A History of the Jews

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 2297 words.)