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The Credibility of Josephus

Did hundreds of Jews really commit suicide at Masada? Historian Shaye Cohen compares Josephus' account with recent archaeological evidence.

From "Masada: Literary Tradition, Archaeological Remains, and the Credibility of Josephus" by Shaye Cohen Journal of Jewish Studies: Essays in honour of Yigael Yadin Vol. XXXIII, pp. 385-405 Spring-Autumn 1982

According to Josephus the death of the 960 inhabitants of Masada and the destruction of the palace and the possessions were the premeditated acts of all the people acting in unison. But the archaeological remains cannot be reconciled with this view. Josephus says that all the possessions were gathered together in one large pile and set on fire but archaeology shows many piles and many fires (in various rooms of the casemate wall in some of the storerooms in the western palace etc.). Josephus says that Eleazar ordered his men to destroy everything except the foodstuffs but archaeology shows that many storerooms which contained provisions were burnt. (In addition Josephus reports that the Romans found arms sufficient for ten thousand men as well as iron brass and lead -- why weren't these valuable commodities destroyed?) Josephus says that the last surviving Jew set fire to the palace but archaeology shows that all the public buildings had been set ablaze. Josephus implies that all the murders took place in the palace (unless the women and children after being killed obliged their menfolk and the narrator by marching to the palace) but the northern palace is too small for an assembly of almost a thousand people.

Professor Yadin discovered three skeletons in the lower terrace of the northern palace and twenty-five in a cave on the southern slope of the cliff. He suggests that the twenty-five skeletons were tossed there "irreverently" by the Romans but this suggestion will not do. If as Josephus says the Romans found 960 corpses in the palace they would not have dragged twenty-five of them across the plateau in order to lower them carefully into a cave located on a slope where one false step meant death. This is not irreverence this is foolishness. The obvious and simple procedure for the Romans was to take the corpses out of the palace and toss them over the nearest cliff. No, the twenty-five skeletons in the cave must be the remains of Jews who attempted to hide from the Romans hut were discovered and killed. (Or did they commit suicide?) At the very least, then, archaeology reveals that Josephus' narrative is incomplete and inaccurate. The skeletons in the cave and the numerous separate fires cast doubt on Josephus' theory of unanimity of purpose and unity of action among the Sicarii in their final hours. Perhaps archaeology confirms other aspects of Josephus' narrative especially his description of the site but on these important points it contradicts him.

But even without the benefit of the archaeological discoveries we would know that something is wrong with Josephus' story. According to the historian, when the Jews saw that the Roman ram was about to breach the wall, they hurriedly built an inner wall out of wood and earth which could absorb the force of the ram. When they broke through the outer wall, the Romans tried the ram on the inner wall but without success. Therefore they set it on fire. So far the narrative is plausible and probably true. The use of soft pliable material to blunt the effects of a ram and the construction of an inner wall to replace an outer one which is about to be destroyed were standard techniques in ancient siege warfare. The fact that the combination of these two techniques (the construction of an inner wall out of pliable material) is not readily paralleled elsewhere is double testimony to its veracity. Josephus cannot be accused of enriching his narrative with a tactic cribbed from a poliorketic manual and the Sicarii are credited with a manoeuvre which befits their inexperience in siege warfare--who builds a wall out of wood? Further confirmation may come from archaeology. Some large wooden beams were stripped from the Herodian palace before its destruction by fire perhaps to be used in the construction of this futile gesture. Confirmed or not the story is at least credible.

But the story soon loses its plausibility. After being blown about by the wind, the fire takes hold of the inner wall. At this point the Roman assault should have begun. The wall was breached, the inner wall was rapidly being consumed, the army was ready. Instead, the Romans withdraw, postponing the assault until the following morning. Their only activity that night was to maintain a careful watch lest any of the Jews escape. This is incredible. Why withdraw when victory was so close? Even if it was late afternoon or evening when the fire finally took to the wall, a point which Josephus does not make clear, Silva could have stormed the fortress by night, just as Vespasian did at Jotapata. Why wait? Furthermore, since the wall was breached, the Romans will have had to maintain a careful guard not only in their camps but especially on the ramp, in order to prevent the Jews from attacking the tower and the other siege machines. And yet, according to Josephus, the Roman soldiers positioned both on the ramp and on the tower, the former only a few feet from the inside of the fortress, the latter able to survey all of Masada, were oblivious to the activities of that eventful night. They did not notice that 960 men, women, and children were slain, and that at least two large fires were set, one destroying the accumulated possessions of the Sicarii, the other destroying the palace and cremating the corpses. They did not hear the shrieks of the women and children or see that the plateau was ablaze or sense that anything unusual was afoot. When the Romans stormed the fortress the next morning, they suspected nothing. They expected a battle but found silence. Very dramatic but utterly incredible.

Drama was not the only reason for Josephus' invention of a premature Roman withdrawal and a careful Roman watch which saw and heard nothing. Josephus wanted Eleazar, the leader of the Sicarii, to make a speech in which he would publicly confess that he and his followers, those who had formented the war, had erred and were now receiving condign punishment from God for their sins. Josephus even has Eleazar declare that God has condemned the "tribe of the Jews" to destruction because he wanted the Jewish readers of the Jewish War to realize that the way of the Sicarii is the way of death and that the theology of the Sicarii leads to renunciation of one of the core doctrines of Judaism, the eternal election of Israel. In order to allow Eleazar to confess his guilt and to display his rhetorical skills, and in order to allow the Sicarii to follow Eleazar's instructions and to destroy themselves in an orderly fashion, Josephus inserted a crucial but inexplicable pause in the Roman assault.

Eleazar made a second speech too. Entitled "On the Immortality of the Soul", it had for its major themes not Israel, God, and sin, but soul, death, and suicide. Its purpose was purely literary, to correspond to the speech which Josephus himself allegedly delivered at Jotapata under similar circumstances. Josephus gives us a logos and an antilogos, a speech in book III condemning suicide and a speech in book VII lauding it. The parallel between the incidents at Jotapata and Masada was developed further by the transference of the lottery motif from the former to the latter. If, as I have attempted to show, the occasion, content, and impact of Eleazar's speeches are fictitious, then the use of lots as described by Josephus must be fictitious too. Perhaps some of the Sicarii slew themselves in accordance with a lottery (see below), but it is most unlikely that all of them did so. They had neither the opportunity nor the unanimity required for such an action. The idea that all of them did so was derived by the historian from his (very suspect) account of the episode at Jotapata.

Josephus needs no apology for these inventions and embellishments since practically all the historians of antiquity did such things. But if an apology were demanded, Josephus could respond that his narrative required inventiveness. If, upon storming the fortress, the Romans had discovered that the Sicarii had slain themselves, neither Josephus nor Flavius Silva nor anyone else could have known exactly what had transpired, since all the participants in the event were dead. Even the seven survivors, who are said to have reported to the Romans "everything that was said and done", could have known little. They were not present (though some might have been eavesdropping) when Eleazar exhibited his oratory--only the "manliest of his comrades" were invited. Before or during the actual killing they hid. Who could have told the Romans about the ten men drawn by lot and about the actions of the last man who set fire to the palace? Certainly not the women, safely ensconced in their cistern. If the Sicarii committed suicide according to Josephus' description, then that description must be a combination of fiction (inspired by literary and polemical motives) and conjecture. Surveying the corpses on the plateau, the Romans deduced that the Sicarii had killed themselves. Josephus, or his Roman informant, advanced more adventurous conjectures too. These conjectures may be true or false--ancient conjectures have no greater likelihood of being true than their modern counterparts--and we have seen already that some of them, at least, are false. The food supplies laid up by Herod the Great were discovered intact. Somebody, perhaps Josephus, believing that the food was still edible, conjectured that the Sicarii had intentionally spared their food from the destruction. Noticing a large pile of destroyed possessions and remembering some of the cases discussed above, someone conjectured that the Sicarii had gathered all their belongings in one place, oblivious to the fact that the fires and the smoke hid the remains of many such piles. The other conjectures can be neither verified nor refuted. Perhaps the Romans, like Professor Yadin, saw lots scattered about and deduced that a sortition played a role in the process of death. In addition to these motivated fictions and historical conjectures, Josephus' account also contains simple mistakes.

Is there any truth at all in this Josephan farrago of fiction, conjecture, and error? Did the Sicarii commit suicide? Did the Romans discover corpses when they arrived at the summit? The twenty-five skeletons in the cave show that Josephus' account is incomplete at best, but our question is whether any of the Sicarii preferred a self- inflicted death to flight, battle, or surrender. We might suggest that the Sicarii were captured by the Romans and massacred, or that they fought the Romans and were killed, and that Josephus, whose fondness for literary commonplaces and types is well known, substituted a collective suicide story for the truth. Perhaps. These conjectures, like those of Josephus himself, can be neither verified nor refuted, but we may readily believe that the Josephan story has a basis in fact. First, it is plausible. Many Jews committed suicide during the crucial moments of the war of 66-70, and, as we have seen above, many non-Jews also committed suicide rather than face their enemies. Second, the Masada story is too complex to be dismissed as a literary topos. It combines motifs from the two major patterns of collective suicide stories with motifs from the Jotapata episode. The whole is enriched with Josephus' own inventions. Finally, why should Josephus have invented such a story? He wished to show that the way of the Sicarii is the way of death, but death comes in many forms, and the Sicarii did not have to commit suicide to make this point clear. Death in battle would have served just as well. Had the Romans massacred the Sicarii, Josephus would have had no reason to disguise this fact. From the Roman point of view, the Sicarii deserved death, since they had participated in the siege of the royal palace in Jerusalem in 66 CE, killing some Roman soldiers. And if Silva refused to take any prisoners, no one could have argued with his wisdom, for who would want a slave who could not be trusted with the kitchen cutlery? From the Jewish point of view, the Sicarii deserved death since they had raided the towns near Masada and had killed 700 women and children in the Jewish town of En Geddi. From Josephus' point of view, the Sicarii were guilty of all sorts of nefarious crimes, not the least of which was the launching of the war against Rome. If the Romans had massacred the Sicarii, Josephus would have been pleased.

The essential historicity of the narrative is confirmed not only by its plausibility but also by its setting. Contrary to the accepted view, it is likely that BJ 1-6 was completed in the reign of Titus (79-81 CE), not Vespasisn, and that BJ 7 was completed early in the reign of Domitian (81-96 CE). One of the two first consuls (consules ordinarii) in 81 CE was none other than Flavius Silva, thus putting him in Rome at the very time Josephus was there writing the final books of the Jewish War. Silva, no doubt, could appreciate rhetorical historiography as much as any educated Roman, but his presence in Rome must have been an incentive for Josephus to restrain his imagination and tell the truth. Of course, it was also an incentive to tilt the narrative in the Romans' favour, but Josephus did not have to tilt it very far to make the Romans look good since, as archaeology demonstrates, Silva did his work efficiently and expertly. In fact, Silva's consulship was his reward for a job well done in Judaea. Since the Temple had already been destroyed and the Roman triumph had already been celebrated, Silva did not have to become another Titus pleading with the Jews to surrender and commiserating with them on their misfortunes.

Josephus did, however, restrain his imagination when writing the Masada narrative. In stark contrast to his descriptions of the falls of Jotapata, Jerusalem, Machaerus, and Jardes forest and in stark contrast to the historiographical tradition concerning collective suicides, Josephus' description of the fall of Masada does not refer to the bravery or military prowess of the defenders. Not a single Roman or Jewish casualty is mentioned. In only one passage does Josephus imply that the Sicarii actually fought against the Romans," and he does not have them employ any of the standard tricks for prolonging a siege, tricks recounted with inflated detail at the siege of Jotapata. The one tactic they adopt was rather ineffective. Josephus certainly did not want the Sicarii to seem as heroic as he claimed to have been at Jotapata, but his silence is remarkable nonetheless. The Romans had no reason to suppress references to the military actions of the Jews--a desperate defence by the Sicarii would have made the Roman victory all the more impressive. The most likely explanation is that the Sicarii did not put up a great resistance to the Romans. They had no catapults or other torsion weaponry. They had little experience in siege warfare, most of them not having participated in the defence of Jerusalem, or in fighting the Romans--they had concentrated their murderous attacks on their fellow-Jews. The only defences available to them were stones and arrows, but the Romans knew how to protect themselves from such projectiles. The failure of the Sicarii to mount an effective defence is not as amazing as Josephus' failure to invent one for them.

I conclude, then, that Josephus attempted to be reasonably accurate in matters which were verifiable by Silva and the Romans. He refrained from inventing glorious military actions for the Sicarii, and, we may assume, had some basis in fact for the ascription of murder-suicide to them. At least some of the Sicarii killed themselves rather than face the Romans. This fact was exaggerated and embellished. Silva could not object--Livy had done worse.

We do not know what happened on the summit of Masada on the fifteenth of Xanthicus in 74 CE. The archaeological discoveries of Professor Yadin show that Masada was besieged by the Romans in the fashion described by Josephus, but they do not tell us how the defenders of Masada were killed. For this and for all the other details of Masada's history, we are dependent upon Josephus alone.

Masada was captured by the Sicarii at the outbreak of the war in 66 CE. Taking arms from Herod's storehouse, Menahem, the leader of the Sicarii, marched on Jerusalem. There he attempted to gain control of the revolt by directing the siege of the royal palace. After his followers had assassinated the high priest Ananias and his brother Ezechias, Menahem himself was killed by Eleazar and the priestly revolutionary party. Some of the Sicarii, including Eleazar ben Yair, fled to Masada. Between the events of 66 CE and 74 CE, Josephus has little to narrate about Masada and its inhabitants. It served as a refuge for Simon bar Giora, fleeing from the priestly party in control of Jerusalem. From their haven at Masada the Sicarii raided the surrounding countryside, once venturing as far north as En Geddi. The objective of these raids was to obtain supplies --who wanted to eat the one-hundred-year-old Herodian food which filled Masada's storerooms?-- and the victims were the Judeans of En Geddi and the Idumeans of the countryside, all of them Jews. The Sicarii could attack these people (over seven hundred women and children were killed at En Geddi, their greatest success) because in their eyes they were wicked and doomed to perdition. Not being members of the sectarian elect, they could be robbed and killed with impunity. This attitude explains the silence of the Sicarii during the siege of Jerusalem. No raids on the Romans from the rear, no feints to distract the Romans and to alleviate the pressure of the siege, no attempt to aid the city in its time of crisis. For the Sicarii, the Jews of Jerusalem (who had killed Mernahem) and the Romans besieging it were different categories of wicked people who would be destroyed when God would inaugurate the End and bring glory to his chosen. True, the Sicarii did accept converts," but their overall attitude is clear.

Finally, in late 73 CE Flavius Silva approached Masada. The Sicarii were still awaiting the End, which they thought would be presaged by heavenly chariots, not Roman legions. It is likely that some Sicarii fled from Masada and the countryside to Egypt when Silva approached, for it is remarkable that immediately after the fall of Masada Josephus tells of Sicarii in Egypt and Cyrene, although he had given no hint of any such agitation there previously. In any case, Flavius Silva arrived and set to work. His siege works, the circumvallation, the camps, and the ramp, remain in a remarkable state of preservation. His troops, mainly the tenth legion, were experienced in this sort of activity, having had plenty of practice during the protracted siege of Jerusalem, and the work seems to have progressed quickly. The Sicarii were unable to mount any serious resistance, having neither the equipment nor the experience required for a defence against seasoned veterans. Finally, all was ready. A tower and a ram were hauled up the ramp. Some of the stones hurled by the ballistae from the tower and the ground below were discovered by Professor Yadin in the western casemate wall. The ram brought down a portion of the wall. The Roman assault was hindered briefly by a second inner wall which had been hastily constructed by the Sicarii, but its wooden framework was easily destroyed by fire.

At this point we know what did not happen. We know that Josephus' account is false. Silva did not order a premature withdrawal, Eleazar did not have an opportunity for two magnificent orations, the Jews did not have a long evening for the leisurely slaughter of their wives and children, the deliberate collection of all their possessions in one pile and the methodical murder of all the remaining men. This scenario is implausible, contradicted by the archaeological discoveries, and motivated in part by Josephus' polemical and literary concerns. What did happen, then? Rather than simply admit ignorance, I offer the following conjectures.

As the Romans were storming through the wall, some of the Jews slew their families, burnt their possessions, and set the public buildings on fire. All(?) the granaries were burnt, except those containing the stale food stored by Herod. In the confusion, the Sicarii either forgot, or were unable, to destroy Herod's armoury, thus granting the Romans a modest reward for their labours. Having destroyed what they could, some Jews killed themselves, some fought to the death, and some attempted to hide and escape. The Romans were in no mood to take prisoners and massacred all whom hey found. After the smoke had cleared, the Romans inspected the fortress and discovered the corpses of those who had committed suicide. They also found two women and five children in one of the cisterns and twenty-five people in a cave on the southern slope. The former were spared (?), the latter killed (or did they commit suicide when discovered?). The corpses on the plateau were probably tossed over the cliff and the site was garrisoned. The battle and the war were over.

The evidence for this reconstruction is uneven. We have no reason to doubt that at least some of the Sicarii killed themselves and their families, even if they did not perform the deed with the deliberation and concord alleged by Josephus. Archaeology shows that portions of all the public buildings on Masada were set ablaze, and since it is unlikely that the Romans would destroy their own loot, we may assume that this was the spontaneous act of the Jews. That some of the Sicarii sought death through battle with the Romans is a suggestion based merely on plausibility. That some of the Sicarii tried to escape is confirmed by the twenty-five skeletons in the cave.

Sitting in his study in Rome, Josephus improved on this story. He wanted Eleazar, the leader of the Sicarii, to take full responsibility for the war, to admit that his policies were wrong, to confess that he and his followers had sinned, and to utter the blasphemous notion that God had not only punished but also had rejected his people. Condemned by his own words, Eleazar and all his followers killed themselves, symbolizing the fate of all those who would follow in their footsteps and resist Rome. This was the work of Josephus the apologist for the Jewish people and the polemicist against Jewish revolutionaries. Josephus the rhetorical historian realized that the murder-suicide of some of the Sicarii at Masada would be far more dramatic and compelling if it became the murder-suicide of all the Sicarii. (Many historians before Josephus had similarly exaggerated collective suicides.) Josephus modeled the Masada narrative in part on his own description of the Jotapata episode, in part on the Greco-Roman historiographical tradition. Inspired by the former, he gave Eleazar a second speech, an antilogos to the speech which he claimed to have himself delivered at Jotapata, and invented (or exaggerated) the use of lots in the suicide process. Inspired by the latter, he had each Jew kill his wife and children (a motif derived from Greco-Roman stories of one pattern) and contribute his possessions to one large pile which was then set ablaze (a motif derived from stories of another pattern). Most important, Josephus learned from the (Greco-Roman tradition that collective suicide was to be an object of amazement, almost admiration, an attitude he failed to reconcile with his condemnation of the Sicarii. Out of these strantis-historical truth, a fertile imagination, a flair for drama and exaggeration, polemic against the Sicarii, and iliterary borrowings from other instances of collective suicide-Josephus created his Masada story.

We do not know whether Flavius Silva, who was in Rome while Josephus was writing the final books of the Jewish War, read or heard this narrative, hut we may he sure that he enjoyed it if he did. After all, some of the Sicarii had committed suicide, and Silva must have known that an historian was entitled to exaggeration and simplification. .Josephus shows clearly that Silva himself and the Roman soldiers performed their task with professionalism and dispatch. Furthermore, the story is wonderfully told. As we read it, we almost forget that these Sicarii had failed to aid their brethren in Jerusalem during the long siege. We almost forget that they had massacred seven hundred Jewish women and children at En Geddi. Even Josephus forgot that he wished to heap opprobrium, not approbation, on them One does not have to be a Jew, a Zionist, or a citizen of the state of Israel to be swept away by the rhetoric which Josephus derived from the classical tradition: "Live free or die!"' The Masada myth does not begin in the twentieth century.

Chart of the fortress at Masada.

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published april 1998

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