Reading Guides

The Hinges of History Series | Heretics and Heroes | Mysteries of the Middle Ages | Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea | Desire of the Everlasting Hills | The Gifts of the Jews | How the Irish Saved Civilization | Suggested Reading


The Hinges of History Series

How did we become the people we are? How real is history? Is what “everyone knows” about Western civilization correct?

These are complicated questions. They deserve careful, considered answers. Answers that set a scene, create a mood, engage and enlighten us, show us the hope that people before us had, and tell us previously untold stories. But where can we look for such answers? Must readers and learners resign themselves to academic tomes that “prove” one theory or another? That offer mostly details about a battle won, a border crossed? That force them to struggle to understand without necessarily rewarding them for their efforts?

Not if they enter The Hinges of History®

Author Thomas Cahill’s series of books tell the other stories of Western history. Instead of turning his light on war and outrage and catastrophe, natural and man-made, Cahill presents the narratives of grace, the stories of great gift-givers, and the evolution of our Western sensibility. He recounts essential moments when everything was at stake. Cahill wonders what there is in our history that is peculiar to the West, that gives us our characteristic ways of thinking, feeling, and valuing that make us different from other people. By tracing the origin of this thread through our past, Cahill gives us that life and color we crave. He tells us the history that we don’t find in other books.

In Mysteries of the Middle Ages, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, The Gifts of the Jews, and How the Irish Saved Civilization, the first five books now available in Cahill’s planned seven-book Hinges of History® series, readers will come away with a new and deeper understanding of us, the people of the Western world, living here at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

The Hinges of History® Series

Some readers may have read more than one of the books in the Hinges of History® series. For those readers, general questions about the series as a whole, about the author’s vision, and about similarities and differences among the books, can make for good education. A few such questions follow.

Questions for Discussion of the Series

1. Discuss the puzzle-like effect of these books. That is, how each book gives a piece that helps complete the picture of who we are, of our history, of our humanity.

2. The author did not write the books in his series in strict chronological order. Instead he traces large cultural movements over many centuries. Discuss the effects of this choice.

3. In his books, the author gets inside the heads of his subjects, using a very close third-person point of view. How does this choice strengthen his premise? Does it have limitations?

4. The author was raised a Roman Catholic. Is he able to present these histories without being biased by Catholicism? Does one’s religion (or lack of it) necessarily constrict or color one’s view?

5. Discuss the nature and history of the Irish and the Jews as read in these books. What are their ambitions, their differences? How do they differ from the Romans and the Greeks in all five books? How has the concept of European identity itself evolved?


Heretics and Heroes

1. What is Cahill referring to when he writes about “philosophical tennis” in the book’s Prelude? Who are some of the major players in this intellectual match? Why might the author have chosen to introduce and discuss this phenomenon at the opening of Heretics and Heroes in particular?

2. What are the Sicilian Vespers? What impact did this have on the reunification of Christendom and on the papacy? According to Cahill, the Sicilian Vespers paved the way for which phenomenon that shaped modern Europe?

3. What effect did the Black Death have upon the 12th century Renaissance? How did it affect people’s social mobility? What link is there between the Black Death and racism? What representative viewpoints or philosophies come from the works of Giovanni Boccacio and Dante according to the author? What commonalities are evident among the works of both; and conversely, how did their beliefs differ?

4. Who are some of the people Cahill identifies as “Lutherans before Luther”? What were some of their religious beliefs? What changes or reforms did they call for? How were they received? In particular, how did Henry IV respond to these people?

5. What were the three communications revolutions? What innovations were characteristic of each? What effect did The Third Great Communications Revolution have on religion, education, and politics?

6. In Chapter I what discovery does Cahill characterize as putting an end to the Middle Ages and giving birth to a new age? How did this discovery influence current notions of science and religion?

7. In Humanists Rampant what does Cahill say is “the great enterprise on which the Renaissance was built”? Explain.

8. Who are some of the humanists Cahill describes and why are they notable? What factors helped to set the stage for the spread of humanism and for the coming reformation they would help give birth to?

9. Why does Cahill name his second chapter “The Invention of Human Beauty”? What changes were evident among the art of this period? Consider the contributions of Donatello, Leonardo, Botticelli, Piero, Michelangelo, and Caravaggio described by Cahill. How did the definition of human beauty change with the creation of these new works of art? Discuss how these works reflected cultural shifts and new ideologies of the period?

10. What are indulgences? What link is there between the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Counter-Reformation, and the collection of indulgences by Julius? What effect would this ultimately have on Christendom?

11. In the third chapter, Cahill writes about figures who can be characterized as “deviant monks.” One of these—Erasmus—is described by Cahill as the first writer “to live by his writing” (132). What developments made it possible for Erasmus to live off of his writings? What work written by him would be the “catalyst for the Reformation” (137) according to Cahill? What was remarkable about this text and why was it popular?

12. Cahill identifies Martin Luther as another “deviant monk.” Other than the title bestowed upon them by the author, what did Martin Luther and Erasmus share in common? To the contrary, what distinguishes them from one another?

13. Why was Paul’s Letter to the Romans particularly inspiring to Martin Luther? What is the central message of the letter? What does the letter indicate about faith and good deeds? Is one designated as more important than the other to a person’s salvation?

14. Cahill explains that Luther did not nail his theses to a church door as popularly imagined. Rather, he presented a letter to Archbishop Albrecht. What were some of the theses presented in this letter? What kinds of reactions resulted from the dissemination of Luther’s theses? Cahill also indicates that Luther’s “signature positions” were formed by 1519; what were these positions?

15. According to Cahill in Chapter IV, what theory “presaged the development of representative democracy in the Western world” (168)? Who was the instigator of this theory?

16. What does Cahill mean when he says that Luther may represent the first example of “existential terror” (174)? Likewise, what does Cahill mean when he says that Luther claims we “must confront the tragedy of mankind’s earthly destiny”(174)? According to the author, how do these sentiments liken him to the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins?

17. What work written by Luther in 1520 was considered “one of the most important statements of the gathering Reformation” (175) and served as the basis for the national churches of Protestant Europe? What was its primary message?

18. What was the Diet of Worms and why was its outcome significant? What does Cahill mean when he says that we can recognize in Worms the idea of ego? Why is this an important development? What other figure in Cahill’s book is identified as giving birth to this same notion of ego and sense of self?

19. In Chapter V, who does Cahill identify as some of the major artists of the period? What role did the apocalypse and the idea of utopia play in the art of the period? Why were these such popular themes at the time?

20. What does Cahill mean when he asserts that Luther “invented literary German” (221)? Which of his works evidences this? Why is Luther’s choice of language so important? Alternatively, what problems resulted from his choice of language?

21. William Tyndale, an ordained priest educated at Oxford and Cambridge, was influenced by Luther’s work and worked on his own translation of the New Testament. What important language choices are evident in the text and why were these choices so important?

22. What book named in Chapter V “has more printed copies to its name than any other book ever published” (232)? What accounts for its popularity?

23. Cahill identifies the University of Paris as the largest and most prestigious European institution of learning since before Thomas Aquinas. Who were some of the notable students of this school and what did they promulgate? Which student of the university does Cahill give the title of “the greatest writer in the French language” (237) and what were a few of his most well-known mottoes?

24. What subject matter is Pieter Bruegel most well-known for? Who were some of his influences? What can we determine about Bruegel’s political and religious views from the works described in Heretics and Heroes?

25. In Chapter VI the author describes some other Reformations of the period considered separate from Luther’s Reformation. How were these Reformations different from Luther’s Reformation? Was Luther a supporter or opponent of these separate Reformations? Who does Cahill name as “the instigator of the first of these supposedly separate Reformations” (259) and what was his foundational theory?

26. Who were the Anabaptists and why were they named thus? Who were the schwarmer and what does Cahill describe as their most important legacy?

27. What was the Peasants’ War? What works did Luther write in response to this event and what were his instructions within these writings? Did Luther’s advice have a positive or negative effect on his reputation?

28. What were the rulings at the Diet of Speyer in 1526 and the Peace of Augsburg in 1555? How did they affect the relationship between church and state?

29. Cahill explains that another vein of Reformation gained momentum in the late 1530s under the leadership of Jean Calvin, a lawyer-preacher and exile. What were some of Calvin’s major beliefs? What did Calvin believe about wisdom and predestination? How did these views compare to—or differ from—those of Luther? What does Cahill identify as “the most significant innovation of Calvinism” (268)? What does Cahill describe as Calvin’s potential legacy? Why is this legacy controversial according to the author?

30. How did the heirs of Henry VIII influence the religious makeup and practices of England? What was Elizabeth’s legacy?

31. What major violent conflicts does Cahill describe in Chapter V? Discuss the origins of these conflicts. What effect did the Edict of Nantes have during this period of upheaval? How did political structures and circumstances fuel or quell these conflicts?

32. What two aspirations does Cahill cite in Chapter VII as running throughout religious history?

33. In the final chapter Cahill discusses some of the notable Renaissance and Reformation characters he has not previously touched upon. He includes among this list people he calls “men in the middle” (293) who either declined particular religious affiliation or kept their religious and political beliefs close to their chest. Discuss these figures and their contributions and legacies.

34. What does Cahill mean when he says that Shakespeare’s religion is “The Religion of the Good Heart” (296)?

35. In his Postlude Cahill says that “we are all Quakers” (306). What does he mean by this?

36. At the conclusion of the book, Cahill contemplates three “figures of hope.” Who are they and why might Cahill have chosen to end his book with their profiles? In particular, why do you think he finishes with the profile of a woman born in the 1930s, Muriel Moore?

37. What does Heroes and Heretics have in common with the other volumes in Cahill’s Hinges of History series? Discuss the commonalities found among the texts.

38. How does Cahill’s portrayal of the period between the 14th and 17th centuries change or otherwise bolster our views of the history of this period? How does Cahill’s version compare to other accounts of this time?

This guide was written by Je Banach.


Mysteries of the Middle Ages

And the Beginning of the Modern World

It’s been more than a decade since the tremendously successful publication of How the Irish Saved Civilization, the first book in Thomas Cahill’s illuminating series. Mysteries of the Middle Ages owes much to that volume on medieval Irish history, in many ways picking up where the other left off.

Mysteries of the Middle Ages is a rollicking tour of the High Middle Ages, the 12th, 13th, and early 14th centuries. By this time, European barbarians have settled down and become shopkeepers and tradesmen, ladies and knights, nuns and monks. Though the elegant yet brutal world of classical Greek and Roman civilizations is long gone, many of the best insights of classical times were being recovered in the manuscripts so lovingly preserved by Irish scribes and others. Despite stereotypes to the contrary, this was a time of renewal and discovery.

Each chapter opens another door to this strange but exciting medieval world, and through these doors we come in intimate contact with people who lived eight centuries ago. We share their hope and joys, their terrors and sorrows, their jokes. We ride with Chaucer’s pilgrims from London to Canterbury. We make music with the nuns of Bingen, plot with Eleanor of Aquitaine, set up the first scientific lab at Oxford with Roger Bacon, have visions with Francis of Assisi, and roam through medieval Paris with doomed lovers. With each destination, we experience intriguing revelations and a wonderful journey through time.

Questions for Discussion

1. Why did future generations characterize the Middle Ages as a time of destruction and ignorance? Who was served by that depiction? Which progressive aspects of this period were the most surprising to you?

2. The author attributes the rise of powerful women during the Middle Ages to the Madonna’s central place in religious culture. How did perceptions of the Madonna shape the notion of the ideal woman during this era?

3. What similarities exist between the ways Hildegard of Bingen and Eleanor of Aquitaine used their power? How did the politics of church and state mirror one another during the Middle Ages?

4. What was Hildegard’s guiding premise in her written exchanges with authority figures in the Church? How did her mystical visions seem to affect her tenacity? How would modern-day Roman Catholicism respond to a nun like her, or to an unconventional believer like Francis of Assisi?

5. How might European history have unfolded if Eleanor had ruled, rather than Henry (and later, Richard)? Would she have created an atmosphere of greater or less political stability?

6. What does the story of Abelard and Héloïse indicate about the changing concept of love during the Middle Ages? How does this couple compare to the ideals of courtly love also flourishing at the time? Were Héloïse’s views on marriage realistic or idealistic?

7. What contemporary fallout does the West experience today as a result of the Crusades? Why was Francis of Assisi’s approach to diplomacy—to sail to Egypt and meet with the Sultan al-Kamil in person—both rare and futile during the Middle Ages?

8. How was Francis able to find so much universal beauty in the world, as evidenced in “The Canticle of the Creatures,” while nature was dealing his health such horrific blows? How did humanity’s understanding of the natural world change during his lifetime?

9. How would you characterize the scientific inquiries spurred by figures such as Roger Bacon? What can be learned from Thomas Aquinas’s attempts to reconcile mystery and reason, or faith and facts? In what way do the intellectual pursuits of the Middle Ages speak to twenty-first-century quests for knowledge?

10. Do the chapters on medieval art indicate that art captures and preserves the way a community perceives the world, or does art change (even control) the way a community perceives the world? What is the significance of the fact that art turned realistic, particularly through the vision of the Florentine painter Giotto?

11. What were your reactions to the book’s numerous photographs of medieval art and architecture? Do the artists and artisans seem to share a common definition of beauty?

12. What do Dante’s poetry and life story tell us about the medieval understanding of God? What did Dante himself try to tell us about earthly concerns versus eternal ones, and the quest for peace?

13. What do the book’s maps demonstrate about the role of land in the power struggles of the Middle Ages? On a smaller scale, which regions were more culturally permissive (did communities flourishing along the Rhine differ from those along the Seine)? What are the contemporary effects of these geographic shifts occurring centuries before?

14. The intermezzo, “Entrances to Other Worlds,” provides a portrait of an early form of globalization. In what ways did religion and commerce intersect at that time? Were there any secular realms in business then?

15. Mysteries of the Middle Ages begins and ends with reflections on classical civilization. How did medieval societies respond to these legacies? From the death penalty (see the author’s note regarding Dominique Jerome Green in the book’s introduction) to the church scandals described in the postlude, how does the twenty-first-century world respond to the legacies of the Middle Ages?


Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea

Why the Greeks Matter

“Whatever we experience in our day, whatever we hope to learn, whatever we most desire, whatever we set out to find, we see that the Greeks have been there before us, and we meet them on their way back.” (page 264)

Greek influence infiltrates Western art, politics, philosophy, language, storytelling, military maneuvers–virtually every defining aspect of the West’s viability. Why has the Greek imprint been so enduring, and so all-encompassing? In this fourth volume of his Hinges of History® series, Thomas Cahill invites us to join him on a voyage that explores the remarkable achievements and contradictions of ancient Greek society. Piecing together shards of myth, archaeology, and history, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea demonstrates how a passion for becoming aristoi (the best), combined with a significant amount of luck, produced a culture whose innovations and achievements make for singular legends and legacies.

A tour that spans warriors and politicians, thinkers and playwrights, and of course a pantheon of deities, this installment in the series captures crucial ingredients in the very creation of Western civilization. As Thomas Cahill points out the peaks and valleys of Greek experience, his enlightening anecdotes on everything from etymology to Athenian kitsch reveal a constant duality of sensibility and sensitivity. Perhaps this is what sets the Greek story apart: it echoes with a colorful response to the human condition, and to the quandaries that continue to permeate our daily existence.

Deciphering why the Greeks matter will enrich the lives of all who embark on the splendid journey offered in Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea.

Questions for Discussion

1. In his analysis of Homer’s Iliad, Thomas Cahill cites the epic’s intense depictions of loyalty, villainy, and the honorable way to fight. Yet Homer ascribes noble behavior to both Trojans and Greeks. What parallels do you see between Homer’s perception of heroism and our own? What do you make of the mythic justification for the Trojan war–a golden apple inscribed “to the fairest,” bestowed by the Spirit of Discord? Do the mythic aspects of the Trojan War reveal any truths about why we do battle?

2. Page 49 addresses the question of luck versus prowess in the rise of a powerful civilization. Intellect and drive obviously contributed to the Greeks’ success, but do you consider them to be fortunate also? If so, in what ways were they “luckier” than those they defeated?

3. The tragedies written by Greek playwrights such as Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides often feature tremendous violence, such as Oedipus’s blinding self-mutilation and the bloody conclusion to Antigone. One effect of this was catharsis for the audience, while demonstrating the power of the gods in determining our destinies. Do modern-day depictions of violence–in video games, films, and the media–serve a similar purpose?

4. In what ways was the Greek perception of sexual power reflected in male-dominated politics? How does Athena–the female goddess of battle–fit into this schema?

5. In your opinion, was Pericles’s version of democracy too inclusive or not inclusive enough? How did scales of economy shape Greece’s political landscape?

6. In the introduction, Thomas Cahill writes that his role as historian is not to expose breakthrough discoveries but to bring history to life. How would you characterize your role in this process? In what way do reader and writer serve to shape history? Does this process differ in ancient oral traditions?

7. What does our knowledge of homosexuality in ancient Greece indicate about this culture’s understanding of sexuality in general? What are the contemporary implications of this ancient approach?

8. Does Sappho’s “finishing school” represent a particular notion about the ideal woman?

9. In contrast to Sappho, instructors in Sparta attempted to excise all but the most brutish traits in their students. Do you consider the Spartan approach to military training to have been successful?

10. What did Plato’s writings reveal about the nature and reality of love, in its complete spectrum of manifestations? Did the death of Socrates contradict or reinforce those observations?

11. Discuss the emotional and psychological subtext conveyed by Greek art and architecture. Does it appear to glorify or subjugate humanity? What does it imply about the psyche of its creators?

12. The Greco-Roman world was in many ways a hostile locale for the seeding of Judeo-Christian values. Yet Greek became the language of the New Testament, and the geographic strongholds of the “Latin West” and “Greek East” survive to this day. In what ways did the ancient Greeks shape Christianity?

13. The book cites several Western poets, from Tennyson to Yeats to Auden, whose works often refer to classicism (a cornerstone of these poets’ schooling). Thomas Cahill, who first encountered Latin and ancient Greek in high school, provides us with a few of his own translations of Greek lyric poetry. Would it be valuable to make such a curriculum more widespread among twenty-first century American schools?

14. Was hubris at the heart of the Athenians’ fall from prominence? What lessons could they impart to today’s superpowers?

15. What common threads emerge in Greek pantheism, spanning the seasons of Demeter, the retribution of Icarus, the unbridled pleasure of Dionysus? How would you say the Greeks understood their faith?


Desire of the Everlasting Hills

The World Before and After Jesus

“The deep truth of the matter, both in the New Testament and in all the subsequent cultural development of the West . . . is that we all killed Jesus–and are forgiven.”
(page 331)

Jewish or Christian, believer or atheist, most people have some understanding of who Jesus is, what his life was about, and how he influences us today. But some understanding is not nearly enough to appreciate the importance of this man and the movement that began with his teachings almost two thousand years ago. In his new book, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, Cahill plunges us into Jesus’s world, showing us where and how and with whom Jesus lived. He examines Jesus’s teachings and misinterpretations of them. He shows us the Jewish and Gentile evangelists who wrote the Gospels, and examines the importance of Paul’s letters to the development of Christianity, to spreading the news of Jesus’s teachings.

So who was this man whom so many called Messiah? Whom so many followed? Whom so many believed was the medium through which God had fulfilled his promises to Israel? Who helps bring Gentiles to Judaism? Cahill gives us all that is rich and essential as he answers these questions. His immediacy places us there. It makes us players in the story.

Cahill begins by showing us the world into which Jesus was born. Readers meet the people Jesus knew–his mother, Mary, John the Baptist, Simon Peter, “friend of Jesus’s heart,” who betrays Jesus deeply, despite his insistence that he never could. Cahill also paints vivid pictures of the Greek and Roman conquests of the land where Jesus was born, giving us an essential history of the Greek and Roman Empires, which helps us more fully understand Jesus.

Cahill pieces together key fragments to the story of Jesus as he examines the differences and similarities in the histories of each of the ancient scribes. When he is finished, we see Jesus in more than one dimension. We see how he belongs to Christians and Jews. We see how ancient Judaism is the root of rabbinical Judaism and of Christianity. So that, finally, we can answer the key question about Jesus: Did he make a difference?

Questions for Discussion

1. Talk about the author’s choice in structuring the book–how he began generally, filling in essential background and then gave us various portraits of Jesus. How does this winnowing process help you understand Jesus?

2. Do you feel more drawn to one or the other of the versions of Jesus? Does the Jesus whom Mark or Matthew knew ring truer to you than the other portraits of Jesus? What purposes do the non-eyewitness portraits of Jesus (Paul’s, Luke’s, John’s) serve?

3. Discuss the state of languages–Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic–in the world around the time of Jesus. What role did language play in spreading or slowing the word of Jesus?

4. The author speaks of the authority of the dispossessed when it comes to writing true history. Discuss this in the light of the Torah, the Synoptic Gospels, Paul’s letters, and even more recent historical or literary writing. Do people on the fringe see the truth more clearly than do the people in power?

5. The Jews of Egypt fought for Caesar, an uneasy partnership that would again come into play during the time immediately preceding Jesus’s death. Talk about the strange bedfellows that politics and war can make.

6. Discuss the contradictions of creating peace through military force. In Jesus’ time, prior to that, and today.

7. Jesus as a gentle prophet is somewhat different from earlier Hebrew prophets. What did Jesus do and say that illustrates this difference?

8. The author believes that it’s urgent that Christians come to understand that Christianity is a form of Judaism “if they are to know who they are” (page 90). Do you agree? Why or why not?

9. Discuss Jesus’ mother. Do you see Mary as a shy child-bride or as a pragmatic, strong, smart Jewish girl? Which way does her Magnificat portray her? In what ways is Mary similar to any fiercely loyal, pushy, loving mother? In what ways is she different?

10. Can a person have a “Damascus experience” and only gradually realize it? Does it become a conversion moment only if it is acted upon in some external way? Or can the conversion take hold internally and gradually come to fruition?

11. The author presents Peter and Paul as partners and friends who complement each other. Discuss their friendship, the work they did, and the way they both died. Was Paul’s role in the Jesus Movement more important than Peter’s?

12. The author tells us that Paul insists on sexual and economic equality. Discuss the controversial parts of Paul’s letters that argue for or against his belief in equality between women and men.

13. Paul believed that “No one is made righteous by keeping rules” (page 152). Why did so many Gentiles come to Judaism after Jesus’s death? Discuss the controversy over the laws of Judaism that the Gentiles didn’t abide by as they became part of the Jesus Movement during the first century A.D.

14. The author speaks of “odium theologicum–hatred for those nearby who are religiously similar to oneself but nonetheless different” (page 184). Do you see this principle at work today? How can we guard against it?

15. Luke, a Gentile who sat amid the temptation of Greco-Roman society, says that wealth makes a Christlike life impossible. Do you agree? Was Luke more radical than Jesus on this point?

16. In speaking of Luke’s Jesus, the author states that Jesus does not feel compassion, he is compassion. Discuss this difference.

17. Discuss John’s Gospel as the source of hurt feelings and exclusivity that will add to the idea of the Jews as enemies throughout the course of history. Where did John’s anti-Semitism come from?

18. It took early Christians nearly four hundred years before they could bear to depict Jesus’s crucifixion–only then had the firsthand memories of this tragedy faded enough to give them some necessary distance. When it comes to images, we no longer receive much or any distance from our tragedies–think of Holocaust images or images from recent ethnic cleansing in the Balkans or genocide in Africa. How does such immediacy help or hurt us and our understanding of tragedy?

19. The author asks if our spiritual tradition “has become so universalized that it may be claimed by anyone but can no longer boast any characteristic proponents” (page 307). Do you think it has?

20. The author believes that the teachings of Jesus are responsible for a shift in consciousness toward peace and against the evils of self-interest. Talk about the evidence of such a shift.

21. Discuss the author’s suggestion that Jesus would have supported a separation of church and state.

22. Currently, some politicians promote “compassionate conservatism” or using faith-based charities as the primary means to help the poor. Based on what you’ve read in this book, would Jesus and the early members of the People of the Way be likely to support this notion? Would they also have supported compassionate government intervention to help the poor?

23. What can we do in our churches and synagogues to begin or deepen the process of Jewish-Christian reconciliation?


The Gifts of the Jews

How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels

“So, wayyelekh Avram (‘Avram went’)–two of the boldest words in all literature.”
(page 63)

Western civilization would not be what it is today, were it not for our Jewish ancestors. Christian, atheist, Jew, believer, each of us can look at Avram and see that had he not responded to what his God told him (lekh-lekha–“go forth”), we would not be the people we are today. As Cahill boldly puts it, “There is no way that it could ever have been ‘self-evident that all men are created equal’ without the intervention of the Jews.” Cahill backs up his bold statement with history. With stories. With details and informed opinion.

The Jewish people shaped the very way we think and live. In The Gifts of the Jews, we learn that processive time, individual destiny, and social justice are so peculiar to the Jews that, for all practical purposes, they invented them. Jewish men and women left their homes and journeyed when God told them to, changing who they were, changing who we are. We see it in the stories of the Bible. From Avram, who gave us the possibility of faith in a single God in the midst of a Sumerian world that included many gods and who broke out of the ancient model of seeing life as a wheel, to seeing life as processive time that includes personal destinies. To Moses, who gave us the radical morality and strict monotheism of the Ten Commandments, as well as the gift of seeing that we will die without finishing what we began, showing us that accomplishment is intergenerational. To David, who gave us the gift of personal repentance and redemption in his genuine grief and spontaneous honesty about the sins he’d committed. In short, as Cahill says, “The Jews gave us the Outside and the Inside–our outlook and our inner life.”

In The Gifts of the Jews, we are shown the value of revering the past while standing in the present moment and looking forward to the future. The Jews developed an integrated view of life and its obligations. They saw life as governed by a single outlook. They saw the connection between the realms of law and wisdom. They saw God as One, the universe’s principle of unity. And, as we see in Cahill’s book, we do well to recognize this and thank them for these priceless gifts they’ve given us all.

Questions for Discussion

1. The first books of the Bible were originally preserved as oral tradition. Discuss the ways in which oral tradition, despite its missing or inaccurate detail, can preserve essential truths.

2. Does the author give the Jews too much credit? Is philo-Semitism just as dangerous as anti-Semitism?

3. In what ways do polytheism, monotheism and the speculations of theology arise to answer questions or give assurances that can’t be provided otherwise?

4. In the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, a woman is used to tame and civilize the man/beast Enkidu. Talk about the change that the Jews gave to our perception of women. Of their role, their nature, their abilities, their responsibilities.

5. God told Avram to “go forth” and “Avram went.” The author points to these bold words in literature. Discuss this and other bold words from stories and novels you’ve read. For instance, “Reader, I married him,” in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. In what ways does simplicity of language enhance boldness of thought?

6. Discuss the idea of individuality as the “flip side of monotheism.”

7. YHWH is a verb form. Discuss the significance and differences between the three interpretations of this word: I am who am; I am who I am; I will be there with you (page 109).

8. The Israelites told their stories in real time, fixing them here on Earth with some attempt at writing history, not myth, unlike the ancient Sumerians and other civilizations before them who saw reality as the drama of eternity. Discuss this change.

9. Would you drop or add anything from the Ten Commandments, especially from those that have to do with human beings? Or, do you agree, as the author states, that in considering these commandments, “both believer and unbeliever are brought to heel” (page 143)?

10. Discuss the idea that anti-Semitism has its source in hatred of God and hatred of the unyielding Ten Commandments–a hatred that the hater must hide from him or herself (page 153).

11. The Bible shows us that God’s fire “will perfect us, will not destroy” us. How is understanding and accepting this different from having a fateful, cyclical vision of the world?

12. Several times in the book, the author refers to the struggles of black slaves in the American South as similar in some ways to the struggles of the Israelites. Discuss the historical and current relationship between African-Americans and Jews.

13. Discuss the change from the early Israelite’s “theocratic democracy” to earthly monarchy, with the anointing of Saul as king.

14. David, the poet, the leader, is a very flawed king and man. How is this part of his strength and appeal? In what ways does God’s relationship with humans change and deepen as a result of David’s story?

15. Discuss the personal emotion in the Psalms and the great change this is from previous writing.

16. Creative energy became diluted from generation to generation in the House of David. Do you see this in modern-day examples also? What can we do to guard against it?

17. Discuss the change from prophet/leader as in Moses, to priest/prophet as in Samuel, to priests/politicians who don’t speak any disruptive truths, to the outsiders (Elijah and Hosea) as the ones who hear and speak God’s words, and finally to Isaiah, yet another kind of prophet.

18. Elijah hears the “still, small voice” on the mountainside. Discuss the physical manifestations of God in the Torah.


How the Irish Saved Civilization

The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe

“Without the mission of the Irish monks . . . the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one–a world without books.”
(page 4)

How did a remote island sparsely populated by illiterate, semi-nomadic warrior barbarians become an emerald isle of saints and scholars who saved Western literature?

Well, Cahill tells us, look to Patrick, who was brought in chains to Ireland and dedicated himself to making sure nobody would ever arrive that way again. Grafting traditional Christian teachings to the positive elements of Irish myths and magic rooted in nature, Patrick planted a message that spoke directly to the Irish psyche and heart. Condemning slavery, promoting reading and writing, bringing the Gospel to barbarians, Patrick brought a non-Roman form of Christianity to an island of people fierce in their loyalty and poetry and courage and violence. He looked at the bright side of human experience and saw that “even slave traders can turn into liberators, even murderers can act as peacemakers, even barbarians can take their places among the nobility of heaven.”

From here, Cahill shows us the Irish scribes, monks who copied the great literature of the world, who approached their work with pride and playfulness, turning a task that many would consider dronelike into an art form. And when the monks take off to establish monasteries and spread Christianity throughout the world of early medieval Europe, they bring their books and replant the seeds of learning and scholarship in lands barren of these since the fall of the Roman Empire.

This is the story of how an isolated island, too small and barbaric for the Romans to bother with, plays a heroic role in saving Western civilization. It is a story of transition and movement–classical to medieval–a hinge of history that hasn’t been studied much before.

Questions for Discussion

1. As the author notes, most historians describe periods of stasis, not movement, so that we miss out on the transition periods of history. Discuss this in light of the story the author tells in this book.

2. The author often gives us tableaus where he slips deep into the scene as it’s happening–the Roman soldiers facing the German tribes along the banks of the frozen Rhine, for instance. Talk about how he does this and how it depends on our understanding of the history he reports.

3. The possibility of “psychological fiction” (page 41) came about because of Augustine’s Confessions. Discuss this breakthrough to the personal in prose.

4. The author gives a picture of Irish character that spans prehistoric to current times. Discuss character as a trait rooted in or heavily influenced by geography, weather and culture.

5. Ireland, an island, had less outside influences on it than did many other cultures during the Pax Romana. Discuss isolation as a protective force, and a contributor to the idea that as Roman lands went from “peace to chaos,” Ireland went from “chaos to peace” (page 124).

6. Talk about the particular Irish women presented in this book–Medb, Derdriu, Brigid of Kildare, and Dark Eileen O’Connell–and the general Irish view of the role of women.

7. Discuss the difference between Patrick and Augustine’s “emotional grasp of Christian truth” (page 115).

8. Talk about the Irish people’s ability to enjoy magic and superstition and pagan influences and yet convert wholeheartedly to Christianity.

9. Christianity was “received into Rome,” while Ireland was “received into Christianity” (page 148). Discuss the difference and its implications and results.

10. As Columcille and Columbanus traveled in Europe and converted people to Christianity and established monasteries, they worked under the rubric of a democratic principle that “a man is better than his descent” (page 176). Discuss this as a change in previous and subsequent spiritualities, such as that of Augustine and the Rule of Saint Benedict.

11. Is power always corrupt? Discuss this in light of the Church conspiring with the enemy (Brunhilda) against its own messenger, Columbanus, and his Irish monks.

12. Discuss the cause and effect of the clash between the Roman Christianity of Augustine’s Canterbury and Celtic Christianity at the Synod of Whitby in A.D. 644.

13. Discuss how the intellectual Greek approach to thought died and the price that subsequent cultures paid for it at the Synod of Whitby or elsewhere.

14. Discuss De Divisione Naturae, John Scotus’s theory of nature and reality, and Pope Honorius III’s order to burn all copies of it. From what the author presents here, talk about the difference between pantheism and what Scotus suggested.


Suggested Reading

Heretics and Heroes

  1. Kingsley Amis, New Maps of Hell
  2. Aristotle, The Basic Works of Aristotle
  3. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
  4. W. H. Auden, Collected Poems
  5. Augustine, The Confessions
  6. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
  7. Jean Calvin, Institution of the Christian Religion
  8. Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
  9. G. K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas
  10. Bartolome de las Casas, History of the Indies
  11. John Donne, The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne
  12. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
  13. Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly
  14. Mahatma Gandhi, The Essential Gandhi
  15. Carol Belanger Grafton, ed., Great Woodcuts of Albrecht Durer
  16. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
  17. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems
  18. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
  19. Jonathan Jones, The Lost Battles: Leonardo, Michelangelo, and the Artistic Duel that Defined the Renaissance
  20. Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ
  21. Martin Luther, Selections from His Writings
  22. Nicolo Macchiavelli, The Prince
  23. Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
  24. Arthur Miller, The Crucible
  25. Michel de Montaigne, Essays
  26. Thomas More, Utopia
  27. George Orwell, 1984
  28. Plato, The Republic and Other Works
  29. Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books
  30. William Shakespeare, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
  31. Voltaire, Candide


  1. Dante Alighieri, The Divine ComedyAllen Mandelbaum translation
  2. Norman Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages
  3. Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales
  4. Francesca Flores d’Arcais, Giotto
  5. Edward Grant, God and Reason in the Middle Ages
  6. David Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science
  7. Fiona Maddocks, Hildegard of Bingen
  8. Constant Mews, The Lost Love Letters of Héloïse and Abelard
  9. James Reston, Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade
  10. Richard Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Dark Ages
  11. Alison Weir, Eleanor of Aquitaine


  1. John Boardman, The Oxford History of Classical Art
  2. Walter Burkert, Greek Religion
  3. James Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens
  4. Jared Diamond; Guns, Germs, and Steel
  5. P.E. Easterling, The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy
  6. Robert Fagles (trans.), Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey
  7. Charles Freeman, The Greek Achievement
  8. Edith Hamilton, Mythology
  9. Victor Davis Hanson, The Wars of the Ancient Greeks
  10. Martin Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism
  11. Melissa Lane, Plato’s Progeny
  12. T.J. Luce, The Greek Historians
  13. Allen Mandelbaum (trans.), Ovid’s Metamorphoses
  14. Orlando Patterson, Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (volume I in Freedom)
  15. John Julius Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium
  16. Andrew Robinson, Lost Languages
  17. Oliver Taplin (ed.), Literature in the Greek World
  18. Robin Waterfield, Herodotus: The Histories


  1. The New Jerusalem Bible (Regular Edition)
  2. W.H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio
  3. Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament and The Churches the Apostles Left Behind and The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Life, Loves and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times
  4. Dostoevsky, Fyodor, The Brothers Karamazov
  5. Ellsberg, Robert (ed.), Dorothy Day: Selected Writings
  6. Shusaku Endo, The Life of Jesus and Silence (a novel)
  7. Fitzmyer, Joseph A., The Gospel According to Luke and The Acts of the Apostles
  8. Greene, Graham, The Power and the Glory
  9. Richard A. Horsley (ed.), Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society
  10. Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity
  11. Donald Kagan, On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace
  12. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew (in four volumes, two already published)
  13. Arnaldo Momigliano, Alien Wisdom: The Limits of Hellenization and Essays on Ancient and Modern Judaism
  14. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Paul: A Critical Life
  15. Plutarch, Parallel Lives
  16. Chaim Potok, My Name Is Asher Lev
  17. E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism
  18. Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars
  19. Tacitus, Annals
  20. Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium


  1. William Foxwell Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan
  2. Ariel and Chana Bloch (trans.), The Song of Songs
  3. John Bright, A History of Israel
  4. Martin Buber, I and Thou
  5. Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
  6. Stephanie Dalley (trans.), Myths from Mesopotamia
  7. Norman K. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction
  8. Jon Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son
  9. Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return
  10. Everett Fox (trans.), The Five Books of Moses
  11. Samuel Noah Kramer, History Begins at Sumer and The Sumerians
  12. William McNeill, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community
  13. Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being
  14. Jack Miles, God: A Biography
  15. Walter J. Ong, The Barbarian Within and The Presence of the Word
  16. William Kelly Simpson, The Literature of Ancient Egypt
  17. Hershel Shanks (interview with Frank Moore Cross), “How the Alphabet Democratized Civilization,” Bible Review
  18. E. A. Speiser, Genesis


  1. Augustine of Hippo, The City of God and Confessions
  2. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People
  3. Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo and The World of Late Antiquity
  4. Raymond E. Brown, Priest and Bishop
  5. Frederick Buechner, Brendan (a novel)
  6. Henry Chadwick, The Early Church
  7. Nora Chadwick, Everyday Life of the Pagan Celts
  8. Liam de Paor, Saint Patrick’s World
  9. Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
  10. R. P. C. Hanson, St Patrick: His Origins and Career
  11. Thomas Kinsella (trans.), The Tain
  12. Proinsias MacCana, Celtic Mythology
  13. John T. McNeill, The Celtic Churches
  14. Kuno Meyer, Selections from Ancient Irish Poetry
  15. J. H. Newman, “Lecture I,” Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England
  16. Frank O’Connor (trans.), Kings, Lords, and Commons: An Anthology from the Irish
  17. Plato, Phaedrus and The Republic
  18. Anne Ross and Don Robins, The Life and Death of a Druid Prince
  19. John Skinner (trans.), The Confession of St. Patrick and Letter to Coroticus
  20. E. A. Thompson, Who Was Saint Patrick?
  21. Robert Van de Weyer (trans.), Celtic Fire: The Passionate Religious Vision of Ancient Britain and Ireland
  22. Vergil, The Aeneid