Magazine article The Spectator

The Power of the Word

Magazine article The Spectator

The Power of the Word

Article excerpt

The Story of the Jews, Volume I:

Finding the Words, 1000 BCE-1492 CE by Simon Schama Bodley Head, £25, pp. 496, ISBN 9781847921321 The recorder of early Jewish history has two sources of evidence. One is the Bible. Its centrality was brought home to me by David Ben-Gurion when I went to see him in Jerusalem in 1957. He had a big Bible on his desk, and banged it repeatedly with his fist:

There, it's all there, the past, present and future of the Jewish people. God? Who knows God?

Can you believe in someone you don't know?

But I believe in the Bible. [Bang, bang. ] The Bible is a fact. [Bang. ] A record and a prophecy. [Bang. ] It's all there, Mr Johnson. Read your Bible, understand your Bible, and you won't go wrong about the Jews. [Final bang. ] Simon Schama, being a learned scholar as well as a proud and sensitive Jew, is not so sure. He sees the Bible as mostly no more than 'an echo of the historical truth' and 'probably not even that'.

He admits 'there is a point in the epic when the storyline and the reality of Jewish history do indeed converge'. But the Hebrew Bible is essentially 'the imprint of the Jewish mind, the picture of its imagined origins and ancestry . . . the original treasure of its spiritual imagination'.

Hence there is need for a second, secular source of evidence, which is quite distinct from the real or imagined word of God (or Yahweh or YHWH) and which has been accumulating over the past 200 years and more. It is these records on which Schama mainly relies for the compilation of his book. With the exception of rare histories like Josephus, these records do not single out Jews for religious purposes, but concern ordinary members of the community whom the chance survival of a papyrus, or the accident of an archaeological dig, have elevated from the general mass of Jews into significant figures.

Thus Schama begins his account with a letter from a Jewish father, Osea, to his son Sheloman, then serving as a soldier. It was written in Aramaic, in 475 BCE, the tenth year of the reign of Xerxes, the Achaemenid King of Persia, and was sent 500 miles up the Nile to the island of Elephantine, to await delivery. It is part of an archive from this ancient Jewish military colony edited by the scholar Bezalel Porter. It is an interesting letter and enables Schama, among other things, to introduce his Jewish mother joke, one of the running gags which enliven his account.

He takes especial delight in the contemporary names which emerge from such sources. Ananiah, Berechiah, Daliah, Shemaiah, Gamariah, Uriah, Pelahiah, Azariah, Zechania, to give a few. The characters include, to quote his list, anxious mothers, slave-girl wives, kibitzers and quibblers, hagglers over property lines, drafters of prenups, scribes, temple officials, jailbait indignant they were set up for a fall, big shots and small fry.

Schama make s exce l len t u se o f archaeological evidence, of Iron Age hill forts for instance, some material as recent as 2007. He naturally plunders the immense Cairo Geniza depository of records, probably the largest single collection of written words in history, until the electronic dumps of our own time. It includes 300,000 paper documents, though marriage contracts, divorces and slave-manumissions were considered too important for paper and were still written on parchment.

In the medieval period he is able to quote Hebrew poetry, much of it erotic, and advice from the Talmudic sages to teenage girls on what sort of depilatories to use. …

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