Light in a Dark Place: A Review of The Scroll, by Miriam Feinberg Vamosh
It is surprising to consider how pervasive the legacy of Rome is on the global culture. Even those nations which never felt Rome’s touch directly still labor under the political, economic, and social order that the Empire bequeathed to its European children. Tales of the Roman era still find a familiar place in our consciousness. Whether one is looking for the real King Arthur in the detritus of post-Roman Britain, reveling in the semi-mythical exploits of Maximus after the death of Marcus Aurelius, or absorbing the accounts of Christian martyrs in the days of Nero, the grandeur of Rome captivates the imagination. That grandeur certainly includes the glory of the Caesars, the logic of Roman law, the enduring architectural monuments, and the lingering vestiges of Latin, but too often it obscures something else: Rome, the insatiable beast.
Whatever good Rome’s empire accomplished in the half millennium of its existence is forever smirched by the wake of broken civilizations, conquered peoples, and extinct cultures ground into the dust under its boot heels. This is no less true of Britain’s Celts as it is of Judea’s Jews – and of scores of other peoples forever altered by Roman domination.
The story of the Jews should be well known both to Jews and Christians, at least up to a point. Christians will be familiar with the accounts of Yeshua (Jesus) and the apostles from the New Testament; Jews will know the accounts of the Great Jewish War that brought the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple, and the epic tragedy of Masada. Thus the first century of this current era is at least generally understood through these two distinct, yet complementary, lenses. What each will find unfamiliar is what happened next: that unexplored dark time between the fall of Masada in 73 CE, and the final destruction of Judea in 135 CE at the end of the Bar Kokhba Revolt.
Miriam Feinberg Vamosh provides invaluable assistance in shedding light on that dark era through her riveting novel, The Scroll. She weaves her story around a genuine archaeological find from the period: a get, or divorce decree, issued to a woman named Miriam at Masada at the time the last of the Jewish defenders eld the fortress against Rome’s legions. Although nothing more is known of the historical Miriam named in the scroll, Vamosh draws on her own extensive knowledge of the period to create a multi-generational saga that is not only entertaining and educational, but entirely believable.
To be honest, the story is not a pleasant one. With the advantage of historical hindsight, the reader knows that the great wars the Jewish people fought against Rome resulted in nearly indescribable tragedy. By the time the Bar Kokhba war had ended, Judea had lost not only every last vestige of independence, but the Jewish people themselves (those few who survived) were scattered in a stateless Diaspora that continued for 1,800 years – continued, in fact, until another Jewish state arose in 1948 on the homeland promised to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
There is an essential symmetry here. If we are to understand more completely the importance of Israel’s rebirth, we must understand the nation’s death. There is, of course, no other way to describe what happened to Judea in the era covered by The Scroll. It is easy enough to take refuge in dispassionate political analysis: the Caesars did this on this date; their armies conquered these people on that date; they quashed another revolt over there at the same time; and all the while they were oblivious to the creeping rot that eventually brought the Empire down by its own weight. Such is the stuff of dry history classes, but it is not the stuff of this compelling account by Miriam Vamosh. She helps us see beneath the monotonous recitation of dates and battles, helping us connect with real people caught in events over which they have little genuine control.
These real people run the gamut of the eastern Mediterranean world. The many Jewish characters are the ones we expect to meet: courageous women seeking to keep their families intact; merchants looking out not only for their profits, but for the best way to help their communities survive; sons and daughters mindful of their roles in the family, yet seeking their own space to assert their own unique identities; precocious – and pitiful – children overcome by forces they cannot begin to understand. Vamosh paints her Jewish communities with the deep knowledge of an authority on the era, and with the empathy of one writing the story of her own people and nation. They are, above all, Jewish, yet they are caught in a much bigger, much more powerful Gentile world. The tension between the two is unavoidable. The Jews, whether devout of not, are set apart by the decree of the Almighty. It is their identity, and try as they might, they cannot change it. The Gentiles know this, but do not understand why the Jews must be so resistant to the inevitable. In this case, it is the Romans, but the story plays out just the same whether the great power is Persian, Greek, Arab, English, Spanish, Ottoman, or Russian.
That “inevitable” is the tragedy from which we cannot look away. The Jewish characters have no right choices. Whether they opt to resist against the conqueror, collaborate with him, or find some safe space where no one will notice them, their choices always come around to their hurt. That is the nature of the insatiable Roman beast, and that is why we can sympathize with each character’s choices. They are ordinary human beings doing the best they can in impossible situations, and that is why we identify with them.
We identify as well with the others in the story: the soldiers just doing their duty; the Greek slaves who have more freedom of action than one might suppose; the Roman officials seeking to keep the peace; and the merchants looking out for the best deals. Like their Jewish counterparts, these Gentile characters act out their roles in ways we can understand. Even the most notorious among them have rational explanations for their actions. Usually it has to do with being caught up in the system just as thoroughly as anyone else, and therefore seeking first to survive, and then to improve their position. This is no less true of the slave under his master’s watchful eye as the governor charged with carrying out the emperor’s orders. Together they are the face of the Empire – the foreign power that, no matter how indulgent or kind it may seem at any given moment, will in time become the cruel countenance of the conqueror bent on having its way even at the price of a nation’s total demise.
There is yet another element among Vamosh’s characters that may at first appear out of place: the minim, or sectarians. These are Jews who believe that Yeshua of Nazareth is the Messiah, and who remain part of the Jewish national experience during this period. Of course, remaining part of the Jewish experience does not mean that they are a highly regarded part of the society. No matter how good they are, there is still a distance between them and the other Jews in the story. The reader who knows the New Testament accounts of the early Christians will find something familiar here, but Vamosh takes that New Testament image and projects it forward to the next generation. The Christian reader will be perplexed at what seems to be an irrational Jewish rejection of these early followers of Yeshua. The Jewish reader will be perplexed at why any Jewish character could exist in a credible work of historical fiction. Yet what the author helps us understand is that the division between Judaism and Christianity began long before non-Jews became the vast majority of Yeshua’s disciples, and long before any Christian oppression of Jews. The events in The Scroll occur centuries before the Shoa (Holocaust), the pogroms, the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the expulsions from one Christian country after another, and yet the same Jewish resistance to the Christian message is there. Why is that? Vamosh provides an answer in the musings of her protagonist, Miriam:
Miriam recalled the persistent tales of a man who had lived some years before she was born. Some had hoped he was the messiah. But then he had been crucified by the Romans for disturbing the peace. That was the end of that – to her and everyone she knew, the idea that the messiah son of David had lived among them and then departed this earth without fulfilling the promises of the prophets was unfathomable. Still, when they taught in the Temple courts, the disciples of this Yeshua never failed to draw an intrigued cluster of listeners, and there had been tales of numerous miraculous healings.
In this short passage, Vamosh nails the crux of the division between Christianity and Judaism – and completes the frame around her story. Jews of the period expected Messiah to come and restore the kingdom to Israel. That is why Judea erupted in revolt in 66 CE, and then again a generation later. God had promised deliverance through Messiah son of David; that was – and still is – the Jewish expectation. When Yeshua failed to provide that deliverance, Jewish society as a whole was not prepared to accept him as Messiah simply because he had not fulfilled the prophecies. Yeshua’s followers, however, whether Jewish or Gentile, understood that deliverance in a political sense would come in time, but the first priority was deliverance from sin. As the years turned into decades, and the decades into centuries, this message became the one the non-Jewish followers of Yeshua embraced, to the exclusion of the promises about Israel’s total restoration. Jews, however, clinging still to those promises of restoration, see little in Yeshua’s claims or in the actions of his followers to commend him to them.
As seemingly peripheral as this element is to The Scroll, it is in a sense the core of the story. The time period of the story contains the seeds of Jewish identity and existence as it evolved to the present day. In clearing away the soil around those seeds, Miriam Feinberg Vamosh has done a great service to help us all understand why we are the people we are today.