Masada—Proof That Messiah Had Come?
BLOODSHED in the name of religion has been a recurring plague in history. Masada was no exception, for its defenders had strong religious motivations. If you visit the excavations at Masada, you can see the ruins of a synagogue where the dagger men met for worship and the ritual baths used for religious cleansing.
Fragments of the Bible have also been found at Masada. How, you may wonder, did the Biblical message available to the dagger men compare with what we read in the Bible today? Dr. Yigael Yadin, in his book Masada, wrote about the first such discovery:
“A quick examination on the spot showed us immediately that here was a fragment from the Book of Psalms, and we could even identify the chapters: the section ran Psalm 81 to Psalm 85. . . . It was possible to date it without the slightest doubt. It could not possibly be later than the year 73 AD, the year Masada fell. . . . This section from the Book of Psalms, like the other biblical scrolls which we found later, is almost exactly identical . . . to the text of the biblical books which we use today.”
Evidently, the dagger men believed that the Divine Author of the Hebrew Scriptures would bless their uprising against Rome. As The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia explains: “The fanatic zeal of the Jews in the Great War against Rome (66-73 C.E.) was strengthened by their belief that the Messianic era was near at hand. The loss of the Temple only increased the speculations as to the coming of the Messiah.”
The Coming of the Messiah
“Jewish messianic enthusiasts,” states The Encyclopedia of Religion, “would often base their calculations on the Book of Daniel.” True, the Hebrew prophet Daniel foretold the coming of “Messiah the Leader.” (Daniel 9:25) In two other accounts, Daniel said that the Messiah would become Ruler of the world and that His Kingdom would destroy all opposing human governments.—Daniel 2:44; 7:13, 14.
First-century Jewish revolutionaries felt that the time had arrived for the fulfillment of these prophetic visions. “What more than all else incited them to the war,” states Josephus, “was [the belief] that at that time one from their country would become ruler of the world.” But Daniel foretold that the Messianic Leader must first be “cut off” and that after his death Jerusalem and its temple would be brought to ruin by ‘the people of another leader who was coming.’—Daniel 9:25, 26.
Jewish Views of Gentile Rule
First-century Judea was divided between a few rich and many poor. Some rich Jews, especially among the Sadducees and Pharisees, treasured the authority that Rome allowed them to have in the land, and they despised the common people. Thus, they opposed any thought of revolution, working instead for peaceful relations with Rome.—Luke 16:14; 19:45, 46; John 2:14; 7:47-49; 11:47, 48.
On the other hand, ordinary Judeans suffered under the burden of Roman taxation and their own oppressive countrymen. They took no comfort in being under the so-called Pax Romana (Roman Peace) but wanted a change. This conflict of interests resulted in terrible civil strife. “One group was bent on domination,” wrote Josephus, “the other on violence and on robbing the rich.”
The dagger men, for example, plundered and killed fellow Jews and justified these terrorist acts as punishment of Jews who supposedly collaborated with Rome. A second-century rabbi, Johanan ben Torta, gave this reason for the calamity that came upon first-century Jews: “They lusted after money and hated one another.”
It is no wonder that those Jews who were truly God-fearing longed for the appearance of the Messiah, who they hoped would overthrow Roman rule and establish a just Kingdom of God. But unscrupulous men played on these hopes.
About the year 33 C.E., a Jewish leader named Gamaliel reminded fellow rulers of Jerusalem: “Before these days . . . Judas the Galilean rose in the days of the registration, and he drew off people after him. And yet that man perished, and all those who were obeying him were scattered abroad.”—Acts 5:36, 37.
“The registration” that resulted in Judas’ uprising was organized in 6 C.E. for the purpose of raising taxes for Rome. Josephus tells us that Judas proclaimed that the Jews “were cowards if they submitted to paying taxes to the Romans.” The name Judas comes from the name Judah, suggesting that he belonged to the tribe from whom the Messiah was expected. (Genesis 49:10) “His fiery eloquence and the popularity of his doctrines drew vast numbers to his standard, by many of whom he was regarded as the Messiah,” states McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia.
Notice that Acts 5:37 reports that the followers of this Judas did not perish with him. His movement, according to Jewish scholar Gaalya Cornfeld, “struck deep roots and messianic hopes.” In fact, two leaders of the dagger men, Menahem and Eleazar, descended from that Judas the Galilean. At the start of the Jewish revolt in 66 C.E., Menahem armed his followers with weapons that had been stored at Masada. Then, “he returned like a king to Jerusalem” and “became the leader of the revolution.” “It is almost certain,” adds the Encyclopaedia Judaica, “that Menahem [son of] Judah was considered a Messiah.”
However, in that very year, Menahem was assassinated by members of a rival Jewish revolutionary movement. His followers fled back to Masada, where Eleazar took command of the dagger men until 73 C.E. Eleazar’s suicide speech echoes the mistaken teachings of his forefather Judas: “Long since, my brave companions, we determined to serve neither the Romans nor anyone else but only God.”
Neutrality of Judean Christians
Prior to the Jewish revolt in 66 C.E., Christian congregations had been established in Judea, including, of course, the congregation of Jerusalem. (Acts 9:31) These were made up of Jews who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah whose death and resurrection had been foretold. (Acts 2:22-36) The Jewish Christians zealously spread their beliefs, while peacefully awaiting the Messiah’s second coming, as world ruler. Jesus had indicated that he would return “after a long time.”—Matthew 25:19, 31; 28:19, 20; Acts 1:8-11.
But once the Jewish revolt broke out in 66 C.E., what protected those Judean Christians from being carried away by its initial success? They no doubt recalled their Master’s warning: “All those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52) Jesus also had given them a balanced view of Gentile governmental authority. “Pay back Caesar’s things to Caesar,” he said, “but God’s things to God.” (Mark 12:17) Furthermore, Jesus had foretold that messianic pretenders would come, saying, “‘I am he,’ and, ‘The due time has approached,’” but he warned: “Do not go after them.”—Luke 21:8.
Jesus had even predicted the outcome of the Jewish revolt, saying: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by encamped armies, then know that the desolating of her has drawn near. Then let those in Judea begin fleeing to the mountains, and let those in the midst of her withdraw, and let those in the country places not enter into her; . . . for there will be great necessity upon the land and wrath on this people; and they will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive into all the nations.”—Luke 21:20-24.
The terrible flood of destruction that followed the Jewish revolt was a dramatic fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy! Yet, Judean Christians escaped by obediently “fleeing to the mountains.” “Prior to Jerusalem’s siege by Titus [in 70 C.E.],” states the Encyclopaedia Judaica, “its Christian community moved to Pella.” Interestingly, Pella was to the north, in the foothills of a mountain range across the Jordan River and so was completely separated from Judea by the Jordan Valley. “It is hard to account for this escape if [Jesus’] prophecy was written after the event,” states G. A. Williamson in his introduction to Josephus—The Jewish War.
Indeed, the successful escape of Judean Christians is powerful evidence that they were followers of the true Messiah. This raises important questions. What was the purpose of Messiah’s first coming? And what warning does the disastrous Jewish revolt sound for us today, especially the sector of humanity that is labeled “Christian”? These questions will be discussed further in this magazine.