Customer Review

4.0 out of 5 stars This isn't a religious tract . . ., 21 Feb 2005
This review is from: Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus (Hardcover)
. . . although it doesn't miss by much. As part of his Hinges of History series, Cahill places the Jesus story in its historical setting. Whatever your view of Jesus' divinity, there's no gainsaying the importance of his followers in the stream of history. Not only the history of Europe, but given the migrations of his adherents, throughout the world. Although the book is filled with the message of love and peace, Cahill's opening statement about hills lists all battle sites. Not an auspicious beginning for a study of a "new word" supplanting the turmoil of the age. Like nearly all Christian historical writers, Cahill's description of the pagan world is bleak. Only by making the social environment of the era as desolate as possible does the arrival of the "good news" concept work. Cahill would have us believe the pre-Christian civilization offered no solace, had no love, no joy, people suffering empty lives with no hope. It's difficult to believe that the Mediterranean world was that much different from any other.
This being an historical treatise, Cahill must rely on his sources. These are naturally scant, since Jesus went unnoticed by contemporary commentators. Another agitator in a backwater Roman colony was of little import. Cahill must, perforce, turn to the Gospels for his relation of this vital historical character. He omits reference to the long history of critiques of these documents. Instead, he grants them high validity. This is surprising in light of the long duration between the events and their written recording. The time lapse is decades, not just weeks or a few years. He uncritically credits the accounts as being retrieved from the memories of those who supposedly witnessed the events. This is startling. Anyone who's ever played Gossip, passing a whispered message from person to person, knows how garbled the original statement becomes in but minutes. What quirks of memory can occur over decades? Of course, as Cahill stresses, it's the message in the Gospel that's important. True enough, but we're supposed to be dealing in history here, not evangelism.
Cahill examines each of the Gospels in turn, relating them with an easy wit. The chapter on Saul/Paul as a Jewish/Greek intellectual is the high point of the book. Cahill presents in modern language the various stilted texts Christians are subjected to. The effect is charming. Readers unfamiliar with Cahill's style may be jolted, but he's trying to convey a complex story without sinking into a prolix academic style. He deserves credit for his courage in doing this. He's clearly trying to widen his audience with the message. The message from the Gospels lacks unity, of course. Given the diversity of times and authors, with texts further modified by attentions from later contributors, his task is daunting but not insurmountable. Accepting these problems in pinpointing sources, Cahill is able to impart the theme of each Gospel clearly. He doesn't get bogged down in academic trivia. For Cahill, the value of the message far outweighs other considerations.
Cahill believes in the message. He stresses that Jesus sought justice, suggesting this was a novelty in the era. It's a novelty in any era, and others have pursued the same goal. Even that Roman Empire so maligned by Christians [and Cahill] tried various means to achieve it. In Rome, Consuls were given authority for but one year to prevent accumulation of power leading to injustice. It eluded them, it eluded Jesus, and it's eluded Christians as Cahill points out in his discussion of anti-Semetism through the ages. He spends some time on this particular form of Christian injustice. It's disappointing that he can move out of his declared time span in addressing this issue while ignoring many others equally significant. Christians have displaced or eradicated peoples throughout their history. The Incas are gone. The Maya likewise, their vast story of holy books torched by priests. Hearts and minds can be won at swords' point - the history of Christianity confirms it.
The question arises - who should buy and read this book? If you want a concise history of Jesus' era, this is a good start. If you don't want to wade through the King James, New English or Vulgate bibles but wish to understand what the fuss is about, this is a good review of the Gospels and their writers. If you wish to assess whether Jesus has a message for you, perhaps you'll gain some insight from Cahill's presentation. If you're not a Christian, Cahill, although he's firmly convinced, isn't likely to make you one. If you're already a Christian, Cahill may give you a fresh insight into the people who got Jesus' message out to the world. You decide. This copy was bought to complete the set. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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