Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/February 1891/New Chapters in the Warfare of Science: Comparative Philology II
XI. FROM BABEL TO COMPARATIVE PHILOLOGY.
By ANDREW DICKSON WHITE, LL. D., L. H. D.,
EX-PRESIDENT OF CORNELL UNIVERSITY.
IN the first part of this article we saw the steps by which the sacred theory of human language had been developed; how it had been strengthened in every land until it seemed to bid defiance forever to secular thought; how it rested firmly upon the letter of Scripture, upon the explicit declarations of leading fathers of the Church, of the great doctors of the middle ages, of the most eminent theological scholars down to the beginning of the eighteenth century, and was guarded by the decrees of popes, bishops, Catholic and Protestant, kings, and the whole hierarchy of authorities in church and state.
And yet, as we now look back, it is easy to see that, even in that hour of its triumph, it was doomed.
The reason why the Church has so fully accepted the conclusions of science which have destroyed the sacred theory is instructive. The study of languages has been, since the revival of learning and the Reformation, a favorite study with the whole Western Church, Catholic and Protestant. The importance of understanding the ancient tongues in which our sacred books are preserved first stimulated the study, and church missionary efforts have contributed nobly to supply the material for extending it, and for the application of that comparative method which, in philology as in other sciences, has been so fruitful of good. Hence it is that so many leading theologians have come to know at first hand the truths given by this science, and to recognize its fundamental principles. What the conclusions which they, as well as all other scholars in this field, have been absolutely forced to accept, I shall endeavor to show in this chapter.
The beginnings of a true and scientific theory seemed weak indeed, but they were none the less effective. As far back as 1661, Hottinger, professor at Heidelberg, came into the chorus of theologians like a great bell in a chime; but like a bell whose opening tone is harmonious, and whose closing tone is discordant. For while, at the beginning, Hottinger cites a formidable list of great scholars who had held the sacred theory of the origin of language, and here was in harmony with the chorus, he goes on to note a closer resemblance to the Hebrew in some languages than in others, and explains this by declaring that the confusion of tongues was of two sorts, total and partial: the Arabic and Chaldaic he thinks underwent only a partial confusion; the Egyptian, Persian, and all the European languages a total one: here comes in the discord; here gently sounds forth from the great chorus a new note—that idea of grouping and classifying languages which at a later day was to destroy utterly the whole sacred theory.
But the great chorus resounded on, as we have seen, from shore to shore, until the closing years of the seventeenth century; then arose men who silenced it forever. The first leader who threw the weight of his knowledge, thought, and authority against it was Leibnitz, the rival of Isaac Newton. He declared, "There is as much reason for supposing Hebrew to have been the primitive language of mankind as there is for adopting the view of Goropius, who published a work at Antwerp in 1580 to prove that Dutch was the language spoken in paradise." In a letter to Tenzel, Leibnitz wrote, "To call Hebrew the primitive language is like calling the branches of a tree primitive branches, or like imagining that in some country hewn trunks could grow instead of trees." He also asked very cogently, "If the primeval language existed even up to the time of Moses, whence came the Egyptian language?"
But the efficiency of Leibnitz did not end with mere suggestions. He applied the inductive method to linguistic study, and made great efforts to have vocabularies collected and grammars drawn up wherever missionaries and travelers came in contact with new races. He thus succeeded in giving the initial impulse to at least three notable collections—that of Catharine the Great, of Russia; that of the Spanish Jesuit, Lorenzo Hervas; and, at a later period, the Mithridates of Adelung. The interest of the Empress Catharine in her collection of linguistic materials was very strong, and her influence is seen in the fact that Washington, to please her, requested governors and generals to send in materials from various parts of the United States and Territories. The work of Hervas extended over the period from 1735 to 1809; a missionary in America, he enlarged his catalogue of languages to six volumes, which were published in Spanish in 1800. His work contained specimens of more than three hundred languages, and the grammars of more than forty. It should be said to his credit that Hervas dared point out with especial care the limits of the Semitic family of languages, and declared, as a result of his enormous studies, that the various languages of mankind could not have been derived from the Hebrew.
While such work was done in Catholic Spain, Protestant Germany was honored by the work of Adelung. It contained the Lord's Prayer in nearly five hundred languages and dialects, and the comparison of these early in the nineteenth century helped to end the sway of Scriptural philology.
But the period which intervened between Leibnitz and this modern development was a period of philological chaos. It began mainly with the doubts which Leibnitz had forced upon Europe, and the end of it only began with the study of Sanskrit in the latter half of the eighteenth century, followed by the comparisons made by means of the collections of Catharine, Hervas, and Adelung at the beginning of the nineteenth. The old theory that Hebrew was the original language had fallen into disrepute, but nothing had taken its place as a finality. Great authorities, like Buddeus, were still cited in behalf of the narrower belief, but everywhere researches, unorganized though they were, tended to destroy it. The story of Babel continued indeed throughout the whole eighteenth century to hinder or warp scientific investigation, and a very curious illustration of this fact is seen in the book of Lord Nelme on The Origin and Elements of Language. He declares that the incident of the confusion was the cleaving of America from Europe, and regards the most terrible chapters in the Book of Job as intended for a description of the flood, which in all probability he had from Noah himself. Again, Rowland Jones tried to prove that Celtic was the primitive tongue, and that it passed through Babel unharmed. Still another effort was made by a Breton to prove that all languages took their rise in the language of Brittany. All was chaos. The old theory had gone to pieces, but no new theory had yet been formed. There was much wrangling, but little earnest controversy. Here and there theologians were calling out frantically, beseeching the Church to save the old as "essential to the truth of Scripture"; here and there other divines began to foreshadow the inevitable compromise which has always been thus vainly attempted in the history of every science. But it was soon seen by thinking men that no concessions as yet spoken of by theologians were sufficient. In the latter half of the century came the bloom period of the French philosophers and encyclopedists, of the English deists, of such German thinkers as Herder, Kant, and Lessing; and while here and there some writer on the theological side, like Perrin, amused thinking men by his flounderings in this great chaos, all remained without form and void.
Nothing reveals to us better the darkness and duration of this chaos in England than a comparison of the articles on Philologygiven in the successive editions of the Encyclopædia Britannica. The first edition of that great mirror of British thought was printed in 1771; chaos reigns through the whole of its article on this subject. The writer divides languages into two classes, seems to indicate a mixture of divine inspiration with human invention, and finally escapes under a cloud. In the second edition, published in 1780, some progress has been made. The author states the sacred theory, and declares: "There are some divines who pretend that Hebrew was the language in which God talked with Adam in paradise, and that the saints will make use of it in heaven in those praises which they will eternally offer to the Almighty. These doctors seem to be as certain in regard to what is past as to what is to come."
This was evidently considered dangerous. It clearly outran the good sound belief of the average English Philistine; and accordingly we find in the third edition, published seventeen years later, a new article, in which, while the author gives, as he says, "the best arguments on both sides," he takes pains to adhere to a fairly orthodox theory.
This soothing dose is repeated in the fourth and fifth editions. In 1824 appeared a supplement to the fourth, fifth, and sixth editions, and this deals with the facts so far as they are known. There is scarcely a reference to the biblical theory throughout the article; and the author refers rather contemptuously to it. Three years later comes another supplement. While this Chaos was fast becoming Cosmos in Germany, such a change had evidently not gone far in England, for from this edition of the Encyclopædia the subject of philology is omitted. In fact, Babel and Philology made nearly as much trouble to encyclopedists as Noah's Deluge and Geology. Just as in the latter case they had been obliged to stave off a presentation of scientific truth, by the words "For Deluge, see Flood," and "For Flood, see Noah" so in the former they were obliged to take various provisional measures—some of them comical. In 1842 came the seventh edition. In this the first part of the old article on philology which appeared in the third, fourth, and fifth editions was printed, but the supernatural part was mainly cut out. Yet we find a curious evidence of the continued reign of chaos in a foot-note inserted by the publishers, disavowing any departure from orthodox views. In 1859 appeared the eighth edition. This abandoned the old article entirely, and in its place was given a history of philology free from admixture of scriptural doctrines; and, finally, in the year 1885 appeared the ninth edition, in which Professors Whitney of Yale and Sievers of Tübingen give admirably and in short compass what is known of philology, throwing the sacred theory overboard entirely.
Such was that chaos of thought into which the discovery of Sanskrit suddenly threw its great light. Well does one of the foremost modern philologists say that this "was the electric spark which caused the floating elements to crystallize into regular forms." Among the first to bring the knowledge of Sanskrit to Europe were the Jesuit missionaries, whose services to the material basis of the science of comparative philology had already been so great, and the importance of the new discovery was soon seen among all scholars, whether orthodox or scientific. In 1784 the Asiatic Society at Calcutta was founded, and with it began Sanskrit philology. Scholars strong and earnest, like Sir William Jones, Carey, Wilkins, Foster, Colebrooke, did noble work in the new field. Light had come into the chaos, and a great new orb of science was steadily evolved.
The little group of scholars who gave themselves up to these researches, though almost without exception reverent Christians, were recognized at once by theologians as mortal foes of the whole old sacred theory of language. Not only was the dogma of the origin of languages at the Tower of Babel swept out of sight by the new discovery, but the still more vital dogma of the divine origin of languages, never before endangered, was felt to be in peril, since the evidence became overwhelming that so large a number of them had been produced by a process of natural growth.
Heroic efforts were therefore made, in the supposed interest of Scripture, to discredit the new learning. Even such a man as Dugald Stewart declared that the discovery of Sanskrit was altogether fraudulent, and endeavored to prove that the Brahmans had made it up from the vocabulary and grammar of Greek and Latin. Others exercised their ingenuity in picking the new discovery to pieces, and still others attributed it all to the machinations of Satan.
On the other hand, the more thoughtful men in the Church endeavored to save something from the wreck of the old system by a compromise. They attempted to prove that Hebrew is at least a cognate tongue with the original speech of mankind, if not the original speech itself; but here they were confronted by the authority whom they dreaded most, the great Christian scholar, Sir William Jones himself. His words were: "I can only declare my belief that the language of Noah is irretrievably lost. After diligent search I can not find a single word used in common by the Arabian, Indian, and Tartar families, before the intermixture of dialects occasioned by the Mohammedan conquests."
So, too, in Germany came full acknowledgment of the new truth, and from a man won over to the Roman Catholic Church, Frederick Schlegel. He accepted the discoveries in the old language and literature of India as final: he saw the significance of these discoveries as regards philology, and grouped the languages of India, Persia, Greece, Italy, and Germany under the name afterward so universally accepted—Indo-Germanic.
It now began to be felt more and more, even among the most devoted churchmen, that the old theological dogmas regarding the origin of language, as held "always, everywhere, and by all," were wrong, and that Lucretius and sturdy old St. Gregory of Nyssa were right.
But this was not the only wreck. During ages the great men in the Church had been calling upon the world to wonder over the amazing exploit of Adam in naming the animals which Jehovah had brought before him, and to accept the history of language in the light of this exploit. The early fathers, the mediæval doctors, the great divines of the Reformation period, Catholic and Protestant, had united in this universal chorus. Clement of Alexandria declared Adam's naming of the animals proof of a prophetic gift. St. John Chrysostom insisted that it was an evidence of consummate intelligence. Eusebius held that the phrase "that was the name thereof" implied that each name embodied the real character and description of the animal concerned.
This view was echoed by a multitude of divines in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Typical among these was the great Dr. South, who, in his sermon on The State of Man before the Fall, declared that "Adam came into the world a philosopher, which sufficiently appears by his writing the nature of things upon their names."
In the chorus of modern English divines there appeared one of eminence who declared against this theory: sturdy old Dr. Shackford, chaplain in ordinary to his Majesty George II, in the preface to his work on The Creation and Fall of Man, pronounced the whole theory "romantic and irrational." He goes on to say: "The original of our speaking was from God; not that God put into Adam's mouth the very sounds which he designed he should use as the names of things; but God made Adam with the powers of a man; he had the use of an understanding to form notions in his mind of the things about him, and he had the power to utter sounds which should be to himself the names of things according as he might think fit to call them."
This echo of Gregory of Nyssa was for many years of little avail. Historians of philosophy still began with Adam, because only a philosopher could have named all created things. There was, indeed, one difficulty which had much troubled some theologians; this was, that fishes were not specially mentioned among the animals brought by Jehovah before Adam for naming. To meet this difficulty there was much argument, and some theologians laid stress on the difficulty of bringing fishes from the sea to the garden of Eden to receive their names; but naturally other theologians replied to this that the almighty power which created the fishes could have easily brought them into the garden, one by one, even from the uttermost parts of the sea. This point, therefore, seems to have been left in abeyance.
It had continued, then, the universal belief in the Church that the names of all created things, except possibly fishes, were given by Adam and in Hebrew; but all this theory was whelmed in ruin when it was found that there were other and, indeed, earlier names for the same animals than those in the Hebrew language; and especially was this enforced on sincere and thinking men when the Egyptian discoveries began to reveal the pictures of animals with their names in hieroglyphics at a period earlier than that agreed on by all the sacred chronologists as the date of the creation.
Still another part of the sacred theory now received its deathblow. Closely allied with the question of the origin of language was the origin of letters. The earlier writers had held that letters were also a divine gift given to Adam; but as we go on in the eighteenth century we find theological opinion inclining to the belief that this gift was reserved for Moses. This, as we have seen, was the view of St. John Chrysostom; and an eminent English divine early in the eighteenth century, John Johnson, Vicar of Kent, echoed it in the declaration concerning the alphabet, that "Moses first learned it from God by means of the lettering on the tables of the law." But here a difficulty arose: the biblical statement that God commanded Moses to "write in a book as decreed concerning Amalek" before he went up into Sinai. With this the good vicar grapples manfully. He supposes that God had previously concealed the tables of stone in Mount Horeb, and that Moses, "when he kept Jethro's sheep thereabout, had free access to these tables, and perused them at discretion, though he was not permitted to carry them down with him." Our author then asks for what other reason could God have kept Moses up in the mountain forty days at a time, except to teach him to write; and says, "It seems highly probable that the angel gave him the alphabet of the Hebrew, or in some other way unknown to us became his guide."
But this theory of letters was soon to be doomed like the other parts of the sacred theory. Studies in Comparative Philology based upon researches in India, began to be re-enforced by facts regarding the inscriptions in Egypt, the cuneiform inscriptions of Assyria, the legends of Chaldea, and the folk-lore of China, where it was found in their sacred books that the animals were named by Fohi, and with such wisdom and insight that every name disclosed the nature of the corresponding animal.
But, although the old theory was doomed, heroic efforts were still made to support it. In 1788 James Beattie, in all the glory of his Oxford doctorate and royal pension, made a tremendous onslaught, declaring the new system of philology to be "degrading to our nature." He says that the theory of the natural development of language is simply due to the beauty of Lucretius' poetry. But his main weapon is ridicule, and in this he shows himself a master. He tells the world, "The following paraphrase has nothing of the elegance of Horace or Lucretius, but seems to have all the elegance that so ridiculous a doctrine deserves":
But a far more powerful theologian entered the field in England to save the sacred theory of language—Dr. Adam Clarke. He was no less severe against Philology than against Geology. In 1804, as President of the Manchester Philological Society, he delivered an address in which he declared that, while men of all sects were eligible to membership, "he who rejects the establishment of what we believe to be a divine revelation, he who would disturb the peace of the quiet, and by doubtful disputations unhinge the minds of the simple and unreflecting, and endeavor to turn the unwary out of the way of peace and rational subordination, can have no seat among the members of this institution." The first sentence in this declaration gives food for reflection, for it is the same confusion of two ideas which has been at the root of so much interference of theology with science for the last two thousand years. Adam Clarke speaks of those "who reject the establishment of what 'we believe' to be a divine revelation." Thus comes in that customary begging of the question—the substitution as the real significance of Scripture of "what we believe" for what is.
The intended result, too, of this ecclesiastical sentence was simple enough. It was, that great men, like Sir William Jones, Colebrooke, and their compeers, must not be heard in the Manchester Philological Society in discussion with Dr. Adam Clarke on questions regarding Sanskrit and other matters upon which they knew all that was then known, and Dr. Clarke knew nothing.
But even Clarke was forced to yield to the scientific current. Thirty years later, in his Commentary on the Old Testament, he pitched the claims of the sacred theory on a much lower key. He says: "Mankind was of one language, in all likelihood the Hebrew. . . . The proper names and other significations given in the Scripture seem incontestable evidence that the Hebrew language was the original language of the earth, the language in which God spoke to man, and in which he gave the revelation of his will to Moses and the prophets." Here are signs that this great champion is growing weaker in the faith; in the citations made it will be observed he no longer says "is," but "seems"; and finally we have him saying, "What the first language was is almost useless to inquire, as it is impossible to arrive at any satisfactory information on this point."
In France, during the first half of the nineteenth century, yet more heavy artillery was wheeled into place, in order to make a last desperate defense of the sacred theory. The leaders in this effort were the three great Ultramontanes, De Maistre, De Bonald, and Lammenais. Condillac's contention that "languages were gradually and insensibly acquired, and that every man had his share of the general result," they attacked with reasoning based upon premises laid down in the Book of Genesis. De Maistre especially excels in ridiculing the philosophic or scientific theory. Lammenais, who afterward became so vexatious a thorn in the side of the Church, insisted, at this earlier period, that "man can no more think without words than see without light." And then, by that sort of mystical play upon words so well known in the higher ranges of theologic reasoning, he clinches his argument by saying, "The Word is truly and in every sense 'the light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.'"
But even such leaders as these could not stay the progress of thought. While they seemed to be carrying everything before them in France, researches in philology made at such centers of thought as the Sorbonne and the College of France were undert mining the last great fortress. Curious indeed is it to find thathe Sorbonne, the stronghold of theology through so many centuries, was now made in the nineteenth century the arsenal and stronghold of the new ideas. But the most striking result of the new tendency in France was seen when the greatest of the three champions, Lammenais himself, though offered the highest church preferment, and even a cardinal's hat, braved the papal anathema, and went over to the scientific side.
In Germany philological science took so strong a hold that its positions were soon recognized as impregnable. Leaders like the Schlegels, William von Humboldt, and, above all, Franz Bopp and Jacob Grimm, gave such additional force to scientific truth that it could no longer be withstood. To say nothing of other conquests, the demonstration of that great law in philology which bears Grimm's name brought home to all thinking men the evidence that the evolution of language has not been determined by the philosophic utterances of Adam in naming the animals which Jehovah brought before him, but in obedience to natural law.
True, a few devoted theologians showed themselves willing to lead a forlorn hope; and perhaps the most forlorn of all was that of 1840, led by Dr. Gottlieb Christian Kayser, Professor of Theology at the Protestant University of Erlangen. He did not, indeed, dare put in the old claim that Hebrew is identical with the primitive tongue, but he insists that it is nearer it than any other. He relinquishes the two former theological strongholds—first, the idea that language was taught by the Almighty to Adam, and, next, that the alphabet was thus taught to Moses—and falls back on the position that all tongues are thus derived from Noah, giving as an example the language of the Caribbees, and insisting that it was evidently so derived. What chance similarity in words between Hebrew and the Caribbee tongue he had in mind is past finding out. He comes out strongly in defense of the biblical account of the Tower of Babel, and insists that by the "symbolical expression ' God said, Let us go down/ a further natural phenomenon is intimated, to wit, the cleaving of the earth, whereby the return of the dispersed became impossible—that is to say, through a new or not universal flood, a partial inundation and temporary violent separation of great continents until the time of the rediscovery." By these words the learned doctor means nothing less than the separation of Europe from America.
But while at the middle of the nineteenth century the theory of the origin and development of language was upon the continent considered as settled, and a well-ordered science had there emerged from the old chaos, Great Britain still held back, in spite of the fact that the most important contributors to the science were of British origin. Leaders in every English church and sect vied with each other, either in denouncing the encroachments of the science of language or in explaining it away.
But a new epoch had come, and in a way least expected. Perhaps the most notable effort in bringing it in was made by Dr. Wiseman, afterward Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. His is one of the best examples of a method which has been used with considerable effect during the latest stages in nearly all the controversies between theology and science. It consists in stating, with much apparent fairness, the conclusions of the scientific authorities, and then in making the astounding assertion that the Church has always accepted them and accepts them now as "additional proofs of the truth of Scripture." A little juggling with words, a little amalgamation of texts, a little judicious suppression, a little imaginative deduction, a little unctuous phrasing, and the thing is done. One great service this eminent Catholic champion undoubtedly rendered: by this acknowledgment so widely spread in his published lectures, he made it impossible for Catholics or Protestants longer to resist the main conclusions of science. Henceforward we only have efforts to save theological appearances, and these only by men whose zeal outran their discretion.
On both sides of the Atlantic, down to a recent period, we see these efforts, but we see no less clearly that they are mutually destructive. Yet out of this chaos among English-speaking peoples the new science began to develop steadily and rapidly. Attempts did indeed continue here and there to save the old theory. Even as late as 1859 we hear the eminent Presbyterian divine, Dr. John Cumming, from his pulpit in London, speaking of Hebrew as "that magnificent tongue—that mother-tongue, from which all others are but distant and debilitated progenies."
But the honor of producing in the nineteenth century the most absurd known attempt to prove Hebrew the primitive tongue belongs to the youngest of the continents, Australia. In the year 1857 was printed at Melbourne The Triumph of Truth, or a Popular Lecture on the Origin of Languages, by B. Atkinson, M. R. C. P. L.—whatever that may mean. In this work, starting with the assertion that "the Hebrew was the primary stock whence all languages were derived," the author states that Sanskrit is "a dialect of the Hebrew," and declares that "the manuscripts found with mummies agree precisely with the Chinese version of the Psalms of David." It all sounds like Alice in Wonderland. Curiously enough, in the latter part of his book, evidently thinking that his views would not give him authority among fastidious philologists, he says, "A great deal of our consent to the foregoing statements arises in our belief in the divine inspiration of the Mosaic account of the creation of the world and of our first parents in the garden of Eden." A yet more interesting light is thrown upon the author's view of truth and its promulgation by his dedication; he says that, "being persuaded that literary men ought to be fostered by the hand of power," he dedicates his treatise "to his Excellency Sir H. Barkly," who was at the time Governor of Victoria.
Still another curious survival is seen in a work which appeared as late as 1885, at Edinburgh, by William Galloway, M. A., Ph. D., M. D. The author thinks that he has produced abundant evidence to prove that "Jehovah, the Second Person of the Godhead, wrote the first chapter of Genesis on a stone pillar; and that this is the manner by which he first revealed it to Adam; and thus Adam was taught not only to speak but to read and write by Jehovah, the Divine Son; and that the first lesson he got was from the first chapter of Genesis." He goes on to say: "Jehovah wrote these first two documents; the first containing the history of the Creation, and the second the revelation of man's redemption, . . . for Adam's and Eve's instruction; and it is evident that he wrote them in the Hebrew tongue, because that was the language of Adam and Eve." But this was only a flower out of season.
And finally in these latter days Mr. Gladstone has touched the subject. With that well-known facility in believing anything he wishes to believe, which he once showed in his connection of Neptune's trident with the doctrine of the Trinity, he floats airily over all the impossibilities of the original Babel legend and all the conquests of science, makes an assertion regarding the results of philology which no philologist of any standing would admit, and then escapes in a cloud of rhetoric after his well-known fashion. This, too, must be set down simply as a survival; in the British Isles as elsewhere the truth has been established. Such men as Max Müller and Sayce in England; Steinthal, Schleicher, Weber, Karl Abel, and a host of others in Germany; Ascoli and De Gubernatis in Italy; and Whitney, with the scholars inspired by him, in America, have carried the new science to a complete triumph. The sons of Yale University may well be proud of the fact that this old Puritan foundation was made the headquarters of the American Oriental Society, which has done so much for the truth in this field.
It may be instructive, in conclusion, to sum up briefly the history of the whole struggle.
First, as to the origin of speech, we have in the beginning the whole Church rallying around the idea that the original language was Hebrew; that this language, even including the mediæval rabbinical punctuation, was directly inspired by the Almighty; that Adam was taught it by God himself in walks and talks; and that all other languages were derived from it at the "confusion of Babel."
Next, we see parts of this theory fading out: the inspiration of the rabbinical points begins to disappear; Adam, instead of being taught directly by God, is "inspired" by him.
Then comes the third stage: advanced theologians endeavor to compromise on the idea that Adam was "given verbal roots and a mental power."
Finally, in our time, we have them accepting the theory that language is the result of an evolutionary process in obedience to laws more or less clearly ascertained. Babel thus takes its place quietly among the sacred myths.
Secondly, as to the origin of writing, we have the more eminent theologians at first insisting that God taught Adam to write; next we find them gradually retreating from this position, but insisting that writing was taught to the world by Noah. After the retreat from this position, we find them insisting that it was Moses whom God taught to write. But scientific modes of thought still progressed, and we next have influential theologians agreeing that writing was a Mosaic invention; this is followed by another theological retreat to the position that writing was a post-Mosaic invention. Finally, all the positions are relinquished, save by some few skirmishers who appear now and then upon the horizon, making attempts to defend some subtle method of incorporating the Babel myth into modern science.
Just after the middle of the nineteenth century a new system of theological defense appears. It is that which is seen in the history of almost every science after it has successfully fought its way through the theological period—the declaration that the scientific discoveries in question are nothing new, but have really always been known and held by the Church, and that they simply substantiate the position taken by the Church. This new contention, which always betokens the last gasp of theological resistance to science, was now echoed from land to land. In 1856 it was given forth by a divine of the Anglican Church, Archdeacon Pratt, of Calcutta. He gives a long list of eminent philologists who had done most to destroy the old supernatural view of language, reads into their utterances his own wishes, and then exclaims, "So singularly do their labors confirm the literal truth of Scripture."
Two years later this contention is echoed from the American Presbyterian Church, and Dr. B. W. Dwight, having stigmatized as "infidels" those who have not incorporated into their science the literal acceptance of Hebrew legend, declares that "chronology, ethnography, and etymology have all been tortured in vain to make them contradict the Mosaic account of the early history of man." Twelve years later another echo comes from the Roman Catholic Church. The Rev. Dr. Baylee, Principal of the College of St. Aidan's in England, declares, "With regard to the varieties of human language, the account of the confusion of tongues is receiving daily confirmation by all the recent discoveries in comparative philology." And this is echoed in the same year (1870) from the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland, when Dr. John Eadie, Professor of Biblical Literature and Exegesis, declares that "comparative philology has established the miracle of Babel."
A skill in theology and casuistry so exquisitely developed as to permit such assertions, and a faith so robust as to warrant their acceptance, leave certainly nothing to be desired. But how baseless these contentions are is seen, first, by the simple history of the attitude of the Church toward this question; and, secondly, by the fact that comparative philology now reveals beyond a doubt that not only is Hebrew not the original or oldest language upon earth, but that it is not even the oldest form in the Semitic group to which it belongs. To use the language of one of the most eminent modern authorities, "It is now generally recognized that in grammatical structure the Arabic preserves much more of the original forms than either the Hebrew or Aramaic."
Science places inexorably the account of the confusion of tongues and the dispersion of races at Babel among the myths.
A more complete relinquishment of the old contention is made by Archdeacon Farrar, Canon of Westminster. With a boldness which in an earlier period might have cost him dear, but which merits praise even in this time for its courage, he says: "For all reasoners except that portion of the clergy who in all ages have been found among the bitterest enemies of scientific discovery, these considerations have been conclusive. But, strange to say, here, as in so many other instances, this self-styled orthodoxy—more orthodox than the Bible itself—directly contradicts the very Scriptures which it professes to explain, and by sheer misrepresentation succeeds in producing a needless and deplorable collision between the statements of Scripture and those other mighty and certain truths which have been revealed to science and humanity as their glory and reward."
Still another most honorable acknowledgment was made in America through the instrumentality of a divine of the Methodist Episcopal Church, whom the present generation at least will hold in honor, not only for his scholarship, but for his patriotism in the darkest hour of his country's need—John McClintock. In the article on Language, in the Biblical Cyclopædia, edited by him and the Rev. Dr. Strong, which appeared in 1873, the whole sacred theory is quietly given up, and the scientific view accepted.
It may, indeed, be now fairly said that the thinking leaders of theology have come to accept the conclusions of science regarding the origin of language, as against the old explanations by myth and legend. The result has been a blessing both to science and to religion. No harm has been done to religion; what has been done is to release it from the clog of theories, which thinking men saw could no longer be maintained. No matter what has become of the naming of the animals by Adam, the origin of the name of Babel, the fears of the Almighty lest men might climb up into his realm above the firmament, the confusion of tongues and the dispersion of nations; the essentials of Christianity, as taught by its Blessed Founder, have simply been freed, by comparative philology, from one more great incubus and incumbrance, and have therefore been left to work with more power upon the hearts, minds, and conduct of mankind.
Nor has any harm been done to the Bible. On the contrary, it has been made, by this new divine revelation through science, all the more precious to us. In these myths and legends caught from earlier civilizations, we see an evolution of the most important religious and moral truths for our race. Myth, legend, and parable seem, in obedience to a divine law, the necessary setting for these truths, as they are successively evolved, ever in higher and higher forms. What matters it then that we have come to know that the accounts of Creation and many early events in the sacred books were remembrances of lore obtained from the Chaldeans? What matters it that the beautiful story of Joseph is found to be in part derived from an Egyptian romance, of which the hieroglyphs may still be seen? What matters it that the story of David and Goliath is poetry; and that Samson, like so many men of strength in other religions, is probably a sun-myth? What matters it that the inculcation of high duty in the childhood of the world is embodied in such quaint stories as those of Jonah and Balaam? The more we realize these facts the richer becomes that great body of literature
brought together within the covers of the Bible. What matters it that those who incorporated the Creation lore of Babylonia and other Oriental nations into the sacred books of the Hebrews, mixed it with their own conceptions and deductions? What matters it that Darwin changed the whole aspect of our Creation myths; that Lyell and his compeers placed the Hebrew story of Creation and of the Deluge of Noah among legends; that Copernicus put an end to the literal acceptance of the standing still of the sun for Joshua; that Halley, in promulgating his law of comets, put an end to the doctrine of signs and wonders; that Pinel, in showing that all insanity is physical disease, relegated to the realm of mythology the witch of Endor and all stories of demoniacal possession; that the Rev. Dr. Schaff, and a multitude of recent Christian travelers in Palestine, have put into the realm of legend the story of Lot's wife transformed into a pillar of salt; that the anthropologists, by showing how man has risen everywhere from low and brutal beginnings, have destroyed the whole theological theory of "the fall of man"? Our great body of sacred literature is thereby only made more and more valuable to us: more and more we see how long and patiently the forces in the universe which make for righteousness have been acting in and upon mankind through the only agencies fitted for such work in the earliest ages of the world—through myth, legend, parable, and poem.