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What a Saga!

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National Museum of Damascus, Syria/Zev Radovan/Bridgeman Art Library
‘Exodus and the Crossing of the Red Sea’; wall painting from the Dura-Europos Synagogue, Damascus, Syria, third century

Simon Schama’s new book is a “story” and bears the subtitle “finding the words.” From his huge oeuvre we know him to be a natural storyteller who is never short of words. The size and complexity of great stories from the past, such as the empire of the Dutch republic, the French Revolution, or the rise of the Rothschilds, have held no terrors for him. Despite his preference for a big canvas, he once showed himself an excellent miniaturist in the partly fictional tales he told in his shortest and most adventurous book, Dead Certainties—a novelistic reconsideration of two deaths, in eighteenth-century Quebec and nineteenth-century Boston—and this talent comes through in the details and vignettes that enrich his other work. But even for Schama this latest book is a stretch. No story is so immense and so profoundly freighted with implications for the modern world as the evolution of the Jewish people from antiquity onward. At the same time as publishing a book on this vast theme, Schama is launching a related television series and producing a second volume that will carry his account forward from 1492 to the present.

The present book is by no means a history of the Jews, despite its roughly chronological structure and distinct geographical frames. It is, as its title proclaims, a story, for which mere words barely suffice. What Schama has written demonstrates yet again his prodigious ability to write with fluency and panache, and to structure his work in surprising ways. It begins not with Abraham or Moses, or the parting of the Red Sea, but rather with a small group of Jewish mercenaries clustered, far from friends and relatives, on an island near the first cataract of the Nile in the service of the Persians. This means that he starts with the Jews back in Egypt long after Moses led them out. The time is the early fifth century BC. The documents that these Jews left behind on their island, which was called Elephantine (for reasons that are still obscure), constitute the first hard evidence for the daily life of Jews in antiquity. Although Talmudists may be pleased to find that they were writing in Aramaic, this was nothing more than the official language of communication in the Persian empire.

After such an arresting opening Schama necessarily moves into the infinitely better known history of the Jews in Palestine as they came into conflict with Greeks and Romans, from the resistance of the Maccabees to the persecution of the Hellenistic king Antiochus IV, through their two great rebellions against Rome and subsequent dispersal in a vast diaspora. Schama incorporates the rise of Christianity into his story, as he must, since this is a religion that arose among the Jews, and he then makes his way through the Muslim conquests and the growth of a rich Jewish tradition of philosophy and law in the Arabic language with deep roots in the Islamic society of Spain and North Africa. The story reaches its conclusion in 1492 among the Muslims in Spain. This was not only the year in which Columbus discovered America, but the year that saw the expulsion of all Jews from the Iberian peninsula.

Schama pours out his narrative in torrents. Anyone looking for carefully reasoned argument will be disappointed but never bored. To tell his story Schama deploys anecdotes and asides that sweep the reader into his warm embrace, not least because many of these diversions are drawn from affectionate memories of his own Jewish childhood. This is a deeply personal vision of the travails and achievements of the Jews. Schama even thinks he hears a familiar voice in a letter to one of those Jewish mercenaries in Egypt. The boy’s parents had remained behind farther north when the soldier had been posted to Elephantine, and the father wrote to him, “Well-being and strength I send you but from the day you went on your way, my heart, it’s not so good…. Likewise your mother.” Schama calls this “a classic pre-emptive strike” and offers an amusing parallel from his own father: “Don’t worry…your mother’s a bit upset about this but…”

Personal remarks enliven and move Schama’s story along, but he never loses sight of his grand narrative. For the encounter of the Jews with Greeks and Romans he necessarily relies upon the account of Flavius Josephus, who, despite his dubious credentials as a Jewish writer in the court of a Roman emperor, provides unique and detailed testimony for the background and course of the Jewish revolt under Vespasian. Schama makes an awkward transition in passing from his chapter on the emergence of the Hebrew Bible (“The Words”) roughly between the eighth and fifth centuries BC to his chapter on Jews in Hellenized Palestine (“Classical Jews?”). But if the transition feels abrupt, this is not his fault. There is so much more to be said about this formative period than could be contained even within a very large book. The great translation of the Bible into Greek, the Septuagint, supposedly done by seventy scholars (hence Septuagint), deserves more emphasis than Schama gives it. This great enterprise was undertaken in the Hellenistic age, when some writers could even imagine a reconciliation of Judaism with Hellenism. The Jewish Aristobulus of Paneas wanted to believe that Plato had studied the Torah.

The translation of the Hebrew Bible took place in that atmosphere, and its consequences were momentous. It immediately made the Torah, and the rest of the Hebrew Bible, accessible to Greek speakers everywhere, including the earliest Christians. The Greek vocabulary that the translators chose to render such words as “angel” or “highest god” had a permanent impact on the Greek language in the following centuries. The extent to which non-Jews read the Bible in Greek is still unclear, but there are tantalizing hints that we may have underestimated what was going on.

Perhaps the greatest of all Greek literary critics in antiquity, the author known as Longinus, who wrote a treatise On the Sublime, introduces a verbatim quotation from Genesis near the beginning of his work, and an affluent and influential figure in Roman Greece put up a Greek inscription on his property with a quotation from Deuteronomy. A pagan inscription in Asia Minor contains clear allusions to the Greek language of Exodus and the Psalms. These three examples, which have nothing to do with Christianity, imply a much broader knowledge of the Hebrew Bible among pagan Greeks than is usually assumed.

This subtle transfusion of one culture into another may also help to explain the Hellenism of Herod the Great, which has clouded his reputation among many Jews from antiquity to the present. His espousal of Greek culture has less to do with his Idumaean background (Schama states emphatically, “he was fully and uncontroversially a Jew”) than with an international culture spread across the eastern Mediterranean after the death of Cleopatra. The emperor Augustus supported Herod, and the Senate named him king of the Jews, not to change conditions in Palestine but to recognize what had already happened. The Israel Museum has recently mounted a superb exhibition of artifacts from Herod’s palace at Herodium near Jerusalem: “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey.” It illustrates magnificently both what Herod took from the Greeks and what he gave to the Jews. We can now look upon the elegant sarcophagus in which he was buried, and see, on the wall of his royal box at the theater, wall paintings that would have been the envy of anyone in Pompeii.

Schama’s “classical Jews,” like Herod himself, included Jesus of Nazareth, who is an integral part of the story of the Jews. This inescapable fact, which Christians have sometimes tried to deny, brings two of the world’s great religions together. Although Jesus’s language was Aramaic, the language in which his disciples promulgated the new religion was Greek, and for that the Septuagint was ready and waiting. The Greeks who listened to Paul as he was preaching in Asia Minor and Greece had instant access to Greek versions of the Hebrew Bible and to the Jewish texts that Jesus and his contemporaries knew well. The Bible of the Jews was now the Christian Bible, to which the New Testament was added in the common (koinê) Greek of the Septuagint.

In the early twentieth century the Jewish origins of Christianity embarrassed at least some of the faithful, including scholars such as the German theologian Adolf von Harnack. This discomfort soon spread throughout the majority of German Christians, both Protestant and Catholic. They made strenuous efforts to remove the so-called Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) from Christian worship, and they even went so far as to claim absurdly that Jesus was an Aryan. This of course allowed German Christians, with a few noble exceptions, to unite their religious and national fervor in an evil cause. Even a Cardinal who protested the removal of the Old Testament from Catholic worship defended his position by asserting that it was only by reading the biblical texts that Christians would recognize the sins of the Jews.1

Such a poisonous falsification of the historical record has not altogether disappeared even now, as I discovered myself a few years ago when doing an interview on the Apocalypse for the Arte European television station. After mentioning the Jewish origins of Christianity, I was interrupted and instructed to re-record that part of the interview without mentioning the Jews.

It is true that within a few generations after Jesus Jews and Christians began to go their separate ways, though there may have been a brief moment in the late first century when the Roman persecution of Christians led some of them to return to synagogues as the most effective means of avoiding detection. But the “parting of the ways” was irreversible, and the early martyr acts, notably of Polycarp in the second century and of Pionius in the third, show unmistakable traces of fierce antagonism between Jews and Christians in Asia Minor. Yet even with the growing differences between the early Christians and the Jews, every Christian still accepted the Hebrew Bible as sacred scripture. They considered the Bible fundamental, and it would take nearly two millennia before some Christians would disown it.

Meanwhile the appeal of Judaism to non-Jews runs a steady course throughout antiquity, after being interrupted conspicuously by two violent episodes in Palestine against the Roman occupation, under Vespasian and Hadrian. After that the emergence of theosebeis (“God-fearers”) in the eastern Roman empire shows that Judaism was, without any proselytizing, attracting increasing numbers of supporters. Deviant Christian cults affected Jewish customs of diet, Sabbath observance, and circumcision. Some of these took over their name from the Jewish God, hypsistos (highest), which they knew from the Septuagint, and were called Hypsistarii or Hypsistiani. Others were called Messalians, taking a name for people who pray. The Jews of Palestine, despite the horrors of the Hadrianic revolt, settled in communities alongside Christians and pagans of various stripes in a relative calm that was marred only by two Samaritan revolts. This long peace, which prevailed in Palestine for four centuries until the Persians captured Jerusalem in 614, set an example that remains today without parallel.

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National Museum of Damascus/Radovant/Bridgeman Art Library
‘Ezra Reads the Law,’ from the Dura-Europos Synagogue

But in the Near East outside Palestine the Jews had to endure extravagant vilification, at Syrian Antioch from John Chrysostom, whose Greek rhetoric was scarcely adequate to express the loathing he felt for Jews, and at Edessa where Ephrem unleashed a Syriac repertoire no less brutal. His invectives against the fourth-century emperor Julian, who famously wanted, but failed, to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, are dazzling as poetry but unreservedly anti-Jewish. Ephrem’s rage against Julian does not even give the Jews the credit they deserve for being utterly unreceptive to the emperor’s eccentric idea of restoring their temple to hold sacrifices in it.

Excavation has revealed how much the Jews themselves learned from their neighbors, both Christian and pagan. We can now see their brilliantly executed mosaics with radiant images. These might at first have seemed surprising among Jews, but they are a natural extension of the artistic promise of the painted illustrations that were discovered in the 1930s on the walls of a third-century synagogue at Dura-Europos in Syria. Biblical scenes now take their place on mosaics alongside personifications of the seasons and representations of the blazing sun and his chariot. The centuries between the emperors Hadrian and Heraclius, from the second century to the early seventh, were a kind of Palestinian miracle that no one would have imagined fifty years ago.2

Perhaps the most astonishing illustrations of the attraction of a Jewish way of life in late antiquity were the conversion of the Arabs of Himyar (Yemen) to Judaism in the late fourth century and the conversion of the Khazars in the Caucasus and Crimea in the ninth century. Both had kingdoms that lasted more than a century. Schama is well aware of these bizarre episodes, and he recognizes that the evidence for them is strong enough to assure them a conspicuous place in his story of the Jews, even if they were soon gone. The Arab Jews of Himyar tried vigorously to eradicate Christianity in the region but were ultimately wiped out in 525 by Ethiopian Christians who crossed the Red Sea from Axum. Before succumbing to armies from Kiev, the Jewish Khazars forged a link with Jews far away in Córdoba in Spain, even issuing coins with “Land of the Khazars” on one side and “Moses is the Messenger of God” on the other, thereby appropriating the Islamic designation for Muhammad.

Curiously, Schama’s reference to the Ethiopian Christians nowhere tempts him to look, however briefly, at the Ethiopian Jews, known as Beta Israel, who are of indeterminate origin and antiquity and whose relatively recent immigration to Israel provoked a lively national debate. In an account of her research in Ethiopia on musical traditions that survived in the 1970s, Kay Kaufman Shelamay has described how she discovered that the Ethiopian Jews had formerly had monasteries and monks, and that their worship included choral chant in the ancient Ethiopic language Ge‘ez. Since Ethiopian Christians consider themselves descended from Solomon through the Queen of Sheba, she drew the conclusion that Beta Israel was probably a breakaway sect of Ethiopian Christians who chose to identify themselves as Jews. She has described her research and the controversy that her findings provoked in an eloquent and moving book.3

The fateful arrival of Islam as a new monotheist religion in the seventh century was fraught with consequences for all those Jews whom Muslims encountered wherever they went. The new faith was not only uncompromisingly monotheist but recognized that it shared this conviction with the Jews. It looked back to Abraham as an ancestor, much as the Jews did. He was, as the Bible said, the progenitor of nations. Even Moses, whom the Greek-speaking Christians could easily comprehend as a lawgiver and a precursor of Plato, lacked the primal authority of Abraham among Jews and Muslims. The links between Jewish and Muslim monotheism are obscure, although powerful arguments have been advanced in recent decades for Jewish material in Gabriel’s revelations to Muhammad, as we know them from the Koran. John Wansbrough, an American Islamic scholar who worked in Britain, is closely associated with these arguments.

Whatever the intellectual and spiritual roots of Islam, the future of the Jews after the Islamic conquests was inextricably tied to the new faith and the language in which it was expressed. This was, of course, because of the success of Islam in North Africa and Spain, where the Jewish diaspora found itself part of a culture that both absorbed it and transformed it over many centuries. The emergence of Judeo-Arabic, Arabic written in Hebrew letters, reflected this cultural integration, and nothing exemplifies this integration so magnificently as the more than 300,000 documents from the Geniza (“storeroom”) of the Ben Ezra synagogue of Fustat in Cairo. Shelomo Dov Goitein devoted his life to the reading and interpretation of these documents. They reveal a teeming, hitherto unsuspected world of Jewish merchants operating in the Mediterranean and beyond, plying their trade among Muslim populations. Goitein’s pioneering work, spanning commercial activity, community and family life, and the daily life of individuals, now occupies six substantial volumes: A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza (1967–1993).

Like everything else in Schama’s story, the Geniza treasures can hardly be contained within the confines of his book, but they illustrate the complexity of his story once the Jews have become part of Muslim society. Consider the master of Jewish law, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, who wrote with equal facility in Arabic and Hebrew. He became known in Hebrew by the acronym Rambam and in Western languages by the Greek patronymic Maimonides. Although he grew up in the relatively tolerant environment of Almoravid Spain, he left it under the fanatical Islamic rule of the Almohads who, like the Almoravids themselves, were Berbers from Morocco.

Maimonides eventually settled in Cairo, where his authority made him effectively the Rabbi of all Israel in the Islamic world. But his path to such eminence was by no means easy. Upon leaving Spain, he first moved with his family to Fez in Morocco, precisely where his new persecutors, the Almohads, were based. As Moshe Halbertal observes in his superb new biography of Maimonides, he moved “into the belly of the beast,” although no one knows why.4

This notorious puzzle does not bring out the best in Schama, who supposes that Maimonides “imagined, in a rabbinical kind of way, that by bracing himself for the worst, anything short of an ordeal might seem disproportionately blessed.” The Muslim historian Ibn al-Qifti (1172–1248) wrote that Maimonides actually converted to Islam in Morocco before reverting to Judaism in Egypt, and we know from Maimonides’ Epistle on Martyrdom that he argued against choosing death in the face of forced conversion. But some of Ibn al-Qifti’s testimony is unsupported by any other, and we should assume that in making his argument Maimonides was simply drawing upon his own profound knowledge of Jewish law (halakhah).

It is law above all to which Maimonides has made an enduring contribution through his compendium of written and oral law known as the Mishneh Torah. In writing this work, he placed himself in direct succession to Judah the Prince, the editor of the first Mishna (“repetition” of the law) in the early third century. But Maimonides conceived and created a new account of Jewish law that would eliminate all the discursive and sometimes dissonant rabbinic debates. It would provide direct access to written and oral interpretations that had evolved over many centuries and would also facilitate decisions on proper observance of the law, the obligation of all Jews. As Halbertal puts it,

a code such as Mishneh Torah—comprehensive, exhaustive, accessible, and unambiguous—had never been written before Maimonides’ time and has not been written since.

How Schama could have described this monumental achievement as a “reworking of the Mishnah” is hard to imagine, but the title of Maimonides’ work may have misled him.

The problem for Jews living among Muslims was precisely that their religions had so much in common. They were all monotheists, and they all rejected idolatry. For both religions Christianity could be seen as idolatrous. Maimonides could not accept the doctrine of the Trinity because it denied the unity of God, as did the belief that Jesus was God incarnate. But at least the Jews, unlike the Muslims, shared the Hebrew Bible with the Christians, even if Christians were sometimes less than enthusiastic about their Jewish origins. As Maimonides saw in his great epistle addressed to the Jews of Yemen in 1172 at a time of Muslim intolerance, Jews living in Christian states were in a very different position from Jews among Muslims. Yet even if Christians and Jews both read the Bible, Jews living among Muslims were in agreement about what they perceived to be Christian idolatry. By invoking biblical exegesis in his epistle to the Yemenis, Maimonides was able, to quote Halbertal once more, “to tell the Jewish story anew, in a historical construct that allows Jews…to bear suffering and recognize their destiny, seeing themselves and their lives as carrying on the traditional chain of history.”

Telling the Jewish story anew was inspiring then, precisely because it was told “anew.” The story that Schama tells is wide-ranging, well documented, delightful, amusing, personal, and inspiring at times, but it is not told anew. It is not, of course, addressed to a readership like the Yemenis of Maimonides’ day, but terrors like theirs are not so far in the past. Maimonides misjudged the tenacity of Christian adherence to the Hebrew Bible, but he was not wrong about the monotheisms of Islam and Judaism, and so on that point he may, even now, offer some hope to a contentious world.

  1. 1

    For von Harnack, the Aryan Jesus, and the Cardinal, see Alon Confino, A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide (Yale University Press, 2014), pp. 129–130, with references to earlier publications. 

  2. 2

    For a recent and thorough discussion of Jewish images, see Lee I. Levine, Visual Judaism in Late Antiquity (Yale University Press, 2012). 

  3. 3

    Kay Kaufman Shelamay, A Song of Longing: An Ethiopian Journey (University of Illinois Press, 1991). 

  4. 4

    Moshe Halbertal, Maimonides: Life and Thought (Princeton University Press, 2013), p. 24. 

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