Witty, nimble and completely in his element, Schama (History and Art History/Columbia Univ.; Scribble, Scribble, Scribble: Writing on Politics, Ice Cream, Churchill, and My Mother, 2011, etc.), in a book tie-in to a PBS and BBC series, fashions a long-planned “labor of love” that nicely dovetails the biblical account with the archaeological record.
Indeed, as this densely written effort accompanies the visual story, the author fixes on a tangible element (such as papyrus, shard or document) in each chapter as a point of departure in advancing the early history of the Jews. For example, a missive in papyrus by a father to his missionary son from an island in the Upper Nile circa 475 B.C. illustrates the thriving expat Jewish community in Egypt, despite the dire “perdition” narrative about Egypt being written at the same time by the first Hebrew sages in Judea and Babylon. The remains of early synagogues in Hellenized Cyrenaica and elsewhere, built in a classical Greek temple style, with graphic mosaics, reveal how the Jews were intimately situated in their crossover surroundings. The inscriptions and excavations at Zafar (in present-day Yemen) attest to the Judaic conversion of the Kingdom of Himyar in the late fourth century, evidence that “the Jews were far from a tenuous, alien presence amid the ethnically Arab world of the Hijaz and the Himyar.” In the long litany of persecution and suppression, climaxing but scarcely ceasing with the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70, the Jews had to scatter, taking their words with them, and the Torah was later enriched by the “picayune” codifications of the Mishnah and Talmud, all as a way “to rebuild Jerusalem in the imagination and memory.” Schama is relentless in faulting the break between Christianity and Judaism as the spur to the subsequent phobia against the “pariah tribe.”
A multifaceted story artfully woven by an expert historian.