Response to Zias

My only plea here is that we get our facts straight before we damn our colleagues, and that we mix a bit of courtesy and respect in with any legitimate criticisms we might have of one another’s views and efforts.

By James D. Tabor
Department of Religious Studies University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Tabor Blogs
September 2010

I want to thank the editors of Bible and Interpretation for the opportunity to offer a response to Joe Zias’s rather fascinating contribution on Masada. This response does not imply that I find no merit in what Zias presents, in fact I find myself agreeing with several of his more substantive points on Jewish identity and related issues. However, his piece does contain some serious errors, as well as some rather negative comments about me personally. I will divide my comments into two parts, first the substantive and then, very briefly, the personal.

Pig Bones

At the end of Zias’s article he shares a fascinating anecdotal account of a conversation he had with the late Professor Yadin in the 1980s on the presence of pig bones among the human skeletal remains found in the southern caves at Masada. Zias says he was curious as to whether or not Yadin was aware of these pig bones. Yadin replied that he was, and that although he had never claimed all the remains were Jewish, he had been under pressure from the religious authorities to support the idea that the remains were those of the 66-73/4 C.E. defenders of Masada. He added that he did not consider the presence of pig bones as disqualifying the remains as Jewish, since their presence might be accounted for in other ways.

I should point out here that Zias, in his 1998 article “Whose Bones? Were They Really Jewish Defenders? Did Yadin Deliberately Obfuscate?,” argued that the presence of these pig bones “suggest that the remains are those of Roman soldiers and perhaps of their women (a well-preserved three-month-old fetus was also among the finds” (Biblical Archaeology Review 24 (1998): 40-45, 64-64). Zias speculated that the pig bones had to do with Roman burial customs in which a pig had to be sacrificed in order to consecrate a legal grave.

What Yadin told Zias was no revelation since the whole “pig bones” discussion had been aired publically when the human skeletal remains first came to the attention of the Israeli public and the clamor over what to do with them was at a peak. Yadin first mentioned them in an interview reported in the Jerusalem Post on March 4, 1969, and there are references in the press as late as Yadin’s 1981 interview with Jerusalem Post reporter Benny Morris, that animal bones, including pig bones, were found among the remains in the southern caves (Jerusalem Post, November 11, 1981).

The Masada “Cave of the Skeletons” (loci 2001-2002) was first mentioned in Yigael Yadin's preliminary report Masada: First Season of Excavations 1963-64 (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1965), pp. 90-91. This volume contains a short report by Yoram Tsafrir who was the supervising excavator for the locus. The cave is the westernmost of a row of caves below the southern cliff of Masada. It is elongated, with its western half designated locus 2001 and its eastern locus 2002. Tzafrir reported (based on anthropologist Dr. Nicu Haas's evaluation) that 25 skeletons were found in this cave: 14 males, 6 females, 4 children and one foetus. The women were all ages 15-22 years; the men were aged 22-60, one being over 70, and the children were 8-12 years of age. Six of the men were aged 35-50. Tzafrir writes that the cave was rich in material remains: juglets, cooking pots, fragments of mats, food remains. The bodies were in disarray, as if tossed in heaps, with fragments of clothing throughout. In 1991 Joe Zias initiated a C-14 test of woolen textile from these remains at the Weizmann Institute. The results came out to 77 C.E. (+/- 37), supporting at least the possibility, chronologically speaking, that these were remains of the Jewish defenders of Masada rather than later Byzantine monks or other inhabitants of Masada from a subsequent period.1

Yadin related the find in chapter 15, “The Remains of the Last Defenders” in his popular illustrated book Masada: Herod's Fortress and the Zealots' Last Stand (Jerusalem: Steimatzky's; 1966, pp. 192-199). His book includes a photo of a portion of the cave floor with some of the skeletons visible (pp. 198-199).

A major public controversy regarding the skeletal remains from Masada erupted two years later. Following the publication of Yadin's popular book on Masada in 1966 (reviewed in the Jerusalem Post, Dec 23, 1966), Agudat Yisrael MK Shlomo Lorinez mounted a vigorous protest in the Knesset, bewailing the fact that these Jewish defenders had never been given a proper burial (Jerusalem Post, March 23, 1967). Lorinez charged that cynical archaeologists and medical researchers were violating Jewish law and that according to his sources, some of the skeletons had even been sent abroad. Yadin's defenders in the Knesset replied that the research was necessary to determine as accurately as possible the identity of these remains, whether Jewish, Roman, or Christian.

Yadin was strongly opposed to the plans of the Religious Affairs Minister and the Chief Rabbis to bury all the remains in the Jewish cemetery on the Mt. of Olives. He argued that only the three found in the Northern palace were most certainly Jewish, and that the identity of the remaining 24 (this is the number reported in the Jerusalem Post story, March 11, 1969 based on Yadin's statement), which had been found “in a cave” was uncertain, though they were probably Jews. This contrasts with the view he expresses in his book, namely that “they can be only those of the defenders of Masada” (p. 197). Yadin wanted these remains to be buried quietly in the cave where they were found. A hastily appointed Ministerial Committee ruled on March 23, 1969, that all the bones found at Masada would be buried at the site and plans were made accordingly. The burial took place on July 7, 1969, near the bottom of the Roman ramp. Chief Chaplain of the Army Rabbi Shlomo Goren officiated at the ceremony, which included full military honors. Prof. Yadin read part of Josephus' record of the final speech of Eleazar, Jewish commander of the defenders of Masada in 73 C.E. Various dignitaries were also present, including MK Menachem Begin (see Jerusalem Post, July 7, 1969). On September 4, 1994 a new tomb for the Defenders of Masada was unveiled. Funded by the National Parks Authority, the monument has twelve stones signifying the tribes of Israel and is located at the foot of the Roman Ramp on the northwest side of the fortress (Jerusalem Report, Sept 5, 1994).

Since the final report on the southern cases at Masada, including their skeletal remains, both human and animal, has not yet been published, it is difficult to know whether Yadin’s general reference to the presence of “pig bones” in the southern caves was specifically to Cave 2001/02.2 So far as I can determine the matter of the pig bones in the southern loci first comes up in the taped transcripts of Dr. Nicu Haas’s initial oral report to Yadin and the Masada supervisors, November 26, 1963. Haas has completed his report on his initial analysis of the skeletal remains of 2001/02 and mentions “chickens, a dog, a rabbit, and mainly—a pig.” Yadin refers to locus 1039 and makes the comment: “If there is a pig in 39, this will add up really to all kinds of evidence that there might have been a settlement there from a later period. This pig is very important, if he exists or does not. Thanks to Dr. Haas and with this we conclude the meeting.” 3 In Dr. Haas’s handwritten notes on the skeletal remains of Cave 2001/2002 he lists only human remains and a pile of animal bones, at the back of the cave, indicated in one of his sketches, is not analyzed. Although Zias concluded that Haas puts pig bones in Cave 2001/2002, a careful examination of Haas’s notes indicates otherwise, as well as his very clear oral report to Yadin, quoted below. His rather humorous reference to the problem of the pig in a “talit,” is not to this locus but to another nearby. Until we have a the final report on the total contents of Cave 2001/02 specifically, including skeletal remains whether animal or human, as well as the rich assortment of ceramics, textiles, foodstuffs, and baskets, it seems to me the jury is still out as to whether the presence of pig bones can tell us anything about who died and/or was buried or tossed into this specific cave. Yoram Tsafrir has recently informed me that a full report on the cave would be published by Roi Porat and Uri Davidovich, so it looks like we need to wait for their results before making any more assertions.

A Skeleton from Locus 2005?

The confusion over the locus of the single primary burial atop Masada is based upon Zias’s published article 1998 article in Biblical Archaeology Review. Not only does he write that the skeleton came from Cave 2001/02, but he says he got the photograph of the skeleton, published for the first time in his article, not from Ehud Netzer, as he now recalls, but from Yoram Tsafrir:

As it turns out, the bones were not just thrown haphazardly into the locus. The excavation of the cave was directed by the then-young Yoram Tsafrir, now one of Israel’s leading senior archaeologists. According to Tsafrir, there was one fully intact, undisturbed skeleton separate from the others, which were found in disarray in two loci in the cave. This individual was lying on his or her back with hands folded neatly across the abdomen and with head turned to the side, as though carefully laid out for burial. Tsafrir has recently provided us with clear photos of both this exceptional case and the other unpublished skeletal material (emphasis mine).

In his present article Zias only says that at the time he received the photograph he was under the mistaken impression it was from 2001/02 but he does not point out he is the one who generated this idea, or that he told me and others, the same, and then published it without allowing Tsafrir to comment or correct him. I even have a drawing of the cave, made by Zias, in which he indicates the precise location where the single burial was located. I have no idea what this drawing was based upon, since the skeleton is apparently not even from that cave, but I had no reason to doubt, given these reports, assertions, and claims, that what Zias passed on was correct.

This unfortunate mistake on the part of Zias had led to my error, as I had no independent knowledge of the skeleton other than what Zias had told me and then published, and the mistake has made its way, subsequently, into other sources, including the novel by Kathy Reichs, which I will address below.

As soon as I read a copy of Yoram Tsafrir’s lecture at the Oppenheimer conference, cited here by Zias, where I am also mentioned as spreading false information, I immediately wrote Prof. Tsafrir to ask for clarification. We had a cordial and mutually informative exchange and I subsequently issued a formal apology to him for including this erroneous information, based on Zias’s oral and published materials, in anything I had written or published. I removed any reference to the mystery “skeleton” from my university Web site and let Hershel Shanks and Kathy Reichs know about this unfortunate error.

Even though Prof. Tsafrir, in his Oppenheimer lecture, had speculated that maybe the lone intact skeleton in the Netzer photo was one he had found on a ledge outside the southern caves, designated as locus 2005, as Zias now maintains, in checking his notes Tsafrir has confirmed that such is not the case. I told Zias that in an e-mail earlier this year. Apparently he has either forgotten that, or simply did not believe me, but he must not have checked with Tsafrir before writing this latest piece or he would have realized his revised idea is also in error.

Tsafrir did find a lone skeleton in locus 2005, buried in the linen garment with the green textile, but his description does not correspond in any way to the photograph of the skeleton about which Zias now reports. Here are Prof. Tsafrir’s precise words, from the unpublished transcripts, reported orally to Yadin and the team, at a meeting on October 21, 1963, just after his discovery:

I succeeded in reaching another place, precisely in the southern corner, close to the caves where we have worked. It was actually a terrace, one step lower than the stairs. There in the concave of the rock somehow an upper jaw smiled at me . . . I started to dig and it seemed we discovered there a burial of a single person . . . We found the jaw, parts of the skull, many missing bones, a few ribs, the palm of a hand or the sole of a foot and hip bones. What stood out was a mass of rotting material, probably the organic material the body had crystallized . . . it was a beautiful green color.

This is truly an amazing find and one can feel the excitement of the young scholar as he reports to the seasoned Yadin. I look forward to hearing and reading more from Tsafrir in the future on this significant discovery that so far as I know has only recently been discussed.

Apparently Zias has not recently checked with Prof. Tsafrir, nor visited locus 2005. If he had it would have been obvious to him, as it was to Prof. Tsafrir, his find in the narrow burrow of locus 2005 is not what the photograph shows. I visited the locus last year and it was so narrow I had trouble standing safely on the ledge. In the photograph on the single skeleton (see Zias’s BAR article where it is published) one can clearly see what appears to be the wide floor of a cave-like area, with footprints in the soil and even archaeological tools in view. As with the matter of the pig bones it seems at this point that none of us know the locus of the lone skeleton, and we must wait for the publication of the final reports on the human remains found at Masada to be further informed.

Distinguishing Fact from Fiction

At the end of Zias’s piece he takes forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs to task for not properly checking her facts behind her fictional novel Cross Bones published in 2005. I get thrown into the mix because Dr. Reichs and I are both professors at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, in the departments of Anthropology and Religious Studies respectively. Zias even takes a swing at our distinguished Department of Religious Studies, and our former Chancellor, implying that we are all co-conspirators in allowing erroneous information to circulate under the guise of academic work. Those who work in the academy know that such a charge is ridiculous, and in fact, given academic freedom, any of my faculty could conceivable publish whatever he or she chooses, and we would not censor them for their views, however much we might disagree.

The facts are otherwise. Dr. Reichs asked me, as a courtesy, to check certain factual matters related to her fictional account in her novel Cross Bones. I have to assume, from the way Zias casts his critique, that he does not know much about Dr. Reichs and I had to wonder if he had even read her novel. Zias characterizes her work as “historical fiction,” which it surely is not.

Dr. Reichs is one of the most distinguished forensic anthropologists in the field and she does not need me to uphold her stellar reputation. Her list of academic publications is thick and impeccable and her service to the field is well known to all anthropologists who work in her area. She is one of only eighty-two forensic anthropologists ever certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology. She served on the Board of Directors and as Vice President of both the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, and is currently a member of the National Police Services Advisory Council in Canada. She was a long-time consultant to the FBI, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in North Carolina, and continues to serve with the Laboratoire de Sciences Judiciaires et de Médecine Légale for the province of Québec. Dr. Reichs has travelled to Rwanda to testify at the UN Tribunal on Genocide, and helped exhume a mass grave in Guatemala. As part of her work at JPAC (Formerly CILHI) she aided in the identification of war dead from World War II, Korea, and Southeast Asia. Dr. Reichs also assisted with identifying remains found at ground zero of the World Trade Center following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Dr. Reichs also writes novels—fiction—drawn from her experience in forensics. She is highly successful, publishing with Scribners. She is one of the most distinguished authors in this genre, ranked with Patricia Cornwell and a handful of others. All of her novels have a “setting” in the real world. She prides herself on getting her facts straight, in terms of the general “frame” of her story, but then she weaves into the plots of her novels a totally fictional story—characters, events, and outcome. It is ironic but just last week, about an hour after getting a copy of Zias’s article, with an invitation from Bible and Interpretation from editor Mark Elliot to respond if I wished to, I happened to turn on the radio and caught NPR’s “Talk of the Nation”—with Dr. Reichs as the guest for the entire hour.

I had not looked at Cross Bones for some time but I pulled down a copy to look over the list of “facts” at the front of the book that Kathy had asked me to check for her. So far as I could tell the major error listed there, other than calling me an “archaeologist,” was that she relied on the errors in Zias’s Biblical Archaeology Review article regarding the “mystery” skeleton Zias said Tsafrir found in Masada Cave 2001/02! This unfortunately, pulled Yoram Tsafrir into the story in a way that is regrettable. She asked me at the time—Is this guy Zias reliable? My reply was, “Yes, absolutely.”

The plot of this novel, as with all of Dr. Reichs's fictional “Tempe Brennan” series, was wholly concocted. This one had a “fictional” tomb, made-up DNA tests, a fictional connection to Masada and its skeletons, and completely fictional story line from start to finish. Even the IAA director—God forbid--gets killed in the end! It is entertaining, yes, if one goes for such books, but in no way is this or any of Dr. Reichs's novels intended to relate a “true story.” Yadin is Yadin, because he was the director of the excavation of Masada, and Tsafrir is Tsafrir, not as a character in the novel, but as the excavator of Cave 2001/02. Donovan Joyce is Donovan Joyce, not as a character in the book, but as the author of his own book, that he claimed was non-fiction—about his own adventures at Masada—so his outlandish claims become part of Reichs's story.

A Final Personal Note

I am neither an archaeologist nor the son of an archaeologist. My Ph.D. from the University of Chicago was in ancient Mediterranean religions, with Jonathan Z. Smith as my dissertation advisor. I have participated in various archaeological digs and even been co-director on three or four excavation licenses issued by the Israel Antiquities Authority, but I have no academic training in the field of Anthropology/archaeology, just a tiny bit of field experience. By the way, Kathy Reichs is an archaeologist, since her Ph.D. from Northwestern University is in archaeology—so she hardly needed me to tell her what is what in the field of archaeology—in a novel or otherwise.

Anyone who has dealt with the media as I have, and as Zias well knows, has had to deal with the fact that they constantly get things wrong—like putting Zias down as a faculty member at Hebrew University, which one constantly sees all over the internet. The two things that are most often confused in my case are giving me the “archaeology” tag and putting me down as from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I can’t remember how many times I have apologized to Bart Ehrman or Jodi Magness for some media story that puts me down the road from Charlotte at Chapel Hill!

As far as Zias’s other comments I decided back in 2007 when he began his personal attacks on me and others whom he calls “the BAR crowd,” that I would simply ignore him. I have always treated him with respect and honor and often defended him against his many critics, as all my colleagues can attest. If discussing the two or three locations that have been proposed for the tomb of Jesus, represent “moving Jesus around” the country, then I guess I have to plead guilty. I stand by my published work on the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb, both in Near Eastern Archaeology, and archived on the Society of Biblical Literature web site, as well as my forthcoming article in the two-volumes of papers edited by James Charlesworth on the Talpiot Tomb.4 As for the “BAR crowd,” if speaking at one of Hershel Shank’s Bible Fest events, or leading one of his BAS seminars, or even writing for Bible Review or Biblical Archaeology Review, earns the label—then I plead guilty again, along with a host of distinguished colleagues in our field. Since we are being personal here, I happen to like Hershel Shanks very much and consider him a personal friend. I respect the role he has played in the field as in “archaeological outsider” over the past 35 years and recommend to those who are not familiar with his contributions his recently published autobiography.5 My only plea here is that we get our facts straight before we damn our colleagues, and that we mix a bit of courtesy and respect in with any legitimate criticisms we might have of one another’s views and efforts.


1 See the Addendum, “Human Skeletal Remains from the Northern (sic: misprint “Southern”) Cave at Masada—A Second Look” by Joseph Zias, Dror Segal, and Israel Carmi, Masada: Final Reports, Vol. IV (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1994), pp. 366-367.

2 So far the published volumes of the Masada: Final Reports do not discuss the skeletal or the “rich” material remains of locus 2001/02. Volume III (1991) does contain one notation in this regard: “Both the caves, surveyed and excavated in 1963-65, and this cistern [locus 2006] will not be included in the present report and will be published separately” (p. 499).

3 Unpublished transcript of tapes of a staff meeting at Masada, November 26, 1963, archived at Hebrew University and made available to me through Neil Silberman who obtained these materials as part of his research on his biography of Yadin. Locus 1039 is a casemate room on the northwest that contained Roman military papyri, see

4 See “Testing a Hypothesis” in Near Eastern Archaeology 69:3-4 (2006): 132-136; and, as well as the dozens of articles at my blog: The Charlesworth volumes are based on the Princeton Theological Seminar conference held in Jerusalem in January, 2008 and will be published by Eerdmans in 2011. For my perspective on the conference see: and

5 Hershel Shanks, Freeing the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Adventures of an Archaeological Outsider (New York: Continuum, 2010).

Comments (12)

Thanks, James, for your exhaustive response. I didn't know about this confusion on that specific Masada burial. Moreover, I didn't even know that he published a paper on the so hated BAR... Anyway, Zias's point is clear: Masada was used as a political instrument by the Israeli government and, above all, by the religious zealots still living in that (at least, partially) occupied country. Despite some errors and contraddictions, he made this clear enough.

#1 - Antonio Lombatti - 09/03/2010 - 22:05

Thanks Antonio, I agree with you to an extent and I hope it was "exhaustive" but not "exhausting." I know some of these details can glaze one over a bit but if one keeps up with the details I think these matters are actually quite important.

Surely you must have noticed that Zias decided to combine his perspectives on Masada with some personal attacks. I think he has not yet absorbed Cargill's recent essay on the art of proper academic dialogue that is up right now on the homepage.

#2 - James D. Tabor - 09/03/2010 - 23:10

As Dr. Cargill so wisely wrote recently: Dr. XXXXXX is a friend and colleague, and I respect his opinion and the solid points he makes in his response. I’d also like to point out that this is how scholarly debate is supposed to take place. When a scholar produces research or a publication for consumption by the academy and/or the public, the scholar should expect and even invite professional criticism. It is the only way to expose holes in a theory or an academic argument, and this process makes the theory stronger. By pointing out problems with a theory, members of the academy contribute to a global discussion and together collaborate to find an interpretation or theory that best explains all of the data. Political candidates do the same thing during debates: they stand up and critique their opponent’s points of view, and, if done properly and professionally, they shake hands when it’s over and go have a beer together. That’s how it works.

Scholars should never personally smear or attempt to harm the professional development of anyone with whom they disagree. Rather, scholars (and students, and the public at large for that matter) should always argue each case on the merits of the argument."

It is a sad day when a former friend sees it important to desecrate your integrity in print.

I often do not always agree with your conclusions but I respect your scholarship and veracity.

#3 - Rabbi Gershon Steinberg-Caudill - 09/04/2010 - 00:24

Antonio, sorry, the Cargill article I had in mind is here, in response to the Bibleinterpt home page exchange:

#4 - James tabor - 09/04/2010 - 00:59

Hi James, I like your moderate reply to Zias. The way you explain the media faults is, I think, the highlight.
Anyway - already in Jerusalem, 2008, Joe and his friends proved that personalities are much easier to attack than well based ideas. He just did it again.
Thank you, James.

#5 - Eldad Keynan - 09/04/2010 - 16:29

I think what I most admire about you, apart from your impeccable professionalism, is the restraint in handling difficult subjects. Would that everyone would follow your example.
Thanks, and best wishes.
D.C. Smith
P.S. I really wanted to say "Give 'em hell," but I don't think you're that sort of person.

#6 - Don Smith - 09/12/2010 - 16:33

It would appear that the issue of pig bones is a key point in determining who rested in the burial Cave 2001/02 – Jews or non-Jews –and the outcome will be used for further conclusions about Masada. However, in my opinion, the fact that animal bones may or may not contain pig remnants is still not a clear indication of the identity of the inhabitants. I am a religious studies student with a very limited amount of knowledge on the subject of Jewish burial and archaeology. May I suggest that perhaps the pig bones reflect a group of people who were either Jewish or non-Jewish “sinners” (Isaiah 65:4)? While my unprofessional slight conclusion may be way off target, isn’t it a possibility that this may have occurred 2,000 years ago and in this respect, aren’t there many other possible scenarios? I agree with Rabbi Gershon Steinberg-Caudill’s remark that professional criticism only strengthens academic theories. All scholarly views are worthy resources whether or not we agree with their conclusions. Criticisms welcomed!

#7 - Vera Murano - 09/15/2010 - 18:47

A very interesting article James. Illuminating too as to the lows to which some academics will stoop.

#8 - Nathaniel J. Merritt - 10/13/2010 - 17:59

Have the pig bones been analysed to determine if they are from domestic or wild pigs - assuming that it is possible to tell the difference?
Were the pig bones found with or in the same layer as the human remains or could they date from another period?

#9 - Matthew Hamilton - 10/21/2010 - 10:37

A very good and interesting article! Definately cleared up questions I had about Masada with the help of one of your other articles. Unfortunately, the reason I had questions was Dr. Kathy Reichs's book: Cross Bones, which I am currently reading, and the article just ruined the end of it for me.

#10 - Maren - 01/10/2011 - 21:53

Interesting article found by Googling after reading Joyce's book a second time (first time in 1975 and its ideas have always stayed with me). I think with a fiery mix of academia, the origins of Christianity,Jewish history and the myth of Masada, Jesus'parentage, provenance,purpose and progeny we can safely call you " The man who kicked over the Hornets nest" James. Let's face it, even if it could be proved that Jesus' father was a Roman legionnaire called Panthera, married Mary Magdalene,survived crucifixion , begat at least one son and lived to a ripe old age there are none so blind as those that cannot see.It will not stop a succession of Roman Popes (...erm...was it the Romans who crucified Jesus?) perpetuating the myth. However,Jesus the man, his ideals and teaching, are something that the whole world could and should embrace.Remember, his father's house has many mansions.

#11 - David Hunter - 11/16/2011 - 17:07

Do you know whether Dr. Nicu Haas's report is on the skeletons from the Holy Cross Monastery of Jerusalem in 1969-1971 ?

#12 - Besik V Khurtsilava - 06/04/2018 - 21:09

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