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Andrew White Chapter17

The Warfare of Science With Theology

Chapter XVII

From Babel To Comparative Philology

by Andrew Dickson White


  • Difference of the history of Comparative Philology from that of other sciences as regards the attitude of theologians
  • Curiosity of early man regarding the origin, the primitive form, and the diversity of language
  • The Hebrew answer to these questions
  • The legend of the Tower of Babel
  • The real reason for the building of towers by the Chaldeans and the causes of their ruin
  • Other legends of a confusion of tongues
  • Influence upon Christendom of the Hebrew legends
  • Lucretius’s theory of the origin of language
  • The teachings of the Church fathers on this subject
  • The controversy as to the divine origin of the Hebrew vowel points
  • Attitude of the reformers toward this question
  • Of Catholic scholars.–Marini
  • Capellus and his adversaries
  • The treatise of Danzius


  • Theological theory that Hebrew was the primitive tongue, divinely revealed
  • This theory supported by all Christian scholars until the beginning of the eighteenth century
  • Diasent of Prideaux and Cotton Mather
  • Apparent strength of the sacred theory of language


  • Reason for the Church’s ready acceptance of the conclusions of comparative philology
  • Beginnings of a scientific theory of language
  • Hottinger
  • Leibnitz
  • The collections of Catharine the Great, of Hervas, and of Adelung
  • Chaotic period in philology between Leibnitz and the beginning of the study of Sanskrit
  • Illustration from the successive editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica


  • Effect of the discovery of Sanskrit on the old theory
  • Attempts to discredit the new learning
  • General acceptance of the new theory
  • Destruction of the belief that all created things were first named by Adam
  • Of the belief in the divine origin of letters
  • Attempts in England to support the old theory of language
  • Progress of philological science in France
  • In Germany
  • In Great Britain
  • Recent absurd attempts to prove Hebrew the primitive tongue


  • Gradual disappearance of the old theories regarding the origin of speech and writing
  • Full acceptance of the new theories by all Christian scholars
  • The result to religion, and to the Bible


AMONG the sciences which have served as entering wedges into the heavy mass of ecclesiastical orthodoxy–to cleave it, disintegrate it, and let the light of Christianity into it–none perhaps has done a more striking work than Comparative Philology. In one very important respect the history of this science differs from that of any other; for it is the only one whose conclusions theologians have at last fully adopted as the result of their own studies. This adoption teaches a great lesson, since, while it has destroyed theological views cherished during many centuries, and obliged the Church to accept theories directly contrary to the plain letter of our sacred books, the result is clearly seen to have helped Christianity rather than to have hurt it. It has certainly done much to clear our religious foundations of the dogmatic rust which was eating into their structure.

How this result was reached, and why the Church has so fully accepted it, I shall endeavour to show in the present chapter.

At a very early period in the evolution of civilization men began to ask questions regarding language; and the answers to these questions were naturally embodied in the myths, legends, and chronicles of their sacred books.

Among the foremost of these questions were three: “Whence came language?” “Which was the first language?” “How came the diversity of language?”

The answer to the first of these was very simple: each people naturally held that language was given it directly or indirectly by some special or national deity of its own; thus, to the Chaldeans by Oannes, to the Egyptians by Thoth, to the Hebrews by Jahveh.

The Hebrew answer is embodied in the great poem which opens our sacred books. Jahveh talks with Adam and is perfectly understood; the serpent talks with Eve and is perfectly understood; Jahveh brings the animals before Adam, who bestows on each its name. Language, then, was God-given and complete. Of the fact that every language is the result of a growth process there was evidently, among the compilers of our sacred books, no suspicion,

The answer to the second of these questions was no less simple. As, very generally, each nation believed its own chief divinity to be “a god above all gods,”–as each believed itself “a chosen people,”–as each believed its own sacred city the actual centre of the earth, so each believed its own language to be the first–the original of all. This answer was from the first taken for granted by each “chosen people,” and especially by the Hebrews: throughout their whole history, whether the Almighty talks with Adam in the Garden or writes the commandments on Mount Sinai, he uses the same language–the Hebrew.

The answer to the third of these questions, that regarding the diversity of languages, was much more difficult. Naturally, explanations of this diversity frequently gave rise to legends somewhat complicated.

The “law of wills and causes,” formulated by Comte, was exemplified here as in so many other cases. That law is, that, when men do not know the natural causes of things, they simply attribute them to wills like their own; thus they obtain a theory which provisionally takes the place of science, and this theory forms a basis for theology.

Examples of this recur to any thinking reader of history. Before the simpler laws of astronomy were known, the sun was supposed to be trundled out into the heavens every day and the stars hung up in the firmament every night by the right hand of the Almighty. Before the laws of comets were known, they were thought to be missiles hurled by an angry God at a wicked world. Before the real cause of lightning was known, it was supposed to be the work of a good God in his wrath, or of evil spirits in their malice. Before the laws of meteorology were known, it was thought that rains were caused by the Almighty or his angels opening “the windows of heaven” to let down upon the earth “the waters that be above the firmament.” Before the laws governing physical health were known, diseases were supposed to result from the direct interposition of the Almighty or of Satan. Before the laws governing mental health were known, insanity was generally thought to be diabolic possession. All these early conceptions were naturally embodied in the sacred books of the world, and especially in our own.[170]

So, in this case, to account for the diversity of tongues, the direct intervention of the Divine Will was brought in. As this diversity was felt to be an inconvenience, it was attributed to the will of a Divine Being in anger. To explain this anger, it was held that it must have been provoked by human sin.

Out of this conception explanatory myths and legends grew as thickly and naturally as elms along water-courses; of these the earliest form known to us is found in the Chaldean accounts, and nowhere more clearly than in the legend of the Tower of Babel.

The inscriptions recently found among the ruins of Assyria have thrown a bright light into this and other scriptural myths and legends: the deciphering of the characters in these inscriptions by Grotefend, and the reading of the texts by George Smith, Oppert, Sayce, and others, have given us these traditions more nearly in their original form than they appear in our own Scriptures.

The Hebrew story of Babel, like so many other legends in the sacred books of the world, combined various elements. By a play upon words, such as the history of myths and legends frequently shows, it wrought into one fabric the earlier explanations of the diversities of human speech and of the great ruined tower at Babylon. The name Babel (_bab-el_) means “Gate of God” or “Gate of the Gods.” All modern scholars of note agree that this was the real significance of the name; but the Hebrew verb which signifies _to confound_ resembles somewhat the word Babel, so that out of this resemblance, by one of the most common processes in myth formation, came to the Hebrew mind an indisputable proof that the tower was connected with the confusion of tongues, and this became part of our theological heritage.

In our sacred books the account runs as follows:

“And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.

“And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.

“And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.

“And they said, Go to, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

“And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.

“And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

“Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.

“So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.

“Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.”

(Genesis xi, 1-9.)

Thus far the legend had been but slightly changed from the earlier Chaldean form in which it has been found in the Assyrian inscriptions. Its character is very simple: to use the words of Prof. Sayce, “It takes us back to the age when the gods were believed to dwell in the visible sky, and when man, therefore, did his best to rear his altars as near them as possible.” And this eminent divine might have added that it takes us back also to a time when it was thought that Jehovah, in order to see the tower fully, was obliged to come down from his seat above the firmament.

As to the real reasons for the building of the towers which formed so striking a feature in Chaldean architecture–any one of which may easily have given rise to the explanatory myth which found its way into our sacred books–there seems a substantial agreement among leading scholars that they were erected primarily as parts of temples, but largely for the purpose of astronomical observations, to which the Chaldeans were so devoted, and to which their country, with its level surface and clear atmosphere, was so well adapted. As to the real cause of the ruin of such structures, one of the inscribed cylinders discovered in recent times, speaking of a tower which most of the archaeologists identify with the Tower of Babel, reads as follows:

“The building named the Stages of the Seven Spheres, which was the Tower of Borsippa, had been built by a former king. He had completed forty-two cubits, but he did not finish its head. During the lapse of time, it had become ruined; they had not taken care of the exit of the waters, so that rain and wet had penetrated into the brickwork; the casing of burned brick had swollen out, and the terraces of crude brick are scattered in heaps.”

We can well understand how easily “the gods, assisted by the winds,” as stated in the Chaldean legend, could overthrow a tower thus built.

It may be instructive to compare with the explanatory myth developed first by the Chaldeans, and in a slightly different form by the Hebrews, various other legends to explain the same diversity of tongues. The Hindu legend of the confusion of tongues is as follows:

“There grew in the centre of the earth the wonderful `world tree,’ or `knowledge tree.’ It was so tall that it reached almost to heaven. It said in its heart, `I shall hold my head in heaven and spread my branches over all the earth, and gather all men together under my shadow, and protect them, and prevent them from separating.’ But Brahma, to punish the pride of the tree, cut off its branches and cast them down on the earth, when they sprang up as wata trees, and made differences of belief and speech and customs to prevail on the earth, to disperse men upon its surface.”

Still more striking is a Mexican legend: according to this, the giant Xelhua built the great Pyramid of Cholula, in order to reach heaven, until the gods, angry at his audacity, threw fire upon the building and broke it down, whereupon every separate family received a language of its own.

Such explanatory myths grew or spread widely over the earth. A well-known form of the legend, more like the Chaldean than the Hebrew later form, appeared among the Greeks. According to this, the Aloidae piled Mount Ossa upon Olympus and Pelion upon Ossa, in their efforts to reach heaven and dethrone Jupiter.

Still another form of it entered the thoughts of Plato. He held that in the golden age men and beasts all spoke the same language, but that Zeus confounded their speech because men were proud and demanded eternal youth and immortality.[173]

But naturally the version of the legend which most affected Christendom was that modification of the Chaldean form developed among the Jews and embodied in their sacred books. To a thinking man in these days it is very instructive. The coming down of the Almighty from heaven to see the tower and put an end to it by dispersing its builders, points to the time when his dwelling was supposed to be just above the firmament or solid vault above the earth: the time when he exercised his beneficent activity in such acts as opening “the windows of heaven” to give down rain upon the earth; in bringing out the sun every day and hanging up the stars every night to give light to the earth; in hurling comets, to give warning; in placing his bow in the cloud, to give hope; in coming down in the cool of the evening to walk and talk with the man he had made; in making coats of skins for Adam and Eve; in enjoying the odour of flesh which Noah burned for him; in eating with Abraham under the oaks of Mamre; in wrestling with Jacob; and in writing with his own finger on the stone tables for Moses.

So came the answer to the third question regarding language; and all three answers, embodied in our sacred books and implanted in the Jewish mind, supplied to the Christian Church the germs of a theological development of philology. These germs developed rapidly in the warm atmosphere of devotion and ignorance of natural law which pervaded the early Church, and there grew a great orthodox theory of language, which was held throughout Christendom, “always, everywhere, and by all,” for nearly two thousand years, and to which, until the present century, all science has been obliged, under pains and penalties, to conform.

There did, indeed, come into human thought at an early period some suggestions of the modern scientific view of philology. Lucretius had proposed a theory, inadequate indeed, but still pointing toward the truth, as follows: “Nature impelled man to try the various sounds of the tongue, and so struck out the names of things, much in the same way as the inability to speak is seen in its turn to drive children to the use of gestures.” But, among the early fathers of the Church, the only one who seems to have caught an echo of this utterance was St. Gregory of Nyssa: as a rule, all the other great founders of Christian theology, as far as they expressed themselves on the subject, took the view that the original language spoken by the Almighty and given by him to men was Hebrew, and that from this all other languages were derived at the destruction of the Tower of Babel. This doctrine was especially upheld by Origen, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine. Origen taught that “the language given at the first through Adam, the Hebrew, remained among that portion of mankind which was assigned not to any angel, but continued the portion of God himself.” St. Augustine declared that, when the other races were divided by their own peculiar languages, Heber’s family preserved that language which is not unreasonably believed to have been the common language of the race, and that on this account it was henceforth called Hebrew. St. Jerome wrote, “The whole of antiquity affirms that Hebrew, in which the Old Testament is written, was the beginning of all human speech.”

Amid such great authorities as these even Gregory of Nyssa struggled in vain. He seems to have taken the matter very earnestly, and to have used not only argument but ridicule. He insists that God does not speak Hebrew, and that the tongue used by Moses was not even a pure dialect of one of the languages resulting from “the confusion.” He makes man the inventor of speech, and resorts to raillery: speaking against his opponent Eunomius, he says that, “passing in silence his base and abject garrulity,” he will “note a few things which are thrown into the midst of his useless or wordy discourse, where he represents God teaching words and names to our first parents, sitting before them like some pedagogue or grammar master.” But, naturally, the great authority of Origen, Jerome, and Augustine prevailed; the view suggested by Lucretius, and again by St. Gregory of Nyssa, died, out; and “always, everywhere, and by all,” in the Church, the doctrine was received that the language spoken by the Almighty was Hebrew,–that it was taught by him to Adam,–and that all other languages on the face of the earth originated from it at the dispersion attending the destruction of the Tower of Babel.[176]

This idea threw out roots and branches in every direction, and so developed ever into new and strong forms. As all scholars now know, the vowel points in the Hebrew language were not adopted until at some period between the second and tenth centuries; but in the mediaeval Church they soon came to be considered as part of the great miracle,–as the work of the right hand of the Almighty; and never until the eighteenth century was there any doubt allowed as to the divine origin of these rabbinical additions to the text. To hesitate in believing that these points were dotted virtually by the very hand of God himself came to be considered a fearful heresy.

The series of battles between theology and science in the field of comparative philology opened just on this point, apparently so insignificant: the direct divine inspiration of the rabbinical punctuation. The first to impugn this divine origin of these vocal points and accents appears to have been a Spanish monk, Raymundus Martinus, in his _Pugio Fidei_, or Poniard of the Faith, which he put forth in the thirteenth century. But he and his doctrine disappeared beneath the waves of the orthodox ocean, and apparently left no trace. For nearly three hundred years longer the full sacred theory held its ground; but about the opening of the sixteenth century another glimpse of the truth was given by a Jew, Elias Levita, and this seems to have had some little effect, at least in keeping the germ of scientific truth alive.

The Reformation, with its renewal of the literal study of the Scriptures, and its transfer of all infallibility from the Church and the papacy to the letter of the sacred books, intensified for a time the devotion of Christendom to this sacred theory of language. The belief was strongly held that the writers of the Bible were merely pens in the hand of God (_Dei calami_). hence the conclusion that not only the sense but the words, letters, and even the punctuation proceeded from the Holy Spirit. Only on this one question of the origin of the Hebrew points was there any controversy, and this waxed hot. It began to be especially noted that these vowel points in the Hebrew Bible did not exist in the synagogue rolls, were not mentioned in the Talmud, and seemed unknown to St. Jerome; and on these grounds some earnest men ventured to think them no part of the original revelation to Adam. Zwingli, so much before most of the Reformers in other respects, was equally so in this. While not doubting the divine origin and preservation of the Hebrew language as a whole, he denied the antiquity of the vocal points, demonstrated their unessential character, and pointed out the fact that St. Jerome makes no mention of them. His denial was long the refuge of those who shared this heresy.

But the full orthodox theory remained established among the vast majority both of Catholics and Protestants. The attitude of the former is well illustrated in the imposing work of the canon Marini, which appeared at Venice in 1593, under the title of _Noah’s Ark: A New Treasury of the Sacred Tongue_. The huge folios begin with the declaration that the Hebrew tongue was “divinely inspired at the very beginning of the world,” and the doctrine is steadily maintained that this divine inspiration extended not only to the letters but to the punctuation.

Not before the seventeenth century was well under way do we find a thorough scholar bold enough to gainsay this preposterous doctrine. This new assailant was Capellus, Professor of Hebrew at Saumur; but he dared not put forth his argument in France: he was obliged to publish it in Holland, and even there such obstacles were thrown in his way that it was ten years before he published another treatise of importance.

The work of Capellus was received as settling the question by very many open-minded scholars, among whom was Hugo Grotius. But many theologians felt this view to be a blow at the sanctity and integrity of the sacred text; and in 1648 the great scholar, John Buxtorf the younger, rose to defend the orthodox citadel: in his _Anticritica_ he brought all his stores of knowledge to uphold the doctrine that the rabbinical points and accents had been jotted down by the right hand of God.

The controversy waxed hot: scholars like Voss and Brian Walton supported Capellus; Wasmuth and many others of note were as fierce against him. The Swiss Protestants were especially violent on the orthodox side; their formula consensus of 1675 declared the vowel points to be inspired, and three years later the Calvinists of Geneva, by a special canon, forbade that any minister should be received into their jurisdiction until he publicly confessed that the Hebrew text, as it to-day exists in the Masoretic copies, is, both as to the consonants and vowel points, divine and authentic.

While in Holland so great a man as Hugo Grotius supported the view of Capellus, and while in France the eminent Catholic scholar Richard Simon, and many others, Catholic and Protestant, took similar ground against this divine origin of the Hebrew punctuation, there was arrayed against them a body apparently overwhelming. In France, Bossuet, the greatest theologian that France has ever produced, did his best to crush Simon. In Germany, Wasmuth, professor first at Rostock and afterward at Kiel, hurled his _Vindiciae_ at the innovators. Yet at this very moment the battle was clearly won; the arguments of Capellus were irrefragable, and, despite the commands of bishops, the outcries of theologians, and the sneering of critics, his application of strictly scientific observation and reasoning carried the day.

Yet a casual observer, long after the fate of the battle was really settled, might have supposed that it was still in doubt. As is not unusual in theologic controversies, attempts were made to galvanize the dead doctrine into an appearance of life. Famous among these attempts was that made as late as the beginning of the eighteenth century by two Bremen theologians, Hase and Iken, They put forth a compilation in two huge folios simultaneously at Leyden and Amsterdam, prominent in which work is the treatise on _The Integrity of Scripture_, by Johann Andreas Danzius, Professor of Oriental Languages and Senior Member of the Philosophical Faculty of Jena, and, to preface it, there was a formal and fulsome approval by three eminent professors of theology at Leyden. With great fervour the author pointed out that “religion itself depends absolutely on the infallible inspiration, both verbal and literal, of the Scripture text”; and with impassioned eloquence he assailed the blasphemers who dared question the divine origin of the Hebrew points. But this was really the last great effort. That the case was lost was seen by the fact that Danzius felt obliged to use other missiles than arguments, and especially to call his opponents hard names. From this period the old sacred theory as to the origin of the Hebrew points may be considered as dead and buried.


But the war was soon to be waged on a wider and far more important field. The inspiration of the Hebrew punctuation having been given up, the great orthodox body fell back upon the remainder of the theory, and intrenched this more strongly than ever: the theory that the Hebrew language was the first of all languages–that which was spoken by the Almighty, given by him to Adam, transmitted through Noah to the world after the Deluge–and that the “confusion of tongues” was the origin of all other languages.

In giving account of this new phase of the struggle, it is well to go back a little. From the Revival of Learning and the Reformation had come the renewed study of Hebrew in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and thus the sacred doctrine regarding the origin of the Hebrew language received additional authority. All the early Hebrew grammars, from that of Reuchlin down, assert the divine origin and miraculous claims of Hebrew. It is constantly mentioned as “the sacred tongue”–_sancta lingua_. In 1506, Reuchlin, though himself persecuted by a large faction in the Church for advanced views, refers to Hebrew as “spoken by the mouth of God.”

This idea was popularized by the edition of the _Margarita Philosophica_, published at Strasburg in 1508. That work, in its successive editions a mirror of human knowledge at the close of the Middle Ages and the opening of modern times, contains a curious introduction to the study of Hebrew, In this it is declared that Hebrew was the original speech “used between God and man and between men and angels.” Its full-page frontispiece represents Moses receiving from God the tables of stone written in Hebrew; and, as a conclusive argument, it reminds us that Christ himself, by choosing a Hebrew maid for his mother, made that his mother tongue.

It must be noted here, however, that Luther, in one of those outbursts of strong sense which so often appear in his career, enforced the explanation that the words “God said” had nothing to do with the articulation of human language. Still, he evidently yielded to the general view. In the Roman Church at the same period we have a typical example of the theologic method applied to philology, as we have seen it applied to other sciences, in the statement by Luther’s great opponent, Cajetan, that the three languages of the inscription on the cross of Calvary “were the representatives of all languages, because the number three denotes perfection.”

In 1538 Postillus made a very important endeavour at a comparative study of languages, but with the orthodox assumption that all were derived from one source, namely, the Hebrew. Naturally, Comparative Philology blundered and stumbled along this path into endless absurdities. The most amazing efforts were made to trace back everything to the sacred language. English and Latin dictionaries appeared, in which every word was traced back to a Hebrew root. No supposition was too absurd in this attempt to square Science with Scripture. It was declared that, as Hebrew is written from right to left, it might be read either way, in order to produce a satisfactory etymology. The whole effort in all this sacred scholarship was, not to find what the truth is–not to see how the various languages are to be classified, or from what source they are really derived–but to demonstrate what was supposed necessary to maintain what was then held to be the truth of Scripture; namely, that all languages are derived from the Hebrew.

This stumbling and blundering, under the sway of orthodox necessity, was seen among the foremost scholars throughout Europe. About the middle of the sixteenth century the great Swiss scholar, Conrad Gesner, beginning his _Mithridates_, says, “While of all languages Hebrew is the first and oldest, of all is alone pure and unmixed, all the rest are much mixed, for there is none which has not some words derived and corrupted from Hebrew.”

Typical, as we approach the end of the sixteenth century, are the utterances of two of the most noted English divines. First of these may be mentioned Dr. William Fulke, Master of Pembroke Hall, in the University of Cambridge. In his _Discovery of the Dangerous Rock of the Romish Church_, published in 1580, he speaks of “the Hebrew tongue,… the first tongue of the world, and for the excellency thereof called `the holy tongue.'”

Yet more emphatic, eight years later, was another eminent divine, Dr. William Whitaker, Regius Professor of Divinity and Master of St. John’s College at Cambridge. In his _Disputation on Holy Scripture_, first printed in 1588, he says: “The Hebrew is the most ancient of all languages, and was that which alone prevailed in the world before the Deluge and the erection of the Tower of Babel. For it was this which Adam used and all men before the Flood, as is manifest from the Scriptures, as the fathers testify.” He then proceeds to quote passages on this subject from St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and others, and cites St. Chrysostom in support of the statement that “God himself showed the model and method of writing when he delivered the Law written by his own finger to Moses.”[181]

This sacred theory entered the seventeenth century in full force, and for a time swept everything before it. Eminent commentators, Catholic and Protestant, accepted and developed it. Great prelates, Catholic and Protestant, stood guard over it, favouring those who supported it, doing their best to destroy those who would modify it.

In 1606 Stephen Guichard built new buttresses for it in Catholic France. He explains in his preface that his intention is “to make the reader see in the Hebrew word not only the Greek and Latin, but also the Italian, the Spanish, the French, the German, the Flemish, the English, and many others from all languages.” As the merest tyro in philology can now see, the great difficulty that Guichard encounters is in getting from the Hebrew to the Aryan group of languages. How he meets this difficulty may be imagined from his statement, as follows: “As for the derivation of words by addition, subtraction, and inversion of the letters, it is certain that this can and ought thus to be done, if we would find etymologies–a thing which becomes very credible when we consider that the Hebrews wrote from right to left and the Greeks and others from left to right. All the learned recognise such derivations as necessary;… and… certainly otherwise one could scarcely trace any etymology back to Hebrew.”

Of course, by this method of philological juggling, anything could be proved which the author thought necessary to his pious purpose.

Two years later, Andrew Willett published at London his _Hexapla, or Sixfold Commentary upon Genesis_. In this he insists that the one language of all mankind in the beginning “was the Hebrew tongue preserved still in Heber’s family.” He also takes pains to say that the Tower of Babel “was not so called of Belus, as some have imagined, but of confusion, for so the Hebrew word _ballal_ signifieth”; and he quotes from St. Chrysostom to strengthen his position.

In 1627 Dr. Constantine l’Empereur was inducted into the chair of Philosophy of the Sacred Language in the University of Leyden. In his inaugural oration on _The Dignity and Utility of the Hebrew Tongue_, he puts himself on record in favour of the Divine origin and miraculous purity of that language. “Who,” he says, “can call in question the fact that the Hebrew idiom is coeval with the world itself, save such as seek to win vainglory for their own sophistry?”

Two years after Willett, in England, comes the famous Dr. Lightfoot, the most renowned scholar of his time in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin; but all his scholarship was bent to suit theological requirements. In his _Erubhin_, published in 1629, he goes to the full length of the sacred theory, though we begin to see a curious endeavour to get over some linguistic difficulties. One passage will serve to show both the robustness of his faith and the acuteness of his reasoning, in view of the difficulties which scholars now began to find in the sacred theory.” Other commendations this tongue (Hebrew) needeth none than what it hath of itself; namely, for sanctity it was the tongue of God; and for antiquity it was the tongue of Adam. God the first founder, and Adam the first speaker of it…. It began with the world and the Church, and continued and increased in glory till the captivity in Babylon…. As the man in Seneca, that through sickness lost his memory and forgot his own name, so the Jews, for their sins, lost their language and forgot their own tongue…. Before the confusion of tongues all the world spoke their tongue and no other but since the confusion of the Jews they speak the language of all the world and not their own.”

But just at the middle of the century (1657) came in England a champion of the sacred theory more important than any of these–Brian Walton, Bishop of Chester. His Polyglot Bible dominated English scriptural criticism throughout the remainder of the century. He prefaces his great work by proving at length the divine origin of Hebrew, and the derivation from it of all other forms of speech. He declares it “probable that the first parent of mankind was the inventor of letters.” His chapters on this subject are full of interesting details. He says that the Welshman, Davis, had already tried to prove the Welsh the primitive speech; Wormius, the Danish; Mitilerius, the German; but the bishop stands firmly by the sacred theory, informing us that “even in the New World are found traces of the Hebrew tongue, namely, in New England and in New Belgium, where the word _Aguarda_ signifies earth, and the name Joseph is found among the Hurons.” As we have seen, Bishop Walton had been forced to give up the inspiration of the rabbinical punctuation, but he seems to have fallen back with all the more tenacity on what remained of the great sacred theory of language, and to have become its leading champion among English-speaking peoples.

At that same period the same doctrine was put forth by a great authority in Germany. In 1657 Andreas Sennert published his inaugural address as Professor of Sacred Letters and Dean of the Theological Faculty at Wittenberg. All his efforts were given to making Luther’s old university a fortress of the orthodox theory. His address, like many others in various parts of Europe, shows that in his time an inaugural with any save an orthodox statement of the theological platform would not be tolerated. Few things in the past are to the sentimental mind more pathetic, to the philosophical mind more natural, and to the progressive mind more ludicrous, than addresses at high festivals of theological schools. The audience has generally consisted mainly of estimable elderly gentlemen, who received their theology in their youth, and who in their old age have watched over it with jealous care to keep it well protected from every fresh breeze of thought. Naturally, a theological professor inaugurated under such auspices endeavours to propitiate his audience. Sennert goes to great lengths both in his address and in his grammar, published nine years later; for, declaring the Divine origin of Hebrew to be quite beyond controversy, he says: “Noah received it from our first parents, and guarded it in the midst of the waters; Heber and Peleg saved it from the confusion of tongues.”

The same doctrine was no less loudly insisted upon by the greatest authority in Switzerland, Buxtorf, professor at Basle, who proclaimed Hebrew to be “the tongue of God, the tongue of angels, the tongue of the prophets”; and the effect of this proclamation may be imagined when we note in 1663 that his book had reached its sixth edition.

It was re-echoed through England, Germany, France, and America, and, if possible, yet more highly developed. In England Theophilus Gale set himself to prove that not only all the languages, but all the learning of the world, had been drawn from the Hebrew records.

This orthodox doctrine was also fully vindicated in Holland. Six years before the close of the seventeenth century, Morinus, Doctor of Theology, Professor of Oriental Languages, and pastor at Amsterdam, published his great work on _Primaeval Language_. Its frontispiece depicts the confusion of tongues at Babel, and, as a pendant to this, the pentecostal gift of tongues to the apostles. In the successive chapters of the first book he proves that language could not have come into existence save as a direct gift from heaven; that there is a primitive language, the mother of all the rest; that this primitive language still exists in its pristine purity; that this language is the Hebrew. The second book is devoted to proving that the Hebrew letters were divinely received, have been preserved intact, and are the source of all other alphabets. But in the third book he feels obliged to allow, in the face of the contrary dogma held, as he says, by “not a few most eminent men piously solicitous for the authority of the sacred text,” that the Hebrew punctuation was, after all, not of Divine inspiration, but a late invention of the rabbis.

France, also, was held to all appearance in complete subjection to the orthodox idea up to the end of the century. In 1697 appeared at Paris perhaps the most learned of all the books written to prove Hebrew the original tongue and source of all others. The Gallican Church was then at the height of its power. Bossuet as bishop, as thinker, and as adviser of Louis XIV, had crushed all opposition to orthodoxy. The Edict of Nantes had been revoked, and the Huguenots, so far as they could escape, were scattered throughout the world, destined to repay France with interest a thousandfold during the next two centuries. The bones of the Jansenists at Port Royal were dug up and scattered. Louis XIV stood guard over the piety of his people. It was in the midst of this series of triumphs that Father Louis Thomassin, Priest of the Oratory, issued his _Universal Hebrew Glossary_. In this, to use his own language, “the divinity, antiquity, and perpetuity of the Hebrew tongue, with its letters, accents, and other characters,” are established forever and beyond all cavil, by proofs drawn from all peoples, kindreds, and nations under the sun. This superb, thousand-columned folio was issued from the royal press, and is one of the most imposing monuments of human piety and folly–taking rank with the treatises of Fromundus against Galileo, of Quaresmius on Lot’s Wife, and of Gladstone on Genesis and Geology.

The great theologic-philologic chorus was steadily maintained, and, as in a responsive chant, its doctrines were echoed from land to land. From America there came the earnest words of John Eliot, praising Hebrew as the most fit to be made a universal language, and declaring it the tongue “which it pleased our Lord Jesus to make use of when he spake from heaven unto Paul.” At the close of the seventeenth century came from England a strong antiphonal answer in this chorus; Meric Casaubon, the learned Prebendary of Canterbury, thus declared: “One language, the Hebrew, I hold to be simply and absolutely the source of all.” And, to swell the chorus, there came into it, in complete unison, the voice of Bentley–the greatest scholar of the old sort whom England has ever produced. He was, indeed, one of the most learned and acute critics of any age; but he was also Master of Trinity, Archdeacon of Bristol, held two livings besides, and enjoyed the honour of refusing the bishopric of Bristol, as not rich enough to tempt him. _Noblesse oblige_: that Bentley should hold a brief for the theological side was inevitable, and we need not be surprised when we hear him declaring: “We are sure, from the names of persons and places mentioned in Scripture before the Deluge, not to insist upon other arguments, that the Hebrew was the primitive language of mankind, and that it continued pure above three thousand years until the captivity in Babylon.” The power of the theologic bias, when properly stimulated with ecclesiastical preferment, could hardly be more perfectly exemplified than in such a captivity of such a man as Bentley.

Yet here two important exceptions should be noted. In England, Prideaux, whose biblical studies gave him much authority, opposed the dominant opinion; and in America, Cotton Mather, who in taking his Master’s degree at Harvard had supported the doctrine that the Hebrew vowel points were of divine origin, bravely recanted and declared for the better view.[187]

But even this dissent produced little immediate effect, and at the beginning of the eighteenth century this sacred doctrine, based upon explicit statements of Scripture, seemed forever settled. As we have seen, strong fortresses had been built for it in every Christian land: nothing seemed more unlikely than that the little groups of scholars scattered through these various countries could ever prevail against them. These strongholds were built so firmly, and had behind them so vast an army of religionists of every creed, that to conquer them seemed impossible. And yet at that very moment their doom was decreed. Within a few years from this period of their greatest triumph, the garrisons of all these sacred fortresses were in hopeless confusion, and the armies behind them in full retreat; a little later, all the important orthodox fortresses and forces were in the hands of the scientific philologists.

How this came about will be shown in the third part of this chapter.


We have now seen 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 advancing 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, kings, bishops, Catholic and Protestant, 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 favourite 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. Hence it is that so many leading theologians have come to know atfirst hand the truths given by this science, and to recognise 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 now endeavour to show.

The beginnings of a 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, 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. 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, “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, made great efforts to have vocabularies collected and grammars drawn up wherever missionaries and travellers came in contact with new races, and 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 the 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, and contained specimens of more than three hundred languages, with 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 honoured 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 theological 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 ended only with the beginning of the study of Sanskrit in the latter half of the eighteenth century, and with 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 gone to pieces; 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 connected with the confusion was the cleaving of America from Europe, and he regards the most terrible chapters in the book of Job as intended for a description of the Flood, which in all probability Job 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 effect was made by a Breton to prove that all languages took their rise in the language of Brittany. All was chaos. There was much wrangling, but little earnest controversy. Here and there theologians were calling out frantically, beseeching the Church to save the old doctrine 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.[192]

Nothing better reveals to us the darkness and duration of this chaos in England than a comparison of the articles on Philology given in the successive editions of the _Encyclopaedia 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 belief of the average British 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 was repeated in the fourth and fifth editions. In 1824 appeared a supplement to the fourth, fifth, and sixth editions, which dealt with the facts so far as they were known; but there was scarcely a reference to the biblical theory throughout the article. Three years later came 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 _Encyclopaedia_ the subject of philology was 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 had 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 completely, and in its place gave a history of philology free from admixture of scriptural doctrines. Finally, in the year 1885, appeared the ninth edition, in which Professors Whitney of Yale and Sievers of Tubingen give admirably and in fair compass what is known of philology, making short work of the sacred theory–in fact, throwing it 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 like Sir William Jones, Carey, Wilkins, Foster, Colebrooke, did noble work in the new field. A new spirit brooded over that chaos, and a great new orb of science was evolved.

The little group of scholars who gave themselves up to these researches, though almost without exception reverent Christians, were recognised at once by theologians as mortal foes of the whole sacred theory of language. Not only was the dogma of the multiplication 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 language, never before endangered, was felt to be in peril, since the evidence became overwhelming that so many varieties 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 endeavoured 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 endeavoured 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 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 Roman Catholic, 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 Gregory of Nyssa might be right.

But this was not the only wreck. During ages the great men in the Church had been calling upon the world to admire 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 mediaeval 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: Dr. Shuckford, 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 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.[196]

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 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 death-blow. Closely allied with the question of the origin of language was that of the origin of letters. The earlier writers had held that letters were also a divine gift 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” his decree 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 reconciler 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 reenforced by facts regarding the inscriptions in Egypt, the cuneiform inscriptions of Assyria, the legends of Chaldea, and the folklore of China–where it was found in the 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 vigorous onslaught, declaring the new system of philology to be “degrading to our nature,” and that the theory of the natural development of language is simply due to the beauty of Lucretius’ poetry. But his main weapon was ridicule, and in this he showed 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”:

“When men out of the earth of old

A dumb and beastly vermin crawled;

For acorns, first, and holes of shelter,

They tooth and nail, and helter skelter,

Fought fist to fist; then with a club

Each learned his brother brute to drub;

Till, more experienced grown, these cattle

Forged fit accoutrements for battle.

At last (Lucretius says and Creech)

They set their wits to work on _speech_:

And that their thoughts might all have marks

To make them known, these learned clerks

Left off the trade of cracking crowns,

And manufactured verbs and nouns.”

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 endeavour 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 regarding 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 defence of the sacred theory. The leaders in this effort were the three great Ultramontanes, De Maistre, De Bonald, and Lamennais. 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 drawn from the book of Genesis. De Maistre especially excelled in ridiculing the philosophic or scientific theory. Lamennais, 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 champions 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 centres of thought as the Sorbonne and the College of France were undermining their last great fortress. Curious indeed is it to find that the 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, Lamennais himself, though offered the highest Church preferment, and even a cardinal’s hat, braved the papal anathema, and went over to the scientific side.[200]

In Germany philological science took so strong a hold that its positions were soon recognised as impregnable. Leaders like the Schlegels, Wilhelm 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 had 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 does 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 defence 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.

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 them 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 of nearly all the controversies between theology and science. It consists in stating, with much fairness, the conclusions of the scientific authorities, and then in persuading one’s self and trying to persuade others 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 and kindly 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 emninent 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 honour 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 of 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; 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 connecting 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, for in the British Isles as elsewhere the truth has been established. Such men as Max Muller 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.[204]


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 medieval rabbiinical 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 endeavour 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.

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 “reconciling” the Babel myth with modern science.

Just after the middle of the nineteenth century the last stage of theological defence was evidently reached–the same which is seen in the history of almost every science after it has successfully fought its way through the theological period–the declaration which we have already seen foreshadowed by Wiseman, 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 labours confirm the literal truth of Scripture.”

Two years later this contention was echoed from the American Presbyterian Church, and Dr. B. W. Dwight, having stigmatized as “infidels” those who had not incorporated into their science the literal acceptance of Hebrew legend, declared 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 this was re-echoed from England. The Rev. Dr. Baylee, Principal of the College of St. Aidan’s, declared, “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.” So, too, in the same year (1870), in the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland, Dr. John Eadie, Professor of Biblical Literature and Exegesis, declared, “Comparative philology has established the miracle of Babel.”

A skill in theology and casuistry so exquisite as to contrive such assertions, and a faith so robust as to accept them, certainly leave nothing to be desired. But how baseless these contentions are is shown, 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 words of one of the most eminent modern authorities, “It is now generally recognised that in grammatical structure the Arabic preserves much more of the original forms than either the Hebrew or Aramaic.”

History, ethnology, and philology now combine inexorably to place the account of the confusion of tongues and the dispersion of races at Babel among the myths; but their work has not been merely destructive: more and more strong are the grounds for belief in an evolution of language.

A very complete acceptance of the scientific doctrines has been made by Archdeacon Farrar, Canon of Westminster. With a boldness which in an earlier period might have cost him dear, and which merits praise even now 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 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 honour 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 Cyclopaedia_, edited by him and the Rev. Dr. Strong, which appeared in 1873, the whole sacred theory is given up, and the scientific view accepted.[206]

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, of the origin of the name Babel, of the fear of the Almighty lest men might climb up into his realm above the firmament, and of 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 have therefore been left to work with more power upon the hearts and minds of mankind.

Nor has any harm been done to the Bible. On the contrary, this divine revelation through science has made it 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, the Fall, the Deluge, and much else in our 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 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 travellers 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.

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