One of the most debated topics among Josephus scholars is the veracity of the suicide narrative he presents. One school of thought claims that it is another example of Josephus’s use of poetic license and there was never such an occurrence. These scholars believe that Josephus’s description of the mass suicide (the only account of this episode) is fabricated. The other side claims with equal vigor that textual and archaeological evidence prove that the mass suicide was a fact. The primary question revolves around whether Josephus’s depiction conforms to the archaeological record, although there are also many questions about the authenticity of Elazar ben Yair’s speeches. Scholars seem to agree that Josephus drew on his own literary skills to construct these speeches in conformity with the historiographical norms of the period.
The scholars who feel that the suicide narrative was a work of fiction raise several objections to Josephus’s version. Chief among the objections is the fact that the wall was breached in only one place. These scholars suggest that several hundred determined fighters in a position of strategic superiority could have defended it. They also allude to Josephus’s claim, which archaeology has substantiated, that the defenders had ample supplies of food, water, and weapons. In addition, religious scholars comment that observant Jews, such as the defenders of Masada, are forbidden to commit suicide. The only exception to this rule, according to Jewish law, is if the alternative is murder, forced idol worship, or the compelled commission of illicit sexual acts. However, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, former Chief Rabbi of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces, argued that the defenders of Masada were indeed acting in accordance with Jewish law in taking their own lives. He used the case of Saul as a precedent to justify suicide: “Therefore, Saul took a sword and fell on it” (I Samuel 31:4). Goren stated that when the alternative to suicide is facing excruciating torture and certain death, and when the enemy would bring about a “desecration of God’s name,” suicide is permitted. This, according to Goren, clearly was the case with the Zealots on Masada.
The scholar Hillel Geva pointed out that archaeologists discovered a pile of artifacts and dirt inside Masada piled up against the outside wall of the Northern Palace compound. This, he claims, could be evidence of a siege ramp inside Masada that would lead to the conclusion that there was intense fighting inside Masada, rather than a mass suicide.
Academics convinced that the mass suicide did indeed occur bring forth several arguments based on archaeology, contemporary military doctrine, and Jewish theology. They note that Josephus probably learned the name of the Zealot leader, Elazar ben Yair, from one of the seven captured zealots. Josephus (Wars 7:9) relates that,
An old woman escaped, along with another who was related to Elazar, in intelligence and education superior to most women, and five little children.
Further proof that Josephus did not invent the character of “Ben Yair” was furnished with the discovery by Yigal Yadin of an ostracon on Masada in the early ’60s, with the name “Ben Yair” inscribed. In addition, they argue that the specificity of the casualty figures, 960 dead, two women and five children captured, suggest a source in an official report, rather than in Josephus’s mind.
Yigal Yadin, the archaeologist who directed the initial substantial Masada dig, responded to objections to the suicide scenario by claiming that the very fact that the Romans had concentrated their battering ram, catapults, and archers at one spot rendered the other parts of the fortress, with all its might, impotent. Yadin added that the number of fighting men and women could not have numbered more than a few hundred, as there were many old people and children on the mountain fortress. One of the most glaring contradictions between Josephus’s written record and the archaeological evidence concerns the description of the suicide. Josephus (Wars, 7:9) writes:
So, the people died with this intention, that they would not leave so much as one soul among them alive to be subject to the Romans… [they were] nine hundred and sixty in number, the women and children being included in that computation.
Yigal Yadin found the remains of only 28 bodies. Twenty-five of the remains were found in a cave near the top of the southern cliff of the fortress. “We came upon the stark sight of skulls and other parts of skeletons scattered in disorder about the floor.” Three additional skeletons were found in the Northern Palace. The bodies were poignantly of a warrior, with his armor and weapons by his side; a young woman (maybe his wife?), with her plaited hair preserved; and a child, with the sandals of the woman and child, and the wooden shafts of the warriors’ arrows, preserved after almost two millennia by the dry air of the Judean Desert! Regarding the physical lack of remains, (where are the other 932 skeletons?) Yadin theorized that the Roman garrison that occupied Masada for several decades after its capture cleared the area of all such human remains.
Ehud Netzer, in a later excavation, noticed that there were no signs of burning in many of the rooms of the Western Palace. He claimed that this proved the accuracy of the Josephus account, as Josephus wrote that the rebels removed the beams to fortify the wall opposite the Roman Ramp. He contrasted this with the burned beams found at the northern end of Masada. Jodi Magness concludes:
Maybe there is some truth in both points of view: perhaps some of the Jews fought to the death while others took their own lives. In my opinion we will never know for sure. Archaeology cannot prove or disprove the historicity of Josephus’s mass suicide story, as the archaeological remains are ambiguous and can be interpreted in different ways.
The above article is an extract from my latest book just published by Koren, “Jewish Journeys, The Second Temple Period to the Bar Kokhba Revolt, 536 BCE-136 CE.”