By Jodi Magness
(Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2019), 288 pp., $29.95 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Kenneth Atkinson
Trapped atop a remote cliff in the Judean desert, 960 men, women, and children were surrounded by nearly 8,000 Roman troops and their auxiliary forces. The year was 72–73 or perhaps 73–74 C.E. (scholars are uncertain). Vowing that these rebels on Masada’s summit would not escape, Roman general Flavius Silva ordered his soldiers to encircle it with several camps and a stone wall up to 12 feet in height. Then, he commanded his legionnaires to construct a massive earth-and-timber ramp for their battering ram to reach the summit.
Josephus—a Jewish priest, general, and (to some) a traitor for defecting to the Romans during the Jewish Revolt (66–70 C.E.)—documented the subsequent battle in his epic book The Jewish War. Josephus writes that when Silva and his men breached Masada’s gate, they were shocked to find that its defenders had taken their lives. Josephus’s account of this small band of Jews who chose suicide before submission to Roman tyranny is among the most amazing tales from antiquity. But is it true?
Jodi Magness is a familiar name to longtime readers of BAR. A renowned archaeologist and public speaker, she is the Keenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina. Magness’s new book on Masada is a stirring account of its history from antiquity to the present. Her excavation of one of Masada’s Roman camps and its siege ramp gives her a unique perspective on the site and Josephus’s story of its defenders.
Magness opens her book with a retelling of Josephus’s narrative of the Roman siege of Masada. As she notes, what makes it particularly controversial is that Josephus was in Rome when Silva’s forces captured Masada. She then turns to the fascinating stories of explorers, who sometimes risked their lives to study Masada’s remains, and to the excavations of the site to the present. Her book also takes readers on a tour of the Judean Desert’s geography and major ancient sites, from the Chalcolithic to the Byzantine periods. Among these is the controversial ruin known as Khirbet Qumran, the location of the famed Dead Sea Scrolls. Qumran is particularly important because, as Magness describes in her book, Dead Sea Scrolls were found atop Masada, thereby linking the two places.
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The highlight of Magness’s book is her detailed description of the archaeological finds at Masada. She shows that its defenders were not Zealots, as commonly believed, but Sicarii and some Essenes. Their presence is evident at the site from the remains of their ritual baths, stone and dung vessels, and their writings. Magness does a wonderful job extracting information from the small artifacts, such as clothing and household objects, which illuminate the lives of the women among Masada’s defenders, and inscribed pottery sherds that help us reconstruct the rebels’ administrative structure.
The legendary Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin (1917–1984) uncovered these artifacts during his two-season excava-tion there (October 1963 to May 1964 and November 1964 to April 1965). In her assessment of his massive uncovering of Masada’s remains, Magness remarks that Yadin largely accepted Josephus’s story at face value. This caused him to overlook inconsistencies between Josephus’s account and the archaeological remains he uncovered. She comments that Shmaryahu Gutman, one of Masada’s explorers and a supervisor during Yadin’s excavation with whom I had the privilege to dig at Gamla (“the Masada of the Golan”), also considered Josephus a faithful chronicler of events. It is important to recognize that both men not only excavated two of the greatest battle sites of the Jewish Revolt but were also involved in the creation of the modern State of Israel. This led them, and many subsequent Israelis, to view Masada as a symbol of Jewish heroism by which to support Zionist claims to the land. Magness, a former student of Yadin at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, comments that although his Zionist-nationalistic perspective may have colored his interpretation of Masada’s remains, it did not affect the quality of his fieldwork.
Since the 1980s, many researchers have rejected the use of biblical accounts to justify modern land claims. This has led some scholars to challenge the truthfulness of Josephus’s report of a mass suicide at Masada. Magness concludes that archaeology can neither prove nor disprove Josephus’s story because archaeological remains are subject to multiple interpretations. Longtime readers of BAR know this quite well, for, despite centuries of research, study, and excavation, archaeologists still debate the truthfulness of biblical accounts based on their interpretations of the same evidence.
Magness is one of the leading archaeologists in the field and a gifted storyteller. Her dramatic and well-researched narrative makes this book an enjoyable read. It is ideal for churches, synagogues, university students, and anyone interested in learning more about Masada’s fascinating and unique history, as well as the interesting stories of the men and women involved in its discovery and interpretation.
Kenneth Atkinson is Professor of History at the University of Northern Iowa and author of Queen Salome (2012). His research focuses on ancient history, archaeology, religions, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
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The Josephan story of the battle for Masada fits perfectly with his role as a captive Jewish apologist writing to a Roman audience. What would appeal more heroicly to the Romans than outnumbered defenders defiantly committing suicide? The Romans won the battle and the Jews did not lose it. That is a masterful win-win.