This review will contain spoilers!
In many sentences:
The first thing I want to say about Gift of the Jews is that I am not a historian. I feel it is worth mentioning this because I am in no way qualified to judge the merit of most of Cahill's claims. How do I know if the Jews were really the first to break free of the Great Wheel worldview of the past? How do I even know that was the dominant worldview at the time? These questions were plaguing me throughout the reading. That isn't to say, though, that what Cahill says is false, either. I simply have to claim ignorance on the matter and accept what he says at face value.
On the whole Cahill succeeds in presenting a consistent, convincing argument. He presents evidence throughout that supports his claim. The major problem I had with the book was that he seems afraid to come clean with his main point (that the Jews provided us with a spiritual life, with a concept of history, future, and present, and that our lives should pursue justice for all those around us). It's a good point, and he argues well for it, but I get the feeling that he didn't want to present the conclusion too early in the book, otherwise he would lose the readers interest. Personally, I don't think this is the case - in fact, had he shared what his point was early and clearly, I think I would have enjoyed the book more, as it would have allowed me to think critically about his evidence throughout.
On the good side, it is well-written and entertaining. Cahill throws in enough humor and detail to capture the reader's attention. Furthermore, the concept of viewing the Old Testament as revealing the revelation of God at different stages of that revelation's development is very insightful. While there is clearly more to get out of the Old Testament than that insight alone, it does provide another perspective on a work I was already familiar with.
Ultimately, the reason to read this book is to discover the unique and life-altering changes to the way we think that the Jews introduced (again, giving Cahill the benefit of the doubt and assuming this is all correct). It is so often difficult to realize how much the way we live in think is detremined by our surrounding culture. Cahill, however, is able to help us see what defines our current worldview (importance of the now, significance of the past, freedom of the future) and how it differed from the worldview of ancient civilizations. When Cahill says we take these things for granted, he is absolutely right, and the idea that it all started with the Jewish culture is fascinating.
Cahill concludes the book by saying "For without justice, there is no God" (252). I would use this as my quote for the book, but I don't think it would be fair to Cahill. His point here is that if we don't act in a just way to those in need, then we have rejected God as the Jews did before their cities were raised by the Babylonians. However, I'm afraid that if I use this as the quote, people would think that Cahill was making some claim against the existence of God, which is clearly not the case in context. So, I'm putting it here because it is interesting and insightful, and I don't want to treat Cahill unjustly..
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in history (regardless of their faith in God). Cahill clearly writes the book from a secular perspective and for a secular audience. Being familiar with the stories of the Old Testament is not necessary as Cahill does an excellent job of summarizing the relevant parts. Moreover, he offers insight throughout even for those of us intimately familiar with them. On the whole, I appreciate what Cahill is proposing and I will assume that what he has argued here is true until I find convincing evidence to the contrary. I am also interested in reading his other history book (How the Irish Saved the World) which, in the end, is probably the best recommendation I could make.
"The Jews were the first people to break out of this circle, to find a new way of thinking and experiencing, a new way of understanding and feeling the world, so much so that it may be said with some justice that theirs is the only new idea that human beings have ever had."Thomas Cahill in The Gift of the Jews
"We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact - new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice - are the gifts of the Jews."Thomas Cahill in The Gift of the Jews
Thomas Cahill the Last Line of in The Gift of the Jews