The symbol of Masada

The adoption of Masada as a modern symbol for the State of Israel, however, is controversial because of what Josephus wrote took place there.

Moshe Dann (photo credit: Courtesy)
Moshe Dann
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Masada, from the Hebrew meaning fortress, is located on a high desert plateau overlooking the Dead Sea, the lowest point in the world. It was built by Herod, who was appointed King of Judea by the Romans, as a place of refuge. Fearing a popular revolt against him, he fortified Masada and built two palaces there between 37 and 31 BCE. According to the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, the siege of Masada by Roman troops from 73 to 74 CE, at the end of the Jewish-Roman War, ended in some 960 Jewish rebels taking their own lives rather than surrender to the Romans.
The adoption of Masada as a modern symbol for the State of Israel, however, is controversial because of what Josephus wrote took place there. Since the final tragic event cannot be verified, and no one else wrote about it, many have questioned whether it even took place as he related it. Was Josephus telling the truth? We will never know; but his story raises the most important question of all: Why did the Jewish defenders at Masada stop fighting?
That is the question that historian Moshe Dann confronts in this issue’s cover story   from a perspective never presented before.
Masada is also the subject of a fascinating new book by Prof. Jodi Magness, MASADA: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth. In this remarkable book, whose preface is reprinted here with permission, Magness explains that the Masada narrative resonated with Israel’s founders, and how its slogan – “Masada shall not fall again” – became symbolic of the besieged fledgling Jewish state.
“The example of Jews putting up a heroic resistance to the death instead of going meekly to their slaughter had great appeal in the wake of the Holocaust, and at a time when Israel’s population felt embattled,” Magness writes. The final event at Masada as related by Josephus, however, belies this interpretation – the Jews slaughtered themselves!
Magness says that Masada today has lost its elevated status, and the IDF no longer holds induction ceremonies there as it once did. “Masada has become a less compelling model for Israelis,” she writes. “Many scholars now believe Josephus’s description of the mass suicide (the only ancient account of this episode) is fabricated – that it never happened.”
Masada is not only important as one of Israel’s most visited tourist sites; it is the place – along with Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Since these date back to the Second Temple period, it gives authenticity to the texts still read today.
What was the connection between the civil strife during the Hasmonean and Herodian periods and what happened in the so-called Jewish War? The invasion of Greek culture and philosophy via the Hellenists undermined the Second Commonwealth and Jewish civilization at the time. Jews fought Jews, then as now; the Maccabees, as the early Hasmonean family was called, were warriors seeking to free their country from foreign rule. Like their successors, the Zealots, including those at Masada, they were part of a widespread resistance movement dedicated to expelling idol-worshiping and anti-Jewish foreign influence.
How are the heroes of Masada different from the Maccabim who defeated the Greeks a century before? Is there a contemporary lesson in the Masada story? And, as Prof. Lawrence Schiffman asks, how did Masada and the texts discovered there relate to the Dead Sea Scrolls found by Yigael Yadin at Qumran?
As we approach the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, we hope this issue will inspire you to consider these questions, and the ramifications of their answer. Your comments, as always, are most welcome.