Over the past several decades numerous articles, books, and even a television mini-series have drawn considerable attention back to the ancient Jewish/Roman conflict that culminated at Masada (just west of Israel’s Dead Sea) in A.D. 73. Unfortunately not all presentations have been accurate, thus leading to a distorted perception of that startling historical episode. The truth of the matter is this: the tragedy at Masada was but a further fulfillment of those biblical prophecies that foretold the punishment that was to be inflicted upon the Jewish nation as a result of its rebellion against Jehovah God.
From the top of Mt. Sinai Jehovah spoke to Moses:
“Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: You have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then you shall be mine own possession from among all peoples: for all the earth is mine: and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak unto the children of Israel” (Exodus 19:3-6).
This was a glorious promise, made in view of the role Israel was to play in the coming of the Messiah. It was an elaboration of earlier promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, concerning the “seed” that from them would descend (Genesis 22:18; 26:4; 28:14). It is important to notice, however, that the prophecy was conditional. The Lord had declared, “if you will obey ... then you shall be mine....” The “if ... then” phrase is most important. The implication is clear; if they did not obey, a disinheritance would occur (cf. Numbers 14:12).
As every student of Old Testament history knows, because of their weak faith — the Israelites were not permitted to journey directly from Sinai into the Promised Land. Instead, they were forced to remain in the “wilderness” for forty years. As those four rigorous decades passed, during which that desert terrain became a cemetery for the older generation, the new generation similarly was given a prophetic warning. Moses announced: “...if you listen diligently [”faithfully obey" ESV] to the voice of Jehovah your God ... but if you will not listen [“will not obey” ESV] to the voice of Jehovah your God..." (Deuteronomy 28:1, 15). The Hebrews could have blessings or a cursing, depending upon their response to the Lord’s word. The choice was entirely theirs.
Beginning in Deuteronomy 28:47, a series of scenes picturing the disastrous future of the nation unfolds. Calamities were to come because of their unfaithfulness.
(1) God would bring a nation from afar against Israel, whose language they would not understand. In subsequent centuries, Israel was invaded by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans.
(2) Israel’s enemies would be fierce, regarding neither old or young. When the Babylonians invaded Palestine, they had “no compassion upon young man or virgin, old man or hoary headed” (2 Chronicles 36:17). When the Romans came in A.D. 66-70, the armies showed “no mercy on any age whatsoever” (Josephus, Wars, 3.7.1).
(3) Jewish cities would be besieged and there would be much suffering, especially from famine. During the Roman attack family members tore food from one another’s mouths (Wars, 3.7.1). At times the Israelites ate the flesh of their own offspring. It happened at Samaria (2 Kings 6:29), in Jerusalem before the Babylonian invasion (Baruch 2:1-3), and at the time of the Roman conquest (Wars, 6.3.4).
(4) Great numbers of Jews would be killed, sold into slavery, and uprooted from their homeland. Over the centuries countless Israelites were slaughtered. Josephus chronicles more than a million killed by the Romans and notes that thousands more were sold into foreign countries (Wars, 6.9.2-4). Numerous Jews were removed from their land during the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions (2 Kings17; 2 Chronicles 36). Nehemiah noted that the Babylonian captivity was a fulfillment of prophecy (1:8), and Amos spoke of the Israelites being “sifted” among the nations (9:9).
The Crowning Act
The ultimate act of the Jews’ rebellion was the rejection of their long-awaited Messiah. John the Baptizer gave an index of Israel’s character and a preview of ominous things ahead when he warned of the “wrath to come,” observing that, “even now the axe lies at the root of the tree” (Matthew 3:7, 10). When the Lord came among his people, teaching truth and performing great signs, he was ignored by many and ridiculed by the leaders, just as various Old Testament narratives foretold (Isaiah 53:1; cf. John 12:37-38). Incrementally hardening their hearts, the Jews “filled up” the measure of their ancestors’ evil (Matthew 23:32; Acts 7:51-52) by murdering the Prince of Life (Acts 3:14-15).
It was divinely determined, therefore, that the “kingdom of God” (i.e., their reign as God’s special possession) would be wrested from Israel and given to a new spiritual “nation” (the church – Galatians 6:16; 1 Peter 2:9) that would be fruitful (Matthew 21:43). Those who had rejected Jehovah’s tried and precious “stone” (Isaiah 28:16) would be “broken to pieces” and scattered “as dust” (Matthew 21:44). Thus, forty years later God, who controls earth’s political powers (Daniel 2:21; 4:17; Psalm 22:28), sent “his armies” (the Romans) upon the nation (Matthew 22:7), and more than a million Jews lost their lives in divine retribution.
According to Jesus, the tribulation of that holocaust was to be greater than anything since “the beginning of the world until now,” or “ever shall be” (Matthew 24:21). [Note: This final phrase reveals that the projected catastrophe was not to be connected with the end of the world (as some allege), in which case the phrase “nor ever shall be” would have been entirely irrelevant.] Josephus himself expressed the view that the suffering exceeded anything previously known to man (Wars, Preface 4; 9:4). In considering the gravity of the destruction of A.D. 70, several factors must be considered — the guilt of the nation, the intensity of the suffering, the degradation of the victims, and the lingering consequences of this divine judgment. The Israelite nation had been desolated (Matthew 23:38), and their temple demolished (24:1-2). God is deadly serious; it does not pay to ignore the redemptive gift of his Son!
The Jewish Revolt
The assault of the Romans upon the Jewish nation, though ultimately due to God’s sovereign determination to punish a rebellious people (Matthew 23:35-36), was more immediately attributable to several other factors. The Jews deeply resented Roman rule over them. In A.D. 6, Archelaus, the late Herod the Great’s son, was deposed and Judea became a Roman province, administered by procurators appointed by the emperor. The situation was inflamed by the following circumstances.
There was increasing pressure for the Hebrews to acknowledge Caesar as deity. Caligula, ca. A.D. 40, ordered his image to be set up in the Jerusalem temple, though he died before the command could be implemented. (2) Many of the Roman procurators were corrupt; they overtaxed the Jews and plundered their land. (3) The procurator Florus (A.D. 64) ransacked the temple, and his administration was marked by such violence that the Jews were incited to revolt, which apparently was designed to obscure his own misdeeds (Josephus, Antiquities, 14.9.2). Conditions in Palestine were dire indeed.
Leading the Jewish revolt against Rome were the Zealots. This sect had been organized by Judas of Galilee (ca. A.D. 6; cf. Acts 5:37). And though Judas was killed in a tax rebellion, the spirit of his movement lived on. Josephus suggested he was “a teacher of a peculiar sect of his own” (Wars, 2.8.1). Accordingly, under the fervor of the Zealots, open war broke out all over Palestine in A.D. 66.
At Caesarea all Jewish residents were killed. In the late summer of 66, Gallus, the Roman legate in Syria, marched into Palestine with 40,000 soldiers. By September he reached the walls of Jerusalem. His forces were so strongly resisted by the Jews that he retreated to Caesarea, losing 6,000 men in the process. When the report of his defeat reached Rome, Nero’s great general, Flavious Vespasian, was dispatched to put down the rebellion. When Nero died (A.D. 68), Vespasian was recalled to Rome. He sent Titus, his son, to complete the siege at Jerusalem. After a horrible, bloody war, the destruction of Jerusalem was accomplished on September 7, A.D. 70.
The Fortress Masada
When the Palestinian war erupted in A.D. 66, the Zealots captured a Roman garrison at “Masada” (the name means “mountain fortress”) just west of the Dead Sea. As the war progressed a number of the Zealots took refuge at Masada. Under the leadership of Eleazer ben Yair, they became the last pocket of resistance to the Romans.
Masada is a boat-shaped mesa of sheer rock rising some 1,300 feet from the shore of the near-by Dead Sea. From adjacent valleys, the mountain juts upward 820 feet on the east and 600 feet on the west. Its top is roughly 1,900 by 650 feet, comprising 23 acres, mostly of soil.
Beginning in about A.D. 37, Herod the Great had constructed a palace and fortress at Masada, which virtually was impregnable. Except at the northernmost tip, where a three-tiered villa was located, the summit was enclosed by a wall of white stones. The wall was some 18 feet high, 12 feet thick, and 4,250 feet in length. Along the wall were 38 towers 75 feet high. Its eastern access was by means of a rugged, twisting trail, called the “Snake Path,” suggesting the difficulty involved in negotiating it. This was not the best route of approach for any invader.
Two years after the destruction of Jerusalem, the Roman procurator Flavius Silva led a vast army (the Xth Legion) against the Zealots at Masada. The commander set up eight camps and built a wall around the entire fortress to prevent any easy escape of the Jews (Josephus, Wars, 7.8.5). He constructed a huge dirt ramp on the western side of the mountain (the remnant of which is visible today). Up this ramp war machines and a huge battering ram were moved to the wall.
When the barrier finally was breeched (after a seven-month siege), a shocking discovery was made. All 960 inmates of the fortress (with the exception of two women and five children who hid in an underground cavern) had apparently died voluntarily. The men tenderly embraced their wives and children, bade them farewell, and cut their throats! These Zealots then lay down beside their families, where they were similarly executed by ten soldiers who had been chosen by the drawing of lots. The ten then selected a final man who put the remaining nine to death, then killed himself (Wars, 7.9.1).
Rather than submit to the slavery of Rome, the Zealots chose to die by their own knives. In this terminal act of defiance, these Jews have been viewed by many as heroes (Yadin, 1967, 174). But they were not heroes. The were victims of their own rebellious unbelief! And God, by means of his providential agents, the Romans (cf. Matthew 22:7), brought his wrath upon them.
Interestingly, the historian Josephus, a Jew who had been a commander in the Hebrew revolt, later defected to the pagan Romans. Yet even he believed that the Jewish destruction, both at Jerusalem and at Masada, was a divine judgment. At Jerusalem’s fall he quotes the Roman general Titus as saying: “We have certainly had God for our assistant in this war, and it was no other than God who ejected the Jews out of these fortifications...” (Wars, 6.9.1). And of the conflict at Masada, the historian affirms that the Romans had “assistance from God” (Wars, 7.8.5). Little did Josephus realize how accurate he was! After the conquest of the community, the Romans established a garrison there for the next forty years.
Archaeology and Masada
Between October 1963 and April 1965, a team of Israeli archaeologists, led by Yigael Yadin, excavated 97% of the Masada fortress. It had been called “the most spectacular site in Israel.” Herod’s great palace was studied. One scholar declared: “Nowhere else do we have so intimate a glimpse of the pomp and splendor of this man...” (Frank, 1972, 234). One of the marvels of Herod’s construction was the creation of huge cisterns which collected more than 1,400,000 cubic feet of water in that barren desert.
A Zealot synagogue was discovered, which is “not only the earliest synagogue known, but the only one to survive from the period when the Temple was still standing” (Yadin, 173). In the ruins were found scroll fragments of Genesis, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, and Ezekiel (along with some non-scripture documents). Yadin declared that in “text and spelling they are identical with the traditional Hebrew Bible” (174). This is an example of how careful biblical scribes were in copying the sacred Scriptures. The manuscripts apparently date from about the middle of the first century A.D. (Vos, 1977, 73).
Remains of twenty-eight skeletons, the suicide victims, also were discovered, along with several hundred pottery fragments containing inscriptions. Inscribed on one pottery piece was the name, “Ben Yair,” which might have been “one of the very lots used to decide who would kill the last survivors” (Yamauchi, 1979, I.668). Yadin surmised this could have been the Zealot commander mentioned by Josephus (174). In addition, hundreds of coins from the time of the revolt were found, some bearing the inscription, “For the Freedom of Zion.”
An interesting footnote to all of this is the fact that Christ had given the Jerusalem disciples certain “signs” that would enable them to “flee unto the mountains,” thus avoiding the horrors of the Roman siege (Matthew 24:16). According to the 4th century historian Eusebius, the “whole body” of members of the Jerusalem church found refuge in the town of Pella in Perea, east of the Jordan River (III.V, 86).