BMCR 2019.11.29

Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth

, Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2019. 288. ISBN 9780691167107. $29.95.


The archaeological site of Masada remains one of the most visited in Israel and continues to exercise a deep impact on the mythic national imagination. However, a great number of popular ideas about Masada, from Herod’s construction of the fortress to the gripping story of the heroic last stand of the Jews fighting the Romans in 73-74 CE, have been proven to be false and are in need of reevaluation. Archaeologist Jodi Magness succeeds in producing a rewarding and stimulating book that is accessible and up to date.

The author’s purpose is not only to propose a tour of Masada but to set the fortress in its broader geographical, historical, and socio-religious contexts. The book is quite accessible: Magness helpfully fills in all background information necessary for the curious general reader. The prologue (p. 1–4) offers long quotations of Flavius Josephus’ War to raise questions about what we actually can know about these events of 73-74 CE, highlighting the stakes of the question by showing the importance of Masada for the State of Israel today.

Chapter 1 presents a survey of archaeological remains of the Roman siege works set at the end of the Jewish uprising (66-73 CE) and the traces of their presence (notably military equipment). What we know from Flavius Josephus is condensed in a few pages, with a specific attention to Josephus’s biases and apologetic tendencies.

During the nineteenth century, explorations in the area of the Dead Sea led to finding Masada. This “search for Masada” is summarized in chapter 2, with the (sometimes dramatic) adventures of Edward Robinson and Eli Smith, Christopher Costigan, William Molyneux, William Francis Lynch, Louis-Félicien de Saulcy, Henry Baker Tristram, and then with the project called the Survey of Western Palestine conducted by the Palestine Exploration Fund from 1871 to 1877. The archaeological explorations of Masada proper are listed with their most important contributions at the end of the chapter.

The five next chapters are devoted to describing the context of Masada.

Chapter 3, “Masada in context” explores Masada’s natural setting, the Judean desert and the Dead Sea, then its “historical setting,” listing the most important archaeological findings in the entire Judean desert from the Chalcolithic to the Byzantine period.

Chapter 4 presents Herod’s works at the top of Masada in the context of his other building projects in Jerusalem, Caesarea Maritima, Samaria, Jericho, and Herodium. Magness shows patterns in Herodian architecture and makes it clear that Masada is only one of the Herodian palaces, and thus needs to be understood against this broader background. The author provides, in this chapter, twenty three photographs that are illuminating and useful, some of them in colour.

Chapter 5 is dedicated to the history of Judea before Herod’s kingship. It opens very early with the settling of Canaan around 1200 BCE and runs until the nomination of Herod as king at Rome in 40 BCE. The narrative is very short, but Magness takes care not to fall in the traps of many disputed events. She always avoids taking part in debates that are superfluous for her purpose.

Chapter 6 summarizes the history of Judea leading up to the Jewish revolt against Rome (40 BCE to 66 CE). Magness often refers to New Testament evidence especially concerning Pilatus, Felix and Festus among others Roman procurators, and gives a balanced synthesis of the background of the Jewish revolt.

The revolt itself is the subject matter of chapter 7, with a focus first on its early developments and causes; second, on Roman operations in the country; and third, on the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. Magness pays attention to Josephus’s description of the triumph, to the Flavian commemoration in Rome until Domitian’s principate and to the suppression of the revolt in Egypt as well as in Judea.

It is at this point that Magness’s work shines the most. Chapter 8 surveys the rebel occupation of Masada, from 66 up to 74 CE. She beings by describing the state of current research. After having inquired about who the Jews at Masada were (probably a fluid population composed indeed of Sicarii but also of some Essenes), she shows the archaeological remains of the rebels’ presence on the site, describing the housing, food, synagogue, the ritual baths ( miqva’ot), stone and dung vessels that testify not only the ritual and purity concern of the rebels but also their poverty and low class origin. She surveys the sectarian scrolls that attest to a small Essene community here, then the clothing, the presence and role of women and, lastly, the rebels’ administrative structure as reconstructed with the help of the seven hundred and one ostraca found on site. Twenty three iconographic documents are inserted here and help sustain the discussion.

The ninth and last chapter, titled “Masada shall not fall again,” explores the origins and developments of the Masada myth, with particular attention to the figure of Yigael Yadin, the first excavator of Masada and one of the most important promotors of its use in Zionist and nationalist discourses. Magness gives a short personal testimony about Yadin, who was one of her teachers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She exposes the nationalist appropriation of the mass suicide of the Sicarii and, at the same time, the difficulties archaeologists face trying to confirm the story told by Josephus. In fact, it seems that no mass suicide was ever committed at Masada and that the story was only a narrative embellishment. But Magness advances here with a commendable prudence, not forgetting to conclude that she is not a Josephus specialist and that “whether or not the mass suicide story is true depends on how one evaluates Josephus’s reliability as an historian.” However, even if Masada does not play the same role in Israeli nationalism today as it did in the latter half of the twentieth century, Magness shows that the site and its history still exercises a deep pull on hearts and minds not only in Israel, but around the world. “Masada, she concludes, remains a symbol of the State of Israel and the Zionist enterprise.”

In closing her presentation, Magness offers her readers “a tour of Masada” as an epilogue—her recommended itinerary for tourists and visitors. Notes, a bibliography, a general index, and image credits end the book.

In the chapters devoted to the context, one can sometimes feel that the author risks losing sight of the subject, because while trying to give her readers all suitable information, Magness spends a number of pages summarizing a lot of secondary data. In some ways, one could say that her Masada is constructed as a handbook on Jewish history at the turn of our era and, for specialists, the chapters about Masada proper seem to be too limited as a consequence. However, despite this small weakness, Masada remains a beautiful book, well written and truly accessible for any interested reader. The book is up to date and presents in a fascinating manner the history of archaeological explorations in the area, the history of Zionism and of the State of Israel, and based on a few preceding works, of the ideological embellishment and misappropriations of the story of Masada. Undoubtedly, it will become a classic in this field of study.