Masada-Who Is a Jew, Secular Fundamentalism, and the Second Coming

Masada, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, ranks after Jerusalem as the country’s most visited archaeological site. This is deservedly so in terms of preservation, administration, and the fact that after nearly four decades the finds, albeit the skeletal and textile remains, have finally been published by Yadin’s colleagues. There is, however, a vast dissonance between the public image of Masada and that which is found in academia. The mythical image of the former is that which is found in Yadin’s popular book on Masada, published in 1966, which until today has not been revised. For nearly 30 years, many academics have challenged his interpretation, which is more in the realm of “secular fundamentalism,” with its near total reliance on the mass suicide narrative of Josephus Flavius. While Masada was once important in the development of the country’s national identity,1 many have stepped forward, challenging the interpretations of the “secular fundamentalists’” rampant in some of today’s Jerusalem City of David excavations, as it once was in Masada.

 By Joe Zias
Jerusalem, Israel
August 2010

Who is a Jew, seems to be an eternal question for the Jewish people, even in the modern State of Israel. 2 Whereas the solution, for those living here today can be quite complex, for the physical anthropologist excavating skeletal remains of the deceased in antiquity, the answer to “who is a Jew” is actually quite simple: time-honored burial traditions. Jews, Christians, Moslems, and Pagans each have a defining the way to lie in rest their deceased. When this is ignored for religious or nationalistic reasons, chaos can ensue as is the case at present. The human skeletal remains excavated atop Masada by the late Professor Y. Yadin and his colleagues are a clear case in point. Excavated in the 1960’s and reburied with full military honors in 1969 as the last of the defenders of the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66-73/4 CE, their story remains today as one of the most dramatic stories of the Jewish people. Their collective mass suicide, reported by Josephus, is perhaps the most important part of the narrative as without the suicide, Masada is, for many of us but another example of religious fanaticism leading to the country’s eventual destruction.

While I have dealt with all the reported and unreported human remains on two earlier occasions,3 arguing that they are probably non-Jewish, despite the political/military fanfare surrounding their reburial by the religious authorities, one skeleton in particular was somewhat enigmatic.

The Skeleton from Locus 2005 4

In Professor Amnon Ben-Tor’s recent summary of the human remains found atop Masada5, he, like Yadin and others, failed to bring public attention to the only undisturbed primary burial atop Masada , located on the slope of the southern cliff outside the casemate wall. It was first brought to my attention while reviewing the photographs from the Masada archive at the home of Professor Ehud Netzer in the late 1990’s, who, like Ben-Tor and many of today’s prominent archaeologists, excavated Masada in the 1960’s. Since the burial had never been published, it does not appear in Haas’s anthropological report, and the photo lacked any specific locus. I believed at the time that the primary burial also came from locus 2001-2 as one additional photo of locus 2002 showing disturbed skeletal remains was also unpublished. These photos were subsequently published for the first time in the BAR article (Zias 1998)6. The primary burial in question, however, was somewhat puzzling as it lay undisturbed with the arms laying across the upper the abdomen, highly unusual for Jewish burials of the period. It was not until a recent conference that Professor Yoram Tsafrir who excavated both loci 2001-2 announced that this burial, partially constructed, was from locus 2005, next to a Byzantine monk’s hut and not 2001-2 as I had earlier believed.7 Furthermore, according to Professor Tsafrir the adult male (?) was buried in a typical linen garment and an accompanying textile green in color. Surrounding the head were the remains of date pits, evidently placed as a burial offering.

Determining religious affiliation is this specific case should have been easy had one known the details, and since the remains were never published, one cannot but help but believe that Yadin may have known the burial was probably non-Jewish. In the photo, one sees what appears to be an adult male, lying on his back, according to Yoram oriented east-west with the arms lying on the upper abdomen, a typical Byzantine Christian burial.8 It should be noted that Jewish burial customs of the period differed from non-Jewish customs in that “Jews took pains to insure that the body was interred with the limbs unbent, and the arms parallel to the body in the event that if the body in question was accidently uncovered, it would automatically be assumed that it was Jewish” (Safrai 1976).9 One readily observes this burial custom in the large Jewish cemetery in Jericho to the north.10 Moreover, none of the burials recovered there in the arid climate presented food offerings or green textiles accompanying the deceased, as was the case at Masada. Since the Christian community inhabited the site from the second half of the 5th century to 638 when it was abandoned (Ben-Tor 2009: 255), it is not surprising that Christian burials will be present. The fact that it was found undisturbed, unlike the remains in locus 2001/2, in a region where hyenas, jackals, and other predators roam and destroy cemeteries, should be clear proof that the burial took place when the desolate area outside the casemate wall was inhabited by Byzantine monks.

The Second, Third, and Fourth Coming of Jesus of Nazareth

Recently the single primary burial discussed above has again come to public attention with the claim that it was the actual burial of Jesus of Nazareth. 11 In a book entitled Cross Bones, the Canadian author K. Reichs, with the archaeological assistance of her colleagues from the “BAR Crowd” at the University of North Carolina (Charlotte) who apparently originated the idea, report that a manuscript discovered in the excavations of Yadin in the 1960’s is the last will and testament penned by Jesus of Nazareth himself. This idea originated with the Australian journalist Donovan Joyce who earlier, allegedly saw the actual scroll. Unfortunately, according to the author, the scroll was last viewed in the public toilets of the Ben Gurion airport, spirited out to the USSR and has since disappeared. A later version is that Joyce dreamed up the absurd story in The Jesus Scroll (1972) and that the scroll, one of 15 allegedly found atop Masada, was taken from him by Israel authorities and handed over to the Vatican. 12 Personally I prefer the original version: the toilet story.

The book Cross Bones, recently brought to my attention by Professor Tsafrir, is a shoddily written attempt to mimic and capitalize ideas found in the Da Vinci code, and whereas the latter is known to be fictional, the former work claims to be historical fiction. But is it, are the lines between the two blurred? In the forward the author thanks UNC James Tabor and Simon Gibson of the John the Baptist Cistern and Talpiot Jesus Family Tomb fame for their help with the historical setting and fact checking. While she writes that one of them “shared his personal notes, research finding and checked a thousand fine points,” it seems they missed a lot of points- not all that fine. For instance, when she speaks about a skeleton which her colleague stumbled upon in 2000, she writes that the deceased was “high status as his hair was clean and vermin free.” Evidently, Reich or her fact checkers were unaware that according to Jewish burial custom, the deceased are not only washed before internment but their hair is both cleaned and combed irrespective of their social standing. Such are Jewish burial practices 101, an elementary fact well known to each and everyone in the field, scholar and non-scholar alike. Perhaps more significant in terms of sheer academic abuse is when the author goes on to mention that the name of any person living or dead found in the book is purely coincidental and unintended. Within a few short pages, the names of colleagues both living and dead appear, again and again and again. In fact, Professor Yadin’s name appears “coincidental and unintended” 44 times, Yoram Tsafrir’s name appears nine times, and N. Haas, who did the anthropology, appears 21 times along with a few others both living and deceased. (Yoram is “incidentally and coincidentally” alive, active, and doing quite well). The publisher then points out that any resemblance to actual events and locales is entirely coincidental and then lists Quebec, North Carolina, and Israel as fictitious. So much for fact checking.13 As for their “Jesus of Nazareth,” it seems He was reburied with full military honors July 7, 1969 along with the rest of the human skeletal remains declared to be heroes of the first revolt, near the western ramp leading to Masada. But that may not be the end of the story.

As of late, tombs of Jesus of Nazareth seem to have become a cottage industry. Beginning with the book Cross Bones in 2005, the following year (2006) the Jesus Dynasty book appears in print in which the author reportedly found the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth in Safed (p. 240). In 2007, they then find another Jesus of Nazareth tomb in Talpiot, Jerusalem (Lost Tomb of Jesus). Three differing tomb locations (Masada, Safed, and Jerusalem) of Jesus and his family all appear within a 3-year period. Thus, pilgrims are now faced with the possibility of visiting five tombs of Jesus of Nazareth, whereas previously their choice was limited to but two. At present, the Jesus of Nazareth atop the Masada skeletal find, invented by the Australian journalist literally and unashamedly a clone of the Da Vinci Code, appears to be another quickly forgettable “amazing dis-grace” film in the making by the Canadian film maker who brought us the James ossuary, Talpiot tomb of the Jesus Family, and Exodus Decoded.

After reading Reichs book Cross Bones in which she had resurrected the hoax put forth by Joyce in The Jesus Scroll, I couldn’t help but wonder how the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, particularly the Religious Studies department where the fact checking allegedly occurred would tolerate such out and out academic deceit. I then remembered the authors’ dedication, in the beginning of the book: “to the (UNC-where she teaches) university chancellor (J. Woodward) for his years of support and encouragement.”

Where did Professor Yadin stand on all of this? Did he himself believe that the human remains found atop Masada in the 1960’s were Jews? The following is telling: while visiting the Hebrew Union College excavations at Tel Dan along the northern border in the 1980’s, I had the opportunity to return to Jerusalem alone with Yadin. During the ride, I mentioned to Yadin, with whom I had worked, that as a physical anthropologist I was interested in the human remains from Masada and was curious to know if he was aware that pig remains were found in the loci 2001/2. He replied that he was fully aware, and I quote “I never said that all the remains found there were Jewish.” This was rather startling, and Yadin then went on to say that he was under tremendous pressure from the religious authorities, particularly the Chief Rabbi Y. Unterman, to present them as the rebels from the First Revolt 66-73/4. According to Yadin, when he mentioned to the Chief Rabbi that the remains of pigs were found among the human remains, the Rabbi was taken aback and promised to call in a few days after he had time to think the matter over. He, then, according to Yadin, called back and mentioned that “as Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto in WWII brought in swine to deal with the garbage problem, that the Jewish rebels atop Masada probably did the same.” I looked at Yadin in disbelief with a bit of surprise at his statement and mentioned that “if the zealots had a garbage problem, the best way to deal with the garbage would be to toss it over the side and thus it would be a Roman problem.” Yadin then changed the subject, and the topic was never brought up between us again. 14 Today in Israel, and in Israeli archaeology in particular, when we leave the question of who is a Jew in the hands of the religious extremists, all ancient human remains will be declared as probably Jewish until proven otherwise. Case in point was the recent struggle over the cemetery along the shore of Ashkelon, which the haredim deemed as probably Jewish. A short time later, after weeks of sometime violent protests a Pagan basaltic incense burner was uncovered in the midst of the Pagan cemetery, and so it goes for “Jewish” cemeteries. From there, the ultra-orthodox protests over “Jewish cemeteries” moved to Nazareth and now to the ancient city of Jaffa.


Why is all this “Who is a Jew” relevant to the world of the Ancient Near East? For several decades self-appointed groups of the ultra-orthodox have been waging an all out cultural war against the archaeological community in general and the physical anthropologists in particular. Rather than listening to those of us in the profession who can usually assign ethnicity to the deceased quite readily, they work on the principal, when it’s to their advantage that “everyone dead is presumed Jewish- until proven otherwise.” This is in stark contrast to the exact same ultra-orthodox community here in Israel, who today work on the opposite principal, that for the living, no one is halachically Jewish until proven otherwise. 15

Unfortunately, one sees a parallel version of this in Yadin’s and others’ interpretation of the Masada skeletal finds from the 1960’s. Outside the academic world, few people are aware that Romans, Jews, and Zealots also inhabited the site from the first century AD to the beginning (111 CE) of the second century CE. With the Christian community living there for another 150 years, the total time of the zealots atop Masada (66-73/4 CE) is less than 5%; however, there has been a tendency in the past to view all the skeletons found there as “those of the zealots until proven otherwise,” whereas their moment in time there, comparatively speaking, is minuscule.16 Some will argue that the mass suicide as reported by Josephus will skew the statistics in favor of the human remains being those of the zealots; however Shaye Cohen’s 1982 searing critique on the credibility of the suicide narrative should dispel any thoughts of a mass suicide atop Masada. 17 Last but not least, only when the decision of “who is a Jew” is in the hands of responsible 18 archaeologists and anthropologists will the question of who is a Jew in antiquity be resolved. As things stand today, the messiah may come earlier.

See James Tabor's response Here


1 In the early days of the country, new army recruits took their oath atop Masada. Given their weapon to defend the country and a Bible they vowed: “Masada shall never fall again,” as it was the last holdout for the Jews in their first war against the Romans (66-73/4CE). Few Israelis today are aware that this practice was a short lived one, and no sooner was it instituted was it terminated by some of those responsible for its implementation.

2 NY Times Opinion Piece. Who is a Jew? “It’s an age-old inquiry, one that has for decades (if not centuries) provoked debate.

3 Zias, J. 1998 “Whose Bones ?” Biblical Archaeological Review 24 (6): 40-45, 64-65. Zias, J., Gorski, A. 2006 “Capturing a Beautiful Woman at Masada.” Near Eastern Archaeology 69 (1) 45-48. Evidently there was also an unpublished cremation found near the western ramp which I learned of recently.

4 While searching for the textiles from the 2005 burial the past 8 months, Professor Tsafrir informed me today Aug. 5, 2010 that the locus number cited here, which is the number he presented in his Dec. 2009 lecture, is incorrect. While the correct locus number is important, it is of little consequence in terms of the argument presented here. Until the correct number is determined, I shall simply refer it to as locus 2005.

5 Ben-Tor, A. 2009 “Return to Masada,” IEJ.

6 At one time, I thought that the folks at BAR and the editor may have mended their ways and submitted the Masada article for publication which was heavily edited by the people in D.C. And then but a few years later along came the James ossuary scandal, with Shanks’ personal involvement, showing that many colleagues and I had erred.

7 International Conference in honor of Aharon Oppenheimer on the occasion of his retirement. 28-29 December, 2009. Tel Aviv University.

8 Thanks to Professor Tsafrir who over the years has provided me with information on loci 2001/2 and 2005 which appears in several articles. Volume III of the Masada series notes that the nearby southern caves, 2001-2, 2005, will be published separately, presumably by Professor Tsafrir (Netzer 1991:499).

9 M. Nazir 9:3 as understood in the Talmuds, c.f. P.T.Nazir, 1X, 57d and T.B. Nazir, 65a.

10 Hachlili, R. “A Second Temple Period Jewish Necropolis in Jericho,” The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 43, No. 4 (Autumn, 1980), pp. 235-240. BASOR publication.

11Reichs, K. Cross Bones, Scribner; Book Club edition (June 28, 2005).

12 The Jesus Scroll is long out of print. However, Amazon lists several used copies for $72.50. Used copies of Cross Bones run about a dollar a copy.

13 In the acknowledgments, the author writes that she is “indebted to one of them [fact checkers] who shared his personal notes and research findings checked a thousand points….” After reading the book, one can’t but escape the fact that they may not have even read the book with all the fundamental errors therein.

14 Yadin never looked upon Masada as the highlight of his long and distinguished career. It was his earlier work at Hazor that he regarded as the most important contribution to the world of biblical archaeology.

15 NY Times Opinion Piece. Who is a Jew? July 7, 2010

16 With these kinds of odds in which the gentiles (non-Jews) living there for hundreds of years never seemed to have passed away, one cannot but help reach the conclusion that the secret of eternal life may be found atop Masada. The gentiles may in effect may have been right all along; on the other hand, when worse comes to worse, those non-gentiles that did pass into the beyond received a hero’s state/military funeral in 1969 and eternal remembrance.

17 Cohen, S. 1982 “Masada: Literary Traditions, Archaeological Remains and the Credentials of Josephus,” Journal of Jewish Studies 33, pp.385-405.

18 Unfortunately, with much of the media-driven archaeology today, there is much distortion for the sake of fame, fortune, and a job.

Comments (7)

Great stuff, Joe.
#1 - Antonio Lombatti - 09/03/2010 - 10:11


Regardless of all the alleged facts in either case how can any one declare "beyond a reasonable doubt" the authenticity of the Masada bones. It was a vital area for occupation in that area for millenia and by a vast array of people with different cults and beliefs to guide them. We now decide outcomes of elections in Australia not on truth and policies but on from what State the would be Prime Minister comes from and we are supposed to be educated. How then can we be certain what motivated them back then on Masada when we have only the scant writing of often dubious scholars then as now? It really is more about politics and power either temporal or theocratic that now drives this debate and alas we are just as primitive as those that left their bones on Masada...KP
#2 - Ken Payne - 09/04/2010 - 10:35


The first point, I suppose, is that there is archaelogical confirmation of the siege but not of the mass suicide story. As often, the known point is reinforced and the doubtful point is left in doubt.
Is it absolutely clear that there was no mixing of or syncretism between the burial customs of different groups and absolutely clear when the difference of customs came into effect? Did everyone follow every group custom punctiliously? I think that Josephus says that the sicarii - terrorists! - held the law of God in contempt. He attributes serious crimes to them, but are we sure that this contempt did not extend to the ritual as well as the moral law?
#3 - Martin Hughes - 09/04/2010 - 16:44


A minor point, you mention Zealots at Masada - don't you mean Sicarii?


#4 - Matthew Hamilton - 09/05/2010 - 22:56
If the account of the conversation with Yadin is telling evidence, I don't quite see which way it tells on the question whether Yadin believed the 'bones of Jesus' nonsense. Are we to think, on the showing of this conversation, that Yadin was one who came to believe whatever helped his case, even if it was pigs eating the rubbish - so at that rate he could have persuaded himself about the remains of Jesus? Or on the contrary that he had a 'startling' lack of personal belief in what other people had talked themselves into believing when they read about his work - so he could never personally have accepted Jesus-related nonsense?
#5 - Martin Hughes - 09/05/2010 - 22:57


I understand that both before and at the time of Jesus' birth there were not only others claiming to be the Messiah and prophesying an end of times but also others who had a claim to the heredity kingship of the Jews. Matthew's Gospel goes to great pains to enumerate both Joseph and Mary's antecedents tracing them back as far as the House of David and David had many wives. Could it be that the skeletal remains and testament discovered relate to another claimant? One who was the last surviving claimant?As Jesus son of Joseph not son of Jacob had already risen from the dead and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?
#6 - Julia Cunningham - 06/02/2012 - 06:09


I just wanted to point out that Kathy Reichs is an American author and not a Canadian.
#7 - Nathalie Blanchard - 05/14/2014 - 10:27

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