander of Masada and his family" and in 1973 (in a speech on
Masada) these bones became,
"the remains of ... a very important
commander, his wife, and their child, just like in the description
Of course, where exactly Josephus describes this is
not disclosed, or how these bones became a "family" of an "important
commander," perhaps of the "last fighter" is entirely unclear and
left to the imagination of the reader.
Yadin's interpretation of Masada was significant because it was
clearly ideologically motivated, aimed to reinforce Masada's role in
Israel's national narrative. Ideology (including mythology) and
science have two entirely different jobs: ideologically-grounded
myths are not efforts to reveal truth but to promote moral values,
mobilize sentiment and energy, sustain loyalty and commitment.
such the Masada mythical narrative was quite effective.
Science, on the other hand, is aimed to reveal truth, distinguish it
from falsehood, and ranks the issue of validity very high. In fact,
science should protect us from getting entangled in our own
mythology, from actually confusing reality with fiction.
Yadin used the cloak of science to support a myth. As such, it may
present a unique form of deviance: falsifying interpretations not
for the sake of a scientific theory, but for the sake of a national
By sacrificing truth Yadin also sacrificed science.
The Masada mythical narrative was analyzed with the analytical
framework of collective memory. At that time, in the 1990s,
researchers in this area were focused on such issues about the past
as "did it happen or not." In this sense, the Masada myth fits very
well into the Zeitgeist of the research agenda of that era.
Vinitzky-Seroussi's (2002) illuminating conceptualization about
fragmented memory was not available in 1995 and so the main analysis
was to see how the Masada myth was composed of some historical parts
and some imaginary parts. This analysis basically followed Barry
Schwartz's now classic distinction between the continuity and
discontinuity of collective memory.
Like other new innovations, Vinitzky-Seroussi's recent innovation enables us a potentially fresh
new look at these findings. We can try to re-analyze the
commemoration of Masada as a fragmented memory, for example by
different groups of Jews (e.g., secular vs. observant; or even
within different secular groups). This analysis will inevitably
require us to decide whether it is the nature of the past that makes
it fragmentary, or if all we have is a potential for a fragmentary
commemoration, which may not necessarily materialize.
In contradistinction, the main conceptual framework used in
Sacrificing Truth was an examination of how science works, how
knowledge is generated, and particularly how, why and when deviance
in science occurs. That is, a conceptualization framed in the
sociologies of science and deviance.
Kohl's (e.g., 1995 with Fawcett
and 1998) work on the mutual influence of nationalism, politics and
ideology vis-à-vis archaeology played an important role in this
The transformation of the Masada historical narrative into the
Masada mythical narrative is a fascinating process. Much like Zertal's (1999) work, this is an examination of
how a disaster was
transformed into a heroic tale.
My work on Masada illustrates, to my
mind, how one can examine with two different prisms, using different
methodologies, and different interpretative analytical frameworks, a
research field. And, I should not finish this piece without
expressing some sense of historical irony. The last transformation
of Masada is the contemporary - it has transformed into a major
tourist site, even with some illegal drug parties on top.
Contemporary Israeli society has changed so much that the first two
transformations simply do not fit it any longer.
It is now that
UNESCO decided to adopt this majestic and grim place for a World
I am deeply grateful for the constructive comments made on a
previous draft by Robert Friedmann, Erich Goode, Barry Schwartz,
William Shaffir and one unnamed reader.
Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. 1995. The Masada Myth. Collective Memory and
Mythmaking in Israel. Madison: Univer- sity of Wisconsin Press.
Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. 2002. Sacrificing Truth. Ar- chaeology and the
Myth of Masada. Amherst, New York: Prometheus/Humanity Books.
Dayan, Moshe. (ed.). 1983. Masada. Paris: Armand and Georges Israel.
Kohl, Philip L. and Clare Fawcett (eds.). 1995. Nationalism,
Politics, and the Practice of Archaeology, Cambridge: Cambridge
Kohl, Philip L. 1998. "Nationalism and Archaeology: On the
Constructions of Nations and the Reconstructions of the Remote
Past." Annual Review of Anthropology, 27:223- 246.
Livne, Micha. 1986. Last Fortress. The Story of Masada and its
People, Tel Aviv: Ministry of Defense Publish- ing. (Hebrew).
Monastersky, Richard. 2002. "Israeli Icon Under Fire" The Chronicle
of Higher Education, December 6.
Roth, Jonathan. 1995. "The Length of the Siege of Masada," Scripta
Classica Israelica, 14:87-110.
Simchoni, Y. N. 1923. "Introduction" to his translation of The
History of the War of the Jews with the Romans. From the 1968
edition (1970 imprint), by Givataim-Ramat Gan: Masada Ltd. (Hebrew).
Vinitzky-Seroussi, Vered. 2002. "Commemorating a Difficult Past:
Yitzhak Rabin's Memorials," American Sociological Review,
Zertal, Idit. 1999. "The tortured and the sacred. The establishment
of a national martyrology", Zemanim, 48:26-45 (Hebrew).