Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus
Thomas Cahill, Doubleday, 1999, 333 pages, $24.95
The Book of Revelation does not prophesy a plague of shoddy Gospel scholarship, but surely one has descended on us. Some works have been simply outrageous (Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son) and some destructive (Burton Mack’s The Lost Gospel). So it is with no small apprehension that one takes up Thomas Cahill’s new book, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, which claims to be a unique presentation of Jesus and his times for believers and non-believers alike.
Cahill’s publishing resume includes engaging, if facile, histories of western civilization. In his first book, How the Irish Saved Civilization (1995), he tells us how the literature of the great western canon was preserved through the dedicated work of Irish monks who followed St. Patrick’s path. Its enormous success convinced Cahill’s publisher to sign him to pen a seven-volume series Cahill calls the Hinges of History. The second volume, The Gift of the Jews (1997), recounts how Abraham and his seed created the West’s linear and purposeful history, which anticipates God’s personal involvement in the affairs of men and progresses toward a final consummation. Desire, his third effort, is his presentation of the consummation of that history in Jesus of Nazareth. (The term everlasting hills is an Old Testament image of the immemorial longing for the Messiah’s coming. Desire of the Everlasting Hills is also one of Christ’s titles in the Litany of the Sacred Heart.)
Despite Cahill’s faults, which I will discuss in due course, it is to his credit that he does not fall into the quagmire of the recent historical-critical debates. Unlike most fashionable biblical scholars today, Cahill believes that we can know the real Jesus through the books of the New Testament. Not writing for an academic audience, Cahill briefly notes modern scholars’ debates about the reliability of the Gospels but shrugs most of them off as useless arguments about unimportant details. Instead, Cahill paints a picture of Jesus from the accounts of His first-century followers.
The book is substantially devoted to encountering Jesus through the writings of Paul, Luke, and John. Rather than deconstructing their accounts to find “the true message,” he interprets them politically to mean that Jesus came to end the historical pattern of violence with a message of earthly peace.
For Cahill, the primary human experience before Christ is suffering, the infliction of violence by the strong on the poor and the righteous, to which Cahill’s everlasting hills stand as mute witnesses. The people of the first covenant, the Jews, typify the search for justice; Jesus is the prophesied savior emerging from that seemingly endless cycle of violence at the hands of the Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Greeks, and Romans.
But Cahill confuses what is a symptom with what is the cause; the violence is symptomatic of something far greater. He rejects the central message of revelation: The primary human experience before Christ is estrangement from God due to human sinfulness, originating with the fall of our first parents.
In Chapter 2, he reduces Christ’s ministry and message to the point that our Lord’s objective is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Jesus has but two motivating ideals: to defend the interests of the weak from the powerful and to preach that power is an illusion. Cahill ignores Jesus’ message of forgiveness, His death on the cross, and His resurrection — points all Christians recognize as central to His life and ministry. The Christ that Cahill creates does not have any discernible motivation for dying on a cross, so Cahill devotes little time in his book to Jesus’ passion. Ultimately, he can only conclude that such an event represents the ultimate response to power (a complete resignation) and that it achieves an affinity with the poor and suffering.
With this foundation laid, Cahill spends the remainder of his book searching for evidence in the Gospels and Paul’s letters to support his hypothesis. Thus, according to Cahill, when Paul talks about death to sin, he is really talking about relinquishing of power…to live opposite the lives of the Alexanders and the Caesars and all the “gods.’” Similarly, Luke’s purpose in writing is not to reach the growing Gentile audience but to engage in liberation theology, targeting the fundamental injustices of riches, of haves and have-nots. An interesting insight is gleaned from Cahill’s take on the episode in John’s Gospel of the woman caught in adultery. He contends that this story really underlines that hell is filled with those who turn their back on the poor, not those who, for whatever reason, awoke in the wrong bed!
From a truly Catholic perspective, Cahill’s treatment of the Eucharist can only be characterized as troubling at best. Any time the Eucharist is mentioned, he conveniently lapses into vagueness since his arguments would collapse on themselves if pressed. Thus, we are left with nice platitudes: If we are in union with one another, we should not want to sin against one another. While reception of the Eucharist unquestionably strengthens the bonds of charity among the members of the mystical body of Christ spread throughout the world, there are far more important elements of sacramental theology left completely unsaid.
Since he believes that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Jewish religion, and not the beginning of a new covenant, Cahill never exceeds what he thinks the Jewish community at that time, and today, could plausibly believe about Jesus while still remaining good Jews.
By the end of the book, Cahill still has not answered the question, Who is Jesus?, and finally, we discover the source of this reticence: He rejects Jesus’ divinity. Cahill believes that Jesus’ followers didn’t think He was God. He proposes that the prologue of John’s Gospel was a later appendage, and thus, Jesus was made divine by His later followers. He disregards the fact that the synoptic Gospels, the Pauline letters, the Letter to the Hebrews — indeed the whole canon of the New Testament — support the article of faith that Jesus is divine.
How can one make sense of, for example, the stoning of Stephen recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, based on what Cahill presents? He cannot explain why all the apostles (except John, who died in exile) suffered martyrdom rather than renounce their faith in Christ’s divinity and His Resurrection.
Desire of the Everlasting Hills breaks no new ground. Cahill’s theories, very tired indeed at the start of the third Christian millennium, propose that by the end of the first century, the Gospel message was hijacked by those who sought to survive Gnostic and syncretic threats. In short, he charges that the Catholic Church led Christianity astray. The same people who foisted Jesus’ divinity into his message would turn in the second century to theological hatred, in the third century to institutional triumphalism, and in the fourth to the deadly game of power politics. For Cahill, this hijacking represents the victory of Jesus’ enemies, Caesar and the Pharisees.
The title of his book invites comparison to G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, who had nothing good to say about those who, like Cahill, reduce Christ to a humble sage. Chesterton reminds us that we share with Christ our everlasting status, while the hills will one day be replaced by a new heaven and a new earth. We can only hope for a foretaste of justice and peace here on earth. In the meantime, we must practice mercy and righteousness as we await heaven, the fulfillment of man’s everlasting desire.
Cahill’s objective in this series is to narrate those moments and miracles of western civilization that contribute to our self-understanding. Rather than a series about wars, victors, and man’s frequent inhumanity to man, they will be “narratives of grace…when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something beyond what was required by circumstance.”
A noble goal, but just as his tomes would be a source of sorrow to the students of history, so they are a source of sorrow to students of theology.
This review originally appeared in the January 2000 issue of Crisis Magazine.