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.

There are 72 comments.

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  1. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Ontheleftcoast (View Comment):

    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.

    Of course. A dense moment. Nope, I can’t work the link. There is a tiny “i” I clicked on which takes me to Twitter Information. I’m sure they won’t let me see it. It’s okay–I’ve seen plenty of that ugliness elsewhere. Thanks.

    • #31
  2. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    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.

    Oh neat, about going out there. I assume they have an easy way up now, or did you have to hoof it all the way to the top. Also as I recall the Romans breach the fortification by building a ramp up to the the top of the out cropping, is that still there?

    • #32
  3. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Valiuth (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    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.

    Oh neat, about going out there. I assume they have an easy way up now, or did you have to hoof it all the way to the top. Also as I recall the Romans breach the fortification by building a ramp up to the the top of the out cropping, is that still there?

    I went there 40 years ago–not on my last trip. Can’t remember exactly, just that it was hard!

    • #33
  4. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    I see the Masada Jews as heroes.  We need heroes, so and I don’t often quibble with heroes. 

     

    • #34
  5. Chris B Member
    Chris B
    @ChrisB

    Valiuth (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    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.

    Oh neat, about going out there. I assume they have an easy way up now, or did you have to hoof it all the way to the top. Also as I recall the Romans breach the fortification by building a ramp up to the the top of the out cropping, is that still there?

    It’s a bit eroded after 2,000 years, but yes. I wasn’t able to get a very good angle, but this is what it looks like from the top.

    Roman Ramp at Masada

     

    Both times I was there, we hoofed it up the Snake. There is a convenient cable car system for those who don’t want to watch the sunrise from the top and are willing to wait until they start the service.

    • #35
  6. Chris B Member
    Chris B
    @ChrisB

    A view of the remains of the Roman Encampments (and the cable car house) from the top of Mesada

    View of Roman Encampments from Masada

    • #36
  7. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Chris B (View Comment):

    Valiuth (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    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.

    Oh neat, about going out there. I assume they have an easy way up now, or did you have to hoof it all the way to the top. Also as I recall the Romans breach the fortification by building a ramp up to the the top of the out cropping, is that still there?

    It’s a bit eroded after 2,000 years, but yes. I wasn’t able to get a very good angle, but this is what it looks like from the top.

    Roman Ramp at Masada

    Both times I was there, we hoofed it up the Snake. There is a convenient cable car system for those who don’t want to watch the sunrise from the top and are willing to wait until they start the service.

    The cable car was added after my trip, so I probably took the path you took.

    • #37
  8. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Susan Quinn: 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.

    I was aware of this “challenge,” but upon reading the article was a bit surprised to learn that it’s not based on any new archaeological work, but on a rehash of Yigael Yadin’s findings from 1963.

     

    • #38
  9. Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Inactive
    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu
    @YehoshuaBenEliyahu

    Valiuth (View Comment):
    Oh neat, about going out there. I assume they have an easy way up now, or did you have to hoof it all the way to the top. Also as I recall the Romans breach the fortification by building a ramp up to the the top of the out cropping, is that still there?

    You can still walk up the snake path if you choose but a cable car was installed some years ago if you wish to forego the arduous ascent.

    • #39
  10. Richard Easton Coolidge
    Richard Easton
    @RichardEaston

    Quibble alert – the suicide, if it occurred, was in 73.  I visited Masada in 1984 in a tour led by Yadin (he died three months later).  He was a wonderful guide.

    • #40
  11. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    katievs (View Comment):

    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.

    If they had good reason to believe the Romans would have raped and tortured to death their wives and children, I do get it.

    What they could have reasonably believed is the only possible difference I can see between Masada and the Jonestown massacre.

    • #41
  12. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu (View Comment):

    Valiuth (View Comment):
    Oh neat, about going out there. I assume they have an easy way up now, or did you have to hoof it all the way to the top. Also as I recall the Romans breach the fortification by building a ramp up to the the top of the out cropping, is that still there?

    You can still walk up the snake path if you choose but a cable car was installed some years ago if wish to forego the strenuous ascent.

    Well that’s good. Because I’m of the strong opinion that ones ability to enjoy such places is severely dampened by the strain of going up 30 stories on narrow steep stairs. 

    • #42
  13. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Valiuth (View Comment):

    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu (View Comment):

    Valiuth (View Comment):
    Oh neat, about going out there. I assume they have an easy way up now, or did you have to hoof it all the way to the top. Also as I recall the Romans breach the fortification by building a ramp up to the the top of the out cropping, is that still there?

    You can still walk up the snake path if you choose but a cable car was installed some years ago if wish to forego the strenuous ascent.

    Well that’s good. Because I’m of the strong opinion that ones ability to enjoy such places is severely dampened by the strain of going up 30 stories on narrow steep stairs.

    It’s a more memorable multi-sensory experience if you have to work to get there. This discussion has got me interested in going to see it for myself. I’d have to convince Mrs R that it’s OK.

    • #43
  14. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    James Gawron (View Comment):
    Yes, this is a very interesting moral question and Haaretz is only getting in the way of an intelligent discussion with its adolescent revisionism.

    I agree.  The article is poorly conceived and written.  It spends much time talking about the absence of bodies found.  But the Romans were not barbarians.  They would have, like you or I today would have, removed the bodies and buried them or otherwise disposed of them.  The remarkable thing is that any bodies were found at all.  

    I didn’t find anything about the article to be at all convincing.  Josephus describes in great detail how the ramp was built, per my recollection, and although he had quite a bias, he has mostly been found to be accurate in basic descriptions.

    • #44
  15. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    Susan Quinn: A group of Jewish extremists went to Masada after the destruction of the Second Temple.

    I thought the Second Temple was destroyed in 70AD.

    • #45
  16. Richard Easton Coolidge
    Richard Easton
    @RichardEaston

    Instugator (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn: A group of Jewish extremists went to Masada after the destruction of the Second Temple.

    I thought the Second Temple was destroyed in 70AD.

    The revolt started in 66AD. The Temple was destroyed in 70 and Masada was taken by the Romans in 73.

    • #46
  17. Cato Rand Inactive
    Cato Rand
    @CatoRand

    I don’t know if it’s just tourist stories or some later creation, but when you get to the top of Masada you can see clear outlines of what you’re told are Roman earthworks used in the siege.  To the untrained eye, the place looks very much like the story could be true.

    • #47
  18. Sisyphus Member
    Sisyphus
    @Sisyphus

    Instugator (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn: A group of Jewish extremists went to Masada after the destruction of the Second Temple.

    I thought the Second Temple was destroyed in 70AD.

    It was. The siege of Masada lasted three years.

    And unless the archeologists discover a mass grave with a torn sack cloth t-shirt on a scarecrow reading “Mom & Dad Went to the Siege of Masada and All I Got Was This Lousy Sack Cloth T-Shirt and Some Ashes” the reliance of Archeology on durable evidence like bones in trash pits, it could take a few centuries to find any reliable artifacts related to the siege.

    • #48
  19. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    Instugator (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn: A group of Jewish extremists went to Masada after the destruction of the Second Temple.

    I thought the Second Temple was destroyed in 70AD.

    The revolt started in 66AD. The Temple was destroyed in 70 and Masada was taken by the Romans in 73.

    I mention it because the timeline inferred in the OP contradicts this. The massacre being off by about 7 years.

    • #49
  20. Postmodern Hoplite Coolidge
    Postmodern Hoplite
    @PostmodernHoplite

    katievs (View Comment):

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

    I don’t get that.

    Perhaps this point has already been better made above. (Forgive me, I haven’t read every comment to here.) Upon being captured, the Romans would have crucified the men, and raped every woman, girl, and probably the prepubescent boys. The women and children that survived rape would have been sold into slavery as war spoils. Period. That’s it. There is no other more pleasant possibility.

    Mind, I am NOT excusing murder or suicide. However, I am saying that I can see how they rationalized the decision.

    • #50
  21. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    Instugator (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn: A group of Jewish extremists went to Masada after the destruction of the Second Temple.

    I thought the Second Temple was destroyed in 70AD.

    The revolt started in 66AD. The Temple was destroyed in 70 and Masada was taken by the Romans in 73.

    Thank you @richardeaston! I’m glad we got that straightened out!  ;-)

    • #51
  22. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Sisyphus (View Comment):
    And unless the archeologists discover a mass grave with a torn sack cloth t-shirt on a scarecrow reading “Mom & Dad Went to the Siege of Masada and All I Got Was This Lousy Sack Cloth T-Shirt and Some Ashes” the reliance of Archeology on durable evidence like bones in trash pits, it could take a few centuries to find any reliable artifacts related to the siege.

    Thank you for making me smile, @sisyphus. A moment of lightness (or irony) is great!

    • #52
  23. Ontheleftcoast Member
    Ontheleftcoast
    @Ontheleftcoast

    katievs (View Comment):
    Men thinking it heroic to kill their wives and children rather than be captured by the Romans?

    Why “heroic”? Given their certain fate if they survived, perhaps “merciful.”

    • #53
  24. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Instugator (View Comment):
    I mention it because the timeline inferred in the OP contradicts this. The massacre being off by about 7 years.

    I re-read it @instugator, and it is misleading. Sorry.

    • #54
  25. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    I think one of the points about Josephus that isn’t remarked on much nowadays is that his description of the Jews of that day is not very flattering.  Although he was out to make himself look good, he seems generally credible in much of his accounts.  That is, I don’t much believe some of his justification for betraying his peers, but I do think that his characterizations of them ring true if not entirely precise.  

    The way he describes the two factions in the Temple sounds very plausible, for instance, compared to similar circumstances of modern cults and such.  He describes two factions in the city of Jerusalem who were warring with each other at the same time the Romans were besieging the city.  I find it very plausible that he was mostly accurate in that regard, though since it makes the Jews of that day seem a lot like the Taliban, it’s not very popular to point it out.

    If you think of the Zealots as being similar to the Taliban in their murderous enforcement of strict adherence to their religious laws, then their actions make a little more sense, and so do the Romans’.  

    • #55
  26. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Skyler (View Comment):
    If you think of the Zealots as being similar to the Taliban in their murderous enforcement of strict adherence to their religious laws, then their actions make a little more sense, and so do the Romans’.

    I don’t follow you, @skyler. Could you elaborate?

    • #56
  27. Ontheleftcoast Member
    Ontheleftcoast
    @Ontheleftcoast

    katievs (View Comment):
    I felt a weird mix of awe and revulsion.

    A common reaction to Herod and his works by his contemporaries, too.

    • #57
  28. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Skyler (View Comment):
    If you think of the Zealots as being similar to the Taliban in their murderous enforcement of strict adherence to their religious laws, then their actions make a little more sense, and so do the Romans’.

    I don’t follow you, @skyler. Could you elaborate?

    Josephus described the Jews under siege in Jerusalem as being divided into two sects.  (I read this almost 20 years ago, so I’m going by memory of my impressions after 9/11).  Josephus describes the Romans as welcoming the Jews to leave the city. I don’t believe that very much, but he then goes into great detail about how each of the two sects in the city were fighting each other and both were trying to keep the people from leaving the city, or some such thing.  I can’t give great details, only that I remember being shocked that their behavior towards their own people was extremely oppressive and required exact obedience to an unyielding interpretation of the Jewish laws.  I suppose he exaggerated in some respects, I think this part of his description was so different from what other ancients had written about their own cultures and wars, that it rings true for me.  

    The Jews were in many ways had very strict laws in their religion.  Jews were likely one of the earliest civilizations that did not practice henotheism and insisted on racial purity and racial superiority.  Those were fairly unique in most of history.  So when Josephus claims that he left the Jewish side of the war because he was disgusted by the growing extremism, I find it quite believable.  He did his best to make himself look good, but I think his motivations are correct, if he did minimize his own faults.

    • #58
  29. Vance Richards Member
    Vance Richards
    @VanceRichards

    Peter O’Toole had the best line in the TV version ;

    A victory? What have we won? We’ve won a rock in the middle of a wasteland, on the shores of a poisoned sea.

     

    • #59
  30. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Well, you were close! ;-) I believe you’re referring to the Pharisees, Essenes and Sadducees who were “warring” over doctrine and practices. As far as I know, though, they weren’t violent with each other (although I’m not positive about that).

    The small size of these groups is attested by the fact that even during Herod’s rule [37-4 BCE] the Pharisees numbered only some six thousand, and in the first century there were approximately four thousand Essenes. The Essene communal site at Qumran, specifically its dining area, could accommodate perhaps as many as two hundred members at any one time and roughly indicates the sect’s size. The Sadducees, for their part, were even fewer in number, if a comment by Josephus regarding the first century C.E. may be considered relevant to the Hasmonean era.

    For more: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-sects/

     

    • #60
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