New questions about an ancient tale of Jewish defianceñand about the uses of archaeology:
Stand atop the wind-swept plateau known as Masada, and you can almost picture the last desperate hours of the Jewish rebels who retreated there after
the Romans burned Jerusalem in A.D. 70. For two years, the freedom fighters harried the Romans from this mountain redoubt near the Dead Sea. But then
the 10th Legion constructed huge siege walls around Masada and built a massive earthen ramp up the plateau's western side. The night before the final
assault, the Jews faced an awful choice: Deliver their families to the tender mercies of the legionnaires below, or commit collective suicide.
After an impassioned speech by their leader, Elazar Ben-Yair, the decision was made: suicide. Each of the rebels lay down beside his family. Then they
offered their throats to one of 10 men charged with dispatching all the rest. When they were done, the 10 drew lots to determine who would kill the
other nine before taking his own life. At dawn, the Romans poured through Masada's breached walls, only to discover 960 corpses--mute testimony to
the Jews' final act of defiance.
This tale of courageous resistance gained an international audience in the early 1960s when Yigael Yadin, Israel's most celebrated archaeologist,
excavated the Masada site. His detailed documentation of the story, first told by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, cemented Masada
as a potent symbol of the fledgling state's resolve in the face of its many enemies.
In a new book, Sacrificing Truth: Archaeology and the Myth of Masada (Prometheus Books), Nachman Ben-Yehuda, a professor in the department of
sociology and anthropology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, accuses Yadin, who died in 1984, of deliberately distorting his findings to "provide
Israelis with a spurious historical narrative of heroism." Yadin ignored damning information about the rebels, Ben-Yehuda charges, pointing out that
they belonged to a radical sect known for assassinating both Romans and Jews.
In his zeal to give the heroic story scientific underpinnings, Yadin overstated the significance of many findings, says Ben-Yehuda, who compared
transcripts of nightly meetings held during the excavation with Yadin's later accounts.
Nor did Yadin own up to the dark side of Masada's defenders. According to Josephus, the rebels belonged to a Jewish sect known as the Sicarii, from
the Greek word for dagger. During the battle for Jerusalem, they had gained notoriety for killing not just Romans but also moderate Jews--whom they
viewed as collaborators. Josephus also wrote that Masada's Sicarii massacred over 700 women and children in the nearby town of Ein Gedi. Yet Yadin
described the rebels as defenders or patriots.
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