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    In Our Time newsletter: Judas Maccabeus

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    Editor's note: In last week's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Judas Maccabeus. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PM.


    After the programme had finished, Philip Alexander said that although the First Book of Maccabees was the more authoritative and reliable, the Second Book was much more fun and he wished that he could have believed more of it.

    A friend of mine, later in the day, said that he thought that I was a little bit too keen to disprove the validity of the evidence brought forward in these books. It worried me a bit. And then I thought, well, that is what I was trained to do as a historian - to question the evidence - and there was a general agreement among the three contributors that some was reliable and some was less reliable. The problem, as always, was which bit was which. But that, I think, is the attraction of scholarship of ancient times. The element of puzzle and mystery, and the necessity for detective work and even forensic skills.

    Just as a contrast, Tessa Rajak let us all know that Judas Maccabeus has been made into a feature film, which will star Braveheart himself, Mel Gibson.

    The canopy of culture stretches very widely.

    Tessa was also at pains to point out that Salome, the woman ruler in this eighty-year span of the sons and descendants of Judas's father, was easily the best ruler. She got the Pharisees on her side, she made everybody happy, the corn grew high and she became the mother of the nation.

    Women rulers seem to enjoy a much better reputation than men.

    Afterwards, a couple of meetings and then off to the British Library to continue with Tom Morris on the search for the history of the written word.

    There were a couple of treats, but the one that drew my attention most firmly was the Gospel of St Cuthbert. This was discovered in the coffin of St Cuthbert, opened in 1104 in Durham Cathedral, having been sealed in 698 on the island of Lindisfarne.

    It is the oldest surviving bound book in Western history. It is a beautiful, hand-sized object, described in loving detail by its curator who is the only person in the British Library allowed to touch it!

    A descendant of Wordsworth, in the late 19th century, declared that this was even more beautiful than the Lindisfarne Gospels. It was put together at about the same time in the same place, and it never ceases to exhilarate me that the foundational artefacts of what could be called British or even English culture were books.

    The British Library is one of the most extraordinary spaces in London.

    After all the abuse and angst and lamentations and tears that it had to leave its old space in the British Museum, it has risen again a mile or two away and is totally magnificent. A wonderful courtyard, beautiful rooms in which to work, floods of mostly young people surging in with their laptops and occupying literally every available seat, while the library itself is full of scholars and the stacks revolve swiftly and endlessly as books are brought.

    It employs almost two thousand people, half of them in Yorkshire where a building of a similar size exists to do the work of deep and lasting storage. Perhaps we will be the most recorded civilisation in history. But who will be there to look at the records?

    Oh dear. But the epidemic of gloom is hard to resist.

    So off to lunch with a pal, and then a stroll in the park, and then back to the office.

    Best wishes

    Melvyn Bragg

    PS: But the most beguiling thing to me was the notion that had not Judaea come together and formed a nucleus of a serious Jewish state, then Judaism would not have thrived in the way it did and led to Christianity and then to Islamism, and the world would be a totally different place. It's one of the great "might not have beens" of history.

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