Monday, August 19, 2019


To the rescue comes Jodi Magness in her new book, Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth. Magness, a prominent archaeologist and a professor at the University of North Carolina, studied when young with the great Yadin and now oversees the fruitful, though less famous, dig at Huqoq in Galilee.

The Masada story, as it’s generally known, goes like this: Herod the Great, famous for colossal building projects (and for murdering his own relatives) built a grand winter palace there around 31 BCE. Nearly a century later, in 66 CE, when the Jews revolted against their Roman overlords, a contingent of rebels known as the Zealots fled to the palace and held out as the rest of Judea succumbed.

In Zionism’s early years, that story helped turn Masada into a powerful symbol. But it’s been a rough few decades for Zionist symbols, and for the Masada mythology. Many scholars now doubt that a mass suicide of Jewish defenders actually occurred; despite Yadin’s best efforts, the archaeological evidence remains ambiguous. The only source for the story is Josephus Flavius, the Jewish rebel commander turned Roman historian who described the event in rousing, gory detail in his The Jewish War. He left us a precise number—967—for the men, women, and children who died on the hilltop as the legions broke through. But no mass grave has ever been found, and no other account has come to light.

In Masada, Magness does an admirable job of explaining to a general audience where current scholarship stands: an especially valuable service to a reader who, like me, might know the story but couldn’t quite tell you where the line runs between evidence and wishful thinking. Magness comes neither to mythologize nor to myth-bust, but rather to explain what she and her colleagues have actually found in the soil, what can reliably be said to have happened, and what will have to remain unresolved.

If you come to the site assuming that the Josephus account is true, as Yadin did, you’ll find evidence—like those three dramatic skeletons by the pool—to support it. But if you discard that account you might conclude, like another archaeologist, that the skeletons were just a jumble of bones dragged into a corner of the palace by hyenas. If you think the suicide happened as Josephus describes, with the rebels drawing lots, then ceramic shards inscribed with Hebrew names will seem like those lots. But if you’re a skeptic you might conclude that the shards had to do, more prosaically, with the distribution of food.

Magness weighs the evidence and reaches a responsible conclusion: “I am often asked if I believe there was a mass suicide at Masada,” she writes, “to which I respond that this is not a question that archaeology is equipped to answer.” Despite the desire for a tale of heroic sacrifice, such a tale might be an invention or an exaggeration. And yet, despite the modern fashion for debunking anything that smells like heroism, it could also be true.

Equally memorable, in Magness’s book, are the insights unconnected to the controversy. For example: although the Masada rebels are usually referred to as Zealots, the Greek term for one Judean faction, the dominant party on the hill was actually the Sicarii (Latin for “daggermen”), a nastier group whom Magness, channeling Josephus, describes as “urban terrorists.” This rebel sect didn’t fight only the Romans. In 68 CE, about five years before the fortress finally fell, Josephus recounts, they massacred hundreds of their fellow Jews in a raid on the nearby town of Ein Gedi.

Among the Jewish women taking refuge on the hill, we learn from ceramic shards, was a certain Shalom the Galilean, as well as “the daughter of Domli” and “the wife of Jacob.” They wore hair nets that seem to have been dyed to match the color of their hair. As the end approached, a couple named Joseph and Miriam somehow found time to get divorced; the religious paperwork, or get in Hebrew, was found in a cave nearby. A child left a sock.

More detail comes from the Roman army camps, their outlines still visible beneath the hill, built by Tenth Legion soldiers and auxiliaries commanded by Flavius Silva: hobnailed military sandals, the cheek-guard of a helmet, bronze scales from armor worn by light infantry, triple-pointed arrows. Potsherds inform us of the presence of legionnaires named Aemilius, Fabius, and Terentius. A grunt named C. Messius of Beirut left behind a military pay slip. One papyrus


Post a Comment

<< Home