Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/July 1895/New Chapters in the Warfare of Science: From Oracles to Higher Criticism II
XX.—FROM THE DIVINE ORACLES TO THE HIGHER CRITICISM.
By ANDREW DICKSON WHITE, LL. D. (Yale), Ph. D. (Jena),
FORMERLY PRESIDENT OF CORNELL UNIVERSITY.
II. BEGINNINGS OF SCIENTIFIC INTERPRETATION.
AT the base of the vast structure of the older scriptural interpretation were certain ideas regarding the first five books of the Old Testament. It was taken for granted that they had been dictated by the Almighty to Moses about fifteen hundred years before our era; that some parts of them, indeed, had been written by the corporeal finger of Jehovah; and that all parts gave not merely his thoughts but his exact phraseology. It was also held, virtually by the universal Church, that while every narrative or statement in these books is a precise statement of historical or scientific fact, yet that the entire text contains vast hidden meanings. Such was the rule: the exceptions made by a few interpreters here and there only confirmed it. Even the indifference of St. Jerome to the doctrine of Mosaic authorship did not prevent its ripening into a dogma.
The book of Genesis was universally held to be an account, not only divinely comprehensive but miraculously exact, of the creation and of the beginnings of life on the earth; an account to which all discoveries in every branch of science must, under pains and penalties, be made to conform. In English-speaking lands this has lasted until our own time. The most eminent living English biologist has recently told us how in every path of natural science he has, at some stage in his career, come across a barrier labeled "No thoroughfare. Moses."
A favorite subject of theological eloquence was the perfection of the Pentateuch, and especially of Genesis, not only as a record of the past, but as a revelation of the future.
The culmination of this view in the Protestant Church was the Pansophia Mosaica of Pfeiffer, a Lutheran general superintendent or bishop in northern Germany, near the beginning of the seventeenth century. He declared that the text of Genesis "must be received strictly"; that "it contains all knowledge, human and divine"; that "twenty-eight articles of the Augsburg Confession are to be found in it"; that "it is an arsenal of arguments against all sects and sorts of atheists, pagans, Jews, Turks, Tartars, Papists, Calvinists, Socinians, and Baptists"; "the source of all sciences and arts, including law, medicine, philosophy, and rhetoric"; "the source and essence of all histories and of all professions, trades, and works"; "an exhibition of all virtues and vices"; "the origin of all consolation."
This utterance resounded through Germany from pulpit to pulpit, growing in strength and volume, until a century later it was echoed back by Huet, the eminent bishop and commentator of France. He cited a hundred authors, sacred and profane, to prove that Moses wrote the Pentateuch; and not only this, but that from the Jewish lawgiver came the heathen theology—that Moses was, in fact, nearly the whole pagan pantheon rolled into one, and really the being worshiped under such names as Bacchus, Adonis, and Apollo.
About the middle of the twelfth century came, so far as the world now knows, the first gainsayer of this general theory. Then it was that Aben Ezra, the greatest biblical scholar of the middle ages, ventured very discreetly to call attention to certain points in the Pentateuch incompatible with the belief that the whole of it had been written by Moses and handed down in its original form. His opinion was based upon the well-known texts which have turned all really eminent biblical scholars in the nineteenth century from the old view by showing the Mosaic authorship of the five books in their present form to be clearly disproved by the books themselves.
But Aben Ezra had evidently no aspirations for martyrdom; he fathered the idea upon a rabbi of a previous generation, and, having veiled his statement in an enigma, added the caution, "Let him who understands hold his tongue."
For about four centuries the learned world followed the prudent rabbi's advice, and then two noted scholars, one of them a Protestant, the other a Catholic, revived his idea. The first of these, Carlstadt, insisted that the authorship of the Pentateuch was unknown and unknowable; the other, Andreas Maes, expressed his opinion in terms which would not now offend the most orthodox, that the Pentateuch had been edited by Ezra, and had received in the process sundry divinely inspired words and phrases to clear the meaning. Both these innovators were dealt with promptly. Carlstadt was, for this and other troublesome ideas, suppressed with the applause of the Protestant Church, and the book of Maes was placed by the older Church on the Index.
The new truth appeared but dimly here and there until the middle of the next century, when Hobbes, in his Leviathan, and La Peyrère, in his Preadamites, took it up and developed it still further. The result came speedily. Hobbes, for this and other sins, was put under the ban, even by the political party which sorely needed him, and was regarded generally as an outcast; while La Peyrère, for this and other heresies, was thrown into prison by the Grand Vicar of Mechlin, and kept there until he fully retracted; his book was refuted by seven theologians within a year after its appearance, and within a generation thirty-six elaborate answers to it had appeared. The Parliament of Paris ordered it to be burned by the hangman.
In 1670 came an utterance vastly more important, by a man far greater than any of these—the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus of Spinoza. Reverently but firmly he went much more deeply into the subject. Suggesting new arguments and recasting the old, he summed up all with judicial fairness, and showed that Moses could not have been the author of the Pentateuch in the form then existing; that there had been glosses and revisions; that the biblical books had grown up as a literature; that, though great truths are to be found in them, and they are to be regarded as a divine revelation, the old claims of inerrancy for them can not be maintained; that in studying them men had been misled by mistaking human conceptions for divine meanings; that, while prophets have been inspired, the prophetic faculty has not been the dowry of the Jewish people alone; that to look for exact knowledge of natural and spiritual phenomena in the sacred books is an utter mistake; and that the narratives of the Old and New Testaments,
while they surpass those of profane history, differ among themselves not only in literary merit, but in the value of the doctrines they inculcate. As to the authorship of the Pentateuch, he arrived at the conclusion that it was written long after Moses, but that Moses may have written some books from which it was compiled—as, for example, those which are mentioned in the Scriptures, the Book of the Wars of God, the Book of the Covenant, and the like—and that the many repetitions and contradictions in the various books show a lack of careful editing as well as a variety of original sources. Spinoza then went on to throw light into some other books of the Old and New Testaments, and added two general statements which have proved exceedingly serviceable; for they contain the germs of all modern broad churchmanship, and the first of them gave the formula which was destined in our own time to save to the Anglican Church a large number of her noblest sons. This was that "sacred Scripture contains the Word of God, and in so far as it contains it is incorruptible"; the second was that "error in speculative doctrine is not impious."
Though published in various editions, the book seemed to produce little effect upon the world at that time, but its result to Spinoza himself was none the less serious. Though one of the most religious of men—his theory of the universe led Novalis to speak of him as "a God-intoxicated man" and Schleiermacher to call him a "saint"—he was, for this work, and for the earlier expression of some of the opinions it contained, abhorred as a heretic both by Jews and Christians: from the synagogue he was cut off by a public curse, and in the Church he was regarded as in some sort a forerunner of Antichrist. For all this, he showed no resentment, but devoted himself quietly to his studies, and to the simple manual labor by which he supported himself, declined all proffered honors—among them a professorship at Heidelberg found pleasure only in the society of a few friends as gentle and affectionate as himself, and died contentedly without seeing any widespread effect of his doctrine, other than the prevailing abhorrence of himself. Down to a very recent period hatred for him has continued. When, about 1880, it was proposed to erect a monument to him at Amsterdam, discourses were given in churches and synagogues prophesying the wrath of Heaven upon the city for such a profanation; and, when the monument was finished, the police were obliged to exert themselves to prevent injury to the statue and to the eminent scholars who unveiled it.
But the ideas of Spinoza at last secured recognition. They had sunk deeply into the hearts and minds of various leaders of thought, and, most important of all, into the heart and mind of Lessing; he brought them to bear in his treatise on the Education of the World, as well as in his drama, Nathan the Wise, and both these works have spoken with power to every generation since.
In France, also, came the same healthful evolution of thought. For generations scholars here and there had known that multitudes of errors had crept into the sacred text. Robert Stephens had found over two thousand variations in the oldest manuscripts of the Old Testament, and in 1633 Jean Morin, a priest of the Oratory, pointed out clearly many of the most glaring of these. Seventeen years later, in spite of the most earnest Protestant efforts to suppress his work, Cappellus gave forth his Critica Sacra, demonstrating not only that the vowel pointing of Scripture was not divinely inspired, but that the Hebrew text itself, from which the modern translations were made, is full of errors due to the carelessness, ignorance, and doctrinal zeal of early scribes, and that there had clearly been no miraculous preservation of the "original autographs" of the sacred books.
While orthodox France was under the uneasiness and alarm thus caused, appeared a Critical History of the Old Testament by Richard Simon, a priest of the Oratory. He was a thoroughly religious man, and an acute scholar, whose whole purpose was to develop truths which he believed healthful to the Church and to mankind. But he denied that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch, and exhibited the internal evidence, now so well known, that the books were composed much later by various persons, and edited later still. He also showed that other parts of the Old Testament had been compiled from older sources, and attacked the time-honored theory that Hebrew was the primitive language of mankind. The whole character of his book was such that in these days it would pass, on the whole, as conservative and orthodox; it had been approved by the censor in 1678, and printed, when the table of contents and a page of the preface were shown to Bossuet. The great bishop and theologian was instantly aroused; he pronounced the work "a mass of impieties and a bulwark of irreligion"; his biographer tells us that, although it was Holy Thursday, the bishop, in spite of the solemnity of the day, hastened at once to the Chancellor Le Tellier, secured an order to stop the publication of the book, and to burn the whole edition of it. Fortunately, a few copies were rescued, and a few years later the work found a new publisher in Holland; yet not until there had been attached to it, evidently by some Protestant divine of authority, an essay warning the reader against its dangerous doctrines. Two years later a translation was published in England.
This first work of Simon was followed by others, in which he sought, in the interest of scriptural truth, to throw a new and purer light upon our sacred literature; but Bossuet proved implacable. Although unable to suppress all of Simon's works, he was able to drive him from the Oratory, and to bring him into disrepute among the very men who ought to have been proud of him as Frenchmen and thankful to him as Christians.
But other scholars of eminence were now working in this field, and, chief among them, Le Clerc. Virtually driven out of Geneva, he took refuge at Amsterdam, and there published a series of works upon the Hebrew language, the interpretation of Scripture, and the like. In these he combated the prevalent idea that Hebrew was the primitive tongue, expressed the opinion that in the plural form of the word used in Genesis for God, "Elohim," there is a trace of Chaldean polytheism, and, in his discussion on the serpent who tempted Eve, curiously anticipated modern geological and zoölogical ideas by quietly confessing his inability to see how depriving the serpent of feet and compelling him to go on his belly could be punishment—since all this was natural to the animal. He also ventured semi-scientific explanations of the confusion of tongues at Babel, the destruction of Sodom, the conversion of Lot's wife into a pillar of salt, and the dividing of the Red Sea. As to the Pentateuch in general, he completely rejected the idea that it was written by Moses. But his most permanent gift to the thinking world was his answer to those who insisted upon the reference by Christ and his apostles to Moses as the author of the Pentateuch. This answer became a formula which has proved effective from his day to ours: "Our Lord and his apostles did not come into this world to teach criticism to the Jews, and hence spoke according to the common opinion."
Against all these scholars came a theological storm, but it raged most pitilessly against Le Clerc. Such renowned theologians as Carpzov in Germany, Witsius in Holland, and Huet in France berated him unmercifully and overwhelmed him with assertions which still fill us with wonder. That of Huet, attributing the origin of pagan as well as Christian theology to Moses, we have already seen; but Carpzov showed that Protestantism could not be outdone by Catholicism when he declared in the face of all modern knowledge that not only the matter, but the exact form and words of the Bible, had been divinely transmitted to the modern world free from all error.
At this Le Clerc stood aghast, and finally stammered out a sort of half recantation.
During the eighteenth, century constant additions were made to the enormous structure of orthodox scriptural interpretation, some of them gaining the applause of the Christian world then, though nearly all are utterly discredited now. But in 1753 appeared two contributions of permanent influence, though differing vastly in value. In the comparative estimate of these two works the world has seen a remarkable reversal of public opinion.
The first of these was Bishop Lowth's Prelections upon the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews. In this was well brought out that characteristic of Hebrew poetry to which it owes so much of its peculiar charm—its parallelism.
The second of these books was Astruc's Conjectures on the Original Memoirs which Moses used in composing the Book of Genesis. In this was for the first time clearly revealed the fact that, amid various fragments of old writings, at least two main narratives enter into the composition of Genesis; that in the first of these is used as an appellation of the Almighty the word "Elohim," and in the second the word "Yahveh" (Jehovah); that each narrative has grammatical and literary characteristics of its own which distinguish it from the other; that, by separating these, two clear and distinct narratives may be obtained, each consistent with itself, and that thus, and thus alone, can be explained the repetitions, discrepancies, and contradictions in Genesis which so long baffled the ingenuity of commentators, especially the two accounts of the creation, so utterly inconsistent with each other.
Interesting as was Lowth's book, this work by Astruc was, as
the thinking world now acknowledges, infinitely more important; it was, indeed, the most valuable single contribution ever made to biblical study. But such was not the judgment of the world then. While Lowth's book was covered with honor and its author promoted from the bishopric of St. David's to that of London, and even offered the primacy, Astruc and his book were covered with reproach. Though, as an orthodox Catholic, he had mainly desired to reassert the authorship of Moses against the argument of Spinoza, he received no thanks on that account. Theologians of all creeds sneered at him as a doctor of medicine who had blundered beyond his province; his fellow-Catholics in France bitterly denounced him as a heretic, and in Germany the great Protestant theologian, Michaelis, who had edited and exalted Lowth's work, poured contempt over Astruc as an ignoramus.
The case of Astruc is one of the many which show the wonderful power of the older theological reasoning to close the strongest minds against the clearest truths. The fact which he discovered is now as definitely established as any in the whole range of literature or science. It has become as clear as the day, and yet for two thousand years the minds of professional commentators, Jewish and Christian, were powerless to detect it. Not until this eminent physician applied to the subject a mind trained in making scientific distinctions was it given to the world.
It was, of course, not possible even for so eminent a scholar as Michaelis to pooh-pooh down a discovery so pregnant; and, curiously enough, it was one of Michaelis's own scholars, Eichhorn, who did the main work in bringing the new truth to bear upon the world. He, with others, developed out of it the theory that Genesis, and indeed the Pentateuch, is made up entirely of fragments of old writings, mainly disjointed. But they did far more than this. They impressed upon the thinking part of Christendom the fact that the Bible is not a book, but a literature; that the style is not supernatural and unique, but simply the Oriental style of the lands and times in which the books were written; and that they must be studied in the light of the modes of thought and statement and the literary habits generally of Oriental peoples. From Eichhorn's time the process which, by historical, philological, and textual research, brings out the truth regarding this literature has been known as "the higher criticism."
He was a deeply religious man, and the mainspring of his efforts was the desire to bring back to the Church the educated classes who had been repelled by the stiff Lutheran orthodoxy; but this only increased hostility to him. Opposition met him in Germany at every turn, and in England Lloyd, Regius Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge, who sought patronage for a translation of Eichhorn's work, was met generally with, contempt and frequently with insult.
Throughout Catholic Germany it was even worse. In 1774 Isenbiehl, a priest at Mayence who had distinguished himself as a Greek and Hebrew scholar, happened to question the usual interpretation of the passage in Isaiah which refers to the virgin-born Immanuel, and showed then what every competent critic knows now—that it had reference to events looked for in older Jewish history. The censorship and faculty of theology attacked him at once and brought him before the elector. Luckily, this potentate was one of the old, easy-going prince-bishops, and contented himself with telling the priest that, though his contention was perhaps true, he "must avoid everything likely to make trouble, and remain in the old paths."
But at the elector's death, soon afterward, the theologians renewed the attack, threw Isenbiehl out of his professorship and degraded him. One insult deserves mention for its ingenuity. It was declared that he, the successful and brilliant professor, showed by the obnoxious interpretation that he had not yet rightly learned the Scriptures; he was, therefore, sent back to the benches of the theological school, and made to take his seat among the ingenuous youth who were receiving the rudiments of theology.
At this he made a new statement so carefully guarded that it disarmed many of his enemies, and his high scholarship soon won for him a new professorship of Greek; the condition being attached to it that he should cease writing upon Scripture. But a crafty bookseller having republished his former book, and having protected himself by keeping the place and date of publication secret, a new storm fell upon the author; he was again removed from his professorship and thrown into prison; his book was forbidden, and all copies of it in that part of Germany were confiscated.
In 1778, having escaped from prison, he sought refuge with another of the minor rulers, who, in blissful unconsciousness, were doing their worst, while awaiting the French Revolution, but was at once delivered up to the Mayence authorities and again thrown into prison.
The Pope, Pius VI, now intervened with a brief on Isenbiehl's book, declaring it "horrible, false, perverse, destructive, tainted with heresy," and excommunicating all who should read it. At this, Isenbiehl, declaring that he had written it in the hope of doing a service to the Church, recanted, and vegetated in obscurity until his death in 1818.
But despite theological faculties, prince-bishops, and even popes, the new current of thought increased in strength and volume, and into it at the end of the eighteenth century came important contributions from two sources widely separated and most dissimilar.
The first of these, which gave a stimulus not yet exhausted, was the work of Herder. By a remarkable intuition he had anticipated some of those ideas of an evolutionary process in Nature and in literature which first gained full recognition nearly three quarters of a century after him; but his greatest service in the field of biblical study was his work, at once profound and brilliant, The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry. In this field he eclipsed Bishop Lowth. Among other things of importance he showed that the Psalms were by different authors, and of different periods—the bloom of a great poetic literature. Until his time no one had so clearly done justice to their sublimity and beauty; but most striking of all was his discussion of "Solomon's Song." For over twenty centuries it had been customary to attribute to it mystical meanings. If here and there some man saw the truth, he was careful, like Aben Ezra, to speak with bated breath; or if, like Castellio, under the sway of Calvin at Geneva, he dared speak openly, he must submit to obloquy and persecution. Here, too, we have an example of the efficiency of the older biblical theology in fettering the stronger minds and in stupefying the weaker. Just as the book of Genesis had to wait over two thousand years for a physician to reveal the simplest fact regarding its structure, so the Song of Songs had to wait even longer for a poet to reveal not only its beauty but its character. Commentators had interpreted it at great length; St. Bernard had preached over eighty sermons on its first two chapters; Palestrina had set the most erotic parts of it to sacred music; Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants, from Origen to Aben Ezra, and from Luther to Bossuet, had uncovered its deep meanings, and had demonstrated it to be anything and everything save that which it really is. Among scores of these strange imaginations it was declared to represent the love of Jehovah for Israel; the love of Christ for the Church; the praises of the Blessed Virgin; the union of the soul with the body; sacred history from the Exodus to the Messiah; Church history from the Crucifixion to the Reformation; and some of the more acute Protestant divines found in it references even to the religious wars in Germany and to the Peace of Passau. In these days it seems hard to imagine how really competent reasoners could thus argue without betraying doubts, after the manner of Cicero's augurs. Herder showed "Solomon's Song" to be what the whole thinking world now knows it to be—simply an Oriental love-poem.
But his frankness brought him into trouble; he was bitterly assailed. Neither his noble character nor his genius availed him. Obliged to flee from one pastorate to another, he at last found a happy refuge at Weimar in the society of Goethe, Wieland, and Jean Paul, and thence he exercised a powerful influence in liberating human thought.
It would hardly be possible to imagine a man more different from Herder than was the other of the two who most influenced biblical interpretation at the end of the eighteenth century. This was Alexander Geddes, a Roman Catholic priest and a Scotchman. Having at an early period attracted much attention by his scholarship, and having received the very rare distinction, for a Catholic, of a doctorate from the University of Aberdeen, he began publishing in 1792 a new translation of the Old Testament, and followed this in 1800 with a volume of critical remarks. In these he supported mainly three views: first, that the Pentateuch in its present form could not have been written by Moses; secondly, that it was the work of various hands; and, thirdly, that it could not have been written before the time of David. Although there was a fringe of doubtful theories about them, these main conclusions, supported as they were by deep research and cogent reasoning, are now recognized as of great value. But such was not the orthodox opinion then. Though a man of sincere piety, who throughout his entire life remained firm in the faith of his fathers, he and his work were at once condemned; he was suspended by the Catholic authorities as a misbeliever, denounced by Protestants as an infidel, and taunted by both as "a would-be corrector of the Holy Ghost." Of course, by this taunt was meant nothing more than that he dissented from sundry ideas inherited from less enlightened times by the men who just then happened to wield ecclesiastical power. But not all the opposition to him could check the evolution of his thought.
A line of great men followed in these paths opened by Astruc and Eichhorn, and broadened by Herder and Geddes. Of these was De Wette, who, early in the nineteenth century, showed to the world how largely poetical myths and legends had entered into the formation of the Hebrew sacred books, and whose Introduction to the Old Testament gave a new impulse to fruitful thought throughout Christendom. He had, indeed, to pay a penalty for thus aiding the world in its march toward more truth; he was driven out of Germany, obliged to take refuge in a Swiss professorship; and Theodore Parker, who published an English translation of his work, was, for this and similar sins, virtually rejected by what claimed to be the most liberal of all Christian bodies in the United States.
But contributions to the new thought continued from quarters whence least was to be expected. Gesenius, by his Hebrew Grammar, and Ewald, by his historical studies, greatly advanced it.
To them and to all like them during the middle years of the nineteenth century was sturdily opposed the colossus of orthodoxy, Hengstenberg. In him were combined the haughtiness of a Prussian drill-sergeant, the zeal of a Spanish inquisitor, and the flippant brutality of an ultra-orthodox journalist. Behind him stood the gifted but erratic Frederick William IV, a man admirably fitted for the professorship of æsthetics, but whom an inscrutable fate had made King of Prussia. Both these rulers in the German Israel arrayed all possible opposition against the great scholars laboring in the new paths. But this opposition was vain; the succession of acute and honest scholars continued: Vatke, Bleek, Reuss, Graf, Hupfeld, Delitzsch, Kuenen, and others wrought on in Germany and Holland, steadily developing the new truth.
Especially to be mentioned among these is Hupfeld, who published in 1853 his treatise on The Sources of Genesis. Accepting the "Conjectures" which Astruc had published just a hundred years before, he established what has ever since been recognized by the leading biblical commentators as the main basis of work upon the Pentateuch—the fact that three main documents are combined in Genesis, each with its own characteristics. He, too, had to pay a price for letting more light upon the world. A determined attempt was made to punish him. Though deeply religious in his nature and aspirations, he was denounced in 1865 to the Prussian Government as guilty of irreverence; but, to the credit of his noble and true colleagues who trod in the more orthodox paths, men like Tholuck and Julius Müller, the theological faculty of the University of Halle protested against this persecuting effort, and it was brought to naught.
The demonstrations of Hupfeld gave new life to biblical scholarship in all lands, but most important among the newer contributions was that made by Reuss and Graf. The former had developed it by a sort of intuition, but in his timidity had withheld it from publication for nearly fifty years, and he only made it known when Graf's courage strengthened his own.
These men penetrated the reason for a fact which had long puzzled commentators and given rise to masses of futile debate; namely, the fact that such great men as Samuel, David, Elijah, and Isaiah, and indeed the whole Jewish people from Joshua to the exile, showed in all their utterances and actions that they were unacquainted with the Levitical system. These scholars solved the problem by demonstrating that the Law and Ceremonial Code, which the theological world up to that time had so generally believed to have been established at a vastly earlier period, were really the product of a later epoch in Jewish history. Thus was the historical evolution of Jewish institutions brought into harmony with the natural development of human thought; ceremonial institutions carefully devised being shown to have come after the ruder beginnings of religious development instead of before them. Thus fell another main support of the older biblical theology.
To work out this new discovery and to close for a time this great line of Continental scholars came Kuenen. Starting with strong prepossessions in favor of the older thought, and even with violent utterances against some of his opponents, he was borne on by his love of truth until, in his great work, The Religion of Israel, published in 1869, he took his place as, in many respects, the leader in the upward movement. He, too, opened new paths. Recognizing the fact that the religion of Israel was, like other great world religions, a development of higher ideas out of lower, he led men to bring deeper thinking and wider research to the great problem. With ample learning and irresistible logic he also proved that the Old Testament prophecy was never supernaturally predictive, and least of all predictive of events recorded in the New Testament. Justly has one of the most eminent divines of the contemporary Anglican Church indorsed the statement of another eminent scholar that "Kuenen stood upon his watchtower, as it were the conscience of Old-Testament science"; that his work is characterized "not merely by fine scholarship, critical insight, historical sense, and a religious nature, but also by an incorruptible conscientiousness and a majestic devotion to the quest of truth."
Thus was established the science of biblical criticism. Its further development and results, especially in Great Britain and America, will be next considered.