Two thousand years ago, 967 Jewish men, women, and children—the last holdouts of the revolt against Rome following the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple—reportedly took their own lives rather than surrender to the Roman army. This dramatic event, which took place on top of Masada, a barren and windswept mountain overlooking the Dead Sea, spawned a powerful story of Jewish resistance that came to symbolize the embattled modern State of Israel. The first extensive archaeological excavations of Masada began in the 1960s, and today the site draws visitors from around the world. And yet, because the mass suicide was recorded by only one ancient author—the Jewish historian Josephus—some scholars question if the event ever took place.
Jodi Magness, an archaeologist who has excavated at Masada, explains what happened there, how we know it, and how recent developments might change understandings of the story. Incorporating the latest findings, she integrates literary and historical sources to show what life was like for Jews under Roman rule during an era that witnessed the reign of Herod and Jesus’s ministry and death.
Featuring numerous illustrations, this is an engaging exploration of an ancient story that continues to grip the imagination today.
Of it Eric Cline writes
“Internationally renowned archaeologist Jodi Magness plunges the reader directly into the story of the fall of Masada, unpacking the dramatic tale as told by Josephus. She also recounts the fascinating adventures and misadventures of the region’s explorers, from the nineteenth century through the 1960s, and compellingly describes the excavations there, including her own, providing a welcome tour of the site.”—Eric H. Cline, author of 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed
Few are as well qualified to write a book on this topic as Jodi Magness. Chapters include
Prologue: The Fall of Masada
- The Siege of Masada
- The Search for Masada
- Masada in Context
- Masada and Herod’s other Building Projects
- Judea Before Herod
- From Herod to the First Jewish Revolt against Rome
- The First Jewish Revolt against Rome
- The Rebel Occupation of Masada
- Masada Shall Not Fall Again: Yigael Yadin, the Mass Suicide, and the Masada Myth
Epilogue: A Tour of Masada
Following the body of the book there are
- Image Credits
The outline of the volume illustrates Magness’s careful historical investigation. Carefully and meticulously she works through and presents the evidence and offers readers a very clear picture of what we can actually know about Masada and the myth that came to surround it. Allow me to illustrate her very thoughtful methodology by providing the subsection titles of Chapter One: The Siege of Masada.
Here she discusses The siege of Masada, The Roman Army, The Roman Siege Camps, The 1995 Excavations in Camp F, Roman Military Equipment, The Assault Ramp, The Last Stand, Flavius Josephus, Josephus’s Biography, The Jewish War, Jewish Antiquities, Josephus’s Biases and Apologetic Tendencies, The Afterlife of Josephus’s Works, and finally, Postscript: Josephus at Masada.
Meticulous is the word that always comes to mind when I read Magness, and this volume is that, in spades.
Along with the meticulously argued text there are ample maps and charts and photographs, both in black and white and in color.
Yet the highlight of the volume, for me, is the final chapter, the ninth. Herein Magness shows the extraordinarily influential Yadin at work and the continuing influence of his Masada myth. She begins with a brief bio of Yadin and then launches immediately into an investigation of the so-called ‘mass suicide’ which Yadin insisted took place at that location. She sagely observes
I am often asked in I believe there was a mass suicide at Masada, to which I respond that this is not a question archaeology is equipped to answer. The archaeological remains can be interpreted differently as supporting or disproving Josephus’s account. Whether or not the mass suicide story is true depends on how one evaluates Josephus’s reliability as an historian- a matter that I prefer to leave to Josephus specialists to resolve.
For her, the important question is
How did the site of a reported mass suicide of a band of Jewish rebels who terrorized other Jews become a symbol of the modern State of Israel?
The remainder of this final chapter addresses that question.
For myself, I have always been very skeptical of the entire account of Josephus. I was early on heavily influenced by Jamie McLaren’s Turbulent Times?: Josephus and Scholarship on Judaea in the First Century CE , one of the most fantastic studies of Josephus yet composed. McLaren’s skepticism is infectious because so well established by McLaren’s important research.
I didn’t find McLaren’s work mentioned in Jodi’s bibliography. Yet I would heartily encourage readers of Jodi’s book to take a look at Jamie’s as well.
As to the book at hand, I cannot but recommend it fully and heartily. It is a work of scholarship and insight and should be on the shelves of every New Testament scholar, archaeologist, and interested laypersons.
I’ve not yet read a book by Professor Magness that didn’t teach me a great deal. This book does too. And I look forward to whatever will come from her pen in the near future.