The story of the last redoubt, of Jews fighting to the end against the Roman legions, had instant appeal in Israel and abroad. Soldiers of the Israeli armoured corps used to trek to Masada to hold their annual swearing- in ceremony.
But Masada is no longer a symbol of unity. And, within the past week, exactly what happened on the mountain top 2,000 years ago has provoked charge and counter-charge. Were its defenders the heroic hard core of the great Jewish revolt against Rome, or a gang of killers who became victims of a last Roman mopping-up operation? Was Elazar Ben-Yair, the commander, right to persuade his 960 followers to kill each other - if, indeed, the suicide occurred at all?
As a result of the controversy, Aryeh Barnea, head of a Jerusalem school, last week called off a trip by pupils to Masada. "I decided to cancel the ceremony in which it is customary to present Elazar Ben Yair as a hero," he said, "since he apparently murdered hundreds of innocent persons before the siege."
Dr Ze'ev Moshel, one of the original excavators, was outraged. He said that the collapse of the Masada myth was unjustified and its defenders "believed they embodied Jewish independence".
Most Israeli archaeologists now accept that what really happened at Masada was very different from the picture painted by Professor Yigael Yadin, the archaeologist and former chief of staff of the Israeli army, who carried out the highly publicised excavations in 1963-65. At a cost of about pounds 920,000 in current values, mostly provided by British donors including the Observer newspaper, Professor Yadin claimed to have found evidence for the heroic version of what happened at the fortress.
The project was always more bizarre than the hundreds of Israeli and foreign volunteers who worked on the site might have realised. The only literary source is Josephus Flavius, the Jewish historian who had himself taken part in the revolt before joining the Roman side. His account says that the defenders of Masada took no part in the war against Rome during the siege of Jerusalem, but instead plundered local villages including En Gedi on the Dead Sea, where "women and children, more than 700 in number, were butchered".
Professor Nachman Ben-Yehuda, the author of The Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel, published in 1995, traced the development of the Masada mythology and the tailoring of archaeological evidence to promote its status as a nationalist icon. He is scathing about Professor Yadin's conclusions, and says these were systematically modified to support the story of Josephus.
Yadin was anxious to find bones of the 960 defenders and their families, and in November 1963 the remains of three skeletons were found, identified as a man aged 20-22, a woman of 17-18 and a child of 11-12. According to the transcript of a discussion which took place at the time, he said: "It is obvious that the child and woman cannot be mother and son because of the age difference." But in his book on Masada three years later, he speaks of finding the skeleton "of a man in his twenties who was perhaps one of the commanders of Masada". He does not mention the ages of the woman and child, allowing him to suggest that he may have discovered a Masada fighter with his family. Another five years later, writing in the Encyclopedia Judaica, all doubts have vanished: "The skeletons ... represent the remains of an important commander of Masada and his family."
In fact, says Professor Ben-Yehuda, the Sixties excavators were disappointed that they found so little to confirm the last stand and mass suicide. The most obvious sign of the Roman assault is the sandy ramp, built on a rocky spur, which reaches up to the top of the mountain. There were arrowheads, but not of the high-quality type used by the Romans. A recent study estimates the length of military operations at Masada at six weeks, not the long siege described in Israeli school textbooks.
Professor Jerome Murphy-O'Connor of the Ecole Biblique, a research institute in Jerusalem, does not believe the account of mass suicide. In Josephus it is preceded by two lengthy speeches by Ben-Yair, reported verbatim, in which he persuades his people to kill each other. The survival of his words is inherently unlikely, since Josephus also says that only two women and five small children were alive when the Romans entered the fortress. Professor Murphy-O'Connor says Josephus "invented the speech of Elazar [Ben-Yair] to lay the blame for the war, not on the Jewish people as such, but on a minority of violent revolutionaries".
Professor Yadin wanted to prove that the defenders of Masada were the hard-core supporters of a national resistance movement led by the Zealots, the movement which fought in Jerusalem. He interpreted scrolls found at Masada as showing that the defenders came from different sects and groups, though the scrolls may have been looted from nearby villages. What Josephus actually said was that the defenders of Masada were Sicarii, an extreme Jewish group who specialised in assassination and had killed the High Priest in Jerusalem.
The debate about what happened at Masada is conducted with such energy and venom in Israel because it symbolises two views of the country and its present policies. These are as relevant in 1997 as when Josephus wrote 2,000 years ago.
One is that Israel is a besieged fortress whose defenders must fight to the end against an implacable enemy. The other, upheld by Professor Ben-Yehuda, is that today, as in the past, the refusal to compromise of such extremists as the Sicarii at Masada and the leaders of the doomed revolt against Rome bring only death and destruction to the Jewish people.