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Jodi Mag­ness has taken a closer look at the leg­endary tale of Masada, and the facts, spec­u­la­tions and myths

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • GLENN C. ALTSCHULER Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can Stud­ies at Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity.

In 73 CE, at a moun­tain-top fortress in Masada, as Flav­ius Jose­phus claimed two years later, 967 men, women, and chil­dren killed each other and them­selves. The last hold­outs in a re­volt against Rome (which had ended of­fi­cially in 70 CE, with the siege, sack­ing and ran­sack­ing of Jerusalem and the Sec­ond Tem­ple), they com­mit­ted mass sui­cide as a “free choice of a no­ble death” over slav­ery to the Ro­mans.

Al­most 2,000 years later, Masada, which has be­come a na­tional park, serves as a metaphor for the phys­i­cal con­nec­tion of Jews to their home­land; the hero­ism of Jewish free­dom fight­ers (of­ten com­pared to War­saw Ghetto re­sisters); and for the State of Is­rael: iso­lated and threat­ened by ene­mies on all sides.

In Masada: From Jewish Re­volt to Mod­ern Myth, Jodi Mag­ness, a pro­fes­sor in the de­part­ment of Re­li­gious Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and the author, among other books, of Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Je­sus, pro­vides an ex­am­i­na­tion of the site and the now iconic event. Not­ing that Jose­phus was the only an­cient author to re­fer to a mass sui­cide, Mag­ness sep­a­rates facts, spec­u­la­tions and myths.

Masada is not with­out flaws. For no ap­par­ent rea­son, Mag­ness moves back­ward and for­ward in time, with a chap­ter on “Judea Be­fore Herod” fol­low­ing one en­ti­tled “Masada and Herod’s Other Projects.” And, alas, she of­ten re­peats in­for­ma­tion, some­times more than once.

That said, her book is filled with fas­ci­nat­ing de­tails; it is in­for­ma­tive and ju­di­cious. Mag­ness sets the Jewish re­volt against Rome in his­tor­i­cal con­text. She iden­ti­fies the be­liefs and prac­tices of the Jewish philo­soph­i­cal schools (Sad­ducees, Pharisees and Essences) of the late Sec­ond Tem­ple pe­riod. She notes, “as one of the great ironies of Jewish his­tory,” that the Mac­cabean vic­tory (cel­e­brated as Hanukkah) over An­ti­ochus IV’s at­tempt to Hel­l­enize Jews, was fol­lowed by the adop­tion of Greek cus­toms when the fam­ily es­tab­lished the Has­monean dy­nasty.

Doc­u­ment­ing the bru­tal­ity of the siege of Jerusalem, Mag­ness in­di­cates that Ves­pasian and his sons used the war “to bol­ster their claims to le­git­i­macy” by cel­e­brat­ing “vic­tory over a peo­ple who had al­ready been un­der Ro­man rule as if they were newly con­quered,” and re­plac­ing the cult of the God of Is­rael with that of

Capi­to­line Jupiter.

The co-direc­tor of Ro­man siege works at Masada in 1995 and the cur­rent direc­tor of ex­ca­va­tions at Huqoq in Galilee, Mag­ness is es­pe­cially adept at draw­ing in­fer­ences about daily liv­ing from ar­chi­tec­ture and ar­ti­facts. Arche­o­log­i­cal re­mains, she in­di­cates, ver­ify that hun­dreds of Jews were liv­ing at Masada at the time of the siege. In­deed, 145 ovens and 85 stoves have been dis­cov­ered at Masada. The arid cli­mate also pre­served the re­mains of seeds, nuts and fruits (in­clud­ing pomegranat­es, olives and dried figs) for two mil­len­nia. Nonethe­less, Mag­ness be­lieves that con­di­tions dur­ing the siege were harsh. Del­i­ca­cies were prob­a­bly con­sumed early on, by com­man­ders and of­fi­cers, leav­ing bread dipped in oil and bean paste and lentil stews as di­etary sta­ples for everyone else; and fruits ap­pear to have con­tained charred lar­vae and adult in­sects.

In­scrip­tions on jars and pot­tery, Mag­ness re­veals, prob­a­bly mean that Ara­maic was the dom­i­nant lan­guage spo­ken at Masada (as it was among Jews dur­ing the late Sec­ond Tem­ple pe­riod), but that He­brew and Greek were used, and some refugees were bilin­gual or trilin­gual. The dis­cov­er­ies of ovoid and cylin­dri­cal jars (which were used to store scrolls in Qum­ran caves and set­tle­ments), a frag­ment in­scribed “priest’s tithe,” and of mik­vaot, she sug­gests, con­sti­tute ev­i­dence of a sec­tar­ian (and per­haps Essene) con­tin­gent at Masada, com­mit­ted to ob­serv­ing bi­b­li­cal laws. She ac­knowl­edges, how­ever, that arche­ol­o­gists some­times iden­tify ev­ery stepped and plas­tered pools as a mik­vah. Nor is it clear, she adds, whether the mik­vaot were built dur­ing Herod’s reign or added at the time of the re­volt.

Un­fail­ingly care­ful, Mag­ness de­clares that arche­ol­o­gists are not equipped to de­ter­mine whether a mass sui­cide oc­curred at Masada in 73 CE. In her view, the arche­o­log­i­cal re­mains “can be in­ter­preted dif­fer­ently as sup­port­ing or dis­prov­ing Jose­phus’s ac­count.” She does remind us, how­ever, that mass sui­cides are a com­mon lit­er­ary mo­tif in the sto­ries told by an­cient his­to­ri­ans, in­clud­ing Jose­phus, who re­ported sim­i­lar episodes in two other sieges.

At this point, it does not re­ally mat­ter. Vir­tu­ally ev­ery na­tion, af­ter all, has foun­da­tional myths. As Bene­dict An­der­son, my for­mer col­league at Cor­nell, has demon­strated, vir­tu­ally ev­ery na­tion is “an imag­ined com­mu­nity.” In­ex­tri­ca­bly bound up with the iden­tity and ca­reer of Yi­gal Yadin, the larger-than-life ex­ca­va­tor of the site, who also played a piv­otal role in mil­i­tary plan­ning in the 1967 war, Masada con­tin­ues to at­tract tens of thou­sands of vis­i­tors, who make the twohour drive from Jerusalem and take a cable car to the top of the moun­tain, to cel­e­brate 967 Jews who re­fused to sur­ren­der to the mighty Ro­man Em­pire.

(Marc Is­rael Sellem)

THE ARCHE­O­LOG­I­CAL re­mains of Masada, the author says, could be in­ter­preted in many dif­fer­ent ways.

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