The writer of this book has no difficulty in believing that the Bible contains supernatural elements. He is ready to affirm that other than natural forces have been employed in producing it. It is to these superhuman elements in it that reference and appeal are most frequently made. But the Bible has a natural history also. It is a book among books. It is a phenomenon among phenomena. Its origin and growth in this world can be studied as those of any other natural object can be studied. The old apple-tree growing in my garden is the witness to me of some transcendent truths, the shrine of mysteries that I cannot unravel. What the life is that was hidden in the seed from which it sprang, and that has shaped all its growth, coordinating the forces of nature, and producing this individual form and this particular variety of fruit, -- this I do not know. There are questions here that no man of science can answer. Life in the seed of the apple as well as in the soul of man is a mystery. But there are some things about the apple-tree that may be known. I may know -- if any one has been curious enough to keep the record -- when the seed was planted, when the shoot first appeared above the ground, how many branches it had when it was five years old, how high it was when it was ten years old, when this limb and that twig were added, when the first blossom appeared, when that branch was grafted and those others were trimmed off. All this knowledge I may have gained; and in setting forth these facts, or such as these, concerning the natural history of the tree, I do not assume that I am telling all about the life that is in it. In like manner we may study the origin and growth of the Bible without attempting to decide the deeper questions concerning the inspiration of its writers and the meaning of the truths they reveal.
That the Bible has a natural as well as a supernatural history is everywhere assumed upon its pages. It was written as other books are written, and it was preserved and transmitted as other books are preserved and transmitted. It did not come into being in any such marvelous way as that in which Joseph Smith's "Book of Mormon," for example, is said to have been produced. The story is, that an angel appeared to Smith and told him where he would find this book; that he went to the spot designated, and found in a stone box a volume six inches thick, composed of thin gold plates, eight inches by seven, held together by three gold rings; that these plates were covered with writing in the "Reformed Egyptian" tongue, and that with this book were "the Urim and the Thummim," a pair of supernatural spectacles, by means of which he was able to read and translate this "Reformed Egyptian" language. This is the sort of story which has been believed, in this nineteenth century, by tens of thousands of Mormon votaries. Concerning the books of the Bible no such astonishing stories are told. Nevertheless some good people seem inclined to think that if such stories are not told, they might well be; they imagine that the Bible must have originated in a manner purely miraculous; and though they know very little about its origin, they conceive of it as a book that was written in heaven in the English tongue, divided there into chapters and verses, with head lines and reference marks, printed in small pica, bound in calf, and sent down to earth by angels in its present form. What I desire to show is, that the work of putting the Bible into its present form was not done in heaven, but on earth; that it was not done by angels, but by men; that it was not done all at once, but a little at a time, the work of preparing and perfecting it extending over several centuries, and employing the labors of many men in different lands and long-divided generations. And this history of the Bible as a book, and of the natural and human agencies employed in producing it, will prove, I trust, of much interest to those who care to study it.
Mr. Huxley has written a delightful treatise on "A Piece of Chalk," and another on "The Crayfish;" a French writer has produced an entertaining volume entitled "The Story of a Stick;" the books of the Bible, considered from a scientific or bibliographical point of view, should repay our study not less richly than such simple, natural objects.
A great amount of study has been expended of late on the Scriptures, and the conclusions reached by this study are of immense importance. What is called the Higher Criticism has been busy scanning these old writings, and trying to find out all about them. What is the Higher Criticism? It is the attempt to learn from the Scriptures themselves the truth about their origin. It consists in a careful study of the language of the books, of the manners and customs referred to in them, of the historical facts mentioned by them; it compares part with part, and book with book, to discover agreements, if they exist, and discrepancies, that they may be reconciled. This Higher Criticism has subjected these old writings to such an analysis and inspection as no other writings have ever undergone. Some of this work has undoubtedly been destructive. It has started out with the assumption that these books are in no respect different from other sacred books; that they are no more a revelation from God than the Zendavesta or the Nibelungen Lied is a revelation from God; and it has bent its energies to discrediting, in every way, the veracity and the authority of our Scriptures. But much of this criticism has been thoroughly candid and reverent, even conservative in its temper and purpose. It has not been unwilling to look at the facts; but it has held toward the Bible a devout and sympathetic attitude; it believes it to contain, as no other book in the world contains, the message of God to men; and it has only sought to learn from the Bible itself how that message has been conveyed. It is this conservative criticism whose leadership will be followed in these studies. No conclusions respecting the history of these writings will be stated which are not accepted by conservative scholars. Nevertheless it must be remembered that the results of conservative scholarship have been very imperfectly reported to the laity of the churches. Many facts about the Bible are now known by intelligent ministers of which their congregations do not hear. An anxious and not unnatural feeling has prevailed that the faith of the people in the Bible would be shaken if the facts were known. The belief that the truth is the safest thing in the world, and that the things which cannot be shaken will remain after it is all told, has led to the preparation of this volume.
I have no doubt, however, that some of the statements which follow will fall upon some minds with a shock of surprise. The facts which will be brought to light will conflict very sharply with some of the traditional theories about the Bible. Some of my readers may be inclined to fear that the foundations of faith are giving way. Let me, at the outset, request all such to suspend their judgment and read the book through before they come to such a conclusion. Doubtless it will be necessary to make some readjustment of theories; to look at the Bible less as a miraculous and more as a spiritual product; to put less emphasis upon the letter and more upon the spirit; but after all this is done it may appear that the Bible is worth more to us than it ever was before, because we have learned how rightly to value it.
The word "Bible" is not a biblical word. The Old Testament writings were in the hands of the men who wrote the books of the New Testament, but they do not call these writings the Bible; they name them the Scriptures, the Holy Scriptures, the Sacred Writings, or else they refer to them under the names that were given to specific parts of them, as the Law, the Prophets, or the Psalms. Our word Bible comes from a word which began to be applied to the sacred writings as a whole about four hundred years after Christ. It is a Greek plural noun, meaning the books, or the little books. These writings were called by this plural name for about eight hundred years; it was not till the thirteenth century that they began to be familiarly spoken of as a single book. This fact, of itself, is instructive. For though a certain spiritual unity does pervade these sacred writings, yet they are a collection of books, rather than one book. The early Christians, who honored and prized them sufficiently, always spoke of them as "The Books," rather than as "The Book," -- and their name was more accurate than ours.
The names Old and New Testament are Bible words; that is to say we find the names in our English Bibles, though they are not used to describe these books. Paul calls the old dispensation the old covenant; and that phrase came into general use among the early Christians as contrasted with the Christian dispensation which they called the new covenant; therefore Greek-speaking Christians used to talk about "the books of the old covenant," and "the books of the new covenant;" and by and by they shortened the phrase and sometimes called the two collections simply "Old Covenant" and "New Covenant." When the Latin-speaking Christians began to use the same terms, they translated the Greek word "covenant" by the word "testament" which means a will, and which does not fairly convey the sense of the Greek word. And so it was that these two collections of sacred writings began to be called The Old Testament and The New Testament. It is the former of these that we are first to study.
When Jesus Christ was on the earth he often quoted in his discourses from the Jewish Scriptures, and referred to them in his conversations. His apostles and the other New Testament writers also quote freely from the same Scriptures, and books of the early Christian Fathers are full of references to them. What were these Jewish Scriptures?
At the time when our Lord was on the earth, the sacred writings of the Jews were collected in two different forms. The Palestinian collection, so called, was written in the Hebrew language, and the Alexandrian collection, called the Septuagint, in the Greek. For many years a large colony of devout and learned Jews had lived in Alexandria; and as the Greek language was spoken there, and had become their common speech, they translated their sacred writings into Greek. This translation soon came into general use, because there were everywhere many Jews who knew Greek well enough but knew no Hebrew at all. When our Lord was on earth, the Hebrew was a dead language; it may have been the language of the temple, as Latin is now the language of the Roman Catholic mass; but the common people did not understand it; the vernacular of the Palestinian Jews was the Aramaic, a language similar to the Hebrew, sometimes called the later Hebrew, and having some such relation to it as the English has to the German tongue. There is some dispute as to the time when the Jews lost the use of their own language and adopted the Aramaic; many of the Jewish historians hold the view that the people who came back from the captivity to Jerusalem had learned to use the Aramaic as their common speech, and that the Hebrew Scriptures had to be interpreted when they were read to them. Others think that this change in language took place a little later, and that it resulted in great measure from the close intercourse of the Jews with the peoples round about them in Palestine, most of whom used the Aramaic. At any rate the change had taken place before the coming of Christ, so that no Hebrew was then spoken familiarly in Palestine. When "the Hebrew tongue" is mentioned in the New Testament it is the Aramaic that is meant, and not the ancient Hebrew. The Greek, on the other hand, was a living language; it was spoken on the streets and in the markets everywhere, and many Jews understood it almost as well as they did their Aramaic vernacular, just as many of the people of Constantinople and the Levant now speak French more fluently than their native tongues. The Greek version of the Scriptures was, for this reason, more freely used by the Jews even in Palestine than the Hebrew original; it was from the Septuagint that Christ and his apostles made most of their quotations. Out of three hundred and fifty citations in the New Testament from the Old Testament writings about three hundred appear to be directly from the Greek version made at Alexandria. Between these two collections of sacred writings, the one written in Hebrew, then a dead language, and the other in Greek, -- the one used by scholars only, and the other by the common people, -- there were some important differences, not only in the phraseology and in the arrangement of the books, but in the contents themselves. Of these I shall speak more fully in the following chapters. It is to the Hebrew collection, which is the original of these writings, and from which our English Old Testament was translated, that we shall now give our attention. What were these Hebrew Scriptures of which all the writers of the New Testament knew, and from which they sometimes directly quote?
The contents of this collection were substantially if not exactly the same as those of our Old Testament, but they were arranged in very different order. Indeed they were regarded as three distinct groups of writings, rather than as one book, and the three groups were of different degrees of sacredness and authority. Two of these divisions are frequently referred to in the New Testament, as The Law and The Prophets; and the threefold division is doubtfully hinted at in Luke xxiv.44, where our Lord speaks of the predictions concerning himself which are found in the Law and the Prophets and in the Psalms.
The first of these holy books of the Jews was, then, THE LAW contained in the first five books of our Bible, known among us as the Pentateuch, and called by the Jews sometimes simply "The Law," and sometimes "The Law of Moses." This was supposed to be the oldest portion of their Scriptures, and was by them regarded as much more sacred and authoritative than any other portion. To Moses, they, said, God spake face to face; to the other holy men much less distinctly. Consequently their appeal is most often to the law of Moses.
The group of writings known as "The Prophets" is subdivided into the Earlier and the Later Prophets. The Earlier Prophets comprise Joshua, the Judges, the two books of Samuel, counted as one, and the two books of the Kings, counted also as one. The Later Prophets comprise Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve Minor Prophets, the last books in our Old Testament, -- Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. These twelve were counted as one book; so that there were four volumes of the earlier and four of the later prophets. Why the Jews should have called Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and the Kings books of the Prophets is not clear; perhaps because they were supposed to have been written by prophets; perhaps because prophets have a conspicuous place in their histories. This portion of the Hebrew Scriptures, containing the four historical books named and the fifteen prophetical books (reckoned, however, as four), was regarded by the Jews as standing next in sacredness and value to the book of the Law.
The third group of their Scriptures was known among them as Kethubim, or Writings, simply. Sometimes, possibly, they called it The Psalms, because the book of the Psalms was the initial book of the collection. It consisted of the Psalms, the Proverbs, Job, the Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Chronicles. This group of writings was esteemed by the Jews as less sacred and authoritative than either of the other two groups; the authors were supposed to have had a smaller measure of inspiration. Respecting two or three of these books there was also some dispute among the rabbis, as to their right to be regarded as sacred Scripture.
Such, then, were the Hebrew Scriptures in the days of our Lord, and such was the manner of their arrangement.
They had, indeed, other books of a religious character, to which reference is sometimes made in the books of the Bible. In Numbers xxi.14, 15, we have a brief war song quoted from "The Book of the Wars of Jehovah," a collection of which we have no other knowledge. In Joshua x.13, the story of the sun standing still over Gibeon is said to have been quoted from "The Book of Jasher," and in 2 Samuel i.18, the beautiful "Song of the Bow," written by David on the death of Saul and Jonathan, is said to be contained in the "Book of Jasher." It is evident that this must have been a collection of lyrics celebrating some of the great events of Hebrew history. The title seems to mean "The Book of the Just." The exploits of the worthies of Israel probably furnished its principal theme.
In 1 Chronicles xxix.29, we read: "Now the acts of David the king, first and last, behold they are written in the History of Samuel the Seer, and in the History of Nathan the Prophet, and in the History of Gad the Seer." There is no reason to doubt that the first named of these is the history contained in the books of Samuel in our Bible; but the other two books are lost. We have another reference to the "History of Nathan," in 2 Chronicles ix.29, -- the concluding words of the sketch of King Solomon's life. "Now the rest of the acts of Solomon, first and last, are they not written in the History of Nathan the Prophet, and in the Prophecy of Abijah the Shilonite, and in the Visions of Iddo the Seer concerning Jeroboam the son of Nebat?" Here are two more books of which we have no other knowledge; their titles quoted upon the page of this chronicle are all that is left of them. A similar reference, in the last words of the sketch of Solomon's son Rehoboam, gives us our only knowledge of the "Histories of Shemaiah the Prophet."
In the Kings and in the Chronicles, reference is repeatedly made to the "Books of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel," and the "Books of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah," under which titles volumes that are now lost are brought to our notice. Undoubtedly much of the history in the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles was derived from these ancient annals. They are the sources from which the writers of these books drew their materials.
We are also told in 2 Chronicles xxvi.22, that Isaiah wrote a history of the "Acts of Uzziah," which is wholly lost.
Other casual references are made to historical writings of various sorts, composed by prophets and seers, and thus apparently accredited by the biblical writers as authoritative utterances of divine truth. Why were they suffered to perish? Has not Emerson certified us that
"One accent of the Holy Ghost The heedless world has never lost"?
But this is a fond exaggeration. Mr. Emerson was certainly not himself inspired when he uttered it. Many and many an accent of the Holy Ghost has been lost by this heedless world. And it is not at all improbable that some of these histories of Nathan and Gad and Shemaiah held vital and precious truth, -- truth that the world has needed. The very fact that they are hopelessly lost raises some curious questions about the method of revelation. Is it to be supposed that the Providence which suffers whole books to be lost by men would infallibly guarantee those that remain against errors in the copies, and other imperfections? As a matter of fact, we know that He has not so protected any of them.
Still I doubt not that Providence has kept for us the best of this Hebrew literature. To say that it is the best literature that the world has produced is to say very little. It is separated widely from all other sacred writings. Its constructive ideas are as far above those of the other books of religion as the heavens are above the earth. I pity the man who has had the Bible in his hand from his infancy, and who has learned in his maturer years something of the literature of the other religions, but who now needs to have this statement verified. True it is that we find pure maxims, elevated thoughts, genuine faith, lofty morality, in many of the Bibles of the other races. True it is that in some of them visions are vouchsafed us of the highest truths of religion, of the very substance of the gospel of the Son of God. But when we take the sacred books of the other religions in their entirety, and compare them with the sacred writings of the Hebrews, the superiority of these in their fundamental ideas, in the conceptions that dominate them, in the grand uplifting visions and purposes that vitalize them, can be felt by any man who has any discernment of spiritual realities. It is in these great ideas that the value of these writings consists, and not in any petty infallibility of phrase, or inerrancy of statement. They are the record, as no other book in the world is a record, of that increasing purpose of God which runs through the ages. I hope that it will appear as the result of our studies, that one may continue to reverence the Scriptures as containing a unique and special revelation from God to men, and yet clearly see and frankly acknowledge the facts concerning their origin, and the human and fallible elements in them, which are not concealed, but lie upon their very face.