Top positive review
Surprising insights into a rich treasure trove of Jewish history
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.