Synopses & Reviews
"This installment of Cahill's Hinges of History series proves to be as evocative, honest, and enlightening as his first two best-sellers, How the Irish Saved Civilization (1995) and The Gifts of the Jews (1998). By critically examining the history surrounding Jesus' own lifetime, he addresses the question, Did the life and death of Jesus make any difference to society, both modern and ancient?....Although what Jesus has taught and said may never be agreed upon, the influence Christianity has had on society, even in these postmodern, secular times, is unquestionable. Cahill delights and fascinates in exposing strange twists of history by engaging new and lively perspectives on ancient debates, and here he does it very well indeed." Michael Spinella, Booklist
About the Author
Thomas Cahill is the former director of religious publishing at Doubleday. He divides his time between Rome and New York City.
Reading Group Guide
1. Do you feel more drawn to one or the other of the versions of Jesus? Does the Jesus Mark or Matthew knew ring truer to you than the other portraits of Jesus? What purposes do the non-eyewitness portraits of Jesus (Paul's, Luke's) serve?
2. Greek and Aramaic were the main languages of Jesus' world. What role did language play in spreading or slowing the word of Jesus?
3. The Jews of Egypt fought for Caesar, an uneasy partnership that would again come into play during the time immediately preceding Jesus' death. What are the contradictions of creating peace through military force? How effective was the military in achieving that goal in Jesus' time and before Jesus? How effective are modern militaries?
4. The author believes that it's urgent that Christians understand that Christianity is a form of Judaism "if they are to know who they are" [p. 90]. How important is that understanding?
5. Was Mary a shy child-bride or a pragmatic, strong, smart Jewish girl? How does her Magnificat portray her? In what ways is Mary similar to any loving mother? In what ways is she different?
6. The author tells us that Paul insists on sexual and economic equality. What are the controversial parts of Paul's letters that argue for or against his belief in equality between women and men?
7. The author speaks of "odium theologicum--hatred for those nearby who are religiously similar to oneself but nonetheless different" [p. 184]. Do you see this principle at work today? How can we guard against it?
8. Luke, a Gentile who sat amid the temptation of Greco-Roman society, says that wealth makes a Christlike life very challenging. What is the basis for his conclusion? Was Luke more radical than Jesus on this point?
9. How does John's Gospel as the source of hurt feelings and exclusivity add to the idea of the Jews as enemies throughout the course of history?
10. It took early Christians nearly four hundred years before they could bear to depict Jesus' crucifixion--only then had the firsthand memories of this tragedy faded enough to give them some necessary distance. When it comes to images, we no longer receive much or any distance from our tragedies--think of Holocaust images or scenes from recent ethnic cleansing in the Balkans or genocide in Africa. How does such immediacy help or hurt us and our understanding of tragedy?
11. The author asks if our spiritual tradition "has become so universalized that it may be claimed by anyone but can no longer boast any characteristic proponents" [p. 307]. Do you think it has? Can this question be answered?
12. The author believes that the teachings of Jesus are responsible for a shift in consciousness toward peace and against the evils of self-interest. Is there evidence of such a shift?
13. The author suggests that Jesus would have supported a separation of church and state. How does Cahill support this assertion?
14. The author speaks of the authority of the dispossessed when it comes to writing true history. Discuss this in the light of the recent historical or literary writing. Do people on the fringe see the truth more clearly than do the people in power? Which category does the author put himself into, and do you agree?
15. What is the essence of Jesus' teaching? Is it possible to understand Jesus' teaching without reference to his life and death? Is Paul's theology a development of Jesus' teaching or a departure from it?
For Discussion: The Hinges of History Series
1. Each book gives a piece that helps complete the picture of who we are, of our history, of our humanity and acts as a piece in a puzzle. How effective is this type of a reckoning of our past?
2. The author did not write the books in his series in strict chronological order. Instead he traces large cultural movements over many centuries. How does this choice affect the understanding of each book as a piece in the puzzle? Or as an individual work?
3. In his books, the author gets inside the heads and hearts of his subjects, using a very close third-person point of view. How does this choice strengthen his premise? Does it have limitations?
4. The author is Roman Catholic. Is he able to present these histories without being biased by his Catholicism? Does one's religion (or lack of it) necessarily constrict or color one's view?
5. Discuss the nature and history of the Irish and the Jews as read in these books. What are their ambitions, their differences? How do they differ from the Romans and the Greeks in all three books?
We normally think of history as one catastrophe after another, war followed by war, outrage by outrage--almost as if history were nothing more than all the narratives of human pain, assembled in sequence. And surely this is, often enough, an adequate description. But history is also the narratives of grace, the recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something beyond what was required by circumstance. In this series, The Hinges of History, I mean to retell the story of the Western world as the story of the great gift-givers, those who entrusted to our keeping one or another of the singular treasures that make up the patrimony of the West. This is also the story of the evolution of Western sensibility, a narration of how we became the people that we are and why we think and feel the way we do. And it is, finally, a recounting of those essential moments when everything was at stake, when the mighty stream that became Western history was in ultimate danger and might have divided into a hundred useless tributaries or frozen in death or evaporated altogether. But the great gift-givers, arriving in the moment of crisis, provided for transition, for transformation, and even for transfiguration, leaving us a world more varied and complex, more awesome and delightful, more beautiful and strong than the one they had found.