"Orgies in a world ruled by fate are not as much fun as you might think they would be," Thomas Cahill says during a call to his residence in Rome, where he and his wife now live for about a third of the year.
Cahill is being deliberately provocative, of course. And playful. But he is also pointing toward the origin of the questions he’s been wrestling with for almost 30 years now.
"In 1970," he says, "I went to what turned out to be a prehistoric fertility festival called Puck Fair in the west of Ireland. It was pretty wild and raunchy and quite unlike anything I ever expected. Except that I found myself connecting it to classical literature, to what you might call pre-Biblical literature. The world I found at Puck Fair and also, I believe, in Greek and Roman literature was a sort of cyclical world, ruled by fate. There was a kind of doom over everything, a fatalism, an inevitability. The experience made me start asking questions about the whole of Western history. I began to think about where my own values, so different from the values of that ambiance, came from."
If all goes as planned, the results of Cahill’s quest will body forth in a seven-volume series called the Hinges of History, through which the author means "to retell the story of the Western world as the story of great gift-givers, those who entrusted to our keeping one or another of the singular treasures that make up the patrimony of the West." Cahill refuses to talk about upcoming volumes because, he says, he has worked very hard to ensure that each book can be read independently. He does not want a reader to feel that buying one book "suddenly puts one under an obligation to read seven. This is not a series of textbooks!"
Most definitely not. The first two books in the series, How the Irish Saved Civilization and The Gifts of the Jews, have been published to popular and critical success, hailed both for their bold historical synthesis and for their engaging and entertaining style. Brisk sales of the books have enabled Cahill to buy his apartment in Rome (he and his wife live the rest of the year in New York, where they both grew up), to retire from his post as director of religious publishing at Doubleday, and "to get on a book-every-two-years schedule, which means, if my nerve holds, I can get the whole series done within one lifetime."
Cahill’s third offering, published this month, is, if anything, bolder and more engaging than his previous books.
At its most basic, Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus is a book about the New Testament, "an historical work that inevitably touches on theology," he says. But Cahill’s larger ambition is nothing less than to attempt to answer the questions that are the on the minds of most people—what was Jesus like, what would it have been like to have been in the crowd that listened to Jesus, what would it have been like to have been one of the apostles, and how can we find the answers to these questions in these materials?"
It helps if you read the New Testament in the original Greek, as Cahill did while working on Desire of the Everlasting Hills. And it helps if you familiarize yourself with the major biblical scholarship on any given point, figure, or period you are concerned with, as he has done. "But all that scholarship taken together doesn’t add up to the story as I want to tell it," Cahill cautions. "You need to project yourself—or retroject yourself—back into the whole cultural ambiance of first century Palestine . . . You need to scrape off two millennia of bad sermons and wretched Sunday schools and, in many cases, the hypocrisy that goes with it, as if they were barnacles on a ship."
The impact of such an approach can be profound. For example, it is terrifying to see the crucifixion in the context of the times. Stripped of its rosy iconic glow, it is a horribly brutal act, so traumatizing to Jesus’ followers, Cahill writes, that for almost 400 years, they could not "depict the stark reality of his suffering except in the accounts of four gospels, which are as clipped and precise as the four authors knew how to make them."
And it’s somehow liberating to grapple with the implications of Cahill’s assertion that "Paul wrote all these letters for specific occasions that are long gone," which in Cahill’s book means that Paul has been seriously, if piously, misread for nearly 2000 years. It’s just plain startling to fully comprehend that "to appreciate the atmosphere of first-century Judea we must understand that the ‘religion’ that Jesus preached was, in its time, one of many alternative Judaisms."
No doubt, Cahill means to be provocative. "If you can’t entertain people, you have no right to ask them to read what you’ve written," he says lightly. But with such bold (and often witty) strokes Cahill strips away the pious accretions of 2000 years so that a picture of Jesus as an actual human being emerges.
"Jesus was a man who sweat and spit and did everything that everybody else in the world does," Cahill says. "You have to imagine that he was an extraordinary individual but that he would have appeared to everyone as a human being who talked the lingo of his time to pretty rough-hewn people, who would not have been impressed by your typical clergyman." Only through such an act of re-imagining, Cahill indicates, can a reader experience the full force of Jesus’ message, which Cahill characterizes as "the revolutionary insistence on kindness."
He adds, "To be a Christian should mean to be in solidarity with the poor and the miserable. Very seldom in history have Christians done that. People who call themselves Christians really haven’t understood what their identity is supposed to be. But every once in a while someone gets it right, and when they do, it makes an enormous difference."
Hence, it seems, the Hinges of History.
"I think Desire of the Everlasting Hills can be appreciated on two different levels," Cahill says at the end of our conversation. "On an intellectual level, I hope readers come away feeling that they have met Jesus, that they know who he is, that they know what his followers were trying to do, and that they understand the effect this had on the culture we live in. But in the end I would like people to close the book having had more than just a titillating intellectual and emotional experience. On a moral level, I would like to move readers in the direction of what Jesus says at the end of the story of the Good Samaritan, ‘Go and do likewise.’ "
Alden Mudge is a reviewer in Oakland, California.