Reporter's notebook'We wouldn't be sitting here today without that story'

Maybe there was no mass suicide at Masada? Top archaeologist questions a legend

Prof. Jodi Magness busts myths and asks unanswerable questions in new book about Masada — the site of the largest Jewish wholesale self-slaughter that maybe never was

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Archaeologist Prof. Jodi Magness at Masada, July 11, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
    Archaeologist Prof. Jodi Magness at Masada, July 11, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
  • Tourists mingle at Masada, July 11, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
    Tourists mingle at Masada, July 11, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
  • Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at Masada, March 1975 with archeologist and former Israeli Chief of Staff Yigael Yadin. (AP Photo/Castro)
    Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at Masada, March 1975 with archeologist and former Israeli Chief of Staff Yigael Yadin. (AP Photo/Castro)
  • View from Masada, July 11, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
    View from Masada, July 11, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
  • Kids at a trip to Ein Gedi and Masada, early 1950s. (Efraim Ilani)
    Kids at a trip to Ein Gedi and Masada, early 1950s. (Efraim Ilani)
  • Aerial view of Masada (Andrew Shiva/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA)
    Aerial view of Masada (Andrew Shiva/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA)

Jodi Magness trudged across the barren moonscape atop Masada, pointing to where King Herod’s majestic lush gardens would have stood 2,000 years before. The topsoil, she said, would have been brought in baskets from more fertile pastures. An intricate man-powered watering system kept the spacious, planted grounds moist.

As the pioneering archaeologist gestured to an impossibly large swimming pool — in Herod’s day filled with buckets by hand — the movie “Dune” surfaced from the recesses of my heat-addled brain: “He who controls the water, controls the universe.”

It was a hot July morning on the deserted palatial plateau overlooking the salty Dead Sea. But with almost indefatigable energy, the 63-year-old scholar in pink dodged throngs of tourists and led The Times of Israel to a massive underground water cistern, one of 18 that sustained settlement here.

“The control of the environment, of the water — that’s power,” said Magness. Imagine an emissary coming here two millennia ago after traveling through the hot, dusty Judean Desert, she urged. What kind of impression would it make to see these green gardens, she marveled from under the cavernous cistern’s blessed shade. With the sheer amount of water needed to maintain the oasis facade on the mountain top, Herod, she said, was flexing his muscles.

Archaeologist Prof. Jodi Magness at what was once a lush garden at Masada, July 11, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

Magness, a professor of early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has just published a new book with Princeton University Press, “Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth.”

Today, Magness is mostly associated with her excavation of an outstandingly worked, colorful mosaic flooring at an early synagogue at Huqoq, north of Tiberias, where she has dug since 2011.

Mosaic depicting Jonah being swallowed by a fish, Huqoq synagogue. (Jim Haberman)

Over the decades of her career, however, the American archaeologist has participated in dozens of digs throughout Israel. In the mid-1990s she excavated Masada’s Roman ramparts and worked on some of the eight Roman camps encircling the base of the mountain. Her rich professional experience, at Masada and elsewhere, gives much added value to her new, approachable, but scholarly work.

Spoiler: For those looking to solve the riddle of Masada, this book is not for you. Readers will not find a definitive answer to the veracity of the heroic story of Jewish rebels taking their lives rather than falling captive to the Romans. Rather, they will find many pointed questions.

Cover of ‘Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth’ by Prof. Jodi Magness. (courtesy)

In Jewish Roman-era historian Josephus’s stirring tale, as the 8,000-strong Roman army encroached upon the 967 residents of the Jews’ stronghold, a group of 10 rebels decided it was better to die than be captured. They vowed to kill each other and their families, and drew lots to see who would be left to commit suicide — forbidden by Jewish law.

The book examines and presents the archaeological artifacts that serve as the basis for affirming the Josephus narrative — and the quantity of evidence that counters it.

In “Masada” and in our conversation, Magness cited the work of archaeologist Hillel Geva, who claims that a massive debris mound found near the northern palace is a Roman assault ramp.

“According to Geva, there was no mass suicide at Masada. Perhaps some of the rebels took their own lives but fighting continued after the Romans entered the fortress,” she writes.

If Jews are heroes, conquering Romans are, too

Overlooking the Roman camps from the top of Masada, Magness said the gripping literary device of mass suicide is found throughout ancient histories. Roman-era histories were not written with absolute truth in mind, rather the essence of truth was to be mixed with tragedy and triumph to create a form of entertainment.

Amir Drori, the first director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, and Yigal Yadin (left), during excavations at Masada in 1963 (public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

“We wouldn’t be sitting here today without the mass suicide story,” said Magness wryly.

Complicating the narrative further, said Magness, Josephus’s Jewish War — the sole ancient source for the fall of Masada — was subsidized by the Roman empire. By elevating the rebel Eleazar ben Yair as the tragic hero, Rome’s Flavian dynasty emperors actually elevated themselves.

“There is no glory in defeating a weak enemy; there is glory in defeating a heroic enemy,” said Magness. “The Flavians manipulated the Jewish war as the centerpiece of their dynasty,” she said.

Likewise, the tragic end to the Jews serves a moral purpose, she said. “Don’t even think about revolting against Rome,” she laughed.

In the book, Magness does not voice her opinion about the State of Israel’s narrative of the site as a poster child for self-sacrificing autonomous rule, but does discuss it from a variety of angles.

The “Masada shall not fall again” mythology began well ahead of foremost Masada archaeologist Yigal Yadin’s excavations in the 1960s. “It is the late Israeli archaeologist Shmaryahu Gutman who deserves much of the credit for the creation of the Masada myth,” she writes. From the 1930s onwards, Gutman took youth movements on treks to the site. Gutman was part of the first archaeological explorations and later involved Yadin.

Aerial view of Masada (Andrew Shiva/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA)

Among the reasons for the easy intermeshing of early Zionist themes upon the Masada tale, writes Magness, was the recent Holocaust. “The notion that heroic Jewish freedom fighters held out against the mighty Roman Empire to the bitter end countered the image of millions of passive European Jews starving to death or being gassed in Nazi concentration camps.” For an early Israel, the story of an isolated, besieged stronghold of righteous idealists would have sounded romantically familiar.

Remarkably, pottery pieces with names of Jewish men — including that of rebel leader ben Yair — were discovered during excavations, seemingly confirming the Josephus history. But, Magness asks, do they really?

The 12 pottery sherds, or ostraca, inscribed with names appear to be compelling evidence. Magness points out that the “lots” were discovered among some 250 ostraca and grouped together by foremost Masada archaeologist Yigal Yadin because the Hebrew names appeared to be written by the same scribe.

Tourists mingle at Masada, July 11, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

However, leading epigrapher Joseph Naveh could not conclusively identify them as Josephus’s lots, stating that they were too similar to other sherds used as “tags” for food distribution. Likewise, there were 12 Hebrew names, and Josephus only mentions 10 men.

“Whether these ostraca are lots or simply tags used for other purposes remains an open question,” writes Magness.

Manipulating evidence?

At the age of 12, inspired by a classical history teacher, Magness decided she wanted to be an archaeologist. She left her home in Miami at 16 to finish high school at a boarding school on her own in Israel’s Negev desert and ended up witnessing the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

University of North Carolina archaeologist Jodi Magness. (photo by George Duffield © J3D US LP)

Later as a young undergrad at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, she studied with Yadin. Based on her experience as his student and her study of his research and notes, she denies a common claim that he manipulated evidence to affirm the Josephus tale. She acknowledged that Yadin did use archaeology for nationalistic purposes, but said it is unfair to judge previous generations’ work from today’s perspective.

Yadin never published a scientific account of the excavations, but every evening’s staff meetings were recorded and published, said Magness. It was all transparent, she said.

“I have never seen evidence of any deliberate distortion,” she said, although Yadin may have “interpreted things in a certain way” that easily led to conclusions that archaeological evidence substantiated the moving tale.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, second from right, at Masada in March 1975 with archeologist and former Israeli chief of staff Yigael Yadin. (AP Photo/Castro)

“Yadin had a very literal approach to Josephus,” she said, as did most scholars of his time period. “It is not fair to criticize,” she said. “He was a product of his time.”

But Magness also writes she wouldn’t necessarily expect to find archaeological evidence to support Josephus’s tale of mass suicide, assuming the account is true. She carefully does not voice an opinion on its veracity in the book.

In person, her answer was as cool as her trademark punky haircut. “I don’t know and I don’t care,” she said frankly. “I don’t care because it is not a question that archaeology is equipped to answer.”


Massive cistern at Masada, July 11, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

The archaeological myth-buster portion of the book “Masada” is rather shorter than this reader would have wanted. Magness tantalizes with stories of mismatched skeletons and pig bones.

What the work does best is set the stage for the period prior to the Jewish rebellion. At times it reads like a series of fascinating academic lectures — Herod 101 — as Magness explores the predecessors to the mighty ruthless king, and his descendants and legacy. (Interestingly, although the site is a jewel of architect Herod’s crown, there is no evidence that he ever set foot here.)

In other chapters we learn about the environment of the Judean desert and the architecture of Masada and Herod’s other monumental building projects. The section on the topography of Jerusalem is brief, but illuminating, as is the detailing of the several excavations that have been uncovered in the Herodian-era city. Caesarea is given a serious look, along with Herodium, Herod’s eventual grave.

Somewhat incongruously, also included in the book is an echo of Magness’s early three-year stint as a tour guide from 1977-1980. She offers chatty advice, such as which shoes to wear, and which path to walk at the site. Take it from personal experience, do not overlook her suggestion of the southern side’s breathtaking view — and impressive echo.

My favorite section is undoubtedly Magness’s account of early, misguided summer expeditions mounted by European adventurers in search of Masada’s breezy palaces. It’s very hot on and around the Dead Sea in the parched summer season, a fact several of the 19th century explorers did not seem to be aware of, much to their (sometimes fatal) detriment.

Archaeologist Prof. Jodi Magness at Masada, July 11, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

It was so hot on this particular July day that Israel’s National Parks Authority had shut down the legendary Snake Path approach to the hill. Unlike the poor besieged Jews — or the relatively hi-tech Romans — we had the luxury of ascending the summit in a sardine-packed cable car.

As one of Israel’s foremost tourist sites, Masada is well maintained and safety is utmost. The 20-40 minute climb up or down the Snake Path could be risky during summer heat. But even during the high summer season, adventurous visitors seeking to retrace the Roman Legionnaires’ steps can still walk up the relatively easy rampart way — and even tread upon millennial-old, well-preserved planks.

Archaeological excavations are ongoing high on the hill. But looking out into the distance upon the clear uniform outlines of the Roman camps below, Magness smiled and said, “Everybody pays attention to what’s on top of the mountain. I like to see what’s at the bottom.”

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