Skip to main content


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,...

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...

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....

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...

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...

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...

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...

On the Death Penalty

Read the opinion piece Why Do We Keep Executing People? on


A Conversation with Thomas Cahill on A SAINT ON DEATH ROW

How a Forgotten Child Became a Man and Changed a World

Many readers might be surprised by A SAINT ON DEATH ROW: How a Forgotten Child Became a Man and Changed a World, since they were expecting your next book to be the sixth installment of your hugely popular series, The Hinges of History™. Who was Dominique Green? What about him and his story compelled you to so significantly alter the long-planned course of your work?

Dominique Green was a young man who spent twelve years on Texas Death Row before being executed. I met him only a year before his death—in Polunsky Unit, Livingston, the antipathetic Death Row facility that stands about an hour outside Houston—but he so impressed me as a remarkable human being that I could not get him out of my thoughts. My first encounter and my subsequent experience of knowing him made such an impact on me that I felt I had no choice but to write a book about him.

How did you come to befriend Dominique? After all, most historians don’t find themselves visiting death row very often.

A friend of mine, Sheila Murphy, a retired judge from Chicago, was helping with Dominique’s legal appeals. She knew...

A Conversation with Thomas Cahill on MYSTERIES OF THE MIDDLE AGES

MYSTERIES OF THE MIDDLE AGES: And the Beginning of the Modern World is the fifth book in your Hinges of History® series and this volume begins the series’ exploration of the modern Western world. Why does the modern world begin with the Middle Ages? What time period, exactly, are we talking about?

“The Middle Ages” is a wishy-washy term, first established by Renaissance humanists of the sixteenth century, who thought highly of the classical (or Greco-Roman) age and very highly of themselves in what they called the modern age. These humanists looked down their noses at everything that had gone on in the middle period between the classical age and themselves. Till fairly recently their prejudice was accepted by most scholars. But now, we are coming to realize that many of the things we consider characteristically modern – the gradual emancipation of women, university life, modern philosophy and science, realistic art, and even something as seemingly unmedieval as the separation of church and state – got their start in these so-called Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages are generally thought to run from the Christianization of the Roman Empire under Constantine in the early fourth century to Columbus’s first voyage of discovery in...

Q & A Where Cahill Interviews Himself

Mr. Cahill, Where Do You Get Off?

The author of “The Hinges of History” series interviews himself, posing the most difficult questions hurled at him during his book tours.

Mr. Cahill, I’d like to know where you get off writing one book after another about Western history. Most historians limit themselves to understanding a single century or a single culture. Nobody can jump from culture to culture and from era to era, pretending to understand everything.

Dear Reader, you’re right. No one can understand everything. But I am not really pretending to do that. My goal is somewhat more modest: I want to trace the effects to their causes; I want to read history backward, starting from where we are, the people of the Western world, here at the cusp of the twenty-first century. I am trying to answer one question: How did we get to be the people we are? Or, to put it another way: What is there in our history that is peculiar to the West, what gives us our characteristic ways of thinking, feeling, and valuing that make us different from other peoples? By tracing only this thread through our past, I can stay focused and leave many complex...

Back to top