UNTIL very recently little more was known about Masada than the
account given by Josephus Flavius in The Jewish War or
De Bello Judaico as he preferred to call it. Most of the
modern notices of the site and its place in Jewish history were
based on this account and on some observations by travellers."1"
Masada is the name of a mountain top lying on the eastern edge
of the chain to the west of the Dead Sea and opposite its narrowest
part. This site was fortified by Herod the Great who surrounded
it with a wall and built a palace inside. As a place of retreat
it was perhaps ideal, but as an impregnable fortress the choice
seems puzzling. For it could be easily besieged and cut off from
all supplies, while its isolated position offered no way of escape.
This proved indeed to be the case when the Zealots took refuge
in it after the fall of Jerusalem to Titus in A.D. 70.
Apparently the Romans took little notice of the fortress and its
occupants until three years later, when they sent a contingent
- it is inconceivable, as it is now asserted, that they sent the
Tenth Legion for such a small task - which besieged the fortress
and quickly breached the wall. The sole account of what took place
after this development is by Josephus and is too markedly dramatized
and imaginative to bear close examination. He alleges that the
fortress had 960 men, women and children inside the walls. The
area is irregular in shape but less than 600 metres long and 300
The story as told by Josephus is that the leader of the community,
Eleazar Ben Ya'ir, `persuaded' the people to commit mass suicide
rather than fall into the hands of the Romans. Josephus even cites
the lengthy speech, running into some two thousand words, Ben
Ya'ir was supposed to have delivered. Its keynote is that God,
who had before taken the Jews into his favour, had by then condemned
them to destruction. It was `the purpose of God' that Jerusalem
and the Temple be destroyed. Therefore, let God's punishment come
to this community not from the Romans but from God himself `as
executed by our own hands'. Of Ben Ya'ir's supposed words one
sentence merits careful note here for further reference in this
paper: `God hath made such a decree against the whole of the Jewish
As given by Josephus, the details of how men slew their wives
and children before taking their own lives are too gruesome and
inhuman to be regarded as heroic, if true. It would have been
more honourable and heroic, as a courageous submission to the
will of God, if the men decided to die, swords in their hands,
charging against the superior power of the enemy, killing some
Roman soldiers before themselves falling dead. But is Josephus
a reliable historian, and was he in a position to know the facts?
What was his background? He was born in Jerusalem of a priestly
family and acted as one of the commanders of the Jewish revolt.
But he went over to the Roman enemy in circumstances which are
He was one of forty men who thought that resistance against the
Romans was hopeless. They cast lots to kill one another. He cheated
so that he was one of the last two. They reconsidered the matter
and decided to surrender rather than die. Although under Roman
law death was the punishment of a rebel, Josephus was pardoned
by Vespasian who employed him as an interpreter. In this capacity
Josephus accompanied Titus in the assault on Jerusalem and was
thus an eye-witness of the destruction of his birth-place. Later
on he accompanied Titus to Rome and settled there from A.D. 71
to his death as a Roman citizen, enjoying imperial favour and
a generous pension. `He never again saw his native land."3"
He devoted himself to writing. All of his works were written in
Rome including The Jewish War in which the Masada episode
occurs. It was written between A.D. 75 and 79. Josephus recognized
predecessors included Antonius Julianus, who was procurator of
Judea and took part in the suppression of the Jewish revolt. Posterity
saw in Josephus a very able writer, but did not recognize him
as impartial, despite his protestation of impartiality. He was
moreover regarded as an apologist who often sacrificed truth to
prejudice and rhetoric."4"
As told by Josephus, the Masada story seems to be an act of expiation
by a renegade and an attempt to invest the defenders of Masada
with a halo of courage which he himself failed to earn in the
episode of the forty deserters. The story is either an embellished
work of fiction or else contains a much inflated grain of truth.
According to its author only two adults survived the massacre
two women who hid themselves in a cavern, and came out later to
tell the Roman soldiers what happened. Obviously they could not
tell the story to Josephus in A.D. 73, as he had been in Rome
since A.D. 7I.
Josephus does not name his source, if any. The circumstances suggest
that he had none other than his fertile imagination. Otherwise
how could he write such a very detailed account of the alleged
massacre? Whence did the text of Ben Ya'ir's lengthy speech come
to Josephus ? What does the parallel between Masada and the episode
of the forty, coming from the same author, suggest? Even assuming
the highly unlikely encounter between Josephus and the two surviving
women, what could they have told him? Why is there no other source
for the story of Masada?
Archaeological excavations under the direction of Professor Yadin
did not provide conclusive answers, particularly regarding the
number of those who met their death inside the walls of Masada.
With the archaeological work this paper is not concerned, but
the writer wishes to express admiration for the fascinating discoveries
concerning important aspects of Jewish history. But regarding
the legend of Masada the results are, in the opinion of the writer,
rather disappointing. Political and emotional factors were allowed
to cloud scientific judgment.
Yadin asserts very vaguely that a siege `would have taken a very
long time' on the grounds that the Zealots `had considerable quantities
of water and food'. But the fact that Masada was captured rather
quickly seems to indicate that, whatever supplies the defenders
had stored, all proved of no avail. Perhaps Yadin's most astonishing
exaggerations are his assertions that the `960 men, women and
children' effectively disturbed the `tranquillity of the Roman
Empire' and moreover `challenged the entire might of Rome'.
Yadin believed Josephus on almost every detail. The reader is
forewarned of what to expect from the very beginning of the report.
Yadin was the chief of staff of the Israeli army in 1948. He is
surprisingly vague or entirely silent on important facts. He does
not explain why a whole Roman legion was necessary to capture
an isolated post of some 1,500 square metres with roughly three
hundred men inside it (assuming that one third of Josephus's figure
were men). Why does Yadin go out of his way to say that an interview
between Josephus (in Rome) and the two women (in Palestine) was
possible? Why does he say nothing directly about the area of Masada
inside the walls? Nor how 960 persons could live on an area of
1,500 square metres?
The most negative and puzzling result of the excavation is that
only 28 human skeletons were found. The disappearance of 932 in
a very dry climate surely needs more explanation than the conjecture
that the Romans cleared the site. If, as it is suggested, the
Romans did `fling' out 25 bodies, what did they do with the rest?
And yet Yadin sought and found the evidence he required to prove
Josephus right and accurate on how the last ten men met their
death. Reminiscent of Josephus's own experience, he made the ten
cast lots. Eleven ostraca were found and on each inscribed in
the same hand a single name or nickname. Josephus tells how ten
men were chosen by lot to slay the others, and how, when the melancholy
deed was done, the men cast lots among themselves, the first to
kill nine and then kill himself. Josephus does not say who this
last man was and Yadin does not venture a guess. Was it Ben Ya'ir
himself? Among the eleven ostraca found by Yadin one was inscribed
`Ben Ya'ir', and this was taken to refer to no other than the
leader who promoted the idea of the mass massacre.
On this note Yadin concludes with a remarkable piece of emotional
rhetoric,"5" followed by one
page devoted to a picture of a military parade on top of Masada
which, we are told, is a regular exercise for the new recruits
to the armoured unit in the Israeli army. It has the motto 'Masada
shall not fall again'. Another full page is devoted to pictures
of official stamps and two medals struck by the Israeli government
with the same motto. Are not these two pages incongruous in an
archaeological report? Why not keep them out-with their obvious
political flavour-and include them in a separate paper?
This is the climax of the use made of the legend created by Josephus.
It has now become a fact in Jewish national life. When legends
are elevated to the dignity of dogma the historian's task to investigate
and establish facts becomes doubly difficult. It is more so when
a legend in the traditions of one nation is grafted upon the traditions
of another nation. The next section of this paper will deal with
the Masada parallel in Islamic history and trace its Jewish origin.
It cannot be established with certainty whether
the Jewish clans in Medina at the advent of Islam were native
Arabs who embraced Judaism or were exiles from Palestine after
the Roman conquest and the suppression of the Jewish revolt."6"
The Arabic sources depict them as little different from Arabs
except in religion. They spoke Arabic and some composed poetry
in it. Their customs and manners were largely Arab. They had alliances
with Arab clans and tribes. Intermarriage between them and the
Arabs was by no means uncommon.
What stood between these Jews and the acceptance of Islam was
principally their unshaken belief that they were God's chosen
people and could not accept a Gentile prophet. Despite similarities
between the Judaism they practised and the religion Muhammad was
preaching, the Jews in Medina, with the exception of individual
converts, refused the call to become Muslims. This refusal was
aggravated by active resistance to Muhammad's leadership as head
of a state. Not only did the Jews in Medina circulate publicly
adverse criticism of the Prophet and the divine message he was
preaching, but they also formed alliances with his pagan Arab
adversaries. Thus Jewish hostility to Islam was both religious
and political. Once this was clear, Muhammad's repeated efforts
at reconciliation proved fruitless, and a clash became inevitable.
This will be considered very briefly in relation to four clans,
as an introduction to the thesis that the Masada legend was extended
to Arabia and introduced, in a different garb, into the annals
of early Islam with the same tragic halo that was conferred on
Banu Qainuqa' was a Jewish clan in Medina mainly engaged in crafts
and had a market for goldsmiths. After his victorious return from
Badr (Ramadan, 2 A.H.) Muhammad spoke to the leaders of the clan
in the market place and called them to Islam, pointing out the
defeat of his Meccan pagan opponents as a lesson. He received
a defiant reply with the boast that the Qainuqa` were better warriors
than the Meccans. Ibn Ishaq states in the Sirah (Biography) of
the Prophet that the Qainuqa` were the first of the Jewish clans
to break their agreement (`ahd) with the Prophet and to show warlike
Accordingly they were besieged until they surrendered. As they
were the clients (mawdli) of the Khazraj tribe, their chief `Abdullah
b. Ubayy b. Salul interceded with the Prophet to spare the lives
of the Qainuqa°. They had, he represented, 300 men with mail
(and 400 without) who had helped him before and might still be
useful in the future. Although `Abdullah was a lukewarm follower,
the Prophet responded to his entreaty and freed 700 men, presumably
without their arms. The clan left Medina to join another in the
north and ended in Syria. There is no report of any bloodshed."7"
Banu an-Nadir, another Jewish clan in Medina, were expelled in
4 A.H. The Prophet with a few of his leading companions called
on the clan to demand, according to custom, the blood-wite of
two of his clients. The claim was admitted in principle, but the
leaders of the clan retired for consultation leaving the Prophet
waiting behind the wall of a house. A plot to kill him by dropping
a rock on his head from the top was suspected, so he and his party
retired very quickly. The subsequent siege of the clan ended with
a negotiated surrender. Its terms included sparing the lives of
all members of the clan and allowing them to leave with all of
their belongings that could be carried on camels, with the exception
of arms. The whole community, with women and children, left with
600 loaded camels. Some of them went to Khaibar, an oasis to the
north of Medina and inhabited by another Jewish community, where
Banu Nadir had some estates. Others went to Syria. Here again
there is no report of bloodshed."8"
Banu Qruraizah, the third Jewish clan in Medina, had an agreement
with the Prophet either to come to his aid against adversaries
or at least to remain neutral. But through the instigation of
Banu Nadir, now at Khaibar, Quraizah sided with Muhammad's pagan
adversaries when they besieged Medina in the last month of 5 A.H.
Immediately the siege ended in failure, the Quraizah had to pay
the penalty. Its strongholds in the southern part of Medina were
attacked and captured one after the other. When the situation
became hopeless Ka'b b. Asad, the chief of the clan, put forward
three alternatives to his people: accept Muhammad as prophet and
save your lives and property; or kill the women and children and
go out with swords in hands to fight him; or make a surprise attack
on him this Sabbath eve when he least expects it. The answers
were respectively: `We will not abandon the Torah'; `Why kill
the poor innocents, and what is the good of life without them?';
`We will not profane the Sabbath'.
But when at last the clan surrendered, their Arab confederates,
the Aus, came forward with a request that the Quraizah should
be treated as the Qainuqa` were treated at the request of their
confederates, the Khazraj, through their chief Ibn Salul. The
Prophet asked the Aus whether they (and their Jewish clients)
would accept the judgment in the matter by one of the Aus. Upon
receiving an affirmative reply, Muhammad appointed Sa'd b. Mu'adh,
their foremost chief, as a judge. Immediately his Aus kinsmen
beseeched him to treat the Quraizah well. But his judgment, so
the story goes, was to put the men to the sword and subject the
women and children to slavery. It is alleged that the men numbered
600 to 700 or 800 to 900. When it was Huyayy b. Akhtab's turn
to be killed it is recorded that he said: `It is God's command.
It is written; it is ordained; the massacre of the children of
The expulsion of the three Jewish clans from Medina did not result
in the elimination of all the Jews, for the sources attest that
there were still many in the city. This seems to indicate that
Muhammad's action was directed against the Jewish power to create
mischief, not against the Jewish people. Confirmation of this
deduction is provided by the case of the fourth Jewish community
to be subdued. At Khaibar, an oasis far to the north of Medina,
the Jews had several strongholds. With the Nadir exiles they sought
to avenge the Jews of Medina. They used bribes and other inducements
to form a grand alliance against the Prophet, and succeeded in
winning the powerful tribe of Ghatafan. Thus in Muharram 7 A.H.
they suddenly found themselves besieged.
Khaibar fought well and lost a number of its leaders in single
combats. But their strongholds fell one after the other and Ghatafan
was lured away by a diversion. In the end they offered to surrender
and begged the Prophet to let them go away (yusayyiruhum) leaving
their arms and land to the conquerors. This was granted, but somehow
they persuaded the Prophet to keep them on the land in order to
work it themselves and give the Muslims half the produce. This
also was granted on one condition that `if we wish [in the future]
to expel you we will do so'. Thus, apart from those killed in
single combat, there was no bloodshed, and the retention of the
Jews as tenants of the Muslims means that there was no expulsion
either. (Fadak and other smaller Jewish clans still further north
sought and received the same terms as Khaibar.)"10"
The above is a bare outline. In ancient and medieval
times the slaughter of the vanquished and confiscation of property
was not uncommon practice. Take for example the first Crusade,
when the Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem were butchered by the victorious
Christians. However, pre-Islamic and Islamic practice in Arabia
and outside tended to mercy and tolerance towards a vanquished
enemy. The report on the case of Banu Quraizah is almost unique
in its severity. It clearly stands in sharp contrast to the lenient
treatment of the three Jewish clans at the same period. The circumstances
of the case do not seem to justify the action reported to have
been taken. The report is uncorroborated by any other, and its
authenticity has been rightly questioned by an Arab Muslim scholar."11"
The uncorroborated report is moreover not attributed to any authority
in the usual way, and it lacks the essential chain of authorities
(isnad), necessary to establish any report as true. Apart from
the gravity of its content going contrary to the Arab code of
conduct in war and peace, it ill-accords with the reference to
the episode in the Qur'an, the only contemporary source and the
most authoritative. The holy book is as usual allusive and does
not always give names. But in the chapter of the Confederates
(al-Ahzab) the affairs of Banu Nadir and Banu Quraizah are referred
to with unmistakable clarity. Regarding the latter the relevant
verse is: `And He brought down those of the People of the Book
who supported them [i.e. the pagan Meccans] from their fortresses
and cast terror in their hearts; some you slew and some you made
captive.' Without specifying numbers this refers to those who
died fighting as well as those taken prisoner. There is nothing
at all about men killed in cold blood.
The key to a solution of this problem is to be
found in what the traditionalists call the Isra'iliyyat, a great
number of tales and unattested reports that some Jews who embraced
Islam or their descendants planted in Islamic traditions through
the agency of heedless and uncritical narrators. It is the thesis
of this paper that the Masada legend was one of these tales which,
with some adaptation, was applied to Banu Quraizah and passed
on by Jewish informants to Ibn Ishaq.
On superficial consideration there are striking similarities between
the two stories. The words ascribed to Ka'b Ibn Asad, the Quraizah
leader, suggesting the slaying of women and children, and also
the words ascribed to the other Jewish leader, Huyayy Ibn Akhtab,
proclaiming that massacre was the lot of the Jews ordained by
God, are strongly reminiscent of those words which Josephus put
in the mouth of Ben Ya'ir. Consider also that the number of reported
victims is approximately the same at Masada and Quraizah.
Parallelism is, however, no proof. This is to be found in closer
tion of the unattributed and uncorroborated report concerning
in Ibn Ishaq, as preserved by his scribe Ibn Hisham, and the attitude
contemporary authorities to it. In brief the report was at once
as of Jewish origin, and not simply on the technical ground that
the essential chain of authorities (isnad). Summarizing the opinions
of the authorities, favourable and unfavourable, concerning Ibn
ability, a later writer of the life of the Prophet, Ibn Sayyid
mented as if he were summing up as a judge in a court of justice.
What emerges from this marshalling and weighing of the evidence
is that Ibn Ishaq was reliable only where his reports were supported
by unimpeachable authorities. Two examples must suffice. Ya'qub
Ibn Shaibah stated that Ibn Ishaq `was truthful where he related
from people he actually met and heard from, but it is said that
he related [also] false traditions from unknown persons'. There
was between Ibn Ishaq and Malik Ibn Anas, the celebrated traditionalist
and author of the famous al-Muwatta', some bad feeling. The former
made derogatory remarks about this book, and these were reported
to the author who retorted that Ibn Ishaq was `a charlatan (dajjdl)
who takes his stories from the Jews'. The two men were later reconciled
before Ibn Ishaq left Medina for Iraq. The relative merits of
the two men as traditionalists, and a conclusive proof of the
Jewish source of the Quraizah story, is contained in the following
words, not at all unsympathetic to Ibn Ishaq, by Ibn Sayyid an-Nas
'Malik did not impugn Ibn Ishaq as a traditionalist, but he used
to blame him for relying in his accounts of the campaigns of the
Prophet on the descendants (aulad) of the Jews who embraced Islam
and retained the stories of Khaibar, Quraizah, Nadir and other
similar strange and unusual stories which they learned from their
ancestors. Ibn Ishaq used to pursue such stories to enrich his
knowledge without taking the Jews as his authorities. On the other
hand Malik related only from reliable and truthful sources."12"
To sum up. Josephus probably made up a story about a suicide pact
among forty deserters in Galilee. He cheated his way out of it
to tell a story which modern critics refuse to believe."13"
Later on he enlarged the scope of the story and greatly embellished
it when he retold it of the defenders of Masada. It has been shown
above that most of its details are not worthy of credence, whatever
modern Jewish nationalists may make out of it.
The survival of the Josephus story as a legend is not at all surprising:
it has most if not all the elements that convert legends into
facts. The story is likely to have either travelled with Jews
to Arabia or come to their descendants in Medina at one time or
another in history. Its essentials, applied to Banu Quraizah,
were transmitted to at least one important Muslim traditionalist,
and in a new garb are enshrined in the Sirah. Stories do indeed
grow in the telling and travel far!
A Sequel to Khaibar
As stated above the Jews of Khaibar were kept on
sufferance as tenants of the Muslims with the stipulation that
they were liable to expulsion at the direction of the latter.
The arrangement was maintained until the caliphate of 'Umar Ibn
al-Khattab who decided to act on the Prophet's dying behest that
within the Arabia Peninsula `there shall be no religion other
than Islam'."14" Since neither
the Jews of Khaibar nor the Christians of Najran could by that
time have represented any political or military threat to the
Islamic state, `Umar's action must have had purely religious motives."15"
This is clear from the decision he personally conveyed to the
Khaibar Jews. He first referred to the stipulation that they could
be expelled, but then stressed the Prophet's last wish. Apparently
in reply to protests that they had a covenant (`ahd) with the
Prophet, the Caliph undertook to respect such a covenant if produced,
but Khaibar could produce none."16"
They were subsequently removed, like the Christians of Najran,
to Syria and Iraq, and were given land and exempted from payment
of taxes for two years.
Little was heard of Khaibar until about four hundred years later,
when a deputation of their chiefs visited Baghdad and submitted
to the Abbasid Caliph al-Qa'im (422-453/ 1031-1062) a document
which they claimed was in the handwriting of 'Ali Ibn Abi Talib
exempting Khaibar from the payment of jizyah (poll-tax). The Caliph
was very much impressed, but a high chamberlain, Abu'l Qasim Ibn
Maslamah, doubted the authority of the document. Accordingly it
was referred for scrutiny to the celebrated historian, al-Khatib
al-Baghdadi. With little difficulty he could point out that Khaibar
capitulated in 7 A.H., but one of the witnesses, Mu'awiyah Ibn
Abi Sufyan, became Muslim two years later on the conquest of Mecca,
and the other witness, Sa'd Ibn Mu'adh, died two years earlier,
after delivering judgment in the Quraizah affair. (Apparently
the question of 'Ali's handwriting was not examined.) For these
reasons the document was declared a forgery and the claim was
1) cf. The half-page article by Professor Samuel Kraus
in The jewish Encyclopedia (1907), vol. VIII, 362.
2) See a plan in Y. Yadin, Masada: Herod's Fortress and
the ,Zealots' Last Stand (London, 1966), pp. 38-39. This work
is 271 pages (about one third text and two thirds illustrations.)
It is an account, with copious quotations from Josephus, of archaeolo-
gical excavations under the direction of Professor
Yadin in 1963 and 1964
3) See the article on ,Josephus' by Abraham Shalit, Emeritus
Professor of Jewish History in the Hebrew University, in the Encyclopaedia
,Judaica (new edition, Jerusalem) vol. X, Pp. 253-254- Much of
this article is based on an earlier one by Louis H. Gray in Hasting's
Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethnics, vol. VII, pp. 569-578
4) Louis H. Gray, OP- cit., P. 576
5) Yadin, Masada, p. 201.
6) For the latter view see al-Aghani (Bulaq, 1285), VOL
X1X, p. 94
7) Sirah, ed. M. Saqqa et al (Cairo, 2nd ed. 1375/1955),
part II, pp. 47-50; cf. W. Montgomery Muhammad at Alediua (oxford,
1956), pp. 209-210.
8) Sirah, II, I90-I92; cf. Watt, op. cit., 211i-212.
9) Sirah, II, 233-242; cf. Watt, op. cit., 2 t4-215.
10) Sirah, II, 328-331, cf. Watt, op. Cit., 217-218
11) W. Arafat, `New Light on the Story of Banu Quraizah'
in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Sodety ( 1976), No. 2, pp.
12) Uyun al-Athar (Cairo, 1356) vol. I, pp. 10-17; cf.
Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah (3rd ed., Beirut, 1900), pp. 439-440
on the infiltration of Islamic tradition by unattested reports
from Jews who embraced Islam.
13) Louis H. Gray, op. cit., p. 570.
14) Ibn Sa°d, Tabaqat (ed E. Sachau, Leiden, 1905),
II part 2, p. 44, cf. Al-Bukhari, Sahib (Bulaq, 1296), V, 128;
Muslim, Sahih (Cairo, 1331) V, 16o
15) cf. A. L. Tibawi, Arabic and Islamic Themes (London,
1976), chapter II but specially pages 66-68.
16) Sirah, II, 356-57.
17) Tarih-i cevdet (The History by the famous Turkish
historian, Ahmad Jaudat Pasha in 12 volumes), vol. I (Istanbul,
2nd ed., i 3og), P. 17.