A History of the Jews

by Paul Johnson
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A History of the Jews

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2297

Paul Johnson is a British Christian writer, a journalist, and one of the most prolific historians of recent years. Among his major books are Modern Times (1983) and A History of Christianity (1976), both sweeping syntheses. Given the monumental histories of the Jews that have appeared in the last hundred years, the question could be asked whether a new synthesis of Jewish history was necessary, and whether a Christian historian could bring new insights to bear on it. The answer to both questions is a resounding yes. This major work is replete with refreshing insights, broad unifying themes, and striking historical illustrations.

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While acknowledging his debt to the major works of Jewish history, Johnson provides four compelling personal reasons for embarking on his work. First, he came to realize the debt that Christianity owed to Judaism, while realizing that the Jews continued to develop their history and religion after the rise of Christianity, a fact to which many Christians remained oblivious. Second, the sheer span, drama, and excitement of the Jewish story captivated him. Third, he set out to explain the miracle of how the Jews obstinately retained their identity while adapting to and greatly affecting the world around them. Finally, he concluded that the Jews stood at the center of man’s quest to give life a meaning, a purpose, and a dignity.

Much of the exhilaration this book offers seems to arise from the need of a brilliant and sympathetic Christian scholar to communicate his discovery of Jewish history. A History of the Jews provides the shrewd perspective of an outsider looking in, then attempting to re-create what he has experienced. In addition, what Johnson has done was to write a cross section of the history of the world from the standpoint of the Jewish experience, or as he puts it, from the viewpoint of a “learned and intelligent victim.” He has written it very well, with verve, intelligence, and feeling.

This great synthesis predictably breaks Jewish history into major characteristic epochs. Johnson discerns seven of them: Israelites, Judaism, “Cathedocracy,” Ghetto, Emancipation, Holocaust, and Zion. These periods represent for him a story of almost incredible drama and perseverance. The Jews began as a collection of west Semitic tribes, discovered man’s destiny, established a kingdom, suffered crushing defeat, became powerless outsiders in the Middle Ages while managing to retain their uniqueness, surfaced and rose to the heights of modern civilization, experienced the greatest single crime in human history, then emerged again to restore their ancient dream and begin anew.

Johnson, however, goes beyond this overwhelming and enthralling story. Within the chronological narrative, he skillfully picks out and weaves in unifying themes that are unique to the Jewish experience. This ability to discern patterns is the mark of a fine historian; the resulting insights are greatly stimulating. Important themes include the invention of monotheism by the Jews, the internalization of morality, and the refusal of the Jews to worship man. This set of characteristics resulted in a people who on the one hand are intensely devoted to law and morality while on the other hand tend toward a critical and rationalistic point of view. According to Johnson, the Jews contributed to the “rationalization” of the world. That is to say, they were the great explainers of the unknown and some of the greatest problem-solvers in history. They developed notions of social justice and equality under the law, wrote the first meaningful histories, developed the idea of progress. Then they developed modern commercial techniques and produced towering giants of the intellect who sought to explain the mysteries of God, nature, society, and human nature. These important thinkers include Moses Maimonides, Benedict de Spinoza, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein. Characteristically, these great intellects were also great moralists. Above all, the Jews, says Johnson, were the only people in history to exist under a great system of law, yet without a state, for two thousand years. Johnson is surely correct in his perception that the historical and cultural development of the Jews cannot be categorized and remains unique.

Johnson begins his story with the theme of Jewish tenacity, with the passage of Abraham from Mesopotamia to Hebron, with his covenant with God and the promise of the new land. The central episode in the section on the Israelites comes with the archetypical figure of Moses, that great man of action and spirit, the lawgiver of ethical monotheism. Johnson rightly looks upon the Jewish adoption of the Law as one of the giant leaps of mankind, perhaps the greatest of all. With the Ten Commandments, life above all became sacred, and, with the making of the Torah, a body of laws and customs emerged to produce a portable religion and a veritable way of life.

With the aid of recent archaeological evidence, Johnson plots the story of the Israelites as they conquered the remainder of Palestine and established a kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital. The state was a mixed blessing, for it created a striking tension unique to the Jews: They distrusted the kingdom, which they regarded as man-made. This tension between religion and state has continued to the present day in modern Israel.

The destruction of the first Jewish Commonwealth at the hands of Assyria and Babylonia destroyed the unified Jewish state, yet produced Judaism. The prophets emerged as the truth-tellers and the conscience of the Jews. The Jews now based their religion on Holy Days, feasts, and festivals—above all on memory. Adversity greatly strengthened their faith and their resolve as they related their misfortunes to their role as the actors in God’s vast drama. Along with many others, Johnson sees the Jewish Bible as possibly the grandest literature ever created. The Book of Job, for example, with its theme of human tragedy and absurdity, is a text for both ancients and moderns.

With the Greek and Roman conquest of the Middle East from about 300 to 30 b.c.e., the Jews entered into the history of Western civilization. Johnson wisely discerns a dual response of the Jews to Greek and Roman culture. They accepted some classical ideas on reason but fought to retain their uniqueness, for they drew an absolute distinction between the human and the divine. Thus, they refused to become Greeks or to worship the Roman emperor. Johnson makes the compelling point that while the Jews were conservative in terms of retaining their laws and identity, they repeatedly sought to reform the existing order when they deemed it unjust. Moreover, the Jews became divided into flexibilists and purists, those who accepted and those who rejected the host civilization. This division has persisted to the present.

Despite a brief period of independence in late antiquity, the Roman conquest ended Jewish rule in the area over which King David had reigned. This state of affairs lasted until the mid-twentieth century. The rise and success of Christianity was another important result of the Roman conquest. Johnson views Jesus as a universalist and as the creator of Christianity. This remains debatable, since there is no evidence that Jesus sought to create a new religion per se. A more plausible case can be made that the Hellenized Jew Paul of Tarsus was the true founder of Christianity as a distinct faith.

The Jewish catastrophes of 66 and 135 c.e. at the hands of the Romans put an end to the expansion of Judaism and assured the return of the Jews to their purist traditions and their turning to vast commentaries on their laws and traditions. The community and the Talmud became the pillars of Jewish life. The Jews became ruled by a “Cathedocracy,” an elite of rabbis, scholars, and merchants. There was a price to be paid here in narrowness and parochialism, but it assured the survival of the Jews as a distinct entity. Johnson asserts that this system served the Jews extremely well in the vast period of medieval adversity.

During the Middle Ages, Islam, the second great religion inspired by Judaism, conquered the Middle East and Spain. For a time the Muslims were tolerant and permitted a creative symbiosis of Jewish, Islamic, and classical culture. The Jewish philosopher Maimonides emerged as a great synthesizer of faith and reason. Still, Jewish mysticism developed in the same period; thus Judaism, like the other two great religions, displays both a rationalist and an irrationalist potential.

Though Johnson sometimes finds the phenomenon of anti-Semitism infuriating and inexplicable, he provides a good, concise discussion of why Jews have been hated throughout human history. He ascribes this hatred chiefly to Jewish persistence of identity, Jewish truth-telling, and the age-old charge of deicide. Johnson does well to stress the way in which medieval Christian anti-Semitism dehumanized the image of Jews as servants of Satan; he also discusses the rise of mass violence against Jews and the development of state anti-Semitism, of which the Spanish Inquisition is a prime early example. By 1500, anti-Semitism had assumed, in the apt words of Johnson, a “sinister and impersonal logic. . . . The historical record shows, time and again, that it develops a power and momentum of its own.”

From 1500 to 1789, many Jews were restricted to living in ghettos. Despite the hardships of ghetto life, some Jews helped develop the techniques of capitalism and became advisers to kings and princes. In early modern times, both Jewish rationalism and Jewish messianism and mysticism continued to develop. Most Jews rejected the extremes of the would-be messiah Shabbetai Zevi and the pantheism of Spinoza.

Johnson does well to mark his fifth epoch, Emancipation, as a turning point in world and Jewish history. By 1800, the Jews had ceased to be outcasts and outsiders in the West. They scaled the heights of Western culture and helped to shape the modern outlook. Johnson provides fascinating and illuminating discussions of Reform Judaism, Jewish writers, politicians such as Benjamin Disraeli, financiers in the Rothschild family, and founders of Zionism, particularly Theodor Herzl. Johnson views Marx and Freud as pseudoscientists, theorists who unconsciously secularized and transformed the Jewish vision. His view of Freud as an “irrationalist” is too one-sided. Freud sought to explain, understand, and control the irrational, not to celebrate it.

Johnson’s contrast between the emancipated Jews of the West and the oppressed Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia is well drawn, while his incisive characterization of the free American Jew as a new creation of history is superb. Despite such advances, anti-Semitism grew insidiously, grafting racism, conspiracy theory, and socioeconomic and political elements onto the old religious foundations.

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The section on the Holocaust is probably the best available in a survey of Jewish history, for it effectively synthesizes the best of recent scholarship. It captures the unique combination of Nazi fanaticism and bureaucratic murder together with the deception and helplessness of the victims against the backdrop of an indifferent world. As Johnson says in one of his memorable statements, “The Jews, unlike the Christians, did not believe the devil took human shape.”

Having relinquished their trust of the civilized world, the Jews proceeded to found a state of their own. Johnson skillfully sums up the complex forces and personalities that led to the state of Israel. The desperate efforts of Zionists coincided with the plight of Holocaust refugees, the decline of the British Empire, and the brief support of the United States and the Soviet Union. Israel was born in this brief opportunity. Johnson’s sympathies lie with the beleaguered Jewish state. He points out that had the Arabs accepted either of the partition plans of 1937 and 1947, the size of the Jewish state would probably be a fraction of what it is today. Johnson concludes that, despite its problems, the state of Israel is necessary for Jewish survival. It remains a refuge, a symbol of rebirth, a deterrent to another Holocaust.

After a cursory survey of Jewish history since 1945, this majestic work concludes on an eloquent note. The great and sometimes onerous demands of Judaism, says Johnson, carried the Jews, gave them a purpose, and enabled them to survive and create with dignity. To paraphrase the words of Joshua, their conviction made them strong, of good courage, and unafraid, for they felt that God was with them. For Johnson, the Jews are the epitome of the human condition, for all of us are “strangers and sojourners” on this Earth. The Jews wrote the “pilot-project for the entire human race.” Johnson would contend that the Jewish identity was God-given; others would say that the Jews believed so strongly that they were a special people that they became one. They wrote the existential script for themselves.

Even a survey as rich as this book must be selective, but some important omissions must be noted. There is very little detail on the long history of Jewish self-government that Johnson praises so highly. There is almost nothing on the travails and rewards of daily life, and on the history of Jewish women, children, and family life. The useful discussions of Jewish religious development are not followed up by a summary of trends since 1945.

Johnson’s choice of terms is sometimes dated and misleading. The term “Old Testament” is a Christian designation that sometimes implies the obsolescence of the Jewish dispensation. “Jewish Bible” or “Scripture” might be an improvement. A more serious error is to call the Jews a race, as Johnson often does. Not only is this term inaccurate, but it also carries the negative overtones of pseudoanthropology. The term “Jewish people” would have been far better.

On the whole, however, Johnson’s work is probably the best single-volume history of the Jews for the general reader. It is a joy to read, not merely because of its scholarship, its style, and its insights, but because it is written by a Christian historian who brings such intelligence and objectivity to his subject.

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