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History of the Jews

History of the Jews

3.8 7
by Paul Johnson

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A national bestseller, this brilliant 4000 year survey covers not only Jewish history but he impact of Jewish genius and imagination on the world. By the author of Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Eighties.


A national bestseller, this brilliant 4000 year survey covers not only Jewish history but he impact of Jewish genius and imagination on the world. By the author of Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Eighties.

Editorial Reviews

New York Review of Books
An extraordinary amount of useful information.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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. (April)
Library Journal
Famous author-historian Johnson ( Modern Times, LJ 5/1/83; A History of Christianity, LJ 7/76) presents a provocative history of the Jewish people, religion, and culture from earliest times to the present. Astutely divided into seven sections, (Israelites, Judaism, Cathedocracy, Ghetto, Emancipation, Holocaust, and Zion), the work describes the complex interplay between Jewish and world history and shows how the course of Western civilization has been immensely influenced by this numerically small group. It's no mean feat to successfully compress 4000 years of history into 645 pages, but Johnson has more than met the challenge. Despite a few reservationsE. G. Johnson's theories regarding Jesus and the incipient Christian movement are debatablethis is an excellent, nonscholarly history for general readers. Highly recommended for public libraries. Robert A. Silver, Shaker Heights P.L., Ohio

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
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Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.47(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


The Jews are the most tenacious people in history. Hebron is there to prove it. It ties 20 miles south of Jerusalem, 3,000 feet up in the Judaean hills. There, in the Cave of Machpelah, are the Tombs of the Patriarchs. According to ancient tradition, one sepulchre, itself of great antiquity, contains the mortal remains of Abraham, founder of the Jewish religion and ancestor of the Jewish race. Paired with his tomb is that of his wife Sarah. Within the building are the twin tombs of his son Isaac and his wife Rebecca. Across the inner courtyard is another pair of tombs, of Abraham's grandson Jacob and his wife Leah. Just outside the building is the tomb of their son Joseph.' This is where the 4,000-year history of the Jews, in so far as it can be anchored in time and place, began.

Hebron has great and venerable beauty. It provides the peace and stillness often to be found in ancient sanctuaries. But its stones are mute witnesses to constant strife and four millennia of religious and political disputes. It has been in turn a Hebrew shrine, a synagogue, a Byzantine basilica, a mosque, a crusader church, and then a mosque again. Herod the Great enclosed it with a majestic wall, which still stands, soaring nearly 40 feet high, composed of massive hewn stones, some of them 23 feet long. Saladin adorned the shrine with a pulpit. Hebron reflects the long, tragic history of the Jews and their unrivalled capacity to survive their misfortunes. David was anointed king there, first of Judah (II Samuel 2:1-4), then of all Israel (II Samuel 5:1-3). When Jerusalem fell, the Jews were expelled and it was settled by Edom. It wasconquered by Greece, then by Rome, converted, plundered by the Zealots, burned by the Romans, occupied in turn by Arabs, Franks and Mamluks. From 1266 the Jews were forbidden to enter the Cave to pray. They were permitted only to ascend seven steps by the side of the eastern wall. On the fourth step they inserted their petitions to God in a hole bored 6 feet 6 inches through the stone.

Sticks were used to push the bits of paper through until they fell into the Cave.' Even so, the petitioners were in danger. In 15 18 there was a fearful Ottoman massacre of the Hebron Jews. But a community of pious scholars was re-established. It maintained a tenuous existence, composed, at various times, of orthodox Talmudists, of students of the mystic kabbalah, and even of Jewish ascetics, who flogged themselves cruelly until their blood spattered the hallowed stones. Jews were there to welcome, in turn, the false Messiah, Shabbetai Zevi, in the 1660s, the first modern Christian pilgrims in the eighteenth century, secular Jewish settlers a hundred years later, and the British conquerors in 1918. The Jewish community, never very numerous, was ferociously attacked by the Arabs in 1929. They attacked it again in 1936 and virtually wiped it out. When Israeli soldiers entered Hebron during the Six Day War in 1967, for a generation not one Jew had lived there. But a modest settlement was re-established in 1970. Despite much fear and uncertainty, it has flourished.

So when the historian visits Hebron today, he asks himself: where are all those peoples which once held the place? Where are the Canaanites? Where are the Edomites? Where are the ancient Hellenes and the Romans, the Byzantines, the Franks, the Mamluks and the Ottomans? They have vanished into time, irrevocably. But the Jews are still in Hebron.

Hebron is thus an example of Jewish obstinacy over 4,000 years. It also illustrates the curious ambivalence of the Jews towards the possession and occupation of land. No race has maintained over so long a period so emotional an attachment to a particular corner of the earth's surface. But none has shown so strong and persistent an instinct to migrate, such courage and skill in pulling up and replanting its roots. It is a curious fact that, for more than three-quarters of their existence as a race, a majority of Jews have always lived outside the land they call their own. They do so today.

Hebron is the site of their first recorded acquisition of land. Chapter 23 of the Book of Genesis describes how Abraham, after the death of his wife Sarah, decided to purchase the Cave2 of Machpelah and the lands which surrounded it, as a burying-place for her and ultimately for himself. The passage is among the most important in the entire Bible, embodying one of the most ancient and tenaciously held Jewish traditions, evidently very dear and critical to them. It is perhaps the first passage in the Bible which records an actual event, witnessed and described through a long chain of oral recitation and so preserving authentic details. The negotiation and ceremony of purchase are elaborately described. Abraham was what might now be termed an alien, though a resident of long standing in Hebron. To own freehold land in the place he required not merely the power of purchase but the public consent of the community. The land was owned by a dignitary called Ephron the Hittite, a West Semite and Habiru of Hittite origin. 3 Abraham had first to secure the formal agreement of the community, ,the children of Heth', 'the people of the land', to make the transaction; then to bargain with Ephron about the price, 400 shekels (i.e. pieces) of silver; then to have the coins, 'current money with the merchant', weighed out and handed over before the communal elders.

This was a memorable event in a small community, involving not merely transfer of ownership but change of status: the ritualistic bowings, the dissimulations and false courtesies, the hardness and haggling, are all brilliantly conveyed by the Bible narrative.

Meet the Author

Paul Johnson is a historian whose work ranges over the millennia and the whole gamut of human activities. He regularly writes book reviews for several UK magazines and newspapers, such as the Literary Review and The Spectator, and he lectures around the world. He lives in London, England.

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History of the Jews 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Historian Paul Johnson provides an extremely well written, in depth investigation into the 4,000 year history of the Jewish people. This is an incredible study, written with due precision and well worth a place in anyone's library. From a Christian perspective the author acknowledges at the outset the enormous depth that Christianity owes to Judaism and his discovery that, contrary to his earlier teachings, the New Testament had not replaced the Old. Within the context of Jewish ancestry, the author cites early in the text of this excellent work that 'the Jews are thus the only people in the world today who possess a historical record, however obscure in places, which allows them to trace their origins back into very remote times'. The study, spanning some 600 pages, reaches back to the time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Israel) and the Genesis account, before extending through the millenia to the present day. The periods of exile and the rebirth of their historic Jewish nation/homeland are also commendably studied together with the ongoing regathering of the physical descendants of the Israel to their historic homeland. Further content includes the Arab/Israeli conflict, wars and ongoing terrorism including anti-Semitism within the surrounding Arab/Islamic world and the role of the UN. Attention is also paid to the immense contribution of Jews to science, physiology and medicine etc., etc. and the subsequent awards of numerable Nobel prizes. It becomes evident as the reader progresses through this study that, despite the Diaspora, a Jewish presence has remained in their ancient homeland throughout antiquity, showing the Jews to be the only truly indigenous people in the Land. A worthy factor to be considered by students of this subject. The book comprises of seven major sections (each with sub-sections of it's own), namely Part One Israelites. Part Two Judaism. Part Three Cathedocracy. Part Four Ghetto. Part Five Emancipation. Part Six Holocaust. Part Seven Zion. Through the immense content, the reader is provided with a considerably detailed account of how, despite innumerable pograms, forced conversions, persecutions, ethnic cleansing from somenations during their Diaspora, and even the more recent pursuit of their genocide in Europe, the Jews have still retained their distinctive nationality, recognizable identity and traceable ancestry. Reference is made to how, wherever & whenver possible, Jewish communities have still continued in their Jewish lifestyle, religious practicies, traditions, feasts and festivals. The reader is shown how since the Diaspora beginning some 2,000 years ago, at Passover the Jews have optimistically look forward to leaving their homes in exile and celebrating the 'next Passover in Jerusalem', fulfilling the ancient dream of being a free people in their own land. 'Next year in Jerusalem' being the wish of Diaspora Jews, scattered from their homeland yet acknowledging their spiritual and historical home is Israel, specifically, Jerusalem. Psalm 137 referred to as the well-known lament of the Babylonian Jews who wept 'by the rivers of Babylon' and declared, 'If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither....' The attempts throughout history, not least during the Holocaust, to destroy or assimilate the Jewish people are given due attemption. The failure of such being documented. That said the study shows in no uncertain terms that this process of hatred is still ongoing, citing the anti-Semitism in the Arab world and the international community, not forgetting the UN itself. The plight of exiled Jews under both Islam and the Church also receive due recognition. Not least of these are the 'dhimmi' status of Jews in Islamic nations and how the 'Christian' doctrine of 'replacement' theology (where Israel is replaced in Scripture by the Church etc.) gave rise to so much anti-Semitism. The reader receives an aware
Guest More than 1 year ago
No modern historian has written a clearer, fairer, or more readable history of the Jews than Paul Johnson
skowarsky More than 1 year ago
The excellence of this book is widely acknowledged, including by most reviewers here, and I agree with them. I feel compelled to respond to the frivolous and wholly unsupported application of the label "unscholarly" to Johnson's work. The book is deeply researched from scholarly sources. It includes about 50 pages of formal footnotes. Essentially no important assertion made here goes unsupported. This is a hallmark of good scholarship. I also want to point out that Johnson is much more than a historian of events. He is an intellectual historian of the first rank. His ability to elucidate the key ideas of the key thinkers that impacted the events of history is unmatched in my experience. And for this subject especially, that is an essential skill. Finally, the book is rational and well-reasoned. One might disagree with a point here or there, in the sense that reasonable men may differ. But the intelligence with which this book was created should not be insulted and demeaned with labels. The work is certainly readable. It is a real page-turner. I found myself increasingly fascinated, and I feel deeply touched for having read this book. Is readability incompatible with scholarship? Why should it be?
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