Turning from the Jewish and mediaeval traditions and theories which so easily beset us, we ask, What is the real nature of the Old Testament as it is revealed in this new and clearer light? The first conclusion is that it is a library containing a large and complex literature, recording the varied experiences, political, social, ethical, and religious, of the Israelitish race. The fact that it is a library consisting of many different books is recognized by the common designation of the two testaments. As is well known, our English word Bible came originally from the Papyrus or Byblus reed, the pith of which was widely used in antiquity as the material from which books were made. It was natural, therefore, that in the Greek a little book should be designated as a biblion. About the middle of the second Christian century the Greek Christians (first in the so-called Second Epistle of Clement xlv.2) began to call their sacred scriptures, Ta Biblia, the books. When this title was transferred to the Latin it was, by reason of a natural and yet significant error, treated as a feminine singular, Biblia, which, reappears In English as Bible. This most appropriate name emphasizes the fact that the books thus described are a unit and yet a collection of little books, selected from a larger literature and given their present position of preeminent authority.
[Sidenote: The record of God's vital, personal relations to the Israelitish race]
The term Testament suggests not the form and authority of the books, but their theme. It is the English translation, through the Latin and Greek, of the Hebrew word, berith, usually rendered, covenant. It means a bond or basis of agreement. It implies a close and binding contract between two parties, and defines the terms to which each subscribes and the obligations which they thus assume. The Old Covenant or Testament, therefore, is primarily the written record of the origin, terms, and history of the solemn agreement which existed between the Israelitish nation and Jehovah. The early narratives preserve the traditions of its origin; the lawgivers endeavored to define its terms and the obligations that rested upon the people; the prophets interpreted them in the life of the nation, and the sages into the life of the individual; and the historical books recorded its practical working. The significant fact is that back of the Old Testament records exists something greater and deeper than pen can fully describe: it is a vital, living connection between Jehovah and his people that makes possible the unique relation which finds expression in the remarkable history of the race and in the experiences and souls of its spiritual leaders. Thus through life, and in the concrete terms of life, God reveals himself to the life of humanity.
[Sidenote: Written in history and human minds and hearts]
In the light of this truth the Jewish and medieval dogma that every word, and even every letter of Scripture, was directly dictated by God himself, seems sadly mechanical and bears the marks of the narrow schools of thought in which it took form. Hebrew was not, and probably will never be, the language of heaven! Not on skins and papyrus rolls, but in the life of the Israelitish race and on the minds and consciences of enlightened men, God wrote his revelation. History and the character and consciousness of the human race are its imperishable records. Fortunately he also aroused certain men of old, not by word and act only, but by the pen as well, to record the revelation that was being perfected in the life of their nation and in their own minds and hearts. He did not, however, dictate to them the form of their writings nor vouch for their verbal inerrancy. In time, out of their writings were gradually collected and combined the most significant passages and books, and to these was finally attributed the authority that they now rightfully enjoy.
[Sidenote: Secondary sources of its authority]
The ultimate basis of that authority, however, is not their presence in the canon of the Old Testament. At the same time their presence there is deeply significant, for it represents the indorsement of many ages and of countless thousands who, from the most varied points of view and amid the most diverse experiences, have tested and found these ancient scriptures worthy of the exalted position that has gradually been assigned to them. It is not the support of the Church, although this also for the same reason is exceedingly significant. It is not the calm assumption, of authority that appears at every point throughout the Old Testament, although this is richly suggestive; the sacred writings of other religions make even more pretentious claims. It is not that its commands and doctrines come from the mouths of great prophets and priests, like Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. This fact undoubtedly had great weight with those who formed the final canon of the Old Testament, and the authority of a strong, noble personality is supremely impressive; but divine authority never emanates primarily from a man, however great be his sanctity. Furthermore, to establish the authority derived from a Moses or a Samuel it is necessary in every case to prove that the books attributed to them by late tradition actually came from their pens. Even if this could in every case be done, some of the noblest passages in the Old Testament remain avowedly anonymous; for the tendency of the great majority of its authors was clearly to send forth their messages without any attempt to associate their own names with them.
[Sidenote: Its ultimate basis of authority]
The ultimate authority of the Old Testament, therefore, is not dependent upon devoted canon-makers, nor the weighty testimony of the Church, nor upon its own claims, nor the reputation of the inspired men who have written it, nor the estimate of any age. Its seat of authority is more fundamental. It contains the word of God because it faithfully records and interprets the most important events in the early religious history of man, and simply and effectively presents God's revelation of himself and of his will in the minds and hearts of the great pre-Christian heralds of ethical and spiritual truth. Back of the Old Testament is a vast variety of vital experiences, national and individual, political and spiritual, social and ethical, pleasurable and painful. Back of all these deeply significant experiences is God himself, through them making known his character and laws and purpose to man.
[Sidenote: Its authority ethical and religious, not scientific]
Students of the rediscovered Old Testament also recognize, in the light of a broader and more careful study, the fact, so often and so fatally overlooked in the past, that its authority lies not in the field of natural science, nor even of history in the limited sense. Time and patience were destined to increase man's knowledge in these great departments and also to develop his mind in attaining it. The teaching of the Old Testament is authoritative only in the far more important realm of ethics and religion. Paul truly voiced its supreme claim when he said that it was profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, completely fitted for every good work (II Tim. iii.16, 17). The assertion by the Church in the past of claims nowhere made or implied by the Old Testament itself is unfortunately still a fertile source of perplexity and dissension to many faithful souls. Their salvation is to be found in a clear and intelligent appreciation of the real nature and claim of these ancient writings.
[Sidenote: Its dominant purpose to teach spiritual truth]
One dominant aim determines the form of each book and the selection of individual passages and binds together the whole: it is effectively to set forth spiritual truth and to mould in accordance with God's will the characters and beliefs of men. It was the supreme bond that bound together prophets, priests, sages, and psalmists, although the means by which they accomplished their common purpose differed widely. Many a current tradition, and the crude conceptions of the ancients regarding the natural world, are recorded in the Old Testament; but they are not there merely to perpetuate history nor to increase the total of scientific knowledge, but rather because they concretely illustrate and impress some vital ethical and spiritual truth. Such singleness of religious purpose is paralleled nowhere else except in the work and teachings of Jesus and his apostles.
[Sidenote: Its present fruits the proof of its inspired authority]
The ever-present evidence of the divine authority back of the spiritual teachings of the Old Testament as a whole is that they ring true to life and meet its needs. By their fruits we know them. It is the demonstration of the laboratory. We know that they are inspired because they inspire. The principles underlying the social sermons of Amos are as applicable to present conditions as when first uttered. The sooner they are practically applied the sooner our capitalistic civilization can raise its head now bowed In shame. The faith that breathes through the Psalms is the faith that upholds men to-day in the midst of temptation and trial. The standards of justice, tempered by love, which are maintained in the Old Testament laws make good citizens both of earth and heaven. As long as men continue to test the teachings of the Old Testament scriptures in the laboratory of experience and to know them by their fruits, nothing can permanently endanger their position in the Christian Church or in the life of humanity. Neglect and indifference, not Higher Criticism, alone permanently threaten the authority of the Old Testament as well as that of the New.
[Sidenote: Significance of the variations and inconsistencies]
Recognizing the real nature and purpose of these ancient records, the true student neither denies nor is disturbed by the marks of their human authorship. As in the case of the Gospels, the variations between the parallel narratives are all evidence of their genuineness and of the sincerity of their purpose. They demonstrate that God's revelation is adapted to the needs of life and the comprehension of man, because it was through life and expressed in the terms of life. Their individual peculiarities and minor errors often introduce us more intimately to the biblical writers and help us to understand more clearly and sympathetically their visions of truth and of God. Above all, they teach us to look ever through and beyond all these written records to the greater revelation, which they reflect, and to the infinite Source of all knowledge and truth.
[Sidenote: The record of a gradual revelation]
The inconsistencies and imperfect teachings which are revealed by a critical study of the Old Testament are also but a few of the many indices that it is the record of a gradually unfolding revelation. Late Jewish tradition, which is traceable even in the Old Testament itself, was inclined to assign the origin of everything which it held dear to the very beginnings of Hebrew history, and in so doing it has done much to obscure its true genesis. Fortunately, however, the history of God's gradual training of the race was writ too plainly in the earlier Old Testament scriptures to be completely obscured by later traditions. The recognition that God's all-wise method of revealing spiritual as well as scientific truth was progressive, adapted to the unfolding consciousness of each succeeding age, at once sweeps away many of the greatest difficulties that have hitherto obscured the true Old Testament. Jesus with his divine intuition appreciated this principle of growth. Unhesitatingly he abrogated certain time-honored Old Testament laws with the words, Ye have heard that it was said ... but I say to you. His own interpretation of his relation to the sacred writings of his race was that he came to bring them to complete fulfilment. Rearranged in their approximately chronological order, the Old Testament books become the harmonious and many-sided record of ten centuries of strenuous human endeavor to know and to do the will of God and of his full and gracious response to that effort. The beatitude of those who hunger and thirst after righteousness was as true in the days of Moses as it was when Jesus proclaimed it.
[Sidenote: Its different books of very different values]
Finally, the right and normal attitude toward the Old Testament leads to the wholesome conclusion that its different books are of very different values. The great critic of Nazareth again set the example. As we have just seen, certain of the Old Testament laws he distinctly abrogated; others he quietly ignored; others, as, for example, the law of love (Deut. vi.5, and Lev. xix.19) he singled out and gave its rightful place of central authority. A careful study of the Gospels, in the light of the Old Testament, demonstrates that a very important element in his work, as the Saviour of men, was in thus separating the dross in the older teachings from the gold, and then in giving to the vital truth a clearer, more personal, and yet more universal application. For the intelligent student and teacher of to-day the Old Testament still remains a great mine of historical, ethical, and religious truth. Some parts, like Genesis, Deuteronomy, Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah xl.-lv., and the Psalter, are richly productive. Others, like Numbers, Chronicles, and Esther, are comparatively barren.
[Sidenote: Application of this truth]
Since the Old Testament is the record of a progressively unfolding revelation, it is obvious that all parts do not possess an equal authority. To place the example of the patriarchs or of David, who lived when ethical standards and religious beliefs were only partially developed, on an equality with the exalted ideals of the later prophets, is to misinterpret those ancient Scriptures and to reject the leadership of the Great Teacher. At the same time, studied from the newer point of view, the examples of those early heroes are found to illustrate vital principles in human life and to inspire and warn the child of to-day as effectively as they did far back in the childhood of the race.
[Sidenote: The Old Testament not a fetish but a spiritual guidebook]
In these later days God has taken the Bible from the throne of infallibility on which Protestantism sought to place it. By a gradual yet benign process, which we were nevertheless at first inclined bitterly to resent, he has opened our eyes to its true character and purpose. Again, he has pronounced his Thou shall not to the natural and yet selfish human desire to transfer moral and intellectual responsibility from the individual conscience to some external authority. Again, he has told us that only in the sanctuary of the human soul is the Infallible One to be found. Yet in order that we each may find him there, the cumulative religious experience of the countless thousands who have already found him is of inestimable value. The Old Testament contains not merely the word of God, but, together with its complement the New, is the great guide-book in finding and knowing him, It blazes the way which, the pilgrim of to-day, as in the past, must follow from his cradle to the throne of God. At each point it is richly illustrated by the actual religious experiences of real men and women. Their mistakes and their victories, are equally instructive. From many vantage-points reached by prophets and priests and psalmists, we are able to catch new and glorious visions of God's character and purpose for mankind. Through its pages -- sometimes dimly, sometimes brightly, But growing ever clearer -- shines the giving light of God's truth and revelation, culminating in the Christ, the perfected revelation and the supreme demonstration that man, though beset by temptation, baffled by obstacles, deserted by friends, and maligned by foes, can nevertheless, by the invincible sword of love and self-sacrifice, conquer the world and become one with God, as did the peerless Knight of Nazareth.