“The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC – 1492 AD,” by Simon Schama; Ecco/HarperCollins, 496 pages, $40Plus Josephus gets "valorized."
Jerusalem, Vilna, Babylon, Brooklyn: historic wellsprings of Jewish life and lore. But Elephantine Island? Who ever heard of Elephantine Island, also known as Yeb, in the Nile River in Upper Egypt, the site of today’s Aswan? Who knew that an Aramaic-speaking colony of Jews, in the military service of imperial Persia, lived there in the 5th century B.C.E., the period of Ezra and Nehemiah, and built their own temple, complete with animal sacrifices?
Throughout the book, Schama draws impressively on cutting-edge academic studies. In the first chapter, his main source is “The Elephantine Papyri in English,” by Bezalel Porten, et al. (1996). The papyri, written in Aramaic and discovered in 1893 by an amateur Egyptologist, testify to Sabbath and Passover rituals as well as the prevalence of intermarriage. “The Elephantine Yahudim,” Schama pointedly writes, “were Yahwists who were not going to be held to the letter of observance laid down by Jerusalemites any more than, say, the vast majority of Jews now who believe themselves to be, in their way, observant, will accept instruction on what it means to be Jewish (or worse, who is or isn’t a Jew) from the ultra-Orthodox.”
Schama calls the Elephantine story the “first” because, unlike the biblical accounts of Moses and the Exodus, or David and Solomon – stories that the author aptly characterizes as a poetic “echo” of what actually happened – this one (which ended when Egypt overthrew Persian rule) is based on hard archaeological findings.
Schama has a special fondness for the Dead Sea Scrolls, a corpus that also lies outside the official canon. “Some of it is mesmerizingly, crazily, wordy,” he writes. He takes special note of the apocalyptic War Scroll, which describes “exactly what must be inscribed on trumpets, banners and even weapons in the battle array of the Sons of Light ... We are going to write the enemy into capitulation! Surrender to our verbosity or else!”
The book is based on Schama's BBC documentary, on which more here and links. And there's lots more on the Elephantine papyri here.