Paul Johnson says that writing A History of the Jews was like writing a history of the world “seen from the viewpoint of a learned and intelligent victim.” Johnson’s history begins with the Bible and ends with the establishment of the State of Israel. Throughout, Johnson’s history is driven by a philosophical interest: “The Jews,” he writes, “stand right at the centre of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of a purpose. Does their own history suggest that such attempts are worth making? Or does it reveal their essential futility?” Johnson’s history is lucid, thorough, and–as one would expect of almost any project with such a broad scope–a little wrong-headed. By the end of the book, readers will be grateful for Johnson’s questioning of the Jews’ confidence in their cosmic significance. However, readers may also be a little annoyed by his energetic inquiries as to whether this significance was man-made or providentially provided. Either way, it’s a given: for a historian of Israel, this should adequately settle the question. Johnson’s 600-page history is probably the best we’ve got by a living gentile–which is no small accomplishment at all. ~ Michael Joseph Gross
Less a seminal contribution than a distillation of a wide range of sources, this history of the Jews focuses on their four-millennia interplay with, and adaption to, other, often hostile, civilizationsa “world history seen from the viewpoint of a learned and intelligent victim.” Weaving biblical and archeological data, Johnson (Modern Times and A History of Christianity is particularly deft at placing the patriarchs and early Israelites (the Bronze Age through the destruction of the First Temple) in their historical context. His dense, somewhat arbitrary, capsule extols Judaic rational scholarshipwhich contributed to ethical monotheism and the 18th-century economic system, in turnand denigrates mystic kabbalah”heresy of the most pernicious kind.” Although Johnson, who seeks to acknowledge “the magnitude of the debt Christianity owes to Judaism,” traces “an inherent conflict” between the religion and the state of Israel through the various ages, the work is incontrovertibly sympathetic to Zionism. BOMC and QPBC featured alternates; author tour.