I first encountered historian Paul Johnson about 25 years ago; I was considering teaching college and came across his Intellectuals (1988, 2007), a collection of essays on famous thinkers of modern times—Rousseau, Marx, Tolstoy, Sartre, etc. This morning I stumbled upon an Amazon reviewer’s observation of this book: “Johnson's thesis is quite simple: the revolutionary thinkers whose ideas have shaped intellectual history over the past 250 years were, for the most part, lousy human beings.” That was my impression of his work as well, and over the years I kept my eyes open for more of his writing. Shortly I came across Johnson’s A History of Christianity (1975, 2005); I sent a copy to my old history professor at UCF with a note, “He takes no prisoners.” This narrative extends to 1975; it is a compelling read, even if blunt and probably disconcerting to the theologically innocent.
About three years ago my diocese asked me to teach a program on world religion. As luck would have it, I came across A History of the Jews (1987). Again, despite its size (587 pages) and the complexity of ages and cultures in the story of the Jewish journey, this narrative is a splendid example of what I call “a historical sweep,” an overview which draws the reader into further study and, in this case, profound meditation. As another Amazon reader put it, “As a non-Jew I found this a moving and disturbing work.”
Hopefully most catechists and educated Catholics have had some exposure to the problems of using the Judaeo-Christian Scriptures as historical sources per se. It is certainly true that some Biblical authors have provided data that stands the test of non-theological or secular historical analysis even though Biblical authors wrote as faith interpreters or theologians. The historical reality of Moses, Solomon, David and the sacred buildings of worship are just as accessible to an atheist as to a fervent believer, though the interpretation of such data would be considerably different.
Johnson is a historian, not a theologian (though certainly a humanitarian). Yet, his opening 80-page summary of the meaning and significance of the Scripture gives the reader a dynamic sense of flowering faith consciousness and explains what Israel did believe through its first millennium. Israel’s faith, like later Christianity’s, developed its self-consciousness from historical experience and theological insight. For Christians in particular, Johnson has made the sacred texts themselves more accessible by providing this historical and organic overview.
For Johnson the Israelites “became Jewish” in the years around 590 B.C., the time of the Babylonian Exile. “Israel” was no longer an entity of tribes. Ten of the twelve had in fact died out. Life after the Exile would be different in multiple ways. In 539 BC some Israelites returned to Jerusalem. A number stayed in Babylon and, if the histories of Ezra and Nehemiah are correct, lived reasonably well in this foreign land. Other Israelites migrated to other lands, and seemed to have received some measure of acceptance in the burgeoning Roman Empire.
The impact of this Diaspora or “scattering” cannot be understated. As seen in the writings of later prophets and wisdom literature such as Job, Judaism became a religion of internal conscience rather than tribal adherence. Emphasis upon the written Scripture and the religious/legal teaching tradition became monolithic and replaced the high temple worship, which became impossible at any rate after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 and again in 135 A.D. The double disasters in Jerusalem put an end to any hope of a lasting Christian-Jewish coexistence, as Jewish thought and became more conservative and isolated of necessity while Christianity was expanding and developing its doctrines till well into the fifth century.
The Jews of the Diaspora found themselves at the mercy of local governments, churches, and the mob. Jews in Babylon, Constantine’s Rome, Byzantium and the Islamic Kingdom (which spread from the Balkans all the way around the Mediterranean to France) were subjected to a variety of persecutions for a number of reasons. Some were doctrinal; others had more to do with what was perceived as the Jewish penchant for clannishness and a distancing from the societies in which they found themselves. The evolution of misunderstanding to contempt to violence was a common experience of Jewish life. In 1140 Venice became the first principality to create a ghetto or enclosed zone in which all Jews were ordered to live.
Johnson observes that through the Dark Ages and well beyond, the penchant for scholarship, discipline, and a wholesome lifestyle won the Jews some measure of local respect. In an age where money lending at interest was a Catholic sin, Jewish law permitted the practice of usury with gentiles and made the economic medieval revolution possible. Because of frequent persecutions and the need to relocate, Jews tended to keep their assets liquid in bullion, jewels, etc and were not without the means to fuel a banking economy. Shortly after 1800 a British Jew, Nathan Rothschild, set ground for the largest bank in Europe, the House of Rothschild. England stands out as one of few nations hospitable to Jewish life and faith.
Johnson chronicles the development of the concept of Zionism, a land where Jewish peoples could live independently and freely. But nineteenth and twentieth century events—World War I, the Russian Revolution, anarchy—led to a new wave of hatred and scape-goating. The horrors of the Nazi regime are fairly well known to the most casual reader of history, but Johnson emphasizes the complicity of the German citizenry (ostensibly Christian) in the unspeakable crime of the Holocaust. Johnson pauses here (pp. 508-515) to reflect upon the spiritual/psychological state of the death camp inmates and the intensity of hatred by the guards. He laments that even after the deliverance of the camps, the anti-Semitic blood lust was not satiated but shifted to the Middle East.
As I wrote yesterday, from an honest Christian vantage point, about the worst thing that can be said about Jewish life is its inability to accept the divinity of Christ. This makes Judaism no more heretical, so to speak, than heretical Arian Christians who for periods of time were the largest Christian block in Europe. For that matter, how many Catholics today believe in the divinity of Christ or the Real Presence? The story of the Jewish people is as much a narrative of those around them, notably of the ability to cultivate self-deception and justify the basest of human degradation. As Catholics we are the blood siblings of the Jews; to deny this is not simply to abandon our God-given identity but to create the circumstances for the incubation of new outrages. Johnson’s work is a sine qua non for all Christians, not just ministers.