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"The Irony of Masada"

Diverse interpretations of the Sicarii at Masada

These last Judean rebels were either very brave to take their own lives or cowards in doing so. They acted irrationally or as those who carefully deliberated the best course of action. Their action was either a horrendous crime or a noble plan. Such effective use of irony allows Josephus to loudly proclaim at Masada that the Roman “victory” was after all not really their victory but God’s punishment upon the Judean stasis and that these Judeans have a nobility that even surpasses that of the Romans.


Essay based on The Sicarii in Josephus's Judean War (Society of Biblical Literature, 2009).




By Mark Andrew Brighton

School of Theology,

Concordia University at Irvine

August 2009



Rising over one thousand feet above shore of the Dead Sea, the plateau of Masada offers a dramatic view of the surrounding desert, and this, combined with the remarkable archaeological remains situated there, make Masada one of the better known sites for visitors to Israel. This is all the more so due to the writings of Flavius Josephus, who turns those final hours, when the vastly outnumbered Judean rebels finally committed suicide in the face of certain defeat, into one of the more dramatic narratives of the Judean War. Indeed, he dwells at such length upon this last battle that its narrative even manages to eclipse his glorious description of the Flavian Triumph. That Josephus would do this seems rather surprising at first. After all, not only was he under obligation at Rome to honor Vespasian and Titus, his patrons who endorsed this literary work (Life 363), but also he clearly condemned the activities of the Sicarii, those who had occupied Masada early in the revolt and defended themselves there well after the fall of Jerusalem (War 7:256-7). Why then should he devote so much space to these characters and also color the narrative with a tragic valor that even a casual reader detects?


Still laboring under the idea that Josephus wrote the Judean War as a piece of imperial propaganda, scholars in the latter decades of the previous century struggled to give an account for Josephus’ intentions in the narrative. One solution, still commonly held, was to place the speeches endorsing suicide, which Josephus composed for Eleazar ben Yair, alongside of another speech opposing suicide, which Josephus composed for himself at Jotapata (3:362-82). Concerning the latter, Josephus tells how he and forty other Judean leaders had hidden in a cave there after the city had fallen to Vespasian. The forty were intent upon killing themselves to preserve personal honor rather than surrender. Josephus, however, was intent upon surrendering because, he states, God had appointed him to appear as a prophet before Vespasian. Failing to convince his compatriots to surrender, it was agreed that all would kill each other in sequence by lot, and it just so happened that the final lots fell to Josephus and one other. Josephus prevailed upon this last character to surrender. Due to the suspicious turn of events, this incident as much as any other was brought forward to highlight the duplicity of Josephus, and some used it as a key to understanding why he would glorify the Sicarii at Masada. Surely Josephus, who sacrificed thirty-eight lives of his countrymen to an ignominious death at Jotapata in order to escape, was attempting to ease his tortured conscience by glorifying suicide before an enemy in the Masada narrative. He thereby also glorified the deaths of his compatriots at Jotapata. Masada thus emerged as a largely fictionalized attempt by Josephus to ease his mind.


The problem here is that Josephus no where expresses the slightest guilt for his words or activities at Jotapata. He rather, albeit in self-serving fashion, accents his superior qualities of leadership throughout the narrative leading up to the cave and afterwards insists that he had been divinely appointed to stand before Vespasian. More recent scholarship, therefore, has harmonized the two narratives not by exploring the hidden psyche of Josephus, but by connecting both to Josephus’s perceived emphasis in War upon Roman power. Here scholars noted Josephus’ indebtedness to Polybius in how he accents throughout War how God had handed all things over to the Romans. The narratives about Jotapata and Masada were then understood as Josephus illustrating how to respond. Submit to the Romans and live - Jotapata. Resist in futility and die - Masada. Along these lines, the noble sounding words and activities of the Sicarii who committed suicide at Masada were then understood ironically. Josephus was thought to have made Eleazar b. Yair, the Sicarii leader, to appear rather like a Stoic philosopher, madly speaking out against the new Flavian dynasty. And in this way, the circuit was closed. There was no longer any need to ponder why Josephus attached noble qualities to those he elsewhere clearly condemned for the destruction of his people.


Scholarly thinking about the literary merits and thematic elements of the Judean War has advanced at an almost dizzying rate in the past several decades. The classic idea that Josephus composed this first work as a peace of imperial propaganda in particular has gone through major readjustment. Space does not permit an elaboration of the many ways this is true, but one which bears upon this discussion is his perceived accent upon the irresistibility of Roman power. Throughout the narrative, Josephus persistently and carefully qualifies and even undermines any notion of Roman invincible might. He does this at several levels. It emerges, for example, as a clear theme in several speeches. Both Agrippa (2:345f) and Josephus (5:362f.) urged the Judeans to submit to the Romans, but neither speech yields unqualified statements about Roman power. The Romans rather exercise their authority because it had been granted them by God. This accent, which comes toward the end of Agrippa’s speech, takes center stage in that of Josephus. In the heart of that speech, Josephus presents numerous examples from Jewish history to reinforce the point that were God on their side, He would not allow them to be conquered. But since they were now fighting not only against the Romans, but also against God Himself, who had gone over to their side to punish the Judeans, indeed they would be foolish to resist. With such words, Josephus indeed acknowledges the might of Romans, but with an asterisk. They would have no power over the Judeans if it had not been given by the God of the Jews. At another level, Steve Mason has identified numerous accents upon Judean toughness, manliness, endurance, and contempt of death throughout the narrative of War. Such character traits, attributed in antiquity to the Spartans and highlighted in contemporary literature as indicative of Roman superiority, Josephus co-opts as indicative of Judean character. Thus, after Josephus dwells at length (and somewhat implausibly) in War 3 upon the superior training and discipline of Roman soldiers, Mason draws attention to how Josephus later on narrates how these invincible Roman legions were driven in disarray by Judean “irregulars.”


Close examination of the Masada narrative yields evidence that aligns rather well with these observations. Throughout, Josephus persistently undermines any notion of Roman might and superiority for this last battle. In the end, the only thing about which Flavius Silva could boast was that he was a skilled engineer suited for an interesting logistical challenge. Indeed, no battle takes place. There is no Roman display of valor or skill, no sacrifice for honor, no slaying or capture of the enemy. Instead the narrative turns on the recognition of divine fate/necessity (pronoia/anagke). After bringing their engines to bear and affecting a breach in the fortress wall, the Romans set fire to the wood and earthen wall built in defense. A north wind threatened to turn the fire back against the Romans, but suddenly the wind shifted to the south as if by divine fate and destroyed the second wall (7:318). Josephus tells how the Romans rejoiced because they determined by this turn of events that they had God as their ally against the Sicarii. So they retired for the night (7:319). After a good night’s sleep, they returned to attack only to discover that the Sicarii and killed themselves and had thus robbed them of their victory in such a manner that could only arouse Roman admiration (7:406).


Josephus insists that Eleazar decided upon this course of action because he too interpreted the shifting wind as divine intent. Indeed, for him it was a signal of divine necessity (7:330-332). He understood at this point that God was bringing upon the Sicarii punishment for how they mistreated their own countrymen. The clear course of action was to submit to death voluntarily and thus pay the penalty for their misdeeds to God (7:333-334, 358-359, 387). In this way, they could simultaneously deny the Romans their victory and preserve for themselves honor and freedom (7:325-326, 333-334, 360, 380-388). Space does not permit any elaboration of the many clear allusions throughout the narrative and speeches to contemporary philosophical discussion about voluntary death. The point to be recognized here is that Josephus does not intend us to interpret Masada as a display of invincible Roman power. The narrative fully supports the claims of Eleazar to his compatriots that the Romans could claim no victory. Josephus has Eleazar insist that the Romans were in fact granted only the “appearance of victory” (to dokein ekeinois nikan) and this by a power greater than they, the Judean God Himself (7:360). Throughout, Josephus accents the culmination of divine punishment upon these Judean rebels who were responsible for the death of their own people. Masada thus emerges as a set piece narrative in War, illustrating the necessity not of submitting to Roman might but rather to divine authority.


Josephus’ intent with the narrative at Masada is best understood in light of the proem for War. There several themes are accented for further development in the ensuing narrative. Chief among these is stasis, a word variously translated as “sedition” or “dissension” and used to describe strife in civil affairs. Scholars note how this word had all manner of bad connotations in Thucydides, the model historian of antiquity, and was assuredly a hot-button word also in light of the Romans’ own recent experience after the death of Nero. Josephus insists in the proem that stasis among the Jews brought about the ruin of the Judean state. The Romans, who did not wish to, ultimately destroyed the temple and Jerusalem only in an effort to control the Judean stasis (1:10, 19, 27). Josephus proceeds to unwrap this theme at various points throughout the narrative, but what is of note here is how he uses the Sicarii to bring this theme to a resolution in War. Josephus had already united the Sicarii to Judean stasis when he first introduced them in the narrative at 2:254-57. There they are uniquely identified for the first time by the assassination of the high priest Jonathan. Similarly, the next time they appear in the narrative (2:425-6), Josephus told how they burned the house of Ananus the high priest and pressed their attacks against fellow Jews who were allied with Agrippa. Throughout the narrative whenever Josephus names the Sicarii, they are associated with acts of violence against their own Judean leaders or fellow Jews who support Roman rule. After the fall of Jerusalem, Masada is the last fortified place of Judean resistance presented in War, and at this point, Josephus has Eleazar confess how the Sicarii had taken part in the destruction of their own people. It was, indeed, this behavior which brought not only Josephus’ own condemnation but also divine punishment at Masada. After they submit themselves to voluntary death, an atonement paid to God and not the Romans, the Judean stasis had indeed been brought to heal and Josephus has no more to say about Roman military activity.


Josephus signals in the proem also his intention to defend the nobility of the Judean people who fought against Rome. In this regard, he faults others for writing flatteries and fictions about the war (kolakeiais ē plasmasi) as they exalted the Romans while down playing (kataballein) Judeans. Josephus, however, states that one cannot properly magnify the Romans by describing how they conquered a puny nation. So although he will not react by similarly exalting the Jews, he states that he does indeed intend to set the record straight (1:7-9). We have noted above how Mason elaborates the manner in which Josephus carries out this intention in War, co-opting for the Judeans those character traits much admired in antiquity. Josephus undoubtedly fulfills this intent also in the Masada narrative, particularly in how he describes the voluntary deaths of the Sicarii. Roman and Greek literature of the period offered a continuous discussion of the nobility of taking ones life to preserve personal honor. Even those who were on the wrong side of civil war were often praised for their voluntary deaths in the tradition of Cato. We should not be surprised, then, when Josephus does this also for the Sicarii at Masada.


Josephus does not signal in the proem his intention to accent divine authority, but, as noted above, he clearly develops it at several crucial points earlier in War. However, he emphasizes it so heavily at Masada that, in combination with his accent upon the nobility of Judean character, any notion of Roman superiority over the defeated Judeans is completely undermined. Josephus’ intent is all the clearer in light of how he brings his story of the Judean revolt to an end. After the fall of Jerusalem, told in book six, Josephus goes on to describe the Flavian triumph. Scholars have noted how this victory over a second rank province was magnified out of all proportion at Rome to celebrate the end of civil wars and the beginning of a new dynasty. There the defeat of the Judeans was not only enshrined at the Temple of Peace but was vividly portrayed also in the arch of Titus, the Flavian amphitheater, and the newly minted Judea Capta coins. When writing about the war, Josephus was obligated to describe his patrons’ triumph in all its glory, and indeed he does not disappoint, describing Titus’ gradual and victorious return to Rome and the Flavian parade through the first third of book 7. Josephus, however, who took it upon himself in his later works to defend at Rome the nobility of the defeated Judeans, did not want the Triumph be the final image in War. The narrative of Masada occupies only slightly less space than the triumph and by virtue of its position clearly upstages it. We might say that just as the Flavians magnified their victory over Judea out of all proportion for its propaganda value, so also Josephus elevated the reduction of a final fortress in Judea, out of all proportion to its strategic importance, also for its propaganda value. The Romans could claim no victory. Neither were they superior to the Judeans in character. It was rather the Judean God who granted the Romans the victory in order to punish Judean stasis.


With this evidence, we easily conjecture that it would be a delicate matter for Josephus to defend Judean character and undermine Roman authority in such an obvious fashion in a work ultimately endorsed by Titus. This would explain the employment of irony that is undoubtedly present in the Masada narrative at several levels. On the one hand, irony is revealed when the narrative is read in light of what Josephus has already stated in the prior six books of War. These rebels who warred against their fellow Judeans who supported Rome ultimately, we might even say inevitably, destroyed themselves. The Sicarii, who insisted that Judeans ought not toss away their freedom to Roman taskmasters, became far worse oppressors of their own people. The irony is undoubtedly sharpened within the narrative by having Eleazar expound upon the blessings of freedom. The culminating act of freedom by these Sicarii was to kill themselves. All such notes of irony in the narrative, employed as they were to effectively demonstrate the destructive nature of stasis, are rather obvious, and, we might add, safe points to make before a Roman audience.


At another level, however, there is ample evidence to support the employment of figured speech and irony in ancient literary works, particularly in first century Rome, to engage in criticism when it was otherwise unsafe to do so. When irony was effectively employed in this manner, Quintilian indicates that an author avoided danger because his text could be interpreted otherwise (Inst. 9.2.66-7). Irony of this nature was designed to be subtle and therefore is harder to detect. One sign of its presence is the use of ambiguous or contradictory words which stand out like spikes in the narrative. Several such places exist in the Masada narrative. Josephus in the same context describes Eleazar’s followers as brave (andrōdestatous) and soft (malakōterous), or those who act as if possessed (daimonōntes) but still follow the best course of action after careful deliberation. He states that the Romans, after entering the fortress the next day and seeing the mass of those who are murdered (pephoneumenōn), could hardly believe the magnitude of the crime (tolmēmatos) and then states how they were amazed both at the nobility (gennaiotēta) of the plan and at the Judean rebels’ contempt of death (tou thanatou kataphronēsin). Discordant words as these in such close proximity can hardly be attributed to Josephus’ own inexperience with the language. He is rather manipulating his text and allowing readers to see what they want to see at Masada. These last Judean rebels were either very brave to take their own lives or cowards in doing so. They acted irrationally or as those who carefully deliberated the best course of action. Their action was either a horrendous crime or a noble plan. Such effective use of irony allows Josephus to loudly proclaim at Masada that the Roman “victory” was after all not really their victory but God’s punishment upon the Judean stasis and that these Judeans have a nobility that even surpasses that of the Romans. Simultaneously, he gives the Flavians permission in the narrative to dismiss Eleazar and the Sicarii as nothing more than madmen. Safe criticism indeed!