Much scholarly debate has been focused on Josephus’ narrative of the mass suicide at Masada. After reading this narrative, one should have many questions in mind regarding its credibility. One must keep in mind that Josephus was a Jew that was initially opposed to Roman rule. Prior to becoming a historian under the Romans, he fought against Vespasian alongside the Galilean armies. When it was certain that defeat was inevitable, he was among those chosen by lot to carry out a mass suicide not unlike that of the one he claims to have happened on Masada. However, instead of committing suicide, Josephus decided to give himself up to the Romans. This should already put doubts into the mind of one reading this narrative. Furthermore, many instances within the narrative appear to be embellished with the sense of drama. For example, Josephus dramatizes the suicide by having the men kiss their wives and children before putting them to death.

Moreover, Josephus would not have known what was going on inside the walls of Masada. He was in one of the camps at the base of the mountain. His source for his narrative comes from survivors, who he claims were alive because they hid while the Zealots conducted the mass suicide. However, these survivors would not have witnessed the mass suicide either. It appears as though these characters were added to the narrative to give the story some credibility.

Shaye Cohen’s article explores the archaeological evidence (or lack thereof) to support Josephus’ narrative. He concludes that there is insufficient archaeological evidence to affirm Josephus’ account of the events at Masada. There has been no evidence of human remains, or cremation of the remains, on the site with the exception of 25 skeletons in a cave on the southern slope of the mountain. Cohen reasons that it would have been pointless for the Romans to drag the bodies there, so these remains are likely from those who hid from the Romans. Cohen goes on to state that the palace, which still stands despite Josephus stating that it had burned down, would not have held the 960 bodies that Josephus had described. Additionally, Josephus mentions a massive pile of the goods belonging to the Zealots being burned. Archaeological evidence cannot confirm this either, though many smaller piles were found.

As Josephus was writing under Roman rule, he was aiming to please them. Cohen mentions the speech given by Eleazar in Chapter 8 of Book 7 of Josephus’ The Jewish War. In this speech, Josephus has Eleazar state that the Zealots are at fault. Cohen notes that this speech is done in the style of a speech made at Jotapata. Here it is clear that Josephus intends to make the Romans the ‘good guys.’ However, as a Jew, Josephus was writing a history of his people. Since the leader of the Zealots is denouncing his own theology and proclaiming that the Zealots brought about their own defeat, this narrative can be read as warning to contemporary Jews to avoid the theology of the Zealots.

Cohen goes on to state that almost all historians that were contemporary with Josephus embellished their texts, and so it is not unlikely that Josephus followed this trend. In terms of the elements of the narrative that are plausible, Cohen states that suicide was common among both Jews during the years of the Jewish Revolt as well as non-Jews who escape their enemy. Cohen concludes by stating that Josephus was attempting to be accurate, although there are many embellishments throughout the narrative.