Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus
Thomas A. Cahill
DOUBLEDAY, 353 pages, $24.95

Thomas Cahill (a self-taught scholar and bestselling author who reads French, Italian, Latin, and ancient Greek) believes the Gospels not only have a history (written, improved on, and edited) but also represent history accurately. He is not kind to those who keep reinventing (or reporting on) Jesus as a cynic or a sage or a magician: "Amidst this cacophony of competing theories, the press tends to give the most attention to the loudest voices and the most sensational hypotheses."

Instead, he says, "It may come as a surprise to the common reader that there is a broad scholarly consensus about what Jesus taught." Cahill mines Matthew, Mark, Paul, and Luke (though he puzzles over John) to describe, in his usual spirited prose, what he considers the consensus on what Jesus taught and did. Cahill continues to examine (as in his popular How the Irish Saved Civilization and The Gifts of the Jews) how religion has shaped Western civilization—here by looking at "the world before and after Jesus."

Desire of the Everlasting Hills, a reference to Jacob's blessing of his sons (Gen. 49:26), begins with an event so seemingly insignificant that Alexander the Great's biographer neglects to mention it: the Hellenistic conquest of the Palestinian Jews. Hellenism, spread by military force, was a widely welcomed fashion in the fourth century B.C., except in this tiny kingdom of the Jews.

The stories of their resistance and the Roman reconquest of the Jews stoked the fires of revolutionary hope and set the stage for the birth of a liberator. Enter Jesus—or several portraits of Jesus. Taking Matthew and Mark first, Cahill finds an apocalyptic ...

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