The Masada Myth


Omissions and Factually Unsubstantiated "Information" Added to the Masada Account

In the first place, the fact that the events at Masada were the final act in a failed and disastrous revolt against the Roman Empire is not proven. The wisdom of that revolt, and the questionable way in which it was organized and fought, are typically not spelled out explicitly. Generally added to this omission is the fabrication that the rebels on Masada arrived there after the destruction of Jerusalem. This is significant since it implies that these "poor heroes," who fought so hard in Jerusalem, were barely able to escape the Roman army. However, having succeeded in doing so, they chose to continue the fight elsewhere. Almost completely ignored is the fact that the Sicarii on Masada were forced to leave the city by the other Jews in Jerusalem who had had enough of them and their leader Menachem. The Sicarii were, in fact, forced to flee Jerusalem before the Roman army put a siege on the city. It was at this time that they found refuge on top of Masada.

Second, the true identity and nature of the "rebels" on Masada is not usually revealed. As we have seen, they were Sicarii, and what Josephus has to say about them is not exactly flattering. They were a group of thieves and assassins who killed and robbed other Jews. Very few accounts of the events mention them, or their nature. The terms generally used to describe them, such as "defenders of Masada," "fighters of Masada," and, most frequently, "Zealots," are deliberately deceptive. The last term - following Josephus - is simply inaccurate.

Third, the raids carried out by the Sicarii at Masada on nearby Jewish (?) villages, and their massacre of the settlers at Ein-gedi, which testifies to their nature as brutal assassins, robbers, or terrorists, is almost universally ignored.

Fourth, the length of the Roman siege of Masada, most probably between a few weeks to perhaps four months, at least in accordance with Josephus, tends to be ignored. The siege is usually described vaguely as "long" or as having "taken years," or else as having lasted between one to three (more typical) years.

Fifth, the fact that no battles around Masada are described by Josephus Flavius is ignored. Also ignored is the implied possibility that the Sicarii may have been less than enthusiastic about fighting the Roman army. In fact, many versions of the mythical narrative either imply or state explicitly that those on Masada during the siege fought the Roman tenth legion, carrying out raids on its troops, its war machines, etc. Thus, a real battle is hinted at; some creative writers have even suggested that Masada was the center of operations against the Romans. This is pure invention. However, given the fact that archaeological excavations have failed to provide any confirmation of a real battle, this scenario is more than likely pure fabrication. Nevertheless, while it is probable that there may have been a fight in the last stage of the siege when the Romans were actually in the process of breaching the wall, prior to that time there was no significant opposition from the besieged “heroes” of Masada.

Sixth, attempts are made to "undo" the suicide either by using expressions that ignore the exact nature of the act, such as "died heroically," "chose death over slavery," etc., or by emphasizing that Ben-Yair’s followers killed each other and not themselves; that is, of course, except for the last person.

Seventh, the hesitation of the rebels to commit suicide and the fact that it took Eleazar Ben-Yair two speeches in order to persuade them to do so is typically disregarded. Only one speech, if any, is usually mentioned. This, of course, is much more consistent with a tale of heroism; after all, heroes do not hesitate.

Eighth, Josephus's report of seven survivors is rarely mentioned and it is often emphasized that all of those present on Masada committed suicide. Usually the whole matter of survivorship is ignored although at times mention is made of "one survivor" (an "old lady"), or of "no survivors." Once again, this approach suits the heroic theme much better: heroes do not hide underground "cowering" in fear for their own survival.

Finally, the choices left open to the rebels on Masada are usually presented as having been limited to two: surrender or death (meaning suicide). Other possible (and glorious) alternatives, such as actually fighting to the end (as suggested by Josippon) or concentrating forces in one spot in an attempt to create a diversion that could have allowed for the escape of many, including the women and children as suggested by Weiss-Rosmarin, are completely ignored. Also ignored is the possibility (albeit less desirable one) of the rebels trying to negotiate with the Romans (in fact, such a negotiation did take place at Machaerus).


When And Why Was The Masada Mythical Narrative Created?

It is not too difficult to establish the fact that the Masada mythical narrative was created by secular Zionism. (Religious Jews, Zionists and non-Zionists were, to a very large extent, not part in the creation of the myth. Many even objected fiercely to the myth). It is clear that the Masada mythical narrative began to be created at the turn of the century. It received a big boost in the 1920s. Before he 1920s Masada, as an heroic tale, was used in a debate between two famous secular Zionist ideological leaders (Achad Ha'am and Berdyczewski). In 1923 the excellent Hebrew translation of Josephus by Dr. Simchoni was published. In 1927 Y. Lamdan published his most popular Masada poem. Moreover, two key and powerful secular Zionists who were promoting Masada as a heroic tale, Shmaria Guttman and Prof. Yoseph Klosner, were operating in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Clearly, the crystallizing Zionist movement was desperately looking for heroic Jewish tales. It needed these tales for a few reasons:

* To counteract the poisonous European anti-Semitic image of the Jew as non-heroic
* To create a new secular Jewish consciousness and identity
* To establish a strong and unquestionable bonding of the Jews to Palestine (then) and Israel (later).

The need for this bond became very acute in the early 1940s when the threat of a Nazi invasion of Palestine was imminent (from Rommel's Korpus Afrika). These years saw the crystallization of the Masada mythical narrative in its most powerful form. The creation of the myth then, no doubt, was justified from a functional point of view as it helped many members of the Yishuv to face some truly formidable historical challenges. Thus, the Masada mythical narrative has become a major and important ingredient in shaping the national and personal identity of the new secular and Zionist Jew—proud, rooted in his/her land and willing, indeed able, to fight for this land to the end if necessary. Clearly, the Masada mythical narrative has a strong generational effect for some generations who were influenced by it the most (including that of the author). This identity connection is exactly the element that explains the negative emotional reaction stirred by connecting the word "Masada" with "Myth" and thus implying something that is untrue.

[Source: Nachman Ben-Yehuda, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Hebrew University, Jerusalem - The Masada Myth]