ED Noor: Hey folks, this is something I have not seen discussed before. I thought you all might enjoy learning more about our dear friends and yet another fraud perpetrated upon the planet.
"That couldn't possibly be! I saw a movie about Masada when I was younger, surely that is the true history of that place where so many of our dear friends proved their heroism ..... Hollywood never lies!"
By Nachman Ben-Yehuda
American Sociological Association, Volume 18, No. 1 (Autumn 2003)
May 14, 2008
On the last day of October, a cavalcade of foreign dignitaries and Israeli officials joined hundreds of ordinary citizens making their way to the top of a plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. They gathered to proclaim this secluded fortress, called Masada, one of the world's most important historical sites ~ a place worthy of global attention and protection.The United Nations, which put the Israeli mesa on the list of World Heritage Sites, chose the place in part to commemorate the Jewish rebels who held the lofty stronghold, and eventually perished there, in the waning days of a revolt against the Roman Empire in AD 73.In its report on Masada, the UN concludes that "the tragic events during the last days of the Jewish refugees who occupied the fortress and palace of Masada make it a symbol both of Jewish cultural identity and, more universally, of the continuing human struggle between oppression between oppression and liberty. ~ Monastersky, 2002
Let me begin with a physical description of Masada. Masada is a butte fortress nearly 100 kilometers southeast of Jerusalem, about a 90-minute drive from the capital. This rocky geological formation is located about 2 kilometers from the west shore of the Dead Sea, and about 17 kilometers south of Ein Geddi, in one of the world's hottest places (daily temperatures between the months of May - October average typically between 33 to 40 degrees centigrade).
The butte itself is very steep, and is accessible by foot either by climbing the eastern "snake path" (the preferable way) or, from the west side by means of climbing the natural spur upon which the Roman army built its siege-ramp. There is also a modern cable car, which makes reaching the top of Masada from the East side very easy.
The name of the butte and fortress in Hebrew is METZADA (pronounced ME-TZA-DA). The word METZADA is a derivative of the Hebrew word METZAD, or METZUDA, literally meaning a fort, fortress or stronghold. The translation of METZADA to Greek is Masada (Simchoni 1923:513).
l There is one historical textual source for Masada ~ the writings of Josephus Flavius. "Erase" Josephus and there is not much we know about what happened in Masada. Questions about the reliability and credibility of the historical narrative provided by Josephus continue to haunt us, and - I suspect - will continue to occupy a small army of scholars in different disciplines.
For example, Josephus tells us that before the collective suicide on Masada, the last Sicarii commander of the fortress ~ Elazar Ben-Yair ~ made two speeches. Josephus quotes these two speeches. Unfortunately, Josephus was not there. However, he was a contemporary, he could have guessed what such a speech could have been like, and one of the survivors of the suicide (there were 7) could have told the Romans about the speeches.
WHAT DOES JOSEPHUS TELL US ABOUT THE EVENTS IN MASADA?
The events in Masada cannot, and should not, be separated from the context. Between AD 66-73 the Jews in Judea revolted against the Roman Empire that controlled the region. The Roman Empire in the first century AD was at its peak of power, stretching from England to Mesopotamia and controlling a mighty and ruthless military machine.
The Sicarii was a group whose name came from Sica, a small dagger members of this extreme group used to hide underneath their robes and assassinate their opponents in Jerusalem and elsewhere. Eventually, because of their ruthless nature, assassinations and terror, members of this group headed by Elazar Ben-Yair escaped from Jerusalem to Masada (it is unclear exactly when, or how, the Sicarii took control of Masada).
Josephus describes how the Sicarii on Masada would not come to the help of the besieged in Jerusalem; how they raided nearby villages, including Ein Geddi (where they murdered 700 women and children and robbed their supplies). As the Roman army was crushing the revolt, advancing from north to south, more and more Jews were drawn into that revolt, with tragic results. The Romans were systematically destroying any resistance.
After the fall of Jerusalem, not much was left. It took the Romans some time to decide to crush the last three fortresses that remained unsubdued: Macherus, Herodion and Masada. Masada was the last. Although we do not have an exact date, somewhere between the end of AD 72 and early AD 73, the Romans moved their 10th legion (Fretensis) against Masada.
Out of the 967 rebels on top of Masada, 960 killed one another and 7 hid themselves and survived to tell the story.
Thus, the historical narrative found in Josephus is sad and tragic. He describes a doomed revolt, fights among the Jews, and a bitter disastrous end of the revolt, which ended with the torturous death of a very large number of Jews and the destruction of the temple. As a final act, three years after the revolt was crushed, we have a collective suicide of a group of extremist Jews on Masada.
From Josephus' perspective, the end of Masada was unheroic and unwise.
One needs to be reminded that until the 20th century, the Masada historical narrative was largely in deep sleep among Jews.
To answer these questions a series of methodologies was used. To begin with, it was necessary to go back in time, search archives, newspapers and history books in order to find out when changing the Masada historical narrative took place. I located its origin in the beginnings in the second decade of the 20th century.
Clearly, the myth began to decline in the mid-1960s. It was also very obvious that the myth was developed and disseminated by secular Jews. Observant Jews were not fond of the myth, and ultra orthodox Jews even criticized it. For the latter, the idea of militarily challenging the Roman Empire, the collective suicide or the assassinations committed by the Sicarii were acts viewed with scorn rather than awe.
Now that we had the dates, we could ask the why question. The answer was obvious.
As the Zionist national movement, dominated by secular Jews, began to preach and later practice the return of Jews to their homeland, they had not only to face the anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews as "non fighters" but also to give the young generation of Israelis some heroic narratives.
Following the 1967 war (the "Six days War") new sites of heroism were accessible, new mythologies were created, and the importance of Masada declined.
~ visits of Israelis to Masada~ visits of youth movements on Masada~ swearing-in military ceremonies on Masada
The leaders of the popular Great Revolt were Zealots ~ adherents of one of the Jewish ideological trends of the period. The imperial Roman army crushed the revolt, conquered and destroyed Jerusalem together with the Second Temple of the Jews. The Zealots who survived the siege and destruction of the city escaped to the fortress of Masada, a stronghold difficult to reach atop a mountain near the Dead Sea.
Historical Masada has thus been transformed from a narrative of a disaster and became a symbol for a heroic last stand. In the words of another famous Israeli icon, the former chief-of-staff and politician Moshe Dayan (1983:21):
Today, we can point only to the fact that Masada has become a symbol of heroism and of Liberty for the Jewish people to whom it says: Fight to death rather than surrender; Prefer death to bondage and loss of freedom.
~ contrary to Josephus, the rebels are referred to as "Zealots" (for their "zeal" for freedom) instead of the Sicarii~ the massacre in Ein Geddi disappears~ the siege on Masada is prolonged to three years~ the two speeches of Ben-Yair are telescoped into one and the seven survivors disappear - heroes, after all, do not hesitate and do not choose life over suicide~ Masada is frequently portrayed as a rebel base for operations against the Romans~ in fact, no evidence exists for this claim.
THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL EXCAVATIONS
Masada was excavated a few times, but the main excavations took place between 1963-1965 under the tight supervision of prof. Yigael Yadin. The next question was how come these excavations gave such a strong support for the myth?
The methodology here was different. The excavators of Masada met every day, at the end of the day, to discuss the findings of the day. These daily sessions were recorded and transcribed. The Institute of Archaeology at Hebrew University allowed me full and free access to these transcriptions. Examining these transcripts, in fact, opened a fascinating porthole into the daily discussions and debates about different findings on Masada.
When examined in this way, it is easy to see how the archaeologists, time and again, sacrificed truth for a myth.
"the remains of ... a very important commander, his wife, and their child, just like in the description of Josephus...."
Yadin's interpretation of Masada was significant because it was clearly ideologically motivated, aimed to reinforce Masada's role in Israel's national narrative. Ideology (including mythology) and science have two entirely different jobs: ideologically-grounded myths are not efforts to reveal truth but to promote moral values, mobilize sentiment and energy, sustain loyalty and commitment.
Science, on the other hand, is aimed to reveal truth, distinguish it from falsehood, and ranks the issue of validity very high. In fact, science should protect us from getting entangled in our own mythology, from actually confusing reality with fiction.
Yadin used the cloak of science to support a myth. As such, it may present a unique form of deviance: falsifying interpretations not for the sake of a scientific theory, but for the sake of a national myth.
The Masada mythical narrative was analyzed with the analytical framework of collective memory. At that time, in the 1990s, researchers in this area were focused on such issues about the past as "did it happen or not." In this sense, the Masada myth fits very well into the Zeitgeist of the research agenda of that era.
The transformation of the Masada historical narrative into the Masada mythical narrative is a fascinating process. Much like Zertal's (1999) work, this is an examination of how a disaster was transformed into a heroic tale.
Contemporary Israeli society has changed so much that the first two transformations simply do not fit it any longer.
I am deeply grateful for the constructive comments made on a previous draft by Robert Friedmann, Erich Goode, Barry Schwartz, William Shaffir and one unnamed reader.