The first major history of the scholarly quest to answer the question of Jewish origins
The Jews have one of the longest continuously recorded histories of any people in the world, but what do we actually know about their origins? While many think the answer to this question can be found in the Bible, others look to archaeology or genetics. Some skeptics have even sought to debunk the very idea that the Jews have a common origin. In this book, Steven Weitzman takes a learned and lively look at what we know—or think we know—about where the Jews came from, when they arose, and how they came to be.
Scholars have written hundreds of books on the topic and have come up with scores of explanations, theories, and historical reconstructions, but this is the first book to trace the history of the different approaches that have been applied to the question, including genealogy, linguistics, archaeology, psychology, sociology, and genetics. Weitzman shows how this quest has been fraught since its inception with religious and political agendas, how anti-Semitism cast its long shadow over generations of learning, and how recent claims about Jewish origins have been difficult to disentangle from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He does not offer neatly packaged conclusions but invites readers on an intellectual adventure, shedding new light on the assumptions and biases of those seeking answers—and the challenges that have made finding answers so elusive.
Spanning more than two centuries and drawing on the latest findings, The Origin of the Jews brings needed clarity and historical context to this enduring and often divisive topic.
In this multicourse intellectual feast, Weitzman, a professor of Hebrew and Semitic languages and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, tries to explain how the Jewish people began while exploring various approaches to the question. Given that the Bible is no longer regarded as a reliable historical record, Weitzman tries to determine what can be ascertained with any certainty about the first Jews, noting that the issue is complicated by the lack of consensus as to how the Jewish people is defined: "a nation, a race, a religion, an ethnicity." He then approaches the mystery through genealogy, paleolinguistics, psychoanalysis, and genetics. He concludes that the "history of the Jews has to start somewhere, but it is not clear whether, after many centuries of trying and failing to establish that starting point, scholarship has developed or will ever develop the ability to do so." Weitzman's facility with making complex points accessible to the lay reader, and his ease with synthesizing a wide range of research and prior analyses, make this an invaluable resource for both novice and scholar. His rigorous critiques will resonate even for those readers with little or no prior interest in the book's central questions.