'A History of the Jews', by Paul Johnson, takes an authoritative tone and is dense with citations. But its scope is enormous and it sometimes draws very strong conclusions. Given the state of the art of scholarship in 2015, how accurate and balanced is Paul Johnson's account from 1987?

I ask because I'm reading it now and I'd like to know if what I'm reading should be taken seriously. For instance, I recently learned that Zealot by Aslan contains a good deal of unfounded conclusions and distortions by omission, and that the author's credentials are suspect. I'd hate to read Johnson's massive history only to find out that I'm not learning what I think I'm learning.

Edit: Somehow this question was closed as "opinion-based". My question (from 5 years ago) was and remains a question about academic scholarship.

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    I haven't seen any scathing repudiations, so maybe it's aged well. Here's an older review that points out some errors (and thinks the book gets better as it goes on), and here's a similarly old review that faults it for generalizing too much. But what I've found has been generally positive.
    – two sheds
    Commented Feb 8, 2015 at 20:55
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    Another old review, Alan Ryan "Letting them Live" London Review of Books, Vol. 10 No. 14, 4 August 1988, p5-6 as lrb.co.uk/v10/n14/alan-ryan/letting-them-live Commented Feb 8, 2015 at 23:01
  • I'm only 7 minutes in to an almost 29 hour audio book he says Leah was the mother of Joseph. Genesis says Rachel was the mother of Joseph. How's that for accuracy?? I, personally, am going to pass on this book.
    – pearl
    Commented Jan 1, 2021 at 0:44
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    Because "accurate and balanced" is intrinsically a subjective term. If Answer 1 says "Yes, it is fair" and answer 2 says "no, it is biased" how will you identify which one is correct? each author believes that they are correct, fair and unbalanced and that the other is not. There is no international standard unit for "accuracy".
    – MCW
    Commented Jan 2, 2021 at 15:39
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    @MarkC.Wallace: It's my opinion this type of questions should be encouraged. "Accurate and balanced" isn't a controversial thing to say, and the OP will choose the correct answer based on the reasoning that is provided in the answer (just like with any other type of answers). Anyone can claim anything, but those claims need to be supported.
    – gktscrk
    Commented Jan 3, 2021 at 14:20

1 Answer 1


Just reading the reviews from my perspective as a student of Jewish history and religion, I find much to object to, although I don't necessarily disagree with his ultimate conclusion that the Jewish people believed so much that they were a special people, protected by God, that they evolved into one and survived in Houdini-like fashion. From one example in Hertzberg's review, regarding that there is "no evidence" that Jesus was a student of Hillel, struck me as a very uninformed answer. First, the two were 100 years apart. Second, Johnson seems unaware that there was a School of Hillel (Beis Hillel) that continued his teachings and philosophies in the years contemporary with Jesus -- therefore Jesus could have studied (and probably did study) with Beis Hillel. Another criticism is his failure to take notice of the Sephardic Jewish world in Moslem-occupied African and Asian lands, including the Lavant. If true, then that misses a great deal of history including Maimonedes and his great contributions to Jewish thought and philosophy, Nachmanides, and the codification of Jewish Law by Rabbi Joseph Karo. It is unlikely any Jewish history would miss either or the amazing scholarship of Sephardic Jews in the Iberian Peninsula prior to the 1492 expulsion.

The reviews also take him to task for relying on secondary sources. I don't consider that a serious problem as he would need mastery of Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic and Yiddish. Furthermore, to get a real grasp of rabbinic learning and philosophy from primary sources, I believe would take years of study of hundreds of volumes of books -- something most historians choose to forego (and why many historians do poorly when trying to describe Jewish history regarding religious teachings).

But all in all, I respect the historians who reviewed his books and their mostly positive conclusions.

  • Hang on, I have read the book years ago and do distinctly remember him writing (positively) about Maimonides and his rationality-based approach. Am I missing something here? Commented Feb 9, 2015 at 21:54
  • @FelixGoldberg Well, mentioning Maimonedes' philosophical works is a no-brainer -- any history of the Jews has to mention that. Does he cover the Jews of Spain pre-1492 and their contributions to both Jewish society but also European culture? Because many were involved in shipping and international trade, and they were welcome in both European and Arabic ports, they brought Europe a great deal including such inventions as perfume, makeup, the fork, guitars and advanced mathematics. Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 15:35
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    "Jewish people believed so much that they were a special people, protected by God, that they evolved into one and survived" - from today's perpective it is a completely wrong claim. Ethnic Jews were not any more devoted than any other peoples. But those who converted were not called "Jews" any more. So the word "Jews" became reserved for the most devoted group out of all ethnic Jews.
    – Anixx
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 18:17
  • @Anixx but is that really Johnson's thesis, or is it just Bruce James' wording? Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 17:00
  • The phrase " Jewish people believed so much that they were a special people, protected by God" is wrong. Jewish people believe that they are the chosen people, it is not the same as "protected". It is usually translated as "this is an example for other peoples" and implies responsibility rather than protection.
    – user47593
    Commented Jan 3, 2021 at 5:03

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