Around the years 72-73 A.D., a band of Jewish rebels and their families sought refuge in one of Herod the Great’s fortresses, Masada. The Roman army had recently destroyed the city of Jerusalem, slaughtering thousands of fellow Jews in the process. These 960 men, women and children belonging to a radical group of Zealots, the Sicarii, sought to hold out at Masada in a last ditch effort to resist the Roman occupation.
Herod the Great, known to students of the Bible for the “massacre of the innocents”, had originally built Masada on a desolate mountaintop just west of the Dead Sea. What happened at the siege of Masada some one hundred years later has continued to fascinate historians and believers down through the years. The Jewish Zealots had enough food and water to last them for many, many months, but it was only a matter of time before their defeat in the hands of the Roman army would become inevitable. Roman troops eventually surrounded the near impenetrable fortress, and over the following months they were able to build a siege ramp that enabled the Romans to break through the Jewish Zealot defenses.
What the Romans found there next on top of Masada has inspired many a freedom fighter while horrifying others by the ghastly moral choices that were made. What really happened at Masada, and how is a Christian to respond to it?
If you ever visit the Holy Land, Masada is on the “must-do” list of things to see. Remarkably, the dry desert air has preserved much of what remains of Herod’s impressive fortress nearly two thousand years later, including the storehouses and vast cisterns that supplied the Jewish rebels. You can even see the remains of the Roman encampments down below and the siege ramp constructed to finally subdue the Jews.
In the opening and closing moments of the 1981 classic film, “Masada“, starring Peter O’Toole (highly recommended — here’s a brief YouTube clip), a modern group of Israeli army soldiers receive their initiation on top of that fabled mountain. In the memory of Masada, these young members of the Israeli military pledge to remember the fighting spirit of those valiant Jewish rebels. However, nearly thirty years after this gripping movie was made, the Israeli military now distances themselves from the Masada theme. To many today, Masada speaks to the dangers of misguided religious fanaticism. What is behind this haunting legacy of Masada?
Josephus and the Sicarii Resistance at Masada:
Our primary record of what happened at Masada comes from the great Jewish historian, Josephus. Josephus was once a Jewish rebel leader himself, but eventually abandoned the cause of the Jewish revolt and became a Roman citizen. As part of Josephus’ “rehabilitation” as a Roman citizen, he wrote two books, The Jewish War and then the Antiquities of the Jews. The first book tells a narrative of the Jewish revolt against the Romans that led up to and after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The second book is a history of the world from a Jewish perspective written for Josephus’ Roman audience. Josephus had admired the bravery of his fellow Jews, but after seeing nearly a million Jews annihilated by the Roman army in the destruction of Jerusalem, he abandoned the Jewish dreams as being utterly futile in the face of the greatness of Rome. Though marked as a traitor by his former Jewish comrades, he wanted to tell the story of Judaism in a sympathetic manner.
In The Jewish War, Josephus tells the story of the siege of Masada and the eventual tragedy there. As Josephus describes it, the Roman army finally broke through the defenses at Masada only to find hundreds of dead bodies throughout the interior of the fortress. Huddled in a hiding place, there were two women and five children that survived. Presumably, these survivors were able to recount their story of how the rest of these extreme Jewish Zealots committed mass suicide. The Sicarii leaders knew that if they surrendered that their people would all be either killed or put into slavery. Likewise, if the Zealots continued to resist, the Romans would either kill them or if captured alive, they would become slaves. Faced with these choices, these Zealots opted for a third choice. They would take victory away from the Romans by taking their own lives. The men then slaughtered their wives and children. The surviving men killed each other. Only the last man standing committed suicide. The Romans would never be able to have the satisfaction of a noble victory.
On the one hand, the heroic treatment of this story suggests that the desire and dedication for freedom was nobly preserved by such an extreme act. The Romans wanted a subjugated people, but they would not be able to have that. These Jews would only serve the One True God and no other. In their thinking it was better to die a death chosen, as opposed to certain death or a dehumanizing and brutal existence as slaves.
However, the idea of suicide, particularly mass suicide, repels the moral conscience of many as an reprehensible act of self-murder. Was what happened at Masada an avoidable tragedy? In a recent adult education class in our church, a few classmates recalled their living memories from the media of Jonestown and the Branch Davidian conflict in Waco, Texas. Surely, these misguided people were insane religious fanatics, as noted by my fellow classmates. What makes the tragedy of Masada different from the moral terrors of Jim Jones and David Koresh?
Masada and a Christian Response:
What is often overlooked in the Masada tragedy is how the followers of Christ in that day responded to both the Roman authorities and Jewish rebels. According to many interpreters of Scripture, Jesus of Nazareth Himself had prophesied the destruction of the Temple and the Holy City of Jerusalem:
Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them,“You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:1-2 ESV)
Aside from those liberal critics and skeptics who dismiss the validity of future prophecy, most Bible-believing Christians accept that Jesus was prophetically warning the Jews that their desire for a Messiah to lead them in a military victory over their Roman oppressors was misguided. Instead, Jesus was about proclaiming a kingdom that is “not of this world” (John 18:36). A number of very headstrong Jews eventually turned to follow the different way proclaimed by Jesus, as exemplified most profoundly by the dramatic conversion of the Apostle Paul, as recorded in the Epistle to the Galatians.
Sadly, many other Jews rejected the way of the Cross as demonstrated by Jesus. The early Christians, most of whom were Jewish, saw the unfolding of the prophecy of Jesus before them and refused to help in the military resistance against the Romans. As a result, relations between Jews and Christians deteriorated over time. Nevertheless, as the prospects for nationalist Jewish revival faded in the wake of Jerusalem’s final destruction, the message of the Gospel of Jesus that transcended ethnic and political differences began to catch on, eventually leading a few hundred years later to the conversion of a pagan Roman culture and the spectacular growth of the church. It was the message of the Cross that conquered Rome, not the sword of the Sicarii.
There is more to the mystery of Masada that remains, something we will explore further in a later post on Veracity.
The works of Josephus are in the public domain and available online, from William Whiston’s English translation from early Greek manuscripts, 1737.
Chapters 8 and 9 of the War of the Jews, Book VII, contains Josephus’ account of the siege of Masada.