From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth

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Jodi Magness
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , May
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


On the First Revolt against Rome (66-73 CE) a great deal has been reflected on the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple. But there are very few properly researched accounts on the last stand of the Jewish rebels on the rock fortress of Masada (Heb., Meṣadah) and why the suicide of 967 men, women, and children has become a focal point in the memory and message of that insurmountable defiance against Roman imperial rule. In the fulfillment of ethnic and secular Zionism, Masada is revered as a central nationalist expression of what the sovereign State of Israel expects nay demands of its citizens and others, under all circumstances, pursue life, liberty, justice, and freedom.

Archaeologist Jodi Magness’ chapters integrate history, literature, and archaeology to tell the story of Masada in conjunction with the fate of the Jews during Roman rule. Chapters 1 and 2 speak of Masada’s lore and natural setting and review the history of exploration of the Dead Sea region. Chapter 3 probes the turbulent events of first century BCE., including, the importance and decline of Rome Republic, and annexation of Hasmonean commonwealth (Jewish, Hellenistic) which set the stage for the appointed client Herod, king of Judea in 40 BCE.  Chapter 4 enumerates on Herod’s extensive building projects aside from Masada.

Chapter 5 presents in archaeological depth Herod’s buildings and water system atop Masada. Chapter 6 elaborates on events leading to, as well as during and after the “Judean war.” Alas, the Jewish rebels who had occupied Masada during the revolt continued to hold out atop the mountain. Chapter 7 projects the daily life of the Masada defenders. Chapter 8 accounts the story of the siege of Masada (72/73 or 73/74 CE). Chapter 9 evaluates the lore and legacy of the “Masada myth” from rebellious defiance into a symbol of the modern State of Israel interwoven in the life and legacy of its foremost archaeologist and advocate, Yigal Yadin. The concluding chapter presents an insightful archaeological tour of today’s Masada.

Underlying the importance of Masada in the geography, history, and religio- social issues  of Early Judaism, Magness raises subtle questions of biblical authority, and places Masada in the context of contemporary Judean-Qumran-Hellenistic-Roman history, and field archaeology  on  the hillside and on  top of Masada with a focus on strata. Her methodology and narrative are crafted to the inquisitive learned reader more than the archaeologist-historian scholar albeit the questions asked, answers given, opinions and subtleties galore will challenge and educate the seasoned scholar. Her approach is to ask enticing questions in a simplistic matter. For example, the incredible, influential, and impactful suicide note authored by Eliezer ben Yair, leader of the rebels, preludes the chosen death of hundreds of followers (save seven hidden women and children who chose to live). The note’s concluding thought transcends time, place, event: “. . . the Romans will be grieved to lose at once our persons and lucre. Our provisions let us spare; for they will testify, when we are dead, that it was not want which subdued us, but that, in keeping with our initial resolve, we preferred death to slavery” (2). Necessary questions are probed by Magness, who does the requisite tooth-and-nail research such as what is the referenced food supply on Masada left by the retreating rebels or the provisions of the conquering Roman legionnaires? Surprisingly she avoids taking a position on the suicide’s note authenticity nor does she sense a deeper moral issue involved.

Let me explain. Magness audaciously asks how credible is the suicide pact if the sole recorder/source is Judean born Joseph son of Mattathias who identified as a Pharisee (18) and who chose in the years of the First Revolt to not die in defense of land and people; taken prisoner, he adequately projected that Vespasian and his son Titus would one day become emperors and was set free following the death of Nero before whom he was to be tried. Consequently, Joseph adopted Roman ways and became a client of the Flavians whose name he adopted hence Josephus Flavius. He witnessed the besieging and destruction of Jerusalem and the Har HaBayit recorded it and endless other events in his monumental seven volume The War of the Jews (Bigelow, Brown, 1900). Magness pointedly reviews the value of Josephus’ writings; she sees his crossing over and mixing Jewish values and moral with Greco-Roman mores to understand the mosaic of epithets about Josephus: traitor, apologist, polemicist, defender. Yet Magness opines that her role as a Masada archaeologist is to research, gather and evaluate evidence in situ but not necessarily to judge the data, intent and validity of Josephus on Masada. Decision expected or respected of her distinguished archaeologist - mentor Yigael Yadin (1917-1984), the primary excavator and exclaimer of Josephus’ account of Masada zealotry, heroism, and suicide.

In sum, Magness’ account of the significance of the defense-suicide of/on  Masada in ancient Jewish history and contemporary Israeli society stitches religious, political, and philosophical thinking through patches of history and eternity but there is little consensus between religionist nationalism and academic archaeology  on the non-contested facts in hand uncovered by the shovel. If the author concurs that Masada zealot defenders parallel Jewish participants in the  Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against the Nazi regime in Poland then Josephus’ Masada suicide note is no different in intent than the suicide Letter of the Ninety-Three Maidens (Beth Yaakov) to escape forced harlotry by Nazis during the Shoah (commemorated as acts of kiddush ha-shem/ martyrology). Modern mythmaking or paradigmatic Masadalogy?  

About the Reviewer(s): 

Zev Garber is Emeritus Professor and Chair of Jewish Studies and Philosophy at Los Angeles Valley College.  

Date of Review: 
October 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jodi Magness is Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.


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