Masada and its scrolls

Masada was first built as a fortress by a Hasmonean priest Jonathan, either the brother of Judah the Maccabee (152–143 BCE) or Alexander Janneus (103–76 BCE).

A view of the Judean Desert overlooking the caves of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found (photo credit: HERMAN CHANANIA/GPO)
A view of the Judean Desert overlooking the caves of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found
(photo credit: HERMAN CHANANIA/GPO)
When Yigael Yadin began to excavate Masada in 1963, the possibility of finding ancient manuscripts was but a dream. But this dream would be fulfilled in just a few weeks, as excavators combed a room inside the casemate wall of the fortress. When the manuscripts were opened, Yadin realized that he had found a copy of a quasi-mystical text entitled “Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice” or “Angelic Liturgy,” copies of which had been found at Qumran but which still awaited publication.
This discovery led to the obvious question: how did Masada and the texts discovered there relate to the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran? Was there a relationship between the Sicarii, the dagger-carrying rebels (sica in Latin means dagger) who defended Masada, and the sectarians at Qumran, usually taken to be the Essenes? More broadly, what do the texts from Masada tell us about the state of Judaism on the eve of the revolt and in the early years thereafter?
Masada was first built as a fortress by a Hasmonean priest Jonathan, either the brother of Judah the Maccabee (152–143 BCE) or Alexander Janneus (103–76 BCE). In this fortress, Herod protectively ensconced his family when he traveled to Rome in 40 BCE to convince the Senate to make him king of the Jews. Between 37 and 31 BCE, he built it into a beautiful winter palace. After his death, the site was occupied at some point by a Roman garrison, from whom it was captured in 66 CE by the Sicarii rebel forces. In 73 CE the fortress fell to the Romans after a protracted siege. With the fall of Masada, the last flame of the Jewish revolt was extinguished.
In order to observe Jewish law as they understood it, the rebels who occupied Masada had to adapt it for their needs. They also had to modify a number of buildings to serve as their living quarters. Two mikvaot (ritual baths) have been identified from this period. ONE ROOM at the site has been described as a beit midrash (house of study), although because no such structures are known from this early period, this identification is questionable.
More significant is the Masada synagogue, one of the earliest such structures, together with those at Herodion and Gamla, which were also rebel fortresses during the Great Revolt. The synagogue faced northwest, toward Jerusalem, with bleacher seating lining the inside walls. Found there was an ostracon referring to tithes given to the priests, as well as fragments of two scrolls hidden in pits under the floor. Remnants of additional scrolls were found in two locations in the casemate walls, one in close proximity to the synagogue.
In all, parts (often small fragments) of 15 biblical and apocryphal scrolls were found in the Masada excavations, including fragments of two scrolls of Leviticus, one each of Deuteronomy and Ezekiel, and two manuscripts of the Psalms. Because the general character of these texts is almost identical to the Masoretic text – the Tanach used today – we can conclude that this text had essentially become the only recognized biblical text by the period of the revolt. Only a century or so earlier, the Qumran scrolls, while including what scholars term proto-Masoretic texts in large numbers, also exhibited manuscripts demonstrating that the biblical text was not fully fixed.
Yet the Jews who fled to Masada, whose biblical texts had by this time become standardized, also made use of apocryphal compositions, a practice later frowned upon by the Mishnaic rabbis. Very substantial portions of the second century BCE book of Ben Sira found at Masada prove beyond a doubt that the medieval fragments preserved in the Cairo geniza were derived from the original text that was composed in Hebrew. This composition, small fragments of which were found at Qumran as well, is the only apocryphal text actually quoted by the Talmudic rabbis. Also found at Masada was a small fragment of the book of Jubilees, as well as a number of miscellaneous texts, one perhaps paralleling the Genesis Apocryphon. Jubilees was long known from Ethiopic and some Greek texts, and both of these texts had been found at Qumran.
When the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, found at Qumran in nine manuscripts, was first identified among the Masada scrolls, the other Masada scroll fragments had not yet been fully investigated. Accordingly, Yadin, followed by other scholars, assumed that this document, together with other sectarian writings, had been brought to Masada by fleeing sect members after Qumran was destroyed by the Romans in 68 CE. In fact, at that point in the history of scrolls research, the prevailing theory held that any texts found in the Qumran caves had been composed by the sectarians and copied in the Qumran scriptorium.
However, these assumptions have been overturned in light of the Masada materials published since then. We now believe that the reason these sites share literary remains is simply because the texts were widespread in Judea at the time. Hence, it may be that this angelic liturgy and the mystical approach it follows were not limited to the Qumran sectarians in the last years of the Second Temple, but had spread much farther among the Jewish community of the Land of Israel. If so, we can now understand why ideas such as those reflected in this text appeared in rabbinic literature and in the Merkavah (Divine Throne) mysticism of the third through eighth centuries CE. In light of the evidence, we have to view the common heritage of Qumran and Masada as typical of the literature read by the intellectual and religious elites of Second Temple Judaism.
The presence of these texts at both Judean Desert sites shows that in this period, the Jewish people shared a common heritage of apocryphal literature. Although the rabbis would later try to root out these non-biblical texts, during Second Temple times these books still enjoyed considerable popularity, which is why they make up approximately one-third of the Qumran collection and why some were also found at Masada.
Furthermore, since most of the apocryphal-type texts found in the Qumran caves were probably copied elsewhere, we can see that these texts were indeed widespread. So, although the defenders of Masada possessed proto-Masoretic Bibles, they still read apocryphal, and most probably, apocalyptic texts. Indeed, we can surmise that the apocalyptic tradition, with its messianic urgency, helped to drive the revolt against Rome.
What the Masada material demonstrates, therefore, is that by the period of the revolt, the biblical text had been essentially standardized in favor of the Masoretic text, even among groups that still read apocryphal texts. But we also see that this apocryphal material continued to constitute part of the heritage of the Second Temple Jewish community as a whole, and was only later rooted out by the rabbis.
Finally, we learn from the synagogue and ritual baths – basically constructed according to the Pharisaic-rabbinic tradition documented somewhat later – that this group’s views on such matters were becoming normative among Jews even before the revolt. It should not surprise us, therefore, that the Pharisaic-rabbinic approach to Judaism became dominant after the final defeat of Masada’s defenders and the crushing of the revolt by the Roman legions.
Lawrence H. Schiffman is the Judge Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and director of the Global Network for Advanced Research in Jewish Studies at New York University