I used to say that a good vacation was a time spent reading books, and a great vacation was a time spent reading good books. Dealing with 'a little one' again, I no longer have the chance to just sit and read books like I used to, but over the last weeks I did find time to read two of Thomas Cahill's books. I have read How the Irish Saved Civilization a couple of times and have been chipping away at it again for months. One of my angels at church (Mary!) likes to buy me books and best of all she asks what I want to read before she buys it, so this year I asked for Cahill. [His book on Jesus, Desire of the Everlasting Hills is wonderful, too!]
I began with The Gift of the Jews (How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels). To be honest, I have finally reached the point (thanks to my Jewish Bible studies the last decade) where I have a pretty good handle on he Jewish Bible (what is called the Old Testament) so much of the book was a rehash of very familiar material. Cahill has not written a popular history or rewritten the history of the Jews. Rather, he has provided an historian's insight into what the Jewish Scriptures say and reflects on some of the historical personages. He writes from the perspective of a Believer, though he is not writing an apologetic defense of the faith. His is a friendly perspective, though not one a strict Literalist would embrace.
However, his fundamental insights into the impact of Jewish (Biblical) thought about time and God is arguably of value for any type of Christian. His point: the Jews are the foundation of Western Culture and the first group to break out of a cyclical view of time. The ramifications of that explain why and how we are the way we are today.
He begins with a review of the Gilgamesh epic and the religiosity of the ancients. I strongly believe that we all need a deeper immersion in the Ancient Near East if we are ever to understand the Sacred Writings. Just like a knowledge of the Roman Empire is foundational to read the New Testament (many errors in interpretations are based on seeing the Bible as 'timeless' and 'unconnected' to its place in history--such a mythical approach is actually the pagan way, ironically). The Jews, descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, are not a new people created by God and planted unto the earth, they are part of that culture and relatives of those who lived in the land. They are a family(ies) set apart by God. In Genesis it says Abraham is from Ur (of the Chaldeans). It is elsewhere said of Abraham that he was "A wandering Aramean" (from Aram, Israel's southern neighbor). Just as Christianity comes from Judaism, so Israel comes from the Semitic and Middle Eastern culture.
So the ancient stories and world view (which are echoed in our Bible; I have spoken of creation and flood accounts many times) is the background and context for the books of the Bible (especially the Torah). Genesis is arguably a rewrite (and correction) of those ancient myths (and not an argument against contemporary science!!!!). As Cahill lays out the ancient (cyclical) view he then provides the Jewish alternative..
In pages 125ff, he describes that difference. "For all the ancients...time as we think of it was unreal; the Real was what was heavenly and archetypal.... The text of the Bible is full of clues that the authors are attempting to write history of some sort." The next page he reminds us that "The question that springs constantly from our lips--"Did that really happen"--had little meaning in any ancient culture."
The eternal circle is replaced by a real past (which matters for itself), a present (where choices and decisions) which shapes a yet to be determined future. The future may have echoes of the past (there are cycles) but it is also open to be new and different. The "science" of history as we know it today comes from this insight into time. So, too, the other sciences.
I highly recommend the book, especially to those of faith who seek the truth. It makes the Bible more amazing, to me. I began the next book, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea (Why the Greeks Matter) but have only half read it. It is important to Christians because the Greek culture is so informative for early Christianity. The Jewish Bible was translated into Greek and the New Testament was written in Greek. I hope some day to read Cahill's book on the Middle Ages someday