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A History of the Jews by Paul M. Johnson
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A History of the Jews (original 1988; edition 1988)

by Paul M. Johnson

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1,3881611,502 (3.97)9
In this critically acclaimed book, Paul Johnson delves deep into the 4,000-year history of the Jews: a race of awe-inspiring endurance, steadfast homogeneity and loyalty and, above all, the belief that history has a purpose and humanity a destiny. With exacting precision and enthusiasm, Paul Johnson has mapped the lives of these people from their early ancestors in the House of David, through great periods of creativity and enterprise, alienation in the ghettos, Adolf Hitler's obsession to obliterate the race, up until the present day. This book is a powerful argument about the nature of Jewish genius, its strengths and contradictions, which brilliantly presents the entire Jewish phenomenon. It makes incisive though-provoking sense of the whole.… (more)
Member:an_eternalstudent
Title:A History of the Jews
Authors:Paul M. Johnson
Info:Harper Perennial (1988), Paperback, 656 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***1/2
Tags:history, judaism, religion

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A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson (1988)

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English (13)  Spanish (2)  Italian (1)  All languages (16)
Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
Includes source notes and index
  TorontoOratorySPN | Sep 2, 2022 |
I couldn't finish reading this book. I am currently working on a PhD in Ancient Israel/Hebrew Bible, and I wanted to learn more about post-biblical Jewish history. However, I found the style and content of this book to be inadequate for my purposes.

I ordered "A History of the Jews" because of the positive reviews and because of Paul Johnson's reputation for outstanding work as a historian. But while he may have been a leader in his field in the 1980s (this book is copyright 1987), this book no longer represents the state of information in the field of Judaic studies. Additionally, despite reviews calling this book "academic" and "intellectual," I find Johnson's writing style to be familiar and informal rather than academic and informative. Although Johnson may have devoted considerable effort to research for this book, the writing style gives the impression of nothing more than a casual attempt to produce true, reliable scholarship. Again, this is not to say that the book does not contain reliable information, but a more formal, scholarly writing style would have been more intellectually satisfying.

Additionally, I found that the information presented in the book is unreliable. Part of this may be due to the lack of editing after the 1980s. As noted above, I am working on a PhD in Ancient Israel/Hebrew Bible, so I have considerable knowledge of Jewish history during the biblical period.
Unfortunately, Johnson's statements often directly contradict what is currently known in biblical studies. For example, Johnson discusses the fact that the biblical story of Noah has extra-biblical parallels in the Epic of Gilgamesh. While much can indeed be learned by comparing biblical and extra-biblical texts, Johnson is incorrect to conclude from this fact that Noah is the first "real person" to appear in the biblical text. The Epic of Gilgamesh does not belong to the genre of history, and so the fact that Israel wrote a similar narrative does not "prove" that it is based on fact. It is much more likely that Israel adapted a well known ancient Near Eastern story. The existence of such a story does suggest a great flood in the region, but "elements of reality beneath the legendary veneer" implies only that there was a flood, not that the details of people and events are historically reliable. It is not until the period of the monarchy that we have actual evidence for people and events in the biblical texts; for earlier periods, such as those of the exodus and the patriarchs, there is no archaeology pertinent to the specifics of the story in the bible - there is only circumstantial evidence (such as the existence of storehouses built by slaves in Egypt at Pi Ramses). But the story of Noah occurs even earlier than that of the patriarchs, and belongs to the genre of myth rather than history. Scholars who are Jewish or Christian may believe the biblical accounts from earlier periods, even though there is no evidence to support them, and that is perfectly acceptable. However, when writing writing academic works, one must rely on academic types of data, not on religious beliefs. Johnson seems at times to assume that religious beliefs about what happened in the past are the same as historical evidence for what happened in the past. One could choose to write a book about Judeo-Christian beliefs, but that is not what this book claims to be, so it should have emphasized historical rather than religious truths.

Because the chapter on Ancient Israel was full of inaccurate information, I worried that reading the later chapters (about periods with which I am not familiar) would leave me ill informed. I was able to recognize and refute inaccurate (or out of date) information in the chapter covering the period which I have studied, but I had no such ability for periods with which I am unfamiliar. I recommend that students in Ancient Israel or Judaic Studies search for a more recent textbook which will be more likely to provide accurate information.
  AliciaBooks | Apr 3, 2022 |
Paul Johnson has comprehensively chronicled the journey of the Jews in this mere 644 paged book. Given the fact that he has captured about 4000 years of world history focussing on the Jews, this is a commendable feat in itself. This book starts at a time when the Jews didn't even call themselves that and ends at the 1970's. This book takes us back to about a few dozens of years before collective Jewish faith started being adopted.
Paul Johnson has divided this book into seven logical subparts namely Israelites, Judaism, Cathedocracy, Ghetto, Emancipation, Holocaust and Zion with each part dealing with an essential aspect of Jewish history.
Personally, for me, this book did not start as a favourite. I had so much difficulty reading the initial few parts that I almost chucked it away. The writer in the beginning parts relies heavily on the old testament and uses it as a point of truth and as history. Being from a non-Abrahamic religion and having no prior contact with Abrahamic stories, it was challenging for me to make sense of the references he was using (I relied heavily on Wikipedia to understand what each story meant or get a geographic idea of the texts he was using). Also, I felt the author assumes his audience is already aware of the conception of Jewish faith and this makes it extremely difficult for a beginner to this subject to understand what he is trying to say. Adding to this, he considered these stories and events to be history which was unpalatable for me because of the cultural and demographic differences we have had.
Though these issues mostly resolved itself as we progress into the later parts, one theme that remains constant throughout the book was eurocentrism. I always felt an insidious undercurrent of condescension to be present, be it for the non-Abrahamic European/middle eastern culture or to polytheism. Paul Johnson does not even acknowledge the existence of Asian culture and religious philosophy. I do realise that these topics are outside the scope of this book, but you cannot claim a philosophy to be superior or the best in this world without analysing or even mentioning other philosophies. It is as if these philosophies either didn't exist or is not worth mentioning.

Now moving towards the positives, this book provides a very unbiased opinion about the Jewish issue. Unlike what I feared, this book does not paint the Jews into victimhood; the writer also draws light to the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the Jewish faith, that always kept them aloof of the contemporary cultures in Europe and America and may have contributed (not a justification to the fate meted out to them) to some prevalent anti-semitic feelings. I also feel that the time given to each topic is extremely balanced. Another beautiful aspect of this book is its continuity. The author seamlessly transits from one point to the other and it makes reading this tome very convenient. The opinions that the author provides coupled with the flow of the narration makes it the highlight of this book.

So, in summary, the pros and cons of this book would be:-

Pros:
1. A comprehensive analysis of the Jewish journey for anyone who wants to know everything about them.
2. Beautiful continuity between chapters and topics.
3. The insights provided by the authors are the USP of this book.

Cons:-
1. An extremely steep learning curve for a complete beginner (at least the inception part).
2. Found it eurocentric and may touch a wrong cord for non-European readers.
3. Not an easy read for a casual enthusiast about the topic. The reader needs to be motivated or passionate about the topic to be able to finish this.

In conclusion, I feel people who want to know about the history of the Jews need to give this book a try. I also personally think that as the book finishes its narration at the 1970s, we may need a new chapter to cover half a century that has passed since the last chapter was written , though that does not seem plausible given the age of the writer.

Happy reading!


( )
  __echo__ | May 11, 2021 |
Loved this book. Very informative. I learned so much. ( )
  JaneLarkin | Sep 24, 2014 |
This is a powerful reminder of the Jewish achievements that covers 4000 years. It not only covers Jewish history, but the Jewish genius and imagination on the world.
  SABC | Mar 16, 2014 |
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This book is dedicated
to the memory of
Hugh Fraser,
A true Christian gentleman
and lifelong friend of the Jews
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(Prologue): Why have I written a history of the Jews?
The Jews are the most tenacious people in history.
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In this critically acclaimed book, Paul Johnson delves deep into the 4,000-year history of the Jews: a race of awe-inspiring endurance, steadfast homogeneity and loyalty and, above all, the belief that history has a purpose and humanity a destiny. With exacting precision and enthusiasm, Paul Johnson has mapped the lives of these people from their early ancestors in the House of David, through great periods of creativity and enterprise, alienation in the ghettos, Adolf Hitler's obsession to obliterate the race, up until the present day. This book is a powerful argument about the nature of Jewish genius, its strengths and contradictions, which brilliantly presents the entire Jewish phenomenon. It makes incisive though-provoking sense of the whole.

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