Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and after Jesus

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In Desire of the Everlasting Hills, Thomas Cahill takes up his most daring and provocative subject yet: Jesus of Nazareth, the central figure of Western civilization. Introducing us first to "the people Jesus knew," Thomas Cahill describes the oppressive Roman political presence, the pervasive Greek cultural influence, and especially the widely varied social and religious context of the Judaism in which Jesus moved and flourished. These backgrounds, essential to a complete understanding of Jesus, lead to the ...
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Overview

In Desire of the Everlasting Hills, Thomas Cahill takes up his most daring and provocative subject yet: Jesus of Nazareth, the central figure of Western civilization. Introducing us first to "the people Jesus knew," Thomas Cahill describes the oppressive Roman political presence, the pervasive Greek cultural influence, and especially the widely varied social and religious context of the Judaism in which Jesus moved and flourished. These backgrounds, essential to a complete understanding of Jesus, lead to the author's stunningly original interpretation of the New Testament--much of it based on material from the ancient Greek brilliantly translated by the author himself--that will delight readers and surprise even biblical scholars. Thomas Cahill's most unusual skill may lie in his ability to bring to life people of a faraway world whose concerns seem at first to be utterly removed from the present day. We see Jesus as a real person, sharp-witted and sharp-tongued, but kind, humorous, and affectionate, shadowed by the inevitable climax of crucifixion, the cruelest form of execution ever devised by humankind. Mary, while not quite the "perpetual virgin" of popular piety, is a vivid presence and forceful influence on her son. And the apostle Paul, the carrier of Jesus' message and most important figure in the early Jesus movement (which became Christianity), finds rehabilitation in Cahill's realistic, revealing portrait of him. The third volume in the Hinges of History series, this unique presentation of Jesus and his times is for believers and nonbelievers alike (for Jews and Christians, it is intended by the author as an act of reconciliation). With thesame lively narration and irresistible perceptions that characterize How the Irish Saved Civilization and The Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill invites readers into an ancient world to commune with some of the most influential people who ever lived.
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Editorial Reviews

KLIATT
In this biography of Jesus, Cahill looks at the context of historical settings, events, culture, and persons that surrounded the life of Christ and later the spread of his message. The title derives from an Old Testament blessing that expresses the human desire for an end to suffering. This is the third book in a projected series of seven called Hinges of History. The first two are How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe and The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. The book begins and ends with the question, concerning Jesus, "Did he make a difference?" Though the New Testament is Cahill's primary source of information about the life of Jesus (no other piece of literature written contemporaneously with him mentions Jesus), he brings fresh perspectives. Instead of jumping right into Christ's birth era, as most stories of the time of Christ do, we get sketches of the slave revolt led by Spartacus, the conquests of Alexander the Great, the exploits of the Maccabees and their successors, and the value systems of the major players of the time. Focusing first on the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Cahill explores the origins of the various written accounts, for whom they were written, the pattern of Jesus' life, the cultural and social context in which he presented his message, and how it developed that the teachings of this obscure teacher, born among people held in little regard, came to be a powerful cultural force. Cahill includes an exploration of Luke's gospel, which was aimed at non-Jewish persons, a view of the early church,and a look at John's special relationship with Jesus, important because it is in John's gospel where Jesus is proclaimed as God for the first time. A long chapter is devoted to the personality, teachings, and effect of Paul, who brought to the "Jesus Movement" purpose and sophistication far beyond the capability of the first disciples. He notes that apocalyptic teachings, exemplified by the book of Revelation, were widespread at the time. Cahill pays attention to the role of women both in the teaching and behavior of Jesus and in the writing of Paul. He reiterates the significance of Judaism in the foundation of Christianity: "the world view of the Jews is the rock-solid promontory that supports the Christian faith." This is not inspirational literature and, because it emphasizes cultural processes, it may elicit fierce argument among some traditionalists. But it is interesting because of insights not usually considered by those who examine the life of Christ and the impact he had on the world of his day and after. Cahill concludes: "He is the mysterious ingredient that laces everything we taste, the standard by which all moral actions are finally judged." Cahill, a journalist and director of religious publishing at Doubleday, has taught at the university level. This book is not inappropriate for teens but is a more scholarly treatment than most will stick with for long. (Hinges of History) KLIATT Codes: A—Recommended for advanced students, and adults. 1999, Random House/Anchor, 353p, illus, notes, index, 21cm, 99-16560, $14.00. Ages 17 to adult. Reviewer: Edna M. Boardman; Retired Lib. Media Spec. Minot, ND, May 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 3)
Library Journal
From the author of How the Irish Saved Civilization: a surprising look at Jesus of Nazareth. A BOMC main selection. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780553456615
  • Publisher: Random House Audio Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/28/1999
  • Series: The Hinges of History Series
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged, 8 CDs
  • Product dimensions: 5.65 (w) x 4.89 (h) x 1.94 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas Cahill is the author of How the Irish Saved Civilization and The Gifts of the Jews. He divides his time between New York City and Rome.
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Read an Excerpt

Of the many enigmas of John's Gospel nothing is more mysterious than the story that does not belong there. It interrupts the flow of John's tightly stitched scheme of narration, and though, like many Johannine episodes, it gives a starring role to a woman, its supple Greek has all the characteristics of Luke's pen:
At daybreak, Jesus appeared again in the Temple precincts; and when all the people came to him, he sat down and began to teach them. Then did the scribes and Pharisees drag a woman forward who had been discovered in adultery and forced her to stand there in the midst of everyone.
"Teacher," said they to him, "this woman has been caught in the very act of adultery. Now, in the Torah Moses ordered us to stone such women. But you--what have you to say about it?" (They posed this question to trap him, so that they might have something to use against him.)
But Jesus just bent down and started doodling in the dust with his finger. When they persisted in their questioning, he straightened up and said, "He among you who is sinless--let him cast the first stone at her." And he bent down again and continued sketching in the sand.
When they heard this, they went away one by one, starting with the oldest, until the last one was gone; and he was left alone with the woman, who still stood where they had made her stand. So Jesus straightened up and said, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"
"No one, sir," answered she.
"Nor do I condemn you," said Jesus. "You are free to go. But from now on, avoid this sin."
This entire passage sounds like the Synoptics and could easily beslipped into Luke's Gospel at 21:38, where it would make a perfect fit. It was, in fact, excised from Luke, after which it floated around the Christian churches without a proper home, until some scribe squeezed it into a manuscript of John, where he thought it might best belong. But why was it excised in the first place? Because the early Church did not forgive adultery (and other major sins) and did not wish to propagate the contradictory impression that the Lord forgave what the Church refused to forgive. The Great Church quickly became far more interested in discipline and order than Jesus had ever shown himself to be. This excision is our first recorded instance of ecclesiastical censorship--only for the best reasons, of course (which is how censors always justify themselves).The anarchic Johannine church had had good reason for its reluctance to attach itself to the Great Church, which it knew would clip its wings; and for all we know, it was a Johannine scribe who crammed the story of the aborted stoning into a copy of John's Gospel, thus saving it for posterity.
The passage itself shows up the tyrannical mindlessness that tradition, custom, and authority can exercise within a society. The text of the Torah that the scribes and Pharisees cite to Jesus is Leviticus 20:10, which reads, "The man who commits adultery with his neighbor's wife will be put to death, he and the woman." Jesus, doodler in the dust and reader of hearts, knows the hard, unjust, and self-deceiving hearts he is dealing with. He does not bother to dispute the text with them, by which he could have asked the obvious question "How can you catch a woman in the act without managing to catch her male partner?" He goes straight to the heart of the matter: the bad conscience of each individual, the ultimate reason no one has the right to judge anyone else.
How marvelous that in the midst of John's sometimes oppressive solemnities, the wry and smiling Jesus of the Synoptic gospels, the Jesus the apostles knew, the holy fool, still plays his holy game, winning his laughing victory over the stunned and stupid forces of evil. This is the same Jesus who tells us that hell is filled with those who turned their backs on the poor and needy--the very people they were meant to help--but that, no matter what the Church may have taught in the many periods of its long, eventful history, no matter what a given society may deem "sexual transgression," hell is not filled with those who, for whatever reason, awoke in the wrong bed. Nor does he condemn us.
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Reading Group Guide

1. Do you feel more drawn to one or the other of the versions of Jesus? Does the Jesus Mark or Matthew knew ring truer to you than the other portraits of Jesus? What purposes do the non-eyewitness portraits of Jesus (Paul's, Luke's) serve?

2. Greek and Aramaic were the main languages of Jesus' world. What role did language play in spreading or slowing the word of Jesus?

3. The Jews of Egypt fought for Caesar, an uneasy partnership that would again come into play during the time immediately preceding Jesus' death. What are the contradictions of creating peace through military force? How effective was the military in achieving that goal in Jesus' time and before Jesus? How effective are modern militaries?

4. The author believes that it's urgent that Christians understand that Christianity is a form of Judaism "if they are to know who they are" [p. 90]. How important is that understanding?

5. Was Mary a shy child-bride or a pragmatic, strong, smart Jewish girl? How does her Magnificat portray her? In what ways is Mary similar to any loving mother? In what ways is she different?

6. The author tells us that Paul insists on sexual and economic equality. What are the controversial parts of Paul's letters that argue for or against his belief in equality between women and men?

7. The author speaks of "odium theologicum--hatred for those nearby who are religiously similar to oneself but nonetheless different" [p. 184]. Do you see this principle at work today? How can we guard against it?

8. Luke, a Gentile who sat amid the temptation of Greco-Roman society, says that wealth makes a Christlike life very challenging. What is thebasis for his conclusion? Was Luke more radical than Jesus on this point?

9. How does John's Gospel as the source of hurt feelings and exclusivity add to the idea of the Jews as enemies throughout the course of history?

10. It took early Christians nearly four hundred years before they could bear to depict Jesus' crucifixion--only then had the firsthand memories of this tragedy faded enough to give them some necessary distance. When it comes to images, we no longer receive much or any distance from our tragedies--think of Holocaust images or scenes from recent ethnic cleansing in the Balkans or genocide in Africa. How does such immediacy help or hurt us and our understanding of tragedy?

11. The author asks if our spiritual tradition "has become so universalized that it may be claimed by anyone but can no longer boast any characteristic proponents" [p. 307]. Do you think it has? Can this question be answered?

12. The author believes that the teachings of Jesus are responsible for a shift in consciousness toward peace and against the evils of self-interest. Is there evidence of such a shift?

13. The author suggests that Jesus would have supported a separation of church and state. How does Cahill support this assertion?

14. The author speaks of the authority of the dispossessed when it comes to writing true history. Discuss this in the light of the recent historical or literary writing. Do people on the fringe see the truth more clearly than do the people in power? Which category does the author put himself into, and do you agree?

15. What is the essence of Jesus' teaching? Is it possible to understand Jesus' teaching without reference to his life and death? Is Paul's theology a development of Jesus' teaching or a departure from it?

For Discussion: The Hinges of History Series

1. Each book gives a piece that helps complete the picture of who we are, of our history, of our humanity and acts as a piece in a puzzle. How effective is this type of a reckoning of our past?

2. The author did not write the books in his series in strict chronological order. Instead he traces large cultural movements over many centuries. How does this choice affect the understanding of each book as a piece in the puzzle? Or as an individual work?

3. In his books, the author gets inside the heads and hearts of his subjects, using a very close third-person point of view. How does this choice strengthen his premise? Does it have limitations?

4. The author is Roman Catholic. Is he able to present these histories without being biased by his Catholicism? Does one's religion (or lack of it) necessarily constrict or color one's view?

5. Discuss the nature and history of the Irish and the Jews as read in these books. What are their ambitions, their differences? How do they differ from the Romans and the Greeks in all three books?

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