I first visited Masada in the summer of 1982, wending my way up its treacherous “Snake Path” to the summit. Since then, I have returned more than a dozen times—though now I ride the cable car. Masada is the second-most visited tourist site in Israel, well worth the long ride from Jerusalem.
The allure of Masada has always been tied to the story the historian Flavius Josephus told about its last Jewish residents. The First Jewish Revolt against Rome began at Caesarea Marittima in A.D. 66 and quickly spread throughout what is today Israel, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. It was a bloody affair, not only between Jews and Romans but among factions of the Jews themselves.
Members of one of those factions, the Sicarii, seized Masada early in the war. (They were known as Sicarii—from the Latin sicarius, meaning “dagger-man”—because they assassinated appointments in public places using easily concealed daggers.) After Jerusalem fell in A.D. 70, members of the Sicarii led by Eleazar Ben-Yair holed up at Masada. The Romans destroyed similar holdouts at the desert fortresses of Herodium and Machareus, then they turned their attention to Masada, laying siege to it in winter-spring of either 72–73 or 73–74. (The precise date is uncertain.) The outlines of the siege wall, Roman camps, and siege ramp are still visible today.
According to Josephus, the night after Romans breached the casemate wall on Masada’s eastern side, Eleazar Ben-Yair stood before the Sicarii and urged them to kill themselves rather than submit to Roman slavery. Each man would kill his family. Lots would be drawn, determining a handful of men who would kill heads of households. Finally, the last lot would determine who killed those killers before killing himself. “Let our wives thus die dishonored,” Eleazar exhorted, “our children unacquainted with slavery; and when they are gone, let us render a generous service to each other, preserving our liberty.”
Fast forward nineteen centuries to Israel’s War of Independence (1947–1949), and it is easy to see why the Israeli Defense Forces, with the Holocaust behind them and hostile Arab armies around them, began to use “Masada Shall Never Fall Again” as a motto. Indeed, for many decades, new soldiers climbed to the summit via the Snake Path and took an oath to defend Israel. This patriotism was bolstered by Yigael Yadin’s excavation of Masada, which seemed to verify Josephus’ picture.
Today, however, archaeologists and historians take a more critical view of Josephus, the only ancient author to give us information about the siege of the fortress. Jodi Magness’ Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth brings readers up to date with this more critical view, explaining how archaeology provides partial confirmation of Josephus’ account, as well as potential rebuttal at key points. Magness is the Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She codirected excavations of the Roman siege works at Masada in 1995.
Masada is an informative read. I learned new things about the site, and when I return in spring 2020, I plan on taking a closer look at them. Moreover, the book’s historical chapters (5–8), which narrate the history of Jewish conflicts from the Maccabean Revolt to Masada, were a tour de force, making sense of the various people, movements, and events that shaped this period. This is especially true of Herod the Great, that master builder of the ancient near east, including the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and Masada itself. This period is crucial for understanding Masada, of course, but for Christians, it is also crucial for understanding the history and culture of the New Testament period.
As an editor, I was frustrated by the organization of the book. It starts with the siege of Masada (chapter 1), then turns to early archaeological explorations (chapter 2), then moves to the geographical and historical contexts—starting with the Chalcolithic Period! (chapter 3), then describes Herod’s building projects (chapter 4), then gets into the chronological telling of chapters 5–8, then ends with a chapter on Yigael Yadin’s excavations and their aftermath. Because of this organization of chapters, some of the material gets repeated. To be honest, I was losing interest in the book until I got to chapter 5. In my opinion, readers would’ve been better served by a straightforward chronological organization, beginning with the Maccabean Revolt and ending with modern archaeological excavations.
Still, Masada is a worthwhile read. If you’re going to Israel and plan on visiting Masada, you might want to read it beforehand. I recommend reading it in this order: Prologue, chapters 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. If you don’t have a guide, use Magness’ Epilogue, which lays out a tour of the summit.