These questions are explored, in a circling manner, by Thomas Cahill in his book “Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus,” (Nan A. Talese/Anchor Books Edition, 2001). This is the third in his Hinges of History series, preceded by “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” and “The Gifts of the Jews,” both of which I’ve reviewed here.
Cahill is a marvelous historical writer, making the story of Western civilization and culture a fascinating one. But here he takes on a new task, that of interpreter of the basic writings of the New Testament, meaning the gospels and letters of St. Paul. While he does a good, workmanlike job of it, there are fewer of those sparkling “Aha!” moments than in his previous works.
He starts off well, setting the scene for the reader by a whirlwind review of the four hundred years or so before Jesus was born. Beginning with Alexander the Great and moving up to the Roman occupation of Judea, Cahill gives us a pretty clear picture of the world Jesus came into, including an important fact that we don’t often think about; in the ancient world, the warrior was the role model, the icon that the people looked up to and physical might, whether expressed individually or militarily, was the expected norm in world affairs.
It was into this worldview that the Prince of Peace came. The central part of the book explores the Jesus of the synoptic gospels, the Jesus of the apostle Paul and the Jesus of John’s gospel. While Cahill gives us some nifty wordplay here, his observations are not stunningly original and can be easily found in other sources. Honestly, based on the subtitle of the book, “The World Before and After Jesus,” I was expecting more of a survey of Western history after Jesus’ resurrection rather than a summary of the gospels and guesses about their authors.
But here’s my biggest disappointment with this book, and it’s a big one. The author never directly addresses the resurrection of Jesus. He briefly approaches the miracles, and in typical historian fashion leaves them alone with the statement that the witnesses certainly believed they happened. Yet the biggest, world-changing miracle of all he dances around, circling it warily lest he approach it directly and perhaps offend any scholars or skeptics in the audience. Cahill fails to play his biggest card in explaining why the world is a different place today. I’d even go as far as to say that without Jesus’ resurrection the subtitle of this book would be unnecessary.
What’s funny is that it seems fairly clear that Mr. Cahill is himself a believer. In the book’s final section he writes glowingly about how Christ’s true followers are making a difference in today’s world, focusing particularly on a little known Italian group called the Community of Sant’Egidio. Their efforts are truly worthy of the attention he pays them. Yet all the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul couldn’t have brought them into being without the resurrection.
If Thomas Cahill didn’t understand this right from the start, I don’t know why he wrote this book.