The Story Of Religious Controversy
The Forgery of the Old Testament
- How We Detect the Forgery
- The Priestly Forgers
- The Mistakes of Moses
- The Mythical History of the Jews
- The Truth About the Prophets
- Pious Fiction
THE Word of God a forgery! I can understand the bewilderment of a religious reader, but let him consider coolly what the statement means. It does not mean that God forged a book. It means that men forged a book in God’s name. That can be examined dispassionately by anybody.
But, you say, they were religious men, and the charge is an insult. My dear friend, Protestant divines and preachers unanimously accuse, not merely religious men, but ministers of the Christian Gospel of hundreds of forgeries.
You never heard of it? Why, they hold — and quite rightly — that almost all of the stories of saints and martyrs which are treasured in the Roman Church are forgeries; and there are Roman Catholic scholars who agree with them. They hold — all the non- Roman historians in the world hold — that the documents on which the power of Rome is essentially based are sheer forgeries. They hold that from the sixth to the twelfth century Roman priests poured upon Europe a flood of forgeries, very much to their own profit.
The simple question here is whether ancient Jewish priests had done the same thing a thousand years before. But that is different, you say. These supposed forgeries are not lives of saints and decrees of councils, but the Word of God.
Well then, what is a forgery? It is a deliberate falsification or fabrication of documents or of the signature to them. A letter, a poem (like “Ossian’s” poems), an historical work (like some “found” recently in Italy), a will, a bank-note, a postage stamp even, may be forged.
Now the far greater part of the more learned clerical authorities on the Bible say that many books of the Old Testament pretend to be written by men who did not write them: that many books were deliberately written as history when the writers knew that they were not history: and that the Old Testament as a whole, as we have it, is a deliberate attempt to convey an historical belief which the writers knew to be false.
But these learned authorities do not like the word forgery. It is crude. Let me give you a few illustrations, from easily accessible and weighty works, of what they do say. It will at least show you the elegance, the subtlety, the resources of diplomatic language.
The article “Israel” in the “Encyclopedia Biblica,” a Christian work, is written by Professor Guthe, a learned theologian of Leipsic University. He says that the writers of the Old Testament have a “mode of regarding the facts” in which we can see “the workings of a primitive nature.” He says that the poor historian of the Jews has a hard job “to remove the materials of his story out of the false light in which he finds them.” He must “constantly bear in mind the peculiarities of the narrative”; and he frankly tells you that these are “their legendary character, their conformity to a scheme, and their didactic purpose.” Does it not sound very much like an extremely polite description of what plain men call a forgery?
The article “David” is by another famous theologian, Professor Marti. He says that “keen criticism is necessary to arrive at the kernel of fact” in the familiar story of David; and that some very learned theologians “deny that there is such a kernel of fact.” Most theologians, however, he says, believe that “the imaginative element in the story of David is but the vesture which half conceals, half discloses, certain facts treasured in popular tradition.” Nice language, isn’t it?
Dr. Cheyne, recently a very high dignitary of the Church of England, writes on “Abraham.” When he has done with the patriarch, we have only a tissue of “legends purified both by abridgment and expansion.” After all, that is only what the Koran did, with Mohammed.
Professor Moore, of Andover Theological Seminary, writes the article on “Historical Literature.” He thinks that the early historical writers of the Old Testament — not in the time of Moses, but centuries later, and not as we have their works now — were honest collectors of stories, but that later books were put together by the “mere literary process of conflation and contamination.” Hard words. The scribes, he says, “combined different copies according to their own judgment and interests.” This gives us “a different religious point of view” — in plain English, a view of the facts which is not true — but the scribes merely acted “in a prophetic spirit.” In the end another set of writers recast the whole of these honest legends and dishonest “contaminations,” and added a vast amount of new matter (expressly ascribing it to Moses) for which, Professor Moore says, they probably had no sources — except their imagination and “interests.” The result is our Old Testament.
But the “Encyclopedia Biblica” is full of this from cover to cover of its four large volumes. Let us try the “Encyclopedia Britannica.” Alas, it is just as bad. Professor Cook, of Cambridge University, says (article “Jews”); “Written by Oriental people, clothed in an Oriental dress, the Old Testament does not contain objective records,” but “subjective history for specific purposes.” One would like to hear a perjured witness in court defend himself on the ground that his statements were sound subjective history for a specific purpose. “Scholars are now almost unanimously agreed” on these manipulations, he says. But they have really rendered you a service. The Higher Criticism has “brought into relief the central truths which really are vital.” What truths, you ask? Why, that the Old Testament gradually evolved from the tenth to the second century, and in its present form is mainly a fifth century compilation so distorting the facts that it has taken scholars a hundred and fifty years to get them straight.
Enough of these Higher Critics, you say: you know that I could quote a hundred of them. Well, let us take a learned Protestant divine, the Reverend Professor Sayce, of Oxford University, who is a vigorous opponent of Higher Critics. His chief work, “The Higher Criticism and the Verdict of the Monuments,” published by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, is the standard criticism of the Higher Criticism. Let us hear him, by all means; and I am going to take first a part of his work which will at the same time enable you to judge at once whether there are forgeries in the Old Testament and show you how we detect them.
You know well the book of Daniel. Some scenes of that vivid narrative, such as the famous feast of “Belshazzar the King, and the writing on the wall, have passed into the art and letters of the world. It expressly says throughout that it was written by Daniel himself. “I Daniel” occurs in every chapter.
Some time ago we recovered tablets of the great Persian king Cyrus, and Professor Sayce gives us a translation of them; and he compares them, as you may, with the words of Daniel: “In that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain, and Darius the Median took the kingdom.” The tablets of Cyrus describe the taking of Babylon, and are beyond the slightest suspicion. The Persians had adopted the Babylonian custom of writing on clay, then baking the brick or tablet, and such documents last forever. And these and other authentic and contemporary documents of the age which Daniel describes show:
- That Belshazzar was not king of Babylon.
- That the name of the last king was Nabonidos.
- That the city was taken peacefully, by guile, not by bloodshed.
- That it was Cyrus, not Darius the Median, who took it.
- That Darius, who is said (xi 1) by Daniel to have been the son of Ahasuerus (Xerxes), was really his father.
- That all the Babylonian names in Daniel are absurdly misspelled and quite strange to the writer.
- That the writer describes the Chaldeans in a way that no writer could have done before the time of Alexander the Great.
You can read the rest of the critic of the Higher Critics. It is now beyond question that the man who wrote Daniel, and pretended to be alive in 539 B.C. (when Babylon fell), did not live until three or four centuries later. The book is a tissue of errors, as we find by authentic documents and by reading the real Babylonian names on the tablets.
Now why did the writer do it, and what was his object? Quite clearly he wanted to convince the Jews that Jahveh would miraculously protect any Jews who refused to obey a sacrilegious king. And this gives us the clue to the date. It was in the second century B.C., when the Greek king, Antiochus Epiphanes, tried to compel the Jews to break their law. A pious Jew, probably a priest, then wrote this book: very clumsily, as in the course of three centuries the facts and names had been forgotten. Now we have recovered the real contemporary documents, and there is no room for dispute.
Well, is that a forgery? Sayce concludes leniently that it is “not historical in the modern sense of the word history”! Others blandly tell us that it was “a work of edification,” one of the “hagiographs” (which means “holy writings”). You are asked to remember “the nature of the Oriental mind,” which is so very different from the American. These superficial writers who talk of forgery, you are told, do not know the Oriental mind.
I know it well, and I know this: If you were to tell an Oriental Mohammedan that the wonderful things said about the Prophet in the Koran were “subjective history with a specific purpose,” he would, when be learned precisely what you meant, knock you down. The Oriental loves stories, but he has as keen a sense as any of the difference between stories and sacred history. Daniel pretended to be history. Otherwise it would have had no effect. It is a forgery.
And Professor Sayce goes on to show that Ezra, Tobit and Judith — the latter are in the Catholic Bible — are on the same level. “The decipherment of the cuneiform inscriptions,” he says, “has finally destroyed all claim on the part of the Books of Tobit and Judith to be considered as history” (p. 552). It does not much matter that they are not in the Protestant canon. They are examples of ancient Jewish forgeries. Professor Sayce shows the same for familiar Bible stories like those of Susanna and Bel and the Dragon. In fact, this remarkable book, which sets out to destroy the Higher Critics, begins with decisive proof that Genesis is a compilation of Babylonian legends (ascribed to Moses) and ends with the exposures I have given!
You see now how we detect forgeries. There are two chief ways: the style of the documents and the testimony of other and undisputed documents. The second method I have illustrated; and, now that we have recovered such a mass of ancient literature, it covers a great deal of the Old Testament.
The first method, to judge a literary writing by its literary. style, has been much ridiculed by pious people; and the ridicule is ridiculous. On the orthodox theory the Old Testament was written at different periods during more than a thousand years. Now there is not a language known that does not change so much in the course of centuries that even a child can see the difference at a glance. The inexpert reader will find it almost impossible to read the earliest English literature. Even as late as the eighteenth century, English was written quite differently from the way in which we write it today. Literary experts can tell at once whether a French, Italian, German, or English book was written in the thirteenth (like Dante’s Italian), sixteenth, or nineteenth century.
So we can with Hebrew, because even on the most advanced theory the writing of the Old Testament covers seven hundred years. And this is the simple method of the Higher Critics, which preachers who do not know a word of Hebrew — and could not even themselves read the English of Chaucer — ridicule. This method confidently shows us fragments of different ages in the Old Testament put together at a far later date. Further, we find inconsistencies, contradictions, and duplications which cannot otherwise be explained. Now, in addition, we have a very great deal of history and archeology by which we can check the Old Testament.
What I mean when I say that the Old Testament was “forged” will now be fairly clear. In the first place, whole books, like Daniel, are what we call in modern English forgeries; and, if the Jews of twenty-two hundred or even twenty-five hundred years ago had known the real origin of them, they would have called them forgeries. They were effective, and were intended to be effective, only because the readers were induced to believe that the events they described had actually happened. That Jahveh could be made to do wonderful things in mere fiction would not have been a surprise to any Oriental, or anybody else. So the fiction was represented as fact, and the authorship was concealed under a spurious name.
The Old Testament professes to be, and the orthodox believe it to be, a collection of books which appeared at intervals, with divine inspiration, during a thousand years of Jewish history. It is supposed that Moses wrote, or caused to be written, the Pentateuch (except the last few verses). It is believed that Judges, Kings and Chronicles go back to the times they describe: that the prophecies were added from the ninth century onward; and so on. Now the critical theory is that not a single book of the Old Testament, as we have it, is older than the ninth century, and that in the fifth century all the older books and fragments were combined together into the Old Testament as we have it, and were drastically altered so as to yield a version of early Hebrew history which is not true.
It is believed that this was done by the Jewish priests; and that fact, not prejudice, is the reason for the title of this chapter. The object of this manipulation of the Hebrew writings was, according to all scholars, to represent the Jewish priesthood and its rights and customs to have been established in the days of Moses. All the scholars to whom I refer admit this, and admit that the representation is false. And so, not being either a priest or a professor or other polite person, I speak of priestly forgers.
It is the almost universal opinion of scholars that a priestly group in Babylon, using some old material, fabricating new, and perverting the entire history of the cult and the priesthood, made a priestly code and ascribed it to Moses. Is that forgery? It is equally the almost universal opinion that in Jerusalem they went on to combine this code, again falsifying the historical facts, with the older existing writings and made the Pentateuch nearly as we hove it.
As to Ezra, remember that he was not only a zealous priest but “a ready scribe in the law of Moses” (Ezra vii 6). In fact, for once I think we shall find much food for thought in an apocryphal work (I Esdras xiv 22): “I [Ezra] shall write all that hath been done in the world since the beginning and the things that were written in thy law.” He (and his associates) did. The old Hebrews, admitting that he wrote the whole Pentateuch, used to say that he had “revelation” to help him. The clerical professors say that he had some mysterious fund of old materials, which he “worked up” and made to serve his purpose. What do you think? Remember, this book made the priesthood all-powerful for the first time in Judea.
Now let us examine the Pentateuch, or “Five Books” with which the Old Testament opens. One smiles today at the vast amount of ink that was spilt in the nineteenth century over the question whether Moses wrote them. There is now no scholar who would entertain the idea. The only foundation for any belief that Moses wrote or dictated them is a statement in precisely those passages in Kings, Chronicles and Ezra — all very late books — in which the forgers produce them and say that Moses wrote them.
But let us look at the first two pages from another point of view. The first page of the Bible is in flat contradiction to what every educated person now knows: and even the pious work of the Rev. Professor Sayce, issued still by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (of a Fundamentalist shade), proves emphatically that the early chapters of Genesis are modifications of Babylonian legends.
Attempts to “reconcile Genesis and science” never come now from men who know science. The Hebrew text, which I know well, having had a course of Hebrew at Louvain University, is not one inch nearer to science than the English text. It is neither poetry — I have read it in Hebrew, Greek, Latin and English — nor accurate statement.
There is first a dark chaos, created by God. Why God created matter in a chaotic state and then, in six days, put it in order, is rather a puzzle to the believer. It would be just as easy for the “creative word” to make an orderly as a chaotic universe. Desperate apologists remind you how science (which they pretend not to believe) put a nebula at the beginning; and one might (if one did not know Hebrew) think of the chaos as a nebula. But a nebula is light, not dark; and it most assuredly has no water in it. Let us use our common sense. The Hebrew for the chaos is tohu vah bohu, which is plainly a primitive people’s corruption of the Babylonian tiamat, the original chaos. To the learned Babylonian, the first state of things was a watery waste, land and water mixed up together, and the gods had first to separate them. The Hebrew follows the Babylonian legend in all that it says.
But this is really waste of time. Any man who thinks that the teaching of science is in harmony with the Genesis order of creation: (1) light, (2) division of water from the sky or firmament, (3) division of land from water and creation of plants (including fruit trees), (4) appearance of the sun and moon, (5) production of birds from the water, (6) production of reptiles (after birds) and mammals and man, ought to try politics instead of theology. It is sheer nonsense. Moreover, the second chapter of Genesis makes matters worse by putting first the creation of man, then trees, then mammals, then woman.
It is frankly ridiculous to talk of science in such a connection. The only agreement with science (and this is undone by the second chapter) is that the grass was created before the cattle, which eat it, and the cattle before the man, who eats them. I say this quite deliberately after (for the hundredth time) reading slowly the first chapter of Genesis. Seriously, does one need inspiration to guess that?
Next as to chronology. I have heard Fundamentalist leaders scoff at the idea that the Bible puts creation about 4000 B.C. In a debate with me Dr. Riley has said that he is quite prepared to admit that, as science claims, the earth is more than a billion years old. But if the reader cares to go through Genesis carefully, and note the age of each patriarch at the time his first son was born, he will find that the Old Testament does actually date creation about 6000 years ago. I have done it. You try it.
Then there is the lovely Garden of Eden — quite plainly, we now know, the Babylonian Edin or plain — and the ghastly story of the curse of the whole human race for the sin of two people. It is a Babylonian story; and the Hindus, Egyptians, and others had the same story. As to Noah and the Flood, I imagine that every theologian in the world has thrown up the sponge on that wonderful specimen of early man’s idea of what a God might do. It is all in the Babylonian tablets, even down to such details as the sending out of the dove and the raven and the resting of the ark on a high mountain.
The story of Babel also is a childlike legend of which we have traces in Babylonia. It is naive enough in the Old Testament. God gets jealous of man’s progress in civilization. Man has built a city, which is clearly meant for Babylon (consult the admirable Sayce), and a high tower, which means one of the lofty, stepped temples of Babylonia. The whole story is a very primitive attempt to explain how men came to speak different languages. We have today actual specimens of the Cretan, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Chinese languages going back ages before the alleged date of Babel.
I am not aware that any scholar, clerical or lay, of our time, questions the Babylonian origin of the Genesis legends, and we need not anticipate here by reproducing the ancient stories. We do not suggest that the Jews adopted these legends during the Captivity. They were probably well known in Canaan, and were, indeed, probably the only available answers to the riddle of the universe, when the Hebrews arrived there. It is probable, in fact, that they were written in a Hebrew version centuries before the Captivity. But no one can read the Babylonian originals, which we now have, and doubt the ultimate source of the early chapters of Genesis.
Properly educated clergymen admit this, and say that the “inspiration” is seen in the change from Polytheism to Monotheism. The very first line, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” is said to rise high above all ancient literature. But in the Babylonian legend itself it is one god, Marduk, who puts chaos in order and creates the world; and Monotheism was established in Egypt centuries before a line of the Old Testament was written.
In popular belief the story of Abraham is very simple. His original name was Abram, and he lived in “Ur of the Chaldees”; but God called him and changed his name to Ab-ra-ham, which is the Hebrew for “the father of many peoples.”
Blessed are the ignorant, for they have no difficulties. The word Abraham does not mean “the father of many peoples.” No Hebrew scholar can make it mean anything. It has “no meaning in Hebrew,” Dean Cheyne says. Apparently a chief named Abram was treasured in Hebrew tradition, but a later generation got confused over the name — there were then no vowels (or vowel points) in Hebrew — and spelt it Abraham. So the priestly forgers of a later date neatly joined the two together by the above story. And one trace of their handiwork is “Ur of the Chaldees.” Abram may have come from Ur; but it was not a “city of the Chaldees” until ages afterwards — when the legend was written.
Abram means “high father” or “great father.” Late in Jewish history he began to be regarded as the ancestor of the people. But most probably this grew out of a tradition about him, and now, say Professor Sayce and Professor Sellin, these old traditions have been gloriously vindicated and the Higher Critics shattered. New archeological discoveries have given us confirmation of the names of certain kings mentioned in the story of Abraham. The good news spread through the religious world like a breath of spring.
This is a good illustration of the reasons why critics of the clergy and the religious press are inclined to call them dishonest. They mislead the people. Of the entire story of Abram only the fact that three or four kings mentioned are now known to have really existed is confirmed. It would follow only that there was an ancient legend about Abram: but of the whole supernatural story about him there is not a tittle of confirmation.
These supposed archeological discoveries “confirming” the Bible are all of that nature. A few names of kings, or alliances, or battles in many centuries are confirmed: a vast amount is disproved (as we saw about Daniel). Honest common sense will see in this only a confirmation of the view of the Old Testament which I have given. Those who fabricated it in the fifth century included some older writings which were based on tribal traditions; but what was in those writings we rarely know.
And this particular “triumph” is very modest. One of the royal names discovered is King Khammurabi of Babylon. Obviously the same name is Amraphel in the Abram story, religious writers say! It is by no means obvious; and learned Assyriologists ridicule it. Moreover, Khammurabi lived before 2000 B.C., and Professor Sellin is very much puzzled about this. However, as all that he can offer you in the end is “an ancient Canaanitish narrative which shows us Abram as a valiant Khabiri chieftain who followed the fortunes of the rulers of Jerusalem,” perhaps you are not further interested. The Hebrews, who came later to Canaan, appropriated the legend, made this valiant Bedouin adventurer an ancestor of their race, and the priests later decorated this scanty and bloody story with a supernatural halo.
Joseph is the next outstanding historical figure; all that lies between him and Abram is a totally unreliable “working up” of ancient legend for priestly purposes. But Joseph retires with the Khabiri chieftain into the very dim mists of ancient legend. You remember how (Genesis xli 43), when Joseph was set high, the Egyptian people called before him, “Bow the knee.” It is now certain that this is a fanciful rendering of a word which the ancient translators did not understand. The word, we now know, is a purely Babylonian title of honor! See the worthy Sayce. Strange, isn’t it, to find an Egyptian crowd talking Babylonian?
And Sayce also warns his pious reader, though very delicately, as beseems the subject, that the very popular story of Potiphar’s wife has so close a parallel in an Egyptian story which we have found that it is “impossible not to see the connection.” By the way, be is quite wrong in saying “impossible,” for the Rabbi Dr. Jacob Horovitz in his recent attack on the Higher Critics (“Die Josephserzahlung,” 1921) says there is no connection. You shall, as usual, please yourself. I ask only the use of common sense. Sayce himself says repeatedly that these zealots are quite as bad as the Higher Critics. “Hair-splitters,” he calls both groups.
This is no new find; but it takes a long time for the discoveries to reach the body of the faithful. It was in 1852 that scholars found the Orbiney Papyrus, now in the British Museum at London. It is a story of two brothers who lived together. They were working together in the field one day, and the elder, who was married, sent the younger back to the house for some seed. The wife, who confessed she had had her eye on him for some time, saw her opportunity. “Come,” she said — I am translating from Rabbi Horovitz, “let us lie together for an hour, That will be pleasant for you, and I will make fine clothes for you.” The blushing youth indignantly refused, and fled: which says much for ancient Egyptian morals. So the wife, to protect herself, told people he had tried to seduce her, and when her husband came home, she accused the younger brother of saying to her: “Let down thy hair, and let us lie together for an hour.” And the elder slew the younger. brother.
Well, compare for yourself Genesis xxxix with this. Joseph went to his master’s house “to do his business,” and, as there was no one else there but the wife, “she caught him by his garment, saying: Lie with me.” He refused, and she turned the tables on him, as in the novel.
Do you see any connection? And remember the Babylonian title and the fact that the very abundant remains of Egypt give us not the least confirmation of the story of the Jews in Egypt. Then remember how Genesis was put together seven hundred years later, and … May we not pass on?
Exodus is in exactly the same position. Sayce in fact shows that we now know that if the Hebrews had followed the route there described they would have passed through Egyptian territory! It and Numbers are a tissue of myths put together for a purpose centuries later. I am, as I said, inclined to believe that some of the Hebrew tribes at least entered the fringe of Egypt, and then wandered in the desert to Palestine. But their story remained oral for centuries; and the account in the Pentateuch is “a didactic novel.” And Deuteronomy and Leviticus are priestly forgeries.
Did you ever notice in the Pentateuch, which is supposed to have been written by Moses, such phrases as “the Canaanite dwelled then in the land” (Genesis xii 6 and xiii 7) or “before there reigned any king over the children of Israel” (xxxvi 31)? All such sentences were clearly written ages after Moses: when there were kings in Israel, and there were not Canaanites. Moreover, as Professor Sellin says, “nearly every occurrence from the creation of the world to the death of Moses is related to us twice, and in some cases three times.” This puts beyond the shadow of a doubt the late and composite origin. Moses, we hope, did not see his visions double.
All this runs on in Joshua and the other “historical books.” The writer of Joshua (who never pretends to be Joshua) often says that a thing goes on “unto this day” (ix 27 and xv 63). In xxiv 31 he intimates that he is writing at least after the death of the eldest person who had known Joshua. There are the same doubles and contradictions. In short, as I said, the Samaritans know not the book; so it goes back to the fifth century, and we will waste no time on its history. Nor will we linger over Judges, another composite history with a purpose.
Samuel and Kings have all the same faults. The plain truth is that we cannot by independent authority prove a single statement of any importance in the history of the Jews until their history is no longer miraculous. It is a waste of time to try to get a “kernel of facts,” and it will be far better to show in some detail that even the latest historical works, which ought to be most reliable, are a series of forgeries including, in a changed form, ancient traditions the original form of which we do not know,
We read in I Chronicles (xxix 7) of money being paid or valuated in darics, that is to say, coins of the Persian Darius; so, obviously, this was written long after 520 (the first year of Darius I). We read further (iii 19, etc.) that six generations had elapsed since Zerubbabel, so the book must have been written about 400 B.C. We read in Nehemiah (xii 1-26) a list of names that go back to the time of Alexander the Great (died 323). In a word, Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah are impudent forgeries of the fourth century, using some ancient memoirs (perhaps — there is no proof), but giving a totally false version of the events.
We have already seen this in the case of Ezra and Nehemiah. Checked by the statements of the really contemporary prophets Haggai and Zechariah, they are full of purposive misstatements. Dean Cheyne says that “the redactors’ own contributions are largely inventions,” and that this is especially true of what they say about the return of the Jews from Babylon and the rebuilding of the temple. Zechariah plainly shows that the exiles were still in Babylonia when the temple was rebuilt; yet the author, or what is politely called “the redactor,” and impolitely called the forger, of Ezra gives us a glowing description of 42,360 Jews, with 7,337 servants, two hundred singing men and women, and great troops of horses and treasures of gold. Incidentally, as we saw in the first chapter, only about 4,000 men had been deported. We are asked to believe that in two generations they grew, on the fertile plains of Babylon, to 42,360; and thousands never returned. And in those days a population took several centuries to double!
We have, in fine, seen the value of the “history” of Ezra, the ready scribe, bringing forward the real “law of Moses.” Even the 42,360 (the nucleus of his large audience, presumably) were astonished at it. No serious scholar doubts that it was “redacted” in Babylon by the priests. “Redaction” or “recension” is the scholarly word for these things. In our own degenerate age a “redactor” would be accused of forgery if he added one line to the writings he was editing. We are asked not to give the name to priests of ancient Judea who, for their own high profit, invented (as far as we can tell) nine lines for every one they edited, and “redacted” the one line until it became false.
But what’s in a name? The main point is that practically all the experts assure you that in scores of material points the Old Testament history has been discredited, and has only been confirmed in a few unimportant incidental statements; and that the books are a tissue of inventions, expansions, conflations, or recensions dating centuries after the events.
A prophet in old days was not a man who predicted, but a man who refused to call a forgery a recension. They were men who spoke out: as Jeremiah did about Hilkiah’s pious fraud. They called a whore a whore, and altogether made some edifying reading for the children of British and American schools of the year 1929.
I do not object to calling a spade a spade, having some inclination that way myself, but the real modern interest in the prophets is based upon the supposition that they made remarkable predictions. These supposed predictions have been so thoroughly annihilated so long ago that it were waste of time to linger with them.
We now know enough of the character of the Old Testament to understand that a large number of the prophecies were written after the event. The prophets were “redacted,” like all the other literature. Prophecies were forged during some hundreds of years. In other cases, the prophet merely referred to the past; as, when Isaiah wrote some remarkable descriptions of the “Servant of God,” which were for ages regarded as predictions concerning Christ, and are characterizations of Moses. In other cases the predictions were shrewd forecasts, such as we make about the weather or a baseball game; and the few cases in which the men were right have been emphasized, and the scores of cases in which they were wrong neglected. In other cases they are wrongly translated, as in the famous “Behold a virgin will conceive”; for the Hebrew word is not “virgin,” but “girl,” and conception by a girl was not miraculous in ancient Judea.
No, the prophets, as distinguished from the priests, were men who spoke out; which is the real meaning of the word. But they spoke out with especial picturesqueness. The nation was young and poetic, and its ways were primitive. You remember how Saul was moved by a spirit and behaved like a dancing dervish. It was common all over that part of the ancient world; and not unknown in modern seances. And the prophet regarded himself as a very superior person, and was very dirty. From the prophets of Arabia, apparently, he borrowed the habit of dressing in a mantle of goat’s hair and having mystic marks on his forehead.
These men (and women) were seers, and people paid them for advice. Now and again one rose to high notoriety and founded a school: probably in the wild mountains. Such was Elijah. But, alas, the moment we want to know all about him, the biblical experts intimidate us. There is, we are told, “probably a basis of fact” in the story of Elijah and Elisha, but we can’t disentangle it as “the interests of the prophetic order led to some unhistoric fictions and exaggerations”: not forgeries, of course. However, I am glad for once. That bear-and-innocent-little-children story always made me sick.
We may pass over these crude beginnings of the new art of prophecy and come to the great masters. Amos and Hosea were the first; and, naturally enough, they are the crudest and most poetic. A nation is most gifted with poetic imagery in its adolescence, when the imagination is far more developed than the intellect. That is why the Bible is “great literature”; at least a good deal of it is. I am not here repeating a shibboleth. I have read most of the finest poetry of many languages, and that is my opinion. It is quite natural. These parts of the Old Testament — large sections of the prophecies and early psalms, for instance — were written in the youth of the Hebrew race and translated in the youth or literary springtime of the English race.
But Amos and Hosea are morally crude in the same proportion. Amos, who seems to have been active about 750 B.C., was a shepherd. Jahveh “calls” him, and be begins to fling fiery invectives at the people, who find him his daily bread for that reason. His Jahveh is a fiercely vindictive old deity, always planning fearful schemes of punishment. The great sin is what the translators honestly call “whoredom”; which hurts the feelings of the modern professors. Judea, the one land (some think) which did not lie in darkness and the shadow of death, seems to have been full of whores, in spite of polygamy and concubinage. And, figuratively, the great collective sin of the nation is whoredom — a courting of false gods (whose existence is not denied). The Hebrews had to have Monotheism drilled into them.
Hosea, who was active in the northern kingdom about the same time, or about 750 to 725, is a shade worse. The call of Jahveh to him was, be says: “Take unto thee a wife of whoredom and children of whoredom, for the land doth commit great whoredom.” It seems clear, and is generally believed, that he literally obeyed the divine command, and learned to love the girl. But Israel’s sins fire him, and he pours it out volcanically. It is really funny to reflect that pious people have read for centuries these scorching descriptions of the morals of Judea, yet have continued to believe that the Hebrews alone “saw the light.” We know that Egypt was then as moral as Minnesota is today, and that in Babylon they drowned people for adultery. Hosea ends, however, with a really fine bit of poetry.
To read the Bible intelligently, you must read the books in their chronological order. You may not be able to pick out the earlier fragments from the Pentateuch and historical books, and you must remember that even such books as Amos and Hosea were “redacted.” But, taking the books as a whole, read first Amos, then Hosea, then Isaiah, who seems to have been “called” about 740 B.C.
Here, however, you strike a glaring instance of — are we to call it forgery, conflation, or what? The book of Isaiah, as we have it, is (apart from later manipulations) the work of two totally different writers, separated from each other by two centuries. It would be foolish to think that a competent Hebrew scholar cannot detect this. It is as easy as it would be to separate the parts if somebody now made a joint work out of a Massachusetts divine of the early eighteenth century and the Rev. Straton or Dr. Riley. The style, diction, and whole personality are strikingly different.
The real Isaiah seems to have been a man of good social position and education, and keenly interested in politics. He was pro-Assyrian, and he was opposed by the pro-Egyptians at court. His opponents won, and Judea cast off its allegiance to Assyria and turned to Egypt. Very well, said Isaiah, this is what you may expect; and he gave a very reasonable forecast (touched up later) of the punishment of Judea by the Assyrians. This is the extent of his predictions.
Toward the close of the exile in Babylonia, some other Jew continued, or imitated, the prophecy of Isaiah. He “predicted” the exile; that is to say, he forged a prediction in the name of Isaiah, for the text shows when he was writing. He predicts a terrible destruction of Babylon itself (which was taken peacefully) by the Medes (who did not take it); and Babylon was in Isaiah’s time not the enemy of Judea. It is quite clear that he wrote during the Captivity, but before Cyrus appeared. His language and religious ideas are quite different from those of Isaiah, but the two have been pieced together in one book. The critics politely call him Deutero-Isaiah, which means “Second Isaiah.” Shall we call him the forger of half of Isaiah (thirty or forty chapters of it, including those most quoted)?
Next you take the second “major” prophet, Jeremiah. He is described as “one of the gentlest of men”; though, as we saw, he told Hilkiah in very good Hebrew that his new book was “a lie.” However, Judea was still so wicked and perverse that the pessimism of the prophets touches its deepest note in Jeremiah. Generally the predictions of these prophets took the same general shape. The Jews were going to be fearfully punished — rebels generally were in those days — but the Lord would some day rehabilitate them. There is still time for the fulfillment of the latter part. Jeremiah was the son of a priest, and was “called” in the year 626.
We ought to have considered Micah before Jeremiah, as he is supposed to have been a contemporary of Isaiah. But as his work is really not worth considering (from our present point of view) and is hopelessly adulterated, we pass on to the famous Ezekiel.
The critics say that he is “far less attractive” than Jeremiah — who is the typical “dismal prophet” of all literature — so we may not be disposed to linger long in his valley of dry bones. He was a priest, of the sterner type, and was probably deported to Babylonia in 597. He spat the coldest fire that prophet ever erupted: a man of incandescent zeal for religion as a system of church-observances, but of fantastic imagery and poor diction. Nothing but a blind zeal for the “Word of God” could enable any modern person to be interested in him.
The rest of the prophets are not worth noticing. Joel (“probably the name was prefixed by the redactor [forger] out of his own head,” says a learned divine), Malachi (a clumsy misunderstanding of a name, says another divine), and Obadiah (“most probably a fictitious name,” says Cheyne) are fifth or fourth century forgeries. Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah are very unimportant dervishes of the seventh century. Haggai and Zechariah are genuine prophets of the sixth century, who, as we saw, prove that Esdras is a liar, as Jeremiah said. The prophets need not detain us further.
With the prophets, however, we may consider the book of Psalms. “The Psalms of David” they are called; and the writers of them repeatedly represent that they were written by King David, as in the close of Ps. lxxii. There is not a scholar in the world who now believes that any of them were composed by David. Taking advantage of the statement (which we now know to have been written centuries later) that David was “a harpist,” later Jewish writers often attributed their songs to him. But internal evidence and the language itself show that they are a collection of songs or chants composed mainly five to seven hundred years after the time of David. As late as the second century B.C. it was a much disputed question amongst the Jews if David was really the author. Now everybody in Tennessee is sure that he was.
The “psaltery” was a stringed instrument used by the Jews, and so any kind of song or hymn sung to it was called a psalm. Even the light songs composed for wedding feasts, which were very giddy occasions in the east, were sung to the psaltery; and we therefore find that some of the “psalms” (such as xlv) were simply poems to be sung at a royal marriage festival. The whole book is, in fact, merely what we should now call an “anthology” of Jewish poetry. Some psalms are taken word for word from Samuel. Others (such as xx, xxi, Ixi, Ixiii, etc.) are actually addressed to the king, and it was always quite absurd to suggest that the author of these was David or Solomon. There is only one that could possibly be considered as going back in parts to the time of David. Psalm civ is taken bodily from the Egyptian liturgy.
So we dismiss the second part of the Old Testament. The prophets and psalms are interesting as characteristic literature of a people that is just learning civilization from older nations. Some of the psalms, in particular, are so crude and bloody in their sentiments that the Church of England has lately debated in solemn conferences whether it ought not to omit them from its services. Of “inspiration” and “revelation” there is no question. They are monotheistic; but Egypt had found Monotheism four or five centuries before the earliest prophet or psalmist appeared, and Monotheism was a truism when the bulk of them were written.
We are now in a position to estimate the sincerity of the plea of those who ask us to keep the Bible in our modern schools. Sometimes they urge this because it is “great literature.” Open your Bible at page one and see how far you have to read — how many days you have to read — before you come to a page that you would honestly call great literature. It is, of course, splendidly rendered, in fine poetic old English; but only certain parts of it, chiefly in the Prophets and the Psalms, are really fit to help in forming a literary taste, and those parts are for adults, not children. This plea is not sincere.
But it is usually said that the Bible is invaluable as a unique record of the evolution of a people and its religion. We now realize how insincere this is. The men who make the plea are precisely those who reject the “inspiration” of the Bible — or they would not plead for it in this way — and are aware of the results of critical work. They know well that the order of the books in the Bible is as far as possible from a chronological order, and that the story of the religious evolution of the Jews which the Old Testament in its present form tells is a priestly forgery. The facts were quite different.
Ecclesiastes is one of the strangest books that was ever included in a sacred collection. The author is an Epicurean philosopher. He believes in God, but is an Agnostic as to a future life. Over and over again he expresses his skepticism, so that the one verse which does profess belief in a future life is palpably part of the retouching which (as we can trace) the book suffered later at orthodox hands. The writer disdains the temple sacrifices (v 1) and constantly urges his readers to eat and drink and be merry while the sun shines. He was probably a Jew living in the new Greco-Egyptian city of Alexandria about 200 B.C. We will not call him a forger, as his assumption of the name of Solomon would deceive nobody.
Proverbs is much earlier, probably going back to the fourth century I when Greek influence began, but the “Wisdom of Solomon,” or “Ecclesiasticus,” is a work written in Greek in the first century before Christ by (probably) another Alexandrian Jew. It has significantly, no hope of a Messiah; but it has plenty of Greek philosophy which was not born until five centuries after Solomon.
But the most curious and entertaining book of the whole Bible and one of the finest and most genuine pieces of literature in it, is the Song of Solomon. I used to blush when, as young students for the priesthood, we solemnly chanted its voluptuous verses about ladies’ thighs and breasts and bellies. We were told that it was all a superb symbol of the union of Christ and his Church, or at least the union of Jahveh and the synagogue. Even in the prudent translation which we have in the Bible it is what we should call, if it were not in the Bible, a most licentious piece of work.
We are not at all sure that there is not a mythological element in parts of it, which seem to celebrate the union of the sun-god and moon-goddess (Shelamith). But as a whole it is plainly a collection of Oriental marriage songs. In the east a marriage festival lasts a week, and songs about the charms of the bride and the bridegroom’s particular interest in her are features of the celebration. Some of these songs may be quite old, but others include Persian, and even Greek, words, so that the collection must belong to about the fourth century. By that time the forged historical works had made Solomon and all his glory and his wives very popular amongst the Jews, and an aspiring author could not do better than borrow his name. As far as we can recover traces of Solomon through the mists of time — a petty king living in a third-rate Oriental mansion — he was quite capable of writing this (though not quite in such grand language) about a young lady’s “navel” and “belly” and so on. We bowdlerize ‘Hamlet,” where the prince talks to Ophelia; and we read solemnly to our children from the “Song”: “He shall lie all night betwixt my breasts,” etc.