Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Desire of the Everlasting Hills

Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus
© 1999 Thomas Cahill

I've never expected to read the words "his silly circumcised penis swelling for all to see" in connected with Jesus Christ, but I have now, after reading Desire of the Everlasting Hills: the World Before and After Jesus. Cahill is one of those authors who can manage to intrigue me, somewhat annoy me, and leave me thinking -- did he really just say that? I had to read about Jesus' silly circumcised penis swelling a few times before accepting that yes, Cahill was pondering and writing on the penis of his god -- and calling it silly, yet.

Cahill begins his conversation with the reader at the twilight of the "Axiol Age", his term for that period that witnessed the flowering of philosophical, intellectual, and religious thought that gave us Buddha, Confucius, Plato, and their kin. Our story is set a Judea that has become partially Hellenized by Alexander the Great -- who Cahill spends time on -- and which is now a Roman province. He tells us of the rise of the Maccabees, who I had heard of but knew nothing about. According to Cahill, a man named Judeas Maccabee organized an insurrection against their Selucid rulers when said rulers attempted to refile the temple in Jerusalem. Judeas triumphed and his family became the rulers of the area, albeit ruling under the Roman thumb. Herod, Cahill tells us, is the last of that line -- meaning Herod is actually Jewish.

Since Christianity began as a Jewish sect, Cahill explores the various branches of Judaism that are flowering now that there are no Orthodox priests to keep people in. The two I remember most are the Essenes and the Pharisees. The Essenes resemble monks in that they retire in the wilderness to contemplate YHWH and so forth, while the Pharisees are alarmed at the growing lack of respect for the law and attempt to restore the old practices. The Pharisees will be the main villains in the New Testament, for those unfamiliar with it. He then explores the changing perception of Jesus and Christianity among the disciples and the Early church. I realized as the book wound to an end that the reason I don't know much about the early church is not that I haven't really looked before, but because there's not much information to draw on. The evidence is scant, and Cahill seems to restrict himself to it. There's no real wild speculation here -- no stories of Mary Magdalene leading the church and being ousted and driven into exile by Peter. Cahill's Catholicism does intrude at a couple of points, most notable when he addresses Martin Luther and ritual in the Catholic church.

I enjoyed the book quite well until the last chapter, when he attempts to attribute to Jesus and his followers (like Paul) everything from universal suffrage to tolerance. Looks to me to be an example of selective reading. The case of Paul is especially interesting, given that he writes to the members of one church and advises them that women shouldn't speak in church. That letter is written off by Cahill as being attributed to Paul but not really being his. Regardless of who wrote it, its precense in the Christian canon is fairly damning to Cahill's idea. An idea that occured me while reading was that I can understand why religions like Christianity were able to catch on. Following explict rules set forth in sermons is easier than contemplating Buddhist or other philosophical principles and then behaving in accordance with them.

Although the last chapter is forced and Cahill needlessly insults humanist ethics*, the book on the whole was fairly interesting.

* He recounts somene named Malcolm Muggeridge who visited a leper colony being run by Christians. Muggeridge apparantly stated that no humanist could do this. According to Wikipedia, he converted to Christianity. According again to Wikipedia this meant he could not enjoy Life of Brian, so it is entirely his loss. The International Humanist and Ethical Union's work in southeast Asia and Africa leaves me with no doubt that empathy is just as powerful as perceived divine command at inspiring people work for one another, and my personal conceit is that empathy is natural and thus more sustainable. The book is described as being a work of "reconciliation" between believers and nonbelievers, so Cahill's attitude there is questionable.

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