Whilst everybody agrees that Masada fell in the year 73 CE, one of the most hotly debated topics among Josephus scholars is the veracity of the suicide narrative of Josephus. One school of thought claims that it is another example of Josephus’s use of “poetic licence” and there was never such an occurrence. The other side claims with equal vigour that textual and archaeological evidence prove that the mass-suicide was a fact.
My “Amazing Israel” Birthright Group in the Synagogue on Masada
The scholars, headed by Trude Weiss-Rosmarin, who feel that the suicide narrative was a work of fiction, raise a number of objections to Josephus’ version of the account. Chief among the objections is the fact that if the wall was only breached in one place. Weiss-Rosmarin suggests that several hundred determined fighters in a position of strategic superiority could have defended it. Weiss-Rosmarin also alludes to Josephus’ claim, that archaeology has substantiated, that the defenders had ample supplies of food, water and weapons. In addition, Weiss-Rosmarin comments 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 either; forced idol worship, being forced to commit illicit sexual acts or murder.)
Academics convinced that the mass-suicide did indeed occur bring forth a number of convincing 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 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.
(Josephus, Jewish War)
Further proof that Josephus did not invent the character of “Ben Yair” was furnished with the discovery of an ostracon with his name inscribed by Yigal Yadin in the early sixties in situ on Masada. In addition, the specific casualty figures—960 dead, two women and five children captured—suggest a source in an official report, rather than in Josephus’ mind.
Yigal Yadin, the archaeologist who directed the Masada dig, responded to Weiss-Rosmarin’s objections 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 of its might, impotent. Yadin added that the number of fighting men and women could not have numbered more than a few hundred. Additionally, there were many old people and children non-combatants on the mountain fortress.
One of the most glaring contradictions between Josephus’ written record and the archaeological evidence concerns the description of the suicide. Josephus 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.”
(Josephus, Jewish War)
Yigal Yadin found the remains of only twenty-eight 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.” (Yadin, 193) Three additional skeletons were found in the Northern Palace. The bodies were poignantly of a warrior, with his armour and weapons by his side, and 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, conserved 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 theorised that the Roman garrison that occupied Masada for several decades after its capture cleared the area of all such human remains.
The former Chief Rabbi of Israel and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), Rabbi Shlomo Goren argued that the defenders of Masada were acting in accordance with the 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 clearly seems to be the case with the Zealots on Masada.