Thomas Cahill: The Official Site
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* Thomas Cahill *
Mr. Cahill, I'd like to know where you get off writing one book after another about Western history. Most historians limit themselves to understanding a single century or a single culture. Nobody can jump from culture to culture and from era to era, pretending to understand everything.

Dear Reader, you're right. No one can understand everything. But I am not really pretending to do that. My goal is somewhat more modest: I want to trace the effects to their causes; I want to read history backward, starting from where we are, the people of the Western world, here at the cusp of the twenty-first century. I am trying to answer one question: How did we get to be the people we are? Or, to put it another way: What is there in our history that is peculiar to the West, what gives us our characteristic ways of thinking, feeling, and valuing that make us different from other peoples? By tracing only this thread through our past, I can stay focused and leave many complex and abstruse matters for others to deal with. For me, one of the problems with contemporary historians is that, as they concentrate on ever smaller patches of history in ever greater detail, we, their audience, understand less and less about the larger forces that have shaped us. I am trying to overcome this fragmentation by seeing our history whole, as a series of vast movements, often taking many centuries to reach their accomplishment. Of course, I shall fail, at least in some ways. But the human mind cannot turn aside from the attempt. In every age, we must ask again: How did we become the people we are?

You can't be serious about the Irish saving civilization. Did you have any valid reason for starting with them, besides attracting attention to yourself?

Once again you're right, Dear Reader: I did hope to attract attention. I wanted to shock readers into realizing that the history we tell ourselves, the history we learn in school, is full of holes. All sorts of things happened in the course of Western history that even well-educated people are ill informed about. The question I pose on the first page of How the Irish Saved Civilization is: 'How real is history?' This is a question I shall return to again and again in the course of The Hinges of History®. We are beginning to realize that we have written women out of our histories, as well as despised 'minorities,' such as the Africans and the Irish. As such a realization presses upon us, we come to understand that we must write history anew, reviewing deeds and texts of other ages from new vantage points. The Irish also make a convenient start for the series because they appear about halfway through Western history; and this gives us the opportunity to look backward to the ancient world and forward to the medieval world (which is, in many respects, the beginning of the modern world). Lastly, the Irish story is a simple one, the simplest of all the stories I have to tell, and I wanted to gather an audience and do some casting from the shore, as it were, before we went deep-sea fishing.

What's this stuff you're always spouting about the Jews standing at the fountainhead of Western Civilization. Everyone knows the Greeks came first and that most of the contributions of the Jews are derivative from the Greeks.

What 'everyone knows' is wrong. The 'contributions' you refer to are actually just impressions conveyed by many collegiate courses in 'Western civilization,' which have tended to begin with the Greeks or, if they mention the Jews, to give them short shrift. The Greeks have nothing to say to us before Homer, who lived in the eighth century B.C., whereas Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, lived more than a thousand years before that. The story of Abraham's life, as told in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, contains the germ of all the distinctively Jewish values that will eventually form the foundations of the West. Abraham's story was told as part of Hebrew oral tradition for many centuries and may not have been written down until the kingship of David or a little later. But even if one insists on the highly unlikely theory that a writer of David's time made up the story of Abraham, we must still date it two hundred years earlier than Homer, and not only Abraham's story but the far more complex and influential story of Moses, as well as the whole history of the Israelite tribes from the time of Abraham to their gradual dominance of Canaan, their 'Promised Land.' In any case, the high point of Greek civilization, the 5th century B.C., comes more than a century after all the major Hebrew texts were completed. The Greeks, indeed, had to imitate the Hebrew alphabet (the world's original alphabet!) in order to create the Greek alphabet. The Romans then copied from the Greeks. In effect, the Greeks were still in diapers when the Jews, or, more accurately, the Israelites, were elaborating a new moral universe and a new worldview and developing a profound devotion to literacy and learning.

You're a Catholic, aren't you? So don't you see everything from a Catholic point of view?

I don't think so. Of course everyone has unexamined biases. But I have spent much of my life trying to identify and shed my intellectual biases and even (so far as I can) my emotional biases. I am not comfortable identifying myself simply as Catholic. To my mind, as we cross into the third millennium since Jesus's birth, it is too narrow a definition.

Because I have long seen the Jews as the true progenitors of the Western world and because I am in love with their literature and with so much of their culture, I often find myself thinking like a Jew, viewing the world much more from a typical Jewish than from a typical Christian perspective. In each volume of 'Hinges,' I try to get inside the mentality of my subjects, to view the world only from their point of view. When you have done your best to assume another's spirit, to live within his world, you cannot help but become, in some sense, that person.

'I am a part of all that I have met,' Tennyson put in the mouth of Ulysses. We are all Jews. But in addition to coming to appreciate that our roots are in Judaism, Christians should also strive to be larger than the denomination they happen to belong to. We must be Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant, in the sense that we must cherish the deep insights of each tradition. And we must also acknowledge, as I try to do at the end of Desire of the Everlasting Hills, that Christianity has failed in all its varieties and in nothing so much as in its centuries-long persecution of our Jewish brothers and sisters. (As a questioner at a Jewish Community Center remarked dryly, 'So we gave the world all these gifts. But I don't think we ever received a thank-you note.') So, if we would be Christian, we must go beyond historical Christianity in all its forms. We need to get inside Christianity, as if for the first time, as did the first Christians, if we are to experience its potential to transform.

You give the Jews too much credit. Philosemitism is just as dangerous as anti-Semitism.

What I credit to the Jews are the values I find in the texts of ancient Hebrew literature, which we collectively call the Bible. There can be no doubt that the values of processive time, individual destiny, and social justice are so peculiar to the Jews that we can say that, for all practical purposes, they invented them. There is nothing like these values, expressed with such intensity of feeling and such sharpness of insight, in any of the world's other ancient literatures. In the West, we have become so accustomed to these values, these ways of thinking, looking, and feeling, that we have come to assume that they are 'self-evident.' They are not, as a serious look at any other ancient literature will quickly show, and as I hope I demonstrate in The Gifts of the Jews.

If such an approach is to be labeled 'philosemitism,' I am guess I am guilty of it. To my view, it is simply the truth. The truth is sometimes dangerous, but I fail to see how my interpretation of ancient Judaism as the matrix of Western values could be a danger to anyone.

Why are there no pictures in THE GIFTS OF THE JEWS? They are in your other books.

Because of the Commandment against graven images ('Thou shalt not have strange gods before me'), the ancient Jews had little art, and what they had was borrowed from the forms of other cultures, like Mesopotamia. Because the fragments we have of Hebrew art do not seem to me to offer much insight into the society that made them, I could not see distracting the reader by reproducing them. Celtic and Irish art, however, seems to me to offer just the sort of insight that I wanted to include; and paleo-Christian art seems to me to do the same. Thanks to the publisher, each volume in the series has beautiful, full-color endpapers. In the endpapers for The Gifts of the Jews we were particularly fortunate to obtain a reproduction from a recently excavated Egyptian tomb, showing just what the Israelites of the patriarchal period (like Joseph's brothers) would have looked like as they traveled into Egypt.

I've heard that the Irish are the Lost Tribes of Israel and that's why the Irish and the Jews have so much in common. Care to comment?

The Irish are not the Lost Tribes. Ancient Israel, a Semitic nation, was composed of twelve tribes, engendered by the twelve sons of the patriarch Jacob (who was also called Israel). Ten of those tribes, settled in northern Canaan, were deported into slavery by the Assyrian king Sargon II about 722 B.C. and, at least as distinct social units, were never heard from again. But not everyone could possibly have been deported, so that genetic strains from the Lost Tribes must have continued to influence the Israelite gene pool. Some of the deportees probably maintained their religious identity, and this may be the beginning of the Jewish diaspora. Throughout history there have been fanciful 'sightings' of the Lost Tribes (none more unlikely than the 'Indian' tribes native to North America).

The Irish are not Semites but Celts, a very different genetic-linguistic-cultural strain. The Celts are first mentioned in Greek literature of the classical period. They overran much of Europe in the centuries before Christ, and it is likely that they originated in the Caucasus. Some Celts reached Ireland about 350 B.C. and established there a typical Celtic society, overcoming (and intermarrying with) a native population of which we know next to nothing.

What the Jews and the Irish have in common, especially a preference for the underdog and a wry sense of humor which gets such enjoyment out of deflating the pretensions of one's 'betters', probably stems from the fact that both nations have so often been marginalized and demonized, the Jews by European Christians, the Irish by the imperial English. People on the margins are far more likely to see clearly a society's injustices and absurdities than those at the fashionable center of events.

Wasn't Irish Christianity really a form of paganism?

No. All religious traditions are born and grow within a cultural context; none drops from the sky fully formed. Judaism began in the culture of Mesopotamia and was influenced by both Egypt and Canaan. Christianity soon acquired a Greek cast, for Greek was the language of the New Testament and Greek cultural attitudes (as I show in Desire of the Everlasting Hills) infected the whole of the classical world.

Patrick, Ireland's evangelist, brought with him the writings of both 'Old' and New Testaments and taught the Irish to read and write, so they might appreciate the sacred texts. But he did not try to make the Irish into Athenians or Romans. A most perceptive man, he took the Irish as they were, and tried to plant Christianity in an Irish soil that he thought was capable of nourishing it. This required great discernment: he could not build Christianity on the Irish slave trade or the Irish practice of human sacrifice or Ireland's constant bellicosity; but he could build on Irish courage and generosity and on the Irish belief that the world was magical and full of divine messages. This grafting of the Gospel onto certain positive elements in Irish culture meant that Irish Christianity came to have a characteristic coloration that was given it by existing Irish cultural values, just as the Christianity of the early centuries A.D. had a Greek coloration. But far more important than this incidental pagan coloration was the way in which Gospel values transformed the cultures they were grafted onto. Even Luke, the most Greek author of the New Testament, is far more Christian than he is Greek. And in reading the deeds of Colmcille, the most Irish of the early Irish Christians, we have to say that his motivations are, in the end, far more influenced by Christian than by pagan values.

Of course, the pagan remnants within a society (like the pagan remnants within an individual) never disappear entirely and can sometimes charge to the surface with terrifying strength. (See my answer to the last question.)

There are already far too many books about Jesus. What could possibly be new about your new book?

There are too many books about Jesus, far more than one reader can master. This is because Jesus remains, even after two thousand years, the single most interesting and influential figure in the history of the Western world. But most of the books written about him recently have been of two kinds: debunking or academic. The debunking books, beloved by the media, are usually wedded to an exaggerated thesis, such as that Jesus never existed or that he did not die on the cross or that he was a completely different figure from our traditional portrait of him. The academic books tend to give such nonsense a wide birth, treating, rather, of complex issues of cultural background in a way that is often impenetrable to the common reader. So readers who pick up the first kind of book may be invited to entertain far-fetched theories no more credible than the stories in supermarket tabloids, while readers who pick up the second kind of book may be disappointed to find so much scholarly energy absorbed by issues of relatively minor importance.

In Desire of the Everlasting Hills, I have based my exploration of Jesus on the best scholarship I could find. But I mean to engage Jesus as a living figure. I hope I have avoided both crass debunking and the hermetic discourse of the academy. Nothing would give me more satisfaction than for a reader to say on finishing the book, 'I feel I have met Jesus and now understand what he and his followers were about and how they have influenced the world I live in.'

I understand you translated from the original Greek all the quotations you use from the New Testament. But you didn't bother to translate the Old Testament from Hebrew. Why?

For one thing, my Greek is much better than my Hebrew. For another, I found that I could not improve on the Fox translation (see 'How to Read the Bible'), so why should I try? In The Gifts of the Jews, I did translate one passage from Hebrew, a hilariously inappropriate speech given by David's foolish grandson Rehoboam, of which I could find no accurate translation. The speech is so crude that translators are afraid to let readers know what the Bible is actually saying here.

When I came to the Greek New Testament, I found a similar but more extensive problem. Jesus and Paul are often more down-to-earth, more playful, and even, on occasion, more vulgar, than any translation I could find of their words. Translators of the Bible have a fatal tendency to exalt even the most colloquial language. In the koine (or common) Greek of the New Testament Jesus and Paul sound like real people, not like piously stiff cardboard figures. I felt I had to restore to the English the lively openness and affectionate informality I found in the original.

How did you come up with the idea for The Hinges of History®? How long have you been working on it?

I have been working on The Hinges of History® since 1970, when as a young man I was a participant in an exotic rite in rural Ireland, a sort of prehistoric fertility festival (which I mention in the Notes and Sources to Chapter One of The Gifts of the Jews). I hope one day to write more about it. It convinced me that I had experienced a remnant of old European paganism and that the mainstream tradition of the West, shaped ultimately by ancient Judaism, worked according to a very nearly opposite set of values. I had had a good classical education and had read much of ancient Greek and Latin literature. I could see how the values of pagan Greco-Roman literature still lived in this cyclical, nature-bound backwater but that my values, our values, the values of all who live in the mainstream Western tradition, had been born, not in this isolated Irish farming community, but in the complex events of Judeo-Christian history.