The dramatic story of Masada does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Masada is the name of an ancient fortress located on a rocky plateau overlooking the Dead Sea in modern-day Israel. During the First Jewish-Roman War in the first century AD, a group of Jewish rebels known as the Sicarii took control of Masada and used it as a stronghold. After the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD, around 960 Jewish men, women and children fled to Masada and lived there for several years under siege by the Romans.
According to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, when defeat became imminent in 73 AD, the rebels chose to commit mass suicide rather than surrender. While this dramatic tale has become an important part of modern Jewish history and identity, the Bible does not recount these specific events at Masada.
Where Masada is Mentioned in the Bible
Although the Masada story is not found in scripture, the fortress itself is mentioned briefly in two Old Testament passages:
- “Samuel died; and all Israel gathered together and mourned for him, and buried him at his home in Ramah.Then David arose and went down to the Wilderness of Paran.” (1 Samuel 25:1 NKJV)
- “The vision of Obadiah. Thus says the Lord God concerning Edom…Though you ascend as high as the eagle, And though you set your nest among the stars, From there I will bring you down,” says the Lord.” (Obadiah 1:1, 4 NKJV)
In the original Hebrew, the word translated as “Wilderness of Paran” in 1 Samuel 25:1 is Midbar Paran. This is part of the large wilderness region extending from Mount Sinai down to the southwest corner of the Dead Sea. Masada was located on the eastern edge of this wilderness, so some scholars believe this passage could be generally referring to the area around Masada.
Similarly in Obadiah, the heights from which God will bring down Edom include Sela, the Hebrew word for the rocky plateau on which Masada was built. So this prophetic warning against Edom may envision the impregnable cliffs of Masada. However, neither of these passing references specifically mention dramatic events occurring at the fortress itself.
The Historical Context and Sources for the Masada Story
So if scripture does not record the famous siege of Masada, where does the story come from? The first and most extensive account is found in Book 7 of the Jewish historian Josephus’ work, The Jewish War. This was written around 75-79 AD, just a few years after the fall of Masada.
Josephus was born Joseph ben Matityahu in 37 AD in Jerusalem. He fought against the Romans during the First Jewish-Roman War before surrendering and becoming an adviser to the Roman general Vespasian. He then became a Roman citizen and historian, writing several important works on Jewish history and the war. His account is the only surviving eyewitness report of the Masada siege.
Modern archaeologists have uncovered remnants of the wall, palaces, storehouses, cisterns and other buildings at Masada that closely match Josephus’ descriptions. However, some details of his dramatic telling have been questioned by scholars. It is possible that he exaggerated elements of the story to portray the Sicarii rebels as courageous heroes facing impossible odds in order to inspire his fellow Jews after the devastating war. The mass suicide of nearly 1,000 people is also debated.
Nevertheless, Josephus remains the main historical source for Masada, providing the first record of the rebel holdout and tragic end there. The lore of Masada grew through the centuries, until it became an iconic symbol of Jewish determination and the quest for independence in the 20th century. Although the Bible does not include this important episode, the books of Josephus capture Masada’s profound impact on Jewish identity.
3 Key Takeaways on Masada and the Bible
- The Masada story is not found anywhere in the Old or New Testaments. The siege is first recorded by the historian Josephus after 70 AD.
- The Bible mentions the wilderness and mountain of Masada only in passing, not the famous revolt.
- Josephus’ firsthand but partially biased account remains the key source on the rebels’ last stand at Masada.
The saga of the Sicarii zealots holding out against the Romans at Masada is a defining moment in Jewish history and culture. However, it does not appear in scripture. The Bible neither confirms nor denies Josephus’ compelling account of the fortress’ tragic end during the First Jewish-Roman War. The Masada story emerges instead from non-biblical histories to become a modern legend of courage, sacrifice and devotion to God and freedom.
Retelling the Masada Story from a Christian Perspective
The dramatic story of Masada and its defenders contains many themes that can be explored meaningfully from a Christian perspective. As you reflect on this important episode, consider how God may have been at work even in the midst of intense violence and suffering.
The Sicarii rebels taking refuge at the fortress were Zealots, a Jewish sect opposed to Roman occupation and influence. In their willingness to fight and die for their faith, they displayed a zeal and love of God that Christians can appreciate. However, the Bible calls us to be discerning, since not all forms of zeal lead to God’s righteousness (Romans 10:2). Tragically, the Zealot movement led many Jews into political hatred and violence that ended in devastation.
When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD, Masada’s refugees faced the anguish of seeing their nation conquered and homeland destroyed. Like the psalmists, they agonized over how God could allow such disaster. Christians today can relate when we experience grief, shock and doubt during times of calamity and loss. Yet in the end, the refugees resolved with grim determination to take their own lives if capture seemed imminent. This raises difficult ethical questions about the sanctity of life and choice of suicide over surrender. Scripture offers wisdom as we prayerfully reflect on such dilemmas.
Above all, we can have hope that God was with the men, women and children at Masada in spirit, even in their final despairing hours. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18). And Christ’s resurrection assures us that death never has the final word. New life triumphs eternally. So we can trust that God received all those who perished at Masada into His merciful presence. Their courageous faith under extreme duress will be remembered.
The Masada story remains culturally important and deeply meaningful. But as Christians, we filter its legacy through the lens of scripture. We recognize that God works sovereignly through every generation and circumstance, using both light and darkness to accomplish His good and loving purposes.
Applying Lessons from Masada to Your Walk with Christ
Brothers and sisters, as you reflect on the account of Masada, consider how its examples of courage, endurance and passion can impact your own Christian walk today:
- Be inspired by the rebels’ zeal for God, but direct your passion toward sharing Christ’s love and living peaceably.
- When facing loss or uncertainty, draw near to Jesus who promises never to leave or forsake you.
- Uphold the sanctity of life as God’s precious gift, protecting the vulnerable.
- Allow your faith to grow through life’s trials, developing perseverance and maturity.
- Take comfort that God is with you in spirit, even amid despair, giving hope of resurrection.
- Look beyond worldly empires and powers to God’s eternal Kingdom which cannot be shaken.
- Let the failures and anguish of the past deepen your trust in Christ’s sovereignty working through all circumstances for redemptive good.
- Remember those who suffered and died devotedly for their faith as an inspiration and challenge.
- Choose boldly to live by Kingdom values, regardless of opposition, with courage and resilient faith.
- Allow scripture to guide your responses to injustice and experiences of oppression or conquest.
My friend, God is at work in your life just as He was at Masada. Draw close to Him each day, and He will lead you on the path of hope, truth and eternal victory in Jesus.