“Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth” by Jodi Magness— A New Look at an Old Story

Magness, Jodi. “Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth”, Princeton University Press, 2019.

A New Look at an Old Story

Amos Lassen

It seems that Masada has been part of my life since I was a teenager. Growing up in Young Judaea, a Jewish and Zionist youth group, I both studied about and learned from Masada. Not only as she great material to build stories , she had her own very special story that we would listened to whenever the chance came. It was never important whether it was true or not because the story was so beautiful,  During those years Yigal Yadin published his famous book about his famous findings at the Masada site and it seemed to be the definitive word until that beautiful new study from Jodi Magness came along. When her book came out recently, I took time to be alone with it for a while and things I had not thought about in many 60 years came back to me. I was determined to read every fascinating word of the text and to examine the photographs for as long as I was able to do so.

Jodi Magness brings us a new account of Masada and the story of the last stand of a group of Jewish rebels who held out against the Roman Empire. It was two thousand years ago, 967 Jewish men, women, and children (the last holdouts of the revolt against Rome following the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple) are said to have taken their own lives rather than surrender to the Roman army. This took place on top of Masada which was a barren and windswept mountain overlooking the Dead Sea. This powerful story of Jewish resistance became a symbol to the new nation of Israel beginning in 1948 with the physical creation of the state. (The story had been around long before that but Israel needed a heroic saga and so this became just that”. The first extensive archaeological excavations of Masada began in the 1960s, and today the site draws visitors from around the world. Only Josephus recorded the history of the mass suicide and because it is the only record we have, it is not totally accepted as fact. Some scholars question if the event ever took place).

Magness has excavated at Masada and here she explains what happened there, how we know it, and how recent developments might change understandings of the story. Incorporating the latest findings, she brings together literary and historical sources to show us what life was like for Jews under Roman rule during the reign of Herod and Jesus’s ministry and death. There are wonderful illustrations and photographs that add to the story that still keeps us fascinated.

The story goes like this, “In 74 CE, 967 Jews on top of the rock fortress of Masada purportedly took their own lives rather than surrender to a Roman army. Their defiant self-sacrifice became a modern, nationalist rallying cry: ‘Masada shall not fall again!’”. Magness, who directed excavations of the Roman siege works at Masada and is one of the preeminent archaeologists of the ancient Mediterranean world, and her book “Masada” describes its physical setting and development, the history of the site’s excavation, the story of the Roman siege, and the creation of Masada’s hotly contested modern myth. It is both  scholarly and accessible to all.

Writer Magness takes us into the story of the fall of Masada, elaborating on the dramatic tale as told by Josephus. She also shares the fascinating adventures and misadventures of the region’s explorers, from the nineteenth century through the 1960s. She describes the excavations that have taken place there including her own making the story personal.
Today Masada is the foremost archaeological site in Israel and is  the most spectacular and one of the most visited. The Israeli army inducts soldiers of special companies of the Israel Defense Forces on top of Masada  and they are reminded of the 967 who gave their lives for what they believed. Magness has done here what few archaeologists could have pulled off and she does so with  clarity and accessibility. 

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