Tuvia Book
Author, educator, Tour-Guide, artist

What Really Happened on Masada?

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.

“Sunrise from Masada.”  Photo (c) Tuvia Book, 2013




About the Author
Dr. Tuvia Book was born in London and raised in both the UK and South Africa. After making Aliya at the age of 17 and studying in Yeshiva he volunteered for the IDF, where he served in an elite combat unit. Upon his discharge he completed his BA at Bar-Ilan University, as well as certification in graphic design. He then served as the Information Officer at the Israeli Consulate of Philadelphia, while earning a graduate degree in Jewish Studies. Upon his return to Israel, Dr. Book graduated from a course of study with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, and is a licensed tour guide. Tuvia has been working in the field of Jewish Education, both formal and informal, for many years. He has guided and taught Jewish students and educators from around the English-speaking world for some of Israel’s premier educational institutions and programs. Tuvia has been guiding groups for Birthright Israel since its inception and, in addition, has lectured throughout North America, Australia, Europe and South Africa. Tuvia served as a Shaliach (emissary) for the Jewish Agency for Israel as the Director of Israel and Zionist Education at the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York (Jewish Education Project). He was a lecturer/educational guide at the Alexander Muss Institute for Israel Education (AMIIE) in Israel for a decade. Tuvia has lectured at both Bar Ilan University and Hebrew University. He is the author (and illustrator) of the internationally acclaimed Zionism curriculum; “For the Sake of Zion; A Curriculum of Israel Education” (fifth edition, 2017, Koren) and is at present working on his next book, a history of the Jewish people. Tuvia has a doctorate in Israel education. His dissertation title is: “Through the Soldiers’ Eyes: Exploring the Influence of a Birthright Mifgash on the Israeli Soldier Participants.”