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The New View Of The Old Testament

( Originally Published 1906 )

Granting the legitimacy and importance of biblical criticism as a large and fruitful branch of modern learning, we are prepared to ascertain the principal results which it has already produced. While its work is by no means finished, and we should therefore be duly cautious about accepting every dictum pronounced in its name, it has progressed far enough during the two centuries and more of its growth, to have established certain general conclusions which necessarily and quite radically modify the popular conception of Scripture. Indeed, it is not too much to say that, to those who receive the truth which it has brought to light, the Bible becomes, again, a new book, fresh and quickening, filled with new meanings, revelations, and inspirations, that are higher, richer, more natural, and more vital than the old. This is much to claim, but the claim can be substantiated, and its substantiation means a great spiritual blessing for all who will welcome it. What these better perceptions are will appear as the changed view develops in this and the next few chapters ; and though this view can be but meagerly presented here, even a glimpse of it in outline will compensate for the attention and thought required for its comprehension.

1. First to be noticed among the main features of the new view of the Old Testament is the fact that the several writings of which it is composed are to be regarded as literature. Whatever may be their intrinsic value, and whatever account we may give of their inspiration, they come to us, first of all, as literary documents, and are to be approached and studied as such. This principle is fundamental in any proper treatment of the Holy Scriptures. 'While it is simple and is beginning to be widely accepted, it is still so new or so unappreciated in many circles that we shall need to continue to inculcate it until all classes are educated to its plain implications.

Nor is the Old Testament the only collection of sacred writings in existence besides the New Testament. As is well known, other peoples, in other countries and ages, have had their Holy Scriptures, many of, which are still extant—those belonging to the Brahmans, the Buddhists, the Parsees of Persia, the Chinese, and the Mohammedans, not to speak of the ancient Egyptians and others. The truth is that the Hebrew or Jewish Bible is only one of the many bibles of the world, all of which are perhaps equally dear to their possessors. I say nothing as to their comparative merits; I merely state the fact, and may add that we ought to rejoice that, as God has not left himself without witness in all the world, so there have not been wanting expressions and memorials of such witness in the form of sacred literatures as well as in that of rites and ceremonies.

Neither does our present Old Testament em-brace all the writings of the Israelitish people prior to the time of Christ. In some editions of the English Bible there is printed a list of four-teen books called "The Apocrypha." Protestants generally consider these uninspired, and yet worth reading and preserving; but they have been received as canonical by the Roman Catholic Church, and were included in the Septuagint. They constitute a portion of Jewish literature just as truly as do the regular books of the Old Testament. Besides these there are now extant eighteen writings called "pseudepigraphical" (falsely ascribed), which must be classed as Jewish literature; and, still further, there are mentioned in the Old Testament itself sixteen other books which have entirely perished.' Thus it appears that there was a considerable literary activity among the Israelites the results of which are not contained in the Old Testament as we now have it. An explanation of the omission of those that survive belongs properly in an account of the formation of the Canon, upon which I do not here enter.

II. The second prominent feature of the new view of the Old Testament which must be fairly recognized is the truth that its various writings are to be studied in connection with the national history of the Israelites. It is impossible to understand them correctly if this principle be ignored. Like the former principle, just considered, it is very simple, but it is even more important. People have been so long accustomed to think of the Bible primarily as a supernatural communication from the Almighty to each individual of their own generation, that they have scarcely realized that it had an actual earthly history. Therefore we need to press this thought, that, no matter how much or how little the Bible contains which may be called supernatural and divine, it has come to us through human channels, under definite conditions of time, place, and race, which can be intelligently traced and clearly depicted; and that some knowledge of these facts is indispensable as a preparation for grasping the inner, spiritual purport of the Scriptures.

Unfortunately, such an historical conception or attitude has been difficult of attainment by the average reader on account of the non-chronological arrangement of the biblical books, together with the marginal dates and the headings of chapters given in many editions of the Authorized Version. Genesis and the other portions of the Pentateuch come first, but very much in them was not written until a late date in Israelitish history-as late at least as the Babylonian Exile—while the work as a whole, the Torah or Law, was not put into its final, canonical shape until two or three centuries later. On the other hand, the books of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah, which are in the latter third of the Old Testament as we have it, were produced quite a time before the Exile. Again, the Psalms, the Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes are placed in about the middle of the Old Testament ; but most of these writings are of still later origin than the principal parts of the Pentateuch

Now there is no reason why we may not, for purposes of study at least, rearrange the writings of the Bible to fit the improved chronology which modern learning has practically determined. Indeed, this is being done already, to a limited extent, and with great profit to the reader. Besides, we can frame an outline of the national history of the Israelites that will enable us to understand the allusions which must be made to different periods and conditions in speaking of the authorship and dates of various works contained in the Old Testament. Such an historical sketch, as concise as I can well give, and without treating the origin and early migration of the Hebrews, is presented at this point as a preparation for what is to follow in the later portions of this chapter.

1. We will begin by accepting Professor Toy's assignment of the year 1330 B. C. as the approximate date of the exodus from Egypt under Moses. The Israelites invaded and conquered Canaan about 1300 B. C. The conquest was undoubtedly gradual, and for two hundred years society was inchoate, life was rough and religion crude. Slowly the social elements united and fused, and a kingdom was established, with Saul as king, in the year 1060 B. C. After twenty years he was succeeded by David, and he by his son Solomon, each of whom reigned, it is said, forty 5 years. Outwardly this was a brilliant period, the national life was deepened and strengthened, and the temple built in Jerusalem indicated the growth of a distinctive form of religion.

2. In the year 960 B. c. a rebellion and a division of the kingdom took place, and for two hundred and forty years there were two kingdoms, namely, the northern called Israel, and the southern called Judah. This was a period of strife and trial, that naturally evoked the deeper thoughts and feelings of the people, which found expression in a few noble writings and in the preaching of the early prophets. In the year 720 B. C. the Assyrian army overthrew Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom, and carried into captivity the flower of the population. Under the depressing influence of this calamity other prophets arose to exalt and purify the religious life of the people of the southern kingdom. But in less than one hundred and fifty years this, too, fell into the hands of a foreign power, Babylonia, and a second and a third deportation of captives took place. Then, indeed, was the whole land desolate, while the exiles were in bondage and sorrow. The Exile lasted about fifty years, to 536 B. C.; it was a productive literary period, and in important respects greatly modified the national religion.

3. Cyrus, King of Persia, having taken Babylon (538 B. C.), gave the Jews permission to return to their native land. Some, but comparatively few, availed themselves of the privilege, and in time, amid many hardships, rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and restored the worship of the temple; indeed, they went beyond all their former zeal in developing the priesthood and elaborating a ritual. Hence this became distinctively the priestly period, lasting roughly from the Exile to the time of Christ. During it there was considerable literary activity, especially in the earlier centuries of it ; but much of its product was shaped and colored by the priestly or ritualistic spirit. It was also a time of contact. with foreigners, and of oppression by them—by Persia, Greece, Syria, Egypt, and Rome. This was galling, but it could not crush, and in some respects it intensified, the messianic hope that now hastened toward its consummation.

Bearing in mind these general historical facts, we shall be qualified to appreciate what the biblical critics mean when they assign a given work to a particular period ; and we shall do well to remember also that, throughout the entire history from Moses to Jesus, it was the nation that produced the Scriptures, and not the Scriptures the nation.

III. But by far the most important feature of the new view of the Old Testament is a recognition of the late dates and the composite character of most of its writings. The significance and application of this principle will become clear as we proceed to examine some of the chief portions of these venerable literary remains.

We do not know when the art of writing commenced; nor does it matter very much. It may have been practiced a long time by some peoples before it was known to others. For example, it is certain that the Greeks and Romans had a large body of the highest kind of literature centuries before the Teutonic tribes of northern Europe were even semi-civilized. So the Egyptians and Chaldeans may have been perfectly familiar with writing, and may have had extensive written records, before there was any Israelitish nation in existence; in fact we now know positively that this was the case; yet this does not prove that Moses and the early Israelites knew how to write, any more than the fact that nearly all New Englanders could read and write, at the middle of the nineteenth century, proves that nearly all the negroes of the South could do likewise at that time. And even if Moses was really "learned in all the wisdom fo the Egyptians," so that he might have written a hundred books, it does not at all follow that he wrote the Pentateuch, or, indeed, anything else; although we may readily enough believe that he did write down, or engrave upon stone tablets, some of the fundamental laws ascribed to him. Probably Jesus knew how to write, but we have no knowledge of any literary work which he produced.

Again, we in modern times and in our western world, with our more orderly methods of thinking and working, can hardly understand how the ancients composed their books. Today an author writes out his thoughts in continuous, logical sequence ; and if he quotes he gives references, is conscientious about using materials, and would not think of publishing his work over the name of some other and more illustrious personage. Not so, however, in the Bible times. Says Professor Driver, of Oxford:

Prfessor W. Robertson Smith wrote to the same effect, and said further :

If a man copied a book, it was his to add to and modify as he pleased, and he was not in the least bound to distinguish the old from the new. If he had two books before him to which he attached equal worth, he took large extracts from both, and harmonized them by such additions or modifications as he felt to be necessary.

Understanding all this, we are not surprised to learn that many authors, desiring to gain currency for their books, ascribed them to distinguished persons of former times—as, for instance, the writer of the book of Daniel did, who is thought to have written his work about 168 or 167 B. C., but in the person of the Daniel of Babylonian times.

Now, in the light of the foregoing considerations, we may take up some of the Old Testament writings and inquire about their origin and structure.

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