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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 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 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 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 14 June 2017
Easier to read than a lot of his works, though some editing would have made it even better.
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on 23 January 2014
I was expecting the TV series but with a bit more detail. However, it's a scholarly history book - but interesting.
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on 26 April 2017
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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 17 May 2017
Definitely recommended promptly delivered within the promised time.
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on 21 January 2014
"The Story of the Jews" (of which only volume 1 has so far appeared; volume 2 will come out in September) was conceived simultaneously as a TV series and a book, and the book is actually based upon the TV series.

This combination of the visual image and the printed word works excellently in relation to the central theme that the true and eternal homeland of the Jews is the Book - the Jews being very aptly named "The People of the Book"; that the indestructibility of the Book is one of the main reasons for the survival of the Jewish people in the face of terrible adversity; and that as a result the words of the sacred books were regarded as so beloved and holy that beautiful images grew up around them. Schama excels in describing the lovely, vibrantly-coloured images that decorated the words in Hebrew illuminated manuscripts (pages 372-3) - and this book contains beautiful illustrations of these.

Related to this is Schama's demolition of the myth that Judaism is opposed to representational images, with his vivid description of the discovery of early synagogues with brilliantly-coloured paintings on their walls (pages 173-192), also reproduced in the book's illustrations.

Schama is also particularly good on the "mappae mundi" - the "cloths of the world" that were made by the Jews of Palma de Mallorca during the Spanish Golden Age - maps such as the Catalan Atlas (which also features in Schama's illustrations), with its "folding lengths of painted vellum - crowded with Catalan text, webbed with the lines of the winds, brilliant with gold and silver, vermilion and viridian, the personifications of the zodiac, things fabulous and things charted...." (page 375). These maps, as Schama brings out, also bear witness to the dispersal of the Jews all over the world and celebrate their adventurous trading voyages.

But a big drawback of the dual-media presentation is that what works well as a TV series often does not come over so effectively in a written history. In a TV series, we need a presenter to provide continuity between the visual images, but in a book, the presenter himself as an ever-present guide can come to seem intrusive and over-familiar. Schama adopts a chatty, jocular, at-your-elbow style that works on TV but in a written history can become very irritating (though some Amazon reviewers evidently find it engaging).

There are also a number of errors. An earlier reviewer (writing last September) mentioned the statement on page 19 that the Sabbath does not appear in the Book of Deuteronomy. This mistake has already been corrected in my copy, recently ordered from Amazon, but I have spotted several others. Two small ones are:

1) Again on page 19, Schama claims that Exodus and Deuteronomy forbid intermarriage: "The Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy took a dim view of the practice ("Neither shalt thou make marriages with them" Deuteronomy 7:3)". But this quotation from Deuteronomy only applies to the seven "wicked" Canaanite nations, not to all Gentiles. In Exodus, Moses actually marries a Midianite woman! (2:21) It was not until the time of Ezra that intermarriage was forbidden.

2) Schama claims that whereas the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem was part of God's historical plan, the Israelites' sojourn in Egypt was not: "In the Bible-writing mind, Babylon-Persia had been co-opted as the instrument of divine will. Egypt was always the enemy of YHWH's plans for history." (page 11). But God says clearly to Abraham, generations before the departure to Egypt: "Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years;/And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterwards shall they come out with great substance." (Genesis 15: 13-14)

Though it can't be called an error in itself, I find very unconvincing Schama's evident approval of the hypothesis that the Passover Seder meal is a "response to" the Christian Eucharist. To justify this theory, Schama writes: "since the Torah had nothing to say about any kind of Passover meal (only the sacrifice and reading of the Exodus) it has been daringly suggested that the rabbinical invention of the Seder might have been in response to the Easter rites rather than the other way round." (Pages 211-12). The claim that the Torah has "nothing to say about any kind of Passover meal" is in fact another error: what about Numbers 9: 11: "the fourteenth day of the seventh month at even they shall keep it [ie the Passover] and eat it [ie the sacrificial lamb] with unleavened bread and bitter herbs./They shall leave none of it unto the morning"? Surely this is a meal? In any case, the Eucharist can hardly be called a meal, so how can the Seder be a response to it? (It should also be pointed out that the Eucharist derives not from the Passover, but from the Last Supper in the Gospels, which probably wasn't a Passover meal.) A much more convincing theory, which Schama never mentions, even though he stresses the Hellenisation of the Jews, is that the Passover Seder was based upon the ancient Greek Symposium: a banquet characterised by wine-drinking and philosophical discussion.

A serious and revealing error appears in Schama's comment - in relation to the account, in the two Books of Maccabees in the Apocrypha, of the Hasmonean kings' adoption of the dual role of monarchs and high priests - "Tellingly, neither book professes any concern about the violation of a separation of roles established as far back as Moses and Aaron" (page 115).

The separation of the roles of Moses and Aaron is the separation of the roles not of the King and the Priest but of the Prophet and the Priest. Moses was the first Prophet, the spiritual ancestor of the Prophets, who were arbitrarily chosen to be the inspired mouthpieces of God, through whom He spoke to the Kings and People; the Priests were lineal descendants of Aaron and their role was ritual and ceremonial and therefore subordinate to that of the Prophets (of course some Prophets, such as Jeremiah, could also be Priests). Writing of Jerusalem in 200 BCE, Schama says: "the charisma of authority was concentrated in the imposing figure of the High Priest" and that "the appearance of the miraculously clad High Priest was the closest Jews got to the apparition of divine exaltation in human form"(page 106). Schama omits to mention the scribes and sages who in 200 BCE were already developing synagogues and preserving the oral law and who thus provided a link between the Prophets and the Pharisee movement of rabbis that was about to emerge (in the middle of the 2nd century BCE, at the time of the Maccabean Revolt). These scribes and sages and later the Pharisee rabbis possessed, like the Prophets, moral and spiritual authority, as opposed to the merely ritual authority of the imposing ceremonial figure of the high priest in his gorgeous robes.

This over-valuation of the Priests is connected to a certain under-valuation of the Prophets. Thus I found it puzzling that Schama describes the Second Isaiah as insisting on the "exclusiveness" of God (page 46) (also the claim that he is the first of the Prophets to worship One God alone, not just one supreme God, is very much open to question). Taken together with a theme in the early part of the book of a "broad" Judaism open to other cultures and even other gods and a "narrow" Judaism that worshipped only one God, this seems implicitly to criticise the Second Isaiah for being narrow-minded. But how can the universalist vision expressed in the verses attributed to the Second Isaiah possibly be called narrow-minded? "Thus saith God the Lord, he that created the heavens and stretched them out; he that spread forth the earth and that which cometh out of it..../I the Lord have called thee in righteousness and will hold thine hand and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles...." (42: 5-6 ) Schama does not seem to me to bring out sufficiently the role in preserving Jewish identity not only of the words but of the main content of the words: the Jews' sense of dedication to one indestructible, eternal God representing universal values and a plan of perfectibility for the whole of mankind.

Schama's over-valuation of Priests and Kings also seems apparent in his evident wish to believe that Khirbet Qeiyafa, an impressive 10th-century BCE city recently discovered 30 kilometres south-east of Jerusalem by Israeli archaeologists, is, as these archaeologists claim (an assertion that has modern political reverberations) a city built by King David and proof that he was an important monarch who ruled over a united kingdom. These archaeologists are trying to disprove the argument, put forward by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman in "The Bible Unearthed" that the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah were always separate and there never was a glorious united kingdom of David and Solomon, who were only minor tribal chieftains whose capital in Jerusalem was just a hill-village. While not coming out completely in favour of the hypothesis that Khirbet Qeiyafa was one of David's expansive royal cities, Schama goes a long way to indicate his approval of it, at one point pre-empting the issue by writing that "the defensive perimeter was casement....since casement walls largely disappear from such sites after the tenth century, this was another indication of an earlier date, most likely from the united not the divided monarchy". Schama does write of "sceptics" but does not dwell very much on the alternative theories , which are that a) Khirbet Qeiyafa is Canaanite; b) (put forward by Israel Finkelstein), that it is in the southernmost part of the much larger and more affluent northern Kingdom of Israel.

To conclude: I found this long first volume (420 pages) to be absorbing and irritating by turns. On the positive side, the individual stories of ordinary Jews are fascinating. I won't of course be able to write a review of "The Story of the Jews" as a whole till I read the second volume in September. I hope to review the book as a whole then and to include more about the first volume (I've already written enough here, I think!)
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