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

By Thomas Cahill
(Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; $24.95)

Thomas Cahill's new book tells his story of Jesus and Christian origins. It combines his accessible and often lively prose with his factual and imaginative work as a historian. It is also a work of passion and piety, signaled by its title: "Desire of the Everlasting Hills." Beginning and ending his book among the hills of Rome, he reflects on the significance of hills in the brutal history of the world and asks: Is it not "the desire of the everlasting hills [an allusion to Genesis 49:26] that the everlasting cycle of human cruelty, of man's inhumanity to man, be brought to an end?" In the rest of the book, he presents a picture of Jesus and earliest Christianity as the incarnation of an answer to that desire.

As the third volume in his "hinges of history" series, it follows his well-known "How the Irish Saved Civilization" and "The Gifts of the Jews." In six chapters, he addresses the world before Jesus, Jesus himself, and first-century Christianity. Beginning with Alexander the Great, he describes the world into which Jesus was born. Subsequent chapters cover much of the New Testament: the Jesus the apostles knew (the gospels of Mark and Matthew), the cosmic Christ (Paul and Revelation), the gentile messiah (Luke), the "people of the way" (Acts), and "the Word made flesh" (John).

Readers of this new book will not be disappointed. "Desire of the Everlasting Hills" is informed by both imagination and historical scholarship. He tells us what Peter and Paul looked like: the former curly-haired, bear-like and lumbering; the latter smallish, balding, lean, and quick, with the appearance of a long-distance runner. Cahill's historical treatment of the New Testament is indebted primarily to moderate Catholic scholars such as Raymond Brown, Joseph Fitzmyer, and John Meier, and to non-Catholics such as Richard Horsley and Walter Wink.

His exposition of the apostle Paul is refreshingly positive. Portraying Paul as a driven and caring man whose itinerant life must have been marked by "overwhelming loneliness," Cahill describes the theology that shines forth from Paul's letters as "amazing for its clarity, profundity, and consistency of development." He finds in Paul "the only clarion affirmation of sexual equality in the whole of the Bible" and the first in the world's literature. He sees Paul as "downright rabid" about economic equality. And in his chapter on Acts (called "Drunk in the Morning Light"), he sketches a fetching picture of the Spirit-filled radicalism of early Christianity.

Less satisfying is Chapter Two, "The Jesus the Apostles Knew." Here Cahill seems undecided whether he is describing the historical Jesus or the Jesus of Mark and Matthew. He intends to do both by linking these Gospels to the eyewitness testimony of the disciples: He suggests that Mark is based on Peter's recollections, and that the disciple named Matthew was the author of Q. The former is possible, the latter unlikely. In any case, the portrait of Jesus in this chapter remains rather indistinct. Attributing apocalyptic eschatology to Jesus, he then speaks of it as a "gentle" apocalypse--but is there such a thing as a gentle apocalypse? Cahill includes the birth stories in this chapter. Though he grants that they may have symbolic elements, he speculates on them as if they were historical reports.

But the book as a whole can be strongly commended. Readers who are familiar with New Testament scholarship will know when Cahill is choosing one scholarly option over another. For other readers, the book will have the salutary effect of making them aware of the rich insights and changed perspective provided by such scholarship.

Cahill's passion for a world marked by compassion, justice, peace, and equality shows often in the book, and especially in his closing chapter. There he returns to the question announced in his introduction: Did (and does) Jesus make a difference?

Standing once again among the hills of Rome, in Trastevere at the foot of the Janiculum, Cahill describes the work of the Community of Sant'Egidio, a Christian ecumenical community of laypeople founded in 1968. It gathers nightly for prayer and worship; feeds the homeless and distributes groceries to the poor; operates refuges and hospices for the elderly, people with AIDs, and abused or abandoned children; and sends peacemakers to various parts of the world.

In this community, Cahill sees the spirit of Jesus and early Christianity. He asks: "How many Sant'Egidios would it take to transform the social fabric not just of Trastevere but of the earth itself?" His answer: not all that many. And he cites a wonderful story about Mother Teresa: "When asked once by an incredulous interviewer, 'But, Mother, how do you do it?' the shrunken and smiling Albanian nun replied, 'One by one.'"

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