Week 2. Masada as a Cultural Experience

First, I would like to thank all those who have responded to the first lecture. Most criticism was directed at the fact that many of the points I made did not harmonize well with modern Bible scholarship. Perhaps I could restate the point of the lecture as an aphorism: Jewish culture begins where Bible study ends. In other words, the gap between the plain meaning or the scholarly meaning of the text and what is found in Jewish commentaries constitutes Jewish culture. When I identified the J of the documentary hypothesis as standing for Jehovah, I was not indicating that is how modern Bible scholarship identifies as God's name, but rather that is what those who used the letter J in the nineteenth century thought. It may have been simpler to say that J was short for the usual way that German scholars identified God's name as Jahwe. I introduced two typos in my identification of Rashi, errors that the astute course director usually picks up I should have said: Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105. I am grateful to Sid Slivko for saving me another major embarrassment, however, but not before I had already uttered many times in class.)

Second, as far as a syllabus goes for this course, originally I had planned to follow the order of a course I had been giving for years following the development of the basic genres of Jewish literature throughout the generations (see http://research.haifa.ac.il/~weboseas/courses/reli/reli1.html). However, on further consideration, given the nature of this electronic version of the course, I thought it better to develop one theme in each lesson and trace it through several major genres. This way I can cite the relevant passages and not base the presentation on as much wide-ranging reading.

So, in subsequent lessons I will cover the development of the following topics from the Bible to post-biblical Jewish literature up to the present, subject to adjustments along the way: 1) Creation, 2) Masada, 3) The Sacrifice of Isaac and Child Sacrifice (the center of a controversy on the front page of today's Haaretz and on the radio news in Israel, 10.3.99), 4) Passover and Sacrifice, 5) Moses as Jesus, 6) Messianism, Travel Literature, and Statehood, 7) Genocide of Foreign Nations, 8) Summary Execution, 9) Jewish Ethics 10) Worship as Culture, 11) the Kulturkampf: changing attitudes towards authority and persecution, 12) Awareness of Self.

Background: The Intertestamental Period

When did the biblical period end? Technical, scholarly definitions could locate such a transition at any number of events: the destruction of the First Temple in the year 586 BCE, the building of the Second Temple in around the year 515 BCE, the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE are all contenders as transitional events. Other markers could be based on literary and cultural markers such as canonization of the Biblical text, which, unfortunately cannot be pin-pointed with total accuracy, the beginning of rabbinic literature, which either dates with the earliest known rabbis sometime around the first century BCE or the first known works around the beginning of the third century CE.

This entire period, including all the various suggested dates is often called the Intertestamental period and the literature produced during it, Intertestamental Literature. Although the designation is basically a Christian one, signifying the transition from what they refer to as the Old Testament to their New Testament, the designation works as well for Jewish culture, marking the transition from biblical to rabbinic texts. During this period, also called The Second Temple Period by Jews, or Bayit Sheni, a large corpus of literature was produced by the Jews in Greek, Aramaic, and other languages, in both the land of Israel and in the Diaspora.

This literature, which includes the Apocrypha (hidden literature), Pseudepigrapha (writings attributed to biblical characters who did not write it), the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Bible), the Elephantine Papyri (a Jewish archive from Egypt), the writings of Philo of Alexandria, a first century Jewish philosopher, and Josephus Flavius , a first century Jewish historian, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, a hoard of manuscripts dating from this period.. This literature would constitute a separate course. Suffice it to say for now that through this literature we are able to learn about aspects of Jewish history during this period, developments in Jewish thought, and how Jews read the Bible.

To give but a few quick examples (the complete texts of most of this literature is available on line at http://wesley.nnc.edu/noncanon.htm or http;//wesley.nnc.edu/noncanon/apocrypha.htm or http://wesley.nnc.edu/noncanon/pseudepigrapha.hetm): the Book s of Maccabees describe the events between the Jews of the land of Israel and the Seluicid rulers of Syria from around 168-165 BCE that culminated in the holiday of Hanukkah (however it is spelled!). One of the paradoxes of Jewish historical memory is that the books of Maccabees are preserved in the Apocrypha which was accepted only into the canon of the Christian Bible, but not the Jewish Bible, so that if Jews want to learn the events of a major holiday they must turn to Christian sources. There are also embellishments on biblical stories such as the Story of Susanna and the Song of the three Children associated with the book of Daniel. The Pseudepigrapha contains the fascinating Testament of the Twelve Sons, the purported ethical wills and last testaments of each of the sons of Jacob. Written sometime during the second century BCE, these texts contain elaborations of the events of the biblical narrative that adumbrate aspects of both subsequent rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. For example, the idea that Joseph's brothers bought shoes with the money they received from selling him, an idea that appears in the high holiday liturgy (The Ten Martyrs-Asarah Harugei Melukha), is first found here. In both the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating as far back as 350 BCE, are passages that are different from the Massoretic text of the Bible, dating from around the sixth century CE, relied upon by most Jews today. Some of the passages refer explicitly to "sons of God." Philo read the Bible according to Platonic philosophy, also positing forces mediating between the divine and the human realm from which the church would derive much influence. At the temple the Jews built in Elephantine God, called Yahu, has a female consort, and women can initiate divorce from their husbands.

In short all these texts raise the question, What was Jewish? From these texts it is clear that the spiritual and cultural world of the Jews was much broader than that circumscribed by biblical texts. Moreover, what now is often glibly characterized as Christian has deep roots in intertestamental Jewish culture. Jesus, as well as his rabbinic contemporaries, therefore, must be measured not by biblical standards but by the Jewish culture of their generation. This culture reflects a range of values and practices and identifies nothing as normative, mainline, traditional, or orthodox.

Josephus Flavius or Yosef ben Matityahu

Josephus (38-100 CE) was born in the turbulent period when the Romans ruled Palestine, Jewish sects proliferated-he describes at least four of them-- Christianity began, Jewish communities became established throughout the Roman world, and the tensions increased between the Jews of Palestine and the Roman rulers. In the year 66 CE the Jews began a major rebellion which culminated in the destruction of the Second Temple and the sack of Jerusalem in the year 70 by the Romans.

Josephus was the commander of the Jewish forces fighting the Romans in the Galilee, the northern district of Palestine, between the sea of the same name and the Mediterranean. In the year 66 in the town of Yotapata, surrounded by the Romans (Wars III. VI-VIII, http://ccel.wheaton.edu/j/josephus/war-3.htm), Josephus and his troops, after an extended battle, entered into a suicide pact rather than surrender to their enemies. However, after the rest of his troops took their lives, instead completing the pact by taking his own life, Josephus surrendered to the Romans, in whose employ he spent the remainder of the war. After the war, Josephus retired to Rome living on an imperial pension and writing in Greek the history and reporting the accumulated traditions about the biblical text of the Jews from antiquity, The Antiquities, to the recent wars against the Romans, The Wars, as well as his own Autobiography, the last Jewish autobiography for the next 1500 years ( http://ccel.wheaton.edu/j/josephus/JOSEPHUS.html, or http://wesley.nnc.edu/josephus/).


One of the events described by Josephus (Wars Book IV, Chapter VII and Book VII, Chapter VIII, http://ccel.wheaton.edu/j/josephus/war-7.htm or wgbh/pages/fronline/shows/religion/maps/primary/josephusmasada.html) was the Roman siege against and the mass suicide of the Jews on Masada, a desert mountain fortress, in the year 72. For the remainder of this lecture, I will examine Josephus' account for what it tells, compare it with the archeology of the site, then examine different versions of the Masada story which developed among the Jews throughout history, and finally present aspects of the changing myth of Masada in modern Jewish and Israeli culture.

Masada was the last remaining Jewish stronghold after the Romans had subdued the rest of Palestine.
Key to Josephus' account is his vilification of the rebels, whom he called Sicarii, dagger wielding bandits, or Zealots, all of whom gradually assembled on Masada and numbered about a thousand. He accused them of avarice, barbarity, and tyrannizing other Jews, especially those they suspected of cooperating with he Romans, but also their innocent Jewish neighbors whose villages they raided for supplies, including a massacre of several hundred Jewish women and children at Ein Geddi. Josephus mentioned some of the leading figures among the rebels, including Eleazar ben Yair, John of Giscahala, and Simon the son of Gioras. The narrative continues to move back and forth between descriptions of the preparation for the siege and flashbacks to descriptions of the site, its surroundings by the Dead Sea (lake Asphaltitis), the Serpent path going up the mountain, and the palaces that had been built on it, and its early history, prepared and stocked as a fortress by various Jewish kings, but his narrative contains few references to actual Jewish fighting there.

The description of the actual Roman siege of Masada includes their installing a wall to prevent Jews from escaping, a siege ramp to reach the top, catapults to hurl projectiles, and a battering ram to use against the walls of Masada. Josephus then turned to describe the Sicarii defense operations which included building another inside wall to hold back Roman advances. Josephus, after reporting that fires set by the Romans began to destroy the fortress, made it clear that God was fighting against the Sicarii on the side of the Romans. There is a pause in the action and at this juncture Josephus quoted verbatim the speeches of Eleazar convincing the Jewish to take their own lives, to die in a glorious manner with their companions rather than abused and murdered or enslaved at the hands of the Romans. These speeches become more emotional and philosophical as he discusses the need to free the soul from the prison of the body, basing himself on the example of Indian philosophers and later invoking it as a principle of Jewish law as well. He then described the great zeal with which Jewish men killed their wives and children, culminating in ten men being chosen by lottery to kill the rest of the men. Josephus concludes his account by noting that, when the siege ended on May 2, 72, one woman and five children survived the siege hiding in the water system and 960 men, women, and children were killed. From these few survivors the Romans, and presumably from them, Josephus, learned what had happened.

Did Josephus , however, learn what really happened at Masada from them? Could these few survivors, cowering underground, have heard and recalled the long, elaborate, and eloquent speeches and remembered them exactly as they were delivered? While there are no other contemporary versions of the events of Masada extant, the site (mentioned in some ancient works) itself has been preserved. A cursory glance at the material remains does confirm most of Josephus' observations: location, snake path, palaces, siege ramp., and even potshards with names written on them, perhaps from the final fatal lottery The details that indicate his text was based on observations made from a distance or prior to the siege are that he mentions only the northern and not the western palace, that the defenders burned their possessions in one pile rather than many, and that the columns of the palace were made from single pieces of stone, but now that they are lying broken on the ground, actually appear to have been crafted from smaller stones with each matching end coded with a matching Hebrew letter, still visible.

The most challenging aspect of Josephus' narrative is his report of the mass suicide. Regularly students read this passage in light of later developments in Jewish thought which opposed suicide and homicide. Later Jewish views against suicide are just that, later, and rather than representing an essential, eternal aspect of Judaism, represent a post-talmudic view, with radically different attitudes found in the Bible and early rabbinic literature. In addition, this text does not deal really with suicide and murder, but martyrdom (and human sacrifice). The phenomena, however, are identical, in either case one or more dead bodies remains and the observer must determine motives in order to attach value judgments, meaning that the difference between suicide and martyrdom is a mater of a cultural constructed definition and not based on absolutes. Moreover, in some instances Josephus or one of his characters claims or the people demonstrate that taking ones life and the life of others under certain circumstances was considered praiseworthy not only at Masada, but in Gamala, a city in the Golan in which in 67, according to Josephus, under siege from the Romans at least five thousand Jews hurled themselves to their deaths rather than be killed by the Romans , a fate that befell another four thousand Jews (VI, I, 9). In other places, however, such as at Yotapata Josephus speaks forcefully against suicide: " . . . It may also be said that it is a manly act for one to kill himself. No. Certainly , but a most unmanly one: as I should esteem that pilot to be an arrant coward who, out of fear of a storm, should sink his ship of his own accord." (III, VIII, 5) adding that according to the law the bodies of those who kill themselves are not to be buried until sun set. He nevertheless participated in the lottery to determine the order of death.

As in last week's lecture about biblical texts, so too now, we reach a point where it seems that the values of Jewish culture as found in Josephus are contradictory. These contradictions, however, are very illuminating. What emerges from Josephus, therefore, is not a unified picture of Jewish life, but literary tropes. In at least three instances, Jotapata in 66, Gamala in 67, and Masada in 72, the events follow a pattern: the Jews are holding out in a high place on a precipice, they continue to add walls, the Romans below, lead by Vespasian and Titus, are attacking their position using conventional weapons, siege engines and battering rams, and massive construction to build ramps. The Jews rain down upon their attackers all the appurtenances of ancient warfare such as boiling oil-less so, if at all, at Masada despite such pictures in subsequent literature. Amid the battle Jews leave for provisions. At various junctures individuals and groups of Jews jump on to the Romans-again, missing from the Masada narrative-- or simply to their death, the sole survivors are usually a few isolated woman (Just as he discusses suicide in terms of manliness, he discusses surviving in terms of womanliness, perhaps also evidence that at least some women did not agree with their husbands' enthusiasm to slit their throats.)

Josephus' account of Masada draws on some fixed stock images that he used in these instances and others. The variable in each case was Josephus himself, which in turn affected his discourse. At Jotapata he realized all was lost and wanted to save his life, both arguing against suicide and forming a suicide pact with the Jews who had trapped him. At Gamala, which he himself had originally fortified, he reported the events as a Roman observer. Concerning Masada, circumstances that were much more circumscribed according to his measures, only 900 dead as opposed to the 9,000 at Gamala and the 40,000 at Jotapata, Josephus expended much more moral and rhetorical energy condemning the victims but not their manner of death.

In particular Josephus directs a great deal of invective against those on Masada as having acted against the wishes of the Jewish people, a statement which attempts to diminish the popular support that this group of a thousand must have had to have been able to hold out against a vast number of Romans for more than two years. Thus, although Josephus was a traitor to the Romans, these passages are actually profoundly pro-Jewish. Josephus attempted, writing in Greek for an upper class Roman audience, borrowing forms from Greek literature, to isolate in the mind of his readers the disruptive element among the Jews and then to literarily excise it forever. This way he could tacitly offer the Romans a de-zealotized picture of the remaining Jewish population of Palestine, which had been presumably led astray by these tyrants and now was willing to live with the Romans in peace. As evidence of this view and proof of Josephus' falsification of the situation is the fact that the Jews of Palestine did continue to rebel against the Romans in 119, 135, and later. Thus Josephus' Masada narrative was not an objective, factual narrative, but a carefully constructed polemic aimed at creating future peaceful relations with the Romans, a situation that failed to materialize.

Other competing, but less well received interpretations of the suicide story include the possibility that Josephus invented it either to clear his own conscience for betraying the Jews or to cover up a Roman massacre of the survivors, less likely since he reported other more major Roman massacres (Trude Weiss-Rosmarin and Mary Smallwood).

The Masada Story in Sefer Yossippon

Sefer Yossippon was a tenth century Hebrew translation of a fourth century Christian, Latin version of Josephus. Although it was made in southern Italy, it was considered by Jews to have been the original Hebrew of Josphus and studied carefully by the leading rabbis of the middle ages such as Rashi and Meir of Rothenburg. Yossippon was soon translated into many other languages including Arabic, Ethiopian, as well as the languages of Europe. This popular version, regularly republished and more accessible than Josephus's Greek, contains some major departures from its source. In particular, the mass suicide is missing and in its place, the Jewish men kill their families, describing them as ritual sacrifices pleasing to the Lord (lekorban oleh leratzon lifnei hashem) which they then cast into pits and covered with earth, again reflecting the language of biblical sacrifice. After a brief, but not peaceful nap, they girded their loins and went down and fought the Romans, and despite the losses they inflicted on the Romans, they were all killed.

As the memory of the actual site faded, so too did the accounts of Josephus and Yossippon, only recently published in a modern Hebrew version and not yet translated in English. At least one early modern Jewish writer, Samuel Usque, recorded reference to the events of Masada based on Yossippon. Writing, however, in Portuguese in 1552, Usque did not do much to rekindle interest in the events of Masada. It was only in the nineteenth century with the rediscovery of both the place and the account of Josephus that interest was renewed in the story. In the past century, the story has attracted a wide range of interpretations. As with biblical interpretations, I must emphasize that these understandings of the events of Masada are not based upon primary research but upon popular, often politicized and romanticized notions that are rooted deeply in the culture and affect greatly attitudes and behaviors. Moreover, because of the tendentious and polemical quality of the basic text about the events, there is no yardstick to measure the various interpretations against. The purpose, therefore, of this presentation is not to de-mythologize the various versions of the Masada story but to show how an ancient text regularly acquires new levels of meaning as changing circumstances require. Hence, these understandings of Masada tell more about the tellers than the event itself.

The Masada Myths During the 19th and 20th Centuries

Masada returned to Jewish consciousness in the nineteenth century because of a confluence of factors. It was during the early part of the century that the movement for the scientific study for Judaism (Wissenschaft des Judentums) emerged, ultimately leading to the massive histories of Heinrich Graetz and Simon Dubnow, as well as two translations of Josephus into Hebrew at the end of the century and another one published in Palestine during the 1920s. It was also at this time that European colonialism, Christian pilgrims and missionaries, and geographical and archeological explorations beginning with Napoleon's abortive invasions, brought a new consciousness of the land of Israel, which culminated in the Zionist movement and renewed settlement and Hebrew intellectual activity in the land of Israel.

Masada bathed in new attention beginning with the identification of the site and visits to it by European and American Christians beginning in 1838. Starting in 1912 and increasing during the 1920s, Jewish groups from Palestine (the Yishuv) fastened their attention to the site, a difficult and dangerous place to reach. During the 1920s, two the of the giants of modern Hebrew literature who had recently settled in Palestine, the Nietzschean Micha Yosef Berdichevski (Bin Gurion) and his critic, editor, and friend, Ahad Haam debated the issue of Jewish heroism in which Masada was invoked. Masada inspired the 1923-1924 Hebrew poem by Isaac Lamdan (1899-1954), "Masada," published in 1926. This passionate Zionist poem, placing Masada in the context of previous tragedies of the Jewish people, saw Masada as a metaphor for Zion and the Jewish people, giving birth to the famous slogan: "Masada shall not fall again! (shenit masada lo tipol) Stumble? Surely we will go up! Ben Yair again will be revealed, he is not dead, not dead!.. ." The poem is filled with both courageous, militant optimism as well as depressed thoughts, especially given the state of affairs in Palestine at that time, a time of suicides (a phenomenon, once hidden, that is now getting more attention among researchers) and Lamden's own despair. Interestingly, although his poem inspired thousands to visit Masada, he never visited the site, ending his life in suicide.

Serious investigations of the site, not in Jewish hands nor intended to be according to British plans, began only in the 1930s, conducted by German Christians. Jewish schools and youth movements made arduous trips to the site during the 1930s and 1940s, where passages from Josephus or Lamden were read or kindled in flame as part of a bonfire. Jews gave the site scientific attention only in the 1950s, despite-or perhaps because of--- the initial lack of interest from leaders such as the Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, the President Zalman Shazar, and Yigael Yadin, the former chief of staff of the Israeli military and a professor of archeology. Popular and scholarly interest reached a frenzy during the archeological digs there from 1963 to 1965 led by Yigael Yadin himself. Among the finds were three skeletons, a man, woman, and child, on the top of the mountain and twenty-five others buried in a cave. These were immediately identified as one of the last fighters of Masada , his wife and child and, after several years of debate, given a state burial as defenders of freedom-that they could have been Christian monks who established a presence there during the Byzantine period was not considered.

The key to the growing attraction of Masada was the understanding that there a small number of Jewish patriots fought the last battle for freedom and independence to the bitter end against the massive forces of the Romans, despite the lack of any extensive descriptions of battles in Josephus (Most current writers say that there was no battle between the Jews and the Romans, but Josephus does say that after the Romans completed their attack tower and began to hurl darts and stones, it "soon made those that fought from the walls of the place to retire," which seems to me to imply some fighting.) This heroic view, described as the Masada Myth, heightened the Jewish religious aspects of the Zealots (trying to show that the bathtubs on Masada matched subsequent rabbinic specifications for ritual baths) and was accompanied by the downplaying of the mass suicide and the violent and tyrannical behavior of the Sicarii (a term rarely mentioned). This myth provided the Jews of Palestine and Israel with a local response to the Holocaust and the passivity associated with the victims by the Jews of Palestine who adopted what they saw as an alternative model of militant resistance in the face of absolute evil.

Masada became during the 1960s a site for Bar Mitzvah ceremonies and for swearing in ceremonies for the Israeli armored corps, ceremonies which tapered off almost as soon as they began, partly because of competition offered by the Western Wall and the monument to the armored brigades established at Latrun, both sites conquered in 1967, and partly because of a growing unease with what Masada stood for. During the 90s it has become a place for early morning rock concerts and drug parties, something that once would have been impossible given the almost sacred quality of the site. There also seems to be a ritual that on finishing the major part of the descent each hiker tosses the empty water bottles over the side where they accumulate in vast quantities.

The Masada Complex

In about 1963 the expressions "Masada Complex" and "Masada Syndrome" began to be used to describe the attitude that Israel must face on its own insurmountable odds. Discussion about the Masada Complex reached a fever pitch during the early 1970s when the American government tried to convince the intransigent Golda Meir to cooperate with the Egyptians (After almost two years in Israel, unlike when I was growing up in the US, I have never heard a kind word said by any Israeli about her, only the most vicious imitations of her by those on both the right and the left.) Secretary of State Rogers used the expression and it appeared at least twice in Newsweek, once by the columnist Stewart Alsop, to whom Meir responded: "You say that we have a Masada complex. . . It is true we do have a Masada complex. We have a pogrom complex. We have a Hitler complex."

To this the Hebrew literary critic Robert Alter responded, "Torchlit military ceremonies on top of Masada are, I fear, a literal and dubious translation into public life of a literary metaphor and a Prime Minister's subsuming Holocaust, pogroms, and Israel's present state of siege under the rubric of Masada might be the kind of hangover from poetry that could befuddle thinking on urgent political issues." And the Israeli Historian Benjamin Kedar, wrote in a similar vein: "But this is a false analogy for two reasons. The bitterest fate that the people of Masada could have expected was far better than that awaiting the Ghetto rebels. Vespasian, Titus and Silva, after all, were not attempting to exterminate a people but to crush a revolt . . . There can be no doubt that the writer of the Book of Josippon is closer to Mordechai Anielewicz of the Warsaw Ghetto and to Danny Masss of the thirty-five who fell in 1948 on their way to Gush Etzion, rather than to Eleazar ben Yair . . .. The rock on the shore of the Dead Sea is a dead end, a cul-de-sac, a dramatic curtain-fall. He who tells his soldiers of the armored corps at the swearing-in ceremony on the heights of Masada that it is owning to the heroism of the fighters of Masada that we are here today, is both deluding himself and deluding others."


Masada, the mountain, the narrative, the translation, the poem, and the myth, reflect the cultural transformation of our understanding of events, events for which we have no direct historical access but much emotional interest. Below are listed some books and articles representing magnificent research and analysis of the Masada Myth, but present in almost all of them, is the idea that lurking behind the cultural discourse stands a Jewish values that can be called mainstream or normative. I offer instead this discussion of Masada as a way of understanding the development of Judaism and the competition among values for acceptance by Jews without any interpretation holding a monopoly on originality, authenticity, or truth.

Recommendations for Further Reading

Books (with extensive bibliographies)

Yael Zerubavel, Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition
( 1995)
Nachum Ben-Yehuda, The Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel (1995)


Shaye Cohen, "Masada: Literary Tradition, Archaeological Remains, and the Credibility of Josephus," Journal of Jewish Studies 33 (1982).

Raymond Newell, "Suicide Accounts in Josephus: A Form Critical Study," Society of Biblical Literature 1982 Seminar Papers

Robert Paine, "Masada: A History of A Memory," History and Anthropology 6 (1994)

Baila Shargel, "The Evolution of the Masada Myth," Judaism 28 (1979)



Share                   PRINT    
30 Aug 2005 / 25 Av 5765 0