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Siege of Masada

Profile view of Masada mountain

The siege of Masada – and the mass suicide of 960 Jewish rebels who held this mountain fortress against the might of Rome – is one of the great stories to have come down to us from the earliest days of Christianity. The details of this tragic event were recorded by Flavius Josephus, a Jewish military leader who, after his capture by the Romans, went on to become one of the most important historians in the ancient world. Indeed, Josephus wrote the only contemporaneous account of the siege, an epic conflict that has provided source material to archaeologists, ideologues and writers, and, most recently, to the CBS television miniseries The Dovekeepers. More than just an ancient tragedy, it is part of the founding narrative of Israel — a story of heroic resistance against impossible odds.

In this one-hour documentary special, our cameras explore the great mystery of Masada. Josephus’ account of 960 rebels fending off the might of Rome seems implausible, especially when you consider that he wasn’t present at the siege. And yet, as Dr. James Tabor demonstrates, much of what Josephus wrote is accurate — such as the treacherous “snake path” which is the only access to Masada. In 1963, famed archaeologist Dr. Yigael Yadin excavated the ancient fortress, and what he found also seemed to corroborate Josephus’ account.

But, to fully understand what really happened at Masada, the film sets the stage with the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in the year 70. With the help of experts Walter Zanger (he has – quite literally - written the book on Jerusalem) and archaeologist Dr. Shimon Gibson, we explore the city where the tragedy of Masada truly began: a city so divided against itself that it was unable to offer any real resistance to the Roman legions that burned it to the ground.
Chief among the Jewish sects that vied for power in Jerusalem was a group of zealots called the Sicarii, the Latin word for the short, curved knife they used to execute their foes. Even before Jerusalem fell and the Second Temple was destroyed, many of these same Sicarii had fled to the ancient fortress at Masada. There, under the command of a fighter named Eleazar Ben Ya’ir, they had a base of operations for six long years. In the film, Dr. Candida Moss helps us understand exactly who these people were. We learn, contrary to popular belief, that they were not just rebels and rogues; instead, this was an entire community – men, women and children – of deeply religious people. And, as Dr. Guy Stiebel, the site’s chief archaeologist tells us, they weren’t all Sicarii either. In fact, there’s evidence that multiple Jewish sects lived together at Masada. More than a fortress for resistance, it was also a refuge from the devastation of Jerusalem.

Finally, however, the Roman Emperor Vespasian dispatches the 10th legion under General Flavius Silva to eliminate the last of the Jewish resistance. Roman military expert, Dr. Jodi Magness, walks us through the remains of legionary camps and shows us how the Rome’s army may have taken the seemingly-impenetrable fortress of Masada in as little as seven weeks. But, seven weeks of seven months, it was an undertaking that married military and engineering ambition to a truly heroic task. The centerpiece was a siege ramp hundreds of feet tall…together with a battering ram that was hauled up the side of the mountain to destroy the city’s walls
When it became clear that Rome was unstoppable, Josephus claims that Eleazar persuaded his people to commit suicide rather than become slaves. So, when the Roman army broke through the final wall into the fortress, they found there was no one left to fight — just a handful of women & children who survived the carnage and told the tale.

Today, new evidence has come to light, casting doubt on Josephus’s account and Masada’s place in history. And yet, while some dispute the death toll and others ask where the bodies are buried, there are some who fervently believe that finding the remains of the 960 martyrs of Masada is only a matter of time.