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Book Review: A Short History of the World, by J. M. Roberts

  • Oxford University Press
  • July 1997
  • 560 pp.

When I began reading Roberts’ A Short History of the World last summer, I was essentially a world history ignoramus. I could tell you several random tidbits that were stuck in my brain from college–e.g., the Norman Conquest occurred in 1066 AD–but I was unequipped to explain the general movements of humankind over the duration of our race’s existence. Needless to say, when I was assigned to teach two sections of freshman world history for the 2011-2012 school year, I was eager to review Roberts’ book. Yet, as a follower of Jesus Christ and a believer in the authority of Scripture, I was especially curious how Roberts’ book would treat the biblical narrative and church history.

When the God of the Bible is first mentioned in this book, Roberts makes him out to be an idea, something “arrived at” by the Hebrews (“only the Hebrews arrived at a coherent and uncompromising monotheism,” p. 92). Furthermore, Roberts calls God a “tribal deity” and the God of a “cult” (p. 92). These terms are offensive to those who know God as the creator of the universe who chose the Hebrews to bring about the salvation of the world. Yet, we have to remember that we’re reading Roberts here, not Moses. In the inspired Word of God, we see God’s revelation of who He is and what his purposes are. In A Short History of the World, we see Roberts seeking to make a coherent picture of the history of all humans on the planet in only 500 pages. Inherent in this task is a humanistic worldview: it’s all about people. Humans evolved from apes into creatures who formed tribes and then cities and then civilizations; we are a race that has built ideas and systems and technology.

Though this humanistic bent does not ascribe deity to any religious figure, Roberts does give a surprising amount of attention to Jesus of Nazareth:

  • On the historic importance of Jesus: “If historical importance is measured by impact on numbers of people, we can safely say that no single event in ancient times and perhaps none in the whole of human history is as important as the birth of the man whose name passed into history as Jesus…. The whole of human history since shows how important it was. Quite simply, those later calling themselves Christians–the followers of Jesus–were to change the history of the whole globe. To find something which has had a comparable impact we have to look not to single events but to big processes like industrialization, or the great forces of prehistoric times like climate which set the stage for history (pp. 135-6).
  • On the Gospels: “The Gospels were written to show that [the disciples] were right in thinking him a unique person–Messiah” (p. 137).
  • On the Resurrection: “Soon after [his death] his disciples believed that he had risen from the dead, that they had met him and talked to him after that, that they had seen him ascend into heaven and that he had left them only to return soon sitting at the right hand of God to judge all men at the end of time” (p. 137).
  • On the reliability of the Gospels: “Whatever may be thought of the details of the Gospel records, it cannot plausibly be maintained that they were written by men who did not believe these things, nor that they did not write down what they were told by men who believed they had seen them with their own eyes” (p. 137).
  • On why Jesus had so great an impact on history: “It can be seen easily enough that what gave the teaching of Jesus a much greater impact than that of other holy men of his age was that his followers saw him crucified and yet believed he later rose again from the dead” (p. 136).

And here may be the greatest benefit of A Short History of the World for the general Christ-following reader: it affords us a glimpse of how God is viewed in a humanistic history of the world. It shows us that His mark is indelibly there even in an man-focused, deity-withholding account of history.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book to the discerning, open-minded reader. If you read this book with the desire to understand a non-Christocentric view of human history, you will certainly walk away edified and appreciative of Roberts’ work. Aside from his knack for fitting enormous episodes–e.g., the French Revolution–into only a couple pages, Roberts’ tone and style and tongue-in-cheek humor make him enjoyable to read.

Buy it at Amazon. (For the sake of transparency, this is an affiliate link, so I do receive a tiny percentage of any purchases made through the link.)

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commision’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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About davestuartjr
Dave Stuart Jr. is a full-time teacher who writes about becoming better, saner teachers at TeachingtheCore.com. He is a follower of Jesus Christ, a husband to Crystal, and a father to Hadassah, Laura, and Marlena.

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