The Masada Legent In Jewish and Islamic Traditions

By Zaid

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 metres wide.“2”

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 nation.’
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 worth noting.

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 the original.

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 hostility (harabu).

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 Israel.“9”

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 examinantion of the unattributed and uncorroborated report concerning Quraizah in Ibn Ishaq, as preserved by his scribe Ibn Hisham, and the attitude of contemporary authorities to it. In brief the report was at once challenged as of Jewish origin, and not simply on the technical ground that it lacked the essential chain of authorities (isnad). Summarizing the opinions of the authorities, favourable and unfavourable, concerning Ibn Ishaq’s reliability, a later writer of the life of the Prophet, Ibn Sayyid an-Nas, commented 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 rejected.“17”


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 archaeological 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. 100-107.
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.