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.
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
- archaeological evidence, and
- 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 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.
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. Continue reading “The Myth and History of Masada and Jesus’ Passion”