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

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Overview

From the bestselling author of How the Irish Saved Civilization and The Gifts of the Jews, his most compelling historical narrative yet.

How did an obscure rabbi from a backwater of the Roman Empire come to be the central figure in Western Civilization? Did his influence in fact change the world? These are the questions Thomas Cahill addresses in his subtle and engaging investigation into the life and times of Jesus.

Cahill shows us Jesus from ...

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Overview

From the bestselling author of How the Irish Saved Civilization and The Gifts of the Jews, his most compelling historical narrative yet.

How did an obscure rabbi from a backwater of the Roman Empire come to be the central figure in Western Civilization? Did his influence in fact change the world? These are the questions Thomas Cahill addresses in his subtle and engaging investigation into the life and times of Jesus.

Cahill shows us Jesus from his birth to his execution through the eyes of those who knew him and in the context of his time—a time when the Jews were struggling to maintain their beliefs under overlords who imposed their worldview on their subjects. Here is Jesus the loving friend, itinerate preacher, and quiet revolutionary, whose words and actions inspired his followers to journey throughout the Roman world and speak the truth he instilled—in the face of the greatest defeat: Jesus' crucifixion as a common criminal. Daring, provocative, and stunningly original, Cahill's interpretation will both delight and surprise.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Divertingly instructive—gratifying—. [Cahill] makes Jesus a still-living literary presence."—The New York Times

"Engaging—. Cahill strips away the pious accretions of 2000 years so that a picture of Jesus as an actual human being emerges."—BookPage

"A deft march through time and through theology in the making—. [Cahill's] own gift-giving is his ability to climb inside the scholarship and enliven it."—Philadelphia Inquirer

"Cahill constructs his stories as occassions for celebration...He seeks to encourage a sense of appreciation for the gifts offered the present from the past...Each of his books offers moments of genuine insight into the workings of culture, literature, and the human heart." -Luke Timothy Johnson, Commonweal

"Compelling—powerful—. Cahill is a convivial storyteller."—Portland Oregonian

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: 9780385483728
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/13/2001
  • Series: Hinges of History Series
  • Edition description: First U.S. Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 130,213
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.79 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas Cahill is the former director of religious publishing at Doubleday. He divides his time between Rome and New York City.
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Read an Excerpt

History has much to do with hills. From the Hill of Zion on which King David built Jerusalem to the Athenian Acropolis, from Bunker Hill of the American Revolution to Malvern Hill of the American Civil War, from Iwo Jima's Mount Suribachi to Vietnam's Hamburger Hill, the hills of this world have been prized. Much of humanity's recorded story has taken place on their flanks and summits, and how much blood, of both conquerors and conquered, has been absorbed by their accommodating soils no one can say.

In Rome I love to climb the Janiculum, which the ancients called the "Golden Mountain" because of its yellow sand. One of the splendid natural defenses of Rome, it is a ridge that rises steeply from the west bank of the sludge-green Tiber and gives spectacular views of the great city that is spread beneath it. Like other strategic hills, it has known many battles.

It was just a century and a half ago--in 1849--that armies last clashed on its summit around the ornamental Renaissance arches of the Gate of San Pancrazio and in and out of the charming medieval buildings that lie beyond the gate and on whose walls one can still discern the work of bullets.  What the bullets did to the men who fought here has long been concealed by earth.  The winners were French troops in service to a reactionary pope, outraged that Italians would dare take up arms against him in their attempt to dissolve the Papal States and unite Italy. The losers were boys as young as fourteen, tragically outnumbered but fighting with the insane bravery of youth, inspired by their charismatic leader, Giuseppe Garibaldi, and his no less charismatic wife, Anita.  Today, each Garibaldi has a noble equestrian monument on this summit. Garibaldi with his saintly, mild demeanor, surveys the city from his lofty marble platform; superwoman Anita, cast in bronze, raises a firearm in her right hand as she suckles a baby at her left breast, all the while urging her horse forward. They lost the battle but won the war; for beneath the hoofs of Anita's advancing charger one can make out in the distance Michelangelo's bone-white dome of Saint Peter's and the lilliputian statelet of the Vatican, to which the pope's vestigial temporal power has been confined since 1870.  The dead child-soldiers have no monument in marble or bronze, just a street sign--Piazzale dei Ragazzi di 1849 (Great Square of the Boys of 1849)--but their spirits haunt the slender umbrella trees that cluster mournfully in the Villa Doria Pamphilj, the vast seventeenth-century parkland that runs beside the scene of their deaths, where dirt paths are named in their memory and the boys of contemporary Rome kick footballs and fly kites.

The Janiculum is more than a Roman hill. It speaks to Everyman, for one patch or another of its sloped ascents can serve to remind almost any traveler of his own ancestral history. At the southern end of the hill the alleys of Trastevere wind mazelike in patterns established more than two millennia ago. Until the Tiber silted up, ships sailed upriver from the Mediterranean, depositing exotic cargoes and even more exotic human specimens in the port of Trastevere. From every corner of the ancient world they came here with their strange costumes and peculiar practices, Greeks and Syrians bearing the crushed pride of the vanquished, Gauls and Britons displaying their lately acquired refinements, Oriental merchants speaking languages but dimly understood, Africans of every kind--Egyptians, Berbers, Nubians--and Jews with uncut beards, the whole babble contained within Trastevere's narrow streets whose haphazard apartment buildings, designed to cram in as many souls as possible, leaned over the filthy streets, nearly blocking out the sky. Trastevere (in those days Trans Tiberim, the Place-across-the-Tiber) was exciting and a little dangerous, as it remains today, a place where basic cravings--for food, sex, revenge can spurt unexpectedly into view.

It is instructive to select one or two of these groups of migrating visitors and see how they fared in subsequent ages.  The Jews, for instance, have now been in Rome longer than anyone else, boasting lines of descent far more ancient than any non-Jewish Italian can claim, back to the beginning of the Roman empire and earlier. The first Roman home of the Jews was Trastevere, as memorial fragments found here still testify. These have been mounted in the portico of the Basilica of Santa Maria, where you can identify the shofars and etrogs that distinguished the graves of ancient Jews, as well as the doves and ships of those Jews--a minority within a minority--who were members of a primitive Christian community, the first to be established at Rome, probably in the fourth decade of the first century.

In the Middle Ages, the community of Jews crossed the river to the huddled quarter that is still called the Ghetto; and from the slopes of the Janiculum there are fine views of the silvery Synagogue, built at the beginning of this century near the site of its several, much smaller predecessors, the four corners of its dome giving it a curiously Asian appearance and distinguishing it from all the other domes of Rome. During the Middle Ages, the Jews, protected by popes who valued their services, fared better in Italy than in other European countries, though they were subject to punitive taxes and, as early as the thirteenth century, were made to wear a yellow 0, precursor of horrors to come. Then the retrograde and, at times, paranoid papacy of the early modern period began to insist on marginalizing the Jews in new ways. Locked by night within the Ghetto by order of Paul IV in the sixteenth century, they were dragooned by subsequent popes into listening to Christian sermons and giving up all trades save moneylending, scrap metal, and rag. Forced to be objects of ridicule during carnivals and papal processions, they were periodically barred from owning land or practicing any profession (though they had once been physicians to the popes) and at last banned from any role in public life.  Their fellow Romans, however, more simpatici than popes generally are, tended to be fond of their Jewish neighbors and to count them as friends and fellow citizens. It is, therefore, considered a terrible blot on the Roman character that the Nazis were able, during their occupation of the city, to round up the Jews of Rome en masse and deport them to Auschwitz on the fateful 16 ottobre 1943, a date most Romans have committed to memory and which occurred less than a hundred years after Garibaldi's Battalion of Hope had, by its youthful deaths on the Janiculum, won belated freedom and civil rights for all the citizens of Rome.

Shades of my own ancestors haunt the prospect from the Janiculum. Looking out across the valley in the hour before dawn, I can imagine there appearing on the northeast horizon bands of naked, mustachioed Celts, the locks of their lime-washed hair standing up on their heads, an "immense host, covering miles of ground with its straggling masses of horse and foot," as the Roman historian Livy described them. Early in the fourth century B.C. they rode their horses into a much smaller Rome, causing panic and flight among the inhabitants. "The air," wrote Livy, "was loud with the dreadful din of the fierce war-songs and discordant shout of a people whose very life is wild adventure." All who did not flee before the marauders hid themselves within the fortifications of the Capitoline Hill, save for the elderly, who could not climb and were slaughtered on their thresholds. Then, waiting for the dead of night, the barbarians almost made it up the Capitoline itself, climbing the stones that face the hill on one another's shoulders in an eerie silence no one thought them capable of. But at the last moment, just when the first of the invaders had reached the summit, the geese of the Capitoline, sacred to Juno whose temple stood on the heights, honked their frantic warnings, and the Celts were cut down. If I could examine the genetic cells of these fierce warriors, I could establish kinship.

I can claim even closer kinship with the Irish noblemen Hugh O'Neill, earl of Tyrone, and Rory O'Donnell, prince of Tyrconnel, who lie buried beneath the flagstones of San Pietro in Montorio on the east side of the Janiculum. They fought against impossible odds and almost succeeded in expelling the English occupiers from "Elizabethan" Ireland.  Was the prototype of "Tyrconnel's dread war cry, 'O'Donnell Abu!,' " which rang out in Ireland against the soldiers of Elizabeth I, heard first in the western world at the gates of Rome on that faraway morning in 390 B.C.? Beneath the square cobblestones of the Janiculum, who knows whose history remains to be recovered?

The story of the world, like the history of its hills, is written in blood, the blood of barbaric warriors and bold partisans, of old women and beardless boys, of the guilty and the innocent. And what is the "desire of the everlasting hills"? What could be the meaning of this phrase, taken from the blessing of Jacob on his son Joseph, the last of the patriarchs? Is not the desire of the everlasting hills that they be saved from their everlastingness, that something new happen, that the everlasting cycle of human cruelty, of man's inhumanity to man, be brought to an end?

Two thousand years ago a man was born into a family of carpenters in occupied Palestine. He was a small-town Jew, born in a bad time for Jews. Their land was no longer their own, and they had been made to bow before a succession of conquerors who had diluted their proud culture and, as many would have said, infected it. His name, as everyone knows, was Jesus of Nazareth--or, as the Jews of his own day called him, Yeshua.  As everyone knows, he preached a message of mercy, love, and peace and was crucified for his trouble. This unlikely character has long been accounted the central figure of Western civilization. Even now, as we cross to the beginning of the third millennium since his birth, we count our days by his appearance on earth; and, though our supposedly post-Christian society often ignores and even ridicules him, there are no serious suggestions for replacing him as the Icon of the West.

But this book is part of a series on cultural impact. And the great question about Jesus must always be Did he make a difference? Is our world--in the century that began with the Turkish genocide against the Armenians, reached its nadir with the "scientific" holocaust of six million Jews (and five million others), not to speak of the slaughter by their own governments of Russians and Chinese to its end with genocides in central Africa and "ethnic cleansings" in the Balkans that are still, horribly enough, "in progress"--is our world any better than the one inhabited by the Celts and Romans of twenty-four centuries ago? Did the values preached by Jesus influence the Anglican Queen Elizabeth or her opponent the Catholic Earl O'Neill? Did she ever shudder at the carnage of her battlefields? Did he, even once, as he surveyed the hacked limbs, the gouged eyes, the grisly dying, wonder if there was another way? Do Christian values have any influence on the actions of Christians who on both sides of the English/Irish divide have continued to "fight the old fight again"? Did the life and death of Jesus make any difference to the denizens of first-century Trans Tiberim? Does he make any difference to the residents of today's Trastevere?

These are hard questions; some will no doubt label them unfair. But they must be posed at the outset. For if this Jesus, this figure professedly central to our whole culture, has had no effect, he has no place in a history of cultural effects. In the pages that follow, we will look at the phenomenon of Jesus, as experienced by those who knew him best and by the first generations of his followers, who in their surviving traditions, both oral and written, bring us as close as we can get to this often elusive historical figure. When our investigation is completed, we will pose the hard questions again.

But in order to understand Jesus we must begin before his time and strive to appreciate how the world he was born into came to be.

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 be slipped 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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Introduction

We normally think of history as one catastrophe after another, war followed by war, outrage by outrage—almost as if history were nothing more than all the narratives of human pain, assembled in sequence. And surely this is, often enough, an adequate description. But history is also the narratives of grace, the recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something beyond what was required by circumstance. In this series, The Hinges of History, I mean to retell the story of the Western world as the story of the great gift-givers, those who entrusted to our keeping one or another of the singular treasures that make up the patrimony of the West. This is also the story of the evolution of Western sensibility, a narration of how we became the people that we are and why we think and feel the way we do. And it is, finally, a recounting of those essential moments when everything was at stake, when the mighty stream that became Western history was in ultimate danger and might have divided into a hundred useless tributaries or frozen in death or evaporated altogether. But the great gift-givers, arriving in the moment of crisis, provided for transition, for transformation, and even for transfiguration, leaving us a world more varied and complex, more awesome and delightful, more beautiful and strong than the one they had found.

—Thomas Cahill

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Foreword

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 isthe basis 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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Reading Group Guide

We normally think of history as one catastrophe after another, war followed by war, outrage by outrage--almost as if history were nothing more than all the narratives of human pain, assembled in sequence. And surely this is, often enough, an adequate description. But history is also the narratives of grace, the recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something beyond what was required by circumstance. In this series, The Hinges of History, I mean to retell the story of the Western world as the story of the great gift-givers, those who entrusted to our keeping one or another of the singular treasures that make up the patrimony of the West. This is also the story of the evolution of Western sensibility, a narration of how we became the people that we are and why we think and feel the way we do. And it is, finally, a recounting of those essential moments when everything was at stake, when the mighty stream that became Western history was in ultimate danger and might have divided into a hundred useless tributaries or frozen in death or evaporated altogether. But the great gift-givers, arriving in the moment of crisis, provided for transition, for transformation, and even for transfiguration, leaving us a world more varied and complex, more awesome and delightful, more beautiful and strong than the one they had found.

--Thomas Cahill

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 8, 2013

    I read this book a few years ago and keep coming back to it. I'm

    I read this book a few years ago and keep coming back to it. I'm not going to go into a HUGE amount of detail because I'm way too verbose sometimes. Suffice it to say that it presents a portraid of Jesus that I think atheists, believers, scholars, laymen. All can find things to agree with and generally accept the premise of the book. It's not "fundamentalist" in the modern sense, but there's an honest attempt to portray an accurate picture of the time period and the lives involved. Definitely a great read. An easy read though, provocative, intellectually stimulating, theologically challenging, and inspiring in turns.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 14, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills

    Thomas Cahill's Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus is one of the finest books I have read in recent years. Cahill is a master at writing highly accessible prose, maintaining a careful balance between informal and formal language. His book reads nothing like a dry academic or scholarly religious study. On the contrary, it feels like he is seated with you, informally yet passionately discussing pertinent ideas and histories associated with, not just Christianity, but the world. He is a scholar who speaks like a friend.



    His subject is Jesus Christ. And he takes as his sources the inevitable sources every scholar must depend on for analyzing the figure of Jesus - the Gospels. But he approaches them in a very engaging and enlightening manner-by examining in turn each of the figures behind the Gospels, the presumed sources of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. What were they like? What do their styles of writing tell us about their possible ethnic or geographic origins? What do their stories tell us about their characters, how they perceived Jesus, and perhaps even how well they really knew him? While Cahill is not the only writer to offer an analysis of the Gospel writers and their sources, he does a far better job than most at making these individuals come alive. They become real people with real foibles, real prejudices, and real talents.



    Yet it is not just the subject matter and how he deals with it that makes Cahill's work so engaging. He regularly examines the language of the texts, interpreting them from the original Greek, postulating the spoken Aramaic that would likely have been the source of the Greek translations, and even offering his own keen modern translations of Gospel verses. Gone is the overly flowery language of traditional ecclesiastical or literary translations. Gone are the respectable terms the Church fathers would rather have us use in reading the words of Christ, when the original texts clearly indicate how Jesus sometimes used more earthy language. I would love to read an entire new translation of the Gospels, should Cahill take the time to produce one. He takes nothing for granted, examining even the meaning of such basic terms as "Christ" and "church" and "gospel". As a language learner and teacher, I loved that aspect of his work.

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  • Posted April 23, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Cahill provides the historical context to understanding the controversies of Jesus that exist even today

    Cahill's third book in the Hinges of History series, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, tackles one of the most controversial figures of Western Civilization-Jesus of Nazareth. He provides a colorful backdrop of the life and times that Jesus was born into and explores what influenced him and how he influenced life thereafter. Cahill provides indepth looks at both the Jesus that was promoted by Peter and his followers and the Jesus that captured Paul's imagination and became the focus of much of his adult life. How these two differing viewpoints played out in the tenets of the Christian faith and the development of its church are also examined. In reviewing the gospels in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, Cahill gives the reader his take, based on his exhaustive research, of who the authors were and how they knew Jesus as well as provides clues from the writings about their status in, and relationships with, the Greek and Roman Cultures of their times. Although typically a quick reader, this is not one of those books I could skip through lightly and merrily but rather it had to be read slowly and carefully as I savored every tidbit of research that illustrated the point Cahill is making and paused to "test and reflect" how some of his assertions "fit" with what I knew before this book and believe. Don't miss Cahill's commentary on whether Jesus made a difference in Western Civilization and if so, what the effects of this oftentimes "elusive historical figure" (p. 9)have been and continue to be today.

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  • Posted October 29, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Desire of the Everlasting Hills

    Thomas Cahill's Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus is one of the finest books I have read in recent years. Cahill is a master at writing highly accessible prose, maintaining a careful balance between informal and formal language. His book reads nothing like a dry academic or scholarly religious study. On the contrary, it feels like he is seated with you, informally yet passionately discussing pertinent ideas and histories associated with, not just Christianity, but the world. He is a scholar who speaks like a friend.

    His subject is Jesus Christ. And he takes as his sources the inevitable sources every scholar must depend on for analyzing the figure of Jesus - the Gospels. But he approaches them in a very engaging and enlightening manner-by examining in turn each of the figures behind the Gospels, the presumed sources of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. What were they like? What do their styles of writing tell us about their possible ethnic or geographic origins? What do their stories tell us about their characters, how they perceived Jesus, and perhaps even how well they really knew him? While Cahill is not the only writer to offer an analysis of the Gospel writers and their sources, he does a far better job than most at making these individuals come alive. They become real people with real foibles, real prejudices, and real talents.

    Yet it is not just the subject matter and how he deals with it that makes Cahill's work so engaging. He regularly examines the language of the texts, interpreting them from the original Greek, postulating the spoken Aramaic that would likely have been the source of the Greek translations, and even offering his own keen modern translations of Gospel verses. Gone is the overly flowery language of traditional ecclesiastical or literary translations. Gone are the respectable terms the Church fathers would rather have us use in reading the words of Christ, when the original texts clearly indicate how Jesus sometimes used more earthy language. I would love to read an entire new translation of the Gospels, should Cahill take the time to produce one. He takes nothing for granted, examining even the meaning of such basic terms as "Christ" and "church" and "gospel". As a language learner and teacher, I loved that aspect of his work.

    Suffice it to say, I am eager to read more from Thomas Cahill.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2006

    I read and reread and highlighter is dry!

    This book was picked up by me at a YMCA donation canister, aka. 'free'. Now it resides on my night table and I just read and reread portions and share it with my family and friends. It may become my favorite book gift for others. Well written, 'it flows', and provides tremendous insights to the world and middle east before Jesus and how his arrival and life was experienced by all types of people of that era. A great read, a keeper for a lifetime.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 17, 2003

    Fortunate Representation of Christianity

    Erudite, accurate, humorous, and astonishing in scope, Mr. Cahill's work provides us with an incredible interpretation of the life of Jesus and the subsequent overwhelming historical impact of His life. By describing the historical events leading up to ~6 BC, he casts new light on Jesus, enabling us to better understand and enjoy an unbiased history. Of particular interest to Christians will be the chapter on Paul, and Paul's remarkable, saintly and God-inspired influence. The way that Cahill describes Paul's ministry will astonish you; the author describes Paul's pain and suffering in a way that makes you simultaneously shudder and rejoice at how the power of God led this man to bring us Jesus' teachings. Christians should rejoice at being reminded that we are ALL parts of the same 'body' of God. As Paul wrote, all are equal in the eyes of God: master or slave, Jew or Gentile, man AND woman. Another fascinating point is that Jesus is the first anti-tragic hero, the first powerful historical figure who did not -- ultimately -- fall from grace [sic]. Cahill eloquently reminds us of the central -- albeit radical -- message of Jesus, namely that we love one another. But the work is not a sermon, nor is it meant for inspiration as much as it is for its historical accuracy and unique perspective. It is this accuracy and uniqueness, however, that actually inspired me.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 16, 2003

    Beyond expectations

    This is an excellent book, both written and thought out far better than most of the books I've read on the subject. The scholarship and research is impecable, solid, and detailed. All views are taken into account but only the best and most solid ones are further explained and delved into. By far, this is superior to nearly all the books on the subject. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know about Christianity's very beginnings or has any doubts about them. Only a true Irishman can write with wit and humor like this while retaining the scholarship and integrity it possesses.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 18, 2002

    Unfortunate misrepresentation of Christianity

    From begining to end this book operates from premises that will disturb the true Christian. The author obviously does not believe the scriptures are in any way inspired. For him they are merely the developing ideas of some of the followers of Jesus. He asserts none of the disciples would have accepted Jesus as God until John's gospel was written and this was the result of the progression of what they wanted to present - if He was God people would have to listen to His good teaching. Of this teaching the author seems to be only familiar with selected parts of the sermon on the mount. If you dig into the end notes he does admit that a case can be made for saying that Paul believed Christ to be God, but he has chosen to take an alternative view. According to him the Christian life is being nice and kind to everybody and he ends up, predictably, with a nice ecumenical call for all religions to work together to make the world a nice place. People who like the idea of the cosmic christ showing us how to play nice will enjoy this book but beware you might actually get interested enough in this Jesus stuff to pick up a Bible and read it for yourself instead of accepting Mr. Cahill's version. What a shock that would be. This did give some interesting insights into history but I found the point of view so contrary to orthodox Christianity I found it difficult to get through.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2001

    The consumate Cahill does it again

    His most heralded book is probably, How the Irish Saved Civilazation, certainly a wonderful book. But, The Gift of the Jews and now this masterpiece is Cahill at his best. This book can be enjoyed by all, from those with little education to the scholarly. You will learn the world of the intertestamental period prior to Jesus' birth and the Greco-Roman world during his life time. Cahill writes from the point of view as both a historian and a believer with a discerning eye for the facts. A creative, imaginitive and ingenious book. I rarely read a book twice. I am now reading this one for a second time. Don't miss out on this wonderful book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 22, 2001

    Outstanding depth of research presented through a very appealing style of writing.

    I think Cahill has done an exceptional job in viewing Jesus Christ through different lenses. This book, with extensive research on not merely Christ's life, but also on the times before His birth and after His death, makes irresistable reading. I must confess that, owing to inevitable time constraints, I dwelt on this book for over 2 months; and all through this time, never once felt like reneging.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2001

    Entertaining and Provocative

    Another entertaining and provocative book from Thomas Cahill. The author's method of showing the contrasting impressions of Jesus as presented in the Letters of Paul and each of the four Gospels, helps us to understand why there are so many competing versions of Christianity. The book will satisfy those who feel they want to better understand Jesus and the environment in which He lived. Much of the success of the book depends on Cahill's ability to fill in the blanks with an authorative voice.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 9, 2000

    Cahill Animates History For The Average Reader

    Thomas Cahill is a brilliant writer who has brought new vitality to history in three books. Desire of Everlasting Hills is the third book in the Hinges of History series. The reader needs to understand this: every author writes from certain suppositions. There is no such thing as an unbiased historian. So read Thomas Cahill's books with both eyes open. Cahill takes some definitive liberties in his exegesis of Scripture and more liberty in 'filling in the blanks' of questionable biblical passages and historical events. He adds dialogue and intentions to the characters without consulting reliable sources. Cahill does communicate some very key insights that are enjoyable and eye opening. The background of the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus is interesting. But he is not a Christian, so he writes as a spiritual believer in that he practices the 'essence' of Jesus. Cahill claims that he is using the most current scholarship, but after careful research one can see he lacks good modern Christian scholarship as a resource for writing. Thomas Cahill deserves credit for his leaps in making history enjoyable; a little more acurracy and balance to the process would make it even better. Happy reading!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 30, 2000

    Mostly solid reasoning seasoned with poetic prose.

    This is one of the finer books on the market exploring the impact of Jesus on the world. From time to time the nearly poetic beauty of the writings is jerked apart by sentences that should have been edited out. For example, referring to Galilee as the 'Bumblefu--' of its day. I don't even know what that crude term is in reference to, but it certainly grates against the grain of most of this fine book. For the most part, Cahill's reasoning is well thought out, though he occasionally makes statements of consensus that are highly controversial. When he mentions Paul's salutation to Mark and Luke and states that there is little doubt that they are the two evangelists, he goes a bit too far. I can find just as many scholars who will claim that Mark and John Mark were two separate people, perhaps three if you count the naked boy in The Garden of Gesthemane, and that all or none of them were responsible for the book of Mark. Still, this is only nitpicking and most of the arguments are sounder than this sort of blanket statement. Cahill's defense of the shroud of Turin may or may not convince you, but it will make you think. The basic thesis is that Jesus not only made a difference in how we live in the world today, but probably made more difference, for the good, than anyone else. It is hard to argue with that thought after reading this book. Organized religion comes in for some hard knocks here, and Cahill seems to be saying that most of it has little relationship to the teachings of Jesus. Hard to argue with that one, whether we are talking about the large organized Roman, Greek, Russian or Protestant churches or some poor tent meeting in a rural location. But Cahill goes on to discuss both historical and current humans who have decided to act like Jesus in their daily lives. Kind of humbling. All in all, very well written and thought out with only a few small stumbles.

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