An Essay on the Age and Antiquity of the Book of Nabathæan Agriculture/Preface

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The Book of Nabathæan Agriculture was first introduced to the notice of Europe by St. Thomas Aquinas, towards the middle of the thirteenth century, though it had already been cited by Moses Maimonides in the More Nevochim some hundred years previously, from whence, no doubt, it had become known to most of the learned Spanish Jews who, at the period, shed so great a lustre upon Hebrew Literature and Biblical Science.

Startling as it is to find in its pages mention of a literature and civilization so far beyond the earliest records of the Bible and other known sources of information, it has ever since been treated, when not passed over in utter oblivion, more as one of the curiosities of literature than as a valuable record of the past; and though slightly referred to by Salmasius, about two centuries ago, in a way which might have opened up a controversy as to the authenticity and date of its supposed antiquity and authorship, the matter seems to have been allowed to fall still-born from the press. This may in some way be accounted for by the ignorance of scholars before our day of the principles of Comparative Grammar, that ingenious art of criticism which becomes the key by which modern philology is enabled to enter the deep recesses of the past, and expose to view records which, for want of it, were inaccessible to the ancient Greeks and Romans and the great scholars of the last three centuries; as, ignorant of it, the former were even unable to decipher the earliest remains of their own language, and the latter could only supply its place by conjectural guesses.

One of the most successful workers in this new field of criticism is Dr. Daniel Chwolson, Professor of Hebrew in the University of St. Petersburgh, who first made himself known to Oriental scholars by the publication of one of the most able and profound works connected with the history and literature of the East which has ever appeared. Die Ssabier und der Ssabismus—the Sabians and Sabian Worship—has for ever settled many doubtful and long-disputed points in religion; has thrown new and irresistible light upon earlier Eastern history; and placed its author at once in the highest rank as one of the deepest thinkers and most painstaking critics of the day.

The real Sabians, the as-Sábiún of the Koran, were an Aramaic or Syro-Chaldæan race, on the borders of Persia, inhabiting the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates. These heathen had El-Hasaih as the founder of their religion. He is the Ἠλχασαί of Hippolytus, the Elkesai of Theodoretus, and the Ἠλξαί or Ἠλξαίος of Epiphanius, and taught the doctrine of two principles in the Creation, a male and a female, active and passive power, mind and matter. Mání was brought up in this creed, but, drawing nearer to the doctrines of Zoroaster or Parsee-ism, preached a second duality, Good and Evil, and thus became the founder of Manichæism, which still lingers amongst the Yesides, and is so graphically portrayed by Mr. Layard. The Sabians derive their name from the Hebrew word צבע, ‘to dip,’ and it was applied to the followers of El-Hasaih in reference to their frequent ablutions. Their present representatives are the Mendaïtes, Gnostics, Nazoreans, or, incorrectly, Christians of St. John, so called from their frequent lustrations with water, who dwell in the swamps on the banks of the Tigris near Bassora.

Besides the Sabians, there were others who took the name, about the year 830 of our era, to escape the persecutions of the Chalifs, particularly of El-Ma’mún, who threatened them with extermination; assuming at the same time something of the dress and forms of the persecuting Mussulmans. These pseudo-Sabians are represented by the modern Yesidis and the Shemsiya, both of whom are fire-worshippers, or perhaps, rather, worshippers of the sun and the planets, at heart, though the first profess a kind of bastard Islamism, and the latter, since about the year 1762, a mongrel Christianity. These pseudo-Sabians dwelt in the land of Harran, and their descendants have become familiar to us by the narratives of Layard and Southgate, and some recent discussions as to the site of the well of Harran in the Athenæum.

In collecting together and examining his materials for this important work, Professor Chwolson necessarily had to dip deeply into the sources of old Babylonian or Nabathæan literature, greatly encouraged in the pursuit by the previous labours of M. Quatremère;[1] and men, who were fully competent to judge of his high linguistic attainments, began to look anxiously forward to the time when the fruits of this industry should be placed before them. To quiet the many enquiries on that head, in 1859 there appeared in the Memoirs des Savants Etrangers of St. Petersburgh, and also in a separate form, Ueber die Ueberreste der Altbabylonischen Literatur in Arabischen Uebersetzungen, a curious and startling work “On the Remains of Old Babylonian Literature, preserved in Arabic translations;” and it is that work which has given rise to this essay of M. Ernest Renan, which is now presented to the English reader, with his sanction, in its present form.

In his introductory chapter, Dr. Chwolson puts forth two questions:—1. Could the Babylonians have possessed an extensive literature of high order in the time of Nebuchadnezzar, or of the earlier Nebonassar? 2. Was it possible that in Babylon there should have existed an advanced state of science, at a time when Grecian literature and science were both in their infancy? Professor Chwolson answers both questions, knowingly and advisedly, in the affirmative. Such a deduction would go far to shake the faith of Jews and Christians in the Divine origin of the sacred books of the Old Testament, and hence the cartel thrown down by the Professor has brought forth many replies on the Continent, to which reference is made in the pages of M. Renan’s unanswerable essay; and also three important reviews of the work in this country, of which that in the Christian Remembrancer of April, 1860, claims precedence as to date, and that in the Saturday Review of September, in the same year, as to matter; both, however, highly instructive papers to all who take interest in a subject of such paramount importance. M. Renan’s essay is contemporary with the latter, and appeared in the Mémoires de l’Académie des Inscriptions, et Belles-Lettres, Tome XXIV., in 1860. The third review is a notice of this memoir, which appeared in the Times on the last day of January in the present year, under the heading of “Pre-Adamite Literature,” which gives a masterly analysis of the whole subject.[2]

Husbandry was the first and earliest of the sciences to which man turned his attention, and our common father, when he began to “eat bread in the sweat of his face,” the first husbandman. Hence it is but natural to suppose that the earliest of the sciences should have been handed down from generation to generation in a religious form; and, when first reduced to writing, that it should have retained that form. So we arrive at the conclusion that the earliest literature of which we have any traces, very properly combined in itself the principles of worship and progress, of religion and civilization. It is just this form which gives such an air of high antiquity to “The Book of Nabatheean Agriculture,” and which has induced Dr. Chwolson to ask: “Had Greek literature been completely lost to the world during the dark ages which followed the fall of the Roman Empire, and now, for the first time, the works of Plato and Aristotle, of Hippocrates and Galen, of Euclid and others, become known to us only by Arabic versions in which they really exist, should we not probably suspect them to be forgeries, and exclaim against the possibility of the Greeks having had so cultivated a literature four centuries before Christ, when our own forefathers were in a state of dense darkness, in which they continued comparatively for some fifteen centuries afterwards, though their connection with classical antiquity was by no means dissolved?” As this might well have happened in regard to Greek literature, he asks us not to look upon as forgeries authentic documents, brought to light by similar agency, respecting a pre-existing ante-Grecian culture.

In M. Ernest Renan, Professor Chwolson has met an opponent at all points his equal in rank and in erudition. The Oriental Professor of the College of France has raised to himself a name no less celebrated as the author of the Histoire des Langues Sémitiques, than his rival did by his publication of the Ssabier und der Ssabismus. Born in Brittany in 1823, he was educated for holy orders, and all his impulses are essentially the results of that education, though very early he found that he could not pursue his studies for the priesthood with a clear conscience. Since the age of twenty-four, when in 1847 he gained the Volney prize for his essay on the Shemitic languages, he has devoted himself to letters, and ranks as one of the greatest French writers now living. Under the present Emperor of the French he has been employed to carry out researches in Phœnicia, and is at this moment engaged in preparing for press a great work on Phœnician Antiquities. M. Renan belongs to those religious thinkers who are known as the “advanced school.” Hence the public, generally, in France, heard with something like astonishment of his appointment to the chair of the Hebrew, Chaldaic, and Syriac Languages in the College of France, as the successor of M. Quatremère. They were partly prepared, also, for the result of his inaugural lecture—the suspension of further lectures. This proceeding is one of much importance in the literary history of Europe, and that importance has been the sole inducement to add an English version of the lecture to the present volume. M. Renan is compiling a life of Christ, and the history of the origin of Christianity, a great portion of which was written amidst the scenes to which it has immediate reference. His peculiar views are as well known to the educated classes of France and Germany, from his Etudes d’Histoire Religieuse and his Essais de Morale et de Critique, as are those of Professor Jowett in this country, from his contribution to the Essays and Reviews. With these the translator no way identifies the presentation to the reader, in an English dress, of M. Renan’s Essay on “The Book of Nabathæan Agriculture,” and of the “Inaugural Lecture on the Position of the Shemitic Nations in the History of Civilization.” All the merit claimed is an earnest endeavour to reproduce both works in a faithful rendering of the originals.

June, 1862.

  1. Mémoire sur les Nabatéens, in the Journal Asiatique, 1835; reprinted in the Mélanges d'Histoire et de Philologie Orientale.
  2. The translator of the Strange Surprising Adventures of the Venerable Gooro Simple, published in 1860, in reference to the antiquity of Eastern legends, says: “Dr. Chwolson has recently issued a very curious and interesting volume on the remains of ancient Babylonian literature. According to it, a person named Kúthámí compiled a well-planned and ably executed work on general literature fourteen centuries before the Christian era, giving us glimpses of a previous civilization of some three thousand years. We are promised the Arabic text accompanied by a translation. When these appear we shall have more certain data than mere conjectural criticism for fixing dates. Kúthámí, it seems, speaks of ‘the ancients,’ the writers of periods then long passed away, as we do of the authors of classical antiquity.”