The Myth of Masada: How Reliable Was Josephus, Anyway?

The Roman siege of Masada ended in mass suicide by the trapped Jewish rebels. But absent archaeological evidence, it all boils down to the question of whether you think Josephus aspired to accuracy

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Ruins of the Roman legion camp below Masada
Ruins of the Roman legion camp below MasadaCredit: Dan Shachar / Shutterstock

After a protracted siege by the Roman tenth legion, the situation of the Sacarii, the Jewish rebels holed up on the mountain fortress of Masada, became hopeless. The Jewish rebels led by Elazar Ben Yair decided to kill themselves rather than be slaughtered, or fall captive and be enslaved by their enemies.

This event, the suicide of nearly a thousand Jewish rebels, is one of the most famous stories in Jewish history. But did it happen?

The only source we have for the story of Masada, and numerous other reported events from the time, is the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, author of the book “The Jewish War”. Had Josephus not written it and had it not come down to us, no-one would have thought a mass suicide had taken place on the desert plateau.

Josephus is in fact our only source not only for the events at Masada, but for many other things we think we know about the period, notably nearly all we know about the reign of King Herod; the different Jewish factions that fought amongst themselves during the war against the Romans; the fact that the Zaddokites did not believe in an afterlife, while the Pharisees did, and much more. So the question is: how reliable is Josephus?

This question might seem strange to our modern sensibilities. Surely, Josephus wouldn’t make things up out of nowhere. The Jewish War is a work of history, not fiction – isn’t it?

That question would be applicable to any modern historian, less so to one in antiquity. Josephus may have been a historian but then, scribes didn’t feel constrained to stick with naked truth as they knew it. Historians in ancient Greece and Rome did not cavil at writing, probably in perfectly good faith, that gods lay behind a tragedy or victory, or writing the version of affairs that the powers that be wanted them to write.

Evaluating the veracity of Josephus two thousand years after he lived is challenging not least because of the sheer volume of his writings, and the vast span of time since the events he described. It is therefore helpful, in judging Josephus, to narrow our focus to one or two of the events he presents, and see if we can cast light on his accuracy.

But who was Josephus, anyway?

Suicide pact – at Yodfat

Josephus was the second son of Matthias, an aristocratic Jewish priest. He was born in Jerusalem in 37 C.E. When the Great Jewish Revolt broke out in 66 C.E., the Jerusalemite aristocracy appointed him military governor of the Galilee, to prepare for the imminent Roman onslaught.

MasadaCredit: photosounds / Shutterstock

This materialized in April 67 C.E.: three Roman legions led by the Roman general and future emperor Vespasian landed in Acre (called Ptolemais at the time), and began to swiftly knock down the defenses that Josephus had put in place.

By June, the Romans had taken most of the Galilee and lay siege to the town of Yodfat. Josephus and his garrison deflected the Roman attempts to take the town, for a time – but after 47 days, the Romans managed to breach the walls. Yodfat was destroyed and its inhabitants were slaughtered.

According to Josephus, 40,000 were killed by the Romans and 1,200 were taken captive and enslaved, but these numbers are surely greatly exaggerated. The town was way too small to hold that many people in it.

Josephus says that as Yodfat fell, he and another 40 prominent Jews hid in a cave. He says he advocated for surrender but was outvoted by those who advocated that they all commit suicide.

Because Jews are forbidden to take their own lives, Josephus says they drew lots determining who would kill whom. One by one the survivors were killed until “either by chance or by providence” only he and another man remained, and the two resolved to surrender.

When Josephus surrendered to Vespasian, he flattered him by claiming that he received a divine revelation that the general would become emperor.

This likely saved his life. After two and a half years as a Roman prisoner, when the Roman Senate proclaimed Vespasian emperor and Josephus’ prophecy was thusly proven true, the historian was released from captivity.

The Temple burns

Josephus, now on the Roman side, was there to see Jerusalem fall in 70 C.E. and watch the Temple go up in flames, which he says took place on the 10th day of Av.

This contradicts the traditional Jewish account that the Temple was burned a day earlier on the 9th of Av. This discrepancy is difficult to reconcile.

Masada: Josephus had only a vicarious view of events at the doomed desert fortress.Credit: Moshe Gilad

Perhaps Josephus took some creative license and added an extra day before the fall of Jerusalem, so he could claim that the city fell on the exact same date that the First Temple fell based on Jeremiah 52:12 – the 10th day of Av.

Indeed, Josephus’ description of the day before the fall, the ninth, is suspiciously uneventful, with the besieging forces illogically resting and the Jewish defenders uncharacteristically not staging any counter-attacks.

On the other hand, it is also possible that it was the rabbis who moved the day of the destruction of the Second Temple to a day earlier, for some theological reason.

Either way, after the rebellion had been mostly quelled, with only small pockets of resistance namely atop Masada remaining, in 71 C.E. Josephus left for Rome in the entourage of general Titus, Vespasian’s son and eight years later his successor. It was there that Joesephus became a Roman citizen and wrote his famous histories.

But it seems it was only three years after he left for Rome that Masada finally fell.

The merry month of Xanthicus

Josephus himself says only that the desert fortress fell on the 15th of the spring month of Xanthicus, which is the sixth month of the Macedonian calendar, but he doesn’t mention the year. The only way to infer the year of Masada’s tragedy is the order of events in his book: he records it after events in the years 71 and 72, leading to the assumption that Masada fell in 73.

Herodian palace on Masada
Ruins of King Herod's palace on MasadaCredit: vvvita /

However, another source of information is two Latin inscriptions describing the works of the Roman general who took Masada, Lucius Flavius Silva. They don’t cite dates either, but Silva was doing other things in the spring of 73, leading to the conclusion that Masada actually fell to the Romans in the year 74. In any case, evidently Josephus’ account is not that of an eye-witness testimony.

This of course does not necessarily mean that Josephus’ accounts of the events are made up. He could have relied on witness testimony, perhaps from the Roman legionaries that had captured Masada or from Jewish survivors who found their way to Rome as slaves. But Josephus doesn’t tell us how he learned about the events he described.

But even granting the possibility that Josephus did have sources for the events that transpired, it does seem a bit suspicious that the end of the siege at Masada is so similar to the end of the siege at Yodfat in his telling. Furthermore, Josephus provides a beautiful speech allegedly made by the leader of the Sacarrii, Eleazar Ben-Yair, to the bravest of his men: “We have it in our power to die nobly and in freedom. Our fate at the break of day is certain capture, but there is still the free choice of a noble death with those we hold most dear.”

Josephus clearly made up this speech, since by his own telling, all those who would have heard the speech would have killed themselves.

We must conclude that Josephus had no problem making stuff up. This is not surprising. It was the norm among ancient historians to sacrifice truth and accuracy for beauty and rhetoric.

Indeed, the decision of vanquished warriors to kill themselves rather than fall into the hands of their enemies was rather a recurring motif among ancient historians, appearing in many histories (Prof. Shaye Cohen of the Harvard Divinity School compiled a list of 16 examples in an article published in 1982). It is not a stretch to imagine that Josephus would borrow this theme from one of these other histories and apply it to the Sacarrii in order to make them, and by extension Jews, seem more noble and praiseworthy in the eyes of the Romans. After all, this is clearly the goal of his books.

It is likely then that the mass suicide atop Masada was made up by Josephus. Indeed, at least some of the details of the story provided by Josephus have not been supported by archaeological excavation at Masada.

Even if Josephus is evidently not completely reliable, this does not mean we should disregard everything he tells us as mere fabrication. Like all other texts from antiquity, the facts stated therein need to be evaluated critically. Some are surely false, but some are well likely to be true. 

Take for example the person of John of Giscala, one of the leaders in the Jewish revolt, of whom we know only through the writings of Josephus.

Perhaps we can take Josephus’ characterization of him as “a very cunning and very knavish person” whose “wicked practices had not his fellow anywhere” with a grain of salt: after all the men were mortal enemies. But surely we can believe Josephus that this man existed, that he led forces against the Romans, and that he was supported by the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. If John hadn’t existed, why would Josephus had bothered to make him up? Would he say the Sanhedrin supported his rival just in order to fool future historians?