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
By Elon Gilad Jun 17, 2019
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.