Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 19.djvu/428

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

of the issues of the great Homeric controversy, has no idea of the fresh light that has been thrown on the books which are read under the name of Moses, or the character and historical position of such men as Samuel, David, or Isaiah. Oriental scholars, a very small class in England, have been so much occupied in study as to have scarcely cared to give the results of recent inquiry to the general public. Lately some valuable translations of German treatises have begun to appear, but these have been too elaborate and bulky to attract ordinary readers. The appetite has continued to languish for want of the proper food.

It need now languish no longer. Professor Robertson Smith's book is exactly what was wanted at once to inform and to stimulate. Written by one of the first Semitic scholars of our time, it is completely abreast of the most recent investigations, and pervaded by a thoroughly scholar-like spirit. His easy mastery of the subject and his sense of which are the really difficult points and which the settled ones are apparent on every page. What is more surprising is the skill wherewith these resources are used. Although scientific in the sense of being thorough, exact, and business-like, the book is also popular—that is to say, it is perfectly intelligible to every person of fair general education who has read the Bible. For clearness of statement, for cogency of argument, for breadth of view, for impartiality of tone, for the judgment with which details are subordinated to the most interesting and instructive principles and facts, it is a model of how a great and difficult subject should be presented to the world. It is so condensed as to need close attention. But those who have any taste for these studies will not find it hard to give that close attention, for it carries one on like a romance from beginning to end, and we can well believe, what was stated in the newspapers some weeks ago, that the lectures, of which it is a summarized reprint, were listened to by immense audiences in Scotland with the keenest interest.

The book opens with a sketch of the criticism of the Old Testament in the Christian Church from the days of the earliest Fathers. It is shown how their entire want of Hebrew scholarship contributed, with their theories as to the nature and value of Scripture, to lead them away from a critical interpretation of the text; how even Jerome was obliged, when making his famous translation, to lean upon Jewish rabbis; how it was only among the Jews that the knowledge of the old language was preserved down till the Reformation, when such revivers of learning as Reuchlin drew their knowledge from Jewish sources; how thus the traditional interpretations and notions which were current among the Jews continued to influence Protestant scholars in their translations, and have colored our own authorized version. Then the author goes on to show how the Jewish traditional interpretation was itself formed. Old Hebrew became a dead language in or before the fourth century b. c., so that the Jews of our Lord's time, speaking Aramaic, needed special school-training to understand the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets. As there were no grammars nor dictionaries, the knowledge of the old tongue was given orally, and a traditional mass of learning grew up, consisting of the interpretation of the sacred writings, with explanations and commentaries, partly legal (the so-called Halacha), partly moral or hortatory (the Haggada). The Law having now become the center of the whole life of the nation, as well civil as religious, and the guide of all its habits and usages, the function of those who interpreted and expounded and applied it became an extremely important one, and they rose, in the period between the return from Babylon and the birth of Christ, into a class of great power and influence. They are those whom we find mentioned in the New Testament as the Scribes, mostly belonging to and in fact heading the party called Pharisees. Their interest in the Law was primarily practical, and in their work of extending, supplementing, harmonizing, refining upon its rules they created a large body of customary law side by side with it, and were thus led to originate many forced and unreasonable interpretations, which have come down to us in the Talmud, and long continued to pervert the true meaning of the old writings. Though philology or grammatical exegesis was not in their way, nor indeed within their com-