2010-04-01

The Myth and History of Masada and Jesus’ Passion

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by Neil Godfrey

מצדה מהאוויר, תמונה שצולמה על ידי אסף.צ. התמונ...
Masada. (Image via Wikipedia)

I was recently reading a historian’s discussion of the events of Masada that attempted to unravel the myth from the historical fact. The similarities and differences with the way biblical historians attempt to unravel the myth and history of the Passion of Jesus were unavoidable.

Masada

Josephus created the myth of Masada — 960 Jewish defenders mass-suicided when faced with defeat at the hands of the Romans. The historical facts can be uncovered by

  1. archaeological evidence, and
  2. adding a dash of common sense to literary criticism of the narrative of Josephus.

Not that we “need” archaeological evidence for every detail Josephus ever pens. Many details are not all that critical to our understanding of the basic outline of events associated with the Jewish war. But we do have external controls for enough of the narrative of Josephus to give us confidence that when he writes about the Jewish rebellion against Rome from around the mid 60s to early 70s ce, he is indeed tackling a real event — unlike when he paraphrases some of the early mythical biblical “history” such as the creation of Adam, Noah’s Flood and the Exodus. It may be that when Josephus is discussing externally verifiable events, his narrative is not always pristine accurate. But the historian of such ancient sources can attempt to weave her way through the narrative details with a mix of common sense and literary criticism and arrive at a “probability range” statement about what might or might not have occurred, (and still never be absolutely sure).

Historian Shayne Cohen‘s discussion of the Masada myth and event illustrates this perfectly.

External and primary evidence

Archaeological evidence confirms that there was indeed a historical conflict between Jews and Romans at Masada. We have remains of a Roman military camp, Jewish defensive structures, and evidence of violence. Unfortunately for the Josephan account, however, not all this evidence is so supportive. Josephus says the food reserves were not burned, that there was but one grand bonfire to consume all property chosen for destruction, that all agreed to suicide, and to do so in a palace area. The archaeological evidence tells us that:

  • food reserves were burnt
  • many disparate areas were burnt
  • remains of bodies have been uncovered in different locations, including in a hazardous-to-access-cave outside the defended area
  • the area where the 960 were said to have suicided was too small for such a number

Common sense

Common sense delivers its contribution to reality. Josephus informs us that at the moment the Romans finally breached the defensive wall, they decided to have a break and go and have a nap for the night. That defies common sense. The Romans were quite used to attacking at night. To retire after the breach only meant they would have to maintain a careful watch to ensure the Jewish rebels did not attack the Roman fortifications or camp.

Meanwhile, Romans were able to continue monitoring the situation within Masada from the heights of their siege engines. Despite all the goings-on with the rebel encampment that Josephus relates, when the Romans did enter through the breach the next morning they were supposedly completely unprepared for what they discovered. Somehow the Roman observation posts had failed to detect anything unusual at all during the night, such as the inhabitants all retreating to a single Tardis-like building (too small for all those Josephus says entered it) and suiciding.

Besides, how could Josephus have had any idea of what transpired in Masada on that final night?

Common sense does not support the historicity of Josephus’s narrative.

Literary analysis

Now bring in literary criticism. Meanwhile, the Jewish rebel leader, Eleazar, delivers a long speech in which he lays the total blame for the failure of the Jewish rebellion on his own party, the Sicarii, and  in which he declares that the imminent fate of both himself and all his colleagues at the hands of the Romans was justly deserved. He once again delivers another lengthy discourse on the rationale for suicide and the nature of the soul. When we think of these two speeches alongside what we know of Josephus’s negative view of the Sicarii, and alongside Josephus’s own earlier reasonings for avoiding suicide (when it involved his own life), we begin to see authorial motives for the creation of these eloquent speeches.

Literary analysis further enables us to see how Josephus used the delay of a whole night to enhance the dramatic effect of the Roman entry the following morning. The Romans are depicted as entering cautiously and being mystified by the silence and emptiness of what they did encounter. It is all a most dramatic build-up to the discovery of the “facts” that did eventually confront them.

Conclusion

So external controlling evidence gives us a reason to view the narrative of Josephus as having some connection with an historical event. But common sense and literary analysis give us strong reasons to doubt the historicity of the Masada details as related by Josephus. The details of the external controlling evidence also confirm our scepticism.

It is safe to conclude that there was a final conflict among the last of the Jewish rebels and Romans at Masada, but that the Josephan tale of mass suicide is a myth that he created for his own ideological and literary interests.

Compare the myth and history of the Passion

Passiontide - Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary
Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr

The first gospel author (let’s call him Mark) created the myth of the Passion of Jesus and his resurrection. The historical facts can be uncovered by

  1. no external controls such as archaeological or any other witness traceable to the time and place of the event, and
  2. adding a dash of faith that the gospel narrative contains some historical origin

External evidence

Moreover, in the case of Jesus,. . .  there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty [of there being a historical basis to the narratives] cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.

From page 401 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.

This leaves us without any basis for reading historicity into the narrative of the gospels. To do so would be as logically indefensible as analysing the narratives of Josephus about Noah, Moses and Solomon, or the narrative of Homer about Odysseus, or of Aeschylus about Prometheus, in an effort to uncover their “historical core”.

Logically all of those characters may possibly ultimately derive from historical persons. But without external controlling evidence we cannot assume that that is “probably” the case.

only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration.

from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: cited in a 1991 chapter by Luise Abramowski titled “The ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ in Justin” pp.331-332 published in “The Gospel and the Gospels” ed. Peter Stuhlmacher.

Common sense

How plausible is it — how narratively coherent is it — that rulers who have expressed fear of arresting a popular leader during (or on the eve of) the Passover should end up doing exactly that, and then, against their own laws and customs, hurriedly try this person late at night? How plausible is it that a governor otherwise known as a vicious crowd-control freak should cower before a vociferous rabble demanding the execution of an innocent man? How plausible is it to think that the same governor would be willing to release a known insurrectionist to such a mob? What is any reader to make of the historicity of a tale that relies heavily upon the supernatural for its effect — from the cryptic silence of Jesus before his accusers through to the day turning to night while he is on his cross?

Besides, as with the Masada details portrayed by Josephus, there was no way for Mark to have known any of these events since the disciples had vanished for much of it all.

Many historians are aware of such improbabilities. So to “historicize” the narrative they need to wrestle with it until they are eliminated. Pilate then sees Jesus as a threat who really ought to be exterminated. Such efforts testify to the nonsense of the gospel account itself.

(Recall also that the earliest “reports” of this crucifixion were linked with the instigation of demonic rulers of “this age”, and the death was portrayed as a theological act, not an historical one)

Literary analysis

Various historians have seen in the gospel narrative some level of imitation of the entry of Simon of Giora entering Jerusalem as a saviour and Davidic king, who immediately proceeds to “cleanse” the Temple of his enemies; or of a Roman Triumphal procession in which the conqueror enters the city with his victim(s) to be sacrificed, enduring the humility of mocking, and finishing his journey on the “Capitol” hill, the place of the skull (Golgotha).

Many more have seen the whole Passion scene being stitched together from snippets from Jewish scriptures and, in some cases, even popular classical literature of the time. Many fundamentalist publications boast of as many such “borrowings” as they can find.

The entire scene serves as a dramatic climax that exalts the piety of the hero, and shames the reader who identifies with the fallible disciples. The effect is to lead to both worship of Jesus and a vicarious act of repentance with Peter on each reading.

The theological and literary architectures of the Passion are too numerous to detail here. Their richness does not enable confident assumptions that they are also derived from such happily obliging historical events.

Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly (Paula Fredriksen)

The few women witnesses at the end

Josephus tells his readers that the whole story of “the night before” at Masada was relayed to the Romans by a few women survivors. Mark tells us that the few women witnesses at the end fled without saying a word to a soul. Many readers like to assume that they eventually opened up “off stage” to the disciples.

The trope of the witness of lowly status who is initially dismissed as not worthy of attention is as old as folklore itself. To suggest that there is some “law” that says we can determine the reliability of an account in accordance with the degree of embarrassment we can assume it must cause the witness, would mean we would have to reconsider the fictional status of many folk tales.

Much more could be said here, but I will go no further than illustrating this one point with models near at hand to the author of the original. The narratives of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Judah, Samson, Saul, Samuel, David, Solomon, Jeremiah, Job, are all memorable for their episodes of “embarrassment”. When we understand how those “embarrassments” actually serve to enhance the eventual greatness and heroic status of the characters, we will see just how meaningless it is to suggest that this “criteria” is some sort of testimony to historicity. The hero who is unjustly condemned and goes down to the grave only to be vindicated by his God is no tale of embarrassment. It is a tale of cathartic inspiration.

Conclusion

We have defensible reasons for believing that Josephus was addressing an historical event when he wrote about Masada. We also have strong reasons for believing he wrote a fictional narrative about that event to serve his own political and literary agendas.

We have no defensible reasons for believing that Mark was addressing an historical event when he wrote about Jesus’ Passion. We also have strong reasons for believing he wrote a fictional narrative about that event to serve is own theological and literary agendas.

Historians of Masada can analyze the literary account and compare with the external evidence.

If all one has is the literary account whose narrative lacks any “visible means of support”, one would no more be doing “history” than those Old Testament scholars who once thought they were doing real history when they assumed that the Patriarchal period was historical, and that the united kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon was historical.

As it turned out, once enough historians addressed the discrepancies between the archaeological evidence, common sense and literary analysis, we learned that they were really only spinning their wheels and going nowhere.

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Neil Godfrey

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15 thoughts on “The Myth and History of Masada and Jesus’ Passion”

    1. Thanks, David. That’s an interesting article and complements well, I think, the point of my recent posts. How easy it is to make clear judgments about the historicity of a narrative, even with an “ancient history report”, when our cultural icons (e.g. Jesus) are not involved. And no doubt there are Jewish nationalists who would take offence at any suggestion that the Masada story is not historical, just as there are Swiss nationalists who refuse to countenance “modern criticism” that rejects the historicity of William Tell. Jesus is indeed a power still with us.

      From the passage you linked:

      The key to a solution of this problem is to be found in what the traditionalists call the Isra’iliyyat, a great number of tales and unattested reports that some Jews who embraced Islam or their descendants planted in Islamic traditions through the agency of heedless and uncritical narrators. It is the thesis of this paper that the Masada legend was one of these tales which, with some adaptation, was applied to Banu Quraizah and passed on by Jewish informants to Ibn Ishaq. On superficial consideration there are striking similarities between the two stories. . . . .

      Parallelism is, however, no proof. This is to be found in closer examination of the unattributed and uncorroborated report concerning Quraizah in Ibn Ishaq, as preserved by his scribe Ibn Hisham, and the attitude of contemporary authorities to it. In brief the report was at once challenged as of Jewish origin, and not simply on the technical ground that it lacked the essential chain of authorities (isnad). Summarizing the opinions of the authorities, favourable and unfavourable, concerning Ibn Ishaq’s reliability, a later writer of the life of the Prophet, Ibn Sayyid an-Nas, commented as if he were summing up as a judge in a court of justice. What emerges from this marshalling and weighing of the evidence is that Ibn Ishaq was reliable only where his reports were supported by unimpeachable authorities. . . . .

      To sum up. Josephus probably made up a story about a suicide pact among forty deserters in Galilee. He cheated his way out of it to tell a story which modern critics refuse to believe. Later on he enlarged the scope of the story and greatly embellished it when he retold it of the defenders of Masada. It has been shown above that most of its details are not worthy of credence, whatever modern Jewish nationalists may make out of it.

  1. This has nothing to do with the content of your little article here, just the style. Your conscious attempt to supplant normal English usage of “his” as a generic term for anybody, for example in the phrase “the historian of such ancient sources can attempt to weave [his] way through the narrative details”–what are you trying to accomplish here exactly? If you think that it is sexist for “his” to be used in such a way, isn’t it just as sexist for “her” to be used in this way???? Its like trying to solve racism of whites against blacks by reversing it and having racism of blacks against whites. It just reverses the problem–it doesn’t solve it. Why not therefore say “its”? I.e. “the historian of such ancient sources can attempt to weave [its] way through the narrative details”?? Or make up a new word–zeb. “the historian of such ancient sources can attempt to weave zeb way through the narrative details”? You are just propagating feminist hatred towards men as it stands. Shame on you!

  2. “Various historians have seen in the gospel narrative some level of imitation of the entry of Simon of Giora entering Jerusalem as a saviour and Davidic king, who immediately proceeds to “cleanse” the Temple of his enemies; or of a Roman Triumphal procession in which the conqueror enters the city with his victim(s) to be sacrificed, enduring the humility of mocking, and finishing his journey on the “Capitol” hill, the place of the skull (Golgotha).”

    Possibly connection between Simon of Giora and Simon Magus, Simon of Cyrene, Simon Peter? Possible explanation of why Simon Magus is accused of representing himself as a God higher than the Creator much the way Jesus does. Possible explanation for why some Gnostics believed Simon of Cyrene was crucified while Christ (a spirit being) escaped.

  3. Gender-inclusive language is standard practice in nearly all publishing venues these days, rey. Your rear-guard outrage in defense of male privilege is about three decades late.

    1. Its not gender INCLUSIVE when you exclude, Mr. Genius. If you consistently only use “her” as your generical term for anybody then you are doing the same thing that was done in the past with “his.” I’ve seen people who do his/her. Yes, that becomes tedious. But its better than just replacing his with her which is nothing but reverse sexism and you should all be ashamed of yourselves who follow such a practice.

      1. Besides, if you’re going to really be inclusive, you’ve got to include transgendered people to. So you should write “the historian of such ancient sources can attempt to weave his/her/its way through the narrative details” — that way you cover the men, the women, and the only God knows what they ares. Otherwise, you are excluding and have no right to call your language gender inclusive.

  4. I found the following, here and I have checked the Acts of Peter here and in XXXIII-XXXV this is mentioned. The basic jist of what is mentioned from Josephus is also found in Antiquities Book XX Chapter 9.

    Josephus: During the reign of Agrippa, Albinus, the procurator of Judea, conducted a wide-spread campaign to eliminate the sicarii and managed to capture and kill many of them. The sicarii reacted by kidnapping the children of the high priests and other officials, who were then forced to negotiate with Albinus the release of these victims in exchange for captured sicarii.

    Acts of Peter: While Simon Peter was in Rome, four concubines of Agrippa and the beautiful wife of Albinus ‘came to Peter’, causing Agrippa and Albinus to rage and swear to kill Peter. Would these wives willingly have left the luxury and wealth of their homes to join a complete stranger? It would rather seem that they had been kidnapped either as bargaining chips or simply as an act of revenge on Agrippa and Albinus.

  5. In book publishing, it’s standard to switch back and forth, for about an equal number of “he”s and “she”s in the instances where a generic person is being referred to.

    Transgendered persons generally self-identify as the gender which they have adopted, so there is no need for a third pronoun; “it” refers to inanimate objects, non-persons, and is insulting, as is “god only knows what they ares”. People, asshole. That’s what they are.

    1. Its can be an English attempt at neuter gender. It is used commonly in this way with respect to people (babies in particular) when answer the question of their gender, before the gender is announced they are referred to as an “it” as in “Its a boy” or “Its a girl” or “do you have a name for it yet?”

  6. Hi Rey,

    I sometimes use “their” (even though it’s technically plural) in place of his/her, which to me is preferable to “its” for persons. I sometimes use “his” and sometimes “her”. I don’t feel completely comfortable with any of these, but at the same time I feel even less comfortable at the thought of bucking against the sensitivities of the times by using “his” consistently. I can probably argue on linguistic, historical and logical grounds that “his” should be quite acceptable, but that would be to miss the point, I feel. My view is that cultural sensitivities and customs of the day are not about logic and argument, but about yielding to the dictate of “When in Rome do as Romans do”. Like it or not, the current state of play with Western English-speaking audiences is, generally, to come across as being consciously mindful to demonstrate inclusion of both sexes.

    I work in Singapore and in many meetings I am the only Caucasian among Chinese, Malays, Indonesians, Filipinos, Indians (Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Free Thinkers) and others. When one of these (a woman) in a discussion referred to certain library services with reference to “the man in the street” I was a little surprised to hear the rest of the group picking up the discussion and also referring to “the man in the street”. When I contributed my thoughts I felt something happening in my stomach as I tried to adjust also to talking about this “man” we were there to serve. In Australia in comparable meetings the expression would never be heard. But I was with people who have a different history and cultural expectations. Cultural and social changes in the West have been much more rapid than in Asia till now and there will always be some frictions within Western societies that are trying to adjust to these. So one will never please everyone, but can only attempt to go with the flow of the moment.

    To be polite in various parts of South East Asia I learn to point with my thumb resting on my clenched fist, and to always take time to study a business card handed to me, and to exchange money or papers with both hands, and avoid dropping rubbish in a bin that looks like it might be used to burn prayers (not always easy to tell for a new comer), to greet Thais with a wai, and learn a little bit of basic local languages, and learn to live with meetings never starting on time. To avoid offending in Australia I avoid expressing myself in ways that have for now been deemed sexist, and always to be on time for meetings.

    1. “I sometimes use “their” (even though it’s technically plural)”

      Actually generally what I do. But I cringe when her is used as a generic. Its just wrong. His has been used that way forever so it only feels like a technical infraction. But her just feels like something nefarious. Their is just right.

      1. I’m British but living in Finland. Studying Finnnish there is no his/her distinction at all. His and Her is ‘Hän’. Infact if you talk to a Fin in English they often slip up…I’ll be talking to a friend and he will mention his wife, he might accidentally say ‘he’ although it sounds ridiculous to us that information isn’t part of the sentance a Fin will include except specifically. Infact ‘spoken’ finnish usually uses ‘se’ or ‘it’ even instead of ‘hän’.
        I’ve often wondered whether this is the reason that Finland was one of the first countries to give women the vote and first to allow them to stand for office, even before they were independant from Russia. Perhaps because there is no context in normal language in which gender is relevant.
        As this blog deals so much in ancient texts from people whose second language was Greek and whom we in turn understand through translations I wonder at how much we project our own implied meanings into words and senances which may infact have a different meaning. The weight of so much thought and so many beliefs hanging on such thin threads indeed.

  7. And just having visited Thailand I found the same is true of the Thai language — his and her are undifferentiated khao. This surprised me because “I” has two words, depending on whether the speaker is male or female. And I had to learn to finish certain statements like ‘thankyou’ with a certain ending that was different from the ending tagged on to the same words spoken by a female.

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