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  • Sacrificing Truth: Archaeology and the Myth of Masada
  • Louis H. Feldman
Sacrificing Truth: Archaeology and the Myth of Masada, by Nachman Ben-Yehuda. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2002. 275 pp. $29.95.

This book, which reads almost like a detective novel, documents the falsifications and concealed facts in Yigael Yadin’s report of his excavations at Masada (1963–1965) and speculates as to why and how Yadin did so. It is a sequel to Ben-Yehuda’s The Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995) and repeats much of the argument found in the earlier book but then views these misrepresentations against sociological theory of truth and falsehood.

According to Ben-Yehuda, Yadin, while professing admiration for Josephus’ account, has actually transformed a tragic historical event into a heroic fable, calculated to appeal to patriotic feelings. This is a case, he says, where archaeology became mixed up with politics. The revolt is transformed into a heroic war waged for three years by soldiers, who are referred to as Zealots rather than by Josephus’ term of Sicarii, engaged in battle. The suicide at Masada is transformed into a brave last stand of the heroic few against the many Roman troops. On these matters Ben-Yehuda generally trusts Josephus, who, to be sure, was not present at Masada. Ben-Yehuda is surely right in denying that there is any evidence that the Sicarii at Masada fought against the Romans for three years. He is right in criticizing Yadin for referring to the defenders as Zealots; but, in Yadin’s defense, we may remark that Yadin looked upon them as zealous revolutionaries and, as such, did not see too much of a difference among the various revolutionary groups, including the Zealots and the Sicarii, all of whom Josephus condemns in the strongest terms (War 7.262–274). He is surely right in calling attention to Yadin’s omission of the fact that pig bones were found together with the human remains at Masada, which raises the crucial question of whether these remains were of Jews at all.

On a major point Ben-Yehuda is surely justified in criticizing Yadin for omitting mention, presumably since it would not redound to the heroism of the heroes of Masada, of Josephus’ account (War 4.402–405) of a raid by the Sicarii of Masada during Passover on the nearby town of Ein Gedi. According to Josephus, they massacred those unable to flee, women and children numbering upwards of 700. We may remark that excavations by the archaeologist Gideon Hadas at Ein Gedi (see Avichai Becker, “Massacre at Ein Gedi,” Ha’aretz Magazine, April 13, 2001) have revealed the remains of 260 individuals, which an anatomist, Professor Israel Hershkovitz, examined and concluded (“the proof is incontestable”) that ten men, whose skulls were piled up in a grave, had died in a grisly massacre. The date of the remains, from the first century B.C.E. to the first century C.E., accords with the massacre mentioned by Josephus, but, admittedly, there is much dispute among scholars as to whether this find refers to that incident.

Why should Josephus, who so despised the Sicarii, write that the Romans, when they climbed to the top of the mountain at Masada, admired the amazing courage (War 7.405) of the Sicarii? That seems to be in accord with the Masada “myth.” On the other [End Page 156] hand, the Roman commander, Flavius Silva, did not begin his siege until 73 (or 74, as a recent inscription would seem to indicate, though the matter is disputed). What were the defenders doing between 70 and 73 (74)? Why did Silva wait so long? Apparently, the Sicarii were not causing him much trouble. But, if so, why did Silva have to bring a legion of perhaps 6,000 men? Shortly after Yadin’s book on Masada appeared in 1966, Trude Weiss-Rosmarin, in an article noted by Ben-Yehuda, wrote in the Jewish Spectator (32.8 [October, 1967], pp. 2–8, 30) that she could not believe that the defenders committed mutual suicide when they had an opportunity to fight heroically to the last...

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