Jewish History by a Christian Historian

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[First posted in 2012; time for a repost. 


This recommended read is:  A HISTORY OF THE JEWS by Paul Johnson.


One reviewer, Merle Rubin of Christian Science Monitor says it best:

 “An absorbing, provocative, well-written, often moving book, an insightful and impassioned blend of history and myth, story and interpretation”  (highlights added).


I most likely would never have picked out this book if I had wanted to learn about the history of the Jews, and in fact, I didn’t. It was passed on to me by my catholic brother from the library of a retiree I have never met, who enjoys going to estate sales to buy old books.  This book however, is not old but new; he bought it for $17.99 during a visit to the USA, and brought it all the way back to the Philippines.  I find it intriguing that someone would do that for the sister of one of his exercise buddies (a neighborhood walk/aerobics & breakfast club) because this is the 4th book about Jews that I’ve inherited through brother dear.


Now about the book:  details included in any book should be read; they help you understand something about the author, such as:



“This book is dedicated to the memory of Hugh Fraser, a true Christian gentleman and lifelong friend of the Jews.” 


That’s a nice tribute, whoever Hugh Fraser was.  “A friend of the Jews” is a good attachment to anyone’s name.


The author himself explains his version of Jewish history:  “a personal interpretation”  with the excuse “the opinions expressed (and any errors) are my own,” and he gives a grateful acknowledgment of his Jewish sources.


Prologue and Epilogue are bookends that give an idea of what the book covers in between. so excerpts from these two are all we will present here. Reformatted for posting.–Admin1]






Why have I written a history of the Jews?  There are four reasons.

  • The first is sheer curiosity.

When I was working on my History of Christianity, I became aware for the first time in my life of the magnitude of the debt Christianity owes to Judaism.  It was not, as I had been taught to suppose, that the New Testament replaced the Old; rather, that Christianity gave a fresh interpretation to an ancient form of monotheism, gradually evolving into a different religion but carrying with it much of the moral and dogmatic theology, the liturgy, the institutions and the fundamental concepts of its forebear.  I thereupon determined, should opportunity occur, to write about the people who had given birth to my faith, to explore their history back to its origins and forward to the present day, and to make up my own mind about their role and significance.  The world tended to see the Jews as a race which had ruled itself in antiquity and set down its records int he Bible; had then gone underground for many centuries; had emerged at last only to be slaughtered by the Nazis; and, finally, had created a state of its own, controversial and beleaguered.  But these were merely salient episodes, I wanted to link them together, to find and study the missing portions, assemble them into a whole, and make sense of it.

  • My second reason was the excitement I found in the sheer span of Jewish history.

From the time of Abraham up to the present covers the best part of four millennia.  That is more than three-quarters of the entire history of civilized humanity.  I am a historian who believes in long continuities and delights in tracing them.  The Jews created a separate and specific identity earlier than most any other people which still survives.  They have maintained it, amid appalling adversities, right up to the present.  Whence came this extraordinary endurance?  What was the particular strength of the all-consuming idea which made the Jews different and kept them homogeneous?  Did its continuing power lie in its essential immutability, or its capacity to adapt, or both?  These are sinewy themes with which to grapple.


  • My third reason was that Jewish history covers not only vast tracts of time but huge areas.

The Jews have penetrated many societies and left their mark on all of them.  Writing a history of the Jews is almost like writing a history of the world, but from a highly peculiar angle of vision.  It is world history seen from the viewpoint of a learned and intelligent victim.  So the effort to grasp history as it appeared to the Jews produces illuminating insights.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer noticed this same effect when he was in a Nazi Prison.  ‘We have learned’, he wrote in 1942, ‘to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of those who are excluded, under suspicion, ill-treated, powerless, oppressed and scorned, in short those who suffer.’  He found it, he said, ‘an experience of incomparable value’.  The historian finds a similar merit in telling the story of the Jews:  it adds to history the new and revealing dimension of the underdog.

  • Finally, the book gave me the chance to reconsider objectively, in the light of a study covering nearly 4,000 years, the most intractable of all human questions:
    • What are we on earth for?
    • Is history merely a series of events whose sum is meaningless?
    • Is there no fundamental moral difference between the history of the human race and the history, say, of ants?
    • Or is there a providential plan of which we are, however humbly, the agents?

No people has ever insisted more firmly than the Jews that history has a purpose and humanity a destiny.  At a very early stage in their collective existence they believed they had detected a divine scheme for the human race, of which their own society was to be a pilot.  They worked out their role in immense detail.  They clung to it with heroic persistence in the face of savage suffering.  Many of them believe it still.  Others transmitted it into Promethean endeavors to raise our condition by purely human means.  The Jewish vision became the prototype of many similar grand designs for humanity, both divine and man-made.  The Jews, therefore, stand right at the center 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?  The account that follows, the result of my own inquiry, will I hope help its readers to answer these questions for themselves.




  • Part One:  Israelites
  • Part Two: Judaism
  • Part Three:  Cathedocracy
  • Part Four:  Ghetto
  • Part Five: Emancipation
  • Part Six:  Holocaust
  • Part Seven:  Zion




In his Antiquities of the JewsJosephus describes Abraham as ‘a man of great sagacity’ who had ‘higher notions of virtue than others of his time’.  He therefore ‘determined to change completely the views which all then had about God’.  One way of summing up 4,000 years of Jewish history is to ask ourselves what would have happened to the human race if Abraham had not been a man of great sagacity, or if he had stayed in Ur and kept his higher notions to himself, and no specific Jewish people had come into being.  Certainly the world without the Jews would have been a radically different place.  Humanity might eventually have stumbled upon all the Jewish insights.  But we cannot be sure.  All the great conceptual discoveries of the intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they have been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time.  The Jews had this gift.


To them we owe—

  • the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human;
  • of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person;
  • of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption;
  • of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility;
  • of peace as an abstract ideal
  • and love as the foundation of justice,
  • and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind.


Without the Jews it might have been a much emptier place.

Above all, the Jews taught us how to rationalize the unknown.  The result was monotheism and the three great religions which profess it.  It is almost beyond our capacity to imagine how the world would have fared if they had never emerged.  Nor did the intellectual penetration of the unknown stop at the idea of one God.  Indeed monotheism itself can be seen as a milestone on the road which leads people to dispense with God altogether.  The Jews first rationalized the pantheon of idols into one Supreme Being; then began the process of rationalizing Him out of existence. In the ultimate perspective of history, Abraham and Moses may come to seem less important than Spinoza.  For the Jewish impact on humanity has been protean.

  • In antiquity they were the great innovators in religion and morals.
  • In the Dark Ages and early medieval Europe they were still an advanced people transmitting scarce knowledge and technology.
  • Gradually they were pushed from the van and fell behind until, by the end of the 18th century, they were seen as a bedraggled and obscurantist rearguard in the march of civilized humanity.
  • Breaking out of their ghettos, they once more transformed human thinking, this time in the secular sphere.
  • Much of the mental furniture of the modern world too is of Jewish fabrication.


The Jews were not just innovators.  They were also exemplars and epitomizers of the human condition.  They seemed to present all the inescapable dilemmas of man in a heightened and clarified form.

  • They were the quintessential ‘strangers and sojourners’.  But are we not all such on this planet, of which we possess a mere leasehold of threescore and ten?
  • The Jews are the emblem of homeless and vulnerable humanity.  But is not the whole earth no more than a temporary transit-camp?
  • The Jews were fierce idealists striving for perfection, and at the same time fragile men and women yearning for flesh-pots and safety.
  • They wanted to obey God’s impossible law, and they wanted to stay alive too.


Therein lay the dilemma of the Jewish commonwealths in antiquity, trying to combine the moral excellence of a theocracy with the practical demands of a state capable of defending itself.  The dilemma has been recreated in our own time in the shape of Israel, founded to realize a humanitarian ideal, discovering in practice that it must be ruthless simply to survive in a hostile world.  But is not this a recurrent problem which affects all human societies?  We all want to build Jerusalem.  We all drift back towards the Cities of the Plain.  It seems to be the role of the Jews to focus and dramatize these common experiences of mankind, and to turn their particular fate into a universal moral.  But if the Jews have this role, who wrote it for them?

Historians should beware of seeking providential patterns in events.  They are all to easily found, for we are credulous creatures, born to believe, and equipped with powerful imaginations which readily produce and rearrange data to suit any transcendental scheme.  Yet excessive skepticism can produce as serious a distortion as credulity.  The historian should take into account all forms of evidence, including those which are or appear to be metaphysical.


If the earliest Jews were able to survey, with us, the history of their progeny, they would find nothing surprising in it.  They always knew that Jewish society was appointed to be a pilot-project for the entire human race.  That Jewish dilemmas, dramas and catastrophes should be exemplary, larger than life, would seem only natural to them.  That Jews should over the millennia attract such unparalleled, indeed inexplicable, hatred would be regrettable but only to be expected.  Above all, that the Jews should still survive, when all those other ancient people were transmuted or vanished into the oubliettes of history, was wholly predictable.  How could it be otherwise?  Providence decreed it and the Jews obeyed.


The historian may say:  there is no such thing as providence.  Possibly not.  But human confidence in such a historical dynamic, if it is strong and tenacious enough, is a force in itself, which pushes on the hinge of events and moves them.  The Jews believed they were a special people with such unanimity and passion, and over so long a span, that they became one.  They did indeed have a role because they wrote it for themselves.  Therein, perhaps, lies the key to their story.


Reader Comments

  1. Postscript: Here’s a helpful critique of Paul Johnson’s book: Trying to Answer the Ancient Questions
    By ARTHUR HERTZBERG, April 19, 1987 posted in “THE NEW YORK TIMES on the Web.” Arthur Hertzberg, a professor of religion at Dartmouth College, is finishing a book on the history of the Jews in America.

    Excerpt: At the very end of the book Mr. Johnson rises beyond most of the contemporary writers about Jewish history, and especially those who have concerned themselves with the modern period. A succession of authors have told the story of Jewish experience as leading toward the acceptance of the Jews, by themselves and others, as ”just like everybody else.” Mr. Johnson knows that this is not so. Jews are not, even now, like everybody else. Mr. Johnson understands that the continuing struggle against anti-Semitism has not been the meaning of Jewish history. Jews have persisted because they kept trying to be what they thought they should be: ”The Jews believed themselves created and commanded to be a light to the gentiles and they have obeyed to the best of their considerable powers.”

    Just as helpful is ARI GOLDMAN’s write-up about the author Paul Johnson, found on the same page, with this opening sentence: THEY GAVE BIRTH TO HIS FAITH —-Paul Johnson, the author of ”A History of the Jews,” is a journalist and a Roman Catholic. Why would he want to write a history of the Jews?

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