Before starting the excavations at the rock of Masada, on the western shore of the Dead Sea, we dreamed of the possibility of finding scrolls there. I say “dreamed” because the hope that we would could not be very bright. Hitherto, all the scrolls which had been found in the vicinity of the Dead Sea had been discovered only in caves, where they had been hidden intentionally, and where the only damage they suffered—comparatively slight—had been damage by nature, such as mild dampness, or by the nibbling of small animals. Now, as we approached Masada, we asked ourselves: “Had the Zealots hidden their writings before committing suicide? And if they had, would any of them still be preserved? And would we find them?”
As I say, these were simply reflections on our part, hopeful speculation; and so our great excitement may be imagined when, only a few weeks after we started digging, we found our first scroll. It was discovered in one of the rooms in the casemate wall (room 1,039, as it is referred to in our field charts). After clearing more than six feet of debris, we had got down close to the floor. The room had not been burned, and it contained a large collection of vessels, cloth, mats, baskets, and leather articles. We thought perhaps that the Roman garrison had assembled here a mixed bag of articles gathered in the vicinity. Then came the first serious find, important not only in itself but also in relation to the other finds. Strewn over a small area of the floor in the southern corner of the room were seventeen silver shekels. They were in excellent condition. The inscriptions in Hebrew, “Shekel Israel” and “Jerusalem the Holy,” were completely clear. So were the Hebrew letters shin alef, shin beth, shin gimel, shin daleth, and shin he. Shin is the first letter of shana, the Hebrew word for “year,” and the other letters represent the numbers 1,2,3,4,5 respectively. The markings on the coins were thus “year one,” “year two,” “year three,” “year four,” and “year five”—each denoting in which year of the revolt (which lasted five years2) the coin had been struck. Until this discovery, the total number of shekels struck in the rare “year five” known to exist in the world was only six; here, among the seventeen shekels we found, three were of “year five.”
About three feet away from the shekels the first scroll was found. All the details of this discovery are sharp in my mind. In the early hours of the afternoon, while I was in one of the northern storerooms, Shmaryahu Guttman3 came running to me, followed by some of the volunteers working with him, and flourished before me a piece of parchment. It was so black and creased that only with difficulty could one make anything out. But a quick examination on the spot showed us immediately that here was a fragment from the Book of Psalms, and we could even identify the chapters: the section ran from Psalm 81 to Psalm 85. A little while later we also found another part of the scroll, which completed the top part of the first fragment. After this scroll fragment had been treated by the elderly technical expert, Professor Bieberkraut, and photographed by his wife, Helena, with infra-red film, this writing on parchment could be read with ease.
This discovery is of extraordinary importance for scroll research. This is the first time that a parchment scroll has been found elsewhere than in a cave, and in circumstances where it was possible to date it without the slightest doubt. The scroll could not possibly have been written later than the year 73 C.E., the year Masada fell. As a matter of fact, this scroll was written much before—perhaps twenty or thirty years earlier; and it is interesting that this section from the Book of Psalms, like the other biblical scrolls which we found later, is almost exactly identical (except for a few very minor changes here and there) with the text of the biblical books which we use today. Even the division into chapters and psalms is identical with the traditional division. This not only testifies to the strength and faithfulness of the Jewish tradition, but it enables us to learn many things about the development of the biblical text, particularly in the light of the fact that many of the scrolls of biblical books which were discovered in Qumran, and in the caves north of Masada, contained significant textual changes from the accepted traditional text. On the second section of the fragment that we found lay several bronze coins struck in the second and third years of the revolt. We could not have hoped to find more effective testimony to the date of our scroll. In the same room in the casemate's wall, we found another few fragments of scrolls, among them one from the Book of Leviticus.
But the scroll which gave us the greatest surprise was discovered in the southeastern corner of the room. This was not a large fragment, and it appeared, as with other fragments, to have been cut and torn intentionally. Had this been the work of the Roman garrison? It is possible. Josephus writes that one of the ways in which the Roman soldiers persecuted the Jews was by tearing books of the Bible before their eyes. Apparently, the Roman soldiers occupied this room for some time, as is evidenced by a number of Latin papyri, some kind of military documents, which may be ascribed to the Roman garrison. The torn scroll fragment, when photographed, was found to contain Hebrew writing. When I began reading it, I came across the line, “The song of the sixth Sabbath sacrifice on the ninth of the second month.” Seeing this and a few other lines, I was suddenly struck by the amazing fact that this text was exactly the same as the text of one of the scrolls discovered in Qumran, in cave four. That scroll was a very definite sectarian scroll which details “songs of the Sabbath sacrifices” dealing with each Sabbath and its date.
The sixth Sabbath could have fallen on the ninth of the second month only on the basis of the special calendar used by the Qumran sect. This calendar divided the year into 364 days—twelve months of thirty days each, and one additional day at the end of every three months. The first day of the first month, namely, the month of Nissan, always fell on a Wednesday, the day of the creation of the luminaries, which determined the division of time.
The big question was: “What has this sectarian scroll to do with Masada?” Most scholars believe that the sect to which the scrolls of Qumran belonged was that of the Essenes, described at length by Philo the Alexandrian and by Josephus, and also mentioned in the writings of Pliny, who was with the conquering Roman army. These writers say that the Essenes lived on the western shore of the Dead Sea in an area which very much suggests the location of Khirbet Qumran. A minority of scholars has long suggested that the Qumran sect should be identified with the Sicarii Zealots, the very Zealots who occupied Masada. For these scholars, of course, the discovery of this sectarian scroll in Masada was, on the face of it, important support for the truth of their theory. However, I believe that the evidence in the hands of the majority of scholars who identify the Qumran sect with the Essenes is so strong that one needs to find another explanation for the presence of a Qumranic scroll in the Masada stronghold of the Zealots. It seems to me that the discovery of this scroll serves as proof indeed that the Essenes also participated in the great revolt against the Romans. For some reason, a distorted picture has emerged about these Essenes, and this is mostly the fault of Philo's descriptions. There were scholars who sought to infer from these descriptions that the Essenes were pacifists, in the modern meaning of the term; but this was not so. They refrained from participating in wars so long as these wars were not in accordance with their concept, namely, wars preordained by God. But if they had reached the recognition that the great revolt was in fact the ordained war against the Romans, there would have been no reason, in terms of their own beliefs and concepts, not to take part in it. Moreover, there is in fact direct evidence, in the writings of Josephus, of Essene participation in the war.
It will be recalled that Josephus, at the beginning of the revolt, was one of the Jewish commanders responsible for the Galilee region, and he certainly was acquainted with other commanders of the revolt. When he lists the names of the commanders of the revolt and their sectors, he relates that the commander of the important central sector—which included Lod, Jaffa, Jamnia, etc.—was someone named John the Essene. Is it likely that only one Essene joined the revolt and became an outstanding commander? I think not. It is more likely that a considerable number of Essenes also joined the rebellion. And after the country had been destroyed and Masada remained the sole stronghold and outpost in the war against the Romans, it is likely that all who had fought together and survived found shelter there, among them also the Essene participants. It would have been natural for all such groups to have brought with them their holy writings. This, it seems to me, explains the presence of the Qumranic sectarian scroll in Masada. At all events, this small scroll fragment found in casemate 1,039 will assuredly remain—more than any other discovery of ours in Masada—as a subject of research and stormy debate among scholars of ancient scrolls and of the history of the Second Temple period.
This was not the only casemate in which scrolls were found. We discovered other fragments: for example, in one of the chambers in the eastern sector, just north of the “snake path.” The excavation work in this sector was very difficult because large sections of the outside wall had collapsed and they needed to be strengthened and supported before we could start digging.
What we discovered was a piece of white leather which contained the last chapter of the Book of Psalms, namely, Psalm 150: “Praise ye the Lord. . . . Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet.” The writing on it was so faded and the color of the parchment so light that it almost escaped our notice, and indeed when it was being cleaned one of the volunteers thought that what she was holding in her hand was a piece of newspaper.
To the south of the “snake path,” in casemate 1,109, we found another scroll, perhaps one of the most important for the study of Jewish and Hebrew literature of the Second Temple period. In the northern part of the room, near the floor, we came upon a few crushed and creased scroll fragments. When they were opened and photographed by the infra-red process, we were able to read them as if they had been written that very day, and our delight may be imagined when it became clear that these were fragments of the lost original Hebrew text of the scroll, The Wisdom of Ben-Sira.
Ben-Sira lived in the first half of the 2nd century B.C.E., several decades before the Hasmonean period. His book, which was widely known in his day, just missed being included in the Old Testament canon, and it is widely quoted in the Talmud; the ancient Rabbis referred to it and quoted its proverbs in the same way as they quoted from the books of the Bible. However, since it was not included in the canonical works of the Old Testament, its original Hebrew text disappeared in the course of time, and it was preserved for us only in translations, of which the most notable was the Greek. This was the work of Ben-Sira's grandson, toward the end of the 2nd century B.C.E. This Greek translation was included by the Church in the books of the Apocrypha, and is known as Ecclesiasticus. Modern scholars had long felt that there were corruptions in the Greek copies and some even held that the grandson's translation had not always been faithful to the Hebrew text.
A dramatic turning-point in Ben-Sira research came in 1896 with the discovery of portions of a Hebrew text of Ben-Sira among the medieval manuscripts found in the geniza4 of the old Cairo synagogue. This discovery immediately set off a fierce controversy among scholars. The majority believed that this was indeed a copy of the original Hebrew text of Ben-Sira, even though there were a number of copyist's corruptions, since this copy had been made in the Middle Ages. A minority of scholars, however, argued that it was a translation back to Hebrew made in the Middle Ages, from the Greek or the Syriac translations of the original Hebrew.
Well, here at Masada we had just discovered parts of the original Hebrew text of The Wisdom of Ben-Sira, and the writing of our scroll could be dated to the first half of the 1st century B.C.E. We could now compare this with the text of the Cairo geniza. The comparison put an end to the controversy, for it showed quite clearly that the two texts are basically identical, namely, that the text in the Cairo geniza on the whole represents the original Ben-Sira Hebrew text. I say “on the whole” because there are, of course, some corruptions, some earlier, some later, some the fault of copyists, some the fault of editors. But the model was clearly the original Ben-Sira.
Our discovery may have stopped the controversy over Ben-Sira, but it also opened a new chapter in research on this book, which is one of the most important apocryphal works and one of the greatest Hebrew books of the period of the Second Temple. Here, for example, is a translation of one of the pages found in Masada:
Let me now hymn the praises of men of piety
Our fathers in their generations
Great honor did the Most High allot
And His greatness from the days of old
Men who wielded dominion over the earth in
And men of renown in their might
And counsellors in their discernment
And all-seeing in their prophecy
Princes of the nation in their statesmanship
And leaders in their decrees
Clever of speech in their scribal instruction
And speakers of wise sayings at their festiv-
Devisers of psalms according to rule
And authors of proverbs in books
Men of resource and supported with strength
And living at ease in their dwelling-places
All these were honored in their generation
And in their days had glory
Some of them there are who have left a name
That men might tell of it in their inher-
And some of them there are who have no
So that there was an end of them when they
came to their end
They were as though they had not been
And their children after them
Nevertheless these were men of piety
And their goodness shall not be cut off
With their seed their goodness remaineth sure
And their inheritance to their children's
In their covenant their seed abideth
And their children's children for their sakes
And for ever their seed abideth
And their glory shall not be erased
And their body is buried in peace
But their name liveth unto all generations
The assembly recounteth their wisdom
And their praise the congregation relateth
Noah the righteous was found blameless
In the season of destruction he became the
For his sake there was a remnant
And by reason of the covenant with him the
Having mentioned this apocryphal book, we should also mention the discovery of another scroll which was found in one of the wall towers to the west of the western palace.5 This tower rises to a great height; at the top of it there were remains of a monk's cell from the Byzantine period. After we had removed the foundations and had cleared a layer of almost nine feet of debris, we got near to the floor of the structure. It was apparent that here, too, during the period of its occupation by the Roman garrison, all sorts of articles in the area had been gathered and thrown as if it were a garbage heap, and among such articles we found beautiful Nabatean vessels whose exact date we were able to determine.
Because of the dryness of the atmosphere and the discovery here of mats, baskets, pieces of wood, and so on, we had the feeling that this was a site where we might find a scroll. There was almost a “scroll smell” about the place, and indeed when we got right down to the floor of the room, we found a scroll fragment. The credit for this find went to a doctor from London. The fragment we found is small but its importance is great. It is written in Hebrew and it contains portions of the original Hebrew text of one of the pseudo-epigraphical works which has also disappeared with time, namely, the Book of Jubilees. This book, which describes the journeys of the patriarchs in the Book of Genesis in accordance with the special calendar of the Qumran sect, had, as I say, disappeared in its original text and has been preserved largely in its various translations into Greek, Ethiopian, and Latin.
The one scroll which was found outside the bounds of the casemate chambers and the dwellings of the Zealots was discovered in a place we could never have thought of. At the end of the first season of excavation, after seven months of work, a small heap of debris was still left from the huge mound which had covered the wall of the upper terrace of the northern palace-villa. This small heap, which we had not managed to excavate, was at its western edge, and all we could do was to mark it and postpone its clearance until the second season. On the very first day of the second season, early in the afternoon, it fell to a young lad from a kibbutz in Western Galilee to discover, in the western corner of the court in front of the large wall, fragments of a scroll scattered among the ruins. This discovery provoked great excitement and was taken as a happy omen for our future work. Parts of the fragments had been eaten away, but those that were undamaged were very well preserved and we could immediately identify them as several chapters from the Book of Leviticus, chapters eight to twelve, and to note that this scroll, too, was absolutely identical with the traditional text of Leviticus. Moreover, there was the same division into sections, the traditional division into “open” and “closed” ones, that is, sections which begin after an empty line-space at the end of the previous one, and those which begin after a small space in the same line.
How the scroll reached this location we shall never know. Maybe it was blown there by the wind during the destruction of Masada and was buried among the ruined debris; or perhaps it was thrown there by one of the Roman soldiers. At all events, its discovery at Masada might be called an archaeological “miracle.”
The discovery of the next two scrolls also surprised us by their location, and shed much light on an understanding of the building in which they were found, as we shall now see.
The Synagogue and Its Scrolls
At the very beginning of our first season of excavations, while digging in the northwestern section of the wall of Masada, we came upon a strange structure adjoining the wall, so close that it seemed part of the wall, even though it projected substantially inward and eastward, inside Masada. It was unlike any of the buildings we had excavated up to then in the casemate wall. Early in the dig, we noticed what looked like benches plastered with clay protruding from the debris inside the building, next to the walls. Gradually, pillars began to appear, made in sections, and when we had finished excavating, what appeared before us was a rectangular structure with benches all around the walls, tier upon tier, all plastered with clay. On the eastern side there was an opening. In the center were two rows of columns, three columns in the southern row, and two in the northern. The northwest corner of the building was a kind of cell which merged into the casemate wall, and there was an entrance to it from the south, next to the western pillar of the southern row.
Even while excavating, we felt that the final stage, at least, of the building, and particularly the benches, had been constructed by the Zealots. Not only did we find many coins from the period of the revolt on the floor of this room, but here and there, where the plaster on the benches had peeled, we could tell that the benches had in fact been made out of quarried stone and broken pieces of dressed stone which had been taken from other buildings on Masada. Particularly conspicuous among these were portions of column drums and of capitals which could be identified immediately as having belonged to the lower and perhaps also to the upper terrace of Herod's northern palace-villa. It was clear that at least these benches had been built after various parts of the palace-villa had been destroyed; and it was even clearer that this structure had the character of a communal building and was designed for public gatherings. But what was its purpose?
During the first season we already dared to suggest, albeit with considerable hesitation, that it was perhaps a synagogue. What strengthened this assumption was also the fact that the entrance faced east, and it was wholly oriented toward Jerusalem, as required by the traditional injunctions of the Sages. Moreover, we found on the floor an ostracon6 with the inscription “Priestly tithe,” that is, one of the tithes that was allocated to the Levites, and another sherd which bore the inscription, “Hezekiah,” perhaps the name of a priest.
In one corner of the main room we found scores of soot-blackened lamps, and in the rear cell the floor was covered with the remains of a powerful fire; it was evident that numerous articles of furniture and many vessels had been collected here and set alight. They included handsome vessels of glass and metal, and among them was a washbasin.
If what we had just unearthed was indeed a synagogue, then this was a discovery of front-rank importance in the field of Jewish archaeology and certainly one of the most important finds in Masada. For up until then, the very earliest synagogues discovered in Israel belonged to the end of the 2nd or the beginning of the 3rd century C.E. There were no remains of any synagogue from the period of the Second Temple.
Because of its outstanding importance, we decided to continue our excavations of this building in the second season, and to cut sections in it and around it to enable us to examine the stages of its construction. What spurred us particularly was the fact that toward the end of the first season, while cutting a section in the upper floor level of the rear cell, we found beneath it the base of an additional column. It was clear, however, that those who built the last floor of the building, while constructing this special cell in its corner, had removed that column and covered its base with the floor. It was evident therefore that before the Zealot stage of construction, the plan of the building had been different. In its earlier stage, the building had had an anteroom, and the main room had had columns along its southern, western, and northern sides.
It is difficult to determine the function of this building in the original Herodian plan, but one may hazard the guess that even then it served as a synagogue. This theory may be supported by the following assumptions. First, it seems most unlikely that Herod would have denied a place of worship to the Jewish members of his family or to other Jews who were members of his court. Second, the architectural plan with its pillars is quite reminiscent of the plan of several early synagogues discovered in Galilee. And third, there exists a strong conservative tradition in the siting of houses of worship, and it would be in keeping with this tradition that the Zealots, when deciding on their synagogue, specifically chose this place, knowing that it had previously served as a synagogue. This would explain, too, why even the original building had been oriented toward Jerusalem. It is possible that in the period between Herod and the Zealots, when Masada was occupied by the Roman garrison, the building may have served as a stable, for between the two floors, the original and the later one, we found many layers of animal dung.
I turn now to a most interesting find which, I believe, enables us to state with greater certainty that this building was indeed a synagogue. While making the exploratory cuts in the rear cell, the two architects of our expedition, Dunayevsky and Menzel, measured the distance between the bases of the two columns we found there and examined the filling between the two floors. In so doing they extended the area of the cut, and came upon a piece of rolled scroll. How had it got there, and why beneath the upper floor? When we studied the area of the cut more carefully, we found that a pit had once been dug at this spot, from the upper floor. The scroll was found at the bottom of this pit which had later been filled with earth and stones. This had therefore been a kind of geniza. This scroll may have been buried while the Zealots lived here because it was no longer usable, or it may have been hidden by them just before they ended their lives. Whichever it was, we were spurred by the find to excavate the whole of the upper floor in the rear cell to see if there were any other such pits.
I assigned this delicate task to Chief Petty Officer Moshe Cohen—known as “Mussa”—of the Israeli navy. After several days' work, he discovered a portion of the floor missing in the southern section of the cell, and beneath it a pit full of stamped-down earth. At the very moment of his discovery, an urgent telegram arrived recalling Mussa to his job in the navy for three days. He begged us to hold up the clearance work until his return, and though it was not easy to restrain our eagerness, we agreed to the delay. When he returned, he immediately resumed excavating the pit, while we all stood by tense with excitement. Within a few hours he had reached almost to the bottom of the pit and there his groping hands found the remains of a scroll. Though the parchment was badly gnawed, we could immediately identify the writing as chapters from the Book of Ezekiel; and the parts that were better preserved than others, and which we could easily read, contained extracts from Chapter 37—the vision of the dry bones.
As for the rolled scroll discovered in the first pit, it was found on opening—which had to be done with great care in the laboratory in Jerusalem—to contain parts of the two final chapters of the Book of Deuteronomy. But the tightly-rolled core of the scroll, on which we had pinned much hope, turned out to our dismay to be simply the blank end “sheets” of the scroll. They had been sewn to the written “sheets” to facilitate rolling and unrolling.
These two scrolls are important in themselves. They also lend support, as we have indicated, to the probability that this building was indeed a synagogue. But there is another aspect of high importance to the discovery of these two scrolls: they are the only ones found not on the floor of a room but in a geniza, beneath the floor laid by the Zealots. This means that the date of the scrolls cannot possibly be later than 73 C.E. and not even the most skeptical of scholars can challenge this.
All in all, we discovered at Masada portions of fourteen scrolls, biblical, sectarian, and apocryphal. From the point of view of scroll research and study of the literature of the Second Temple period, these were the most important discoveries of our Masada excavations.
The Remains of the Last Defenders
The defenders of Masada, as testified by Josephus, died by their own hands. The exceptions were two women and several children who hid themselves during the suicide operation and who later recounted to the conquering Roman unit what had taken place in Masada in the final moments. From the very beginning of our excavation we concerned ourselves with the problem of finding the remains of the defenders—whether there were such remains and if so where they were likely to be. The probability that they would be found was dim indeed. According to Josephus, General Silva established a Roman garrison on the Masada summit after its conquest, a fact confirmed by our excavations, and it could be assumed that this garrison would have disposed of the bodies in one way or another for sanitary reasons. Nevertheless, we retained the hope that we might perhaps find some remains, and from the very outset we searched for possible places where they might have lain unnoticed. We did find three skeletons on the lower terrace of the palace-villa, and they were almost certainly those of the final Jewish defenders. Would we come across others?
One of the sites where it seemed probable that we might find skeletons of bodies buried or thrown by the Roman garrison was the network of caves near the top of the southern cliff of the Masada rock, only a few yards below the casemate wall. There had apparently been some early intention of using these caves to store water. But evidently, some of them were found unsuitable for this purpose and the project was abandoned. Our excavations showed that some of Masada's defenders dwelt in these caves at various times, as indicated by remains of food and domestic utensils which we found. And it was in one of the smaller of these caves that we came upon the stark sight of skulls and other parts of skeletons scattered in disorder about the floor. Among the bones were fragments of linen and pieces of clothing. A brief examination showed that there were altogether about twenty-five skeletons. Had these been the bodies of Zealots? Had they been troops of the Roman garrison? Or had they been the monks of the Byzantine Period? At the time, we could give no accurate opinion. But now, after the bones have been carefully studied by my colleague, Dr. N. Hass, of the Hebrew University Medical School, the following facts have been established: fourteen of the skeletons are of males between the ages of twenty-two and sixty; one is of a man over the age of seventy; six are females aged between fifteen and twenty-two; and four are children aged from eight to twelve; there is also one of an embryo! Most of the skulls belong to the same type as those we discovered in the Caves of Bar Kochba in Nahal Hever. It seems to me that these facts conclusively rule out the possibility that the skeletons are those either of the Roman garrison or of the monks. They can be only those of the defenders of Masada.
Could they have been thrown into this cave by their own comrades during the siege? This is difficult to believe. The only feasible assumption is that they were flung here irreverently by the Roman troops when they cleared the bodies after their victory.
In no other place on Masada did we find additional skeletons. In our search, we made several exploratory sectional-cuts in places where such finds seemed likely, but without success. It is possible that we may have missed some pit where bodies might have been cast, but I think that on the whole our excavations confirmed our earlier view that the Roman garrison which occupied Masada for several decades after the dramatic event cleared the area of all such human remains. Thus, apart from the twenty-five skeletons found in the cave and possibly the three found in the palace-villa, no physical remains of the last defenders of Masada were left. But the moving words of Josephus have kept them alive to this day:
For the husbands tenderly embraced their wives and took their children into their arms, and gave the longest parting kisses to them, with tears in their eyes. Yet at the same time did they complete what they had resolved on, as if they had been executed by the hands of strangers, and they had nothing else for their comfort but the necessity they were in of doing this execution, to avoid that prospect they had of the misery they were to suffer from their enemies.
At every archaeological excavation, there is always at least one visitor who, after being shown all the digging sites and the finds, asks: “What was your most important discovery?” This, for me, is a difficult question to answer, for every archaeological find has its own special importance. The structures, the wall-paintings, the mosaics—all are of great value for a study of Herodian period architecture, the nature of Masada, and the character of King Herod. The coins and the ostraca are of considerable importance for certain paleographic and historical studies. The thousands of pottery sherds and stone vessels, articles of leather and straw, cosmetic vials, jewelry, the ovens and cooking stoves, the ritual baths (mikvot), the synagogue, and especially the scrolls—these are invaluable for research into the Jewish archaeology of the Second Temple period.
If, however, I were pressed to single out one discovery more spectacular than any other, I would point to a find which may not be of the greatest importance from the point of view of pure archaeology, but which certainly, when we came upon it, electrified everyone in Masada who was engaged in the dig, professional archaeologist and lay volunteer alike.
This find was in one of the most strategic spots on Masada, close to the gate which leads to the “water path” and near the square between the storehouses and the administration building, where all the northern tracks meet on the summit. The debris on this site was in the process of being cleared by a group of volunteers—one of whom, incidentally, is an elephant-tamer in civilian life; suddenly they came across eleven small, strange ostraca, different from any others which had come to light in Masada. Upon each was inscribed a single name, each different from its fellow, though all appeared to have been written by the same hand. The names themselves were also odd, rather like nicknames, as for example “Man from the valley” or Yoav (“Joab”). (The name “Joab” may seem perfectly ordinary, but it was extremely rare during the period of the Second Temple, and it was almost certainly applied to a man who was particularly brave.)
As we examined these ostraca, we were struck by the extraordinary thought: could it be that we had discovered evidence associated with the death of the very last group of Masada's defenders? Josephus writes, in a passage immediately following the one we have just quoted:
They then chose ten men by lot out of them, to slay all the rest; everyone of whom laid himself down by his wife and children on the ground, and threw his arms about them and they offered their necks to the stroke of those who by lot executed that melancholy office; and when these ten had, without fear, slain them all, they made the same rule for casting lots for themselves, that he whose lot it was should first kill the other nine, and after all, kill himself.
Had we indeed found the very ostraca which had been used in the casting of the lots? We shall never know for certain. But the probability is strengthened by the fact that among these eleven inscribed pieces of pottery was one bearing the name “Ben Ya'ir.” This inscription could have referred, at that particular time and place, to none other than Eleazar ben Ya'ir, the leader of the Masada rebels. And it also seems possible that this final group were his ten commanders who had been left to the last, after the decision had been wholly carried out, and who had then cast lots amongst themselves.
It is thanks to Ben Ya'ir and his comrades, to their heroic stand, to their choice of death over slavery, to the burning of their humble chattels as a final act of defiance to the enemy, that Masada has become an undying symbol of desperate courage, a symbol which has stirred hearts throughout the last nineteen centuries. It is this which has moved scholars and laymen to make the ascent to Masada. It is this which moved the modern Hebrew poet, Yitzhak Lamdan, to cry: “Masada shall not fall again!” It is this which has drawn the Jewish youth of our generation, in the thousands, to climb to its summit in solemn pilgrimage.
From October 1963 to May 1964, and again from November 1964 to April 1965 (the “second season” referred to below), a series of exhaustive archaeological excavations was undertaken at the last stronghold of the first-century Jewish revolt against Rome; Masada's defenders, the Zealots, all chose to die at their own hands rather than surrender to the Roman siege. (See Daniel Gavron's “The Masada Dig” in the October 1964 COMMENTARY.) The expedition yielded a number of important discoveries, among them a series of scroll-fragments which bear a striking similarity to the Dead Sea Scrolls. The possible significance of this similarity continues to provide the occasion for—in Professor Yadin's words—“a stormy debate among scholars.” COMMENTARY has previously published Cecil Roth's contribution to that controversy (“New Light on the Dead Sea Scrolls” June 1964); the account that follows includes Professor Yadin's own interpretation of his findings, which conflicts strongly with that of Professor Roth.
1 © Copyright, 1966, by Yigael Yadin. Reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc. from Masada, by Yigael Yadin.
2 From 66 to 70 C.E.; the fortress of Masada, however, held out until the year 73 C.E.—Ed.
3 An archaeologist and field supervisor of the Masada expedition—Ed.
4 A cache of sacred Hebrew writings—Ed.
5 Of King Herod—Ed.
6 An inscribed piece of pottery—Ed.