Thomas Cahill has written a popular six volume history of the Western World focusing on key turning points in our history (he terms these moments the “hinges of history”). One of the more controversial, and delightful, of these works is The Gift of the Jews (1998). As the inheritors of the biblical “Judeo-Christian” conscience, Cahill reminds us without the pounding call to conversion that much of our contemporary thinking from selfhood, life, psychology, science, and history, are byproducts of the Jewish revolution in the ancient world.
As a student of biblical and religious studies at Yale, there is a lot of misinformation concerning sacred scripture and religiosity in our world. The conspiracy theorists assert the Bible is nothing more than plagiarism of ancient Near Eastern (Sumerian and Egyptian, later, Greek and Roman) stories and mythology. This view is thoroughly and unambiguously rejected by all reputable scholars, secular and religious. While the Bible does share similarities with ancient Near Eastern texts and myths, the similarities are actually sparse and the differences enormous. Cahill starts out his work by giving us a brief glimpse into the ancient Near East through an exposition of Sumerian mythic literature and religious practices (to the best of our knowledge with what limited resources we have).
At the heart of Cahill’s thesis on the “gift of the Jews” is that the cosmic fatalism of the ancient world—rooted in the cyclical vision of life and time encapsulated by ritualistic reenactment in fertility cultism—was slowly upended by the biblical conception of cosmic journey started in the story of Avraham (Abraham) and slowly developed through the Hebrew Bible. As Cahill notes, “Human life, seen as a pale reenactment of the life of eternal heavens, was ruled by fate beyond the pitifully limited powers of human begins. The gods decided.” Additionally, this fatalism of the ancient cosmic “Wheel” of cyclicality entrenched the powers of the god-kings and their priestly ministers who are closest to the gods. After all, from literary god-kings like Gilgamesh to the pharaohs of Egypt and kings of the Orient, their divinity was what was emphasized rather than their humanity (if they had any).
With Avraham, then, is the upending of the cosmic fatalism insofar that life as a “pale reenactment of the life of eternal heavens” is discarded in favor of life as a journey which will begat the belief in individual destiny. “Sometime toward the beginning of the second millennium B.C. a man named Avram was called by a mysterious Voice and told that his was to be a new destiny…an individual destiny, a destiny that was only his, a personal vocation.” Out of this individual journey came the journey of the self which we moderns all but adhere to as the universal reality of human nature.
From Avraham’s journey Cahill offers what can be said to be a psychological reading of biblical consciousness. This is where The Gift of the Jews departs from his other “Hinges of History” series. While Cahill defends some degree of biblical historicity (which most biblical scholars do even with caveats), the book isn’t a “history of the Bible” but a history of consciousness developed from biblical stories and ideals. Any historian or classicist of the ancient world with familiarity to the biblical tradition is always stunned at the dramatic differences between the ancient literature of the Hebrew Bible in juxtaposition to the literature of the ancient Near East, Greece, and Rome.
The culmination of this individual journey begun by Avraham and developed through the long and messy history of Israel is the creation of the self, the interior man, the I. Only ignorant people consider the interior self and the I a product of modernity, the innovation “creation” of the Enlightenment. But even a close reading of Enlightenment sources of the self reveal their biblical inspiration (this is especially true of Johann Fichte). Here Cahill makes his case with David, the individual to whom the firs person is truly established. Thus the “journey through the wilderness is gradually transformed into a journey to the unknown recess of the self—to the ‘inward parts.’ This new spiritual journey will prove as eventful and unpredictable as the physical one, full of pitfalls and surprises.”
That the Bible is the source of the self is uncontroversial in academe. Charles Taylor, the eminent Canadian philosopher and Enlightenment historian, charted out the origins of the self in his great work The Sources of the Self (1989). Larry Siedentop, more recently, authored the work Inventing the Individual (2014). Joshua Berman, also, published Created Equal (2011). What Cahill’s book does that these academic writers do not, is provide an easy-reading and accessible account of the widely accepted notion of individual selfhood as rooted in biblical consciousness. Cahill’s work is not saturated in footnotes and obscure references that only the elite learned will know. Cahill’s book is written for the common populace; academic books are written for a niche audience.
Cahill also addresses modern moral sentiments that are a product of the Jewish Bible. Concern for the poor and oppressed, the belief that justice is to help the poor and underprivileged, the elevation of the marginalized and powerless vis-à-vis the strong and powerful, are all byproducts of the messy history of Israel and Judah as recounted in what Westerners know as the Old Testament. “God’s people will no longer be the proud nobles of Israel and Judah but the marginalized and powerless—the blind, the lame, and the pregnant.” While most “secular” persons now embody this ethic, at least in language but perhaps not always in action, they are ironically being more “religious” than many religious people are. For religiosity, Cahill argues, turns away from the ceremonial ritualism of the Wheel found in the pre-biblical and parallel time period and toward the inward sentiment of the “still small voice” of conscience.
To those educated in religious studies, classics, and philosophy, Cahill might not provide anything new. What he does offer, though, is a delightful short read rather than a dull five-hundred-page technical study—those kinds of works one reads in graduate school rather than the comfort of their own home with a coffee, tea, or other beverage by their side. But for those who have heard the claims of the self and ethic of compassion emanating out of the Bible, The Gift of the Jews is the easiest read to acquaint yourself with the thesis before delving into more “serious” (academic) works on the subject. The only quibble is that Cahill really doesn’t discuss the Jews at all in the work despite the title; rather, he discusses how the Jewish Bible with its many stories, contradictory and complicated as they may be, ultimately provided the lexicon and consciousness of the modern West.
The Gift of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels
By Thomas Cahill
New York: Doubleday, 1998; 291pp.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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