Book Review: Jerusalem, The Biography

Jerusalem the Biography

Simon Sebag Montefiore. Jerusalem: The Biography. Reprint. New York: Vintage Books, 2011. 704 pp. Buy on Amazon or CBD.

One of the most intriguing, yet frequently neglected themes in the Bible is its Jerusalem-centrism. This emphasis is not by any means neglected in all traditions of biblical readership, but it most certainly is not present in contemporary Evangelical Christianity. I once heard a minister say that he thought every Evangelical ought to memorize Psalm 87:2 as a memory of God’s special love of Jerusalem: “The LORD loves the gates of Zion, more than all the dwelling places of Jacob.”

The net result of this neglected theme is that we are not prepared, at the end of Revelation, for example, to see a “New Jerusalem” coming down. “What is the point of that?” we think. And when popular preachers invent a new way of reading the Bible which says that the only way for Jesus to come back is for Christians to go and to Jerusalem and evangelize it, we are not literate enough to argue against such a preposterous scheme.

Montefiore’s Jerusalem will not solve our problems of Biblical literacy, but it offers a remarkable antidote to Zionist extremism through a history of vivid portraits of violence and destruction. When I began reading this book, I was not sure I wanted to waste my time on it (Montefiore is not known for succinctness). But I was stunned by its sensitivity to the many hopes which are entangled in this relatively small ancient city. By the time I finished, I had begun to comprehend something of the grandeur of Jerusalem, and the utter lunacy of it, all in one breath.

Montefiore is a sure guide and a delightful writer who leads us from the scant remains of a Paleolithic city, through Jewish, Pagan, Muslim, and Christian conquests, and ends the book in 1967. Like a Dostoevsky novel, the characters are numerous and rich. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to understand Jerusalem better, but, as with the Bible, many parts are “R-rated,” so be sure to read with caution.