DESIRE OF THE EVERLASTING HILLS

The World Before and After Jesus

By Thomas Cahill

Doubleday. 353 pp. $24.95

This book finds Thomas Cahill standing upon the shoulders of giants, three in particular: the late Raymond Brown, John Meier of Catholic University and Joseph Fitzmyer of Georgetown University. Through their careful historical and linguistic explorations, these priests helped to carve the crevice through which the main stream of Catholic biblical scholarship now flows. In the process they painted a new portrait of the historical Jesus--a portrait that is original and provocative yet not out of keeping with the core teachings of the Christian faith.

This portrait was painted piecemeal, however, in scholarly monographs and lengthy tomes, and has greater currency among those who have been to divinity school than among those who have not. That is where Cahill, author of "How the Irish Saved Civilization" and "The Gift of the Jews," comes in. His book is a popularization, but in the best sense of the word.

With grace, skill and erudition, he summarizes obtuse semantic and historical arguments, highlights the findings most relevant to lay readers and draws disparate material together in his portraits of Jesus, his mother, Mary, and the apostle Paul.

The book breaks little new ground. Much of it will be old news to readers familiar with the Jerome Biblical Commentary or the writings of the scholars on whom Cahill relies. But the author distills and enlivens his material in a way that should engage a much broader audience.

The Jesus who emerges from these pages is much like the Jesus from the first two volumes of Meier's yet-to-be-completed opus "A Marginal Jew." He is a peasant, healer and prophet. His message is that "the kingdom of God is at hand," and he devotes the last three years of his brief life to exemplifying what he meant by that.

He either is or is not aware that he is the Son of God, depending upon the evangelist. But if he is the Messiah, he is a savior of a different order from what anyone was expecting. He and his disciples were a bit loose in their observance of the Sabbath. They consorted with tax collectors and prostitutes. They counted women among their company.

Cahill's Jesus is not, explicitly, a political figure. Yet he espouses a personal transformation so complete, and a mercy so extravagant, that it cannot help but challenge the established order. There is little wonder that the guardians of that order wanted him dead. This Jesus occupies the center of Cahill's book, but the portrayal, while solid, is a bit stale. Readers with only a cursory knowledge of recent biblical scholarship have encountered him before.

Cahill's Mary, however, is fresh and vital. Fashioned from snippets of Scripture and intelligent induction, she is proud, practical and plain-spoken. Cahill bases this interpretation on what, for me, is a persuasive reading of the Magnificat, a prayer attributed to Mary in the gospel of Luke. While the words of the prayer were not hers, the sentiments, Cahill argues, almost certainly were.

In his translation they read: "He has pulled the princes from their thrones and exalted the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty." Mary, Cahill believes, was distressed by the radical nature of her son's message and the rough reception he was accorded in his home town. At first, she and his brothers (like many mainstream scholars, Cahill does not believe that Jesus was an only child) opposed his public ministry, he argues. But Mary was with her son when he died, raising in Cahill's mind the possibility of an untold story: a mother's conversion.

Cahill would also like us to see St. Paul in a new light. The apostle is much revered by traditionalists and scorned by liberals for his statements on sex, marriage and authority in the family. But Cahill disputes the importance of Paul's teachings on gender. To him, the apostle is a radical egalitarian who made a few concessions to the prevailing culture in order to keep the church alive.

He may have returned a slave to his owner, and instructed women to be submissive to their husbands, but Cahill believes that Paul's truest sentiments were summarized in the letter to the Galatians: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

I'd like to believe that he's right, that on other occasions Paul was trimming his sails deliberately to protect the fledgling church that gave scandal to so many. But I think it is more likely that, like so many of us, he simply didn't understand all the implications of his ideals.

Jim Naughton, author of "Catholics in Crisis: The Rift Between American Catholics and Their Church."