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Site Report: Masada

by Ryan Timpte

Open your gates, O Masada
And I the refugee shall enter…
(Masada shall never fall again.
– “Masada,” Yitzhak Lamdan

We’ve been taught that the end of the Biblical narrative is not the end of the history of the church – in fact, it is only the beginning. What seems to end with Paul’s letters and the Revelation of John is actually the start of two millennia of history, of adaptations and changes that have led to our present-day world. The end of the Bible is not the end of the Christian story. What many forget, though, is that the Old and New Testaments told a uniquely Jewish story. The events detailed particularly in the gospels were the starting point for Christianity, true, but the trails leading from those stories led in many directions. One of those trails led to the southwestern edge of the Dead Sea, to a fortress on a mountain called Masada. Masada may never have been mentioned in any of the Biblical accounts, but it nevertheless is a crucial site to the understanding of both ancient Judaism and modern Israel.

All that we know of the first-century history of Masada comes from the Roman historian Josephus Flavius. He writes that “Herod thus prepared this fortress [Masada] on his own account, as a refuge against two kinds of danger; the one for fear of the multitude of the Jews,” and the other against the plotting of Cleopatra and Antony to take over Judea. Josephus’ flair for the dramatic is widely known, and scholars have rightly pressed the point on whether or not Josephus’ accounts – particularly of the Masada story – hold up, but John Hall notes that the story as told by Josephus “is borne out in large part by the archeology”; Masada really was apparently built primarily as a housing safeguard for Herod and his family – a royal palace with all the fortifications of a fortress, or a fortress with all the trappings of a palace. The taking of Masada by the Romans is also buoyed by various archaeological finds, particularly those Roman artifacts that were left behind. For all intents and purposes, it is fairly obvious that Masada was a first-century Jewish stronghold that was eventually besieged and captured by the Roman army in Palestine. The complete story from Josephus, though, has become the stuff of legend.

In 70 CE, with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the large majority of the Jews in the region of Palestine surrendered completely to their Roman overlords. As the story goes, though, the Jewish zealots – those Josephus called the “sicarii” – retreated to the fortress of Masada, which had been recaptured from the Romans after a long struggle in 66 CE. Yigael Yadin notes the “vast contrast between the Masada of the year 66 AD [sic] and the Masada of Herod.” The zealots had no need for a fortified luxury palace, and so they did away with most of the amenities that Herod had built in; this, instead, was supposed to be the site of their last stand. The Romans laid siege to the fortress, though, cutting off all lines of communication and supply, and had successfully breached the fortress’ walls. On the night before the Romans would have flooded through the breach to capture the zealots, the zealot leader Eleazar convinced his warriors that there was only one viable option before them: mass suicide, for death at the hands of their kin seemed more honorable than capture at the hands of the Romans. The warriors of the fortress killed the woman and children first, burned their belongings (though not the stores of food, in order to “prove to the Romans that the defenders had not been starved into surrender” ), then selected ten men to kill the rest of the company. Of the ten, one was selected to kill the other nine, and then – after making sure that no one had been left alive and the royal palace had been thoroughly burned – he himself committed suicide. According to Josephus, 960 men, women, and children died that night, and only seven survived – two women and five children who had hidden in an aqueduct and lived to tell the terrible tale.

Clearly, this story approaches the level of the fantastic; it seems completely absurd that a rebellious army would end itself in such a way, and the archeological evidence seems to say the same. Gila Hurvitz notes that “the finds from Masada and the surrounding area supply evidence that confirms the authenticity of some of the details of the last battle,” including the siege and the burning of the large majority of the buildings, though “the reality of the suicide is hard to prove archaeologically.” Archaeologists have been excavating Masada for decades now and have yet to find any trace of the 960 people who died that fateful night. To be sure, the fortress continued to serve as a Roman fortress after the defeat of the Jewish zealots, and the Roman occupiers would surely have disposed of the bodies outside the walls of the fortress. It is entirely possible that the Romans burned the bodies, or dug a mass grave that has yet to be found, but it is becoming increasingly unlikely. The story from Josephus – who was not present at Masada, but instead heard the tale second- and third-hand – is more likely flawed in its telling in some way. Perhaps his sources were exaggerating the scale of the destruction; perhaps he himself sought to write a suitable requiem for the Jewish people. In any case, the archaeological story of Masada, though interesting in its own right, does not hold a candle to the fantastical nature of the story of history.

That physical evidence has all but disproved a large majority of the tale, though, does not seem to matter to the Jewish people. Before any excavations were performed on the site, Masada had become a watchword for Zionism and Jewish emigration to Palestine. For centuries, the story had been largely ignored – there is no mention of an historical Masada in the Talmud at all – but it resurfaced at the beginning of the twentieth century. Yitzhak Lamdan wrote an epic poem in the 1920s titled “Masada,” which became a watchword for Jews settling the area in the early twentieth century. Even today, members of the Israeli Defense Forces, upon commissioning, travel to the ruins and declaim the last line of Lamdan’s poem: “Matzadah lo shuv tipol!” Masada shall not fall again. The rallying cry may seem akin to the story of the Alamo during the war for Texas’ independence from Mexico in the 1800s, but the fortress has come to stand metonymically for the nation of Israel itself. When speaking before the Knesset in May 2008, former President George W. Bush said, “Earlier today, I visited Masada, an inspiring monument to courage and sacrifice. At this historic site, Israeli soldiers swear an oath: ‘Masada shall never fall again.’ Citizens of Israel: Masada shall never fall again, and America will be at your side.” The fortress and the story of what happened there have thoroughly penetrated the mythos and ethos of the Israeli state. As Yael Zerubavel writes, Masada “represented a highly symbolic event that captured the essence of the authentic national spirit and helped define their own historical mission as the direct followers of the ancient Hebrews.” It is possible to link the modern state of Israel to the ancient Israelites through archeology and the Biblical witness; Masada brings a connection to the historic passion for the land, and it gives modern Israelis something tangible to see and to fight for, even as the ideals represented by Masada are intangible.

Though Masada isn’t technically a Biblical site, the ruins of the fortress are important not merely because of its connection to the Biblical stories, but because of the stories it has placed inside of modern Israelis. Their passion for the land is akin to the passion held by their zealot forefathers. Their struggle matches that of Eleazar’s troops, as they, too, are surrounded on all sides by those who would wish to destroy them. But the Israelis know that suicide cannot be the answer this time, that death can never be the answer – if nothing else, the Holocaust has shown them that. Instead, they choose to defend, to defend Masada, to defend Israel, in hopes that the story this time will be different – that perhaps the legend of Masada might have a happier ending this time.

Because Masada shall not fall again.

Bibliography
Bush, George. “Speech to the Knesset,” May 15, 2008 (http://zionism-israel.com/israel_news/2008/05/masada-will-not-fall-again-transcript.html), accessed 23 January 2009.
Hall, John E. and John W. Welch, eds. Masada and the World of the New Testament. Provo, Utah: BYU Studies, 1997.
Hurvitz, Gila The Story of Masada: Discoveries from the Excavations. Provo, Utah: BYU Studies, 1997.
Yadin, Yigael. Masada: Herod’s Fortress and the Zealots’ Last Stand. New York: Random House, 1966.
Zerubavel, Yael. “The Death of Memory and the Memory of Death: Masada and the Holocaust as Historical Metaphors,” in Representations 45 (Winter 1994).

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