Some people see history as a bland collection of dates and facts. It is much better to view history as a story that features vibrant characters, a call to adventure, a main conflict, unexpected twists and struggles, comic relief, tragedy, a climax, and finally, a glorious triumph.
The Bible tells history in this way. It introduces us to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and follows the story of their children for centuries. Israel’s history sets the stage for the coming of Jesus, who died to atone for sin and rose again. He will return to rule in Jerusalem, fulfilling prophecy.
It is especially fitting that Christians learn Jewish history. Since God chose the Jewish people, Jewish history is theologically significant and warrants attention. Jewish history covers much of world history, helps us better understand Jewish people, makes us aware of antisemitism, tells the ongoing story of God’s covenant people, and constitutes evidence for God. Moreover, a basic understanding of Jewish history, especially as it relates to church history, goes a long way in helping us share the gospel with Jewish people in a culturally sensitive manner.
1. BECAUSE JEWISH HISTORY COVERS MUCH OF WORLD HISTORY
Jewish history is extremely broad. Jewish people have lived on every inhabited continent and shaped countless societies. Historian Paul Johnson wrote, “Writing a history of the Jews is almost like writing a history of the world, but from a highly peculiar angle of vision.” Going through Jewish history takes one to the ancient Near East, North Africa, medieval Islamic empires, Europe, Argentina, the United States, and modern Israel.
As Johnson emphasizes, Jewish history covers much of the world’s history and will enrich one’s knowledge about many different cultures and time periods at the same time. Since Jewishness transcends national boundaries and spans thousands of years, few areas of history are as broad as Jewish history.
Jewish people have made their mark in many fields, including music, economics, literature, physics, medicine, law, and literature. Jewish history, therefore, is truly interdisciplinary. Indeed, the contributions of Jewish people to world history are disproportionate to their relatively small numbers. Mark Twain marveled at this fascinating dynamic:
If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one per cent.[sic] of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star-dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. . . . His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are . . . away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers.
Their influence bears witness to God’s promise that “all the families of the earth will be blessed” through Abraham’s descendants (Genesis 12:3). Learning Jewish history involves much more than one would expect given what a small part of the world’s population is Jewish. This makes Jewish history both fascinating and informative.
2. TO BETTER UNDERSTAND JEWISH PEOPLE
Many misconceptions about Jewish culture arise because one is not aware of how broad and diverse the Jewish world is. For example, a lot of people are surprised to discover the wide spectrum of Jewish beliefs. Orthodox Judaism seeks close and meticulous observance of the Torah and rabbinic tradition.
On the other end of the scale, which comprises many Jewish people today, is the more secular Jewish community who do not follow a kosher diet, only attend synagogue for the Jewish holidays, and rarely keep the Sabbath. For them, being Jewish is more about remembering the Holocaust, leading a moral life, and having a sense of humor.
The reason why so many Jewish people today are secular is rooted in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. At that time, many Jewish people were grappling with the secularism and skepticism that the Enlightenment had brought to western society. Some wanted to reform Judaism to make it more acceptable to modern people. Others wished to continue strict obedience of the Torah (as the rabbis interpreted it). Still others sought a middle course.
This divide set the stage for the three forms of Judaism most common in the United States today: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Conservative Judaism seeks to maintain Jewish religious practice but is less strict than Orthodox Judaism. Reform Jewish people, generally, do not believe that the Bible is divine in origin or that Israel was chosen. They keep Jewish traditions, such as celebrating Hanukkah, but mainly for cultural reasons.
While these forms of Judaism are the most influential, it is incredibly difficult to categorize the entire breadth of Jewish observance. Nevertheless, grasping the historical background for these differences helps us better understand where someone is coming from and how to best communicate the gospel.
3. TO BE AWARE OF ANTISEMITISM
One of the greatest ironies of Jewish history is that many antisemitic acts have been done by people who claim to follow Jesus, the Jewish Messiah. Many Christian theologians have taught that the Jewish people killed Jesus. The idea that Jewish people are forever guilty of killing Jesus has fueled many forms of antisemitism.
For example, the crusaders massacred many Jewish people as they traveled through Europe on their way to Jerusalem. In later centuries, Jewish people were expelled from several countries, including England and Spain.
The largely Gentile church read antisemitic stereotypes into the New Testament, emphasizing the Jewishness of the Pharisees and Judas while ignoring or downplaying the Jewishness of Jesus, His disciples, and the early church. The New Testament is a deeply Jewish book that rests on the foundation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Tragically, the legacy of antisemitic interpretation has led many Jewish people to think that the New Testament is antisemitic.
This is one example of how the history of antisemitism in the church has created barriers against Jewish people believing in Jesus. Many Christians do not know about this history, thus widening the gap between Christian and (unbelieving) Jewish communities. Familiarizing ourselves with this history helps us to be more compassionate when talking with Jewish people.
For instance, if the subject of the New Testament comes up, we could show our Jewish friend Matthew 1:1. This verse emphasizes Jesus’ connection to key people from the Hebrew Scriptures, calling Him “the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”
4. BECAUSE ISRAEL STILL PLAYS A UNIQUE ROLE IN GOD’S PLAN
Jewish history is the ongoing story of God’s chosen people. It is a story of God’s faithfulness against all odds. Some Christians think that the church has superseded Israel in history. This would mean that all of God’s promises to Israel and the Jewish people now apply only to the church.
Of course, God is the King of the universe and is in control of everything that happens within it. He can and does bring His purposes to pass through whomever He chooses.
Nevertheless, God has given the Jewish people a special vocation: “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6a). This role did not end when the church was born.
In Romans, Paul strongly affirmed that Israel is still chosen, saying, “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). If we believe that God is not done with Israel, then we should care about what Jewish people have done and experienced in post-biblical times.
At the same time, we should be careful not to speculate about how God may be working through a certain period or event of history. When we read about Israelite history in the Bible, we are reading an infallible account of what happened and, in many cases, why.
For instance, prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah said that Israel would experience exile as a consequence for their idolatry. We cannot, however, draw the conclusion that other forms of Jewish suffering are also God’s judgment.
However, there are a few conclusions we can draw. In Jeremiah 31:36, God promises, “If this fixed order departs from before me . . . then the offspring of Israel also will cease from being a nation before me forever.”
In other words, the Jewish people will never cease to exist. The many failed attempts to wipe out Jewish people demonstrate this. As we look at history, we see that God has indeed preserved the offspring of Israel. Against all odds, God’s covenant people endures.
5. TO DISCOVER EVIDENCE FOR GOD
An old story tells of the Prussian King Frederick the Great and his chaplain. The skeptical king challenged him to give a good argument for God. His chaplain responded, “The Jew, your majesty!”
Jewish history—particularly Jewish survival and success—makes the most sense if the God of the Bible is true. Perhaps no other people group has maintained continuity of heritage for as many millennia as Jewish people.
Unlike other ancient groups, Jewish people have a direct link to ancient Israel, which does not mean that Jewish religion and culture has not changed since then—in many ways it has. Nevertheless, there are striking echoes that resound throughout Jewish history. One example is the longing for Zion.
The notion of Jewish people inhabiting a particular land goes all the way back to God’s first recorded words to Abraham: “Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you” (Genesis 12:1, emphasis added).
The rest of Scripture tells of how God overcame obstacles, including infertility, slavery, and disobedience, to settle Israel in the land. The prophets also looked forward to a day when the messianic king would rule over Israel and the people would dwell in peace and justice (Isaiah 11). Revelation affirms this same hope (Rev 21:1–3).
After the Romans destroyed the Temple in ad 70 and most Jewish people came to live outside the land, the longing to return endured for centuries. The modern Zionist movement arose in the late nineteenth century, but Jewish liturgy had kept alive the hope for Zion long before that.
For example, part of the Passover liturgy says, “Next year in Jerusalem.” For generations, Jewish people, many of whom never saw the land themselves, have expressed faith that one day their descendants would live in the land of Israel.
The emergence of the State of Israel in 1948 was a rather unlikely development. There is no comparable instance of a large portion of a people group returning to their ancestral home and forging a functional modern country after centuries of dispersion. This amazing event illustrates God’s faithfulness to His people, a thread that runs throughout history.
- Jewish history is extremely broad, including many countries, time periods, and cultures.
- Jewish history helps us better understand Jewish people today and share the gospel in a culturally sensitive way.
- Jewish history makes us aware of antisemitism in church history and how it affects evangelism.
- Jewish history is the ongoing story of God’s covenant people.
- Jewish history is evidence that God is faithful.
Here are some resources we offer that will deepen your knowledge of Jewish history:
“The Influence of the Maccabees in Jewish History”
“Jesus and the Jewish People: A Look at History”
“Who Really Killed Jesus?”
“Who Are the Haredim?”
Our Hands Are Stained with Blood
A Rabbi’s Vision
Understanding the Arab-Israeli Conflict
 Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (New York: Harper Perennial, 1988), 2.
 Mark Twain, “Concerning the Jews,” in The Complete Essays of Mark Twain. For the First Time in One Volume, All the Famous Essays of One of America’s Most Renowned Authors., ed. Charles Neider (Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1963), 249.
 “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, last modified October 1, 2013, accessed December 22, 2021, https://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/.
 Kenneth Boa and Robert M. Bowman Jr, Faith Has Its Reasons: Integrative Approaches to Defending the Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 183.