By April 14, 2008 Read More →

Masada and Its Scrolls, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1994.

The Dead Sea Scrolls
The texts found at Masada provide us with additional information about the state of Judaism on the eve of the revolt and in the early years thereafter. In this fortress, located south of Ein Gedi and facing the Dead Sea atop an isolated rock cliff, the Jewish rebels made their last stand against Rome in 73 C.E. Josephus’s detailed account describes how the last of the sicarii (dagger-bearers) took the lives of their families and their comrades in a mass suicide, foreshadowing some of the accounts of medieval Jewish martyrdom. The ongoing debate over the historicity of Josephus’s story is not important for our purposes. Rather, we will turn our attention to the manuscripts from Masada as well as to its synagogue and mikveh that tell the story of the Judaism of its defenders.

Masada was first built as a fortress by the Hasmonaean priest Jonathan, either the brother of Judah the Maccabee (152–143 B.C.E.) or Alexander Janneus (103–76 B.C.E.). In this fortress, Herod protectively ensconced his family when he traveled to Rome in 40 B.C.E. to convince the Senate to make him king of the Jews. Between 37 and 31, he built it into a beautiful winter palace. After his death, the site was occupied at some point by a Roman garrison, from whom it was captured in 66 C.E. by the rebel forces. In 73 C.E., the fortress fell to the Romans after a protracted siege. With the fall of Masada, the last flame of the Jewish revolt was extinguished.

In order to observe Jewish law as they understood it, the rebels who occupied Masada had to adapt it for their needs. They also had to modify a number of buildings to serve as their living quarters. Two ritual baths—mikva’ot—have been identified from this period. Significantly, these baths show definite evidence of having been constructed in the manner prescribed by later rabbinic halakhah. One room at the site has been described as a house of study—bet midrash—although because no such structures are known from this early period, this identification is questionable.

More significant is the Masada synagogue, one of the earliest such structures together with Herodion and Gamla, which were also rebel fortresses during the Great Revolt. The synagogue faced northwest, toward Jerusalem, with bleacher seating lining the inside walls. Found there was an ostracon referring to tithes given to the priests, as well as fragments of two scrolls hidden in pits under the floor. Remains of additional scrolls were found in two locations in the casemate walls, one in close proximity to the synagogue.

In all, parts of fifteen biblical and apocryphal scrolls were found in the Masada excavations, including fragments of two scrolls of Leviticus, one each of Deuteronomy and Ezekiel, and two manuscripts of the Psalms. Because the general character of these texts is almost identical to the Masoretic text, we can conclude that this text had essentially become the only recognized biblical text by the period of the revolt.

Yet this same community, whose biblical texts had by this time become standardized, also made use of apocryphal compositions. Very substantial portions of the Book of Ben Sira found at Masada prove beyond a doubt that the medieval fragments preserved in the Cairo genizah were derived from the original text, which was composed in Hebrew. This apocryphal composition, we should note, is the only one actually quoted by the talmudic Rabbis. Also found were a small fragment of Jubilees, as well as a number of miscellaneous texts, one perhaps paralleling the Genesis Apocryphon.
These texts show that in this period, the Jewish people shared a common heritage of apocryphal literature. Although the Rabbis would later try to root out these nonbiblical texts, during Second Temple times these books still enjoyed considerable popularity, which is why they make up approximately one-third of the Qumran collection and were also found at Masada. Furthermore, since most of the apocryphal-type texts found in the Qumran caves were probably copied elsewhere, we can see that these texts were indeed widespread. So, although the defenders of Masada possessed proto-Masoretic Bibles, they still read apocryphal and, most probably, apocalyptic texts. Indeed, we can surmise that the apocalyptic tradition, with its messianic urgency, helped to drive the revolt.

Extremely interesting is the presence at Masada of the quasi-mystical angelic liturgy called Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, found at Qumran in nine manuscripts. When this text was first identified among the Masada scrolls, the other Masada scroll fragments had not yet been fully investigated. Accordingly, scholars assumed that this document, together with other sectarian writings, had been brought to Masada by fleeing sect members after Qumran was destroyed in 68 C.E. In fact, at that point in the history of scrolls research, the prevailing theory held that any texts found in the Qumran caves had been composed by the sectarians and copied in the Qumran scriptorium.
However, these assumptions have been overturned in light of the Masada materials published since then. We now believe that the reason these sites share literary remains is simply because the texts were widespread in Judaea at the time. Hence, it may be that this angelic liturgy and the mystical approach it follows were not limited to the Qumran sectarians in the last years of the Second Temple but had spread much farther among the Jewish community of Palestine. If so, we can now understand why ideas such as those reflected in this text appeared in rabbinic literature and in the Merkavah mysticism of the third through eighth centuries C.E. In light of the evidence, we have to view the common heritage of Qumran and Masada as typical of the literature read by the intellectual and religious elites of Second Temple Judaism.

What the Masada material demonstrates, therefore, is that by the period of the revolt, the biblical text had been essentially standardized in favor of the Masoretic text, even among groups that still read apocryphal texts. But we also see that this apocryphal material continued to constitute part of the heritage of the Second Temple Jewish community as a whole and was only later rooted out by the Rabbis. Finally, we learn from the synagogue and ritual baths—basically constructed according to the Pharisaic-rabbinic tradition documented somewhat later—that this group’s views on such matters were becoming normative among Jews even before the revolt. It should not surprise us, therefore, that the Pharisaic-rabbinic approach to Judaism became dominant after the final defeat of Masada’s defenders and the crushing of the revolt by the Roman legions.

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