The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels

by Thomas Cahill

Book, 1998



Call number

710 CAH



[S.l.] : Doubleday, 1998.


The Gifts of the Jews reveals the critical change that made western civilization possible. Within the matrix of ancient religions and philosophies, life was seen as part of an endless cycle of birth and death; time was like a wheel, spinning ceaselessly. Yet somehow, the ancient Jews began to see time differently. For them, time had a beginning and an end; it was a narrative, whose triumphant conclusion would come in the future. From this insight came a new conception of men and women as individuals with unique destinies--a conception that would inform the Declaration of Independence--and our hopeful belief in progress and the sense that tomorrow can be better than today. As Thomas Cahill narrates this momentous shift, he also explains the real significance of such Biblical figures as Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the Pharaoh, Joshua, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member davidpwithun
Another excellent book from Thomas Cahill and a cogent and timely reminder that the Judeo-Christian tradition created nearly everything that we today recognize as normal human life. Our views of time, of personhood and interpersonal relationships, our views of the self, of society, and of morality
Show More
-- all of them have been created and passed down to us by a small group of nomads bred in the deserts of the Middle East. Cahill's book will make you look at yourself, the society you live in, and the Bible all in a new and brilliant light. I have only two complaints: 1. While Cahill rightly criticizes some of the violent aspects of the Old Testament, he fails to take his presentation full circle and state why it is that we find the slaughters and wars of ancient times so repulsive: because of the very mindset that this same book has instilled in us; 2. Cahill cuts the story short, ending with the Old Testament and never tells us how these values became the world's values: Christianity.
Show Less
LibraryThing member brett_in_nyc
I love Cahill's books for poetry and imagery. There is no reference to Zoroastrianism nor the Hellenistic influence on culture in general in the classical age. Without this discussion, I can't tell if the central theme of the book about time, or journey is truly valid. What I know about Zoroastrian
Show More
astrology tells me the ancients understood perfectly well the passage of time and
ages of man, and they were aware of Vedic astrology and philosophy which tells us today about the Age of Aquarius and all the change that entails from the Age of Pisces. Other writers claim that it was Vedic beliefs that informed Abraham.

I wonder if this book is really a complete story or a romantic tale. He has no dates in the story, which I guess means it is supposed to be taken at face value. Despite all of this, I can definitely believe much of that ancient forbidden knowledge was preserved for us by Kabbalah and the Zohar, which is fortunately findings its way to us again through Buddhism and Vedic practice too, but he doesn't talk about either.

It is great as a romantic tale, but I just want to know. If the idea of Abraham originating the notion of 'journey' is true, the book doesn't explain how Siddharta would have learned that from circa 450BC or Homer at 850BC during the Babylonian diaspora, and once again there is no discussion of any Zoroastrian or Greek literature that could put it into context. I also wonder if the simplicity of the religious life in Sumer is over done. I have read amazing things about Zoroastrianism in the land of Ur and Sumer and the amazing knowledge they had of the planets and stars which is the precursor to mathematical science in the Persian and Arabic worlds, which certainly also transformed our world in ways that the Romanized/Hellenized/Judaized world never would have, and which is sorely under recognized today.

What is the relationship here to the Hebrew time in Egypt? Freud contended that Atenism was invented by Egyptians and Moses learned that there, and had his encounter with the burning bush, and the books themselves about Abraham were written much later after a national tale was formed in Solomon's time.

Do I have to read the next book about the Greeks to get the complete picture? Is there one about Egyptians? (Boy this is a racket with Nan Talese isn't it?)

Other books I've read also say that Judaism was transformed by the return of the diaspora to Babylon and Cyrus II and influence there by Zoroastrianism turning it from a desert mountain animal sacrificial cult into one of urban community more closely resembling Talmudic Judaism and philosophic scholarship like it is today. And, for a long time, the Zoroastrians considered First and Second Temple Judaism to be a branch of their own faith and culture, and even contributed to putting the Second Temple back together when Judea was part of the Persian Cosmopolis and Jews were much in favour as part of that fascinating society before Alexandre the Great or Roman annexation. Certainly, writings from Alexandre's time show more fascination with things Persian and Vedic than anything they found on the way in Judea.

None of this finds its way into Cahill's book, which makes me wonder how complete it is and how far I can take his claims.

His book about Jesus is also very simplistic and doesn't mention too much about the Essenes and other Zoroastrian movements known there during that period post-Qumran, much about the Aprocrypha or Gnostic Gospels nor about competing scholars' views about who Jesus really was (or were) and the complex politics at that time of the Roman empire when Celtic tribes were wacking at the Northwest and Judeans were rebelling in the East and the whole Judeo/Christian narrative was shaped by Emperors and Generals and Councils of house church leaders around Byzantium and Rome (not Rabbis and Temple Castes who were conspicuously thrown out and vilified by that time).

His books are poetic (and I guess quite Orthodox shades of Joseph Ratzinger which surprises me and I know he wrote it ten years ago), but I doubt their completeness at this point. They are fun to read with the proverbial 'grain of salt'. Fortunately, there are new books and scholarship post-Qumran coming out all the time about this fascinating subject.

In terms of his essential question "where are the Assyrians today?" Well, I know one, an Orthodox Christian Iranian. Language alive and well and still spoken at home in a diaspora family. Interesting possibility that converting to Christianity actually may have saved ancient peoples from annihilating each other and themselves in their violent pagan and feudal wars. That certainly wouldn't have been possible alone through Judaism which was then and maybe is now again a competing nationalist, rather than universalist movement, which like all the others stirs up ire amongst competing groups while according certain benefits to itself.
Show Less
LibraryThing member misskate
Outstanding thesis on the cyclical pagan beliefs and the progressive, progressing God of the Jews. I enjoyed reading this and will read it again
LibraryThing member ashergabbay
In this bestselling book, Cahill sets out to show that the world we live in and everything we do and think, is purportedly a result of the Jewish "revolution" in history. The concepts expounded in the Bible were a dramatic break from the ancient religions and philosophies, that viewed the world as
Show More
an endless cycle of birth and death in which human beings had no control over their lives. The Jews broke this way of thinking by defining time as continuous, as moving towards a better future through the decisions of men and women living here and now, in the present. Were it not for the Jews, argues Cahill, the world as we know it would not have come to be; we would have been unable to grasp concepts such as history, future, freedom, faith, hope, individual, justice and pretty much everything else.

What a wonderful theory and, as a Jew, I'm obviously all for it. But unfortunately Cahill devotes most of the book not to providing evidence to support this theory, but rather to a recounting of the major stories of the Bible from his perspective. The few profound points he makes about the contribution of the Jews to the world are lost in the endless quotes from the Bible and in Cahill's somewhat simplistic theories about what really happened. For example, do we really need to know that he believes the Red Sea was a marsh and not a sea, or that the Manna the Israelites ate in the desert was most likely some white plant secretion? Such details are numerous and do not contribute to the main idea offered by the author.

Cahill does not come through as a particularly believing person and he certainly does not view the Bible as the word of God. Therefore, it is interesting that he uses the following definition for the existence of God:

...the Jews developed a whole new way of experiencing reality, the only alternative to all ancient worldviews and all ancient religions. If one is ever to find the finger of God in human affairs, one must find it here. (p. 246)

I wonder if Cahill was aware that this very definition was given by Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister of Britain. When asked by Queen Victoria if he can provide proof that God exists, Disraeli (born Jewish himself) thought for a moment and replied: "The Jews, your Majesty".

As a believing Jew I particularly liked the way Cahill defines how each and every one of us hears the Voice of God:

Each reader must decide if the Voice that spoke to the patriarchs and prophets speaks to him, too. If it does, there is no question of needing proof, any more than we require proof of anyone we believe in... one does not believe that God exists, as one believes that Timbuktu or the constellation Andromeda exists. One believes in God, as one believes in a friend - or one believes nothing." (p.250)
Show Less
LibraryThing member pandorabox82
Another great, thought provoking book by Cahill. A lot of this material I had some knowledge of due to a wonderful history professor that I had, but to hear it once more in a more fleshed out way was wonderfully refreshing. Once again it's obvious that Cahill has done his homework and written a
Show More
tight, well-woven narrative.
Show Less
LibraryThing member justine
Book two of Thomas Cahill's Hinges of History series. Very much designed for a popular audience, but still a good read with an interesting if not entirely original concept: that the monotheism of Judaism changed the morality of the whole world.
LibraryThing member Philosophercat
I didn't get very far with this book. I read it while I was still fairly young which might explain why I didn't stick it out. I was turned off by- what seemed to me to be- the indulgence the writer took in descibing lurid sexual practices in the chapters about the pagan world. It was the way these
Show More
were described that turned me off because I felt this was done to sensationalise the work.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Chris_El
I was hoping this was going to be a great as the earlier book from the same author: How the Irish Saved Civilization. The premise of this book is interesting. The author points out that ancient civilization viewed time as a wheel. What has happened before will happen again, and again, and again.
Show More
History was not something important in that world-view. If everyone keeps doing the same things and getting the same results why look back to see exactly has happened in the past as long as everyone knows the gist of it? Past history was often told in the form of myth. The gods were rarely interested in individuals unless it was the king or you did something to make them angry.

The Jews changed the conception of time and mankind's interaction with the spiritual with their belief in a single god that built relationships with individuals. The author presents some reasonable arguments and examples that support his view of the ancient world and how the Jew's philosophy and religion influenced western civilization and the concept of progress and time.

However, the author spends a big portion of the book paraphrasing passages from the Bible with minimal commentary on how this exercise supports his premise. He is clear he does not believe the Bible is all true, but that it has been changed and added to by translators and copyists as it has been passed thru time. And he believes that many stories of a violent old testament God are not true but later additions to the text. His evidence of this is merely that some stories reveal a God that is to violent and he could not believe the loving God portrayed in many portions of the Bible is so violent or vengeful. I appreciate his honesty but this sort of reasoning does not fit with the rest of his arguments that he backs up with historical references and this discussion is an unnecessary detour from the premise.

I feel the author could have made his point with much less extraneous content as actual discussion of the premise forms a very small percentage of the book. I did think the background material about Sumerian culture was interesting, worth the read, and provided some good context for the argument that Jewish culture eventually created a very different world view.
Show Less
LibraryThing member StephenBarkley
For the first 50 pages I was intrigued. The next 190 pages retold a story I know very well. The last 8 pages made me want to throw the book across the room in frustration. Let me explain.

In the Beginning.

In The Gift of the Jews, Thomas Cahill explains how the Jewish people changed the way Western
Show More
culture thinks and operates. It's an overlooked theme that deserves attention. During the first 50 pages, Cahill reconstructs the culture and thought life of the ancient Sumerians (the culture Abram was called out of).

Life in Sumeria was cyclical. Crops grew, died, and came to life again. The sun rose and set only to rise again. The rainy season came and went and returned. The ancient Israelites were the first culture to break out of this mindset. For Abraham and his lineage, life and history was more than cyclical—it had a purpose.

The Middle.

The bulk of the book is a summary of the Hebrew Bible. If you're fuzzy on your Old Testament, this would be an interesting fast-forward through a lot of history. For me, it seemed like a somewhat patchwork retelling of Israelite history, picking and choosing what to focus on. At a few junctions, I wondered how well Cahill knew the Hebrew Bible.

When Cahill discussed the time before Jerusalem's fall and the Babylonian captivity, he spoke at length about Isaiah while ignoring Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Another time he commented about how some of the books in the Hebrew Bible seem existentialist—only to describe Song of Solomon while completely ignoring Ecclesiastes! If you're going to give any writer in the Bible a proto-existentialist award, it has to be the Qohelet!

Besides all the picking-and-choosing (which, I admit, had to be done in such a condensed retelling), I had a few other frustrations. Cahill's use of unfamiliar spellings (Avraham for Abraham and Moshe for Moses, for example) felt a bit pretentious. His viewpoint on miracles was also inconsistent. Cahill has no problem with a person hearing the voice of God, but he tried to offer rational foundations for other miraculous events such as the crossing of the Sea of Reeds (low tide). I would respect a consistent anti-supernatural position, but you can't have it both ways.

The End.

You're probably wondering why I wanted to throw this book across the room. Here's why:

"It is no longer possible to believe that every word of the Bible was inspired by God. Fundamentalists still do, but they can keep up such self-delusion only by scrupulously avoiding all forms of scientific inquiry. ... But even without resorting to modern scientific methodology or noticing what an inconsistent palimpsest the Hebrew Bible can be, we must reject certain parts of the Bible as unworthy of a God we would be willing to believe in. ... If God is to be God the Creator of all, he must be utterly beyond our comprehension—and, therefore, awfully scary. More than this, I, for one, am willing to give God the benefit of the doubt in certain dubious cases—even in an episode as grotesque as the near-sacrifice of Yitzhak [Isaac—see my earlier critique]. He had to jump-start this new religion, and he didn't always have the best material to work with" (245-6).

Where should I start? I could critique Cahill's ignorance about what "inspired" means—anyone can beat up a fundamentalist straw-man. I could point out the obvious: yes, God "must be utterly beyond our comprehension" ... unless he chose to reveal himself to us in history which is precisely what your entire book is about!

No, the thing that drove me crazy was the modernist arrogance. Cahill and the rest of us moderns are somehow qualified to determine what God can and cannot do because our societal norms dictate what's right and wrong.

Clearly a God that doesn't meet our enlightened ethical understanding isn't "worth believing in" (246).
Show Less
LibraryThing member DinadansFriend
This is a survey of what Mr. Cahill thinks the contributions of the Jews to our present Civilization. Though not as intensive as "Jews, God, and History" it's not a bad book to counter some forms of anti-Semitism.
LibraryThing member mattries37315
The moment, or hinge, in history that a changed occurred to allow Western civilization possible is the primary focus of Thomas Cahill’s The Gifts of the Jews. Over the course of less than 304 pages and the scope of two millennia of Jewish history from its birth with Abraham to their return from
Show More
exile, Cahill examines the evolving birth of a new worldview that was entirely different from what had been thought before.

The focus of Cahill’s book is the beginning of Western civilization, which to him is a change in mindset on how to view the world and the reason was the Jews. Before getting to Abraham however, Cahill looked to what had come before, the “cyclical” worldview and culture of Sumer in which he went out of. With this in mind, Cahill emphasizes how big a step Abraham’s journey at God’s direction was. Then throughout the course of the book, Cahill examines step-by-step the development of the “processive” worldview that the Jews were exhibiting for the first time from successive revelations of God and the development of individuality in language and philosophy, but most importantly the role of justice in society.

Cahill’s argument is very compelling, as was his discussions on the Epic of Gilgamesh and the various Biblical individuals and their actions. Yet the problem I have with this book is with some of Cahill’s interpretation and subsequent logical construction of his evidence whether through scripture or an analysis of non-Biblical sources to weave his thesis. For example some of the evidence Cahill uses to date the Exodus is erroneous by misinterpretation of both Biblical and non-Biblical sources, yet that is only of several examples I could have given.

Yet while Cahill’s interpretations aren’t the best part of this book, his argument that the Jews brought forth a new worldview that would lead to Western civilization is compelling. Because of that, The Gifts of the Jews is worth a close read as it describes the first and most significant hinge of historical change.
Show Less
LibraryThing member nancynova
diakonia book, the gifts is a bit of a stretch, but it was interesting to see how the Bible and the Jewish history evolved from Cahill's perspective. Not as contentious a book in diakonia discussion as some others
LibraryThing member Diwanna
I enjoyed this book marginally more than The Everlasting Hills. I really like the insight on the history of the Jews and the humanity he injects into the characters. What I have a hard time understanding is twofold. First he claims that without the Jews many of our modern cultures/thought processes
Show More
would not have occurred;i.e. Democracy, Capitalism, Psychology, Civil Rights Movement, Egocentrism, etc. Secondly he states that there is no way that the Bible is the inspired word of God and the God mentioned in the Bible is not one worthy of worship, and yet he believes whole heartedly in that God stating that God inspired the evolution of the culture and the events that happened, just not the writing. But how did he discover said God, through the writing! Anyways both books, although I had problems with them I was able to glean some interesting information and I recommend reading them.
Show Less

Original publication date



0385482485 / 9780385482486

Similar in this library

Page: 0.1852 seconds