The historian Steve Mason has called The Jewish War by Flavius Josephus “perhaps the most influential non-biblical text of Western history.”* This may seem a surprising choice. Written in Greek around 75 AD, the war it describes—the Judaean revolt against Roman rule that began in 66 and largely ended in 70 after huge losses, including the destruction of much of Jerusalem and the tearing down of its Temple—hardly seems today to be “the greatest not only of wars of our own times, but of all those we have ever heard of,” as Josephus claims in his opening words. Yet the work continues to fascinate, especially now that thorny questions have emerged concerning its account of the war’s coda in the year 74: the mass murder-suicide of nearly a thousand Jews who resided on the fortified hill of Masada, just before it was captured by the Romans.
Masada, which overlooks the Dead Sea, has, over the past century, become a symbol of Jewish self-assertion and resistance to domination. Its well-preserved ruins became a pilgrimage site for Zionist youth in the 1920s and 1930s, and Yitzhak Lamdan’s poem “Masada” (1927) made a rallying cry of the words “Never again shall Masada fall!” The story of Masada’s last days, as told by Josephus, took on new meanings during the Holocaust and subsequent struggles for Israeli statehood. In the mid-1960s the archaeologist Yigael Yadin, the first large-scale excavator of Masada (and former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces), publicized what he considered to be vivid evidence proving Josephus’s account, though his claims have since been challenged. The controversy over what happened at Masada, and what various scenarios might mean for modern Jews, has only grown since.
Beneath the mystery of Masada lies the enigma of Josephus, a figure whose shifting identities make his authorial motives hard to discern. Born into a Jewish family of priestly descent, Yosef ben Matityahu, as he was then known, spent his late teens in study and ascetic practice, including (by his own report) three years at the side of Bannus, an eremite Jew who lived by foraging and dressed in palm fronds. How he went from this spare existence to become Flavius Josephus—a wealthy Roman citizen with land and income and a name that marked him as a protégé of the Flavian emperors—is a remarkable story of elevation at the hands of the reigning superpower, recalling the rags-to-riches progress of his namesake, the biblical Joseph, in pharaonic Egypt.
The transformation of Yosef into Josephus came in 67 AD, the second year of the Jewish revolt. For years, corrupt Roman officials governing the region had treated the Jews and their Temple with disdain; Jewish leaders had finally chosen to resist and in 66 had destroyed a Roman force sent to bring them in line. Despite his doubts about the wisdom of rebellion, Yosef, then a talented leader aged twenty-nine, accepted command of Galilee, the region most directly in the path of Roman retribution. There, in the fortified town of Iotapata (modern Yodfat), he withstood a siege led by Vespasian, the general appointed by the emperor Nero to crush the revolt. According to Josephus’s account in The Jewish War, he prophesied to his countrymen that the town would fall on the forty-seventh day, and it did, after Vespasian completed a ramp that allowed his troops to surmount its walls.
What happened next is described in The Jewish War in surprisingly dispassionate tones. With forty followers, Yosef took refuge in a cistern from which no escape was possible. In an episode that eerily prefigures his account of Masada, he and his men decided to kill themselves rather than submit, and they drew lots to determine the order in which one would slay the next; the last would commit suicide. Yosef, “whether by chance or the foresight of God,” drew one of the last two lots. After watching thirty-nine men die by the sword, he abandoned his resolve and convinced his remaining comrade that they both should surrender and live. Brought before Vespasian, Yosef, in a second prophetic moment, addressed the commanding general as the future emperor of Rome. Vespasian was intrigued and kept the young Jew in his retinue rather than shipping him off to Nero as planned. Within two years, after Nero’s ouster and a bloody fight among the generals seeking the throne, Vespasian was installed as emperor. By that time Yosef was an adjutant to his son Titus, whom Vespasian had left in command of his troops, and was well on his way to becoming the Judeo-Roman grandee Titus Flavius Josephus.
Josephus went on to write The Jewish War, with its account of the Iotapata episode, at the courts of Vespasian and Titus (who succeeded his father in 79 AD), and this calls his reliability into question. The nineteenth-century Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz labeled Josephus a Römling, or “little Roman,” a tool of imperial power. The tale of the prophecy spoken at Iotapata helps bear out that charge: it was much to the advantage of Vespasian, the first Roman emperor to come from outside the Julio-Claudian line, to appear foreordained or divinely favored, and the Middle East was at this time rife with messianic murmurs about a world ruler arising there (some later claimed that these referred to Christ, whose gospel was just beginning to spread). Did Josephus invent the tale of his prophecy to give Vespasian a gift of legitimacy, or perhaps even conspire with the Flavians to craft it? Or had he actually made one of history’s luckiest guesses, with his life and freedom on the line?
After impressing the Romans with his seeming prophetic powers at Iotapata, Josephus went on to become a member of Titus’s staff during the subsequent siege of Jerusalem. As a go-between who could speak Hebrew, he sought, in a speech he records (or invents) in The Jewish War, to persuade the city’s defenders to end their rebellion. His mission failed. The siege came to a brutal conclusion with the sack of the city and the destruction—accidental, according to Josephus—of its Temple, tragedies remembered by Jews today with the fast of Tisha B’Av. Josephus accompanied the victorious Titus back to Rome, where he ultimately received land and income from his imperial sponsors. Vespasian meanwhile used his son’s success in the Jewish War to prop up his own authority, staging an enormous triumphal procession in 71, the first such spectacle Rome had seen in decades. Later, the Flavian amphitheater, now known as the Colosseum, bore an inscription declaring that it was paid for out of war spoils, and the Arch of Titus in the Forum presented bas-relief scenes—still visible today—of the sack of Jerusalem.
Josephus’s Jewish War, itself a monument to Flavian power, was composed in the same years (the 70s) that the Colosseum was built. Steve Mason, who has written about Josephus for two decades and is now editing an ambitious series of his complete works in translation, considers the complex links between the book and the regime under which it took shape in his lively and provocative A History of the Jewish War, AD 66–74. He begins his inquiry with Josephus’s description of the Flavians’ triumphal procession through the streets of Rome. It featured potent demonstrations of domination, including an enormous tower displaying painted scenes of Judaea’s destruction. But those scenes, Mason notes, contradict the account of the war Josephus himself has just given: they portray Rome’s victory as a glorious conquest of foreign land rather than in the darker tones of the suppression of a revolt. With the “resigned skepticism and gentle irony” of a seasoned observer—a “statesman and practised dissembler”—Josephus here signals to his elite Roman readers that the Jewish War had indeed become Flavian propaganda, but not by his hand.
Mason’s Josephus is neither a Römling nor a Flavian lap dog but a “pragmatic statesman guided by political-moral concerns.” In this he resembles Thucydides, whose Peloponnesian War Josephus imitates in his opening sentence. Like its Athenian model, Jewish War pursues its largest goals—questions of morality and theodicy, including the troubling question of why the God of the Jews allowed His holiest site to be crushed—by importing into a historical narrative the techniques of rhetoric and tragic drama. Just as Thucydides did, Josephus rises to emotional crescendos as he depicts extremities of pain, in particular the pain of the Jews during the siege and fall of Jerusalem. (The story of Mary of Bethezuba, a starving mother who cannibalizes her own infant, is recounted at some length.) Rome is neither blamed for that cataclysm nor exonerated. The Jews, tragic victims of a war they foolishly brought on themselves, are ennobled by their suffering, but Josephus, in Mason’s view, does not begrudge the Flavians the political capital they gained from Judaea’s destruction. A former leader himself, Josephus ultimately shows us that he “understands political necessity.”
Most salient of all passages in Thucydides, in Mason’s understanding of The Jewish War, is the so-called Melian dialogue, in which Athens threatens a small, friendless island with total destruction if it does not submit, and then carries out the threat. In Mason’s view Judaea, like Melos, was doomed from the start, appealing in vain to God (just as Melos did to the pagan gods) for salvation. The entrapment of Josephus and his comrades in the cistern of Iotapata is only the first of several dead-end dramas recorded in The Jewish War; other leaders and groups become cut off in tunnels, caves, or the Temple compound, and the work’s grim last act plays out on the besieged hilltop of Masada.
Mason offers much insight into the psychology of such situations (he appears to have studied modern examples, such as the entrapment by US troops of Japanese soldiers on Saipan Island in World War II). He sees Josephus’s “prophecy” of Vespasian’s rise as part of a well-attested pattern in which, after surrender, defenseless peoples proclaim their conquerors deliverers: “It was an obvious strategy for Josephus to say to the grizzled Vespasian: ‘You’re going to send me to Nero? Why would you do that?… You are a real Caesar, Vespasian, you and this son of yours!’” A remark that was merely sycophantic was later remembered as prophetic.
Mason is not just an expert in the history of Judaea but also an adept reader of “story”—a valuable combination when it comes to the study of the Jewish War and The Jewish War. The conflict was exceptionally complex, with divided Jewish leadership—Jerusalem was at one point contested by three rival factions—and a four-way civil war in Rome that forced a pause in hostilities until a new emperor could be chosen. Since Josephus is our only witness for events in Judaea, apart from a few glimpses afforded by Roman writers, a standard approach has been to treat his text as a source and critique its accuracy. Not so Mason. “There have not been many efforts—none of which I am aware—to interpret this as a narrative in terms of War’s character, plot, and rhetoric,” he writes:
The still-prevailing tendency has been to take it as a basic guide while challenging this or that claim. Our procedure, instead, will be to accept the story for what it is—a narrative by Josephus in mid-70s Rome—while posing our own historical questions.
Splicing these two tasks together would be daunting for many, but Mason shuttles easily between inquiries into the war and Josephus’s account of it. He is also a marvelous stylist, unafraid to deploy sarcasm, humor, and other tools not often used by scholars.
By contrast, the archaeologist Jodi Magness, who in Masada also takes on the dual challenge of recounting the Jewish War and interpreting The Jewish War, is more matter-of-fact, but also persuasive in her command of a vast array of evidence, including in particular the physical remains of the Judeo-Roman clash. Magness is more convinced than Mason of Josephus’s pro-Flavian agenda. She claims that he “aimed at exonerating his Roman patrons from responsibility for the outcome of the revolt,” meaning primarily the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. The word “patrons” here refers to Vespasian and Titus; Magness subscribes to the oft-repeated notion, dismissed by Mason, that these emperors “commissioned” Josephus to write The Jewish War. (No evidence for such a commission exists, though Josephus claims in his autobiographical Life, perhaps falsely, that he submitted the work to the Flavians for approval and fact-checking.) This assumption might have caused her to question Josephus’s reliability in the episode that chiefly concerns her, the siege of Masada, but she declines to do so, preferring to leave such matters to “Josephus specialists.”
Disentangling Josephus from the site of Masada, however, proves a difficult task, thanks in large part to the work of Magness’s teacher Yigael Yadin. Yadin was a unique figure in the annals of archaeology, a military and political leader as well as a scholar. As a teenager, in the years leading up to the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state in 1948, he fought the British occupation as a member of the paramilitary Haganah—an experience that, Magness asserts, informed his understanding of Masada. He led the Israeli army in the years after independence, before committing himself to archaeology in the early 1950s. That stage of his career led to startling discoveries, several of which had huge implications for Jewish self-definition and Israeli national pride—including vivid remains from the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome in the 130s AD, an uprising that forms a sequel to the war that led to Masada. In the mid-1970s Yadin put down his spade to found a reformist political party, the Democratic Movement for Change, and served under Menachem Begin as deputy prime minister from 1977 to 1981.
Yadin took Josephus’s account of Masada as a kind of handbook when he led a pioneering excavation of the hilltop ruins in the mid-1960s. His account of the dig, published in Hebrew under a nakedly nationalist title that includes the phrase “in those days, at that time” (an evocation of the Chanukah story and yet another Jewish rebellion against pagan rulers), indicates from the outset that he was reading The Jewish War closely and looking to confirm its account in the material remains. Later, one of Yadin’s harshest critics, the Israeli sociologist Nachman Ben-Yehuda, examined transcripts of the staff meetings at the site and pointed to evidence of tendentiously pro-Josephan interpretation. Yadin’s defenders have since answered those charges, but some have stuck. The phrase “Masada myth” is now commonly used in discussions of the site.
Yadin was particularly keen to find support for the most sensational aspect of Josephus’s Masada narrative: the mass murder-suicide of the site’s Jewish occupants. According to The Jewish War, the leader of that community, Eleazer ben Yair, convinced his countrymen, as the Roman siege ramp rose to a level that permitted penetration of their walls, not to surrender. Instead, at ben Yair’s instruction, each adult male put his family to the sword, then ten men were selected by lot to kill the others, and those ten killed one another in turn, until the last man set everything ablaze and killed himself. Seven women and children escaped by hiding in an aqueduct.
When Yadin’s excavators uncovered a set of twelve closely grouped ostraca, or potsherds, inscribed with names by a single hand—including the name “ben Yair”—Yadin claimed to have found the very lots cast in Josephus’s bleak final sequence. (Various arguments were proposed to explain the two extra lots.) A grouping of three skeletons—the remains of a man, woman, and child—inspired Yadin’s team with awe as they “relived the final and most tragic moments of the drama of Masada” (according to Yadin’s published account).
Magness, a self-professed admirer of Yadin who later led her own excavations of the Roman army camps at the base of Masada, treads cautiously in Masada, presenting both sides—for and against the Josephus-Yadin scenario—with care, and declining to choose between the two. “I am often asked if I believe there was a mass suicide at Masada, to which I respond that this is not a question archaeology is equipped to answer,” she writes. Those seeking to unravel Masada’s mysteries will be disappointed, but others will be reassured by Magness’s even tone and nondoctrinal approach. Addressing the twelve inscribed ostraca, for example, she notes an alternative interpretation, according to which the potsherds are not lottery tokens but name tags used in food distribution. She concludes the discussion by declaring them an “open question.”
Magness cites Mason’s book in her endnotes as a “radically revisionist reading of Josephus’s account,” but does not engage with it in her text. That’s unfortunate, since some of his arguments demand a response. He claims, for example, that the Roman siege ramp was never completed (it does not nearly reach Masada’s summit today, which has generally been explained as the result of erosion), and therefore the attackers could not have taken the site in the way Josephus reports. Mason thinks it entirely possible, and in keeping with historical patterns he finds elsewhere, that the Roman commander at Masada offered terms of surrender to the Jews but then treacherously slaughtered them after they opened their gates. The seven women and children who escaped could not gainsay the account of the lofty Josephus—an account that can thus be seen as one of history’s most successful cover-ups. The truth, Mason concedes, is probably unrecoverable.
Magness worked as a tour guide at Masada in the late 1970s, some ten years after Yadin’s excavations. She notes that by that time, the site had already begun to lose symbolic importance in the minds of Israelis, even while attracting growing numbers of non-Israeli visitors. Masada “still resonates with Diaspora Jews who make the pilgrimage to the top of the mountain, where their guides relate the story of a small band of freedom fighters who made a heroic last stand against Rome,” she writes. This offhand comment, on the last page of her last chapter, may go farther than Magness realizes toward explaining the account by Josephus of Masada’s fall. Did he invent the Masada myth in answer to his own psychological needs, as a former priestly Jerusalemite who had stood by during the destruction of his city and then had become a worldly Roman, far removed from his nation’s travails?
Readers have long puzzled over the parallels between Josephus’s (finally aborted) murder-suicide pact at Iotapata and the more complete version he describes at Masada. He had no conceivable source for the second episode other than the seven survivors who’d escaped mass death. Josephus, too, had escaped mass death, first at Iotapata and then in Judaea generally; he’d adopted the way of life embraced by his people’s oppressors. As the sole Jew who’d been offered this remarkable redemption, he may well have felt a sense of survivor guilt, an emotion in his case intertwined with questions of identity and authenticity (much like those faced by Diaspora Jews, or secularized Israelis, ever since). Submission to Rome was, in his eyes, a more prudent path than defiance, but carried its own costs. Did Josephus, in the Masada episode, craft an image of the total commitment he himself had been unwilling to make?