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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?

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.

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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 Feb 8 '15 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 – Samuel Russell Feb 8 '15 at 23:01
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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? – Felix Goldberg Feb 9 '15 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. – Bruce James Feb 13 '15 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 Feb 13 '15 at 18:17
  • @Anixx but is that really Johnson's thesis, or is it just Bruce James' wording? – shadowtalker Feb 17 '15 at 17:00

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