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on 1 February 2015
This fascinating history of the Jewish people takes us from the earliest origins to 1492 and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. There is also a TV series. Even the well read historian of the Jews will learn a lot and for the general reader, whether Jewish, Christian or something else or nothing at all you will learn a lot. It begins in a very surprising place - not for example with the Bible being given to Moses on Mount Sinai - but on Elephantine Island on the River Nile in 475 BC. There a large Jewish community is resident, complete with temple, acting as mercenaries to defend the King of Persia's southern frontier against raiders and bandits. Of course the alert reader will note that there is a problem in the previous sentence - there was absolutely only meant to be one temple in Jerusalem - and some of the correspondence is incredibly tactless as the elders in Egypt set out the issues around "their" temple. From its earliest origins then, the Jewish faith was one defined by the word and the continuing arguments about what that word meant. Christians and Jews together have very broadly fallen into two camps - those who believed that the "word" (OT for Jews, OT + NT for Christians) was God given and inspired and to be obeyed and those who thought it was of human origin and could be sifted through human reason. The former group then divide again into those who think Jesus Christ was the Messiah and those who did not. Schama falls into the second group, and my two criticisms of the book are that he tends to give short shrift to those in the former group. Poor old "second" Isaiah -writing Schama says two centuries after the first - is summarily dismissed as "isolationist" for example. Most of the OT prophets get similar short shrift. More surprisingly, the most influential Jew of all times, Jesus of Nazareth, hardly gets a look in: in fact Paul gets a far larger contribution. Putting these criticisms aside, the book is very well written and is especially good on the Victorian biblical scholars who dug up all kinds of early papyri in Egypt shedding light on early Jewish history. Most amazingly was the treasure trove of documents in the storehouse known as the Cairo Geniza in the Ben Ezra synagogue in Old Cairo. Because of the deep Jewish reverence for the word, which permeates this book (hence the title) nothing written could be thrown away in case it contained, unknown the scared name. So everything was placed in a storehouse. and there it remained until it was unearthed- children's scribblings, drawings, letters, tax bills, religious and not so religious instructions, shopping lists, fashion tips and on and on. So when the Victorian scholars in 1896 found this incredible treasure trove of chaos (the very opposite of an archive) they discovered the most complete set of medieval documents anywhere in the world, covering 9 centuries. Even more fascinating is that the prime movers in this discovery were two middle aged Scottish Presbyterian sisters, Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson. The documents are so vast that even now they are being explored in Cambridge. But while the Victorians had a creditably high view of the Jewish people (for example, the Earl of Shaftesbury the noted philanthropist and evangelical, used to take his hat off and bow to any Jewish people he passed on the street, the noted Scottish minister "Rabbi" Duncan devoted his life to the Jews) tragically this has not been true in general. Christians have to hang our head in sorrow for 2000 years of bad treatment in the main. as the book points out in general the treatment of Jews in this period by Islam was far better than that of Christians. And not just in Russia, Germany or France - in England too. The pogroms against Jews in York and Lincoln which seem to have been forgotten predated the murder and cruelty to come. Jews were only readmitted to England by Cromwell - great man! The problem seems to have set in as the Christians acquired power. The earlier Christians, while naturally trying to convince their Jewish friends that the Messiah had in fact come (and remember that nearly all the early Christian were Jews) are a sharp contrast with the situation a few hundred years later where writers like Jerome and especially John Chrysostom were outspoken in their hatred. Augustine uniquely "made the effort of historical imagination to register in full the Jewishness of Jesus and the apostles." God wanted the Jewish people to be cared for, argued Augustine, "as custodians of the Bible's prophecies of Christ". For according to a (probably apocryphal story) an agnostic King of France was told by his counsellor that the best argument for the existence of God was the survival of the Jewish people. This book takes us to 1492, I look forward to the second volume.
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on 15 May 2014
This book is an easy read: the author spins a good yarn, yet it is meticulous in its scholarship, both biblical and archaeological. The book is also beautifully produced.

Despite Josiah’s reforms, we learn that early Judaism was not monolithic. For those for whom the Old Testament is ‘history’ there will be surprises – for example that Moses was probably an Egyptian.

The author relies too much on Welhausen’s JEDP theory. Liberal Jews seem to have adopted it at a time when Christians have rejected it as too simplistic.

We are reminded that scripture is always open to debate.

Syria, where there is so much bloodshed today was, in 240 CE a model of pluralist, Jews, Christians and pagans living side by side. Later, the Alhambra in Granada was originally planned as a Jewish-Muslim project.

The Mishnah settles the vexed question of whether locusts are kosher or not, given that there is a seeming contradiction between Deuteronomy and Leviticus on the matter.

It forbids bald men entering the temple – so Schama envisages ‘a line of anxious comb-overs queuing for Levite auditions’.

One item in the Mishnah seems to reflect controversies with Christians. It is forbidden to use the temple as a thoroughfare (the temple had long since been destroyed but Jesus tried to stop people when he ‘cleansed’ it.)

The author rightly points out that Judaism and Christianity shaped each other’s doctrines and practices reflected their controversies and differences.

Anti-Semitism is rightly placed at the door of John Chrysostom, the so-called ‘golden mouthed’ preacher. Dirty mouthed more like it. He was mainstream so we’re not talking about a lunatic fringe. Even those Christians who defended Jews from slaughter, for example Bernard of Clairvaux, still accused them of being demonic. There is a difference between official Christianity, between Aquinas and the mob. Sadly, the mob tended to rule.

Jews claim never to have wanted to convert anyone to their religion but there’s an anomaly in the New Testament where Jesus talks of Pharisees going out to make converts and this is backed up in this book where we learn of Jewish proselytisers in Fourth century CE Arabia, particularly in the Yemen.

Just as Christians talk of ‘eternal life’ starting now rather than being something for the after-life, so a rabbi distinguishes between those who a righteous with those who are already dead while living.

The author is not on the side of those historical revisionists who claim that Islam was not spread by violent conquest. However, slaughter was common back then.

No guide book will tell you that Westminster Abbey’s Cosmati Pavement was made from loot from Jews who had been expelled from England or that the University of Oxford’s Botanical Gardens are on the site of a Jewish graveyard.

In times of persecution, the correct choice between martyrdom and preserving life was explained as whether you should live by the commandments being better that dying by them.,

There were also some unnecessarily difficult words, e.g. divagations - wandering about; rambling, digressions of the Talmud.
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on 24 January 2014
The standard narrative, known throughout the Western World at least, is based on the New Testament. Schama tells of an energetic Diaspora, from North Africa to Baghdad, with flourishing communities, whose cultures contribute much more to the modern Jews, than the Temple practice of the Jews known to the Romans.
Quite different to the current received wisdom and essential for understanding Jews and Judaism today.
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on 26 October 2014
While the detail supplied could sometimes be hard work, I have learned a great deal about the relationships between the Jews and others that I didn't know before, about Jewish centres far from Judea, about militaristic and mercenary soldiers. Most importantly I have learned all this from the incredibly preserved lives of individuals thank you Simon.
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on 16 October 2013
My first thoughts on hearing about Simon Sharma's proposed project were: Oh no, why do we need yet another gargantuan view of Jewish history? Nevertheless within the confines of five 1-hour television programmes and a 473 page book it is a brave attempt. My real criticisms are that, perhaps because of these limitations of time and space, Sharma rarely follows through on the extremely interesting topics he embraces. This made the series compulsive but very frustrating.

For, instance, he starts off by viewing Sigmund Freud's work on Moses, but completely fails to explain that the central theme and conclusion of Freud's work, which he laboured on from the 1930 to the 1950s was his conviction that Moses was associated with an 18th Dynasty Pharaoh and that the Hebrew story was intimately connected to this period of Egyptian history. Pharaoh Akhenaton is completely absent from the TV documentaries and hardly gets a mention in Sharma's book, The Story of the Jews, and even there he is mislabelled as `the leader of an exclusive cult of a single sun-god...' It is quite wrong to dismiss this period as one of sun worship. From what we know of Akhenaton's true beliefs he thought of an abstract invisible all- powerful God he knew as the Aton; which when you consider the letters T and D in Egyptian pronunciation are interchangeable, gives God's name as Adon - the same as the Hebrew rendering. Freud recognised this critically important fact.

When it comes to the Exodus, we find Moses looking out over the wonderful vista of Canaan, apparently some 3,500 years ago. Some of the photography and scenery and sites in the documentary are almost worth viewing in their own right. However, in the light of modern scholarship we know that the Exodus took place in the 12th century BCE, much later than Sharma posits. He also thinks:"No evidence outside the Hebrew Bible exists to make the exodus and the law giving dependably historical..." As `Where Moses Stood' reveals this assumption is quite wrong. There is hard inscriptional evidence for the Exodus and the location of the law giving.

Sharma next moves on to look at the aberrational community he refers to as a military Jewish colony in southern most Egypt, that he says came there in the 7th century BCE. Whilst some other scholars use the same terms and dating, Professor Bezalel Porten, who is a pioneering expert on Elephantine settlement, refrains from calling the people on the island Jews and now maintains they were essentially Aramaen and we "just don't know where they came from or when they arrived." Sharma skims through this extraordinary story but fails to ask the questions, why did they go there, why did they have such different versions of belief from those in Judaea. He is also quite wrong when he says: "The only literature found in the archive (of aramaic letters form Elephantine, some of which are now in the Brooklyn Museum, New York) was the `Book of Wisdom', the words of Ahiqar." There was another entitled the words of `Bisutun', found in 1906, which is also a story of wisdom instructions. There is nothing in the Aramaic Letters from Elephantine about military activity and no evidence of soldiers or mercenaries has been found at the site of the Aramaic Settlement.

The acid test as to the origins of this Settlement is that they followed an Egyptian law system, and worshipped Jahu and at least two other gods. It is self-evident that they did not know the Ten Commandments (or the Torah) which forbids worship of more than one God, because they had never left Egypt.

Apart form the inaccuracies in this early chronicle of Israel those on more modern times are far from complete. One hopes the second book in the series will make amends in these deficiencies.

This is only a partial review as to do justice to the entire work would take a book in itself.
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on 23 February 2014
Erudite, yet easy to read - some really, really interesting bits I was not aware of [ but no reason why I should have been except that I have incurable curiosity ], am looking forward to the next book - but with some dread - and, perhaps, there should be a third one - looking forward to the future?
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on 5 February 2014
A fantastic and well written book. Great learning and communication. It brings together so amny strands. Sufficiently compelling to be a 'stright through' read. I can't wait for the second volume
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on 25 December 2015
This is to accompany a tv series and it is eminently chatty but in no way a serious work of history.

In the first few pages it made two howling chronological errors, and there are others which those better versed than me in Jewish history have pointed out. He contradicts himself in a matter as important as the dating of the first synagogues and makes no mention of a matter as serious as when the Jews began to believe in an afterlife.

Those who know nothing about the subject may find its easy talk appealing but I know enough to know Schama is way out of his depth here.
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on 10 January 2015
The book uses some interesting examples to illustrate the history of the Jews. Many of the examples I did not know. In some cases I found this this both interesting and informative in others I am afraid I did not.

This book is well written.

The extent of the Jewish Faith not only to survive but also to benefit mankind is a wonder in itself.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to gain some insight into the suffering of a religion a the admirable determination of people to defy the acceptance of the easy option.
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on 11 November 2013
Brilliantly and somewhat chaotically written, rambling through each period with strong emphasis on people and their lives and fates to typify the historical events. It is eminently readable and the historical evidence provided at all points attests to its accuracy. I look forward to volume two, predicted for next year.
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