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Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth

July 2020 (124.3)

Book Review

Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth

By Jodi Magness. Princeton: Princeton University Press 2019. Pp. x + 265. $29.95. ISBN 978-0-691-16710-7 (cloth).

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“A dream of ages has come true: Masada has been excavated and reconstructed.” So wrote Yigael Yadin of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in a tourist pamphlet about Masada published in November 1965. Yadin extolled remarkable finds, including “tens of miles of walls; 4000 coins,” and more than 700 inscribed ostraka, which he and his team recovered from the Herodian palace-fortress of Masada during 11 months of excavations between 1963 and 1965. To some scholars in the 21st century, however, the exultant tone of Yadin’s expression (in both the pamphlet and his popular book, Masada: Herod’s Fortress and the Zealots’ Last Stand, Random House 1966) betrayed a political agenda that complicated both his professional legacy and that of the site. In Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth, however, Jodi Magness reclaims both the remains of Masada and the work of its famed excavator Yadin by reframing, and thus transforming, the narratives about each. Rather than merely summarizing the results of excavations or associated scholarship, Magness’ treatment does something novel: it constitutes a multidimensional work that uses Masada as “a lens through which to explore the history of Judea” (3) from the middle of the second century BCE through the first century CE.

The renown of Masada, of course, predates Magness’ treatment and more recent explorations of the site. Part of its fame owes to the remarkable geographic position of the elaborate palace-fortress, constructed by Herod, which looms over an extreme and desiccated landscape beside the Dead Sea. Yet Josephus, who composed his Jewish War in Rome under Flavian patronage, is credited for immortalizing this fortress and the demise of the Jewish rebels who had retreated there. Indeed, the soliloquy Josephus attributes to a certain Eleazar Ben-Yair dramatically concludes his account of the Jewish revolt against Rome (66–73 CE). Fully aware that the Romans had encircled their holdout and that the remainder of Judea had already fallen into Roman hands, Ben-Yair exhorts his compatriots in their final hour “not [to] disgrace ourselves. . . . Let us not . . . deliberately accept the irreparable penalties awaiting us if we are to fall alive into Roman hands” (Joseph., BJ 7.553–65; Loeb transl.). Ben-Yair proposes, instead, to enact a mass suicide whereby he and his peers would take their own lives immediately after those of their surviving wives and children (“Let our wives thus die dishonored, our children unacquainted with slavery,” BJ 7.335). Magness begins her preface with Ben-Yair’s words, but then, unexpectedly, challenges the plausibility of the associated account; she introduces readers to why stories in Josephus such as this one are of suspect historicity. In discussing the remains of Roman camps and siege works at Masada, including those she excavated herself, Magness demonstrates why answers to questions about the last days of Masada are best sought through archaeology, outside of Josephus’ narrative (ch. 1). This is so, despite the renown of Josephus’ writings on the topic, which lured generations of explorers and archaeologists to risk their lives in search of the original site where Ben-Yair and his peers purportedly chose death over surrender (ch. 2).

In subsequent chapters, Magness takes a panoramic view, contextualizing Masada in its natural, architectural, political, and historical settings. “Masada in Context” (ch. 3) manifests how harsh, inaccessible, and challenging for human habitation were the landscapes surrounding and including Masada, even if, under periods of Hasmonean control of Judea, rulers systematically constructed fortresses in comparable locations (e.g., Hyrcania, Machaerus, Callirhoe). Whether the Hasmoneans originally built on Masada remains debatable, but Magness’ summary of Herod’s local construction illustrates how elaborate his northern palace was, with a service quarter, synagogue, western palace quarter (which included a bathhouse and rooms with elaborate mosaic decoration), and southern portion, which included water installations and cisterns that Yadin once estimated could hold 1,400,000 cubic feet of water (69; cf. BJ 7.290–91). But while Masada might have reflected multiple feats of engineering, particularly given its topography and climate, Magness notes that it was merely one component of Herod’s legendary building program, which entailed extensive construction in Jerusalem (including Herod’s palace, the western hill, Temple Mount, and Antonia fortress), Caesaria Maritima (a man-made harbor, pagan temples, and aqueducts), as well as Samaria-Sebaste, Jericho, and Herodium (ch. 4). “Judea Before Herod” (ch. 5) and “From Herod to the First Jewish Revolt Against Rome” (ch. 6) collectively offer a valuable historiography of the region, emphasizing the social, political, economic, and religious unrest that ultimately impelled the revolt in 66 CE. Magness chronicles how Judea grew increasingly fractious, following internal divisions between “sects” of Pharisees, Essenes, Sadducees, and Jesus followers; political machinations of the Hasmoneans; and intersections between local and regional geopolitics. These last included Parthian invasions; the ascendancy and reign of Herod; the division of Herod’s kingdom among his three sons; and the subsequent imposition of a series of Roman governors, including procurators Lucceius Albinus in 62–64 CE and Gessius Florus in 64–66. By 66, Judea had indeed become a “tinderbox about to go up in flames” (141). Jewish rebellions in Caesaria Maritima followed provocations of non-Jewish residents; revolt spread to Jerusalem and ultimately precipitated the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. Yet, as Magness details, Jewish rebellions against Rome also spread outside urban centers; Herod’s old fortresses in Machaerus and Masada became sites of refuge for ragtag groups of rebels and refugees, brigands, and those identified as the Sicarii (164–65), as well as women and children. 

In “The Rebel Occupation of Masada (66–73/74 CE)” Magness resumes her direct consideration of the site (ch. 8). This chapter offers a significant payoff: its evaluation of the stratigraphy and quality of finds at Masada yields a gripping analysis of the rebels’ last days in the fortress. Magness’ interpretations of distributions of cooking pots, ovens (tabuns), utensils, domestic objects, and cosmetic items, as well as hair nets, louse-ridden combs, plaited human hair, and remains of olives, fish, dough, dried figs, nuts, and pomegranates, recreate the tenor of daily life for those who had taken over Herod’s fortress. This analysis reflects the strengths of her previous work, Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (Eerdmans 2011). It is in fact the very abundance of food and daily supplies found on Masada that prompts Magness to suggest that “Josephus’s account of the mass suicide” (BJ 7.336), which had also detailed the rebels’ preliminary destruction of their means of subsistence, “is all or partly fabricated” (170). In chapter 9 (“‘Masada Shall Not Fall Again’: Yigael Yadin, the Mass Suicide, and the Masada Myth”), Magness continues to reassess aspects of the excavation and reception history of Masada in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Among the most satisfying portions of the book are its final chapters, where the work of preceding sections comes to fruition in revealing why Masada fell as it likely did. These are also the places where Magness fully enters the narrative, describing her own role in the history of the site. For instance, while she chronicles the life and excavations of Yadin, as well as his professional career in archaeology and Israeli politics; she also situates her personal experience studying with him as an 18-year-old student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Indeed, she declares that Yadin was “. . . the most mesmerizing speaker I have ever heard” (190). After briefly engaging with the work of scholars who have critiqued Yadin’s interpretations of data, including Nahman Ben-Yehuda (The Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel, University of Wisconsin Press 1995), Magness consolidates her appreciation for Yadin’s methods and cautiousness as an archaeologist, particularly following her own excavation of the Roman military camp. The epilogue also plays a significant role in concluding the book, where Magness rewards readers by giving them directions for her favorite route to tour Masada, detailing how and where to ascend the site, in which order to view its remains, and where to gaze. She thereby invites readers, as future tourists, to enter the same spatial continuum as Herod, ancient rebels, explorers, and archaeologists, who once occupied the same ground under wildly discrepant circumstances and conditions.

Few would be better suited to produce a work such as this one. Magness herself studied with Yadin; she co-published the military equipment from his excavations and, in 1995, excavated the assault ramp and Camp F at Masada alongside Gideon Foerster, Haim Goldfus, and Benny Arubas. As Yadin never completely published his teams’ discoveries from Masada (he produced only one report, The Excavation of Masada 1963/4: Preliminary Report, Israel Exploration Society 1965, and popular assessments in Hebrew and English in 1966), various archaeologists and specialists, including Ehud Netzer and Magness, published the findings from his original excavations in eight volumes after his death (Masada: The Yigael Yadin Excavations 1963–1965 Final Reports, Israel Exploration Society and Hebrew University of Jerusalem 1984–2007). Amnon Ben-Tor subsequently synthesized these reports, making their contents accessible to the “educated and inquisitive layperson” (Back to Masada, Israel Exploration Society 2009, quote from p. 2). Magness’ project expands on these preceding works, as she redefines the story of Masada by vivifying its historical age as much as the state of its remains. She is also a rare field archaeologist skilled in transforming technical findings into riveting and thoroughly readable historiography, thereby successfully filling a lacuna in existing literature about the period; her account meaningfully integrates literary and archaeological evidence and scholarship in ways that differently benefit researchers, undergraduate students in archaeology and ancient history, and an interested public. Her Masada is a distinctive one, revealing why Masada has mattered to so many people throughout history and continues to do so today.

Karen B. Stern 
Department of History 
Brooklyn College of the City University of New York

Book Review of Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth, by Jodi Magness
Reviewed by Karen B. Stern
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 3 (July 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1243.Stern

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