Monday, May 8, 2017
Jewish Book Review: "A History of the Jews" by Paul Johnson
Disclaimer: I did not finish this book. I could not finish this book. I gave up in disgust about a third of the way through. I know it's kind of tacky to review a book you didn't finish, but all I can say is that if you read this review or, God help you, if you attempt to read the book itself, you'll understand.
I did not buy or read this book out of my own free will. It somehow ended up on the list of books that my synagogue gives out to potential converts. I have honestly no idea how, other than it having been a bestselling book (what a horrifying thought) of what is ostensibly Jewish history, but is actually biblical literalism and thinly-veiled Christian supersessionism. My rabbi wanted me to go through the various books they recommend and tell him which ones they should get rid of. I think I've made my opinion of this one clear, but if you wish to know more, read on . . .
On page six, the Johnson notes, “Unfortunately, historians are rarely as objective as they wish to appear.” He could’ve easily been talking about himself. He begins by saying that he became interested in Judaism and Jewish history after writing a book on the history of Christianity. This was a bit of a red flag for me. Christians looking at Judaism and Jewish history through the lens of Christianity have never been the best chroniclers. He notes this briefly but, as with the quoted statement, does not seem to apply this to himself. He consistently refers to the Tanakh as the “Old Testament,” which, in addition to being inappropriately Christianity-centric, isn’t even accurate; the Tanakh and the Christian Old Testament aren’t the same document. The “Old Testament” contains books that the Tanakh doesn’t and some books are in different orders—and that’s just if you ignore the changes the document went through during the translation processes.
In addition to this, Johnson seems to believe, if not in a literal interpretation of the Torah, at least in a much more literal interpretation than is really historically supported. (It's not that biblical literalists can't be good historians, just that they, like everyone, and, yes, I'm including myself in that, have to appreciate that there's a difference between what one believes and what has been proven. And not just religious people; honestly, I think Dawkins-esque Christian atheists can be the worst in this regard.) He takes it as a given that all of the figures in Genesis were real people and that the events in Genesis took place more or less as the text says they took place. He cites the Nuzi Tablets, which I’d never heard of. Obviously I’m totally a layperson here, but I’m pretty sure that if there was an archeological find that proved that the Patriarchs and Matriarchs actually existed, everyone would know about it and Richard Dawkins would be throwing a fit. Certainly the only websites I can find that cite the Nuzi Tablets as incontrovertible proof are the super religious ones; all the others just say the tablets provide interesting background information. The Nuzi tablets showed a culture in the very ancient Middle East similar to the cultures described in Genesis, including legal cases similar to the Patriarchs’ and Matriarchs’. As far as I can tell, Johnson decided that the people involved in the cases in the Nuzi tablets must’ve actually been the various biblical figures.
The next major warning sign comes on page twenty-eight, when Johnson writes that Moses was the “most influential of all the Jews of antiquity before Christ.” Great. That certainly disposes me towards belief in Johnson’s objectivity. Or it makes me want to dispose of this book. Something like that.
Johnson also uses outdated language to refer to Black people. This was written in 1987, three years before I was born and three years after my brother was born. That was a while ago, but not long enough ago that referring to Black people as n*groes was considered acceptable.
Another sign of Johnson’s lack of objectivity is his tendency to dismiss the indigenous polytheistic religions of the Middle East and North Africa as superstitious, primitive, and generally inferior. It was then to my considerable surprise that he defended the practice, considered idolatrous by the Israelites, of having statues and other images of their gods. This turned out to be the exception that proves the rule: it must be all right, he says, because Christians do it.
Don’t even get me started on what he does with (or to) Isaiah.
About a hundred pages in, he actually begins quoting the New Testament and talking in glowing terms about how much certain passages from various parts of the Hebrew Bible, excuse me, the “Old Testament” resemble various things that Jesus says in the Christian Bible.
Even after this, I was still surprised when on page 126 he essentially said that the Afghani people attacked the British on the border with India because the Afghani people were a “difficult, warlike, tribal and essentially backward society . . .” (He does not apply the description I quoted directly to them, but he links the two damningly close.) So apparently he’s pro-British-colonialism.
So I was joking (sort of) when I said not to get me started on him and Isaiah, but when we reached Jesus’s birth, he said that Jews who thought and think that the Messiah would be a human, earthly, military leader (i.e. all Jews who believed or believe the Moshiach/Messiah) were completely wrong in their interpretation of Isaiah, because actually Isaiah makes it clear that the Messiah was and will be . . . exactly what Christians believe Jesus was like, and, according to them, will be.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, well, it did. I’m honestly not sure how to phrase this properly, but here goes: I know that an early Christian, I think it might’ve even been Paul but I’m not sure, said that Judaism was the religion of the letter of the law and Christianity was the religion of the spirit of the law. This is a fairly common dichotomy. Here Johnson applies this to Shammai (letter of the law/Judaism) versus Hillel (spirit of the law/Christianity). That isn’t egregious in and of itself, though it’s at best a huge oversimplification, but it did start the alarms in my head. The alarms got louder when he said that Jesus was of the School of Hillel and could’ve even studied with him. I mean, yeah, he could’ve, but there’s no evidence that he did, other than a passage in the New Testament (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) that resembles a famous Hillel aphorism (“do not do unto your neighbor what is hateful to yourself”). Not exactly an uncommon sentiment, in theory if not in practice: Aesop said the same thing.
In any case, the warning sirens in my head got louder and louder as I read on. When I reached the point at which Johnson started gushing about how Jesus “[took] Hillel’s teaching to its logical conclusion,” I thought it couldn’t get any worse. How naïve I was.
I continued reading now out of duty rather than any enjoyment or curiosity, except the sort of curiosity that makes drivers slow down and stare at a particularly gruesome car wreck, as the warning sirens (in my head, not in the car wreck) got louder and louder, and when the writer describes Jesus’s arrest, trial, and execution in almost exactly the same way anti-Semitic Christians have been describing it since it supposedly happened, the sirens in my head turned into a voice shouting . . .
“. . . fuck it. I’m not paid enough to deal with this fucking book*. I can’t take it any longer. Fuck it.”
*Obviously, I’m not paid at all, but I hope you’ll forgive my slight liberty with the truth. What can I say--I echoed the spirit of the truth, not the letter of it.