Essays & Interviews



Sacred Music From Then Till Now | The Tradition of Pope John Paul II | How the Greeks Invented Sports | The One True Faith | Jews, Christians, and God’s Word | How to Read the Bible | Close Encounters with the People of the Past | On the Death Penalty


A Saint on Death Row | Mysteries of the Middle Ages | Q & A Where Cahill Interviews Himself


Sacred Music From Then Till Now

Musical Beginnings

Human music (and so far as we know that’s the only kind there is) goes back so far into the distant human past that we cannot account for it either historically or archeologically. Who beat the first rhythm and on what did he beat it, who sang the first song and danced the first dance and what did she sound and look like? We just don’t know. But there is every reason to assume that music is virtually one with human beginnings: with human bodies and human movement, with human brains and human speech.

By the time the ancient Jews had built their first temple on the heights of Jerusalem, human beings had soloists and choirs, troupes of dancers and extensive orchestras. In the words of Psalm 150, the last psalm, God is to be praised “with the sound of the trumpet… with the psaltery and harp… with the timbrel and dance… with stringed instruments and organs… upon the loud cymbals… [and] upon the high sounding cymbals”—that last distinction suggesting that there were then at least two different kinds of cymbals.

Nor should we assume that music was employed only in divine worship. Though we don’t know what it sounded like, we know that human beings also used music to soothe children and sheep, to alleviate the monotony of work, to celebrate and to mourn.

The music we know today as the music of the Jewish temple is generally unaccompanied music, far more restrained than the ancient psalmist’s description. The wilder musical forms alluded to in Psalm 150 and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible were gradually replaced by a new sense of reverence and even austerity. Prophetic figures condemned musical lack of restraint as a form of paganism. And, indeed, the descriptions we have of the musical worship at pagan temples from Egypt to Mesopotamia suggest that restraint was not a prominent feature of ancient cultic worship.

Wild musical extravaganzas, whether taking place in pagan temples or at public festivals and in private orgiastic entertainments, won only condemnations from the later prophets. So the cultic music of Judaism eliminated much of the passion and excess that had formerly characterized it, becoming balanced and even sedate.

Something similar occurred in the more serious forms of Greek pagan worship, in which unaccompanied soloists, as well as choirs singing in unison, became the norm. Though we have virtually no examples to point to (because we have neither musical notation nor recordings from this period), there is good reason to assume that Greek pagan worship in the time of Jesus and later sounded rather like the more tranquil forms of Gregorian chant. Both synagogue singing and the singing used in early Christian liturgies probably took their cues from these later Greek models of sobriety. (But note the “probably,” for we are still in the realm of unprovable speculation.)

Plainchant, usually called “Gregorian chant” in the mistaken assumption that it was composed by Pope Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth century, is the first music for which we have a body of notation that enables us to examine, compare, and contrast. The first examples are sober, austere, even (we might say) purposely anti-sensual. These would surely have won the approval of the later Jewish prophets, who were so critical of musical “paganism.” But by the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the songs of the street begin to infect the stateliness of church chant. In the hymns of Thomas Aquinas, for instance, we hear some very catchy tunes that sound as if he decided to enliven the sacred subjects of his poetry with musical backup that everyone could sing along to—because they already knew the tunes, which Saint Thomas borrowed not from the tradition of Saint Gregory but from the hubbub of the public square. The tension between the requirement of apartness (keeping church music dignifiedly austere and clearly unlike its secular counterparts) and the requirement of attracting the masses— the need to attract ordinary folk with their less refined, more plebian sensibilities—will remain a tension from the Middle Ages down to our own day, erupting in devastating clashes especially in the period of the Italian Renaissance, which exalted pleasure and even extravagance, and the northern European Reformation, which restated the need for moderation and even sober intelligibility in all aspects of life but especially in divine worship.


The Tradition of Pope John Paul II


An op-ed for The New York Times.

Because the media are awash in unstinting encomiums to the indisputable greatness of Pope John Paul II, isn’t it time to ask which tradition he belonged to? Partisans unfamiliar with Christian history may judge this a strange question. Why, they may answer, he belonged to the Catholic tradition, of course. But there is no single Catholic tradition; there are rather Catholic traditions, which range from the voluntary poverty of Saint Francis of Assisi to the boundless greed of the Avignon popes, from the genial tolerance for diversity of Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century to the egomaniacal self-importance of Pope Pius IX in the 19th century, from the measured historical sensitivity of Cardinal John Henry Newman to the unbridled wackiness of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, from the secrecy and plotting of Opus Dei to the openness and humane service of the Community of Sant’Egidio. More to the point, over its two thousand year history, Roman Catholicism has provided a fertile field for an immense variety of papal traditions.

Despite his choice of name, John Paul II shared little in common with his immediate predecessors. John Paul I lasted only a month, but in that time we were treated to a typical Italian of moderating tendencies, one who had even, prior to his election, sent a message of congratulations to the parents of the world’s first test-tube baby — not a gesture that resonated with the Church’s fundamentalists, who insist on holding the line against anything that smacks of tampering with “Nature,” an intellectual construct far removed from what ordinary people mean by that word. Paul VI, though painfully cautious, allowed the appointment of bishops (and especially archbishops and cardinals) who were the opposite of yes men, outspoken champions of the poor and oppressed and truly representative of the parts of the world they came from, such as the uncondemning Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, who tried so hard at the end of his life to find common ground within a Church rent by division. In contrast, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston publicly rebuked the dying Bernardin for this saintly effort because, as Law insisted, the Church knows the truth and is therefore exempt from anything as undignified as dialogue. Law, who had to resign after he was outed as Cardinal Coverup, the cynical front man for a staggeringly pervasive pedophilia scandal, must stand as the characteristic appointment of John Paul II, neurotically protective of the institution of the Church but quite dismissive of the moral requirement to protect and cherish human beings.

John Paul II was almost the polar opposite of the great John XXIII, who singlehandedly dragged Catholicism to confront twentieth-century realities — after its long dalliance with the regressive policies of Pius IX, who imposed the peculiar doctrine of papal infallibility on the First Vatican Council, and, most especially, after the reign of terror that Pius X inflicted on Catholic theologians in the opening decades of the 20th century. Unfortunately, John Paul II was much closer to the traditions of Piuses IX and X than to his namesakes. Instead of mitigating the absurdities of Vatican I’s novel declaration of papal infallibility, a declaration that stemmed almost wholly from Pius IX’s paranoia about the “evils” ranged against him in the modern world, John Paul II actually attempted to further this doctrine by declaring such items as women’s ordination off limits now and forever — Catholics were not even supposed to allow their minds to think about such a thing! — because, in the end, the pope alone knows what is theologically true. In seeking to impose conformity of thought throughout his Church, he summoned theologians to secret star chamber inquiries, devoid of due process, and had his Grand Inquisitor, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, issue condemnations of their work.

But John Paul II’s most lasting legacy to Catholicism will come from the episcopal appointments he made. In order to be named a bishop, a priest must be seen to be absolutely opposed, in any and all circumstances, to masturbation, premarital sex, birth control, condoms used to prevent the spread of AIDS, stem cell research, abortion, divorce, homosexual relations, married priests, women priests, any questioning of papal infallibility, any suggestion that Catholics have anything substantial to learn from Protestants or from non-Christian religions, and any hint of Marxist analysis. (If this pope had lasted a bit longer, he would surely have added absolute opposition to the removal of a feeding tube to his list of litmus tests.) It is nearly impossible to find men who subscribe wholeheartedly to this entire catalogue of certitudes — which means that, by and large, only duplicitous sycophants and intellectual incompetents could be appointed bishops. The good priests were passed over; and not a few, in their growing frustration as the pontificate of John Paul II stretched on, left the priesthood to seek fulfillment elsewhere. Twenty-six years of such militant episcopal appointments by John Paul II have left the Catholic Church bereft of genuine leadership and have led directly not so much to the pedophilia scandal (which required only supposedly celibate priests who were in fact sexually immature narcissists) as to the pedophilia coverup (which required only bishops who were dedicated institutionalists unable to think for themselves — an apt description of the current crop).

The situation is dire. Anyone can walk into a Catholic church on a Sunday and see pews, once filled to bursting, now sparsely populated with grey heads. It is too late to win back the younger generations. The Church must begin again, as if it were the Church of the catacombs, an oddball minority sect in a world of casual cruelty and unbending empire that gathers adherents because it is so unlike the surrounding society. The ancient Church was a democracy that admitted women and slaves to equal status with freeborn males. It called itself by the Greek word Ekklesia, the word the Athenians used for their wide open assembly, the world’s first participatory democracy. In using this word, the early Christians meant to call attention to the fact that their society within a society acted not out of political power but only out of the power of love, love for all as equal children of God. But they went much further than the Athenians, for they permitted no restrictions on participation, no citizens and non-citizens, no Greeks and non-Greeks, no patriarchs and submissive females. For, as Saint Paul put it repeatedly, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. For all are one in Christ Jesus.” The Christian Ekklesia, then, was the Church Catholic — that is, universal, open equally to all — and bishops were always elected (never appointed) to articulate the sentiments of their people.

The Apostle Peter, to whom Vatican propaganda awards the title “the first pope,” was one of many leaders in the primitive Church, as far from an absolute monarch as could be, a man whose most salient characteristic was that he often — and humbly — confessed that he was wrong. Even if the tradition of Ekklesia as the welcoming home of all the children of God has been submerged by later (and less authentic) traditions of hierarchy and control, the Church always has at least the possibility of reclaiming its early history.

John Paul II has been foursquare at the center of the ugly later tradition of aggressive papalism. Whereas John XXIII wished “to use the medicine of mercy rather than severity” and “to meet the needs of the present age by showing the validity of [Church] teaching rather than by condemnations,” John Paul II was an enthusiastic condemner. Yes, he was a good man, who loved children, poor and sick people, and anyone who had suffered unmerited calamity. Yes, he was one of the few great political figures of our age, a man of physical and moral courage more responsible than any other for bringing down the oppressive, anti-human Communism of Eastern Europe. He takes his place with Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Nelson Mandela, as one uniquely responsible for saving a part of the world from additional unnecessary horrors. But he is not a great religious figure. How could he be? He may, in time to come, be credited with destroying his Church.


How the Greeks Invented Sports

Note: This article appeared in slightly different form on the OpEd page of The New York Times for August 9, 2004 under the byline of Thomas Cahill.

The ancient Greeks were the world’s first sports fans. They loved games of all kinds, which they called agones. That’s how we came by our words “agony” and “antagonist”–which should give us a good idea of how the Greeks viewed their games: as agonies in which antagonist is pitted against antagonist till one comes out on top. A better English term for what they had in mind might be “contest” or “struggle” or even “power-performance.”

Ancient Greece was a society of alpha males, who took their fun seriously. Whether they were at war with one another (which they often were and which they got a huge bang out of) or enjoying more peaceful pursuits, they insisted that certain rules be followed and that there always be, smack in the middle of all the fun, an agon. In war, there was nothing that thrilled them more than a fight to the death, one army’s champion pitted against another. In peacetime, they couldn’t just take in a poetry reading, listen to a concert, or watch a play. They had to enliven the proceedings with a poetry contest, a music contest, a drama contest. There always had to be a declared winner–on whom the laurels could be heaped–and at least one miserable loser. Even their parties, which easily developed into orgies, included contests over which participant could deliver the most eloquent toast or tell the funniest joke or go the most rounds on the couch with the flute girl. Needless to say, it was the flute girl who lost.

If by sports we only mean a few guys kicking a ball around, the Greeks were not the inventors. Soccer in its simplest form has been with us ever since the invention of animal husbandry, soon after which some playful young shepherd kicked an inflated sheep’s bladder or a decapitated sheep’s head in the direction of another shepherd, who was inspired to kick it back. Certain bloodthirsty Celtic and Mesoamerican tribes–the Irish and the Aztecs, in particular–preferred human heads rather than sheep parts for such momentary diversions, which soon developed into rudimentary team sports. But if by sports we mean a series of organized contests of physical prowess, conducted according to acknowledged rules in the presence of enthusiastic crowds and scheduled well in advance to encourage participation by all the best athletes available–for the sheer glory and fame of winning–we are talking about a purely Greek invention.

The Greeks got a bang out of everything they did, but nothing raised their spirits more than winning (or even just watching) an agon.

There is no greater glory for a living man
Than all that he can win by his own feet and hands.
So come, compete, and from your heart cast care away!

are the words of the Phaeacian prince Laodamas in Homer’s Odyssey, as he invites the great hero Odysseus to join in the games the Phaeacians have arranged in his honor. “Let’s see if you’re really as good as your reputation” is what the expectant Laodamas is thinking, but hoping to be thrilled out of his mind by Odysseus’s performance. (He is–when Odysseus rises and effortlessly wings across the field a discus that lesser men cannot lift.) The ancient Greeks knew a lot about the natural highs that strenuous physical exercise can produce and the elevation of mood that spectators can experience just by watching empathetically a first-rate athlete perform at his best.

The Greek word for “best” is aristos (from which we derive “aristocrat”). It was the word the free-born adult male applied to himself and his friends.

Everyone else–females, boys who had not reached their majority, slaves, resident aliens, barbarians–belonged to the lesser orders of existence, and most of them could be violated–that is, scourged, wounded, murdered, or raped–any time an aristos was so inclined. Though the wedded wife of a male citizen was off-limits in this regard, his underage son was fair game in a peculiarly Greek courtship ritual in which sexual favors were yielded to older lovers who had supplied the requisite number of expensive gifts. The sexual favors were granted according to highly specific rules that cannot be spelled out in a family newspaper; enough to remark that pederast is also a Greek word. Athletes who performed at the Olympics and other Greek games usually belonged to the category of “youth,” the time between childhood and adulthood, between peach-fuzz pubescence and the appearance of a full beard, the mark of full citizenship. These youths, who always competed nude, attracted spectators of many kinds, but especially older men competing to become their lovers or, at the least, intending to feast on their display.

Married women, however, were not permitted to enjoy this feast but were kept at home, where they had to make do with the occasional matrimonial visits of their aging husbands, normally a decade or two older than the wives and whose profounder sexual interests tended to lie elsewhere. Though matrons were banned, girls were invited to ogle and fantasize about future husbands. They were also allowed to compete with one another in a single footrace, clothed in a short-skirted chiton that exposed plenty of leg but only one breast. This was a world that might have welcomed Janet Jackson but would have given John Ashcroft a migraine.

If sex–eros, as the Greeks called it–was always central to these games, so was death. The Greeks knew perfectly well that the games were a sort of ritualized, theatrical version of death on the battlefield, an imitation of their favorite sport: war. The games taught and reinforced favorite Greek themes of honor and glory, of winning over others, of triumphing in combat. But they also underscored a different message altogether: you can’t win all the time, and oneday you will lose. The poet Archilochus, a sensational athlete of the seventh century B.C. but also a realist, gave himself this advice:

O heart, my heart, no public leaping when you win;
no solitude nor weeping when you fail to prove.
Rejoice at simple things; and be but vexed by sin
and evil slightly. Know the tides through which we move.

The last sentence is quietly ominous. The tides through which we move–the highs and the lows, the peaks and the troughs–tell us repeatedly that nothing lasts and that all life ends in death. Let us temper our excitement and agitation, whether for the ecstasy of battle or the ecstasy of sex, whether over great achievement or great loss, and admit to ourselves that all things have their moment and are gone. In such high-minded resignation lies the aristocratic origins of sportsmanship.

The ancient Greeks were unlike us in so many ways, but in nothing is their separation from us more complete than in their constant reiteration that Fate rules all and there is nothing any of us can do about it. The Greeks gave us so many of our words and concepts that, without them, our dictionaries would shrink to near-pamphlet size. (The comical father of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” is really not far wrong.) But it took the injection of the Judeo-Christian tradition of hope into the great Greco-Roman river in order to redirect the worldview of the West and overcome the gloomy fatedness that casts shadows over virtually every utterance left to us from the classical world.

Once the Roman Empire had overwhelmed the Greeks in the second century B.C., the Romans had to be invited to the games. The Emperor Nero, history’s most famous spoiled brat, showed himself a very bad sport by insisting against all custom that the Olympics be rescheduled so he could attend and then demanding first prize for every event he entered. The lower orders of Greco-Roman society were never invited to participate, nor were the unthinkable barbarians who lived their brutish lives beyond the borders of the Empire. But the Olympics and similar Panhellenic games nevertheless always had a heady internationalism about them, for they welcomed representatives from all over the known world–so long as they could speak Greek.

Once the Christian church came to influence the Roman political establishment, however, Greek paganism–the prayers to the gods, the fierceness of the games, the nudity, the sexual shamelessness–was trounced and disappeared underground by the sixth century A.D. But as with most human artifices, its spirit never died out completely. It was still there to be resurrected in the Renaissance and exploited once more in the Enlightenment. It was the outer wave of the Enlightenment that brought the Olympics back to Greek shores when the International Olympic Committee was formed and the modern Olympic games were established at Athens in 1896, thanks to the vision of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a stylish, relentless, enlightened Frenchman with a profound appreciation for what the ancient Greeks had accomplished, as well as very Judeo-Christian hopes for world peace and international cooperation.

Being a baron and a ninteenth-century male, de Coubertin failed to perceive the perniciousness of European classism and universal sexism, so invitations to participate in the first modern Olympics were issued to “gentlemen” only.

But a young Greek shepherd named Spyridon Louis, who was allowed on the Greek team at the last minute, won the first modern marathon. Afterwards, he turned down all honors–gold, cash, jewelry, free meals, free haircuts, free coffee for life–that the ecstatic Greeks pressed on him, even an offer of marriage from an aristocratic beauty, who in offering herself prior to the race to the winner-to-be had presumed that only a member of her own class could win! The modest winner accepted the olive wreath that was his due, returned to his little village of Maroussi, and married his sweetheart.

This startling crack in the class barrier presaged the IOC’s tearing down of other culturally determined barriers, including gender. Nor has Spyridon Louis been forgotten: the new Olympic stadium at Athens is named for him, and “to do a Louis”–to win unexpectedly–has become part of the Greek language.

We in the West are–and have been for many centuries–Greco-Roman Judeo-Christians, the inheritors of a double tradition, a tradition that has had incalculable effect on the whole world. We are in a position to pick and choose from the abundant variety of our shared past. We hardly need to imitate ancient Greek bellicosity, racism, classism, or sexism, or to laud the supreme worth ancient Greece placed on domination. (Actually, there are not a few among us who continue to admire just such things, though our society as a whole no longer pays lip service to these values.) But we must remain exceedingly grateful to the Greeks for introducing us to the peaceful uses of competition and the thrilling experiences made possible by organized athletics, not least of which is the sense of human solidarity that comes to bind athletes from so many different places to one another and gives the immense Olympic audience an abiding feeling for the interconnectedness of the human family. Finally, there is the tremendous ecumenical value of humanity’s abandoning its daily preoccupations and spending a couple of weeks riveted on a cooperative world of physical grace and human perfectibility: all that one can win by his own–or her own–feet and hands.


The One True Faith

Note: This article appeared in slightly different form on the front page of The New York Times Week in Review for February 3, 2003 under the byline of Thomas Cahill.

Once upon a time, there was a religion whose adherents thought it to be the only true one. Because their God wished everyone (or so they thought) to believe as they did, they felt justified in imposing their religion on others. Toward those who refused to bow to the “true” religion, these true believers took different tacks at different times. Sometimes, they hemmed in the infidels (as they were called) with civil disabilities, limiting their licence to practice their own religion, forcing them to listen to propaganda, and otherwise restricting their freedom; at other times, they became more aggressive, burning the holy books of those who believed differently, smashing their sacred statues, and even engaging in wholesale slaughter of infidels — men, women, and children — as if they were rats carrying plague.

The religion I am thinking of is not Islam but Christianity, whose dark history of crusades, inquisitions, and pogroms lies not as far in the past as we might prefer to think. What changed Christianity? How did Christians learn the virtue of tolerance? Centuries of bloody religious wars and persecutions finally convinced most Christians that there must be a better way to organize society, a way that did not involve quite so many burning bodies, human charnel houses, and corpse-strewn battlefields. The slow germination of this revolution in consciousness can be dated at least to the eighteenth century, toward the end of which a country finally emerged — our own — that officially refused to play the old game of whose religion was true, a country that took a generously agnostic view of religious truth: you may believe whatever you like, and so may I, and neither of us can impose belief on the other.

Is there an essentially different dynamic at work in the Islamic countries that keeps them from arriving at the civic virtue of tolerance? The forces of Enlightenment that exalted tolerance in the West were given their impetus by the European wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in which Christian was pitted against Christian — wars over points of doctrine that must have looked exceedingly abstruse, even absurd to non-Christians, who could see only similarities between the warring systems. We may well wonder if this Enlightenment would have emerged with such vigor had the battles involved Christian against Jew — or, more exotically, against Muslim or Buddhist or Zoroastrian. Protestants and Catholics had to learn to be tolerant of one another — to be tolerant of different forms of Christianity — before they could ever learn to tolerate those whose religious affiliations were non-Christian. In a similar way, the Muslim world is more likely to develop the virtue of tolerance as it surveys the hopelessly diverse ways in which different communities and peoples have responded to the core insights of Islam. What do Turks have in common with Taliban or Wahhabi Muslims with Sufis? Very little, it would seem at first glance. What, for that matter, do Sunni Muslims have in common with Shiites? If non-Muslims can see similarities, warring Muslim factions can often see only deadly differences.

The West should not allow itself too many congratulations on its vaunted tolerance. In Northern Ireland, little Catholic children are still unable to walk to school without hearing vile epithets hurled at them by foul-mouthed adults. In Great Britain, a Catholic may still not serve as prime minister or sit upon the storied throne of Edward the Confessor. The Vatican, for its part, first blessed tolerance as a civic virtue a scant thirty-nine years ago — at the close of the Second Vatican Council. Prior to that time, the official Catholic position was little different from that of the mullahs of Kandahar: when we are in power, we will impose religion as we see fit.

This new Catholic blessing of tolerance — which took the form of a declaration that religious liberty is the right of every human being — was made possible chiefly because of the life and work of two uncommon human beings. The first was the courtly Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, who was able to reinterpret Catholic political theory so as to give theological primacy to freedom of conscience. Not incidentally, Courtney Murray was a 20th-century American, deeply in love with American political ideals.

The other was John XXIII, the pope who convoked the council with the express aim of bringing the teaching of the Catholic Church up to date. With his whole being John hated using religion to divide people from one another or to belittle the worldview of anyone. He was, in fact, the greatest pope who ever lived, beloved not only by Catholics and other Christians but by people of all kinds throughout the world. As he lay dying, his secretary read to him from the mountains of sympathetic letters then piling into the Vatican. In one of these his correspondent wrote, “Insofar as an atheist can pray, I’m praying for you.” Hearing this, John, despite his pain, smiled with delight. For him, the common bond of humanity was all that was necessary for profound friendship and understanding — and a little humor always helped.

Each of the great religions creates, almost from its inception, a colorful spectrum of voices that range all the way from pacifist to terrorist. But each religion, because of its metaphorical ambiguity and intellectual subtlety, holds within it marvelous potential for development and adaptation. This development will be full of zigzags and may sometimes seem as slow as the development of the universe, but it runs — I would say, almost inevitably — from exclusivist militancy to inclusive peace. The tolerant Islam that in the 15th and 16th centuries allowed the Jews of Spain, expelled by Catholic tyrants, to find homes in Arab lands has not disappeared from the face of the earth. The peace-loving Islam that in the 7th and 8th centuries protected the world’s oldest portrait of Jesus — in the Sinai monastery of Saint Catherine — from destruction at the hands of raging Christian iconoclasts has not been erased. These humane Islamic responses are living seeds, a little buried perhaps but capable of a great flowering.

The bloodthirsty Judaism of the Book of Joshua in which God commands the Israelites to put all Canaanites, even children, to the sword, is hardly the Judaism of today, except perhaps at the extreme end of its spectrum — in the followers of someone like Meir Kahane or the ultra-Orthodox fanatics who encouraged the assassination of the peacemaker Yitzak Rabin. But in the same period as Joshua, or soon thereafter, when Gideon builds an altar in the desert to replace the altar of Baal, the god of thunder and war, he calls the new altar, “Peace is the Name of God” — that is, peace is God’s essence, the virtue at the heart of reality. In a similar way, the Christianity of thirteenth-century Europe — a time of bloody crusades and inquisitions against heretics, a time when Pope Boniface VIII proclaimed that complete subjection to him was “utterly necessary for the salvation of every living creature” — is very different from the Christianity of Pope John XXIII, who wrote in his diary that “the whole world is my family.” At the extreme end of the Christian spectrum there are still intolerant bigots like Jerry Falwell and Bob Jones and crazy militants who shoot up abortion clinics, but these types are now far from the mainstream. And even in the thirteenth century, Christianity was capable of bringing forth such an utterly pacifist figure as Francis of Assisi. Over the ages of its development, each religion learns gradually — and with many steps backward and sideways but, finally, with more steps forward –that it must find a way to live side by side with its “heretical” offshoots and with other religions that do not share all its views and values. It can never have the whole world (as Boniface VIII imagined), except in love (as John XXIII intended).

Islam, seven centuries younger than Christianity, nearly three millennia younger than Judaism, needs a distinguished theoretical peacemaker like John Courtney Murray and a warm-hearted, iconic peacemaker like John XXIII. If such peacemakers should emerge, they will stand — as did Courtney Murray and Pope John in their tradition — on the shoulders of great theologians and saints who came before them in the rich tradition of Islam. But to paraphrase the letter-writing atheist: insofar as a Christian can appreciate the providential workings of Allah in Islam, I am confident such peacemakers will arrive. My confidence is rooted neither in a baseless, smiley-faced optimism nor in a discredited historical determinism but in the belief that all the great religions hold in common, a belief that there is a force beyond human muddledness that holds up the universe, a force we usually call Providence — the force that gives us hope for the future.

In fact, Islamic peacemakers are already at work. They are people like the Palestinian-American, Mubarak Awad, who may one day be seen as a Martin Luther King of Islamic non-violence, and the profoundly impressive Palestinian philosopher, Sari Nusseibeh, who speaks repeatedly of the fruitlessness of violence and points to the irreducibly Judaic roots of Islam. Such men exist not just among the Palestinians but in countries throughout the Islamic world. At present, they may appear to be lonely voices — but no more lonely than Courtney Murray and Pope John once were. And they stand in their tradition on shoulders as broad as those of Gideon and Saint Francis. In the end, they shall succeed . . . inshallah.


Jews, Christians, and God’s Word

A Common Heritage of Prayer and Action

Note: Thomas Cahill has given this address in slightly different form on several occasions to interfaith audiences, most recently in March 2003 in Baltimore to The Institute For Christian & Jewish Studies.

I am engaged in writing a projected seven-volume series called The Hinges of History®, a recounting of the stories and people that have made the Western world the Western world — that have made us the people we are by giving us our characteristic thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. Three volumes have now been published. Volume I is an introductory volume to a new way of looking at our history. It is called How the Irish Saved Civilization. Volume II, The Gifts of the Jews, takes us back to the beginning of the West, for the Jews are the very font and origin of Western civilization. There would be no West without them. Volume III, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, concerns the teachings of Jesus and the early Christians. Volumes II and III are very closely related, since Christianity began as a form of Judaism, springing more or less directly out of the ancient religion of the Israelites. This evening I would like to address a theme that runs through Volumes II and III, the theme of Jewish prophecy. Since Jewish prophecy is certainly a literary tradition with its own characteristic literary conventions, it surely deserves consideration in civilized circumstances, such as this: a talk given by a writer in a house of worship and sponsored by an academic institution. But, I warn you beforehand, Jewish prophecy is primarily a moral tradition — an unsettling and unconventional moral tradition that can be stark and offensive and seldom minds its manners. You and I will have to do the best we can with it.

Let me tell you first about a society of peace and prosperity that existed long ago. In this society, many people had much more than they needed. Real estate agents, bankers and lenders, and everyone involved in finance were all doing spectacularly well. The construction business was experiencing an unprecedented boom, because so many people were building new homes and adding to existing ones. Whereas once upon a time two or three rooms had been thought sufficient, even abundant, one could now hardly hold one’s head up in society if one had not ten or twelve spacious rooms to show off and any number of baths (complete with saunas and jacuzzis). It seemed as if everyone now required a spectacular view, so that on every hill there sprawled the sort of arresting architecture that would have caught the eye of Architectural Digest (had it been around at the time). Elaborate wine cellars and even personal vineyards were in vogue, and lavish wine tastings were the very thing with which to impress your friends and neighbors. Of course, you hadn’t a chance of impressing anyone unless your home was generously bedecked with precious ornaments and your wardrobes filled with elegant finery. All the markets were buzzing; and the communications, entertainment, and travel industries had never enjoyed such escalating profits. People were into creative leisure — how best to fill the empty hours with interesting diversions and sometimes with naughty but harmless adventures. People became bored quickly, especially the restless young, and were always on the lookout for Something New, some fascinating innovation, however trifling, that could provide original, if fleeting, entertainment.

The men and women of this society — at least the ones who luxuriated properly — would have been shocked to hear that there were some in their midst who enjoyed none of these pleasures, people who could not afford such things, people who could not even be seen (at least if one were fortunate enough to be looking down from one of the more desirable hilltops), people hidden away here and there, living lives of quiet desperation. The people on the hilltops would have been greatly offended had anyone dared suggest that there was something missing from their lives and that the desperate lives of the dispossessed were their responsibility — that, in fact, it was their uncaring wealth that was responsible for the plight of the invisible poor.

The scene I have set is not in the Hamptons or Marin County or Greenspring Valley, even though it could serve as a description of not a few portions of our planet during many phases of human history. The scene I have described belongs to Samaria in the Kingdom of Israel in the eighth century B.C. Every detail of my description is taken from a document of that time, written by an eyewitness, the prophet Amos. Amos, a shepherd from Judea, was so shocked by what he saw — by conspicuous consumption on such a grand scale — that he realized that this was just a novel form of social injustice. Facing the leisurely ladies of Samaria, he found he could not refrain from shouting at them, thus:

Listen to this, you cows of Bashan
living on the hill of Samaria [the best real estate],
exploiting the weak and ill-treating the poor,
saying to your husbands, “Bring us something to drink!”
The Lord God has sworn by his holiness:
Look, the days will soon be on you
when he will use hooks to drag you away
and fish-hooks for the very last of you;
through the breaches in the wall you will leave,
each one straight ahead,
and be herded away towards [Mount] Hermon,
declares the LORD.

The ladies of Samaria were not accustomed to being addressed in this manner, nor were their sleek husbands, of whom Amos, speaking in God’s name, offered the following description:

They hate the man who teaches justice at the city gate
and detest anyone who declares the truth.
For trampling on the poor man
and for extorting taxes on his wheat:
although you have built houses of dressed stone,
you will never live in them;
although you have planted pleasant vineyards,
you will not drink wine from them:
for I know how many your crimes are
and how outrageous your sins,
you oppressors of the upright, who hold people to ransom
and thrust the poor aside at the gates.

Prophets are, by their nature, inconvenient party-poopers (and you don’t know how lucky you are to be addressed by a mere writer rather than by a Hebrew prophet). It is a mistaken notion that prophets can see the future. Rather, they tell us what is true right now. Amos is the first in a long line of Hebrew prophets who tell the people the truth, however unwelcome, about how they actually stand with God.

A decade or so after Amos’s time, another prophet, Micah, finds himself confronted — in the southern kingdom of Judah — with an appalling practice, the Canaanite tradition of sacrificing children to the god Moloch, a tradition that had begun to attract even some Israelites, who burned babies alive in a place south of Jerusalem, the horrible Valley of Hinnon, known in the Gospels as Gehenna (or hell). Micah presents us with an idle devotee asking himself how best to worship God: should he sacrifice his own child so that his petition may be answered to his satisfaction?

Wherewith shall I come before the Lord
and bow myself before the high God?
shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves of a year old?

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
or with ten thousand rivers of oil?
shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

The prophet, sickened by such musings, tells the devotee in no uncertain terms that God

has already shown you what is right:
and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice,
love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?

How does one “walk with God”? This is a phrase used repeatedly through the course of the Hebrew Bible. Long before Micah, the Book of Genesis speaks of dim ancestral figures, such as Enoch and Noah, as those who “walked with God.” Of course, the phrase is another way of saying that such figures kept God’s law and did his will. But “walk[ing] with God” suggests also that God’s law — his will — is best understood and kept by those who share an intimacy with God.

“To walk with God” is also to pray. One cannot keep God’s word without listening to God. One cannot lead a moral life if one does not set aside time to listen to God’s voice — to be still and let God speak in one’s life. The ancient Jews, who were very unlike the ancient Greeks and had no patience for Greek categories and distinctions, had an amazingly unitive view of life. They did not need to distinguish prayer and moral action as if these were separate movements: to do justice, to love mercy, to walk with God — that is, to be moral and to be prayerful — were all simply aspects of the same process.

Let me give you a third example of prophecy, this one taken from early Christian tradition: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be taxed,” reports Luke in Chapter 2 of his Gospel, describing a time 2000 years ago that became the beginning of our era. This Caesar Augustus took his name from Julius Caesar, his adoptive father, who had ruled Rome but had lost his position — not by being voted out of office but by assassination (ancient Rome being a tad more dangerous than contemporary Washington).

How did Caesar Augustus become emperor? He had a highly influential family to whom many owed major political debts; he had skillful advisors and excellent connections. He believed his accession would be a vindication of the man who had preceded him in office and whose name he bore. At first, his lackluster personal qualities limited his advancement, but a tawdry sexual scandal involving the leader of the rival party — family man Mark Antony’s dalliance with Cleopatra, who was fond of thongs — gave Augustus an unparalleled opportunity, which he was able to exploit to the full. Though not the brightest flame in the chandelier of the Julian family, Augustus appeared affable and was more than willing to use any method, however devious, and any wile, however amoral, to obtain his objective, including the intimidation of public officials by threatening mobs assembled for that purpose. In the end, the Senate forsook its responsibilities to the Republic and capitulated in crowning Augustus as emperor. (The Roman Senate, unlike the American one, was not so much a legislative body as a judicial one, comparable in certain ways to our Supreme Court.) Publicists of all sorts, various clergy, even writers as well regarded as Virgil jumped on the bandwagon to declare that the new emperor had been chosen by heaven.

Why was the whole world being taxed? Despite the decree, it wasn’t really the whole world — just the poor and the lower rungs of the middle class, for in ancient Rome the rich only pretended to pay taxes, while everyone else bore the brunt of supporting the state. Caesar Augustus’s taxation method was even more cumbersome than, say, Florida’s voting procedures — at least for those who had to pay: “And all went to be taxed, every one to his own city” — including Joseph, who had to travel all the way from Nazareth, where he lived, to Bethlehem, because that was his birthplace, “to be taxed,” as Luke tells us, “with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.” Of course, if you lived in one of the better neighborhoods, you didn’t need to be saddled with such inconveniences. But if you were poor or a member of a minority group, a hundred mile journey by donkey when you were nine months pregnant was just the way things were. As Augustus might have said to Mary, “I wish I could wave a wand” — which is what one presidential candidate said a few years ago to a woman who could not afford the operation that would have saved her son’s life. “I wish I could wave a wand.” But, of course, Caesar Augustus would never think of upsetting the status quo or his personal network of powerful vested interests.

Were Mary and Joseph bitter? Did they wonder if God had abandoned them to be permanently oppressed by the rich and powerful? No, their lives were not confined to the politics or circumstances of the moment, however appalling. They had faith that, as Mary put it, God would one day “rout the proud of heart, pull the princes from their thrones and exalt the humble, fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty.” They were so sure this would happen that they lived as if it had already come to pass. And, besides, they had a brand new baby to look forward to, which made them so happy they could almost hear angels singing, “Peace on earth, good will to all.”

In her song of celebration about the baby she was about to give birth to, Mary spoke eloquently in the Jewish prophetic tradition — by seeing beyond the surface realities to the deep truth of human affairs. “My soul extols the Lord,” she exclaimed,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
because he has acknowledged his servant’s humiliation.
Look: from now on will all ages call me happy
because the Almighty One (holy his Name) has done great things for me!
His mercy falls on every generation that fears him.
ith his powerful arm he has routed the proud of heart.
He has pulled the princes from their thrones and exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
He has come to help his servant Israel, remembering his mercy,
in accordance with the promise he made to our fathers —
to Abraham and his seed forever.

Of course, God had yet to do any of these things, but in Mary’s view they were as good as done — because God is just and keeps his word.

Mary’s son, Jesus, will grow up to speak in the same prophetic tradition as his mother. Each of the prophets is an individual, of course, Amos the most outraged, Hosea the saddest and most affectionate, Isaiah the most literary and gorgeously metaphorical, Micah the most appalled, Mary the most muscular and triumphant, Jesus the most gentle. Jesus almost never rants and seldom criticizes — and in this he is the most positive of the prophets. “Happy the poor in spirit,” says Jesus,

for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Happy the afflicted, for they will be comforted.
Happy the undemanding, for they will inherit the earth.
Happy the hungerers and thirsters for justice, for they will be filled.
Happy the merciful, for they will be given mercy.
Happy the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Happy the peacemakers, for they will be called God’s children.
Happy the persecuted for justice’s sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Well, with one or two exceptions, this doesn’t seems a particularly happy lot. What’s happy about the poor (“in spirit” or otherwise), the afflicted, and the persecuted? Empty stomachs that hunger and dry throats that thirst don’t sound so happy; peacemakers usually get their comeuppance; and is anyone more persecuted than “the pure in heart”? “Happy the unhappy” we might say in summary. But these are the Beatitudes and, in Matthew’s Gospel, where we find them, they represent Jesus’s basic program. But like his mother (and like the whole prophetic tradition), Jesus sees that, in some sense, the future is already here — present at least in seed — and that the rewards of the just lie outside ordinary time. Notice also that while some of the “happy” ones are clearly put upon — the afflicted, the persecuted — others — the poor in spirit, the champions of justice for the downtrodden, the merciful, the peacemakers — have chosen to be the people they are. This division points to Jesus’s two audiences: the powerless, who need to be reminded that God loves them and will see to their ultimate triumph, and the powerful, who need to be encouraged to abandon their own comfort for the sake of others. The main purpose of the Gospel (or Good News) of Jesus is the same purpose as that of the entire prophetic tradition: to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

It is precisely the entitlement of the powerful — of the Caesars and their allies — and the disenfranchisement of the powerless that make life so unlivable. And whether this enshrined and permanent injustice, taken for granted by all, issues in war, torture, and all the grand oppressions of history or just in the petty tortures that we visit on one another, spirit is crushed and ordinary life is made a torment.

But for Mary and Jesus — as for the whole prophetic tradition — justice and mercy can be accomplished only by those who “walk with God,” who listen to God’s word, who pray. Mary’s outburst, her “Magnificat,” is a form of prayer — a prayer of adoration, a celebration of God’s greatness, a greatness hidden from those who put themselves first and, therefore, cannot pray, because their own outsized egos prevent them from “walk[ing] in God’s presence.” We are physical beings. If we are tremendously happy, we must leap and shout — and that is what Mary is doing, just as David had done when he danced nearly naked before the ark and sang aloud in his ecstasy. But despite such examples of spontaneous praise — which are often the best way we have of conversing with God — what is more important is not that we speak but that God speaks. Mary’s and David’s songs of praise are responses to God’s word and to God’s mighty acts. The heart of prayerfulness is not our words to God but God’s word to us.

“When you pray,” Jesus advises his disciples, “don’t babble like the gentiles, for they think that by using many words they will make themselves heard. . . . Your Father-in-Heaven already knows what you need. So set your hearts on the Reign of God and on his Justice, and everything else will be given to you as well.” This is just what Mary has done in her prayer. God’s Justice on behalf of the poor and the marginalized — not her own needs — are the center of her concern, what she has “set [her] heart on.” She knows that everything else will be given to her as well — and that she need not go on about it.

If Amos, Micah, Mary, and Jesus were to return to us today, they would have the same thing to say to educated, prosperous Americans that they had to say to our counterparts so many centuries ago. They would look out across our world and notice that one sixth of the world’s people face actual starvation, subsisting precariously on less than a dollar a day, that one-half of the world’s people exist on less than two dollars a day, which means that half of all the world’s children go to bed hungry every night. This is completely unnecessary, because there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone. The only thing lacking is our will to distribute it justly. I think God’s favorite Washington lobby is probably Bread for the World, which lobbies for the just distribution of food in this country and throughout the world.

Amos, Micah, Mary, and Jesus would look out across our country and notice that a black teenager is six times more likely to be sentenced to prison for a non-violent crime than is his white counterpart. If the crime involved violence, he is nine times more likely to be sentenced to prison. If the crime involved drugs, a black youth is 48 times more likely to be sentenced to prison than is a white youth convicted of the same offense. Though white teenagers make up 79 percent of the population of those under 18, they make up only 25 percent of teenagers admitted to adult prisons, whereas black teenagers, who represent only 15 percent of the under-18 population, make up 58 percent of all teenagers admitted to adult prisons — which are our principal training grounds for hardened criminals.

Given such statistics, is it any wonder that our schools are failing? My daughter, of whom I am inordinately proud, has dedicated herself to teaching literature to minority students in a difficult urban high school; and she said recently that her greatest enemy is the despair of her students. They know instinctively the statistics I have just quoted: they must live with them every day — and they know how little chance they have of ever succeeding against such odds. We are still sacrificing our children to evil gods.

And the increasing division of our population into a spectrum that runs from ghettos to gated communities insures that the poor are growing invisible to the complacent majority. As Jack Newfield wrote recently, “We don’t see all the people being told there are no applications for foodstamps available at that location; all the people postponing medical treatment for their children because they don’t have health insurance; all the people trying to find a job with their phone service shut off because they couldn’t pay the bill; or all the deliverymen for drugstores and supermarkets paid only $3 an hour, which is illegal.” Elvis once sang, “Do we simply turn and look away?” Now, we don’t have to look away because these scenes are kept from us. Gary Hart said just last month: “How do you make the principles of equality and justice and fairness work in a time when everyone’s well off.” Gary! you stupid, smug suburbanite. Newfield adds that “in one way we are even worse off than we were” in times past, for “we have no Jacob Riis now humanizing poverty, making the satisfied see it and smell it. We have no American Dickens or Orwell, no James Agee and Walker Evans, no Michael Harrington, no John Steinbeck, no Edward R. Murrow.” We need a Hebrew prophet to singe our eyebrows with his words.

I mentioned earlier the unequal taxation imposed by Caesar. Why did he do it? Well, he couldn’t very well tax his friends and cronies, the very people who helped him obtain his office, now could he? But he did need income to run the state and defend it against its enemies. Obviously, the non-rich would have to take up the burden. It is horrifying to have to remark that the United States of America is now embarking on the same course of unequal — and unjust — taxation that was once the modus operandi of the Roman Empire. Between 1995 and 1999 the number of Americans with million dollar incomes more than doubled while their taxes fell by 11 percent. For all other Americans, the portion of their income taken by taxes rose for the same period.

Payroll taxes, which fall most heavily on low- and middle-income families, were increased in the 1980s in order to generate a surplus that would make it easier for the federal government to pay benefits to an aging population. But now, thanks to the disappearance of the budget surplus, the excess revenue collected by the payroll tax is being used up to cover deficits elsewhere in the federal budget. Why are we suffering such deficits? For one reason only: to fund Mr. Bush’s tax cuts for the rich. This administration is already raiding Social Security and will soon bankrupt Medicaid. In a short time there will no longer be any money left for any of the social programs that shield the poor and the less affluent from utter desperation — and our children and grandchildren will be saddled with gargantuan long-term debt. Bush’s slogan during his election campaign was: “Leave no child behind.” Given his new budget, it is now clearly: “Leave no millionaire behind.” This is class warfare, all right, on behalf of the Empire Class.

I do not normally look to The New York Times for prophecy. But in a lead editorial it said recently: “The Bush budget is a road map toward a different kind of American society, in which government no longer taxes the rich to aid the poor. . . . The budget discontinues the tradition of making 10-year projections into the future, possibly because it does not want the American people to see where the road is heading.” We are indeed heading toward a different kind of American society in which government no longer taxes the rich to aid the poor; that exchange is now in the course of a historic — and revolutionary — reversal, all but unnoticed by the media. And the gulf between rich and poor widens daily, as the rich become the immeasurably rich while the poor become the unthinkable poor. A few corporate thieves — we all know their names — not long ago robbed ordinary investors of 200 billion dollars — four times the property losses of 9/11. It is a near-certainty that nearly all of them will go scot-free. But it is also an absolute certainty that many poor people will continue to languish in prison — and not a few will be put to death — for the simple reason that they cannot afford decent legal counsel. There are no millionaires along death row, nor will there ever be.

As readers of the New Testament know, Caesar Augustus was a great proponent of the death penalty. By taxing the poor and middle classes, he created a Roman Empire increasingly full of resentment and hopelessness, where the distinctions between rich and poor became as extreme as the distinctions between life and death. In How the Irish Saved Civilization, I show that it was unequal taxation that became in the end the main reason for Rome’s downfall. The lessons of history are manifold and sometimes contradictory. But few statements about history are more generally true than Santayana’s tremendous insight: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (It is an insight that at least every Jewish listener in this gathering knows in his or her bones.) It has just come to light that Donald Rumsfeld’s first major initiative, on taking over the Pentagon, was to commission a study of how the empires of the ancient world maintained their hegemony. He might more profitably have commissioned a study of how those empires, each in its turn, lost their power — through hubris, blindness, and rampant injustice — and disintegrated into nothingness. In the end, as Paul warned the Galatians long ago, “God is not mocked” — nor is God’s Justice. “For you reap what you sow.”

As we live through our present and look forward to the future, we must also stay in touch with our shared past. An examination of this past can give contemporary Jews and Christians a better appreciation of who they are, of the immense journey we have taken down the roads of history. “I am a part of all that I have met,” was the great line Tennyson gave Ulysses. We, too, should be part of all that we have met along the roads and rivers of our history. And whether Jew or Christian, believer or atheist, we are all of us the inheritors of the sublime moral tradition of Jewish prayer and prophecy. We have together a common purpose and, in some inescapable sense, a common destiny. And while no one of us can do everything, everyone must do something. What is essential is that each of us take a step forward to join the ranks of those who hope, that we hold out our hand — to someone. There is no other way to walk with God.

Amos accused the people of Samaria in words that seared and phrases that smote. They “cram their palaces,” he said, “with violence and extortion.” They had “sold the upright for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals [from Gucci, no doubt].” But he also said that all this could be reversed in a moment, if only the people of Samaria would turn away from their own self-absorption and toward those who, however silently, cry out for help. “Then,” promised Amos, “Ve-yigal ka-maim mishpat, ve-tsedaka k’nachal eytahn.” “Then shall your justice flow like water and your compassion like a never-failing stream.” Compassion, in this context, is not a convenient political slogan but an abiding moral obligation, a never-failing stream.

The worst feature of contemporary society is its tendency to leave each of us locked up in himself or herself, connection-less. To lessen this isolation we have developed all kinds of therapies, spiritual, psychological, and physical — from groups that meet and talk endlessly to day spas, week spas, month spas, life spas. But none of these things, from Botox to herbal wrap, seems to be doing the trick, anymore than the huge houses and wine parties of the Samaritans did the trick for them. What we need to do is open our heart to the plight of others, as if our heart were a dam, so that indeed our justice may flow like water and our compassion like a never-failing stream.


How to Read the Bible

Many resolve to read the Bible front to back, but their resolution falters when they come upon interminable battles or boring lists. I’d say that one can’t help but find the first book of the Bible, Genesis, engrossing, and the first part of the second book, Exodus, as well, but many readers, when they come upon the chapters of ritual prescriptions that follow the revelation of the Ten Commandments, just give up. My advice is to skip ahead whenever you get bored. It isn’t necessary–or even advisable–to read the Bible in strict sequence.

For one thing, it wasn’t, to begin with, a single book but a collection of scrolls which could be read in whatever sequence you liked. More than this, the sequence of texts changes from one Bible to another. Jews divide the Hebrew Bible into three sections: Torah (the Five Books of Moses), Prophets, and Writings, ending with the Book of Chronicles, which gives a summary of Jewish salvation history from Adam to the return of the Babylonian exiles to Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C. Christian Bibles, which designate the same collection of Hebrew texts as the “Old” Testament, put the Prophets last, because these are seen as prophesying the coming of the Messiah (who for Christians is Jesus). The Prophets then serve as an introduction to the last part of the Christian Bible, the New Testament–the first century A.D. writings about Jesus and his followers. Eastern Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics admit several books to their Old Testament that are not acknowledged as inspired scripture by Jews and most Protestants.

Given such variety, it is better to think of the Bible as a library of books, written and collected over many centuries–a collection in which not all the books are of equal importance. Don’t expect to be able to master this library in a few months or even a year. Nor should you turn to a classic translation–like the King James Version–for the best understanding of the texts. The King James Version belongs to the seventeenth century. To our ears, it sounds like seventeenth century England, not like ancient Israel. Just as you wouldn’t choose a seventeenth-century translation of Homer if you wanted to understand the mythology of ancient Greece, you should not choose an antiquated translation of the Bible, however beautiful, if you want to understand the religion of Israel.

For reading the Torah, I recommend The Five Books of Moses (Schocken Books, New York: 1995), translated by Everett Fox. This translation gives the contemporary reader a sense of the earthy compactness and tension of ancient Hebrew, and the notes and introductions are full of marvelous insights and helpful aids. For the rest of the Bible, I would normally choose the New Jerusalem Bible in its Regular (or Study) Edition (Doubleday, New York: 1985). Though not as wonderfully nitty-gritty as the Fox translation, it performs the yeoman-like task of translating the whole of the Bible (including the New Testament and the deutero-canonical or apocryphal books that Jews and Protestants do not accept) into highly readable English. Its notes and introductions are excellent, if clearly written from a Christian bias. To become sensitive to this bias, the reader will find it instructive to compare the commentaries in the NJB’s Torah (or Pentateuch) section with the commentaries in the Fox translation.

Beyond finding a translation that suits you, you may wish to explore some books about the Bible. For my suggestions on these, turn to the Notes and Sources section at the back of The Gifts of the Jews and Desire of the Everlasting Hills. These bibliographical essays–one of which may be found at the end of each of the Hinges of History® volumes–are an integral part of each book, since I hope that each book will prompt the reader to further explorations in reading.

But–and I cannot stress this too strongly–be content to read the Bible slowly, stopping often for reflection, skipping what you don’t understand or don’t care about. The Bible is not so much a book as a Way of Life, the ultimate wisdom that the Western world has to offer. You cannot conquer it; you must submit to it–but in gradual stages, according to your interests and abilities. Be content to be a learner.

I have a further suggestion, based on my experience at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where I spent two years as a visiting scholar and where I was received with unfailing hospitality and good-humored warmth. My purpose was to learn enough Hebrew to be able to read the texts of the Bible in their original language and to study the Bible in a Jewish atmosphere. I had been reading the Bible all my life–in English, Latin, and Greek–but always with Christians, either Catholics or Protestants. When Christians read the Bible, they tend to look for an authority, a priest or minister or biblical expert, who will tell them how to interpret the passage under consideration. Then, the interpretation delivered, they are anxious to move on to the next passage. Jews treat the Bible like a comfortable old couch (it is, after all, their family history). They don’t care about moving on and they are willing to discuss and debate a given passage endlessly. Out of this elaborate give-and-take a different kind of authority arises: a shared authority, a genuinely communal authority. I would recommend that anyone who wants to gain new insight into the Bible sign up for an “Introduction to the Bible” course at a Jewish seminary.


Close Encounters with the People of the Past

Note: Thomas Cahill gave this address for the first time as the keynote speech to the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference in August 2003, where he was introduced by Frank McCourt.

I am always a little surprised when I am introduced as a historian, and tend to look around to see who is going to approach the microphone. I think of myself as a translator of ancient poetry–that is, someone who frames and re-presents language in its most concentrated form, language at its most potent, even language as revelation. To translate–for me–means that one must first find a way to live inside the ancient words. One must come to feel the meaning of the words, and then one must bring these words into the present, into our contemporary tongue, so that people of the present may say, “Now I understand these ancient people, who seemed so unlike myself. Now I can sympathize with their sorrows, laugh at their jokes, dance their dance.”

History must be learned in pieces. This is partly because we have only pieces of the past–shards, ostraca, palimpsests, crumbling codices with missing pages, newsreel clips, snatches of song, faces of idols whose bodies have long since turned to dust–which give us tantalizing glimpses of what has been but never the whole reality. How could they? We cannot encompass the whole reality even of the times in which we live. Human beings never know more than part, as “through a glass darkly”; and all knowledge comes to us in pieces. That said, it is often easier to encompass the past than the present, for it is past; and its pieces may be set beside one another, examined, contrasted and compared, till one attains an overview.

Like fish who do not know they swim in water, we are seldom aware of the atmosphere of the times through which we move, how strange and singular they are. But when we approach another age, its alienness stands out for us, almost as if that were its most obvious quality; and the sense of being on alien ground grows with the antiquity of the age we are considering. I first came in contact with people of another time and place in the sayings, stories, and songs my mother taught me when I was little. These were pieces of an oral tradition, passed on to her by her mother, who died before I was born, a countrywoman from the Galway midlands. So many of the words were strange to someone growing up in twentieth-century New York City: “When you’ve harrowed as much as I’ve ploughed, then you’ll know something”; “You never know who’ll take the coal off your foot, when it’s burning you”; “Every old shoe finds an old sock.” I had been to a farm once but had never seen harrow or plough in use, I knew what coal was but had never been warmed at an open coal fire, I surely knew what shoes and socks were but nothing of the archaic courting practices in the Irish countryside. My mother explained patiently that this last was meant as a hilarious sendup of old maids and their prospects. The sexual aspect of the imagery she doubtlessly left me to work out for myself. But her waves of words had a sort of triple (and simultaneous) effect: first, the experience of coming into contact with alien lives through the medium of the words they had left behind; then, an acknowledgment of the humanity I shared with these strangers from another time and place; and, last, the satisfying thrill that concentrated, metaphorical language can give its listener–the electric sensation at the back of the neck announcing the arrival of the gods of poetry.

It is through such wisps of words and such tantalizingly incomplete images that we touch the past and its peoples. When I attended a Jesuit high school in New York City and was taught to read Latin and ancient Greek, I had my first scholarly taste of the strangeness of other ages. Reading the stories left behind by Ovid, Virgil, Sappho, Homer, I felt I had been given the key to the souls of dead men and women–people who had lived more than 2000 years before me, in Homer’s case nearly 3000 years before. The Jesuits were verbal but not visual. Though they pointed us in the direction of words, they failed to mention the sensual delights in which the city abounded–the things to be discovered, for instance, in the great museums and concert halls (to speak only of the most obvious). Just around the corner from my school was the Metropolitan Musem of Art. There, in the old gallery of classical art, I first saw the faint traces of paint on the classical marble statuary and learned that the eyeless bronzes had once been fitted with life-like irises. There I saw an accurate model of the Parthenon with its excited and boldly colored frieze of gods and heroes. I came to understand that ancient Greece had not been a collection of tasteful white marble statues but a place on fire with color. I made the connection between these astonishing figures that now lived along 5th Avenue and the brilliant colors of Homer’s metaphors: the wine-dark sea, the rosy-fingered dawn. I had, without yet knowing it, put the literature in a context.

The labor of learning the context of a work of ancient literature can be painfully slow, like that of an archeologist uncovering an ancient site and then with patience and care digging gingerly, dusting carefully, examining, identifying, and finally gaining an overview. It requires logic and intuition, book knowledge and life experience. You must bring to bear all the weapons in your arsenal, sometimes all your cleverness, at other times all your simplicity. But finally, having set the literature in its context, you must leap into the words and find the human being.

Every culture, however strange, however alien, however distant from us, has something in common with us and our experiences. The people of the past saw the world in very different ways. Their religions, philosophies, and worldviews were often so different from ours that they might as well have been creatures from outer space. But the human body has not changed: we weep, laugh, sweat, bleed, just as they did–and because of this we can find communion with them. We must acknowledge the differences in philosophy; then we must find the similarities of feeling and make the human connection.

When I was writing How the Irish Saved Civilization, the first volume in The Hinges of History® series, I almost despaired when I came to Saint Patrick. His first biographer had written of him two hundred years after his death and had few documents at his disposal. This biographer was a monk of the abbey of Armagh, which Saint Patrick had established, and his main point was to prove that Patrick was a greater saint than any other. He did this by making his subject a wonder worker and magician, who frightened all the snakes out of Ireland and went around saying “Zap, you’re dead” to anyone who got in his way, after which the offending party would promptly keel over and die. I found myself unimpressed. I read the modern biographies of Saint Patrick, most of them written by pious souls who saw their subject through such a soft focus of unrelenting goodness that he no longer had any human reality.

I decided to remove the “Saint” from Patrick’s name. “Saint” was not his first name–and surely he hadn’t grown up with his mother calling him that. He wasn’t a saint to himself–no one is. So if I wanted to get close to Patrick, I would have to see him as he saw himself. His mother didn’t even call him “Patrick” but “Patricius”: he was a Roman citizen of the island of Britain, which was then–in the late fourth and early fifth centuries–a Roman province where everyone spoke Latin. Calling Saint Patrick Patricius seemed to give him an entirely new identity, something real to build on.

Then I came to Patrick’s own autobiography, a few pages written toward the end of his life, after he had spent some thirty years in Ireland, speaking Irish and nearly forgetting the Latin he had been born to. The Latin of Patrick the old man is execrable–the worst Latin ever to come down to us. (Undoubtedly, worse Latin than Patrick’s was once written–scribbled notes and laundry lists, but none of these have survived.) The great difficulty in reading Patrick’s Latin, if you know any Latin at all, is not that your Latin may not be good enough but that it may not be bad enough to understand him properly. I spent many weeks reading and re-reading Patrick’s few pages of autobiography. He would have gotten an F for organization. At one moment he is telling us about something that happened to him as a young man; in the next moment he is recounting something that may have happened only yesterday–but he doesn’t bother to alert us to the change in era. He has few connectives and no transitions.

But, gradually (that’s a transition), from these few ancient pages, written fifteen hundred years ago, a real human being began to emerge. He was no wonder worker, no magician; and he claimed no special powers. He shows us first his easy life as a boy in Roman Britain. His parents were loving, resourceful people, who owned estates; his father was a municipal official; his grandfather was a priest; they were members of the local gentry, not the most prominent, but comfortable, sheltered people. Patrick himself was a bit of a brat, a brash, entitled teenager, who felt fenced in by his parents’ way of life and their aspirations for him. He thought their Christian religion more than a little silly–and the one thing he was certain about was that he was not going to follow in his father’s footsteps.

But one morning the unthinkable happened: he was kidnapped by Irish pirates who brought him to Ireland in chains and auctioned him off like a calf. For the next six years, from the age of sixteen to the age of twenty-two–the period that is the crucible of personality in each human being’s life–Patrick was a slave to one of the mad warrior kings of Ireland. These were people who did not care about their own lives, let alone the lives of others. The Irish were then completely outside the Roman empire and the civilized world. They were not only the great slave traders of their day; they were practitioners of human sacrifice; and they warred with one another constantly. They did not fuss much about providing pleasant working conditions for those in their employ. Patrick tells us that he worked outdoors as a shepherd and that he often went hungry and naked–and this in a rainy country where the temperature seldom rises above fifty. He was completely alone; he could not even understand the language–and, needless to say, his employers, who did a lot of threatening and shouting, did not provide him with a course of language tapes.

It was in these woeful circumstances, Patrick tells us, that he began to change. His abduction had, of course, already changed his life. But now the inner Patrick began to change. Completely cut off from everything familiar, he began to pray to the God of his parents, whom he had once made such fun of. In order to understand how Patrick kept his sanity, we should probably compare his plight to the situation of a modern American or European hostage in a place like Iran. As so many of these men and women have told us after their release, the solitude, their inability to communicate with anyone (even their captors), the lack of any intellectual stimulus almost drove them insane–until they discovered prayer, which brought them peace and tranquility and a sense of hope even in the most desperate circumstances.

Patrick did finally escape; but he could never settle down again to the pleasant, quiet life of the British countryside. He was no longer the person he had been when he left; his restlessness kept him traveling. At length, in middle age, he returned to Ireland as a bishop, bringing with him the Gospel and the Christianity he had once despised. He became the first person ever to bring this Gospel of peace and love to a barbarian nation; he became the first person ever to condemn slavery as immoral. He convinced the Irish to give up the slave trade and to cease their sacrifice of human beings. He even got them to limit the cattle rustling and the ensuing warfare that had been their bread and butter. His strange experiences had made him into a different man from the man he would otherwise have become; and he made something of his experiences–that is to say, with the help of the impossible Irish, he gave his strange life a meaning and a purpose.

I must tell you about Frank McCourt and the nipples. Before Angela’s Ashes was ever published, I met Frank at a party not long after the publication of How the Irish Saved Civilization and found that he was one of my readers. “Where did you get that stuff about the nipples? ” said he. “I never heard that before.” Patrick tells us that after he had escaped from his slavemaster, he was about to board a ship which he was sure was sitting there in the harbor just for him. But the captain refused to take him. Now Patrick was an escaped slave–and he looked like one. He could not have expected to remain free many hours, maybe even many minutes, more. He needed to get on the that ship. He walked away to a little hut to pray, and one of the sailors followed him there to say that the captain had changed his mind. When Patrick returned to the ship, the crew greeted him by inviting him to suck their nipples. Patrick declined politely, and then the sailors said, “Oh, well, come on board, anyway. You can make friends with us whatever way you like.”

Frank had never heard about the nipples because Patrick’s alarmed biographers regularly leave them out. Patrick himself fails to explain the significance of the incident because its meaning must have been evident to the readers of his day. There must therefore have been a well-known custom among the Celts of nipple-sucking for the sake of friendship. By declining to participate, Patrick gives us an idea of how bizarre even he found the Irish and how rude and unrestrained their world must have been.

Though I learned Hebrew before writing The Gifts of the Jews, the second volume in The Hinges of History® series, I was exceedingly happy to find that Everett Fox’s translation of the Five Books of Moses answered most of my needs. One should probably not take on the task of translating biblical Hebrew without a direct call from above (which I had not received); and Fox’s translation has all the earthy tension of the original. Biblical Hebrew developed as a desert language, and it exhibits the economy of desert people. The very opposite of Victorian English, which never uses fewer words if it can use more, Hebrew will not use three words if two will do. It will not use two words if one will do. If it can get away with silence instead of words, it will do so–and much of the meaning of the Hebrew Bible is to be found in its silences. This is because in the desert every movement is dehydrating; and desert people learn to think before they move and think before they speak. They are elegant conservors of energy.

When Amos, the great prophet of the Northern Kingdom, tries to move the people to abandon their trivial pursuit of economic status and to take account of the poor, he says most beautifully:

Ve-yigal ka-maim mishpat, ve-tsedaka k’nachal eytahn,

which I would translate, “Let your justice flow like water, and your compassion like a never-failing stream.” The English takes twenty syllables, the Hebrew only fifteen–and this is Hebrew at its most expansive!

In The Gifts of the Jews, the figure I found myself most attracted to was not a saint but a king, David, the shepherd king who three thousand years ago united the tribes of Israel into one nation. Here again my search for the inner man centered on the writings that the man had left behind. We know King David’s outer story from the Book of Samuel: how he began as a shepherd boy who killed the giant Goliath and was anointed king by the prophet Samuel; how his reign brought greater peace than Israel had ever known and how he could not keep his pants on (or his loin cloth up) whenever he encountered a beautiful woman (politics hasn’t changed all that much); and how he arranged the slaughter of one man whose wife he wanted to have; and how in old age his favorite son rose against him. The Book of Samuel, in which all these stores are so well told, is a chronicle, an early Israelite history. But David’s inner story, the story of his emotions, is told in another book, the Book of Psalms; and some of these psalms, which were poems sung to musical accompaniment, were actually written and performed by David himself.

David was an intense man, perhaps one of the most intense men who have ever lived, a great sinner and a great poet–which is a terrific literary combination. Unlike Patrick’s stumbling Latin, David’s Hebrew is a model for all lyric poetry from his own day to ours. David is the first person to use the word “I” as we use it–to mean one’s interior self. This is an astonishing accomplishment for the tenth century BC, because a sense of the inner self is notably absent from all other ancient literatures. Prior to the humanist autobiographies of the Renaissance, we can count only a few isolated instances of this use of “I” to mean the interior self. But David’s psalms are full of I’s: the I of repentance, the I of anger and vengeance, the I of self-pity and self-doubt, the I of despair, the I of delight, and the I of ecstasy. The Psalms are a treasure trove of personal emotions and a unique early roadmap to the inner spirit–previously mute–of ancient humanity. Whereas the historian must normally guess at the emotions of his subjects from incomplete or indirect evidence, David’s Psalms reassure us that three thousand years ago people laughed and cried just as we do, bled and cursed, danced and lept–that our whole repertoire of emotions was theirs.

But the historian is seldom lucky enough to find a subject like David, who has already let it all hang out in black and white. Sometimes the historian’s subject may even be someone he comes to loathe, whose emotions he isn’t especially interested in sharing. I found this to be the case with Desire of the Everlasting Hills, the third volume in The Hinges of History® series, which begins with the story of Alexander the Great.

Like Patrick, Alexander first comes to our attention as a spoiled teenager, who is bummed out by news of his father’s military victories. “There will be nothing left for me to conquer,” pouts Alexander not-yet-the-Great. Whether or not the rumor was true that he murdered his father in order to get his throne, he was acclaimed king of the Greek state of Macedon at the age of twenty (in the year 336 BC) and immediately embarked on a campaign of conquest such as the world had never seen. Though he intended to conquer the whole world, his loyal soldiers, whom he had inherited from his father, finally forced him to stop midway through India, after they had already conquered most of eastern Europe, part of Africa, and half of Asia. They said they just couldn’t go any further. O.K., said Alexander, but we’re going back by way of the Gedrosian Desert, because no army has ever been able to do that and I mean to prove that if I can’t own the whole world, I am at least invincible. About three-quarters of his army perished in the desert, but Alexander the Invincible made it home. He died a year later in 323 just weeks short of his 33rd birthday.

What was the purpose of his conquests? Power, honor, and fame. How did the conquered feel? Nobody asked, but we can imagine. Wherever he went he established military garrisons, supposedly for the purpose of disseminating the glories of Greek culture. Their real purpose was economic exploitation of the conquered territories. From a moral perspective, I do not see how this is any different from a holdup. But mine was hardly the attitude of ancient historians like Plutarch who believed that Alexander aptly came by his title “the Great”: he was, they believed, the greatest man who had ever lived. In their eyes, public action–that is, by war and conquest–was the most dangerous and, in consequence, the most noble of all human endeavors. If Plato was the measure of all subsequent philosophy and Phidias of all attempts to carve a man in marble, Alexander was the measure of man himself, a man who put whole cities and races of people to the sword and who did not hesitate to crucify anyone who displeased him.

We may think such a value-system outmoded or remote, but it was not so long ago that Napolean enchanted Europe in his quest to be the modern Alexander, nor were such values unknown to the generals and kommandants of the twentieth century, and God knows they continue to infect the brains of all those who take up weapons of destruction in what they believe to be a noble cause. Indeed, down the whole course of history, the invincible warrior with raised sword has been the archetypal hero of the human race.

It is not hard to understand what made Alexander tick, for there is a bit of Alexander in most of us. But still, I found unsettling this discovery of a supposedly great man–the greatest–whose values I could not share and whose very emotions I needed to push away from me. Has human nature changed so radically, I wondered, that there was no one in the whole of the ancient world who shared my loathing for this man and his antihuman violence, the disruption and misery and heartache that his actions caused to millions of people?

It seemed to me a test of my method of writing history. If I could not find a point of view like mine in all of ancient history and commentary, then how can I be sure that I am interpreting correctly the emotions of people who may have been as unlike me as interstellar aliens? But then, most unexpectedly, I found the very thing I had all but given up hope of finding: an ancient chronicle of Alexander and his successors that saw their depredations exactly as I did:

Alexander of Macedon son of Philip . . . defeated Darius king of the Persians and Medes, whom he succeeded as ruler. . . . He undertook many campaigns, gained possession of many fortresses, and put the local kings to death. So he advanced to the ends of the earth, plundering nation after nation; the earth grew silent before him and his ambitious heart swelled with pride. He assembled very powerful forces and subdued provinces, nations, and princes, and they became his tributaries. . . . Alexander had reigned twelve years when he died. Each of his officers established himself in his own region. All assumed crowns after his death, they and their heirs after them for many years, bringing increasing evils on the world.

What is especially impressive about this terse, dry-eyed epitome is its sympathy for the world of fellow sufferers, people the writer had never met. The author, though we do not know his name, was a Jew who lived in Palestine toward the end of the Greek occupation but before the Romans had arrived–that is, about 100 BC. His limpidly written chronicle is called the First Book of Maccabees, and you may find it in the deuterocanonical (or apocryphal) section of your Bible.

The growing silence of the earth as nation after nation is plundered and laid low by Alexander, the increasing evils brought on the world by generation after generation of such predatory activity: these are extraordinary images to come upon in ancient records, which seldom waste space on the sufferings of losers. But, then, it is seldom people at the invigorating center of events–the ones who (like Plutarch) normally write the first drafts of history–who see clearly what has happened, especially the “increasing evils” wrought by those who blindly pursue their own wealth and power. Rather, it is the dispossessed, the ones who have been relegated to the margins, whose eyes are open and who know what wounds they bear.

We may find history in official biographies and state papers, but we are far more likely to find the real story–and the deepest emotion–in poems like David’s, in half-literate remembrances like Patrick’s, and out-of-the-way chronicles like First Maccabees, left behind by those whom the world did not consider important.

But even in reading a translation of the Bible, the historian must exercise great care. If Patrick’s pious biographers thought it prudent to omit certain scenes, the misplaced reverence of translators can make the people of the Bible sound as they never did in life. There is one passage in the Hebrew Bible that I found I had to translate myself–because all translators have found it too shocking to translate accurately. This is the story of the response of Rehoboam, David’s knuckleheaded grandson, to the northern nobles. It may be found in Second Chronicles 10:10 and in The Gifts of the Jews on page 208. As with Patrick and the sailors’ nipples, many worthy people have felt it would be better if you didn’t know about it.

The scene is the accession of Rehoboam, son of Solomon and grandson of David, to the throne of the United Kingdom of Israel and Juda. Rehoboam’s family were southerners from Juda; and his father, Solomon, had treated the northerners, the Israelites, badly, so a deputation of northern nobles approached the new king and said: “Your father laid a cruel yoke on us; if you will lighten your father’s cruel slavery, that heavy yoke which he imposed on us, we are willing to serve you.” Of course, their courtly language concealed the threat that, if Rehoboam did not treat them well, they would withdraw from the union. The court elders counseled Rehoboam to “be kind to these people . . . and give them a fair reply” and “they will remain your servants forever.” But Rehoboam was was young and decided to go with the advice of his buddies, who warned him not to commence his reign with a show of weakness. They even wrote a reply for him–they were the Karl Roves of their day–which Rehoboam delivered. It began thus: “My dick is fatter than my father’s thigh! So–my father laid a heavy yoke on you? Mine will be even heavier! My father kept you in line with the lash? I’ll whip you with scorpions.”

These, the actual words of the Holy Bible, are always fudged by translators, who cannot bear to have such words spoken aloud in synagogue or church–even though, I rush to assure you, my translation was made under rabbinical supervision. Needless to say, the political union of Israel and Juda did not survive Rehoboam’s studly display, which I must say reminds me of any number of strutting verbal aggressions committed by our current commander-in-chief–from his empty threat to Osama bin Ladin (“Wanted: Dead or Alive”) to his embarrassing “Top Gun” imitation as he performed in full costume on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier to celebrate the supposed end of the Second Gulf War.

Historical parallels are never exact, but they should always give us pause for reflection. It is known, for instance, that when Donald Rumsfeld took over the Pentagon one of his first acts was to order a study of how ancient empires maintained their hegemony. Why, I wonder, didn’t it occur to him to study how each empire sooner or later lost everything it had gained? In such a study he might have found profound occasion for reflection. For further reflection on this subject, I commend to your attention Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter, the latest volume in The Hinges of History® series, in which troubling parallels are noted between America’s current posture in the world and the tragic mistakes made by substandard Athenian politicians after the death of Athens’ great democrats, men such as Solon and Pericles–who cannot but put us in mind of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy. But for the moment I think we must leave the subject of historical parallels and return to the subject of translation . . .

If the misplaced reverence of translators can make the people of the Bible sound as they never did in life, no one brings on attacks of reverence more often than Jesus, who was actually humorous, affectionate, and down-to-earth, who spoke to his friends and followers in a clear and bracing manner, was often blunt, sometimes vulgar, and always arresting. Never did he employ the dreary, self-righteous, even priggish sound that some of his admirers would wish for him. Despite the popularity of the King James Version, Jesus was not a 17th-century Englishman. How weird it is that if we wish to understand the Iliad, the Odyssey, or the Aeneid, we would never think of going to a translation that is four (in actuality, nearly five) centuries old. We would be more likely to want the latest translation, the one that speaks to us in our language.

In Mark’s Gospel, the most primitive of the four gospels, the first words that Jesus speaks are: “The Time has come. The Kingdom of God draws near . . .” The next word is almost always translated as “repent” or “convert”–which makes Jesus sound like a sidewalk freak with a placard in his hands. But the word Mark uses is metanoiete, which means literally in Greek “change your minds.” For the Greeks, the mind was considerably more than it is for us. It was the core of the person, the center of his being. The word we would use is “heart.” So in Desire of the Everlasting Hills, I have translated the Greek as “Open your hearts”–a far cry from “repent!”

As I insist in Desire of the Everlasting Hills, before all else that may be said of him, Jesus was a prophet, speaking like Amos in the Jewish prophetic tradition, urging his people to tsedaka, to justice like God’s justice, to the idea that compassion for those in need is not just a passing feeling or a convenient political slogan but an abiding obligation.

My object in writing The Hinges of History® is not to discover new facts or even to offer new interpretations. I always attempt to base myself on the broad middle consensus of contemporary scholarship, avoiding the sensational and fashionable extremes that pass so quickly into oblivion. I’d like each reader to close these books and be able to say: Now I know what it would have been like to have been a slave in pagan Ireland, to have felt the passion, exaltation, and remorse of David when he played his lyre and wept hot tears, to have been in the crowd that first heard Jesus, to have been his friend, to have been touched by him. And if you can say such things, if I have helped you to see these people–not just to see them but, as Shakespeare said, to “see [them] feelingly”–I will be well satisfied. (And I hope you will be, too.)

The Greek of the New Testament, which is called koine (or common) Greek, is much easier to tackle than the complex Greek of earlier periods. Though ancient languages are notable for their modest vocabularies (the world still being young and the phenomena to be named far fewer than what we face today), Greek is an exception: the abundance of words in a dictionary of ancient Greek is staggering not only to the student but to the expert. The Spartans, the Achaeans, the Athenians, the Boeotians, the Aetolians, the Euboeans, the Thessalonians, the Macedonians, the Lydians, the Ionians, the speakers who hailed from the various Adriatic and Aegean islands, the colonists of Sicily, southern Italy, and the Black Sea–these and many more contributed their finely shaded regional vocabularies to the whole language, which became like a vast orchestra of diverse instruments, able to produce modulations of extraordinary refinement. Unlike the Jews, the Greeks could never stop talking, and as is always the case with such people, their favorite subject was themselves.

The entire library of ancient Hebrew runs to a compact cabinet of twenty-four scrolls; the books of the Greek library are close to countless. Not only this, but Greek proceeds in a naturally discursive style, constantly turning this way and that in elegant riffs and delicate variations, like a spring river running to tributaries, curling into rivulets, bubbling into pools. Even when you are thinking or speaking another language altogether, Greek can scratch away impishly at the back of your brain. Neither as compressed as Hebrew, coiled and ready to spring, nor as mellifluous and tidy as Latin, it is, by contrast, a spiky language as full of sharp ups and downs as an economist’s graph. No wonder that when Virginia Woolf went mad, she heard the birds singing in ancient Greek, the language her father had taught her; and when she heard them, many years later, singing again in that same tongue, she knew it was time to depart and, filling her pockets with stones, walked into the Ouse.

The latest volume in The Hinges of History® series, as I already mentioned, is entitled Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter. Given what I have told you about the Greek language, you will understand that I was exceedingly happy to come upon excellent translations especially of Homer and Plato. Only when I reached the Greek lyric poets did I find myself stuck, unable to find translations that deliver the thrill of the originals. So once again I was thrown back on my own resources. The mechanisms that drive Greek lyric poetry–highly specified varieties of set rhythms appropriate to different moods and occasions, tonal values (now lost to us) associated with long and short syllables, musical modes–are so different from most of the mechanisms available in modern English that every translator must despair of recreating a semblance of the original textures of Greek poetry in English. What is necessary is to live inside the Greek long enough so that one has a chance of making a new English poem that can convey similar sense and feeling by the instruments available to us: the ways in which words may be chosen and combined through stress and rhythm, alliteration and assonance, and rhyme. Though rhyme is never employed in Greek lyric poetry, it is a useful English tool for binding elements together that in Greek are bound together by other means.

Most important to bear in mind is that all Greek poetry was sung in performance. Greece has been, in fact, through all of its history a land of song and dance. The fishmonger sang of his fish, the militia marched to martial rhythms, the laundress sang the blues, while others sang songs of different colors. It was said that after the disastrous Sicilian Expedition in 413 B.C. Athenian soldiers, held captive in the horrible quarries outside Syracuse, won their freedom by singing and dancing choruses from the plays of Euripides, whose songs the Sicilians were crazy about. Daily life could sometimes seem a sort of amateur contest, an eternal audition with a host of hopeful voices–primeval Paul Simons and Judy Collinses, Tom Waitses and Ani diFrancos–competing for attention. Ancient Greece was a culture of song.

The moon has set, and so have the Seven Sisters.
It is the middle of the night, and I lie alone.
And I lie alone.

That’s Sappho, in one of her most quoted fragments. Though I want to give you more of her poems, that’s the only one I’ve been able to provide music for. So as I give you the others, you must imagine not me but a small, elegant cabaret singer, dressed in what would look to us to be a graceful sari. She sings with precise enunciation and with sad realism–or with comic sprightliness, depending on her subject.

To be unmusical, as sly Sappho informs us in a short poem to a deceased woman who had shown talent neither for performance nor appreciation, was a fate worse than death. You might as well never have lived:

When you were living, never did you smell
the roses by Olympus, where the Muses dwell.
Now that you’re dead, your faded ghost in hell
is unremembered here on earth. You ring no bell.

This poem, constructed like a well-aimed body blow, is the work of a woman the Greeks called “the tenth Muse,” the greatest poet after Homer, born in the late seventh century on the large Greek island of Lesbos, celebrated for the sweetness of its wine and the tartness of its verse. Unfortunately, much of post-Homeric poetry–called lyric poetry because it was usually sung to a lyre–was lost in the upheavals of subsequent centuries, especially in the depredations and decay that would follow the barbarian incursions into the Greco-Roman world in the fifth century A.D. In Sappho we have been particularly unlucky, for her work survives mostly in small clusters of words, though sometimes in longer fragments, like exotic petals and branches, cut from a mysterious tree whose fullness we can never know.

In translating Sappho, my favorite among the lyric poets, I found that the piquancy of the original fragments often cried out for rhyme, when translated into English:

I love what is delicate,
luminous, brave —
what belongs to the sunlight.

That’s what I crave.

In longer, less pithy poems, I could dispense with rhyme:

Some say cavalry, others infantry,
still others say a navy is
black earth’s most beautiful thing.
But I say it’s whatever,
whatever you may love.

An easy thing to understand.
For Helen, whose beauty surpassed us all,
walked out on him one day,
her high-class husband,

sailed for Troy,
and not to child nor doting parents
did she give a thought,
led to earth’s end [by longing].

So does [my soul] fly up,
remembering Anaktoria,
[gliding] lightly, [lightly,]
now she’s gone.

I’d rather study her graceful step
and the way light moved across her face
than look on Lydian chariots
or ranks of bristling hoplites —

hoplites being Greek infantrymen. The poem once had twelve more lines but we can no longer read them in the manuscript fragments that are left to us. All we know is that the poem ended with a word that probably means “surprise.”

But even this fragment, wonderful and unsatisfying as it is, leads me to the lesson that writing these books has taught me over and over: though official history is the record of the deeds of politicians and generals, the actions that actually sustain civilization are the actions of lovers, people who like Patrick come to us without swords and with open hands: “Love in the open hand,” as Edna St Vincent Millay, put it:

Love in the open hand, no thing but that,
ungemmed, unhidden, wishing not to hurt . . .

The donors of true civilization are those like the Hebrew prophets who shout at us and refuse to let us forget our obligations to the poor and marginalized. The patrons of our cultural patrimony are people like David, who repented his violence, people like Jesus, who asks us to open our hearts, people like Sappho, who insists that, despite all evidence to the contrary, “black earth’s most beautiful thing” cannot be cavalry, infantry, or navy. It cannot even be love. It is the person loved.

Another way of stating this is to read you a poem I wrote recently for my daughter, Kristin, and her husband, Dan. (Omygod, now he’s going to start reading us his poems. Only one, and then I’m done.) Two years ago Kristin gave birth to a baby boy, Devlin Francisco Cahill Garcia. Devlin came into this world with difficulties, a still-mysterious pulmonary affliction that has seen him hospitalized in the infant intensive care unit three times since his birth. Devlin is–and I say this, of course, with complete objectivity–a remarkable child, full of spirit, questing, and inquiry. But his breathing is often audible.

The poem is called “Tradition,” and it speaks, to my mind, of the only human tradition that finally matters:

The stories of love are the ones that are lost,
While the men on white horses ride on.
They ride past the small house and on to their wars,
Remembered in story and song.

The stories of war are the ones we recall,
The swashbuckling gesture, the fight.
So quickly forgotten the sharp stab of pain
In the breasts of the woman that night

When her ears heard the cry of the child in his cot
And she gathered him to her in love
And she comforted him in a circle of arms,
While the fighter jets roared on above.

And so quickly forgotten the sharp stab of fear
That shot through the man in the bed
Who lay by the woman who cradled the child
And who labored in spite of his dread

To carve from his being an island of peace
For the woman, himself, and the child,
While the horses marched off, and the soldiers and tanks,
And the air force flew into the wild.

The pilots, the riders, their glorious deeds
Live forever in metal and stone.
The circle of light that surrounded the house
Of the child and his parents is gone.

Though the man loved the child and his tremulous breath
And the woman the delicate veins
That threaded his crescented tremulous lids,
Of these fleeting loves nothing remains . . .

Except for the circle of light that surrounds
Their great grandchildren, their heirs,
Who know not the cause when they wake in the night
And tenderly take up their cares.