Desire of the Everlasting Hills
The World before and after Jesus (1999)
by Thomas Cahill (1940-)
This is volume 3 in Cahill’s Hinges of History series, a series devoted to “retell[ing] 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.”
This volume is about the events that made the foundations of Christianity. It naturally draws on the conclusions from volume 2, The Gifts of the Jews.
Cahill’s approach is to describe the writers of the Gospels, their own viewpoints and the ways that those viewpoints affected their messages. He also describes Paul’s perspective and the ways it affected his views as expressed in his letters.
He starts with a description of the conquest of the Asian side of the Mediterranean by Alexander, and the effects that had on the peoples who lived there, such as the Jews, and on subsequent regimes, such as Rome. He mentions the Sibylline Oracles, and repeats a theme from volume 2: “The message of the Sibyl …, haunting various shrines and caves throughout the Greco-Roman world, seems to have been that, though some times are better and some worse, there can be no permanent safety. Peace will be followed by war, prosperity by poverty, happiness by suffering, life by death. This was indeed the constant message of all ancient literature and its principal insight into human existence. … But whereas Greeks and Romans and all other ancient peoples tended to see history as an ultimately empty succession of triumphs and tragedies, the Jews believed that history had a beginning … and would have an end and that each human being … had an individual destiny to fulfill ….”
Cahill goes into significant detail on several differences among the Gospel writers, such as the fact that the story of the good Samaritan appears only in Luke, and explains how these differences are natural for the individual writers and their specific backgrounds and objectives. But after discussing these differences, he says
These books and letters of the New Testament are of varying quality and importance. Because they are the work of many hands, they exhibit some of the quirks and contradictions of the Old Testament, the story of of whose composition spans more than a millennium and a half. But because they were written over a fifty-year period by two generations of authors, many of whom had some contact with one another, they also exhibit a marked consistency and even unity.
In nothing is their unity so evident as in their portrayal of Jesus. Though he is presented in various lights and shadows, depending on the concerns, personality, and skill of each author, he exudes even under this treatment a remarkable consistency, so that we feel on finishing his story, whether it is told well or badly, simply or extravagantly, that we know the man – and that in each telling he is identifiably the same man. This phenomenon of consistency beneath the differences makes Jesus a unique figure in world literature: never have so many writers managed to convey the same impression of the same human being over and over again. More than this, Jesus – what he says, what he does – is almost always comprehensible to the reader, who needs no introduction, no scholarly background, to penetrate the meaning of Jesus’s words and actions. The Sermon on the Mount, the Good Samaritan, the Washing of the Feet, the Empty Tomb: all these and many more gestures, instructions, and symbols are immediately intelligible not only to the simplest reader but even to the unlettered and the immature.
Near the end of the book, when he is assessing the impact of Christian thought on subsequent history, and the effects of its institutions, Cahill considers the example of the leprosariums set up by Mother Teresa and the unlikelihood of such work being done by humanists without the impetus of Jesus’s instruction. He goes on:
But it is also true that the West could never have realized some of its most cherished values without the process of secularization. The separation of church and state was achieved in the teeth of virulent Christian opposition, as was free speech, universal suffrage, tolerance, and many other values we would not be without. That these values flow from the subterranean river of authentic Christian tradition points up, once more, the paradoxical validity of the distinctions Jesus made between the religious establishment and true religious spirit.
The book opens with mention of the “Axial Age”, a term which is somewhat explained in the notes: a term invented in 1949 by German historian Karl Jaspers, to describe “an age of extraordinary worldwide creativity with the fifth century B.C. as its white-hot center.” The Axial Age was roughly three hundred years, from the late seventh century B.C. to the late fourth. “In Confucian China … burgeoning of reasonableness and courtly moderation, as well as the mystical depths uncovered by the Tao of Lao-Tsu. In India … the ineffable example of Gautama Buddha, reforming the chaos of more ancient systems and revealing the steps to personal peace. … Zarathustra …. the Hebrew prophets rose, giving to the bizarre monotheism of their singular people an ethical foundation so profound the Jews could never entirely forsake it. In the isles of Greece, the Axial Age saw the flowering of what would come to be called ‘philosophy’ … and of a noble ‘politics’ … that took the name of ‘democracy’. This same time and place saw the invention of drama and its division into ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ … as well as the first attempts to write … ‘history’.”