No burning bushes need apply, nor any partings of the sea, and definitely not any tablets of the Law given to Moses at Mount Sinai, written (as the Torah reports) by the finger of God Himself. For historian Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews belongs only and literally—splendidly and literately—to what can be found written down in Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic or any other of the languages spoken and written by Jews over millennia of wandering. This record of Jewish writing (overlapping with the Bible itself, of course) is so significant, so astonishing in its testimony of the daily lives of Jews for 3,000 years, it would be perverse, Schama implies, to confound the powerful narrative of Holy Scripture with the ample and still-growing documentary evidence we have about the real lives of real Jews from very early on.

Whether it’s papyrus or potsherd or parchment (the trinity forming the title of Schama’s magnificent volume, the first of a planned two-volume set), stone inscription or scroll or codex, archaeologists have worked together with historians to piece together an account of early Jewish history that neither refutes nor essentially undermines the Bible, but rather illuminates and complicates that unmanageable pile of sacred books. Schama’s unique achievement as our best public intellectual—a presenter in the great company of Kenneth Clark and Jacob Bronowski, and who (walking sandal-shod in their footsteps) can be seen on PBS this spring, doing the film version of this book—springs largely from his flawless intuition about which stories to relate, those telling anecdotes that open up entire worlds of historic relations. For instance:

The presence of Jewish mercenaries in the 5th century BCE, living not in denial, but in the Nile (on an Egyptian island), just a century after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, defies (but does not deny) Biblical history, most of all in the striking evidence it gives of a pattern of symbiotic coexistence between Jews and non-Jews that endures for many centuries, until (alas) a new pattern of persecutions by Christians begins in the Middle Ages.

Up to the horrific expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, each of Schama’s accounts becomes more vivid, and gorgeously illustrated, than the last, as the material evidence grows thicker with the passage of time. Jews may not have invented writing, but we certainly invented the idea of writing as a very heaven upon earth, against severe odds. You will find a great and habitable corner of that paradise in Schama’s book.

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