Zealots of Masada

 

In 66 AD, a group of 960 Jewish Zealots decided they would prefer to commit suicide rather than yield to Roman conquest at Masada:

Masada (‘Metsada’ in Hebrew) is the name of the mountain on which the Masada fortress was built. It is more like a plateau or a table mountain, and quite isolated from its surroundings, as there is only one narrow, winding pathway leading up, fittingly called “the Snake.” According to Josephus Flavius, an ancient historian and the only one to record what happened on Masada, Masada was first built by the Hasmoneans, a Jewish dynasty who ruled Judaea in the years between 140-37 BC. Then, between 37-31 BC, King Herod the Great built two palaces there and further fortified the place as a refuge for himself in case of a revolt. However, it proved to be a refuge for Jewish rebels about 90 years later.

A group of Jewish extremists went to Masada after the destruction of the Second Temple. In response, the Roman governor of Judea conducted a siege there and the Jews tried to hold them off, but finally realized that they would lose. Technically, what they committed was not suicide, which is forbidden by Jewish law; instead, the people drew lots, taking turns in killing each other, so that only one person actually killed himself.

This event represents for many Jews strength and courage under impossible conditions, since the Zealots held the mountain for three years.

Ironically, archaeologists are challenging this ancient story, pointing to discrepancies and lack of evidence. In spite of their efforts, the story of Masada will likely continue to be a story of inspiration to Jews everywhere.

Whether it is true or not, I admit that I am ambivalent about celebrating this sacrifice.

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  1. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    Susan Quinn: Technically, what they committed was not suicide, which is forbidden by Jewish law; instead the people drew lots, taking turns in killing each other, so that only one person actually killed himself.

    Isn’t that murder? Isn’t that worse than suicide? And if they approved of being murdered how is that not suicide? Assisted suicide… seems like some fine hair splitting there. 

     

     

    • #1
  2. katievs Member
    katievs
    @katievs

    The story of the Macabees I love. The story of Masada, I don’t.

    We visited a few years ago. I felt a weird mix of awe and revulsion. The engineering is a marvel. But at what cost of human labor came that swimming pool for Harod, way up there in the desert?

    Men thinking it heroic to kill their wives and children rather than be captured by the Romans?

    I don’t get that. 

     

    • #2
  3. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    As Susan said, they were zealots, and zealots often do not act rationally.

    To me, the inspiring part of the story is their long resistance in the face of insurmountable odds. That was a triumph of the human spirit.

    • #3
  4. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    I confess that the story of Masada interests me more for the insights into Roman military engineering than the brave but doomed resistance.

    The Roman legion dispatched (Legio X Fretensis) was a distinguished, veteran group with serious engineering skills.  They built a wall around Masada to cut off relief or escape.  They built a ramp on a rock spur to haul a siege machine up a cliff (the claim by some that the remaining ramp is too narrow to have been used that way strikes me as weak–it would have eroded on its sides and thus narrowed over time).

    The logistics of maintaining an entire legion in the desert a daunting 30+ miles from their supply base in Jerusalem for several months is daunting.

    I once asked my drill sergeant about a daylong seemingly pointless earth-moving/thing-hauling effort how this had anything to do with becoming a soldier.  He said in colorful terms that if I thought of soldering as being an armed construction worker or human pack mule sometimes asked to use a gun, I would have a better grasp of my role.  He would have made one hell of a centurion.

    In his Ten Books of Architecture written about 50 years before Masada, Vitruvius describes the design of the onager ( literally “wild ass”), the basic catapult used by the legions.  But his description of the elastic guts of the device does not really work.  The truth is that this information was passed down by Roman non-commissioned officers for generations and never written down so even a high-ranking architect-engineer officer like Vitruvius probably did not have the practical details.  Given that the term of enlistment was 20 years and men rarely transferred to other units, this form of knowledge storage and transmission was adequate.

    To be inside Masada (or Alesia or Jerusalem) watching the relentless advance of these engineering masters must have been soul-crushing.

     

     

    • #4
  5. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Valiuth (View Comment):
    Isn’t that murder? Isn’t that worse than suicide? And if they approved of being murdered how is that not suicide? Assisted suicide… seems like some fine hair splitting there.

    That’s how I see it too, @valiuth. And yet crowds go to visit Masada and celebrate it. I visited there myself, and only recently started to think about its implications.

    • #5
  6. James Gawron Thatcher
    James Gawron
    @JamesGawron

    Suzy,

    First, the article is in Haaretz and that should make you think twice. They have a tendency, as all of the left, to develop their conclusions first and then overemphasize trivial facts to back it up. I have read Yadin’s book and have visited Masada. However, I am no expert. I would as a general rule suggest that betting against Josephus is a fools bet. Most of his accounts are proven to be extremely accurate. As a completely Hellenized Jew who would have no great sympathy for the Zealots, it seems very unlikely that he would invent this tale to romanticize their last stand. I have no special evidence but I suspect that anti-zionists at Haaretz are far more motivated to destroy Josephus’ account than Josephus was motivated to invent a phony account.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #6
  7. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):
    To me, the inspiring part of the story is their long resistance in the face of insurmountable odds. That was a triumph of the human spirit.

    I can see that, @jimmcconnell. But I guess the problem with zealots is that they take dedication too far.

    • #7
  8. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    I confess that the story of Masada interests me more for the insights into Roman military engineering than the brave but doomed resistance.

    The Roman legion dispatched (Legio X Fretensis) was a distinguished, veteran group with serious engineering skills. They built a wall around Masada to cut off relief or escape. They built a ramp on a rock spur to haul a siege machine up a cliff (the claim by some that the remaining ramp is too narrow to have been used that way strikes me as weak–it would have eroded on its sides and thus narrowed over time).

    The logistics of maintaining an entire legion in the desert a daunting 30+ miles from their supply base in Jerusalem for several months is daunting.

    I once asked my drill sergeant about a daylong seemingly pointless earth-moving/thing-hauling effort how this had anything to do with becoming a soldier. He said in colorful terms that if I thought of soldering as being an armed construction worker or human pack mule sometimes asked to use a gun, I would have a better grasp of my role. He would have made one hell of a centurion.

    In his Ten Books of Architecture written about 50 years before Masada, Vitruvius describes the design of the onager ( literally “wild ass”), the basic catapult used by the legions. But his description of the elastic guts of the device does not really work. The truth is that this information was passed down by Roman non-commissioned officers for generations and never written down so even a high-ranking architect-engineer officer like Vitruvius probably did not have the practical details. Given that the term of enlistment was 20 years and men rarely transferred to other units, this form of knowledge storage and transmission was adequate.

    To be inside Masada (or Alesia or Jerusalem) watching the relentless advance of these engineering masters must have been soul-crushing.

     

     

    Fascinating, @oldbathos! These situations are complex and give us the opportunity to study them in many ways. Thanks!

    • #8
  9. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    James Gawron (View Comment):

    Suzy,

    First, the article is in Haaretz and that should make you think twice. They have a tendency, as all of the left, to develop their conclusions first and then overemphasize trivial facts to back it up. I have read Yadin’s book and have visited Masada. However, I am no expert. I would as a general rule suggest that betting against Josephus is a fools bet. Most of his accounts are proven to be extremely accurate. As a completely Hellenized Jew who would have no great sympathy for the Zealots, it seems very unlikely that he would invent this tale to romanticize their last stand. I have no special evidence but I suspect that anti-zionists at Haaretz are far more motivated to destroy Josephus’ account than Josephus was motivated to invent a phony account.

    Regards,

    Jim

    Yes, @jamesgawron, I’m aware of the Haaretz lack of credibility. My ambivalence is whether the actions by the Jews were justified. Killing each other, under any circumstances, is questionable.

    • #9
  10. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

     I am not sure how the Romans viewed sieges, but up until very modern times, the general rules were:

    • If you surrender quickly, you will be treated fairly well (for whatever the current definition of well happened to be).
    • If you make us work hard and many on our side die, when we do win, we will not be merciful. (Again, given whatever that meant for the day.) Slaughter, gruesome executions, looting, raping, and enslaving of women and children after a long siege were just considered the due of the soldiers who had participated.

    Thus, after a three-year siege, suicide might have looked like a much more palatable option than it would have had they surrendered after a much shorter siege.


    This conversation is part of our Group Writing Series under October’s theme of Zeal. We still have a week’s worth of openings in late October if you have Zealots or zealous friends or family or something that gets your excitement up—such as feats of Roman engineering—that you would like to write about. Come sign up.

    In November, our Group Writing theme is Elimination. If you would like to eliminate one of our unclaimed days, go here.

    • #10
  11. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    My pastor and his chaplain’s assistant visited and actually rappelled in the area several years ago.  He reports the weird vibe others mention above…

    • #11
  12. James Gawron Thatcher
    James Gawron
    @JamesGawron

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    James Gawron (View Comment):

    Suzy,

    First, the article is in Haaretz and that should make you think twice. They have a tendency, as all of the left, to develop their conclusions first and then overemphasize trivial facts to back it up. I have read Yadin’s book and have visited Masada. However, I am no expert. I would as a general rule suggest that betting against Josephus is a fools bet. Most of his accounts are proven to be extremely accurate. As a completely Hellenized Jew who would have no great sympathy for the Zealots, it seems very unlikely that he would invent this tale to romanticize their last stand. I have no special evidence but I suspect that anti-zionists at Haaretz are far more motivated to destroy Josephus’ account than Josephus was motivated to invent a phony account.

    Regards,

    Jim

    Yes, @jamesgawron, I’m aware of the Haaretz lack of credibility. My ambivalence is whether the actions by the Jews were justified. Killing each other, under any circumstances, is questionable.

    Suzy,

    Yes, this is a very interesting moral question and Haaretz is only getting in the way of an intelligent discussion with its adolescent revisionism. There is much ambivalence in Judaism as well. There is the well-known midrash that “baseless hatred between Jews” was the cause of the destruction of the second Temple. Remember that during the Syrian Greek War with the Maccabees, Rome had been Jerusalem’s ally. Many Jewish writings have been of the opinion that Judea should have negotiated with Rome and avoided the destruction of the Temple. This sounds like good logic to begin with, but closer examination shows that Republican Rome now becoming Imperial Rome was less tolerant of the Jews and their peculiar faith. It may have been obvious that any surrender would have necessitated the desecration of the Temple. This would have been unacceptable to the Jewish Nation at least not without a fight.

    Israel in the meantime too had changed and was even more Hellenized then at the time of the Maccabees. The death before dishonor mentality is actually more indicative of Roman culture than Jewish. However, even the Zealots were far more Hellenized than they would have imagined. There is also a strange logic to it. Rome is the unstoppable force but Israel becomes the immovable object in response. Perhaps after putting up such a resistance for 3 years, the Jews were unable to psychologically accept surrender.

    The ironic ending to the story comes about 100 years later when the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius (Stoic Reformer Emperor) makes a deal with Judah ha Nassi (chief redactor and editor of the Mishnah and leader of the Jewish Community in Roman-occupied Judea). Pius legalizes the practice of the Jewish Religion. Pius was hoping to reform Imperial Rome to become a Republic again. He intuitively saw Israel as a moral force that would be his ally in this. Probably so but the Republic was never restored. Tragic flaw for both Rome and Israel.

    As a purely moral question, it is a very hard one. When Jewish representatives met with FDR’s government late in WWII to ask that the death camps be bombed they were told that many of the prisoners would die also. They presented testimony from the camps saying that they would rather die in the bombing knowing that the camps could not be used to kill any more Jews. As a general rule it is unacceptable to commit suicide, however, in three situations it is acceptable to allow yourself to be killed. If you are being extorted into committing murder then you may allow yourself to be killed to prevent the murder. If you are being extorted to commit adultery then you may allow yourself to be killed to prevent the adultery. If you are being extorted to commit idolatry then you may allow yourself to be killed to prevent the idolatry.

    The Zealots of Masada could have made the claim that they would have been extorted to commit idolatry and adultery if they had surrendered. Still, they positively committed suicide which would still be prohibited. This is just a tough call.

    I am not that much help.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #12
  13. Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Inactive
    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu
    @YehoshuaBenEliyahu

    Susan Quinn: Whether it is true or not, I admit that I am ambivalent about celebrating this sacrifice.

    We do not celebrate Masada so much as we strengthen our resolve that “Masada shall not fall again.”  This declaration is made by Israeli armored corps recruits on the top of Masada after completing their basic training.

    Masada is properly understood against the backdrop of what it meant for zealous Jews to forcibly abandon their faith.  Living as a slave in pagan Rome was for those Jews a fate worse than death.

    Keep in mind that American revolutionaries had similar instincts.  I do not think it was mere rhetorical flourish when Patrick Henry declared “Give me liberty or give me death!” or when General John Stark, a Revolutionary War veteran, wrote “Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.”

    • #13
  14. Ontheleftcoast Member
    Ontheleftcoast
    @Ontheleftcoast

    The fate of the Zealots of Masada once the Romans broke through would likely have been that of the Jews of Gamala or Jerusalem in Josephus’ day.

    The men would be killed, the women and older girls raped and killed or raped and enslaved and the younger children the same. Or just enslaved.

    A terrible prospect for the besieged.

    • #14
  15. Arizona Patriot Member
    Arizona Patriot
    @ArizonaPatriot

    I remember the TV miniseries about Masada, with Peter O’Toole.  It aired in 1981.

    Susan, I agree about the ambiguity. 

    Goebbels, or his wife, apparently killed their 5 children before committing suicide in Berlin, just before the Soviet conquest of the city.  Not inspiring.

    Chief Joseph is remembered fondly for surrendering to US troops, after an ultimately failed attempt to lead his people to a possible refuge in Canada.

    The Alamo comes to mind, but I believe that its defenders died fighting, not by their own hands.

    Masada seems a tragic combination of these three events.

    • #15
  16. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    James Gawron (View Comment):
    I am not that much help.

    Not so! You show the complexities of our relationship with those among whom the Jews lived. I especially appreciate your descriptions of those times when one could allow oneself to be killed–what a strange concept! I assumed my ambivalence put me in a tiny group, but perhaps not. Thanks so much!

    • #16
  17. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn: Whether it is true or not, I admit that I am ambivalent about celebrating this sacrifice.

    We do not celebrate Masada so much as we strengthen our resolve that “Masada shall not fall again.” This declaration is made by Israeli armored corps recruits on the top of Masada after completing their basic training.

    Masada is properly understood against the backdrop of what it meant for zealous Jews to forcibly abandon their faith. Living as a slave in pagan Rome was for those Jews a fate worse than death.

    Keep in mind that American revolutionaries had similar instincts. I do not think it was mere rhetorical flourish when Patrick Henry declared “Give me liberty or give me death!” or when General John Stark, a Revolutionary War veteran, wrote “Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.”

    Thank you for clarifying, @yehoshuabeneliyahu! This is the kind of post that is especially helpful and educational, so I so appreciate all the information and feedback.

    • #17
  18. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Ontheleftcoast (View Comment):
    A terrible prospect for the besieged.

    Indeed. It makes me wonder if they really thought through their fleeing and the possible consequences. Did they really think they would survive when they first left?

    • #18
  19. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    The Zealots were not really a unified force, there were different factions that fought amongst themselves. They turned on each other in the fight for the Temple in 70 AD. From the Roman perspective they had excluded Jews from conscription into the Legions, they saw it as a concession, and it was one they didn’t make anywhere else in the Empire. They also understood the significance of the Temple. It was the one place where G-d was present in the world, and the only place where Jews could be forgiven, or atone for their sins. Once the Roman destruction of the Temple was begun they turned their attention to destroying the last surviving faction of Zealots at Masada.

    • #19
  20. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Arahant (View Comment):

    I am not sure how the Romans viewed sieges, but up until very modern times, the general rules were:

    • If you surrender quickly, you will be treated fairly well (for whatever the current definition of well happened to be).
    • If you make us work hard and many on our side die, when we do win, we will not be merciful. (Again, given whatever that meant for the day.) Slaughter, gruesome executions, looting, raping, and enslaving of women and children after a long siege were just considered the due of the soldiers who had participated.

    Thus, after a three-year siege, suicide might have looked like a much more palatable option than it would have had they surrendered after a much shorter siege.

    I’ve been thinking that too. Choosing a quick easy death and denying the Romans the opportunity to torture you or your children seems to make some sense. 

    • #20
  21. Ontheleftcoast Member
    Ontheleftcoast
    @Ontheleftcoast

    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu (View Comment):
    We do not celebrate Masada so much as we strengthen our resolve that “Masada shall not fall again.”

    The implication is that the entire country is besieged by enemies who seek to overrun the country and massacre its inhabitants. This is not hyperbole.

    • #21
  22. James Gawron Thatcher
    James Gawron
    @JamesGawron

    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn: Whether it is true or not, I admit that I am ambivalent about celebrating this sacrifice.

    We do not celebrate Masada so much as we strengthen our resolve that “Masada shall not fall again.” This declaration is made by Israeli armored corps recruits on the top of Masada after completing their basic training.

    Masada is properly understood against the backdrop of what it meant for zealous Jews to forcibly abandon their faith. Living as a slave in pagan Rome was for those Jews a fate worse than death.

    Keep in mind that American revolutionaries had similar instincts. I do not think it was mere rhetorical flourish when Patrick Henry declared “Give me liberty or give me death!” or when General John Stark, a Revolutionary War veteran, wrote “Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.”

    Yehoshua,

    Well said. Thank you.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #22
  23. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Ontheleftcoast (View Comment):
    The implication is that the entire country is besieged by enemies who seek to overrun the country and massacre its inhabitants. This is not hyperbole.

    And now there’s talk of another war breaking over Gaza.

    • #23
  24. Sisyphus Member
    Sisyphus
    @Sisyphus

    katievs (View Comment):
    The engineering is a marvel. But at what cost of human labor came that swimming pool for Harod, way up there in the desert?

    Two items on that, desertification was not as advanced in the region 2000 years ago, although the area was still pretty arid agriculture in general was more widely spread, and the water collection schemes were built into the architecture at Masada. Hasmonean palaces have been discovered in Jericho (the article, “The Hasmonean Kings: Jewish or Hellenistic?”, being behind the pay wall at Biblical Archeology Review)  that included a set of public swimming pools, personal baths, and Jewish ritual purification baths.

    Whether the collection methods were sufficient or slaves schlepped water up those long stairs is another question. Archeology can only go so far in the absence of written material. But I suspect the water works held up through three years of siege, while the stairs were held by the Romans.

    As far as the siege of Masada goes, holding Yahweh to promises he never made is a fool’s game. Getting your family killed over it is beyond foolish.

    • #24
  25. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    The survivors of the siege Masada regardless of the amount of time it took the Romans to complete it would have been horrific.

    The men, and boys would have been killed immediately, the woman, and girls would have been raped, and then sold into slavery. In all likelihood the women, and girls would have been transported to Rome, and paraded through the streets as a sign of conquest, and then sold into slavery.

    Commemorate would probably be a better word than celebrate, and Masada has symbolic ties to the European Holocaust during WWII. It’s a reminder that there are some actions that require sacrifice.   

    • #25
  26. Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Inactive
    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu
    @YehoshuaBenEliyahu

    Ontheleftcoast (View Comment):
    The implication is that the entire country is besieged by enemies who seek to overrun the country and massacre its inhabitants. This is not hyperbole.

    How regrettably true.  

    • #26
  27. Sisyphus Member
    Sisyphus
    @Sisyphus

    I forgot to mention that there is a good summary of archeological finds on Masada in the September Biblical Archaeology Review that includes comments on the water capture and large cisterns. Also behind the pay wall, I think.

    • #27
  28. Ontheleftcoast Member
    Ontheleftcoast
    @Ontheleftcoast

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Ontheleftcoast (View Comment):
    The implication is that the entire country is besieged by enemies who seek to overrun the country and massacre its inhabitants. This is not hyperbole.

    And now there’s talk of another war breaking over Gaza.

    So far, Fox is not our friend (or a friend of the truth.)

    Scott Johnson at Powerline:

    Someone or other in Gaza seems to want to get a war on. This morning in Beersheba, Israel, a mother saved her three children’s lives by hurrying to their shelter as a Palestinian rocket fired from Gaza blew up their bedrooms. The IDF has posted the video below. Hillel Neuer adds via Twitter: “This morning in Geneva, Switzerland, I am at the UN Human Rights Council, and they couldn’t care less.” I’m afraid “couldn’t care less” understates the reality of the UNHRC’s support for the terrorists.

    On a related note, FOX News continues to misreport the staging of Hamas’s recurring assaults on Israel as a “protest” against “the Israeli blockade” — the blockade that is intended to prevent terrorists from obtaining the tools of their trade. Someone who can make this right at FOX News team really needs to get a clue.

    [Emphasis added.]

    • #28
  29. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Ontheleftcoast (View Comment):
    On a related note, FOX News continues to misreport the staging of Hamas’s recurring assaults on Israel as a “protest” against “the Israeli blockade” — the blockade that is intended to prevent terrorists from obtaining the tools of their trade. Someone who can make this right at FOX News team really needs to get a clue.

    I want to be sure I understand–is the issue that Fox is not stating the part that is italicized? Or is Hamas trying to force Israel into a war? (The video won’t play–because I don’t have Twitter?)

    • #29
  30. Ontheleftcoast Member
    Ontheleftcoast
    @Ontheleftcoast

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Ontheleftcoast (View Comment):
    On a related note, FOX News continues to misreport the staging of Hamas’s recurring assaults on Israel as a “protest” against “the Israeli blockade” — the blockade that is intended to prevent terrorists from obtaining the tools of their trade. Someone who can make this right at FOX News team really needs to get a clue.

    I want to be sure I understand–is the issue that Fox is not stating the part that is italicized? Or is Hamas trying to force Israel into a war? (The video won’t play–because I don’t have Twitter?)

    The issue is Fox calling Hamas’s attacks “protests” against the “blockade.”

    I tried to fix the link, please let me know if it didn’t work.

    • #30

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