The Scriptures of Mankind: An Introduction by Charles Samuel Braden
Dr. Braden was Professor of History and Literature of Religions at Northwestern University (1952). Published by The MacMillan Company, New York, copyright 1952 by Charles S. Braden. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 12: Hebreo-Christian Sacred Literature
The Bible belongs both to Jews and Christians. It would not, therefore, be correct to call the Old Testament simply the sacred literature of the Jews. It seemed wise, therefore, to divide this chapter into three parts: Part I, the Old Testament with brief mention of the Talmud, the Shulhan Aruch and the Responsa; Part II, the New Testament; Part III, the versions of both Old and New Testaments.
Part I: The Old Testament
In any survey of sacred literatures of the world’s religions written primarily for occidental readers, the writer is always somewhat at a loss as to how to deal with the Bible. He may assume safely that the great majority of his readers will know little or nothing about the Bibles of other cultures. He knows, therefore, that he must provide a good deal of detailed background material, both historical and religious, in order to make them intelligible. But the Bible is an integral part of Western culture. It is wrought into the very fabric of the life and literature of Western peoples. A substantial percentage of his readers will have had some opportunity in Sunday School or in church to have acquainted themselves with at least portions of the Bible, the religion out of which it grew and which it so largely expresses. Will he not be carrying coals to Newcastle if he repeats here the supposedly familiar facts concerning it?
In a few cases this will undoubtedly be true, but if the general run of readers of the book -- and it is not designed for specialists in the field -- are anything at all like the students who, across the years, have enrolled in the writer’s courses in the Bible, then it is fairly safe to assume that their knowledge of the book is not too extensive or detailed. He recalls the answers given, year after year at the beginning of the course, to ten simple questions which he gave the class -- not profound questions as to the hidden meaning of sacred passages, but simple questions of fact about the make-up of the book or about some outstanding character or event recounted in the Bible. When he asked, "Who was Amos, and for what was he noted?" he felt he must request that the answers not be facetious. So very few know the real answer. To the question, "Who was David and for what was he noted?" nine out of ten who evidenced any knowledge about him said that he was the slayer of Goliath, or perhaps more often, "he killed a giant." Goliath seems to have made a deep impression upon the minds of most. One volunteered that he was a good man. Several Jewish students gave no answers at all to the question.
The first time the questions were given, apology was made to the class for possibly insulting their intelligence by asking them to name the four gospels. Some got one, some two, some three, some four, though attributing some of them to apostles not usually known to have left gospels. One stalwart senior, who said afterward that he had earned a series of medals for perfect attendance at Sunday School over a period of several years, remarked, What were those gospels, prof? I have heard of them, I suppose, but I can’t name them."
Where not a little understanding of the general moral and spiritual Biblical values on the part of students was evidenced, there was still quite often an amazing lack of acquaintance with the Bible from which our culture has largely drawn them. Perhaps the fault lies not so much with the students themselves as with the kind of religious education to which they have been subjected. It is noteworthy that, in contradistinction to the older Bible-centered training in the past, most of these students had come up through the modern graded Sunday Schools in which not the Bible but the child has been central; in which the Bible has been brought into the focus of attention only when the situation demanded it.
The older Bible-centered curriculum gave only a very fragmentary view of the book. One learned "verses," portions, chapters -- even books -- but concerning the Bible as a whole there was little instruction given -- almost nothing as to its literary and historical origins and values. One did not see the forest for the trees.
Good books there are which tell the story of the Bible, interestingly and well, but few, comparatively, read them. (A list of some of the better ones appears below in a footnote.) Not so frequently has a writer attempted, in the brief compass of a chapter or two, to give a comprehensive over-view of the whole Bible. Yet that is a thing highly to be desired. What is needed is that people read the Bible -- not books about it. Yet, paradoxically enough, unless some understanding of the Biblical books as a whole is had, the Bible does not so readily yield its store of wealth of value to the reader.
The reason for this is not far to seek. For the Bible is a book of an ancient people which has had to be translated into the language of peoples of very different cultures. Even when these translations have been good, and quite intelligible to the people of the period of the translators, with the passage of time these versions have become archaic in language to later generations. But because a certain sacredness attaches to them, people resent newer and more accurate versions couched in the familiar idiom of their own times. An excellent illustration of this is the strong resistance to the superseding of the King James version by other later versions. Although the American Standard Version has now been in existence for roughly a half century it has by no means succeeded in displacing the older authorized version. And now a new version is in the process of preparation and publication. The New Testament appeared in 1946,1 the Old Testament should appear in 1952. Will it succeed any better than its predecessor in displacing the older authorized version? (If any one is in doubt as to the lack of clarity for modern readers in the King James translation let him read L. A. Weigle, The English New Testament (Abingdon-Cokesbury, N.Y., 1946, pp. 149-153) where the author lists nearly two hundred words in the New Testament alone that have changed meaning.)
Let us look, then, at some of the facts about the making and transmission of the Bible to our own times, with the view to seeing out of what it grew; what it meant to the peoples through whom it came to us; and how it has influenced and been esteemed by the people to whom it has been the very revelation of God to man.
To both Christians and Jews the Old Testament is the word of God. Just what does that mean? To the ultra-conservative representative of either faith it means first that it is the infallible, inerrant, very very word of God, ipsissima verba, i.e., a verbally inspired record of God’s revelation to man. To the modern-minded it may mean only that here in some way, though certainly not infallibly or verbally inspired, the authentic voice of God has spoken to man more clearly than in any other way in history. For both it is a rich repository of faith, to be used possibly in different ways to stimulate and nourish religious faith through the ages. Between the two extremes there is a wide variety of ways in which men conceive of it, and these differing views of the Bible have important consequences for religious faith, and certainly for the ways in which men approach and study the Bible.
The conservative has studied it diligently to discover whatever might be the religious truth hidden within the sacred text. He has been an avid student of the text in the original languages. He has used every device of linguistic inquiry to render its meaning clear. He has carefully collated manuscripts which differed in some respects in their reading and sought to purify the text of errors of copying or transmission. Unable to assert infallibility in any actual existing text, he has sought to push farther and farther back toward the original which he believes to have been quite without error. In this, which is known as textual criticism, he has worked side by side with the liberal scholar, for he knows how easily mistakes can creep in when one copies from another manuscript. Letters somewhat similar in appearance are easily confused, for example, "i" and "e" or "v" and "u,’’ or "l" and "t" when the cross on the letter is omitted, or "in" and "n,’’ or "m" and "w" etc. Most languages have just such similarities. For example, "d" and "r" are very similar in Hebrew, also "n" and "g," and others. Furthermore, in early Hebrew only the consonants were written. The vowels had to be supplied by the reader. Also the words were not separated one from another as in modern languages, and to complicate the matter still more, there were no capital letters and no punctuation. At a comparatively late time these helps were added in the so-called Massoretic text, which has been generally followed since, but what guarantee is there that the Massoretes, who did it several centuries after the last book was originally written, were always correct in their word divisions, supplying vowels and punctuation?
But with the coming of the scientific age, which ventured to raise questions about anything and everything, a new kind of study was applied to the Bible. The new method was primarily inductive. Instead of starting with a preconceived idea of what a thing was, men started with such facts as they were able to discover by thorough investigation and then, on the basis of these facts, made a generalization or an hypothesis which seemed best and most adequately to explain the facts. Could such a method be applied to the Bible? By no means, cried the ultra-conservatives. This is a sacred book -- something different, apart -- on which violent hands must not be laid. By all means, cried the devotees of the new method. How can it be known whether it is the word of God? Does it make any such claim of itself? Only in a thoroughgoing investigation of the book and the unearthing of all available facts about the book could one base any opinion so far-reaching as the claim that it was in a special way the word of God. Other books were being studied in this way by every possible historico-literary device. Why not the Bible? If it were true, no damage could possibly be done to it. Or if it were false -- well, ought not men to know that also? The issue was squarely joined and a century-long battle has been waged by the "ultras" against what they regarded as an attack upon the Bible with the intent to destroy it, but what was from the standpoint of the liberal scholar, his attempt to discover the truth about the Bible, and to preserve it from its friends in an age of almost universal questioning. "If it be of God," he has contended, with the ancient teacher, Gamaliel,2 it will stand the most searching inquiry.
The methods, the modern scholar used were simply the recognized techniques of the historian, the linguist, and the student of literatures. He laid under tribute every contribution of the archaeologist, the anthropologist, the psychologist, the historian, the sociologist, the literary critic in his attempt to discover the truth about the Bible, and in it. To be sure, there is here the possibility of a greater degree of subjectivity than in the more formal linguistic and textual study, but even there pure objectivity is by no means possible.
As a result of all this, there are today differing schools of thought concerning the Bible. The one here presented chiefly, though sometimes both positions may be indicated, is the so-called modern viewpoint, because that is the author’s own point of view, arrived at deliberately after having been in childhood and youth indoctrinated with the older, more orthodox view. In so brief a treatment it is not possible or desirable to document fully all the positions stated but reference will be made to first-rate treatments from both points of view.
It is the belief of "modern" Biblical scholars that the Old Testament was of very slow growth, that parts of it passed through many hands before they reached the form in which they are now found, that it is in no sense chronological in its arrangement, i.e., from the standpoint of the time when its various parts were written; that some portions describing very early events were written quite late; that there seems to have been a great deal of reading back into the distant past of ideas which came comparatively late upon the scene; that much of what was earlier thought to be the work of some single author was really the result of a long process of growth to which not a few writers or editors contributed to bring it into the form in which we read it today.
Does all this invalidate the Bible as a source of religious truth? Not at all, they say, for when did the truth or falsity of a saying reside in who said it, or when, or where? Truth is truth whether spoken by a Moses, an Isaiah, a Jeremiah, or by a nameless storyteller or editor in either earlier or later Hebrew history. It may come with greater prestige and authority from the lips of one of the great accredited spokesmen of God, but it is not true because of this fact. All truth, say the liberal scholars, is God’s truth; there is no other. That so much of what is in the Bible has, in the long experience of men and women, validated itself over and over again as true, constitutes the justification for speaking of it as the Word of God. It would have been true had it been found outside the Bible, or if uttered by those who make no claim of being the spokesmen of the divine. Nor, on the other hand, does the fact that a statement is found within the covers of the Sacred Book guarantee its truth. It is a saying long since become trite but still true of the thought of modern liberal students of the Bible, that the Bible is not in its entirety the word of God, but that the Bible does contain the word of God. That some, indeed much, of its content of truth has been known to people who have never known the Bible at all does not invalidate the statement. The Bible is the book which has been uniquely the revealer of that truth to the peoples who have become Christian or Jewish throughout the world. It is a belief confidently held by liberal Jews and Christians, and stated authoritatively in the very Bible itself, that God "left not himself without witness"3 among any people. But "peoples of the Book," as Moslems called the Jews and Christians, have found that witness chiefly through the pages of the Bible.
The Old Testament, while a part of the scriptures of the Christians, and wholly that of the Jews, is more than that. It is the entire, extant, early literature of the Jews as a people. There is in existence little or nothing of a literary character from Hebrew sources, outside their canonical writings, which goes very far back of the Christian era. Yet they had had a national existence of one sort or another of well-authenticated historical character, for at least a thousand years. Only that survived, apparently, which came to be regarded as sacred. But fortunately for us the Hebrew found God in history, in law, in the folk wisdom of the people and in his flights of poetic inspiration, as well as in his profound questionings concerning the meaning of life; so we have actually preserved for us a veritable wealth of literary variety of expression. Here one finds the dull report of the census-taker, the uninspired but minute directions for the performance of the cult, stories of man’s beginnings and that of many of the common experiences of his life, such as language, relationship of races, why the rainbow; colorful stories, of the might and prowess of ancient ancestors of the race, riddles, puns, fables, prayers, songs that have become almost the universal songs of the human race, the history of the rise and fall of dynasties, the preaching of reformers and prophets, the questioning of it all by men grown weary of the struggle, proverbial sayings of great wisdom; the dreams of conquest both of earth and heaven.
All this is there and more -- for it is the literature of a people, but a literature shot through and through with the consciousness of a guiding presence, that of God, upon whom rests the destiny of man and the nations. It is an amazing literature. Born of a people who never attained greatness as a nation, buffeted by greater and lesser enemies throughout their whole existence, a nation that at its widest period of expansion would have ruled a region scarcely larger than Pennsylvania, this book has mothered three great religions which between them touch very nearly half the entire population of the world.
The Old Testament comprises, in the form used by Protestant Christians and the Palestinian Jews, whom they follow, thirty-nine so-called books. Roman Catholics add to that number a few other books and additions to some of those as held by Protestants who refer to this added material as the Apocrypha. These are very much like canonical books, as any Protestant will readily see if he dips into them without knowing that they are non-canonical. How they came to be regarded as canonical by some and not so by others we shall later see.
Jews generally divide their Bible into three major divisions, these representing three separate stages in the process of canonization. The first is the Torah, or the Law, which is the most sacred of all. Indeed, it is generally held that the later collections are only a further expansion of the Torah, the making explicit of what was only implicit there. It comprises the first five books, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the so-called books of Moses.
The second is the Book of the Prophets or the book of the former and the latter prophets. The former prophets comprise the books of Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel, I and II Kings, while the latter include the writings of the three major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and the book of the twelve, often called the minor prophets; Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.
The third division called the Hagiographa, or simply "the writings," is a miscellany comprising the entire remainder of the books. Some of it is historical but from a special viewpoint, such as I and II Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah. One of the books, that of Daniel, an apocalypse, traditionally regarded as prophetic by orthodox Christianity, was not so considered by the Jews, or it was written too late to be included in the Book of the Prophets. Much is poetry including Psalms, the Lamentations, Job which is a philosophic drama, the Song of Songs, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes. Two stories, Ruth and Esther, possibly short historical novels each written for a definite purpose, conclude the section.
The Torah had become scripture and thus basically authoritative for Jewish life and religion -- for religion and life were very closely intertwined in ancient Hebrew culture --some time in the fifth century B.C. The canonization of the Prophets could hardly have been earlier than about 200 B.C. while the acceptance of the Hagiographa as sacred was not complete until about a hundred years after the birth of Jesus when at a council at Jamnia the entire Old Testament, as now held, was officially recognized. It was the book of Esther which was the latest to be admitted to the canon.
Between the Jews of Palestine and those of the great Greek city of Alexandria in Egypt there developed a difference of outlook. The Jews of Palestine became convinced that inspiration came to an end with the period of Ezra and Nehemiah and would accept no book as inspired which they believed originated after that time. On the other hand, Alexandrian Jews set no limit upon inspiration.. God might still be active and inspiring men as of old. Thus they were led to accept certain books as equally authoritative, though recognizably late in appearing. The material so accepted, but refused acceptance by the Jews of Palestine, comprised the books I and II of Maccabees, I and II Esdras, Tobit, Judith, the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, the Prayer of Manasses and certain additions to the canonical books of Esther and Daniel. These are accepted by Catholics, but regarded as Apocrypha by Protestants, books to be read with profit for instruction and edification, but not as a basis for religious dogma.
The Torah, as we have already said, is the basic scripture of the Jews. According to traditional belief of both Jews and Christians, it was given by God to Moses, the founder of Hebrew religion, and by Moses given literary form to serve as the foundation of all of Jewish life. According to modern Biblical scholarship it is the product of a great many hands, containing ancient materials, undoubtedly, but having come together in more or less informal fashion -- parts of it, at least -- then worked over, re-edited perhaps again and again in line with the development of Hebrew thought, until it finally attained its present form.
The Hebrews, like every other people, must early have wondered how things had come to be as they were, and they had built storied explanations of many things long before they had developed their critical faculties to the point where they could really discover, as in our modern scientific age we have done, how the great natural laws operate. They knew nothing of geology, the stratification of the earth’s surface, the hidden fires within, the laws of gravitation which held not only the world but the universe itself in leash. Even yet, when we know the laws so well and how they operate, we do not know why they do so. We haven’t yet found a better or more satisfying answer than the Hebrews ultimately gave in the magnificent first verse of the first chapter of Genesis. "In the beginning God . . ."
Not that this indeed was their earliest statement of ultimate cause. Modern scholarship considers the creation story, as given in the first chapter, to be decidedly late, when the concept of God had been refined and universalized as it clearly had not been even in the time of David, if the records of Samuel and Kings are trustworthy evidence of what religious belief and practice then were. But there is little doubt that the appeal to deity as final source of the world was early. There are indications here and there that the ancient Babylonian creation myth was known to the Hebrews, as it may very well have been, since Abraham had gone out from Ur of the Chaldees to become the progenitor of the Hebrew people. But what a difference there is in the two stories will be readily seen by reading Genesis I.
The first chapter is one of the most magnificent stories of creation in all the literature of the world. Its simple picture of the majestic power of the Creator of the universe in action is incomparable. God said, "Let there be light," and the lights of the universe flashed on. "Let the dry land appear," he cried, and up out of the deep came the continents and the islands. "Let vegetation cover the earth," he commanded, and the hills and meadows became green with trees and grass. Six days he wrought, on the sixth bringing man and woman into being, and God saw that it was good. And on the seventh day he rested. Therefore the Jew was to regard the seventh day as holy, and do no work on it. There are those who think that it was to establish the seventh day as holy or, in other words, to account for the Sabbath, that the whole story was told.
If the reader will continue on through the second chapter he will discover that the whole story is told over again. Here the order in which various things appeared is different, and a good deal of detail is given that is lacking in the first chapter. There it was stated simply that he created man, "male and female created He him." Here he takes dust of the earth, forms a manlike image, breathes into its nostrils the breath of life and man becomes a living being. But there was no female. So he caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man and out of a rib taken from his side woman was created. There is a delightful naïveté about this story. Lacking the majestic quality of Chapter I, the creator is very manlike, or anthropomorphic. Adam and Eve hide themselves as he walks through the Garden of Eden calling them, because they are ashamed. For he had told them that of all of the trees of the garden they might eat save one and they had disobeyed him. Having eaten of the tree of knowledge, they now saw themselves naked, and shrank from exposure to his gaze. The tempter, in the form of a serpent, talking freely with them had got Eve first to taste from the tree, then she gave to Adam, "and he did eat." So entered evil into the world which at creation had been perfect, and man must suffer judgment for his willful sin.
Woven into the same tragic story which brought sin and judgment into the world are explanations of many things for which man sought an explanation. Why do women suffer in childbirth? Why do men have to toil so arduously in order to live? The answers to all these questions are there -- and in successive chapters are found many such explanations. The whole early part of the book is precisely a story of the beginnings or genesis, of the world and many things in it. Why do men speak different languages? The answer is in the story of the Tower of Babel. How are the varied races of man to be explained? The story of the flood and its survivors, Noah and his sons, accounts for that. Note that there was no felt necessity, apparently, for accounting for yellow men and red men and brown men. Shem, father of the Semitic peoples, Ham of the Hamitic folk, and Japheth for the rest, were enough to explain all the races with whom these early folk had contact.
It is a fascinating book of origins, but probably not even the very conservative believers of the Bible would insist today that these were actually the ways these things began. They were the far-off, storied attempts of a people of pre-scientific training to explain to themselves and others how things came to be as they were. In other cultures such stories are usually thought of as myths, but it is an offense to suggest to the pious Christian or Jew of the older school that the Bible is in any sense mythical in character. They are accustomed to think of myth as something false or untrue rather than a poetic, imaginative attempt, through story, to explain things. What these ancient Hebrew stories witness to is a confidence in the creative and providential activity of God in the world and the affairs of men, a faith which may very well be maintained even though recognizing that the factual correctness of the story may be readily called in question.
It was the insistence upon the literal factual nature of the Biblical story of creation which caused such bitter opposition to the earlier scientists, the geologists and the zoologists, whose painstaking attempt to arrive at a scientific concept of the world’s beginnings led them to talk in terms not of days, but aeons of time required for the building up of layer after layer of the earth’s surface and the development of the complex forms, of life such as now exists from the simpler forms. This controversy and others like it long rocked the world of religious faith and are still being waged in some quarters. Gradually some adjustment has been made to the scientific view of the age of the world. Fundamentalists, even, have come to recognize that the six days of creation were not the twenty-four-hour kind, but might represent ages. Does not the Psalmist cry, "a day in the sight of the Lord is as a thousand years," etc. But there is no truce with the evolutionist on the part of the ultra-conservatives. They still think largely in terms of evolution or God. You may believe in one or the other, but not both. On the other hand, vast numbers of Jews and Christians, who may not even be rated as liberal, have made their peace with evolution and find in it only the method which the Creator God used when he set out to create the universe and even man.
To the modern scholar there is here no serious problem. His view of the Bible, even when held still to be the inspired revelation of God to man, does not require literal acceptance of the ancient stories of creation or even of the purported history of the Hebrew people. It is recognized that the Bible is a book which grew, that it represents the folk belief of ancient people which in time, and demonstrably from the record, grew into the complex, highly moral, monotheistic faith of today. Men wrote as they thought and believed in terms that were consonant with their peculiar cultural status at the time, and so the burden of being scientific in a prescientific era may not fairly be laid upon them. This has little or no relation to the depth of their spiritual and moral insight, and these are the values to be primarily sought in the Bible. It is a religious book, preeminently, not a textbook of science or law or history or geography. Once this is recognized and consistently held to, the scientific limitations of the book are of little or no concern.
This view of the Bible was not easily or quickly won. It was a by-product of an age of scientific inquiry, in which no phase of life was exempted from the questioning of the human mind. It set men to seeking all the facts which might have a bearing upon the question as to the nature of the Bible. Was it such a book as tradition held it to be? What facts supported such a theory? Facts were sought in the Bible itself, in history, archaeology, ethnology, astronomy, indeed wherever they might appear. One of the early facts disclosed was that the Bible itself makes no such absolute claims to inspiration and infallibility as are made for it. The only text that really affirmed categorically the inspiration of the Bible was a verse in II Timothy4 which in the older translations read: "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable . . . for instruction . . . But on examining the Greek text it appeared that the "is" of the English translation does not occur at all but is conjecturally supplied to make the sentence meaningful in English. But this can quite as readily be achieved by placing it after the word "God" to read thus:
"Every scripture inspired of God is useful," etc., a statement that could hardly be questioned. Such is the reading of the American Standard Version.5 So absolute a doctrine could hardly be based, surely, upon so equivocal a passage.
Among the facts early noted by Old Testament scholars was the twice-repeated story of Creation, but in somewhat different terms. Would one person writing the book of Genesis do such a thing? But there are also duplicate stories of the flood; of the selection of Saul as king, of the choice of David as his successor, and many other Biblical events. How account for these?
In this brief chapter no detailed account of the process can be given, but in the end liberal scholarship, while disagreeing among themselves in many small details, came to the conclusion that the books of the Law, while containing much early material, were late in taking their present form, which shows very definitely the influence of the prophets and priests who lived centuries after Moses ascended Mt. Pisgah, viewed the promised land, and died.
Like every people the Hebrews had poems, stories, and legends which were told and retold generation after generation for many centuries before anyone felt the impulse to write them down. Like other peoples they had their bards or ballad singers who had each his remembered repertoire of songs celebrating the heroes and warriors of the ancient past (Numbers 21:27) . Possibly collections of such songs may have been the first Hebrew writings. Two such "books" are definitely quoted from, The Book of the Wars of Yahweh, Numbers 21:14 ff., and the Book of Jashar, or The Upright. From the latter is taken the fascinating story of Joshua’s commanding the sun to stand still during the battle of Gibeon in order to give time to rout the enemy completely.
"Sun, stand thou still upon Gideon
And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed
Here, if taken as a sober statement of fact, was a miracle indeed, one which has troubled many people in this scientific age. One of the great services of modern scholarship was to reveal that this was but a quotation from an ancient poem, celebrating a grand victory, and was probably never meant to be taken literally. When was the poet in the throes of patriotic fervor ever to be held to strict statement of fact! Hyperbole is a recognized prerogative of the poet. But literal-minded interpreters of scripture have held that this must be accepted as a plain statement of historic fact. What a rejoicing in the camp of the conservatives there has been over the publication of the recent volume of Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision, which asserts that it was a literal statement of fact, attested by the legends of peoples all over the world, to be explained by the birth of the planet Venus. Few books have had greater publicity than this. It has been viewed by scientists as impossible of credulity, and unanswerable questions have been raised by scientific historians and other scholars concerning the hypothesis. But there is little doubt that the book will be cited for many years by those who feel it needful to defend the Biblical story as literal fact.
Another poem from the Book of Jashar is the lament of David over the death of Saul and Jonathan, II Samuel 1:19-27.
One of the oldest bits of remembered verse is the fierce, vindictive song of Lamech. It comes undoubtedly from the barbaric early period of Hebrew history. Lamech boasts to his two wives:
Ye wives of Lamech, hearken unto my speech:
It is a far cry from this ancient hymn of revenge to the saying of a later Hebrew who adjured one of his disciples to forgive one who had sinned against him "until seventy-times seven." But both are in the Bible. Another noted song, which was probably long transmitted orally, was the famous Song of Deborah in Judges 5, which celebrates the victory of Israel over Sisera. It recounts the march of Jahweh from Sinai to battle. Mount Sinai was his ancient home, they believed. Then it tells of the rallying of the tribes, called by Deborah, six of them, to fight the common enemy, and curses those tribes which failed to answer the summons. Barak is chief general.
From heaven fought the stars,
The Hebrews won a great victory. The enemy was routed. Sisera, their leader, was in flight. He sought refuge in the tent of Jael. His sad end is dramatically told:
Blessed above women shall Jael be.
The conclusion of the poem pictures Sisera’s mother at the window, wondering why her son delays to come:
Why is his chariot so long in coming?
It ends with the pious prayer:
So let all Thine enemies perish, O Jehovah, but let them that love him be as the son when he goeth forth in his might.8
Numerous other ancient poems are found scattered here and there throughout the earlier books. One delightful poem of obvious didactic character takes the form of a fable in which the trees set about to choose from among themselves a king. They first approached the olive tree but it refused.
"Should I leave my fatness
They then sought the fig tree, but it replied:
"Should I leave my sweetness
They came then to the grape-vine, but it cried:
"Should I leave my wine
Whereupon, they betook themselves to the thorn or, as sometimes translated, the bramble, and said:
"Come thou and reign over us.
Good men and strong will not give themselves to kingship but only the weak and dangerous, seems to be the moral of the story. It may well have reflected the mood of the people of Israel before the introduction of the monarchy.
There are numbers of poems which take the form of prediction though modem scholarship regards them as merely a literary form. Examples are the Blessing of Noah, Genesis 9:25-27, the Blessing of Jacob, Genesis 49, and the oracles of Balaam, Numbers 23:7- 24:24. One of the most poignant of all is the lament of David over Saul and Jonathan, taken from the Book of Jashar.
Thy glory, 0 Israel is slain on the heights,
Saul and Jonathan, the beloved and dear,
How are the heroes fallen in the thick of battle!
There were also prose legends and narratives of the ancestral founders and leaders of the tribes, stories of the pioneer Abraham, of Isaac and Jacob, and of Joseph and his brothers too well known to require retelling here. These were told over and over by parents to children. Naturally the stories would vary somewhat in the telling. Particularly there seem to have been differences as they were remembered among the northern tribes from the way southern tribes recalled them. If this seems strange it is only necessary to recall the differences between our Northern and Southern people in their version of past history, especially at points where there was intersectional rivalry or strife. The story of Moses leading the people out of Egypt is told in great detail and of course the stories narrating his providential saving from death by being left in a waterproof basket at the edge of the Nile, to be found by no less a personage than a royal princess herself, who took him and reared him as a prince of the royal house. These were marvellous stories -- they still are -- to be told by mothers to children. Then there were the anxious years of wandering in the desert, the conquest of Canaan, led by mighty Joshua, successor to Moses. Local heroes like Samson were centers for the growth of hero stories. Certainly few stories are more calculated to hold the interest of boys and girls than those of this Hebrew strong man who, though singularly lacking in desirable moral and spiritual qualities, is a most excellent example of what not to be -- selfish, wilful, lustful, proud, lacking in loyalty, weak in self-control. He could kill a lion with his bare hands, slay a thousand men in battle with the jawbone of an ass, carry off the gates of a city, snap ropes that bound him as if they were thread, and finally bring down a mighty building, killing three thousand people by pushing apart the stone pillars that supported it. What a man, physically!
There were stories of Gideon, of Barak, of Deborah and others of the so-called Judges, who ruled locally in a time of national anarchy when "every man did that which was right in his own eyes." Around Samuel, one of the first great constructive figures in the building of the united nation, there were many stories, and of course there were stories of Saul and particularly of the great David. Bewer thinks that probably "Israel’s first great literary production in prose was . . . the Story of the Founding of the Kingdom."11 Certainly no figure in all Hebrew history contains more of interest than that of David. It was he who completed the task begun by Samuel and Saul of forging out of the disparate and often mutually hostile tribes of Israel a real, united nation; who won victory over foreign enemies and laid the basis for a reign of peace and international influence and power never before, or since, equalled in the life of the Hebrews. Solomon’s rule, for the most part peaceful, with wide international connections, great prosperity, a time of building and a beginning of development of the arts and general culture, rests squarely upon the work of mighty King David.
Even today, as throughout past centuries, Jews still dream of the glories of the Davidic kingdom, and pray for its restoration, idealized, no doubt, and moralized, and spiritualized, far beyond what it actually was. But that it could even be a symbol of Jewish hopes and aspirations fixes for all time the place of David in Jewish thought. The more tragic then -- certainly from the standpoint of Judaism, is the failure of many modern Jewish young people to answer the simple question: "Who was David and for what was he noted?" About David as about others the stories differed. There are two recorded stories recounting his introduction to Saul, whom he succeeded as king. They are found in I Samuel 16:14-23 and in chapter 17. One is an inimitable story, that of a simple shepherd lad, who comes up to bring supplies to his warrior brothers, listens with consternation to the repeated challenge of a boasting Philistine giant who insults the whole Hebrew army, calling them cowards, with no one responding to the challenge; goes out himself with no armor or any other weapon than his trusty sling, chooses round stones from a brook and sends one of them crashing fatally to the temple of the giant Goliath, whose vast spear and sword and shield are helpless against such an attack. Beheading the fallen antagonist, he returns triumphant to Israel’s camp, and they, attacking, rout the enemy with great slaughter. It is bloody, to be sure, but perhaps that is just why gentle little Sunday School boys and girls remember it better than almost anything else in the Bible. Their elders buy murder mysteries by the millions for relaxation and escape reading. They could save themselves some money by going back over the Old Testament stories of tribal heroes.
In the other he is a mighty man of valor and a man of war. Because of his skill as a harpist he is brought to the tent of King Saul to dispel the periods of melancholia which come upon him at intervals. Soon David’s prowess led to popular adulation. Jealousy was aroused in Saul who attempted to kill him, making it necessary for him to flee the court. He was aided by his friend Jonathan, son of Saul, one of the most delightful stories of human friendship to be found in any literature. For some time he was forced to live as an outlaw with a price upon his head. Eventually, with the death of Saul and Jonathan, he became king, first of the southern tribes, then, later, of the northern tribes; and fixed his capital at the city of Jerusalem, which had been neither northern nor southern -- a fine stroke of political strategy. Thus he gave to the Hebrews the city which was to become not only their political capital, but idealized, the very center for the rule of God himself -- not finally, or always, on the Palestinian hills, but high and lifted up in the heavens -- "Zion, city of our God." Three millennia later Christians on another side of the world were to sing of "Jerusalem the Golden! with milk and honey blest," and others of
. . . marching to Zion,
From the time of David on there were definitely recorded annals, kept by someone in the court. These no longer exist, but again and again in the historic books of Kings and Chronicles quotations are made from these no longer extant sources.
When people live together it is always necessary to formulate some rules or, in other words, to establish some kind of law. Every people has something of this nature, whether written or unwritten. Gradually, as a result of sheer necessity there arise informal codes of what may or may not be done by members of the society. There are many non-literate peoples in existence today who of course have no written law, but whose lives are closely regulated by a well-recognized set of laws and customs which are taught to children by parents, and are enforced in one way or another by the community.
There is no reason to suppose that in this respect the Hebrews were any different from other peoples. Even if it be true that they attributed them all to Moses, given at the hand of God, it may well be that he, for the first time, only formalized some early code and gave it the religious sanctions which it bears in scripture. But long before Moses, it may be confidently asserted, there were understood limitations upon the matters at least of stealing, killing, and adultery, that is the sacredness of family relationships. There are within the Old Testament five great codes, the decalogue or ten commandments, Exodus 20:1-17, and Deut. 5:7-21; the Covenant Code, Exodus 20:22-23:33 and in shorter form, Exodus 34:17-26; the Holiness Code, Leviticus 17-26; the Deuteronomic Code, found in the Book of Deuteronomy; and the Priestly Code found scattered through Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers.
Of these the Covenant Code seems clearly to be the oldest. Exodus 20:2-17 includes the ten commandments, several of them with brief bits of commentary. The decalogue is repeated again in Deuteronomy 5:6-21 in the same ten brief words, and again with commentary, which differs somewhat from that in Exodus. Whether this actually goes back to Moses in the form we now have it, is doubted by modern scholarship, though it must be regarded as a possibility, but it may well be believed that from the time of Moses the Hebrew people did regard themselves as worshippers of Yahweh only, and that obedience to his law was mandatory upon them. Some scholars find in Exodus 34 what they think is an older, perhaps original ten commandments, which are quite different from the traditional ten. Whatever may be the facts as to date or authorship, unquestionably it is the ten commandments which represent for the Western world, both Christian and Jew, the very epitome of true religion and morals. Though the Christians, purportedly, base their faith and morals on the New Testament, it is the ten commandments, not the ten beatitudes, which they are most likely to be able to repeat if called upon. Curiously enough, not all are agreed upon just exactly what the commandments are. As given by Jews, most Protestants and the Eastern Orthodox Christians, they are as follows:
1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
2. Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them.
3. Thou shalt not take the name of Jehovah thy God in vain.
4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
5.Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land which Jehovah thy God giveth thee.
6. Thou shalt not kill.
7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
8. Thou shalt not steal.
9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
10.Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.12
Roman Catholics and Lutherans omit the commandment "Thou shalt make unto thee no graven images," and divide the commandment against covetousness into two; thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s wife, and thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods. Thus a reference to a specific commandment by number only, as the fifth or seventh, does not convey the same meaning to Catholics as it does to most Protestants.
The Covenant Code is not just what would be expected of a nomadic people, which is what the Hebrews had been before the conquest -- at least part of them. Now settled among a people far more advanced in culture than themselves they took up an agricultural form of life, became to some extent city dwellers and were much influenced by the Canaanites, who had long been under Babylonian influence. That may account for the similarity of many of the laws to those of the great Babylonian code of King Hammurabi, although if Abraham, as is supposed by some schools, was a contemporary of Hammurabi, it is possible that some influence of that great code may have been felt by the very early Hebrews.
The Covenant Code, though comparatively brief, contains laws roughly divided into four sections. (I) Laws concerning persons, including rights of slaves, male and female, laws concerning murder, kidnapping, homicides, assault and battery, accidents and contributory negligence. (II) Laws of property, including one, incidentally, on the seduction of a young virgin. The guilty man shall be required to pay a "dowry for her to be his wife." If the father shall refuse to give him the daughter he shall still "pay money according to the dowry of a virgin." That is, she is damaged property. (III) Social laws which include laws for the honest administration of justice, justice for the stranger, the widows and orphans, for the debtor, and even for kindness to the animals of enemies. "Thou shalt not see the ass of him that hates thee lying under a burden, and forbear to help him; thou shalt surely help him." (IV) Religious laws, dealing with worship of images, blasphemy, first fruits, sacrifices to alien gods, clean and unclean food, the sabbath and the seventh, or sabbath year, during which the land must lie fallow, "that the poor of thy people may eat; and what they leave the beast of the field may eat. In like manner thou shalt deal with thy vineyard and thy oliveyard." And monolatry, that is the worship of one and only one God Yahweh, is strictly enjoined.
We now have the material for the making of considerable parts of the Bible from Genesis through to Kings. Some of it was in the form of floating legend, story, song; some of it may actually have been in writing. The modern fact-seeker had discovered throughout dual narratives, with alternating divine names. Furthermore he had discovered a number of facts which threw doubt upon the authorship of the whole of the first five books by Moses. First of all the latter part of Deuteronomy told circumstantially of Moses’ death. Yet there were no marked differences in style between this section and that which preceded. Occasional remarks are found such as "before there reigned any king over the children of Israel" (Genesis 36:31) , which seem to imply that from the standpoint of the writer the monarchy had already been established; and "the Canaanite was then in the land" (Genesis 12:6, 13:7) , which implied that it was being written after Hebrew occupation; and finally repeated instances of the use of the phrase "on the other side of the Jordan," in reference to events occurring in the lifetime of Moses, which led scholars to doubt if Moses could have been the author at least of the whole of the Pentateuch. To be sure, if one reads the King James version, he will find the phrase, "on this side of the Jordan," where the Revised version translates it "on the other side." But turning to the Hebrew it appears that exactly the same Hebrew phrase is translated in the older version sometimes "on this side," and sometimes "on the other side," just where such a translation is required to support the Mosaic authorship, which at that time no one doubted.
All these and scores of other facts seem to require some theory of the origin of the Pentateuch and the other early historical books other than that traditionally given. The theory of composite authorship had been held in one form or another for a century and a half or more, by at least some scholars, before Wellhausen, a German scholar, gave it so systematic and convincing a statement that it has since been associated with his name. It is this theory which, with some modifications, is generally held by modern Biblical scholarship today. By careful analysis, using various criteria such as are familiar to students of literature, the different strands were separated out which have been called the "J" or Jahwist, because of the predominance of Jahweh as the divine name; also Judean, since it seems to have come from southern Israel or Judah; "E" for the sections where Elohim as divine name is usual, or Ephraimitic, since it seems to have come from Ephraem or northern Israel; and "P" for priestly, as designating a pronounced priestly or ecclesiastical emphasis. Scholars are not wholly agreed on the detailed analysis of each section, particularly as to the fine points; but in general terms they agree remarkably well. All this is not easy to see as one reads the Bible uncritically, but that there is something to the idea, capable of being apprehended by a non-specialist, is easily evident, even working from the English translation. The writer recalls having had one of his students read the characterization of each of these three sources as given in E. S. Brightman’s Sources of the Hexateuch,13 then on the basis of these descriptions to try to separate out the various strands in the first chapters of Genesis. The student, without having consulted any other helps, divided the sources almost exactly as they are divided by modern Biblical specialists. Brightman’s book prints the narratives consecutively each dissociated from the other. One who wishes to go further into the matter is advised to read this book.
It is generally believed by scholars who hold to this theory that "J" is the earliest of the three and quite the earliest attempt to write the history of the Hebrew people and their faith. It may have taken form as early as the middle of the ninth century, B.C., that is, about a century and a half after the time of David. By whom it was written is not known. He is often called the Yahwist. An excellent characterization of it is offered by Professor Bewer who calls it, "the first comprehensive history that had ever been written; even the Greeks had nothing like it, till centuries later. The history of Israel was set in the framework of the history of the world."14
"E" is believed to have been the product of a north Israelite writer of the first half of the eighth century. It does not go back to creation, but only to the time of Abraham; however, it carries the story to a point well down into the period of the monarchy. His work shows a definite advance religiously over that of "J," particularly in his idea of Yahweh. After the fall of northern Israel in 722 B.C. there seems to have been an adaptation of "E" to Judean purposes and it was published in a Judean edition.15 Later the two were fused into what scholars regard as "JE." Each had some material peculiar to itself which of course was retained. Where they ran parallel, sometimes both accounts were retained with little change but sometimes they were skillfully interwoven, to form a connected whole. If sometimes it is objected that no one would ever do such a thing, he need only be reminded of Tatian’s Diatessaron, which is just exactly such an interweaving of the gospels to form a complete and very readable account of Jesus’ life and teaching. Here is tangible evidence not only that it can be done, but that it actually was done, at a later time. Eventually the combined book displaced the separate books and they disappeared. Of the various strands account will be taken later.
It should be said that there are modern scholars like Pfeiffer who question the exactness of the analysis of the material into the several documents, and there is a tendency in some quarters to push some of the documents back to an earlier date. Also the application of "Form Criticism" to this part of the Bible is undermining somewhat the assurance of scholars in their analysis. But this does not mean a return to the acceptance of the Mosaic authorship. At most it means only a revision of ideas concerning the way in which the composite authorship came about.
At this point there appears in the history of Israel’s literature a new and highly influential factor, the prophetic writings.
There is much misunderstanding of the prophets. Nine people out of ten think of prophecy as simply prediction. To be sure, this is an element of it, an important one. The prophets did foretell, but that was perhaps the least important function they fulfilled. In the main their prophecies, as prediction, were short-term affairs. They were men of deep conviction and principle, convinced that they spoke the divine will. "Thus saith the Lord" was the preface to almost everything they proclaimed. The prediction, generally speaking, was as to what would happen, not in some dim and distant future, but next year, next month, if a certain course, indicated as contrary to the will of God, were not abandoned, or if some particular course which God required of them were not taken. That profound insight as to the moral nature of God and the world have proven valid across the centuries and of universal scope, may well be true. Indeed, it was the prophets more than anyone else in Hebrew history who lifted Hebrew religion from the narrow, tribal, racial faith of a barbaric people to the universal monotheistic faith which it finally became, and from a limited tribal ethic to a universal ethic, embracing not only man but God himself, which it finally came to teach and practice. But the prophets as men were, generally speaking, simply outstanding leaders and reformers. In contrast to the priests who, in general, were conservative and intent on preserving the status quo, they were not to be bound by the past; they were innovators, sometimes revolutionaries, in the best sense of that abused term. They were forward-looking, courageous men who fearlessly championed unpopular causes, took the supposedly wrong side of public questions, and often enough suffered persecution and sometimes death for their trouble. Jesus could say of them later, "They stoned the prophets."
Nor were they interested only in religious affairs. They were frequently concerned with the political situation. Should the country remain neutral or side with Egypt or Babylonia? Isaiah and Jeremiah particularly were interested in questions of public policy. Amos was concerned profoundly with social justice, as we shall see later. What we are trying to say is that they were not primarily foretellers of what was to come in some future age, intent on giving a blueprint for the unfolding centuries but, for the most part, very down-to-earth, practical-minded men, who saw the folly of the selfish, unsocial, and sinful actions of men in private and public life and sought in the name of God to lead them into a better way.
There had been prophets in Israel for a long time before any of the "writing prophets" appeared on the scene. At first prophets were ecstatics. This is clearly seen in the story of Saul meeting a band of prophets. "And the Spirit of God came mightily upon him, and he prophesied among them." Wherefore the people said: "Is Saul also among the prophets?"6 But this concept of prophecy changed. One of the first individual prophets of whom we have any account was Nathan, and one story preserved concerning him illustrates a new type of function. King David had one day seen a very beautiful woman, Bathsheba, bathing in her courtyard, and David desired her and took her. She conceived, and sent word to David that she was with child. Of course he was already married, but plural marriage was at that time an accepted practice. Unfortunately also, she was married to a general of his army. The situation was met by ordering Uriah, her husband, into the front ranks of a conflict in which he was conveniently slain, and David took his wife, honorably! It was a rude age. Kings were privileged. Perhaps David thought nothing of it. But Nathan the prophet did. He came into the presence of his royal highness and told a story.
A certain man had company and wished to prepare a feast for his guest. Now he was a man of wealth who had many sheep. A neighbor, close by, was poor and had but one sheep. The rich man took the poor man’s sheep from him, had it richly prepared, and served to his guest.
David’s eyes flashed fire as he heard the ugly tale. He was angry and burst forth in condemnation of so unrighteous a deed. "As Jehovah liveth, the man that hath done this is worthy to die," he cried, "and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing and had no pity."
Prophet Nathan pointed his finger straight into the face of the king and said, "Thou art the man."17
Then David knew that it was he indeed who had sinned. The editor of the Psalms long after the event thought that Psalm 51, greatest of all the penitential Psalms, was born of his feeling of guilt and contrition.
Have mercy upon me, O God,
Create in me a clean heart, OGod,
Restore unto me the joy of thy
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness,
Here only it is to be noted that the prophet was a fearless accuser, even of a king, of sin against God, in whose name he spoke.
There were others, notably Elijah and Elisha, about whom there is a whole cycle of stories. Elijah was a rugged figure, champion of the faithful worship of Yahweh in a time of corruption and going after foreign gods. Jezebel, wife of Ahab, a foreign woman, insisted as queen on maintaining the worship of her own gods. Her religious establishment consisted of some four hundred and fifty priests of Baal. Elijah inveighed against such inconstancy and ultimately challenged these alien priests to a contest on Mount Carmel, to prove which of the gods was strongest. He proposed that each build an altar, lay upon it wood for the fire, and on that place the victim, then call upon their respective gods to consume the sacrifice by setting the altar fire ablaze. It is the dramatic story told in I Kings 18: 20-46.
First to try were the priests of Baal. They gathered about the altar and prayed that their god would kindle it. Nothing happened. They danced in a frenzy about it, calling aloud for their god to hear them. Nothing happened. They slashed themselves with knives till blood flowed in streams. But still nothing happened. All this was not without encouragement from Elijah who shouted: "Call a little louder, perchance your god is on a journey or is asleep and must be wakened." Still the fire burned not, and at last they gave up. Now it was Elijah’s turn.
The altar was prepared; the wood placed upon it; then the sacrifice.
"Now," said Elijah, "dig a trench around it.
"Now pour buckets of water over it, more and more until the trenches be filled."
Wonderingly his helpers did as he bade them. Then Elijah prayed.
Suddenly the sodden firewood was ablaze upon the altar. It quickly consumed the sacrifice, and the trenches were dried up. The effect upon the crowd was electric. At the bidding of the prophet the people threw themselves upon the priests of Baal and destroyed them. So was Yahweh vindicated.
It was dramatic. It was brutal. It ill accords with the view of God as kind and loving and forgiving as he appears later. But it represents a stage on the way to the development of the higher concepts of God of the later prophets. Elijah plays a conspicuous role in Hebrew development.
Later when John the Baptist, forerunner of Jesus, appeared, it was said that he was Elias (Elijah) , who must first come before the Messiah. And in the transfiguration scene on the Mount, it was Moses and Elias who appeared transfigured to the watching disciples.
The first of the "writing prophets" was Amos who lived near the middle of the eighth century. It is his book which is regarded by modern scholarship as the oldest book in the Bible, that is, in its present form. Goodspeed’s Shorter Bible, which arranges the books in the approximate chronological order of their appearance, according to modern scholarship, places it first.
Like most of the prophets, Amos was a layman, not a priest. He was a man of the people, a sheep-herder and a trimmer of sycamore trees. He had an active, seeing mind, and time to think, and to ponder. His first public appearance was at a market town, Bethel, which already was a center of wealth, idleness, exploitation and other vices. He spoke not in the church, but in the marketplace where he would be sure to have an audience. More often than not the prophets were outdoor preachers, street-corner agitators, who took their message to the people where they were to be found in numbers.
"Jehovah," cried this countryman, "Jehovah will roar from Zion, and utter his voice from Jerusalem; and the pastures of the shepherds shall mourn, and the top of Mt. Carmel shall wither." At once he had their attention. Then skillfully he began to utter the judgment of Yahweh upon neighboring nations, Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab.
Thus saith Jehovah: "For three transgressions of Moab, yea for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof. . . . I will send a fire upon Moab and it shall devour the palaces of Kerioth: And Moab will die with tumult, with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet." It may have sounded strange in the ears of the Israelites that their God should be concerned about the sins of foreign peoples, for this idea was new at the time, but it sounded good to them. These people who had so often been their enemies had this judgment coming to them.
But suddenly the prophet turns judgment upon Judah, "For three transgressions, yea for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they have rejected the law of Jehovah and have not kept his statutes, and their lies have caused them to err, after which their fathers did walk. But I will send fire upon Judah, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem."19
The prophet was himself a man of Judah, though he was speaking in Bethel, a northern city. The people of northern Israel had often been at enmity with their brothers of the south. Judgment on Judah could well be applauded.
Then he turned his accusing finger at them crying, "For three transgressions of Israel, yea for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof. Why? Because they have sold the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes, they pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor, and turn aside the way of the meek; and a man and his father go in to the same maiden, to profane my name; and they lay themselves, down beside every altar upon clothes taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink the wine of such as have been fined.20
"Behold I will press you in your place as a cart presseth that is full of sheaves, and flight shall perish from the swift and the strong shall not strengthen his force, neither shall the mighty deliver himself."21
In oracle after oracle Amos proclaims the judgment of God upon his people. Yahweh has chosen them of all the families of earth, brought them up out of bondage, established them in a goodly land, yet have they forsaken his way.
"Hear this word, ye kine of Bashan . . . that oppress the poor, that crush the needy, that say unto their lords, Bring and let us drink. The Lord Jehovah hath sworn by his holiness, that, lo, the days shall come upon you, that they shall take you away with hooks, and your residue with fish hooks.22
"Woe unto them that are at ease in Zion . . . that lie upon beds of ivory and stretch themselves upon their couches and eat the lambs out of the flock . . . that sing idle songs to the sound of the viol . . . that drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the chief oils, for they are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph."23
It will not do simply to bring rich sacrifices. "I hate, I despise your feast, and I will take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Yea though you offer me your burnt offerings and meal-offerings, I will not accept them, neither will I regard the peace-offerings of your fat beasts. Take away from me the noise of thy songs, for I will not hear the melody of thy viols. But let justice roll down as the waters and righteousness as a mighty stream. "24
Here is the first outburst of many that were to be uttered by the prophets against empty formalism in religion to the neglect of moral issues. Jesus was definitely in the prophetic line when he poured withering contempt upon the religion of those who tithe "mint, anise and cummin, but neglect the weightier matters of the law."
"Seek good and not evil, that ye may live," cried Amos, "and so Jehovah, the God of hosts, will be with you as ye say. Hate the evil and love the good, and establish justice in the gate: it may be that Jehovah, the God of hosts will be gracious unto the remnant of Joseph."25
Amos was preeminently the prophet of justice, the moral quality upon which Judaism at its moral best has placed its chief emphasis, and he established this as the major character of Yahweh in his dealings with men.
If Amos was the prophet of justice, then Hosea, also an eighth-century prophet, must be characterized as the prophet of mercy or love. Out of a bitter personal experience of a wife who proved unfaithful, but whom he still continued to love, came the great insight into the nature of God as merciful and loving also.26
In a chapter so brief, no adequate impression can be given of any one, to say nothing of all the prophets, Isaiah stands out as one of the greatest and best loved of them. His call is perhaps the most dramatic of all. It is related in the sixth chapter.
"In the year that king Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim . . . and one cried to the other, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, all the earth is full of his glory.’" How many million times has the Sanctus been sung since then and thrilled the hearts of worshippers! "And the foundations of the threshold shook at the voice of him, and the house was filled with smoke. Then said I, ‘Woe is me! for I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips, and dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, Jehovah of hosts.’
"Then flew one of the seraphim unto me, having a live coal in his hand which he had taken from off the altar; and he touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin forgiven.’ And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then said I, ‘Here am I, send me.’"27
Of all the prophets who felt themselves called to be the spokesmen of God, Isaiah was the only one who seems to have received his call in the church. Most of them came to their call through some phase of their ordinary work-a-day life.
Isaiah lived in a time of turmoil and insecurity. His nation lay as a buffer state between the great rival empires of Egypt and Babylonia and was constantly under pressure to side with one or the other of these great powers. He became a counsellor to the king, and often gave his judgment as to foreign policy.
"Woe to them that go down to Egypt for help," he cries, "and rely on horses, and trust in chariots, because they are many, and in horsemen because they are very strong, but they look not unto the Holy One of Israel, neither seek Jehovah."28 Reliance is to be placed in Jehovah and in him only. God has become for Isaiah much more than a tribal figure. All the nations of the world sit under his judgment and he uses them to effect his purposes. Assyria becomes for him a whip-lash with which to scourge his people, Israel. There are oracles to a number of the surrounding nations, Egypt, Moab, Babylonia, and others.
If you would get a vivid picture of Isaiah at work, read chapters 18 and 19 of Second Kings. Assyria threatened invasion of Judah. King Hezekiah, terrorized at the prospect, called on Isaiah to intercede with Jehovah on behalf of the nation. Isaiah sent his messenger back with a reassuring message that the Assyrian king would return to his own land, and fall by his own hand. But other messengers from the Assyrian king threatening destruction, sent Hezekiah to the temple to pray earnestly to Jehovah. "Save thou us, out of his hands." Then Isaiah sent word to Hezekiah declaring that his plea had been heard and that Jehovah would utterly rout the enemy. "And it came to pass that night that the angel of the Lord went forth and smote in the camp of the Assyrians a hundred and four score and five thousand; and when men arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead men. So Sennacherib, King of Assyria departed". . . and was killed while worshipping in Nineveh. For a stirring poetic account of this episode read Byron’s The Destruction of Sennacherib.
Nor does Isaiah overlook the corruption and dissoluteness of his time, "Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with outstretched necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet: therefore the Lord will smite with a scab the crown of the heads of the daughters of Zion, and Jehovah will lay bare their secret parts. In that day the Lord will take away the beauty of their anklets, and the cauls and the crescents and the pendants and the bracelets and the mufflers, [etc., etc.] . . . Instead of sweet spices there shall be rottenness; and instead of a girdle a rope; and instead of well-set hair, baldness; and instead of a robe a girding of sack cloth; branding instead of beauty." 29
He, too, denounces formality in religion to the neglect of righteous living. "‘What unto me is the multitude of your sacrifices?’ saith Jehovah. . . . ‘Bring me no more vain oblations, incense is an abomination unto me. . . . Your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings . . . cease to do evil, learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, let us reason together; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient ye shall eat of the good of the land, but if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be destroyed with the sword, for the mouth of Jehovah hath spoken it."’30
Isaiah was dramatic in his utterances and his actions. He even gave his children symbolic names expressive of divine judgment. His sayings are rich in imagery. Perhaps he has been quoted more often than any other prophet.
But if Isaiah pronounces the judgment of God upon Israel, there is throughout a hopeful note that a remnant shall escape destruction and shall restore Israel, and there shall be a happy future for Zion!31 Here and there are found intimations of a Messiah to come to restore the Kingdom of Israel. Christians have seen in these passages a clear prediction of Jesus. For example, "And there shall come forth a shoot out of the stock of Jesse (father of David) and a branch out of his roots shall bear fruit. And the spirit of Jehovah shall rest upon him, and the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of Jehovah . . . with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth . . . and righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist and faithfulness the girdle of his loins.
"And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the suckling child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand in the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountains, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of Jehovah, as the waters cover the sea."32
The Jew, too, regards the passage as Messianic only he does not find its fulfillment, as Christians do, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
Even more cogent to Christians is the utterance in chapter 9. "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulders; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of government there shall be no end, upon the throne of David and upon his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness, from henceforth even forever."33 But to the Jew, Jesus does not seem to be the fulfillment.
Isaiah shares with a younger contemporary prophet, Micah, the vision of a peaceful world of the future when "they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and his fig-tree; and none shall make them afraid."34 A generation that has seen two world wars, and stands in fear of an imminent, and many think an inevitable, third world struggle, with the dread atomic power added to magnify its horror and destructiveness, reads the dream of the ancient prophet and sighs: "How long, O Lord, how long?"
There are many literary problems connected with Isaiah. Modern scholars are sure that it is not a literary unit. Some see as many as three and even five Isaiahs. But all are agreed that certainly from chapter 40 to the end cannot have been written by the eighth-century prophet. It is generally regarded as definitely post-exilic, i.e., after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., written by some unknown prophet of that period. It seems quite different in tone and in literary style. It is more advanced in its religious concepts. The idea of God has become completely universalized, and out of deep suffering have come new insights, particularly that of vicarious suffering which plays so profound a role in Christianity. Under the figure of the suffering servant, Israel appears in a new guise, suffering not alone for her own sins, but redemptively for the salvation of others. The classic statement of it most familiar to Christians, since it is the passage from the Old Testament most frequently read during the advent season, is the fifty-third chapter which can only be given in part here. It seems to Christians clearly to prefigure Jesus.
Who hath believed our report, and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness, and when we see him there is no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their faces; he was despised and we esteemed him not.
Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows . . . he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes are we healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and Jehovah hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, yet when he was afflicted, he opened not his mouth; as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that is dumb he opened not his mouth . . . they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death; although he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.., he was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bare the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors.35
Some have regarded this unknown prophet of the exile as the greatest of them all. Certainly he ranks high among them. In sheer beauty of style, and majesty of utterance, particularly in depicting God, he is not surpassed anywhere in literature. Passages too long for inclusion here which should be read to get the full flavor of the book are found in chapter 40, in which he sets forth the matchless power and wisdom of God, now no longer limited to race or territory. Nowhere in the Bible, unless in chapters 38-41 of Job, has it been done with greater skill than here. And it ends with the oft-quoted assurance, "But they that wait for Jehovah shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint."36 Read also chapter 41, and the three other great "Servant" passages, 42:1-4; 49: 1-8; 50:4-9.
Jeremiah was a prophet of the seventh century, prophesying just before and through the early period following the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. He is often called the weeping prophet, sometimes the prophet of doom. But he lived in perilous times. Doom of national hopes, even of survival, hung heavily over Judah during his years of active ministry. There was plenty to weep about. There were prophets of the day who were hopeful, optimistic, cheerful. But history has justified Jeremiah rather than they. He refused to cry "peace, peace," when there was no peace. He even dared to predict the destruction of the very temple of God and the destruction of the holy city. Seldom, if ever, had a prophet gone as far as that before. Naturally it brought down upon him the enmity and denunciation of the religious establishment of the time, in which many good solid conservative citizens joined.
It fell to Jeremiah, as to Isaiah, to live in a time of war and confusion. His problem, like that of Isaiah, was the political and international situation of the day. He knew the weakness of Judah and the enormous power of Babylon. He saw the futility of trying to solve Judah’s problem by violence and the resort to alliances with other powers against Babylon. Always dramatic, he one day appeared before the King with a wooden yoke about his neck signifying the servitude to which the Judeans would surely be subjected if they undertook rebellion against the Babylonian Empire. He was frequently persecuted. Once he was condemned to death and thrown into a miry dungeon. But he was released and lived to see his prophecy of Jerusalem’s utter destruction fulfilled. He was not himself taken to Babylon but, with a company of Israelites, went away into Egypt where he still continued to prophesy, first the destruction of Egypt, then later also that of the remaining Israelites. It is possible that in anger these people finally slew him.
In him writes Bewer, "all the best in Amos, Hosea and Isaiah were brought to full fruition. He spiritualized religion by separating it from all outward institutions, even the nation. They all perish but religion remains.37
He was deeply sensitive to the sin and suffering of his people.
For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt:
Sometimes the tragedy of life overwhelmed him and he felt that even Jehovah had deserted him.
Why is my pain perpetual
He even goes beyond that which Job refused to do, and cursed the day of his own birth:
Cursed be the day wherein I was born.
But even Jeremiah sometimes had visions of a better future for a remnant of Israel.
Behold the days come, saith Jehovah
Passages of beauty and power to read are: 8:4-9 :26, 13:15-27, 32, and 51.
Among all of the prophetic books, that of Jonah has been generally least understood. Because of the famous story of Jonah and the whale, it has been the center of not a little controversy. In the debate over whether a man could literally be swallowed by a whale, or a great fish, and live therein for three days, the real significance of the book has often been lost. Actually it represents the farthest reach of the Hebrew mind in the expression of universalism. Other prophets, notably Jeremiah and the second Isaiah, had clearly set forth a universal idea of God, but Jonah went beyond them in pointing out in practical terms the implications of that idea. If God is universal, then he is concerned about Nineveh, "that great city." He sends the prophet to call them to repentance. It is the first manifestation in the Bible of the missionary spirit. To be sure, Isaiah had prophesied that the nations would come up to Jerusalem and there learn of the Lord, but Jonah is commissioned to carry God’s message to them in their own country. Judaism herself never for long accepted such a task as its responsibility, but Christianity, growing out of Judaism, has been the most aggressively missionary of all the world faiths. Try reading Jonah again and forget about the whale story. Whether it is literally true, as conservatives believe, or an oriental tale, as modern scholars believe, told for the purpose of conveying an idea, does not really matter much. The idea at the heart of Jonah matters a very great deal.
This must suffice for a glimpse of the prophets, though it omits mention, even, of the great priest-prophet Ezekiel in the exilic period, and of a number of the lesser prophets. Daniel, which was written late, differs sharply from the earlier prophets, in that much of his prophecy was apocalyptic in character. But to this type of writing we will return later. Suggested passages for reading in various of the remaining prophets are indicated below:
Joel 2:28-32, 3:14-20
Under the prophetic influence religion took on a new character which was reflected both in the organized cult and in the formulation of civil as well as moral and cultic laws. These changes are reflected in a document found during the reign of Josiah by workmen who were repairing the temple. It made a deep impression upon the king who ordered a thoroughgoing reform in accord with its principles. The chief change lay in the centralization of the worship in Jerusalem, and the closing down of local shrines, where all sorts of abuses and corruption had crept in. This is thought to have been our book of Deuteronomy, or the Second Law. Later under Ezekiel’s influence a new Holiness code was written, which scholars believe is now to be found in Leviticus 17-26.
With the destruction of Jerusalem, Israel as an independent nation, ceased to exist. Even after the return from captivity and the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem and the temple, they were only a vassal people subject first to Babylonia, then to Persia as she swept westward and took over the empire of Babylon. Later as the Persians gave way to Greek power they were tributary to Greek kings, and finally to Rome, which eventually overcame the Greeks and became a world empire. Save for a brief flash of independence under the courageous Maccabees they were never again to be a free people -- at least not until, after nearly two thousand years of dispersion, they established the new state of Israel in 1948. It is too soon to predict how permanent this new state will be -- or how free!
Their distinctiveness lay now not so much in their nationhood but in their faith. They were the people of Yahweh. Neither Babylon nor Persia interfered with their religion. In this direction they must look, therefore, for any independence. As a natural result of this fact the priest became of paramount importance and priestly religion underwent a pronounced development. Judah became essentially a theocracy, and the chief priest the leader of the people. It became of the utmost importance to preserve and elaborate the cultic laws. The result of this, in time, was the preparation of what modern scholarship calls the Priest’s code, which was much more than a code of law, a whole rewriting of Hebrew history from the standpoint of priestly interest.
As might be expected it proved to be formal and precise, and altogether schematic. It abounds in lists of periods, and genealogies and stereotyped phrases which make it quite easy to detect. It began with the creation of the world, the first chapter of Genesis. Even there note the precision of the creative activity. It moves by days. Each day accounts for certain creative acts, and is neatly finished off with the phrase "and the morning and the evening were the first, etc., day." At the end, on the seventh day, God rests, and the Sabbath is born --certainly a priestly institution, or at least a day of vast importance to the cult which is the care of the priest. Even so, this particular chapter has a dignity and majesty about it that is unsurpassed anywhere. Certainly there are no equals to it in any of the subsequent priestly writings. The priestly narrative carries the story on down through the conquest of Canaan. At every point the legal, and priestly, cubic interest in the origin of a particular cult practice is evident. The building of the tabernacle is described with a degree of detail that quickly loses the layman’s attention. In the elaborate direction for the celebration of feasts and sacrifices it approaches what we have seen in the Brahmanas of India; albeit never quite achieving the utter, utter detail of those priestly directions. Just a brief paragraph from the ritual of the important day of atonement will suffice to give the flavor of it.
And Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting and shall put off the linen garments which he put on when he went into the holy place, and shall leave them there. And he shall bathe his flesh in water in a holy place, and put on his garments and come forth, and offer his burnt-offering and the burnt-offering of the people and make atonement for himself and for the people. And the fat of the sin-offering shall he burn upon the altar. And he that letteth go the goat for Azazel (the scape goat) shall wash his flesh in water, and afterward he shall come into the camp. And the bullock of the sin-offering, and the goat of the sin-offering whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the holy place, shall be carried forth without the camp; and they shall burn in fire their skins, and then their flesh and their dung. And he that burneth them shall wash his clothes and bathe his flesh, and afterward shall come into the camp.42
According to the priestly code, usually abbreviated as "P," all law, moral and cultic, had originated with Moses, although much of it is believed by modern scholarship to have been very much later in origin.
Under the leadership of Ezra this Priestly code had been adopted as their basic law. But the law of Deuteronomy was also important and had been combined by some editor with JE. It could not, therefore, be set aside or overlooked. Eventually a fusion of all of them together, with P forming the framework, was effected by some priestly editor, and thus, with some editorial additions, necessary in the process of combining them, was born the Pentateuch, or the Book of the Law, more or less as we have it today. However, editorial modifications continued to be made in it even down until after the time of its translation into the Greek about the middle of the third century B.C. The fusing of the narratives was probably accomplished by the middle of the fourth century and perhaps earlier.
During this period also the books of Samuel and Kings which had been worked over under Deuteronomic influence were subjected to further editing by priestly redactors. But the really priestly history is found in the books of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, which retell the entire history from the creation to the rebuilding of the temple, from the ecclesiastical point of view. One beautiful story, that of Ruth, seems to have been written as a protest against the narrow particularistic view developed in this period, especially in its prohibition of marriages to outsiders. Ruth is the simple story of a foreign marriage from which sprang ultimately the line of King David himself. If even the ancestry of David included a foreign marriage, could it be so bad?
As we saw earlier the very oldest preserved literature of Israel was in poetry, and the Hebrews continued to produce poetry of a high order all during their history. Fortunately several collections were made and included in the canon. Most notable was, of course, the Psalms, which have been read more widely and have been more influential than any collection of poetry in the history of the world. Christians as well as Jews have nourished their religious faith upon them. They are the part of the Old Testament most widely read by Christians. Often they are bound up with the New Testament or sometimes only the Gospels and Psalms make up a published edition. Also they are circulated quite alone in cheap editions for mass distribution. Somehow, although the poetic literature of a particular people, they have a unique ability to "find" people of all races and times. This is of course because they are an authentic expression of the universal religious longings and aspirations of mankind. The Hebrew poets have said so well and so unforgettably just what everyman desires and feels, that they have become the ready vehicle for the expression of his religious faith. That is why the Psalms dominate even the ritual of the Christian churches. Where has thanksgiving been more adequately expressed than in some of Israel’s songs?
Oh give thanks unto Jehovah;
the Psalmist cries in the 136th Psalm. "Thanks to him who by understanding made the heavens, that spread forth the waters, that made great lights, the sun to rule by day, the moon and stars by night." Read the whole of it. It is a beautiful litany recounting the many things for which man should be grateful, ending each separate mention of good things, "For his loving kindness endureth forever.
Or where has praise to God been more enthusiastically sung than here:
Praise ye Jehovah
Ye sea-monsters and all depths;
Read also Psalms 149 and 150 which ends:
Let everything which hath breath praise Jehovah.
Every mood is expressed in the Psalms -- sorrow, anger, hate, love, compassion, patriotic fervor, contrition, fear, trust, despair, hope.
Traditionally spoken of as the work of David, only a comparatively few Psalms are assigned to him in the editorial headings added by people long after the birth of the songs. That some go back to him may very well be true. His reputation as sweet singer of Israel was probably won in part by his poetic ability, and many songs which he did not sing have doubtless been attributed to him.
Some of the Psalms are individual expressions of the human heart. Some are national. It is not always possible to distinguish which is which. Psalm 137 was undoubtedly the expression of the collective soul in exile in Babylon, although only one person may have been moved to express it thus:
By the rivers of Babylon
Then the mood of nostalgia suddenly gives way to bitter resentment as he cries:
Oh daughter of Babylon, that art
Indeed, the mood of imprecation is not infrequent.
Let them be put to shame and
Let destruction come upon him unawares.
See also Psalms 58, 70, and 83. In one the Psalmist cries, "Break their teeth, oh God."45
Of lament or complaint there are not a few expressions such as Psalm 60 which begins:
Oh God, thou hast cast us off,
See also Psalms 79, 102, 130. Altogether some thirty-two Psalms contain such expressions.
A great many are didactic in character, sometimes meditations on religious and moral subjects. Best known perhaps is Psalm 1, which serves as a kind of introduction to the whole Psalter:
Blessed is the man that walketh
The way of the wicked shall perish.
Longest and most formal is the acrostic Psalm -- there are several others in the collection -- the 119th. This consists of a section for every letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and the first word of each line in that section begins with that same letter. Obviously this is for mnemonic purposes. The entire series is a meditation relating to the Law of the Lord. The first begins:
Blessed are they that are perfect in the way,
The second begins:
Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his ways?
Psalms of trust in God as refuge are numerous:
God is our refuge and strength,
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills.
Psalms of penitence and a need for forgiveness abound. We have already mentioned Psalm 51, traditionally attributed to David, but there are others. Psalm 130 voices the cry, not only of the Hebrew Psalmist, but of countless others burdened with a sense of guilt and a yearning for the peace of forgiveness:
Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, oh Lord,
O Israel, hope in God,
Best loved of all, and perhaps the most widely cherished poem of the human race is the 23rd Psalm:
The Lord is my shepherd,
Yea though I walk through the valley
It is said that when Alexander Woollcott, master story-teller, died, he expressed the wish that there be no religious service held for him. He only wanted that among other things Paul Robeson read the 23rd Psalm. Probably this Psalm has been read more often at the bedside of dying folk than any other poem ever written. It finds a universal acceptance, it seems, among people of every race and land, despite its birth among a simple pastoral people to whom pasturing of sheep and caring for them was an everyday affair.
The Psalms served many purposes. A great many were clearly for ritual use, Many litanies are found among them. They were sung sometimes antiphonally by groups of temple singers, to the accompaniment of musical instruments. Some were sung by pilgrims on their way up to Jerusalem for their temple worship.
The book was of slow growth and bears on the face of it the evidence of having been once five different collections but merged into one. Any revised version will indicate the breaks, the first of which is at the end of Psalm 41, which ends with a benediction.
Blessed be Jehovah, the God of Israel,
Some of the Psalms are very early. One is attributed, whether rightly or wrongly, to Moses. And some of them, on the basis of internal evidence, are quite late.
The Hebrew people, like most others, have a rich store of proverbial wisdom, mostly expressed in poetic form. Nameless were the authors who first gave them expression. Who, among any people, knows who first uttered some of the pithy, epigrammatic sayings that everybody now knows and uses? Benjamin Franklin has the reputation of a coiner of proverbs among us but mostly he only collected sayings that were the common property of people of the English tongue. Solomon was the reputed author of the Hebrew book of Proverbs. The collection bears his name. But while he may have given expression for the first time to some, or even many, of them, the editorial notes heading the sections and chapters ascribe many of them to other persons. As a matter of fact the book of Proverbs, as we have it, is a combination of several collections which probably existed separately at one time. Eight such collections can be discerned. Three of these are attributed to Solomon, 1-9; 10-22:16; and 25-29. Others are called Words of the Wise, 22:17-24:22, or Sayings of the Wise, 24:23-34, one is "the words of Agur," not a Jew but an Arab. Chapter 30-31:9, is designated as the words of Lemuel, the oracle, and chapter 31:10-31 is a remarkable alphabetical poem of unknown authorship, in praise of a worthy wife.
Here is to be found the ripe wisdom of a people, which has parallels among almost every people in the world. In general it is prudential wisdom, the expression of "that common sense and insight which is the basis of happiness and prosperity." There are some extended discourses upon a single theme, particularly in the first section, e.g., on the rewards of wisdom in chapter 3:13-26.
Happy is the man that findeth wisdom,
Length of days is in her right hand;
Her ways are ways of pleasantness
Chapter 5 deals with the perils of unchaste love:
. . .the lips of a strange woman drop honey,
Rejoice in the wife of thy youth.
Over and over in this section wisdom is exalted. In chapter 8 wisdom herself speaks:
I, wisdom, have made prudence my dwelling,
I love them that love me,
And those that seek me diligently shall find me (v. 17) .
I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning,
When he marked out the foundations of earth,
Now therefore my sons hearken unto me,
He that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul;
But the greater part of the book is made up of miscellaneous proverbs, to some degree related topically, as for example chapters 10-15, in general, contrast the upright and the wicked, in one form or another.
A false balance is an abomination to Jehovah
The merciful man doeth good to his own soul,
The thoughts of the righteous are just,
These are good illustrations of one of the several kinds of parallelism which constitute the genius of Hebrew poetry where neither rhyme, nor stress, nor the number of feet in a line is important. These represent antithetical parallelism. Synonymous parallelism is seen in these:
He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty;
a city (16:32) .
A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, And loving favor rather than silver or gold (22:1) .
Such a book is not meant to be read at a sitting or even consecutively, but in such a reading the average reader will be surprised to find how many of the sayings are familiar to him. He did not know they came from the Bible. Try it and see.
Another great poetic book of the Bible is Job, a dramatic poem of great power and beauty, the theme of which is the problem of suffering and evil. It is a problem with which every people that has advanced to the stage of reflective thinking has had to grapple. It was particularly true in the case of the Hebrew people, who had evolved a concept of a single God who was also good. If God is good, why should the righteous suffer? It was an old and widespread belief that the good prosper. They enjoy long life, prosperity and happiness. But so often fact and theory failed to meet. The Psalmist complains bitterly that the wicked flourish as the bay tree while, by rights, they should not do so, but should wither away. Why?
It is a pity that limitations of space do not permit a more extended treatment of this, one of the world’s great dramas. Briefly, Satan, who seems to have been of somewhat different nature than later he came to be, insists that a man will not serve God for nought. But says Jehovah, "Have you considered my servant Job?"
"Yes," replies Satan, "but he’s prosperous. Take away his goods, let him suffer, and see what will happen." A pact was therefore made that Job was to lose everything he possessed, and to suffer bodily affliction, short of death, in order to test him. Then, one by one misfortunes fell upon him, loss of property, loss of sons, bodily illness, until he was in a sorry state. But Job was unmoved. His wife even counselled him to curse God and die. But he only replied, "Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?" All this is told in the prose prologue.
Three comforters come, sit in silence looking at him for three days without a word, then begin to talk. Each, in his turn, speaks and is answered by Job. This is repeated thrice. In the course of it all the attempt is made to probe the depths of this perennial problem. Little advance is made over the old theory that suffering is the result of sin, though many changes are rung upon the familiar theme. He suffers; obviously he has sinned. Let him confess it and mayhap God will be merciful, and forgive, and restore him. But Job is stubborn. He has not sinned. He knows he has not. How shall he therefore repent? His misery is deep. There is no light.
Then a fourth speaker is introduced, Elihu, who does little more than repeat the charges of the others, and seems to be getting exactly nowhere. Scholars doubt that his speeches were a part of the original drama. There seems to be no answer to the problem. Then God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind (Chapter 38) .
"Who is this that darkeneth counsel
Or who shut up the sea with doors? . . .
Hast thou commanded the morning
Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? . . .
Where is the way to the dwelling place of light? . . .
Canst thou bind the cluster of the Pleiades,
Question after question rolls from the mouth of Jehovah, to which, of course, Job can give no answer. At last he cries out:
"Behold I am of small account
But God has not finished. Again out of the whirlwind he speaks and piles question on question to humble Job still further.
Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a fish hook?
Reference is here made to a mythical dragon of the ancient Babylonians, known also to the Hebrews. The description of his power and ability to destroy is magnificent:
"He maketh the deep to boil like a pot. . . .
Job is completely overwhelmed, and answers Jehovah:
"I know that thou canst do all things,
Wherefore I abhor myself
So the drama ends with no answer, other than that of faith and confidence in God who is too great and too wonderful to understand or comprehend.
Whether Job’s statement, "I know that my redeemer lives,"51 etc. was part of the original drama is doubted by scholars. The fact that there is elsewhere no suggestion that in a life hereafter, compensation for what is lacking here may be hoped for, indicates the late development of the concept of personal immortality among the Hebrew people. It probably indicates, therefore, the later addition of the intimation of immortality apparent in this saying.
Held by older scholars to be one of the oldest books of the Bible, modern scholarship places it among the latest.
The other poetic book, The Song of Solomon, or the Song of Songs, seems strangely out of place in the Bible. Save once, the name of God does not appear in the poem. It is on the surface a wholly secular poem of love, very earthy love. Some regard it as an erotic poem. How did it ever get into the Bible? Two answers seem possible. First its attachment to the name of Solomon, whose great prestige made its inclusion possible. But better, perhaps, it furnishes a vehicle for the expression of religious mysticism as no other part of scripture. The mystic finds no language so well suited to express symbolically the relationship of his own soul to that of God as the language of love, and here he finds it superbly used. So both Jewish and Christian mystics have used it across the ages.
For sheer poetic beauty it is not easily equalled. It presents definite literary problems. Some regard it as a drama and have, with some rearrangement of order, published it as such. Others have thought it rather a cycle of songs, sung at wedding time, as is still done in Near Eastern lands. This makes it easier to explain the disconnected character of the book. Whatever its literary origin or purpose, and whatever its literary character, it finally found a place in holy writ, though it was one of the latest to be accorded scriptural standing.
If one wants to read pure love poetry here it is. Regardless of its religious value, it is fine that it has been preserved. It is, at least, evidence of the presence of the romantic interest in ancient Hebrew literature.
Ecclesiastes represents the mood of disillusionment which comes soon or late to most peoples. It is not a dominant note, rather, on the other hand, a minor one. But the fact remains that some Hebrew writer, again supposedly Solomon, son of David, called here the preacher, came to think of life in terms of world weariness. "Vanity of Vanity, all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labor wherewith he laboreth under the sun? One generation goeth, another cometh, but the earth abideth forever. . . there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing whereof it may be said, this is new? It hath been long ago in the ages which were before us. . . . I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold all is vanity and a striving after wind. That which is crooked cannot be made straight, and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.
In much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. . . . Of the wise man even as of the fool there is no remembrance forever; seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. And how doth the wise die even as the fool! So I hated life because the work that is wrought under the sun was grievous unto me; for all is vanity and a striving after wind."52
Rather gloomy, isn’t it! No hope of an after life relieves the darkness. Either personal immortality was not known, or the writer did not believe in it. Nevertheless there are passages of rare beauty in the book and here and there the sun breaks through the clouds. Some scholars believe the more hopeful passages to have been later additions, rather than the work of the original writer, and that the book’s acceptance in the canon was largely due to these passages, more expressive of religious faith. That it was associated with Solomon’s name gave it added prestige.
Most famous perhaps of all the passages in the book is a part of the twelfth chapter.
"Remember also thy Creator in the days of thy youth before the evil days come, and the years draw nigh when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them," etc. Richly figurative is the language and deeply moving:
". . .Before the silver cord is loosed, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returneth to the earth as it was and the Spirit returneth unto God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, saith the Preacher, all is vanity."53
As the Jewish people fell more and more under the control of foreign powers their hope of a return to the glories of the Davidic Kingdom became more and more difficult to sustain. Certainly on the basis of merely human endeavor, it seemed an impossible dream. But religious faith was undaunted by this. It turned from self-dependence and began to look to God to bring to pass what man himself seemed incapable of realizing. The dream of an earthly kingdom gave way to an other-worldly kingdom, a Holy City, Jerusalem, in the heavens, which God, if not man, would establish.
This falling back upon the divine, together with the loss of confidence in man himself, was called the apocalyptic hope. God would break into the affairs of man in some cataclysmic fashion and bring to pass that which men yearned for but possessed not the strength, themselves, to achieve.
This note appears late in the Old Testament. There is a bit of it in Joel. But in Daniel the apocalypse is the most significant part. Written quite late, probably not far from the Maccabean period of revolt, it couches its hopes in a queer figurative language which becomes the earmark of apocalyptic writing. In the New Testament the book of Revelation is an example of the general apocalyptic type. Cryptic, hidden in its meaning, it was designed to inspire a faith in people who were in desperate straits, which would enable them to endure. There was a great deal of apocalyptic writing in late Hebrew and early Christian times, a natural outgrowth of a very bad time for both Jews and Christians. But most of it did not find a place in the canon.
Last of all the books to be accepted as canonical was the book of Esther. It is a fascinating book to read. It is an historical novel, excellent in its plot and its delineation of the chief characters, probably written as an explanation of the festival of Purim. Esther, a beautiful daughter of Israel, at the court of the Persian Empire, is enabled, through intrigue, to avert a pogrom which would have destroyed large numbers of her people. Gratitude for this fortunate outcome of a very serious situation, gave rise to the feast of Purim. Incidentally instead of being killed themselves, the Jews were permitted to slaughter a large number who were involved in the plot against them. It is a fiercely nationalistic book, quite out of keeping with the nobler ethical universalism of the greater prophets, but eventually it came to be included as canonical.
The growth of the canon we have already traced. It was a slow process. Books were not suddenly admitted or excluded. It was finally those which, in one way or another, received the consensus of approval of the group which were made canonical and so survived. Most of that which failed to get in the canon was lost until well down into the last centuries before the birth of Jesus.
The Apocrypha we have spoken of. These books survived chiefly because at least a part of the Jews regarded them as scriptural.
There was another group of writings which never did become canonical but played a very important role in late Judaism and early Christianity, for they were an integral part of the thought and outlook of the Jewish people which provided the background for the development of Christianity. These books, because they were usually attributed to some ancient worthy, who could not possibly have written them, came to be designated as the false writings or Pseudepigrapha. They richly repay the study of those who would understand late Judaism and early Christianity.
This brings to an end the discussion of the Old Testament which is the whole scripture of the Jew. There is no other sacred literature for him. The Christian has also the New Testament. But if there is no other really sacred, inspired scripture for the Jew, there is, nevertheless, a mass of writings which is supplementary to the scripture. This, the Talmud, has played an enormously important role in Jewish life.
We have already indicated that the Torah or the Pentateuch is the most basic of all scripture, and that it has become a dogma, that all the rest of the scripture is but an explanation of it. Obviously the law had to be explained. But also the later scriptures which ostensibly explained it, came in turn to require explanation. At first this explanation was informal in nature; but in the course of time it came to be stereotyped and formal. Early in the third century Rabbi Judah and his disciples put into written form much of this material, known as the Mishnah. It was divided into six main sections, dealing with agriculture; with prayer; with the Sabbath festivals, fasts, and holidays; with phases of family life such as marriage, divorce, children, etc.; with civil and criminal law; and with matters of ritual cleanliness or purity.
But in time and with changing circumstances, these rather brief statements came to require still further explication and adaptation to new situations, so the Gemara came into being, at first orally transmitted; but during the fifth century put into written form, in two different recensions, first by the Palestinian Jews, and later by Jewish scholars in Babylon. So there now exist a Palestinian and a Babylonian Talmud; but the latter is the more widely used in the present day. It is almost three times as long as that of Palestine. It contains a vast amount not only of legal material, but also, folklore, history, religion, medical lore, etc.
The Talmud represents the growing edge of Judaism, its thought and practice, through the early centuries of its dispersion among the nations of the world. It became the basis for Jewish life everywhere. Rabbis studied it probably more than they did the Bible itself, and today even in the liberal Jewish theological schools it is much studied by students preparing for the rabbinate. In medieval times, it was almost the sole basis of Jewish education, and it continued to be so down into the modern period, wherever Jews were confined to the ghettos of Europe and denied access to public educational institutions.
In the course of time, because of its great bulk, the essential requirements of Jewish life were separated out and written into a code known as the Shulhan Aruch, which is still observed by orthodox Jewish communities. Rabbis still study the Torah and the Talmud assiduously in the effort to find the answers to problems which the modern age thrusts upon them. Famous rabbis during the centuries have carefully considered questions, and formulated answers. These are known as Responsa. They have served and continue to serve the very useful function of enabling the Jewish community to make its adjustment to the changing demands of the world about them. These Responsa, never regarded as inspired or authoritative in any official sense, have nevertheless been an influential factor in enabling the Jew to come to terms with a world of change and at the same time to maintain a feeling of continuity with the past of his people. Unfortunately there is no body of the Responsa material available for reading in English.
What a story it is, that of the Old Testament! It is the history of a people, a history of the growth of a people’s ideas, particularly with reference to religion. It took almost a thousand years in the writing. It brought together not only history, but law, poetry, legend, story, proverb, drama, a strange collection in some respects. But somehow the conviction grew that behind all this, expressing himself through history, particularly that of the Jewish people, was the very God of the universe, and that he was the Lord of history; that he ruled the universe and man through laws, and that only through obedience to these laws could man live. The elaborate rituals and sacrifices, the detailed codes, were only means whereby man sought to set himself right in the eyes of God and so to achieve salvation. Some of it now seems to the modern mind to be outmoded, clearly dated, limited to a given time and place. But along with the non-essential and accidental elements, there is that which is timeless, and knows no limitation to any particular place or people. It speaks to the universal heart and so continues generation after generation to validate itself in the experience not of one man but the many. This is what makes it scripture and causes men to continue to read it and to say to themselves, this is the very word of God.
Part II: The New Testament
The New Testament is peculiarly the sacred literature of the Christians. To be sure they regard the Old Testament also as theirs, and find in it the inspired word of God. Ultra-conservative Christians are likely to consider any word found in it equally as valid as any word from the New, for it is all God’s word. But even these make the distinction that it is the Old Testament; that it refers to a "dispensation" now past; that Christians live under the "New Dispensation" ushered in by the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, who is the fulfillment of the hopes and prophecies of the older dispensation.
Liberal Christians value the Old Testament highly. It provides a background for an understanding of the New. It is of enormous importance as disclosing the long slow process of development that went on in the religious life of the Hebrews. Liberals are particularly appreciative of the profound insights that appear, especially in the prophets, and in some of the great Psalms; insights that are truly universal and timeless, and, therefore as valid today as the day they were uttered. They recognize that Jesus’ teaching assumed familiarity with the religious tradition of the nation. But they regard the New, not the Old Testament as the true expression of the Christian faith, and they feel obliged to test whatever religious or moral teaching is found in the Old Testament by the standards of’ the New Testament. They do not feel obliged to find in the Old Testament a foreshadowing of everything Jesus was and taught. The Old Testament has its own independent value without relation to the New, but it is not that of a final authority in matters religious and moral. The New Testament is in itself all that is necessary as a basis for Christian faith, but much light is thrown upon God’s dealings with man in the story of Israel’s halting and gradual discovery of the true nature of God as universal, not national; as law-abiding, not capricious; as a God of peace, not war; as a God of justice, love and mercy rather than of wrath, and vengeance. It proves an inexhaustible storehouse of story, song, proverb, sermon, expressive of the experiences of men from childhood to maturity, which makes it a valuable help in guiding people of our own day in the gradual maturing of their own religious faith. The Old Testament is not lightly to be set aside, nor is it likely to be. But it must always take a subordinate place alongside the Christian s own book, the New.
Some understanding of this point of view may be derived from current assertions of converts recently brought into the Christian faith from other world religions such as Hinduism. Not a few important leaders among these relatively new Christians fail to see why they should take over the Old Testament which was the way by which early Jewish Christians came to the New. Some are asking why they might not regard the sacred books of their own cultures as their Old Testament rather than the Jewish sacred book. At this late date in history, after belonging for nearly two thousand years to the Christian Bible -- for the Old Testament was of course the Christians’ only scriptures in the time of Jesus -- it is not likely that it will ever be set aside. Rather it will come to be thought of and appraised more properly in the light of the New, and continue indefinitely to make its contribution to the building of a world on the pattern disclosed in the New Testament. So believe so-called liberal Christians, at any rate.
The New Testament, as we have it, is a collection of twenty-seven "books." Actually two of these "books" can be typed each on a single sheet of paper. The Sunday edition of almost any of the great metropolitan daily newspapers contains a great many more words than the whole twenty-seven books put together. Catholics and Protestants differ in their canon of the Old Testament, but in the case of the New they are in agreement. Here they only differ in their translations.
The period of the growth of the Old Testament was perhaps a thousand years. The New Testament books were all written in something less than a century, though their canonization, as now determined, took a much longer time. The Old Testament is much richer in its variety of literary forms than the New. Nearly a half of the New is made up of letters, a form hardly to be found at all in the Old Testament. There is poetry in the New Testament, but no poetical book. There is dramatic material aplenty, but no drama. There are brief pithy sayings, many of them, but no book of proverbs. Strictly speaking there are but four main literary types, historical, biographical, epistolary, and apocalyptic.
The New Testament was written almost wholly in Greek. There is a difference of opinion among scholars as to whether the gospels may not have been first written in Aramaic, the language which Jesus and his disciples and the people of Palestine at that time generally spoke as their native tongue. But if there were Aramaic originals they have long since disappeared. The only ancient manuscripts we have are in Greek. But the Greek of the New Testament was not the Greek of the great classics -- far from it. For a long time it was simply thought to be Greek badly written, perhaps by people to whom it was an acquired tongue rather than their native speech. Greek was the lingua franca of the world of Jesus’ day, and was probably not spoken too well by the relatively poorly educated, early followers of Jesus. But Paul was a highly educated man and had grown up speaking Greek as easily as Hebrew. Later discoveries of all sorts of Greek material current in that day reveal that it was simply the vernacular tongue of the Hellenistic world, a new Greek that was being spoken in contrast to the older classic forms, for Greek was a living language and living languages are constantly subject to change. This Greek is now called the koine or Common Greek and there are special grammars and dictionaries of koine Greek as well as classic. The discovery of these new facts has thrown a great deal of light on the meaning of New Testament words and phrases that formerly were obscure or unintelligible, from the standpoint of classic Attic Greek. A writer in a current magazine article calls attention to the wide difference between our own contemporary spoken and written language. He calls the former "shirt-sleeve English." Most writers do not express themselves in writing as they do in speech. Less educated writers are more likely to do so. It appears that the New Testament writers wrote the language they spoke rather than writing in the more formal manner affected by the cultured writers of the day.
Why should they have done so? Probably because they were writing for a very definite purpose, to get a message across to people, most of whom were not the highly educated or the cultured folk of the time, but ordinary people who would understand it thus as they would not a more elevated style of writing. It has often been pointed out that most of the so-called books of the New Testament were not carefully wrought literary works, but something more in the nature of tracts, written to meet a special situation or a particular need. This would be particularly true of the letters, not only Paul’s, but most of the others, and certainly it would be true of the book of Revelation. To a somewhat lesser extent it would be true also of the gospels which were written not to delight the literary fancy of their readers, but each one to make known to some particular segment or other of the total population one who held for all mankind the very way of life itself, one whose coming was indeed good news to the world.
This does not mean that it was not good literature -- nor indeed great literature. Recall what was said concerning great literature in the opening chapters of this book. It may not be polished literature, it may not be learned writing, but judged by its power over the minds and hearts of successive generations of men and women of many races, it would be difficult to give it a lower classification. Much of it is simple, straightforward, direct, without adornment. Now and then Paul’s thought in the heat of creativity, runs ahead of his pen, and results in incomplete statements or leaps in thought, but he usually makes himself intelligible and, what is more, succeeds in communicating to understanding readers something of his own great spirit. Sometimes, too, in the very midst of his counselling of followers, he falls quite unpremeditatedly into the most elevated type of poetic discourse, as we shall see later.
The growth of the New Testament was gradual. It is not at all likely that even the finished writings, as we have them, are exactly the same as the original writers wrote long before. They underwent, in early years, no little modification at the hands of editors and copyists who did not hesitate to write into the text minor corrections or even comments, which later came to be incorporated into the writings, and indistinguishable, save to highly specialized scholarship, from the original. This was particularly true in the earlier day before the different books had come to be regarded as sacred, and therefore not to be changed in the slightest degree.
Certain it is that the writers of the books had no idea at the time of writing that they were producing scriptures that would be read for centuries and come to be regarded as the very word of God in every respect. Not that they did not believe in what they were writing and, to some extent even, that they were writing under divine direction or influence, but that the exact verbal form was literally directed by divinity would be very hard indeed to prove.
The final selection of just what books should be canonical and what should be discarded delayed long in coming. Different lists, accepted in one section or another of the church, but not in others, indicate that unanimity of choice was not easily reached. In the end the matter was determined by the consensus of opinion of the church as a whole. It is interesting that the Christian church as a whole was able to come to agreement in the end, as the Jewish church had not, so that there is but one canon of the New Testament, universally accepted. Differences within the church on the canon of scripture are on what shall constitute the Old, not the New Testament.
Differences between Catholics and Protestants in respect to the New Testament have to do rather with the approved text from which translations are made, and of course there are verbal differences in the authorized translations. The two great rival English translations are the nearly contemporaneous King James, or Authorized version, accepted by Protestants, and the Rheims, or Douay version of the Catholics, both now over three hundred years old. In the fourth century St. Jerome translated the entire Bible into Latin, which was then the Vulgate or common language of the western world.54 This served the church for centuries and at the Council of Trent was decreed to be the official version of the scriptures for the Roman Catholic Church. It was superseded in 1592 by a new edition prepared by order of Clement VIII which became the official Bible.
Meanwhile the Renaissance had turned attention once again to Greek culture and there was a revival of interest in the Greek language and literature. The great humanist scholar, contemporary of Martin Luther, Erasmus, made a study of extant Greek manuscripts of the New Testament and issued a reconstructed Greek text which Luther used as the basis of his great translation into German. Since that time Protestant scholars have not ceased to search for other ancient Greek manuscripts, to collate them, and to revise the text in accord with the findings of scholars in contributing fields. The result has been a constant revision of the Greek text, which has, in turn, been reflected in the successive versions that have appeared. Unembarrassed by any official fixing of the text by their churches, Protestant scholarship is free to take every advantage of new discoveries in the field of textual study, and to issue new translations whenever they seem to be called for.
The New Testament came into being as the result of the coming of Jesus and the tremendous impact which his life and teaching made upon those who came under his influence. Quite appropriately, therefore, the gospels which tell the story of his life and teachings stand first in the New Testament. But they were not the first books to be written, at least in their present form. It was the letters of Paul, the first great missionary of the new faith, that were first penned. The earliest was the first letter to the Thessalonians, according to most modern scholars, coming very near the middle of the first century. Chronologies differ slightly among scholars, some putting it as early as 44 AD., others in the early fifties. Paul died, it is agreed rather generally, about 64 AD., so all of his letters had been written some time before the earliest of our gospels was produced, namely the gospel of Mark, at a time not far from the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The others followed by an interval of several years, the Fourth Gospel probably coming down into the early part of the second century. To what extent Paul’s letters had been in circulation before the gospels appeared, scholars are not agreed.
But if the gospels, as we have them, came into being later than the Pauline letters, that does not mean that nothing had been written about Jesus until after Paul’s death. On the contrary they were on the way to being produced, and probably a good deal of the content of the gospels was circulating among the churches in written form long before the writers of our first three gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, gave them their present form. Only a superficial comparison of the four gospels reveals that the gospel of John stands alone as over against the other three. The latter can easily be put into a parallel arrangement, or harmony form, as it has come to be called. When this is done, as it has been many times, much material will be found in almost identical form in all three, a good deal more will be found common to two of them, and of course there is material peculiar to each of the three. John simply does not fit easily into such a scheme, since the amount of material found in it and in any one of the other three is so little, save in the story of the last week, that it is not worthwhile having a fourth column in the harmony. Because the three run so close together and "see together" the life of Jesus, they have been called the Synoptic Gospels. It is generally recognized by both modern and conservative scholarship that the Synoptics represent the earlier account of Jesus and his teachings.
How does it happen that we have three separate biographies of Jesus, agreeing even to the point of verbal identity at many points, yet differing in no small degree, one from the other? Were they written quite independently? Verbal identity would seem to preclude that possibility. If they were not, did one copy from the others or did they use the same source or sources? This is known to Biblical scholars as the "Synoptic Problem," and a vast deal of scholarly work has been done in an attempt to solve it. Needless to say no unanimous agreement has been reached as yet, nor does it appear likely that on every point it ever will be. The main lines of the solution are fairly well agreed upon by modern scholarship, but it must be said that conservative scholarship differs at many significant points in its view of the matter.
It is agreed by everyone that when Jesus died, there was no written record of anything he said or did. He himself wrote nothing of which we have record save in the story of the woman taken in adultery, reported only in the gospel of John, and this is not found in all the older manuscripts. There it is said that he stooped down and wrote in the sand, while the woman’s accusers slipped away, one by one, after Jesus’ remark, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." What he wrote, if anything, is unknown. At the first sweeping of the floor it disappeared. Nor had any disciple written down anything, so far as we know. In the first place few of them were men of education, accustomed to write. Furthermore, Jesus’ career had hardly begun before it was ended. He was young. It had not occurred to any of them that Jesus would so soon be taken from them. There was as yet no impulse to write down his sayings. So he died leaving no written records of anything he had said or done in the brief years of his public ministry. It all had to be recovered from the memories of those who saw and heard him. In this he was like all the other founders of religions with whom we have thus far dealt. How then can we be sure that what is reported of him is a true and an accurate account? Particularly, when such enormous importance is given to his words for doctrinal purposes, how can we have any certainty that the record is exactly correct?
Well, in all candor, we cannot be absolutely sure. But as to the main lines of his teaching and the effect it produced upon his contemporaries we can be certain enough for all practical purposes. The differing reports as to just what was written on the cross may leave us in justifiable doubt as to which, if either, report is exact, but the crucifixion itself is not thereby brought into question. As a matter of fact it really does not matter what the exact words were. The crucifixion itself is of paramount importance and there is complete agreement as to its having actually occurred.
In our modern day we depend so much upon note-books and written records that it is hard for us to see how people who did not have such helps could have preserved so much by memory and so accurately. But just the fact that we have these mechanical helps for recording everything, deprives us of the necessity of cultivating our memories, and so we do not easily remember. But this was not true of the disciples of Jesus, or Buddha, or Confucius. They were used to having to remember -- and so they remembered, and with a remarkable degree of accuracy, those things they had seen and heard.
There are a number of reasons for believing that the disciples of Jesus, and, for that matter, of Buddha, and Confucius, and Mohammed, remembered with substantial accuracy the more important things their Masters said and did. In Jesus’ case, note at least three considerations. In the first place the disciples of Jesus were with him for a period of from a year and a half to three years of his itinerant ministry. Jesus probably repeated some of his sayings over and over again as he talked to different groups of people. The writer recalls travelling as one of a group of speakers from place to place and of having to hear substantially the same speeches over and over again. Within a comparatively short time almost any of us could have given the others’ speeches almost verbatim. Repetition, then, played its role in the impressing on the minds of his loyal friends the important teachings of Jesus.
Second, note how considerable a part of Jesus’ teaching is couched in story form -- or in parables. Now a well-told and interesting story is very easily remembered, particularly if it is told repeatedly. Very quickly the story comes to be told in exactly the same words, and very quickly the hearers come to repeat it in almost the identical words. Have you ever told stories to small children, and then tried telling them in different language? The child will almost invariably correct one as to the exact language used in former tellings. Not everyone can remember even a good story, but if they can remember anything, they can remember a story better than almost anything else.
One day in a class I deliberately started out by telling a story. I purposely chose it from an area unfamiliar to most of my students so that the vocabulary and general setting would be outside of their ordinary experience. I did not tell them why I told it, made no reference to ever expecting them to remember it at all. Then I deliberately made a careful statement in clear logical fashion, using language, not beyond them, but somewhat formal, again without giving them any particular reasons for their remembering what I had said.
Several days later, I suddenly asked the class to tell the story I had told that morning. No one remembered the whole exactly as I had told it, but one helping or correcting another, they recalled the story in almost the exact words I had used in telling it. Then I asked them to tell me what I had said following the story -- and there was no memory of it at all. At least that class got the point of what I am saying. Stories are easily remembered, especially when they are as well told as the parables of Jesus, who was a master story-teller.
Who could easily forget the story of the woman who had lost a highly prized coin, who sought it in every corner of the house before she found it, and the joy she felt, leading her to call in her neighbors to celebrate the finding? Or the matchless story of the lost son, the prodigal son? You remember how he asked of his father that the estate be divided, took his share and went into a far country where he wasted it in riotous living and was reduced to the extreme -- he, a good Jew -- of feeding hogs. He came to himself saying, "I will arise and go to my father -- and ask to be taken on as a hired servant." But when he was yet afar off, his father saw him and ran to meet him; embraced him tenderly, and said, "Bring hither a ring for his finger and kill the fatted calf, and make a great feast for him, for this my son that was lost is found."
How easy to recall the Good Samaritan! A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, fell among thieves who wounded him and left him for dead. A priest came by, and a Levite, but neither stopped. Then came a Samaritan, a man of a despised race, and he had compassion upon the wounded man. He bound up his wounds, took him on his own beast to a town, left him at a hospice, paid for his lodging and went his way. Who then proved himself neighbor to the man who was robbed?
Such graphic stories are not hard to remember, and Jesus made much use of this device in teaching. Maybe the reason we have so much in story form and so little in the form of lengthy sermons or discussions is just because these were the things they could remember best.
Again, aside from the parables, there is a great wealth of two types of discourse which are especially easy to recall, the use of figurative language and the use of the aphorism or short sententious utterances which, heard but once, are easily remembered. First the use of figures of speech. Similes or metaphors are to be found on almost every page: "I am the vine, ye are the branches." "I am the good shepherd." "Consider the lilies of the field, they toil not, neither do they spin, yet I say unto you, Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." "Like a thief in the night." "A city, set on a hill." "A whited sepulchre." "The blind leading the blind." "The salt of the earth." The list could be lengthened indefinitely. Jesus knew how to make his thought clear and easily rememberable by using in figures of speech the common homely things of the everyday life of the people to whom he was talking. To the fisherman the Kingdom of God was like a "net cast into the sea"; to a farmer it was like the "sower who went forth to sow"; to the housewife like a bit of leaven or yeast; to the merchant like a "pearl of great price"; to the builder like "a house builded upon the rock," etc.
Like so many great teachers, Jesus had the knack of putting things in unforgettable, aphoristic form which, hearing only once, one could easily remember. The beatitudes are examples of this: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." "Blessed are the peacemakers." "Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted." The whole so-called Sermon on the Mount is a collection of such sayings, with sometimes a bit of further commentary. It has sometimes been conjectured that, so far from being in itself a sermon, it is a collection of pithy sayings perhaps used by Jesus from time to time as texts for longer discourses to his followers. The only point here is how easily they may be recalled. "If a man smite thee on the one cheek, turn to him also the other." "Love your enemies." "Pray for those that persecute you. By their fruits ye shall know them." "A house divided against itself cannot stand." "Ask and it shall be given you; seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you." "Judge not that ye be not judged." "Do men gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles?" And throughout the entire gospel record these brief, cogent, utterances are to be found. "Ye cannot serve two masters." "A city set on a hill cannot be hid." "Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them."
Surely, enough has been said to indicate that much of what is found in the gospels is of a sort that would require no unusual feats of memory on the part of followers, who by their very habits, were accustomed to rely heavily upon their verbal memory of what was told them. And in the early conversations they must have held concerning him whom they had loved so deeply and sincerely, but who was now gone from them, is it not likely that there would have been a tendency to correct a wrongly reported utterance, or an incorrect description of some of his activities, by others who were also privileged to have been present on the same occasion?
We must certainly assume that, for a time at least after Jesus’ death, there was only an oral tradition as to what he said and did. It was at first quite informal, and may have differed in some degree as it was told by different members of the original company of those who had known Jesus. But as it was repeated over and over again by those who had now become active witnesses of the new gospel, and were seeking to propagate it, it would have tended to fall into a more or less stereotyped form. Peter would probably have related much the same stories of his thrilling intimate contact with Jesus, and repeated, in nearly identical form, the sayings of Jesus as he remembered them.
It is almost impossible to avoid this even if its avoidance were desirable. We are creatures of habit. Let one who is accustomed to say grace at table reflect on how seldom he varies much the form of his blessing. Let any salesman reflect upon how quickly he falls into an almost unvariable "line," which he uses in trying to sell his article. It would seem most reasonable to suppose that each of the original disciples would formulate a fairly definite way of reporting Jesus’ sayings and doings. This might very well have been affected by the predominant influence of some of the more outstanding members of the group, like Peter for example. As new converts were brought into the nascent Christian group they would be obliged to accept the testimony of these disciples, never having known Jesus in person.
So there undoubtedly developed an oral tradition as an original basis for the formation of the gospels. How long before it came to be written down? That is a question impossible to answer. Some scholars of an earlier day thought that the gospels, as we have them, were simply the crystallization, in written form, of the oral tradition as handed down in the church. The differences in the three Synoptics were explained as being due to the possible variations in the tradition and to the personal factor involved in its being written by a particular person who had his own predilections and would choose out of the total mass what especially appealed to himself as most worthy of permanent record.
This might well enough explain the variations but could hardly account for certain observable facts about the three gospels. Verbal identity would not so likely be found if only taken from an oral source, yet there is a remarkable amount of verbal identity to be found. Also the fact of the peculiar order of the gospels which in general follow that of Mark, would not be so likely to occur. In this brief study there is not room to detail all the various theories or the arguments alleged in their favor or against them, put forward as solutions to the Synoptic Problem. The writer can only state rather dogmatically what seems to him the most likely steps in the process of making the gospels as we have them.
Oral tradition might have served quite well for the original disciples, for they had their own vivid memories of the few short months they had spent with Jesus. But after Pentecost the new movement became very active in preaching the good news. This led to persecution which, in time, led to the dispersal of the earlier followers into distant places. Soon there were converts to the gospel who felt themselves impelled to propagate the new faith. But they had never seen or heard Jesus. They had no memory of the forcefulness of his personality or the winsomeness of his appeal. They had only the oral traditions, as gotten from the disciples who had been instrumental in their conversion. And they were also persecuted and forced to separate themselves from the support and confirmation in the tradition, of those who actually knew Jesus. Thus it seems there would have been a comparatively early demand for some kind of a written source to which they could appeal. This demand probably gave rise to the first attempt at a written record. And there may have been not one such attempt, but several.
There is evidence in the gospel of Luke that this was actually so. Luke was not himself an original disciple of Jesus, but a convert of St. Paul, and one who accompanied him on at least some of his missionary tours. In the dedication of his gospel to Theophilus he takes occasion to say: "Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to draw up a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us, even as they delivered them unto us who were from the beginning eye-witnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having traced the course of all things accurately from the first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus: that thou mightest know the certainty concerning the things wherein thou wast instructed" (1:1-3) . E. F. Scott translates the phrase "in order" as "consecutively."56 Here Luke is saying simply that others, many of them, had written accounts of what Jesus said and did. Even if Luke were the latest of the four gospels, many would seem to be an exaggerated statement if he alluded only to these gospels as we have them, for that would be but three. But it is held generally that John is later, so there would be but two, Matthew and Mark, unless he had in mind other writings of which we have no record. Scott points out that Luke regards these former accounts as already second-hand reports of things transmitted to them by the first-hand witnesses. He, Luke, himself, has examined a variety of sources and proposes to write consecutively of the life and teachings of Jesus, a more complete and adequate account than that of earlier writers.
If there were any such writings, they have long since vanished, but modern scholars, painstakingly comparing the three gospels, have come to the conclusion that there must have been a primary source from which the various authors of our present Synoptic gospels have drawn. This, it is believed, consisted mainly of sayings of Jesus rather than an extended and orderly account of his life. When one stops to think about it, that would be the natural thing to expect. Events are much more easily recalled than utterances. Besides, the utterances do not depend for their value or validity on a knowledge of the exact occasion on which they are spoken. Matthew and Luke recount many of the same sayings, but in quite different settings, showing either that they depended upon sources which differed, or that they were relatively indifferent to the time, the place, and the occasion on which the utterances were given, and so felt free to group them together topically as seems to have been Matthew’s scheme, or to fit them into another and different appropriate setting, as in Luke. Then, too, we must recognize that the gospel material was adapted to the new interests and functions of the early church.
Accordingly, this source has been variously named the Logia or Sayings, but rather more generally, simply, and perhaps more appropriately, since its exact content is not known, as the Q source, after the German word, "Quelle," which means source. But was "Q" the only such source? Not necessarily at all. There is no reason why there may not have been several other like documents in Luke’s time. Where, for example, did Luke get most of his material for his magnificent chapters 10-15 which contains some of the most highly regarded teachings of Jesus not found in the other gospels? Here one finds the parable of the Good Samaritan; here also one finds the parable of the Prodigal Son. Why would Matthew or Mark have omitted such a rich vein of material if they had known about it?
It seems evident that there were other sources. Whence Luke’s incomparable early story of the annunciation and the Magnificat, found only here -- quite different from the Matthew account of the birth and infancy of Jesus. It has been suggested that "Q" may have existed in various forms in different sections of the early church. This does not seem at all an unreasonable suggestion, for the whole Christian gospel must have been in a fluid state for years before it took the form in which it has come down to us. But there is no reason to suppose that even if this were true of "Q" there may not have been other written sources as well. A saying of Papias, an early church father, about the middle of the second century, has it that "Matthew composed the Discourses in the Hebrew language and each one interpreted them as he was able." This was formerly thought to apply to the gospel of Matthew as we have it, but is probably a better description of some such sayings source as our "Q," which Matthew may well have been the first to write down. He was a tax-gatherer and would probably have had more education, and a more ready disposition to write than most of the other humble folk, fishermen, and artisans who composed the twelve.
At all events, whether rightly or wrongly, modern New Testament scholarship has almost unanimously agreed on the existence of at least one "Q" and perhaps others as well, upon which the gospel writers drew for much of the material of the gospels.
For Matthew and Luke the gospel of Mark seems clearly to have been a major source. It is estimated that fifteen-sixteenths of it is found in one or the other or both of the ether Synoptics. Furthermore, it is generally agreed by modern scholars that Mark provides the framework for the other two. It is in general the order of Mark that the others follow. There is much digression in both. That is to say, a great deal of new material is introduced into the narrative by both Matthew and Luke, but at the end of a lengthy section of new material the story usually is taken up again where it was left off, and follows the Marcan order. Scott points out that, in the use of Mark, Matthew breaks it up into five sections, and between each inserts a body of Jesus’ sayings, while Luke follows Mark closely up to 9:50, then in the nine succeeding chapters introduces material unknown to Mark.57 Following this he returns to Mark’s order, taking up at the point where he had left off. Also when Matthew and Luke agree, they are usually found to agree with Mark, and where they differ, as they do to a considerable degree, either one or the other agrees with Mark.
In summary, then, it may be said that our gospels, appearing more than a generation after the death of Jesus, do not represent merely the hazy memory of aged men writing down what they remembered of a distant past, or merely the floating legends of a dead hero, but rest back upon written documents which gathered up from many sources the sayings and doings of Jesus as remembered and told by many different people who had seen and known him, It is not a complete picture of Jesus, nor a complete transcript of all he said, but that it is a measurably accurate account of some of the things he did say and do, there can be no reasonable doubt. The modern critical study of the gospels has made the historic Jesus no mere figment of the pious imagination, but a living figure who, at an historic moment in time, appeared in Palestine, lived his brief but tremendously significant life, and gave rise to a vigorous new religious movement that has in time become the most widespread of all the religions of the world.
With this general overall picture of the process which produced the gospels we may look briefly at each of them in turn.
Concerning the gospel of Mark there is a very old tradition that Mark, not himself one of the twelve, but a young man who saw Jesus often in his mother’s home, and must have been a follower; who later was for a time a companion of Paul and Barnabas; and still later became the interpreter of Peter; wrote down at last what he had so often heard Peter say about Jesus. It was Papias, already quoted concerning Matthew, who wrote, about 140 A.D., reporting the statement of an elder who had told him many things about the early church:
"Mark, who had become the interpreter of Peter, wrote accurately, but not in order, all that he remembered concerning the Lord’s sayings or doings. For he did not hear the Lord or accompany him, but was later, as I said, a companion of Peter, who offered his instruction as occasion required without attempting to frame an ordered account of the Lord’s sayings. . . " Thus Mark’s gospel is in a sense the memoirs of Peter concerning Jesus. It is perhaps because of this tradition and the great prestige of Peter in the church, that this gospel, which is so much more meager, in what it reports of the teachings of Jesus, survived in the church, after Matthew and Luke came into circulation. Add the fact that the gospel was almost certainly written for Gentiles, not Jews, and the tradition that connects it with the Roman church which Peter reputedly founded, and it can well be understood why it was preserved, for very early the Roman church was influential in the affairs of Christendom.
Mark’s gospel may well be based upon the memoirs of Peter. It has been pointed out that the narrative begins properly at the point where Peter enters the scene -- that incidents in which Peter figures are told in greater detail than others, especially those associated with the period of Capernaum, where he stayed in Peter’s house. But scholars think that Peter’s memoirs were added to from other sources, including possibly "Q," by others than Mark; that these formed the nucleus of the gospel which was expanded by a later editor to the form in which we have it. Even so this occurred before the writing of Matthew or Luke, who seem to have used Mark substantially in its present form.
Compared with the other gospels, Mark is a more or less straightforward narrative of Jesus’ life, with a minimum of teaching material included. There is a directness about its language, particularly in the time sequences, that is lacking in the other gospels. "And straightway on the sabbath." "At even when the sun was set." "And he went forth by the seaside." "And he goeth into a mountain." "And he went out from thence." On the whole, while the Papias tradition asserts that he did not attempt to write "in order," Mark’s gospel provides the best historic framework for the life of Jesus, and is generally followed by the other two Synoptics.
Though the narrative is swift and direct with no attempt at literary embellishment, there is a descriptive vividness about it which is striking and refreshing. It is a real experience to sit down. with the gospel of Mark and read it through at a sitting without interruption. But if the book is largely narrative, it is narrative with a purpose. Mark is concerned to make clear that Jesus was the Messiah and that he came to preach the Kingdom of God. While probably Mark gives a clearer picture of the human Jesus than any of the gospels, he also presents him as Lord.
Matthew’s gospel was for centuries thought to be the earliest of the gospels and still is so regarded by many conservative scholars. Mark was thought to be a shorter resumé of Jesus’ life and teachings, more simply written, and based upon Matthew. We have seen that modern scholarship has reversed the order and makes Mark a major source of Matthew who, while generally using Mark’s gospel as a framework, has incorporated large bodies of material not known to, or at any rate not contained in Mark. Apart from the other evidences which support this view the literary style of Mark, which is much less refined than that of Matthew, would seem to argue against its being taken from Matthew. It is rarely the case that a well-written work is so revised as to produce a cruder one.58
Even a very superficial comparison of Matthew with the others reveals his peculiarities in the handling of his material. Most notable, perhaps, is his very frequent use of the phrase "in order that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet." He seems anxious to show that Jesus in his life and teaching was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. This would have no meaning for those to whom the Old Testament was either unknown, or of no particular importance. It would be highly significant to Jews, who cherished the Old Testament as the basis of their religious faith. The gospel, therefore, is clearly written primarily, not for Gentiles, but Jews. This Jesus who came and lived among them was not the enemy of the Jewish faith that he was being represented to be. On the other hand, he was the very fulfillment of what the prophets had so long foretold as the hope of the restoration of the people of Israel. When, for example, Jesus entered triumphantly into the city of Jerusalem amid the acclaim of the multitudes, riding upon an ass, he was but fulfilling the word of Zechariah written centuries before, "Behold thy king cometh unto thee, meek, and riding upon an ass and upon a colt, the foal of an ass."59
A second peculiar feature is Matthew’s way of grouping sayings together, as if in one discourse, which Mark and Luke report as having been uttered on quite different occasions. Now, it is not inherently impossible that Jesus might have uttered the same words on various occasions; he probably did; but the more or less obvious relating of sayings together which while similar in import do not necessarily grow one out of the other naturally, makes it much more likely that the author was grouping them for a special purpose -- that of teaching. Matthew has well been called the teaching gospel.
The most notable example of such grouping is the so-called Sermon on the Mount, where within the compass of three chapters, is brought together what are generally regarded as the major ethical teachings of Jesus. It begins: "And seeing the multitudes, he went up into the mountain, and when he had sat down his disciples came unto him; and he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:" Then follow the ten beatitudes. Why ten? Could it be because there were ten commandments? It has been pointed out by scholars that the book of Matthew as a whole falls into five main sections each closing with the words, "And when Jesus had finished these sayings," 7:28, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1, 26:1. These, togetherwith the story of the birth and infancy at the beginning and of his death and resurrection, make up the gospel. Why five sections? Could it be in correspondence with the five books of the Law? For Matthew, the gospel constitutes a New Law, which had superseded the Old Law. Would it not be natural to divide the New Law into five books also? There may be nothing to the suggestion; but the ten beatitudes and the five sections of a book by one whose Jewishness stands out throughout the gospel, would not seem at all out of character. If the Bible were not so accessible to most readers of this book, it would be fitting to transcribe here the greater part of the Sermon on the Mount.
If one wishes to get at the heart of Jesus’ teaching quickly, he can do no better than to read this so-called sermon. It is quite the most revolutionary document in the entire Bible which has, as a whole, been called a revolutionary book. These three chapters cut sharply across most contemporary practice of the Christian world, especially in respect to our international relationships, which seem to be based primarily on force as the ultimate appeal. Though the Sermon has been publicly acclaimed as the ideal basis for national and international policy, if peace is to be had, there is little in the actual working policy of any so-called Christian nation that remotely approaches it. And even in individual behavior, where does one see it practiced in our day? It will not do to say that no one really takes it seriously, for example in his personal relations with others, for many individuals do live in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount; but they constitute a very small minority. Let it be suggested that Jesus really meant it when he said "turn the other cheek," and the majority attitude is either that Jesus really did not mean it to be taken literally, or else the frank avowal that at that particular point Jesus was an impractical idealist and, at the most, meant this counsel only for those alive at the time and during the brief interim before the anticipated early end of the age. And many who admire it as an ideal to be achieved in individual behavior, still doubt that it can ever work at the international level.
Mr. Gandhi, a Hindu, who had behind him a long-time and widespread tradition of non-violence or ahimsa, loved the Sermon on the Mount. He acknowledged that it was this, indirectly at least, which led to his adoption of the non-violent method of seeking ends he cherished, rather than resorting to violence. The outstanding victories which he won without doing physical violence to any enemy, particularly the winning of independence for India without striking a single violent blow at Britain, has quickened the faith of not a few Christians, who see no way out of the fearful threat of destruction of everything the world values, if violence be man’s ultimate reliance. It encourages them in their belief that in the adoption of Jesus’ way of non-violence and love lies the only salvation of our very lives and all of our cherished values, from total destruction.
But with the communist world threatening to engulf western civilization, as well as the East, where it has already won signal success as in China, even devout Christian men and women feel driven to fall back upon bigger and better atomic bombs and other means of mass destruction as the only guarantee of self-preservation. It would take great faith, and enormous skill and patience and love, to undertake to deal, let us say, with Russia, on any other basis, but in the end what other hope is there? Does anyone living now believe that security and lasting peace can be had on the basis of ever-increasing destructiveness and terror? Maybe Jesus did have the way out. "Love your enemies!" If one did so, really, one wonders if he would have any enemies very long.
At any rate, it is easy to see that here is a set of sayings which would quite revolutionize human society if they were put into practice. It is a new law Jesus announces. "You have heard that it was said of old time.., but I say unto you." It is the law of love. He did not go on to spell out in a detailed code exactly what must be done in every situation, and so create the possibility of a new if refined legalism, but he set a new principle, provided a new motivation, which must work itself out in appropriate ways as men face the perplexing problems of individual and social life. Read the whole of it and try to imagine what kind of a world it would be if men lived after the pattern here set forth, rather than on the basis of the conventional morality of our day.
There is undoubted advantage for teaching purposes in this bringing together of matter similar in character, rather than allowing the separate sayings to appear singly, in isolation from the rest. Of course literary arrangement follows the purpose of the author. If it is simply to narrate what happened, when and where, then the other method is quite proper. If the portrayal of a personality is the end, it may be the better way. Matthew seems to have been primarily interested, not so much in the person of Jesus as in his teachings. Other groups of sayings are to be found in chapter 23, where he strikes out at the Pharisees, while his apocalyptic utterances are grouped in chapters 24 and 25. He also groups most of the miracles in one section.
Matthew is unique also among the evangelists in his concern for the church. He is the only one who specifically mentions it.60 It is clear that he regards the teachings of Jesus as the New Law for the church, just as the Torah was the Law for the synagogue. His gospel probably was used more by the church than either of the other Synoptics.
We have already seen that the gospel in its present form is based upon written sources, certainly upon Mark and "Q." The latter may have been originally collected by Matthew, and so have given his name to the gospel. Tradition has it that the gospel was written in Antioch -- but there is no proof that the tradition is true. However, no other place of origin can be certainly fixed. It is later than Mark, which would mean certainly some time after 70 A.D. How long a time would be required for the new gospel of Mark to acquire a standing which would warrant the compiler of Matthew to make it really the framework of his own gospel, it is difficult to say. It is variously dated by modern scholars from the late seventies to the early nineties.
The gospel of Luke is really the first of a two-volume history of the rise of Christianity. Volume II is known as the Acts of the Apostles, but deals chiefly with the activities of but Peter and Paul, the most outstanding figures. In the prologue of Acts the writer begins: "The former treatise I made, O Theophilus, concerning all that Jesus began both to do and to teach," etc. This is clearly a description of the gospel of Luke, which, as we have before seen, is dedicated to Theophilus. We may, therefore, speak of Luke-Acts as a literary unit, in two parts, which carries the story of nascent Christianity from the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus down to a time when Paul was a prisoner in a Roman prison, awaiting consideration of his case by the emperor, to whose judgment he had appealed the case, tried in the court at Caesarea Philippi. It is just possible that Luke intended writing a third volume to carry the story on to a later period, possibly including the further itineraries of Paul, should he indeed be set at liberty. But Paul was executed, probably without being freed for further work, though a tradition exists that he was set free, went to Spain, as he had hoped, and continued preaching until he was again arrested, and this time put to death.
Scholars, both conservative and liberal, are agreed that Luke was the author of both books, though there is no indication in either as to whose pen it was that wrote it. A very old tradition attributes them to Luke, a physician, known from Paul’s letters to have been a companion in some of his journeys, though his name does not appear in the Acts at all. There are, however, some sections of the Acts which are written in the first person plural, indicating that the author was one of the travelling companions of Paul during part of the time. Without the tradition it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to fix upon the one individual of all his company who might have written both documents. But with the tradition given, it is not difficult to find evidence supporting the Lukan authorship. Luke was a physician, therefore an educated man. He did accompany Paul on some of his journeys. Luke was a Greek. He would, therefore, have been able to write Greek more easily and correctly than a native Jewish companion. The Greek of Luke-Acts is the finest to be found in the New Testament. Others point out the extreme interest the gospel of Luke shows in the diseases of which Jesus healed people. This would be natural in a physician. So one evidence after another tends to corroborate the tradition. Furthermore, no one else has been suggested as so likely a possible author. Of course, there is always the possibility that Luke had only kept a diary of the events which occurred while he was with Paul, and that someone may have had access to this, as well as to other materials, when he sat down to write. But this seems most unlikely, since linguistic specialists agree very well that there is no substantial variation in literary style in the "we" sections and the rest of the Acts and the gospel -- and no one seriously distinguishes stylistic differences between Acts and the gospel.
We have already seen that Luke made a frank use of sources -- several of them, none adequate, as he felt. Hence he himself would, having carefully looked over the field, put the whole in order. He comes nearest to the method of a modern scientific historian of any of the gospel writers. He made large use of Mark, as a framework, though his independent judgment is shown now and then in his variations from the Marcan sequence, or, for example, as to where Jesus’ ministry was begun; he puts it in Nazareth while Mark puts the Nazareth incident at a much later period of his ministry. He makes large use of "Q," for we may confidently assign all the parallels to Matthew’s material to the "Q" source. But he has a great deal besides. His infancy stories differ from those of Matthew. He alone tells the story of Jesus as a lad in the temple, the only glimpse of him afforded by any gospel between infancy kind his baptism by John the Baptist, and the beginning of his public ministry. There is so large a body of material peculiar to Luke, about two-fifths, all told, that sometimes scholars, for want of any more adequate explanation, assign it to "L," a special Lukan source.
Regardless of whence it came the author has woven the various strands into perhaps the best biography of Jesus that the New Testament affords. He writes with a literary charm unequalled in the other gospels. His figures live. He seems very much interested in persons, has sympathy for them and understanding. He is noted for the attention given to the women characters who enter the scene. His interest in the poor and the underprivileged is noteworthy. It may not be without significance that the beatitude, "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom," is given in Luke simply as "Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
One of the questions that has puzzled some scholars is as to why the author, if Luke, and therefore a companion of Paul, shows so little of the influence of Pauline theology in his writings. But as a matter of fact Luke was simply a layman, not primarily concerned with theological questions. He writes not as a partisan, propagandizing for a particular point of view, but as a biographer setting forth the facts as he found them reported in his sources, or in the Acts as an historian, reporting the developments as they occurred. Of course he does follow Paul in his universal view of the gospel, as meant not for a particular people but for the world, and in the book of Acts tells the story of the struggle through which Paul went in emancipating the gospel from the particularism which threatened to limit its outreach, and making it truly a world religion.
As has already been remarked, there is comparatively little poetry in the New Testament. One wonders why. Possibly the rich heritage of poetry in the Old Testament was adequate to express most of the religious emotion of the early Christians, especially since they felt that the coming of Jesus lay not outside the traditional faith, but was rather its fulfillment. But now and then a poem is included, in Luke more often than in the other gospels. Two appear in the birth and infancy sections. One, the Magnificat, is of singular power and beauty. It is the song of Mary:
My soul doth magnify the Lord
There is a sonorous quality about it reminiscent of some of the great Psalms. Did Luke compose it, or was it already a part of one of his sources? The reference to filling the hungry and sending the rich away empty is definitely in the Lukan spirit.
He also includes another poem, the utterance of Zacharias, father of John the Baptist. He had been deaf and dumb, but at the birth of the child his tongue was loosed and "filled with the Holy Spirit he prophesied, saying:"
Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel
The gospel of Luke has been dated by modern scholars all the way from a little after 70 A.D. to the middle nineties. There is no certainty as to just when it appeared. The same considerations mentioned in connection with Matthew lead to its dating thus. The Acts of the Apostles was written later, but how much later it is impossible to say. It was a valuable service which Luke performed in giving us his gospel and history of the early church. It was not a complete history, and perhaps not even a wholly accurate history. It is certain that it is not always in agreement with what is found in the letters of Paul which were written a long time before Luke wrote, and by a major figure in the early history of the church. But it is the earliest connected story we have of the movement growing out of Jesus’ appearance, and the only one that was written so close in time to the events narrated. It was not until the time of Eusebius, c. 263-c. 340 A.D., that another studied attempt to write a history of the church was made. Aside from these works the historians of the church today must reconstruct the unfolding life of the movement from such scattered notices as may be found in the well-authenticated early writings of Paul and the other apostles and early leaders of the church in the post-apostolic age, by sifting a great mass of accumulated tradition, of very uneven value, for some kernel of fact.
The debt of the church historian to Luke, therefore, is very great for having written the gospel and the Acts. If time does not permit the reading of the entire book of Acts, read at least the story of Pentecost in chapter 2, a turning point in the experience of the discouraged followers of Jesus, and the real beginning of the Christian church. This includes the fiery sermon of the formerly vacillating Peter who is now as bold as a lion. Chapter 7 is the story of Stephen who became the first among many martyrs to the faith. Just at the end of that chapter, Saul, later Paul, is introduced. His conversion is told in chapter 9, certainly, one of the most important events in the history of the early church. Chapter 10 tells the story of Peter’s conversion from Jewish particularism to a recognition of the universal nature of the gospel. It was a great step for Peter, the Jew, to cry: "Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons; but in every nation he that feareth him and worketh righteousness is acceptable to him" (v. 34-35) . The account of the first council of the church is given in chapter 15. In this council an agreement was reached between Paul and the leaders of the church in Jerusalem that officially broke down the wall of particularism around the growing Christian faith, and made it truly a universal religion. Said James, the head of the church in Jerusalem:
"My judgment is that we trouble not them that from among the Gentiles turn to God, but that we write unto them that they abstain from the pollution of idols and from fornication, and from what is strangled and from blood." That is, they need not become Jews in order to become Christians, but they were cautioned against idolatry and certain other practices, moral and dietary. The elders even set apart Paul and Barnabas and others to go and work among the Gentiles, giving them a cordial letter of introduction and greeting. Christianity was definitely on its way to becoming a world religion. All the rest of the book of Acts is the story of Paul’s mission to the Graeco-Roman world -- and an interesting one it is. Read his visit to the center of culture, Athens, and his speech on Mars Hill, chapter 17:16-34. His stay in Ephesus, where he was involved in a riot, is interestingly told in chapter 19. Mobbed in the temple at Jerusalem, he was rescued by a captain of the Roman constabulary. He asked for a chance to make a defense of his position and was given permission. Standing on a stairway of the barracks, he addressed the mob, as told in chapter 22, in the course of which he recounts once more his conversion. Most of the remainder of the book deals with his various trials and imprisonment and his appeal to the emperor, which as a Roman citizen he had a right to make. Chapter 26 is his defense before Agrippa, a model of effective public speech.
Why the book ends where it does, with Paul in prison awaiting judgment, it is difficult to say. Even if Luke had had the intention of writing a third volume, it would have been more natural to have ended this one with the apostle’s release from prison, unless he had done the writing while the outcome of the appeal was still unknown. But scholars are agreed that the book could hardly have been written so early, since it presupposes the gospel, which is usually dated as late, at least, as 70. It is possible that more was written, but that some accident destroyed the last part of the manuscript, as seems to have happened in the case of Mark, of which the portion from verse nine of chapter 16 to the end is not found in the two oldest Greek manuscripts. It has quite a different ending in some other manuscripts.
Paul’s letters form a very substantial part of the New Testament. Thirteen are definitely attributed to him, and for centuries the letter to the Hebrews was also thought to be Paul’s. While in the older versions of the New Testament it is still attributed to him, it is now the almost unanimous opinion of scholars, conservative as well as liberal, that he could not have written it. The thirteen are, in the order in which they appear in the canon, the letter to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, one each to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, two to the Thessalonians, two to Timothy, one to Titus, and one to Philemon. The last four named are letters to individuals, the others to various churches.
Paul, whose story is told in the book of Acts, was not one of the original followers of Jesus. He may never have seen him, though it is possible that he was a student in Jerusalem while Jesus was still alive. He was born of Jewish parents, in a provincial city, Tarsus, in Cilicia, but enjoyed Roman citizenship, a fact which was to stand him in good stead many times during his career. He represented in himself the fusion of two great cultures, the Hebrew and the Greek, so that he was well prepared for leadership in turning Christianity into a world religion, rather than allowing it to remain as it might otherwise have done, a Jewish sect. He had gone up to Jerusalem to finish his education as a rabbi. While there, the new movement arose, and became very troublesome from the standpoint of a believer in the status quo. An upstart teacher from a provincial town had ventured to set aside the ancient law and substitute for it his own law. "You have heard it said of old time . . . but I say unto you." The teacher had been properly liquidated by crucifixion and the threat disposed of --at least that was what they thought -- for a little while; then it began to be heard that the crucified one was not dead but alive -- that he had risen from the dead. This was nonsense, of course, they said, because people do not rise from the dead except in the general resurrection at the last day. But, strangely enough, people seemed to believe it. Soon there were people preaching this strange doctrine and beginning to form a movement around the belief in the crucified Jesus. Clearly, something must be done about it. Young Saul, ardent Pharisee and profound believer in the authority of the law, felt impelled to aid in its suppression, for suppression seemed the way to deal with such blasphemies. He was first noticed in Luke’s story in the Acts as being present at the stoning of Stephen, for it is there said that they laid down their garments -- that is, the men who threw the stones that crushed out Stephen’s life -- at the feet of a young man named Saul. "And Saul was consenting unto his death." If Saul was not the leader of the group that put Stephen to death, he was at least present when a mob slew him, and did nothing to prevent his lynching. It may have been the memory of Stephen’s quiet courage in meeting death and forgiving his slayers which started Saul thinking seriously about the matter and ultimately led to his conversion.
A little later he was leader of a party on the way to Damascus to stir up the local synagogues against a new group of these fanatical followers of Jesus, when a strange thing happened. Suddenly, as he told it later, a bright light shone about him, he fell to the ground blinded and seemed to hear a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" And he answered, "Who art thou, Lord?" The voice replied, "I am Jesus whom thou persecutest." Was it the voice of conscience that had been troubling him ever since the day he saw Stephen done to death for no crime save that of preaching the gospel of Jesus? It was a pivotal point in Saul’s career. The number-one persecutor of the new faith was transformed into the greatest of all its propagators and gave the rest of his life, after a brief period of readjustment, to the task of spreading that gospel over the Graeco-Roman world.
It took some time to think the matter through and to work out in his own mind the significance of the new gospel, but once he had made it thoroughly his own, Saul, "who also is called Paul," became the most important single figure in the spread of the new movement and the formation of its ideology or theology. Much of this comes down to us through his letters and through Acts.
His was an itinerant ministry. He made several missionary journeys, planting the church in many centers scattered over the eastern end of the Mediterranean. He seldom stayed long in one place. It was his custom to begin speaking in the synagogue. But as soon as he introduced the revolutionary idea of a risen Christ, he was denied further use of the platform, and had to continue preaching in the home of some individual who had been attracted by his message. Soon a small group formed about him which eventually became a church. He remained with them for a time, usually working at his trade, that of a tent-maker or weaver, until they seemed strong enough to carry on alone, then went on to another center, leaving some helper in charge or sometimes simply some local individual who had shown signs of leadership.
But as he went on to other centers, he never forgot the little groups he had organized. He often wrote letters back to them or sent words of greeting when some traveller was going in that direction. He was interested not only in their conversion but in their confirmatioh. This interest of Paul in his new converts is the basis of all his letters, save perhaps one, that to the Romans, a church he had never visited in person. Sometimes the letters are written in response to messages either written to him, or personally conveyed by some member of the groups, asking advice in certain matters, or relating difficulties that had arisen in the churches. To these Paul replied in the letters that have been preserved to us, and probably in a great many more that were lost. There is no space here to discuss the several letters one by one, but only to show something of their general nature.
The very earliest of the letters we have was his first letter to the church at Thessalonica. They were troubled about a very practical matter. Paul apparently believed in and assured them of an early return of Jesus to the earth. But some of those who had believed had died, and would not be there on his return. What of these? To this Paul replies: "But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning them that have fallen asleep . . . if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also that are fallen asleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we that are alive, that are left unto the coming of the Lord, shall in no wise precede them that are fallen asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven, with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we that are alive, that are left, shall be caught up in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air; and so shall we be forever with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words." But he went on to urge them to be watchful, for "the day of the Lord cometh as a thief in the night. When they are saying, peace and safety, then sudden destruction cometh upon them as travail upon a woman with child."63
Apparently they took this to mean that the Lord would come very soon, for in the second letter we find him writing further concerning the matter. It is true that the Lord will come; the exact time cannot be known, but certain signs will precede his coming (2: 3-12) . Meanwhile they are not to leave off their work as some apparently had done in anticipation of the end. "If any man will not work, neither let him eat," he wrote.
In the case of the Galatian letter an attack had been made upon Paul’s authority to teach. His answer is a vigorous forthright defense of his apostleship. "For I make known to you brethren, as touching the gospel which was preached by me, that it is not after man. For neither did I receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came to me through the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1:11-12) . He then recounts the story of his thorough Jewish background, his persecuting zeal, his conversion and call to preach to the Gentiles. "Straightway," he continues, "I went not up to Jerusalem to them that were apostles before me; but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus." Only after three years did he go to Jerusalem to visit Peter and James, the Lord’s brother. His gospel was one gotten not from apostles but from Christ directly. So far from receiving it from Peter, he found it necessary to "resist him face to face," for his lack of consistency in being quite liberal and eating with Gentiles until there came emissaries from James, when he withdrew from fellowship with them. "O foolish Galatians, who did bewitch you. . . having begun in the Spirit are you now perfected in the flesh?" (3:3) . Paul is so certain of his gospel that he writes, "But though we or an angel from heaven should preach unto you any gospel other than that which we preached unto you, let him be anathema" (1:9) .
The church at Corinth presented a variety of problems. There was first of all division within the church. Some were saying, "I am of Paul, I of Apollos, I of Cephas and I of Christ" (1:12) . But writes Paul, "Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were ye baptized unto the name of Paul? . . . What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Ministers through whom ye believed, and each as the Lord gave to him. I planted, Apollos watered, but God giveth the increase" (1:11-3:6, passim) . There is much of self-disclosure in these passionate attempts to correct the errors of his beloved brethren.
It has been reported to him that gross immorality is practiced among the membership, even incest, and litigation, brother going to law against brother. He has been asked about marriage and replies at length in chapter 7. It is thought by some that Paul had not been happy in his own married life. The problem of what to do about eating meat that had been offered to idols was a real one to people who had been converted from pagan ways. Paul himself comes to see no harm in eating such meat. After all, the pagan gods to whom the meat was offered had no reality But if he or any other by eating such meat should lead another, for whom it was a matter of conscience, to do so, then indeed would it be wrong, "for through thy knowledge he that is weak perisheth, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And thus sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, ye sin against Christ." Wherefore, Paul declares personally, "If meat causeth my brother to stumble, I will eat no flesh for evermore, that I cause not my brother to stumble" (8:10-13 passim) , thus stating what has been regarded as the classic principle of Christian liberty.
A good deal of discussion had arisen in the Corinthian church regarding the matter of spiritual gifts. Which was the most important? Some were speakers, some healers, some prophesied, some spoke in tongues as at Pentecost, etc. Writes Paul, "Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same spirit, and there are diversities of ministrations and the same Lord, and there are diversities of workings, but the same God, who worketh all things in all. . . . For as the body is one and hath many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ. For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews, or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all made to drink of one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not the body, it is not therefore not of the body. If the whole body were the eye, where were the hearing? . . . The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of thee. . . . Whether one member suffereth all members suffer with it. . . . Now ye are the body of Christ, and severally members thereof."64 No figure of speech has been more often used of the church than this, the "body of Christ," and in our own day the ecumenical movement is an attempt once again to heal the division that the centuries have created, and so to restore to wholeness the body of Christ.
To be sure, he continued, God has given a variety of gifts. Are all apostles, or prophets, or miracle workers, or healers, or speakers in tongues, or interpreters? But, he cries, "Desire earnestly the greater gifts. And moreover I show you a more excellent way."
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And if I bestow all my goods to feed the poor and if I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profiteth me nothing. Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not its own, is not provoked, taketh not account of evil; rejoiceth not in unrighteousness, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall be done away; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall be done away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now that I am become a man. I have put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known. But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.65
And so, out of the day’s work, in the course of a letter of practical counsel and advice, comes one of the greatest chapters in the whole New Testament, a poem of rare beauty and power. Some have analyzed it in great detail and found it perfect in literary construction and balance.
Was it, therefore, a work of labored composition, carefully thought out and arranged so that it fulfilled all the laws of Greek poetry? Or did it come with a rush from the heart of Paul, and spontaneously take the form it now has? Only speculation is possible here, but it affords an interesting point to ponder. How does inspiration come? Certainly if only one passage in the entire body of Paul’s writings could claim inspiration, this would be the one most worthy of the claim. The writer’s guess is that inspiration quite as often as not comes as a by-product of what one is doing in the course of his ordinary daily work, if what he is doing is worthwhile.
Examples could be multiplied of the practical purposes which the letters were meant to serve. They were the written response to a particular need in most cases. But they do far more than deal with the specific matters which were the occasion of the writing. The letters follow fairly closely a general pattern. They begin with a salutation and with an expression of Paul’s regard for those to whom he is writing and often thanksgiving for the good things he has heard concerning them. Often also he recalls how he first came to them, and some of the experiences they have shared. Then in the main body of the letter the matters are dealt with that provoked the letter. In the course of this is to be found a rich vein of insight into the meaning of the gospel as Paul conceives of it. This has been of great influence in the formation of Christian theology. Then toward the end there are varied admonitions and counsel of a practical and usually highly moral character. Finally there is the closing word of personal greeting and farewell. A good many of the letters were probably dictated. In a few cases he signs them personally as in I Corinthians. "The salutation of me, Paul, with mine own hand. If any man loveth not the Lord, let him be anathema. Maranatha. The Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen" (16:21-24) .
The letter to the Romans differs from the rest in that it was written to a church Paul had not yet visited. Even so there must have been a good many members whom he had known elsewhere, who had gone to live in Rome, the capital of the empire. In it there is less that is personal, nor does it seem to have been written in response to any question or any report that had come to him. He had long wanted to go to Rome, had tried several times and was hindered, but he states definitely that it is his purpose to come to them (1:15) .
The letter contains the most nearly systematic statement of Paul’s theology to be found in any of his epistles. Here he is not held to the discussion of, or emphasis upon, some special topic concerning which inquiry has been made, but is free to set forth in general terms the gospel as he understands it. As a result this letter has probably been more influential in the formulation of Christian theology than any of his other writings. In chapter 5 is set forth his classic idea of justification by faith, as over against the more legalistic conception of salvation which had been taught him, but brought him no peace. It was the recovery of this insight which signalized the Protestant Reformation. In it Luther is said to have found the inspiration for his revolt against the Christianity of his own day, and it has been a chief reliance of Protestant Christianity from that day until now. Whenever Christianity tends to fall back into a formalism and reliance upon "good works" there is usually a recovery of this note by some minority group within the larger church. Methodism had its rise in this way as a revolt against the Anglican church of Wesley’s day. And there is something of this involved in the Neoreformation emphasis in our own day.
Chapter 8 furnishes the basis for the characteristic Augustinian-Calvinist concept of predestination, that some are elected to salvation and some to eternal loss, which has played such a significant role in Christian history. "For whom he foreknew, he also foreordained to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And whom he foreordained, them he also called; and whom he called, them also he justified; and whom he justified, them he also glorified" (8:29-30) . Yet even in this letter he did not fail to add a section of practical advice and moral counsel.
Perhaps chapter 12 has been as often read as the New Testament lesson in Christian worship as any chapter in the entire Bible. The whole section 12-15 is packed with good, sound, moral teaching, which squares absolutely with that of Jesus. "Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor that which is evil, cleave to that which is good. . . . Render to no man evil for evil. . . . Avenge not yourselves. . . . If thine enemy hunger, feed him; or if he thirst give him to drink.
. . . Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good" (12: 19-21 passim) . "Love worketh no ill to his neighbor, love therefore is the fulfillment of the law" (13:10) . "Now we that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves" (15:1) .
Of the personal letters two were directed to Timothy, a young preacher, a convert of Paul’s, and to Titus also a helper. Some doubt if these letters, as they stand today, are genuine Pauline letters, though containing some material from the hand of Paul. His letter to Philemon was written to a friend who was converted under Paul’s preaching, and in whose house he had stayed and preached. A runaway slave of Philemon had come to Rome, been converted and now Paul sends him back with this delightfully precious personal note, asking that Philemon receive him not as a slave but as a brother in Christ, and forgive him. There is no lashing out here against the evils of slavery and a demand that Philemon give up the practice of slave-holding, or even that he set Onesimus, the returned slave, free. But he nonetheless cuts away the foundation upon which slavery finally rests. Brotherhood, love, and slavery simply do not go together, when properly understood. It took the Christian church a long time to see this.
Modern scholarship is doubtful of the authenticity of some of the Pauline letters, though by far the greater body of material attributed to him is undoubtedly genuine. Nor are modern scholars agreed as to how and when they got into anything like general circulation. Some think that there was, from an early date, a tendency to trade letters among the churches. Some have thought that Ephesians and possibly Colossians were intended for more than the one church. Goodspeed holds the opinion that the letters were carefully kept by the churches to which they were addressed, perhaps read and reread from time to time, but that there was no attempt made at collecting them until after the appearance of Luke’s early history of the church, the Acts of the Apostles, and that it was this which gave the impulse to a revival of interest in Paul, and led to a search for and collection of his extant writings. Had his writings been in general circulation in the years during which the gospels were taking form, they would surely have exercised some theological influence upon the gospels, it is argued. The question cannot be settled definitely, because we do not have sufficient information concerning the process. Actually there are scholars who profess to find Pauline influence in some of the gospel writings. It is largely a matter of interpretation, into which the subjective element must perforce enter.
It seems to the writer rather unlikely that so dynamic a figure and influence in the early church as Paul was should have faded into near oblivion, only to be revived by the publication of a book about him, nearly a generation after his death. Paul had his devoted followers who continued to circulate among the churches after his passing, and who might well be expected to keep his memory alive by the rereading publicly of his vigorous letters and by their gradual circulation among other churches. What he had written was seen to be not limited to a single locality, but of universal validity and, coming with the prestige of Paul’s name, might be very useful in congregations far removed from the churches to which they were originally addressed.
The other letters, Hebrews, and the general epistles, as they are called, were probably written considerably later than those of Paul; some of them, notably that of second Peter, are definitely regarded as products of the second century. They all, save Jude, bear the names of some one of the apostles, but evidence to support the claims of apostolic authorship is at least doubtful. They do reflect at least modes of thought in the early church and are therefore of great historic value.
The Epistle to the Hebrews, for centuries attributed to Paul, is now regarded almost universally as non-Pauline, written by an unknown author to interpret the Christian gospel, on the analogy of the old Hebrew sacrificial system. It is chiefly meaningful to those acquainted with that system. To those who have no such background it speaks almost an unknown language. But even here there are passages of beauty and rare significance. Few chapters are more often read than the eleventh chapter, illustrative of the dynamic quality of faith. If I Corinthians 13 is the great love chapter of the New Testament surely Hebrews 11 is the faith chapter par excellence:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen. . . . By faith . . the worlds have been framed by the word of God, so that what is seen hath not been made out of the things which appear. By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain. . . . By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death. . . .By faith Noah. . . prepared an ark. . . . By faith Abraham when he was called obeyed. . . and went out not knowing whither he went. . . . By faith Abraham offered up Isaac. . . . By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau. . . . By faith Moses . . . refused to be called the son of Pharaoh, choosing rather to share ill treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season. . . . By faith the walls of Jericho fell down. . . . And what more shall I say, for the time would fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah: of David and Samuel, and the prophets: who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong . . . and others had trial of mockings and scourgings . . . of bonds and imprisonment: they were stoned, they were slain with the sword: they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (of whom the world was not worthy) . . . . And these all having had witness borne to them through their faith, received not the promise, God having provided some better thing concerning us that apart from us they should not be made perfect. Therefore, let us also seeing we are compassed round about with so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us . . . (11:1-12:2 passim) .
The first epistle of John is preëminently the epistle of love -- Christian love. In almost every paragraph this note appears. "He that loveth his brother abideth in the light" (2:10) . "Love not the world . . . if any man love the world the love of the father is not in him" (2:15) . "Behold what manner of love the father hath bestowed upon us that we should be called the children of God" (3:1) . . . . " We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren" (3:13) . "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God and everyone that loveth is begotten of God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love" (4:7-8) . "God is love; and he that abideth in love abideth in God, and God abideth in him" (4:6) . "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casteth out fear" (4:18) .
Whether these little letters were written by the beloved disciple John, as conservative scholars like to believe, or are late products of some member of the Johannine school, is not a matter of primary concern. Particularly 1st John is one of the greatest of the classic Christian writings, deeply in the spirit of Jesus. All three of the letters can be read entire in a few minutes.
The Epistle of James is a book that has been held by some to be not a Christian book at all, but a Jewish tract modified at one or two points to make it appear Christian.66 By another it is said to come closer to the Synoptic gospels in its type of thought than any other of the early writers. It has been regarded as among the earliest and as quite late. It could be an early Christian sermon in the form of a letter. Generally speaking its emphasis is primarily moral rather than theological or mystical. It puts stress on "work," not to the exclusion of faith, but as the necessary fruitage of a faith that is real. The author is down-to-earth, practical, common-sense in his teaching. Religion is not holding some particular theological beliefs. Incidentally it is in this book only that the word "religion" itself appears in the entire Bible. "Pure religion and undefiled is this -- to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unspotted from the world" (1:27) .
The whole epistle can be read in but a few minutes. It is packed full of moral maxims which are not distinctively Christian. It has even been suggested that the book was originally written by some Greek ethical teacher. But on the whole it does represent a moralistic Christian outlook, which has been a wholesome note throughout the centuries of mystical, philosophical, theological and ecclesiastical emphasis. "Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding your own selves" (1:22) . James would agree one hundred per cent with the saying of Jesus, "By their fruits ye shall know them." It is refreshing to pick up the little epistle of James after prolonged immersion in the theological discussions, say, of Paul’s letter to the Romans.
The epistle of Jude is undoubtedly late. It was one of the last of the New Testament books to find its way into the canon. On reading some of the books that failed to make the grade, one wonders how it got in at all. It seems less in accord with the spirit of the earlier New Testament writings than any other.
The two epistles of Peter are attributed to the disciple Peter by conservative scholarship, but are almost unanimously held by modern scholarship to have appeared too late to have been written by the great disciple. Internal evidences put the first letter probably during the general persecution of Christians by Domitian near the end of the first century, while the second is generally regarded as a second-century writing. The latter is much inferior to first Peter, much more in the spirit of Jude and, like Jude, only with difficulty, did it achieve a permanent place in the canon. First Peter is in form a circular letter. It is addressed to the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia (1:1) and is largely a message of hope and encouragement to Christians in a time of suffering and persecution. It contains one unique belief with reference to Jesus, not found, at least certainly, in any other part of the New Testament, namely, that Christ between the time of his death and resurrection "went and preached to the Spirits in prison, that aforetime were disobedient" (3:18) . Again in 4:6 he speaks of the gospel being preached "even to the dead, that they might be judged indeed according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit." This is the basis for the phrase, "he descended into Hell" in the Apostles’ creed, and has been the basis also of certain doctrines concerning the after-life to be found, for example, in Mormonism.
We have passed over the discussion of the gospel of John until now because it, too, in the belief of modern scholarship, rather generally, but not by any means unanimously, is a product of the second century, and not therefore the work of the beloved disciple to whom tradition assigns it. It is not a simple narrative, as are the Synoptics, of the life and teachings of Jesus, but represents an interpretive or reflective view of Jesus. Here is no longer the relatively simple figure of a Galilean teacher but an idealized Christ.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him; and without him was not anything made that hath been made. There came a man named John. The same came for a witness, that he might bear witness of the light, that all might believe through him. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten form of the father, full of grace and truth (1:1-14 passim) .
This prologue to the gospel as a whole seems to be a definite attempt to interpret the Christian gospel in terms of Greek thought. They were familiar with the "Word" or Logos concept. The identification of Jesus as the "Word" was, therefore, designed to make him meaningful to people, in terms familiar to them. Paul had tried to do somewhat the same thing in his speech on Mars Hill in Athens, when he declared of the Unknown God, which he found them worshipping, "Whom ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you." Apparently he was not too successful in this approach, for a little later we find him writing to the church at Corinth, "I determined to know nothing among you save Jesus Christ and him crucified."
But this is a most natural process and a necessary one. Religion must always express itself in terms people are capable of understanding, if it is to be meaningful for them. But John does something new to the Logos concept also. It had become a highly speculative idea; he brings it down to earth and links it with the historic Jesus. To be sure, the picture of Jesus in John’s gospel is not quite the flesh-and-blood figure which stalks through the Synoptics; often he seems to wear a halo, and there is about him something of an air of physical unreality, save in a few episodes such as the conversation with the woman at the well and that of the woman taken in adultery and brought to Jesus to be judged. This latter, however, is not found in all the ancient manuscripts; in others it is found in a different place or marked as doubtful. Yet the intention to make Jesus a definite historical figure is unmistakable. The method in John’s gospel is not that of the Synoptics. He hardly speaks in parables at all, though he does use figurative language, and in such discourses as that of the Vine and the Branches, and the Good Shepherd, he does approach the parable type. In John there are not so many short epigrammatic utterances. He runs to discourses of some length, as for example, concerning the new birth, in his conversation with Nicodemus (chapter 3) ; on the bread of life after the feeding of the five thousand (6:22 ff) ; on the true children of Abraham (8:31-59) ; on the shepherd and the sheep (10:1-18) ; and particularly his forceful discourse after eating the Last Supper with his disciples, which include some of the most highly cherished utterances recorded of Jesus. Here is the famous passage read almost always at Christian funerals:
Let not your heart be troubled: believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you I shall come again and will receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. And whither I go, ye know the way. Thomas saith unto him, Lord we know not whither thou goest: how know we the way? Jesus saith unto him, "I am the way and truth and the life; no one cometh unto the Father but by me. . . . Philip saith unto him, Lord, show us the Father and it sufficeth us. Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and dost thou not know me, Philip? He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.
All through the gospel there is emphasis upon the relationship personally of the individual to Jesus, and there is almost no mention of the central concept of the Synoptics, namely the kingdom of God.
Chapter 15 contains the discourse on the Vine and the Branches, a kind of allegory rather than a true parable, and quite typical of the Johannine emphasis. It has been a favorite of the mystically minded Christian throughout the whole of Christian history:
I am the vine, ye are the branches. He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for apart from me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in me he is cast forth as a branch and is withered, and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. If ye abide in me and my words abide in you, ask whatsoever ye will and it shall be done unto you. Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit, and so shall ye be my disciples. Even as the Father hath loved me, I also have loved you. Abide ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments ye shall abide in my love, even as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.
He stresses the expediency of his going away: "It is expedient for you that I go: for if I go not away the Comforter will not come unto you, but if I go, I will send him unto you. . . . When he, the Spirit of truth is come, he shall guide you into all the truth" (16: 7-13 passim) . John seems not to hold the apocalyptic view of the physical coming again of Jesus. His coming is as the "Comforter," i.e., in spirit to guide men into the ways of truth. The historic physical body of Jesus is not the important thing, but the spirit of truth, and this they shall have when he has been separated from them.
The so-called high-priestly prayer of Jesus, better, the prayer of consecration, or of intercession, too long to quote here in its entirety, should be read. It is found in chapter 17.
Father, the hour is come: glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee. . . . Holy Father, keep them in thy name which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. . . . I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil one. . . . Sanctify them in truth: thy word is truth (passim) .
The reiterated prayer, "that they may all be one even as thou Father art in me and I in thee, that they be one in us," is perhaps the best Christian statement of the aims of the mystic, the achieve-men of oneness with the divine. This is characteristic of the gospel throughout. It was this fact that led Kenneth J. Saunders to call John the Gospel for Asia. In his book under that title he compares it with the Hindu Gita and the Lotus Gospel of Buddhism, and declares that it is preëminently the approach of Christianity to Asiatics who have come under the sway of the great mystics of Hinduism and Buddhism.
Yet with all its mystic quality, there is genuine historic value in John’s gospel. The passion story is rather generally regarded as historically more accurate than the corresponding narratives of the Synoptics.
Who wrote the gospel may never be surely known. The gospel itself says nothing of its authorship, save in the last chapter, which is probably an editorial addition to the main narrative, where it seems to credit it to the "disciple whom Jesus loved," but does not name him. It seems too late in origin to be the work of a direct disciple, think most modern scholars. It may, therefore, have been the work of a certain "presbyter John" of whom there is notice in early tradition, who was perhaps a disciple of John. The plain fact is that all the evidence, both internal and external, leaves the question as to its authorship indeterminate. But it has commended itself to the heart of the Christian church throughout the ages as truly expressive of the spirit of Jesus and his teachings, and has served as the devotional guide par excellence to Christians in every century.
The last book to be considered stands last in the New Testament and was the latest to find a secure place in the canon. It, like the gospel and the epistles of John, is assigned traditionally to the authorship of the disciple John. As we have seen, generally speaking, modern scholarship no longer believes that they were all from the same hand, or that the disciple John wrote any of them himself. The book of Revelation may indeed have been the earliest of the five to appear, and could more easily be considered a possible work of the aged disciple, since it almost certainly dates from the time of the Domitian persecution of the church about 96 A.D. But the only certain thing is that it is attributed in the book itself to John.
As we saw in the discussion of the Old Testament, the Apocalypse was a common literary form employed, usually, in times of stress and strain, to bring some hope and encouragement to people who were having a bad time of it. Such writings have been called "tracts for hard times." The essential feature of the Apocalypse is that no matter how dark the outlook may be on any human basis, salvation is possible and certain through the intervention of God in the affairs of the world. He will break through into history and, in some cataclysmic form, bring to pass what man has himself been unable to achieve. It represents an indomitable faith on man’s part that seeming danger and defeat are not final. God stands behind, watching, and may be depended upon to come to the rescue.
The Apocalypse is usually cryptic in its language, employing strange figures, weird imagery, and is therefore difficult of understanding to those who do not have the key. Consequently these writings lend themselves to a great variety of interpretation. Written usually to meet an immediately difficult situation, they are made to serve as a blue print for what is to come in distant ages. It is chiefly upon the various apocalypses in the New Testament that the modern prophets of the end of the world, the second coming of Jesus, etc., base their predictions.
There are several apocalypses, or at least apocalyptic passages, in the New Testament besides the book of Revelation.67 The apocalyptic outlook was a prominent feature in the background of the early church. Aside from the apocalyptic sections of the Old Testment there were other later, but well-known, Jewish apocalypses among the so-called False Writings or Pseudepigrapha. It is not strange, therefore, that the New Testament should have its own apocalyptic writings.
From the stoning of Stephen the Christians had experienced persecution. But often it was only local and sporadic in character. Even the drastic treatment of Christians under Nero was probably limited largely to Rome. But under Domitian there seems to have been a well-concerted and empire-wide effort to compel Christians to signify their political loyalty to the emperor by participating in the one and only required ceremony, that of emperor worship. Aside from this, the Romans were extremely tolerant in the matter of religion. But Jews and Christians, believers in one and only one God, were a sore trial to Roman authorities who took their conscientious refusal to worship the emperor as a sign of disloyalty. They became "subversives," like Jehovah’s Witnesses of our own time, when they refused to salute the flag. Then indeed was the church in deep trouble and suffering. The whole church seemed to be threatened with destruction. There was deep need of some message of hope and confidence. The book of Revelation was just that. There was tribulation, yes, and danger and destruction, but the final word lay not in the hands of men but of God, and God would presently bring to naught the devices of evil men, and there would be a new heaven and a new earth.
It was a definite apocalyptic pattern that, before the end, the anti-Christ must come. And he was already present. There is little doubt that the author expected the intervention of God to come very soon. The prophecies of things to come were not to await a distant future unfolding of history for their fulfillment. But that did not happen, so eventually the book, while it had been meant doubtless as a basis for a very early hope of deliverance, has come to be regarded as the revelation of the divine plan for the ages. As such it is studied and restudied, generation after generation, and the answer sought as to when its fulfillment may he expected. The dates have been set many times by Adventists, Millennialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.; but the end delays. Many have seen in the rise of successive figures in history the anti-Christ, or the Beast. This figure has been identified as Martin Luther by Catholics, as some particular pope by Protestants, as Kaiser Wilhelm by people on one side in World War I and with Lloyd George or Wilson by people on the other -- with Hitler and Mussolini, with Roosevelt and Churchill in World War II; and now every Adventist in the non-Communist bloc is sure that Joe Stalin is the dread figure. Clearly time has about run out. The end of the age is imminent. Jehovah’s Witnesses proclaim it incessantly and the Voice of Prophecy tirelessly proclaims it over the ether waves.
Whatever may be its hidden meaning, and there is no indication that it was at all hidden to the people of the times for which it was written, it makes fascinating reading. One very intelligent woman tells how as a child she got hold of it and read it. She thought it the most wonderful fairy-story she had ever read. There are in it passages which are of high poetic quality, and of matchless beauty. The writer once heard the playwright and actor, Charles Rann Kennedy, read aloud the 21st chapter. It was the thrill of a lifetime.
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth are passed away; and the sea is no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of the heaven from God, made ready as a bride for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of the throne saying: Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and he shall dwell with them, and they shall be his people and God himself shall be with them, and be their God: and he shall wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying, nor pain any more: the first things are passed away. And he that sat on the throne said: Behold, I make all things new. . . . I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of water of life freely. He that overcometh shall inherit these things, and I will be his God and he shall be my son. . . .And he showed me a river of water of life, bright as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb, and in the midst of the street thereof. And on this side of the river, and on that was the tree of life, bearing twelve manner of fruits, yielding its fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no curse any more . . . and there shall be night no more; and they need no light of lamp, neither light of sun; for the Lord God shall give them light; and they shall reign forever and ever.
There can be little doubt that the book brought a deeper faith and courage to the persecuted Christians and so performed its purpose. Failing of immediate fulfillment, it has continued to bring hope to people in difficult situations. Taken too literally, it has led some believers into strange and bizarre beliefs concerning religion, and has sometimes brought religion itself into disrepute. But it is a permanent witness to an indomitable faith in God, a persistent belief that it is God’s world in which we live, that God is the controller of history and that, no matter how dark the day may be, he may be trusted to bring in the end the fruition of men’s highest hopes and dreams.
It is not the highest expression of Christian moral teaching. It has, indeed, been thought by some scholars to be an old Jewish apocalypse, adapted to Christian purposes. It is otherworldly to a degree not appreciated particularly by modern Christians for whom life is on the whole good and abundant. But in its central emphasis on the ultimate triumph of God’s purposes of good for the world it stands as a solid rock amid the shifting sands of opinion in this, our modern world of relativity. Taken for what it was meant to be, it is by no means unworthy, as some great Christian leaders have thought, of its place in the canon of scriptures.
Now, how did these writings all get together as we have them
and come to be regarded as scripture? The process was a long one.
The Bible for early Christians was, of course, the Old Testament. It was constantly read in the churches. The early teaching and preaching of the apostles and their immediate successors was largely from the remembered sayings and doings of Jesus, at first orally transmitted, then written in various forms. Probably this was read at first, not as scripture, but as the source of information about Jesus and his work. Paul’s letters were probably read from time to time as bits of practical counsel and instruction in doctrine, but not as scripture. Not only these but other writings were also read in the church. There was a collection called the Didache or Teaching of the Apostles, and another apocalypse, the Shepherd of Hermas, and still another, the Apocalypse of Peter, also letters by early leaders such as Barnabas, Clement of Rome, and others.
About the middle of the second century a ship-owner of Pontus, Marcion, advocated setting aside entirely the Old Testament and making use of only the gospels of Luke and the letters of Paul -- ten of them only -- as the Christian scripture. Marcion was soon declared a heretic, but it is possible that it was he who gave the real impulse to the formation of a New Testament collection of scripture. By about the end of the second century there is evidence, in the writings of Irenaeus, Tertullian, and a fragment of a manuscript to be dated in that period, known as the Muratorian fragment, that the books advocated as scripture by Marcion, plus the other three gospels and Acts and three other epistles of Paul, I and II Timothy, and Titus, were recognized in widely separated sections of the church as properly to be read in the churches. Each of the three recognized one or more additional books not accepted by the other, e.g., Irenaeus and Tertullian each recognized an epistle of Peter, the Muratorian fragment none; the Muratorian fragment and Tertullian recognized Jude, but Iranaeus did not. Also all three include the Apocalypse of John, but Iranaeus and Tertullian also include the Shepherd of Hermas, while the Muratorian fragment includes the Apocalypse of Peter. Each includes twenty-two books, in contrast to the twenty-seven generally accepted books today.
Clement of Alexandria, a little later, offered a list including in addition to these a letter of Barnabas and one of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians. Origen in the third century listed twenty-nine books all of which he accepted, but divided them into two lists of acknowledged and disputed books, meaning that they were not all universally accepted. His list of acknowledged books includes the four gospels and Acts and, to the thirteen Pauline letters, he adds Hebrews and I Peter, I. John and Revelation. The disputed books were James, II and III John, II Peter, Jude, the letter of Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas. Thus he had twenty-nine books, or two more than are now recognized. That is, he had the New Testament as we have it, save for the presence of the letter of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. The oldest Greek New Testament manuscript, Sinaiticus, contains just these books, and it is dated about the middle of the fourth century.
Eusebius, the church historian, who wrote in the early part of the fourth century, furnishes evidence that some parts of the church accepted still other books, the Acts of Paul, the Teaching of the Apostles, or the Didache, and the Preaching of Peter. In the Eastern Church doubt was cast upon the apostolic authorship of the book of Revelation and it is omitted from about half of the extant Greek manuscripts of the New Testament.
Athanasius, a fourth-century figure, in an Easter letter, in the year 367 A.D., was the first to list the New Testament books exactly as we have them today. He added, as valuable reading for those under instruction for church membership, the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas.
But this does not mean that acceptance of this list was as yet universal. The great Syriac version, the Peshitto, dated 411 A.D., still contained but twenty-two books. In the West the matter was pretty well fixed by Jerome’s revision of the Old Latin version, the famous Vulgate version, which appeared near the end of the fourth century, and included the books of the Athanasian list. But in the East the canon remained fluid for a long time.
Thus came into existence the New Testament, the distinctive scriptures of Christianity. It was a long slow process, from the earliest oral traditions about Jesus and his teachings to the nearly universally accepted twenty-seven books which make it up today. We have seen that other books were accepted for longer or shorter periods in some sections of the church. Many gospels were written, besides the four, many other letters also, and apocalypses. Many of these are still extant and are called collectively the New Testament Apocrypha. They are available in good translations and make interesting reading, especially the gospels. Some of these are of a high order, and save in spots seem quite similar to the canonical gospel stories. But one does not have to read long to discover why the good judgment of the early church rejected them. They do furnish the basis of some beliefs and practices still held in the Christian churches, particularly the Catholic branches. One of the most interesting is the gospel of Thomas which narrates many stories of the childhood of Jesus, obviously the work of the pious imagination of devoted followers who, in every religion we have seen, delight to embroider the life of the beloved founder of their faith. There is, of course, some of this in the canonical gospels themselves, but beside the apocryphal gospels they shine by contrast as serious, relatively factual stories of the life of Jesus. If one believes in a providential element in their writing, he may well believe also that in their collection and preservation the same good providence was at work. But here, as so often, Providence has worked through the normal patterns of human behavior, and the good common sense of the general body of the church, in weighing and testing and finally approving the book as it now stands. Possibly the experience of modern man might lead to a modification of their choice if it were left open to change. But time has already taken care of that, and it is not likely that the canon will be changed, though parts of it may, indeed have already, largely fallen into disuse. In a sense, within the historically determined canon, each individual or group really determines his own effective canon, and may add to or subtract from it at will.
Part III: The Versions
We have thus far discussed the making of the Old and New Testaments and carried the story down to their completion in the languages of their origin, Hebrew and Greek, allowing for the possibility but not certainty of an original Aramaic version for some of the gospels. How did they get to us in the versions we today use? Briefly the story is this -- and it must be very brief.
The Old Testament was first translated into the Greek language to meet the needs of Jews who lived outside of Palestine and had lost their use of the mother tongue. This was the great Septuagint version of the Seventy, so-called from the legend that it was translated in seventy days by seventy elders. It was made in Alexandria and includes a number of books not acknowledged by Palestinian Jews. These extra books, as indicated above, are known as the Apocrypha, and constitute the difference between the Roman Catholic Bible, which includes them as scripture, and the Protestant Bible, which, if it includes them at all, sets them apart from the usual order of books and indicates that they are to be read for instruction and inspiration but not as a basis of dogma.
Jerome in the fourth century was the first to distinguish them as Apocrypha, i.e., hidden or secret books, but he did not separate them from the other books in the Vulgate. The earliest English version, that of Wycliffe in 1382, contained them. Luther was the first to segregate them, in his translation of the Bible into German. They were published separately to complete the Bible which had appeared in various installments. Luther did some rearranging of material in the New Testament and in the full edition of the Bible placed the Apocrypha between the Old Testament and the New. This custom was followed in English translations generally, except in the Catholic versions. Under Puritan influence they were dropped out completely from most versions. Today they are seldom found in Protestant Bibles except in large pulpit editions where they are segregated between the Testaments. (The so-called Chicago Bible published by the University of Chicago Press contains the Apocrypha.)
The vernacular versions of the Bible have had a great influence on the languages. The rise of literary German was greatly influenced by Luther’s translations and the English language has been tremendously influenced by successive English translations notably the King James or Authorized version.
In English, Wycliffe’s version is the first of which we have any definite evidence. It was translated from the Vulgate. It makes very strange reading to modern English-speaking people. What would you make of this? "Nye yee deme, that yee be not demede, for in what dome yee demen, yee schulen be demede." It is Matthew 7:2 and in present-day speech reads, "Judge not that ye be not judged, for with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged."
William Tyndale, an English scholar, like Luther made his translation not from the Vulgate but from the original Greek text as published by Erasmus. Attempts were made by the Roman Catholic authorities to prevent its publication, but in 1525 the New Testament was issued at Worms, in Germany, to which Tyndale had been forced to flee. Every attempt was made by the church to prevent its circulation in England but it was eagerly welcomed by the people and became very influential on all subsequent English translations. Goodspeed says that ninety-two per cent of the King James version is still just as Tyndale wrote it.68
Tyndale did not complete the translation of the whole Bible, but did publish the Pentateuch in 1530. He was hounded by those who sought to prevent his work and was finally imprisoned and executed in 1536, for no other crime than that of translating and publishing a vernacular translation of Holy Writ. Truly this Bible, taken so much for granted by people of our own day, was not easily come by. There is a romance about its history that makes fascinating reading. One author wrote the story under the title, The Romance of the English Bible.69
But the execution of Tyndale did not keep the Bible from the people. Indeed, even before his execution and while he was in prison, Myles Coverdale in 1535 printed the complete Bible in English using Tyndale’s New Testament and Pentateuch, and translating the remainder from the German and Latin versions. Just two years later Matthew’s Bible appeared. It included not only Tyndale’s New Testament and Pentateuch, but also a hitherto unpublished translation of the further books of the Old Testament from Joshua through Chronicles. The remainder was a revision of Coverdale’s work. This became the first licensed Bible in English and could be circulated without interference from the state. Two years later, in 1539, the Great Bible appeared, designed particularly to be read in the churches, and from that time forward the Bible might be read to the people in their own tongue instead of in the Latin. It was the first authorized version. Not only was it read in public worship, but it was permissible for people to read it privately. A copy was made available to the public but, to prevent its being stolen, it was secured by a chain, so it has come to be called the Chained Bible.
The next great version was the Geneva Bible, so called because it was prepared and published by Puritans who had fled England and found a home in Geneva, Switzerland. This, besides being an improvement on former editions, was divided into verses. This system was introduced by a French printer in the Greek text. Chapter divisions had been made in the Vulgate as early as the twelfth century. This version is often called the Breeches Bible from the translation of Genesis 3:7, which reads "And when they knew that they were naked they sewed figtree leaves together and made themselves breeches." It was very popular and went through a hundred editions. It was the version current in Shakespeare’s time, and his numerous Biblical quotations appear to have come from it.
The Bishop’s Bible, 1568, was an authorized revision of the Great Bible and superseded it for use in public worship.
All the Bibles thus far noted were of Protestant origin. But by this time the Catholics, too, desired it in their own language. The Douay version was the result. The translation which was made, not from the Greek text but from the Latin Vulgate, was begun at the Catholic College at Douay, but completed at Rheims, France, whither the school had fled on being banished from Douay. The New Testament was published there in 1582, so it is called the Rheims New Testament. The publication of the Old Testament was delayed some seventeen years, appearing in 1609-1610. Meanwhile, the College had returned to Douay. The Bible as a whole is, therefore, referred to usually as the Douay Version. This has been revised many times -- so often indeed that it is said that "scarcely any verse remains as it was originally published." The revision of Bishop Challoner, near the middle of the eighteenth. century, has been the basis of most subsequent English versions. For example, one of the most recent Catholic translations of the New Testament, the so-called Confraternity Edition, is "a revision of the Challoner-Rheims Version, edited by Catholic scholars under the patronage of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine."70 This has appeared separately from the Old Testament, but has also appeared recently bound up with the Douay version of the Old Testament, with newly edited Annotations of Bishop Challoner, etc.
Another completely new Catholic translation of both Old and New Testaments has been published recently by Monsignor Ronald A. Knox. This is a fresh translation from the Vulgate, but "where the Vulgate yields no tolerable sense," says the translator, "or yields a sense which evidently quarrels with the context," he has rendered the passage from the Hebrew text and given the literal translation of the Latin Vulgate in a footnote.
The great Protestant English version that has come down into our own times is the so-called King James, an authorized version which appeared in 1611 and held its place securely for almost three centuries before an important rival version appeared. It was a work of real scholarship, performed cooperatively by representative scholars and clergy of the day, though largely only a careful revision of the Bishop’s Bible. No single other work has had greater influence upon English language and literature than this. It became the basis of the liturgy of most of the churches, as well as being the version used by ministers in preaching and in the devotional as well as scholarly reading of individuals for well over two hundred and fifty years before a new version was undertaken. When this did appear as the English Revised version, in which American scholars participated to some degree, it was resisted firmly, and neither it nor the American Revised version which in this country displaced largely the English Revised, has even yet succeeded in replacing it, especially in the liturgical literature of the churches. Most of the very conservative churches still use the King James version and it is this version which is distributed in such vast numbers by the British and American Bible Societies.
The English and American revisions represented a distinct improvement over the King James version. Its language has been from time to time modernized since 1611, but it is still extremely archaic in many of its expressions and therefore not easily intelligible to the ordinary reader. The intervening years had seen the discovery of numerous ancient manuscripts which had made possible a great improvement in the Greek and Hebrew texts. There changes are reflected in the later versions. Very recently a new version has been undertaken by American scholars and the New Testament was published in 1946 as The Revised Standard Version.71 The Old Testament is nearing completion. Whether this latest version will succeed in weaning readers away from both the newer version and the King James, it is impossible to predict with assurance. It is not so difficult to get it accepted for private use, but it is extremely difficult to substitute its newer language in the liturgies, for these things acquire a near sanctity which resists innovation very strongly.
In general, English-speaking Jewish people have made use of the King James version or the Revised version, being content to make modifications in it, or to supplement it by commentaries. But in England partial translations did appear in the nineteenth century, and in America an English version was produced in 1853, by Isaac Leeser. By the end of the century this had come to be regarded as inadequate and a new version was projected by the Jewish Publication Society. It was not, however, until 1917 that the version currently in use among the Jews made its appearance.
Meanwhile, the modern world has seen a number of private translations. Only two of the better-known versions include the whole Bible, the Moffatt and the so-called Chicago Bible, but of New Testament translations there have been many. Most widely circulated of these perhaps have been the Moffatt and Goodspeed versions. A list of other such translations appears at the end of the chapter.
In what version shall one read the Bible? English teachers are likely to say the King James, since it is the version whose language is so woven into the warp and woof of English and American literature that an understanding of the literature requires some knowledge of the Bible.
If one wishes an accurate understanding of what the original writers of the Bible were trying to say, he will do best to read the newer translations, though he will do well to read and compare several, rather than rely upon just one version. Some of them are translated by persons or groups who have special doctrinal emphases to set forth, and this is likely to color the translation. Latest of all versions to appear is the one published by Jehovah’s Witnesses. One would do well to investigate the peculiar biases of the individual or group which publishes a version, before putting too much confidence in it. This doctrinal bias is almost completely absent in the latest American revision, for the participation of scholars of widely differing points of view has tended to cancel out the biases that might affect privately issued translations.
For the convenience of the reader a list of versions briefly annotated is found below.
The King James, or Authorized, Version.
The Revised Version (English) .
The American Standard Bible, Thomas Nelson & Sons, N. Y.
The Bible: A New Translation, by James Moffatt, Harper & Brothers, N. Y.
The Complete Bible: An American Translation, by J. M. Powis Smith and others and Edgar J. Goodspeed, University of Chicago Press, 1939.
The Douay Version (Roman Catholic) .
The Old Testament, translated by Ronald A. Knox, 2 vols. Sheed & Ward, N. Y., 1948, 1950.
The New Testament, translated by Ronald A. Knox, Sheed & Ward, 1944.
The Holy Bible: A New Catholic Edition translated from the Vulgate. The Old Testament is the Douay version with newly edited annotations by Bishop Challoner and a new translation of the Psalms from the new Latin version. The New Testament is the Confraternity edition. See below -- Catholic Book Publishing Company, N. Y., 1948.
There are many special editions of the Bible, most of them based on the King James version. Among these are:
The Bible, Designed to Be Read as Living Literature, ed. by E. S. Bates, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1936. Much of the duplicated material is omitted. It is beautifully printed and bound, and all chapter and verse markings are left out. Poetry is printed in poetic form. In this it resembles an earlier edition,
Richard G. Moulton’s Modern Reader’s Bible, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1895, which has been widely used.
The Dartmouth Bible, edited by Roy B. Chamberlin and Herman Feldman, Houghton Muffin Company, Boston, 1950, is likewise an attempt to eliminate duplicated material. A new feature is the blending of the four gospels into a single connected story. Chapter and verse indications are retained, but are made very inconspicuous, and do not interfere with the logical division into paragraphs and sections. Also a great deal of introductory material and explanatory notes are introduced, reflecting a moderate liberal attitude toward the Bible.
New Testament Versions.
The New Testament: An American Translation, by Edgar J. Goodspeed, University of Chicago Press, 1923.
The New Testament in Modern Speech, translated by Richard Francis Weymouth, Pilgrim Press, Boston, 1914.
The New Testament: A New Translation, by James Moffatt, Harper & Brothers, N. Y., 1935.
The New Testament, translated by Ronald A. Knox, Sheed and Ward, New York, 1944 (Roman Catholic) .
The New Testament in Basic English, Cambridge University Press, England, 1941.
The Revised Standard Version, Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1946.
The Rheims New Testament -- revised, by Catholic scholars under the patronage of the Episcopal Committee of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (Roman Catholic) , St. Anthony Guild Press, Paterson, N. J., 1947.
The Apocrypha are found published separately in various editions, e.g., by
Thomas Nelson and Sons -- Revised 1894.
The Apocrypha: An American Translation, by Edgar J. Goodspeed, University of Chicago Press, 1938.
They are included usually in large pulpit Bibles, bound between the Old and New Testaments.
The Goodspeed translation is bound with the Old and New Testaments in The Complete Bible, University of Chicago Press.
They are found, of course, in the Douay version, but not separated out from the other books.
Selections from the Apocrypha may be found in:
The Dartmouth Bible, pp. 736-840.
Ballou, The Bible of the World, pp. 1027-1050.
Browne, The World’s Great Scriptures, pp. 432-435.
S. E. Frost, Sacred Writings of the World’s Great Religions, pp. 219-226.
Complete Editions of the Babylonian Talmud are:
The Babylonian Talmud, Translated and edited by Michael L. Rodkinson, 20 Volumes, Boston, 1896-1903.
The Babylonian Talmud, Edited by Rabbi Dr. I. Epstein, 11 Volumes, Soncino Press, London, 1948 -- .
Selections from the Talmud
The Wisdom of Israel, translated and edited by Edwin Collins, E. P. Dutton & Co., N. Y., 1908.
A. Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud, J. M. Dent and Sons, London, 1934. The Babylonian Talmud in Selection, edited and translated by Leo Auerbach, Philosophical Library, N. Y., 1944.
Talmudic Anthology, Selected and edited by Louis I. Newman and Samuel Spitz, Behrman House, N. Y., 1945.
Lewis Browne, The World’s Great Scriptures, pp. 438-447.
1. The Revised Standard of the New Testament, Thomas Nelson & Sons, N.Y., 1946.
2. Acts 5:39.
3. Acts 14:17.
4. 3:16, King James Version.
5. The new Revised Standard Version reverts to the King James reading with the other as a recognized variant reading.
6. Joshua 10:12-13, American Revised Version.
7. Gen. 4:23-24, American Revised Version.
8. Judges 5, passim.
9. Judges 9:8-15. Bewer’s translation in The Literature of the Old Testament, Columbia University Press, pp. 10-11.
10. II Samuel 1: 19-27, passim, Bewer’s Translation, op. cit., pp. 16-17.
11. Bewer, op. cit., p. 21.
12. Exodus 20:3-17, Deut. 5:7-21. For the sake of brevity the commentary which differs slightly in the two versions is omitted.
13. The Abingdon Press, N.Y., 1918.
14. The Literature of the Old Testament, p. 69.
15. Bewer, op cit., p. 85.
16. See I Samuel 10:1-13.
17. II Sam. 11-12.
18. Liberal scholarship generally assigns the Psalm to a much later time largely on the basis of its developed theology.
19. Chapters 1-2, passim. Some modern scholars question the authorship of the Judah oracle, 2:4-5, since it is concerned rather with the law than with the brutal inhumanity of the others in the series.
23. 6:1-6, passim.
26. This is but one of the various possible interpretations of the experience of Hosea.
27. Isaiah 6:1-8, passim.
28. Isaiah 31:1.
29. Isaiah 3:16-24, passim.
30. Isaiah 1:11-20, passim.
31. For example, Isaiah 10:20-23, Kings 19:30-31.
32. Isaiah 11:1-9, passim.
33. Isaiah 9:6-7.
34. Micah 4:3-4; Isaiah 2:4.
35. Chapter 53, passim.
36. Verse 31.
37. Op. cit., p. 166.
38. 8:21-9: I.
42. Lev. 16:23-28.
43. 148, passim. The generation which grew up with the King James version has never become reconciled to the substitution "Jehovah" for "the Lord." It is interesting that the new Revised Standard Version will return to the older usage and will read once again "Praise ye the Lord."
44. Psalm 35:4-8, passim.
45. Psalm 58:6.
46. Psalm 46:1.
49. Vs. 3-19, passim.
50. 42:1-6, passim.
51. 19:25 ff.
52. Chapters 1-2, passim.
54. He made a fresh translation of the Old Testament from the Hebrew, but only revised an already existent Latin version of the New Testament.
55. See Burton and Goodspeed, A Harmony of the Synoptic Gospels, Charles Scribner’s Sons, N. Y., 1917; Finney, Ross L., Huck’s Synopsis of the First Three Gospels, Methodist Book Concern, N. Y., several editions. Gospel Parallels, A Synopsis of the First Three Gospels, arranged according to the Huck-Leitzman Synopsis, 1936 Thomas Nelson and Sons, N. Y.. 1949, uses the text of the Revised Standard Version, 1946.
56. Literature of the New Testament, Columbia University Press, N.Y., 1932, p. 31.
57. Op. cit., pp. 35-36.
58. Scott, op. cit., p. 33.
59. Matthew 21: 4-5, Zechariah 9:9.
60. 16:18; 18:17.
61. Luke 1:46-55, American Revised Version.
62. Luke 1:68-80, passim. American Revised Version.
63. 4:13- - 5:4, passim.
64. I Cor. 12:4-27, passim.
65. I Corinthians 13.
66. Scott, op. cit., p. 213.
67. See Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21, II Thessalonians 2:1-12, and II Peter 3:8 ff.
68. Edgar J. Goodspeed, How Came the Bible, Abingdon-Colesbury, N.Y., 1940.
69. Laura H. Wild, Doubleday and Co., Inc., Garden City, N.Y., 1929.
70. Catholic Book Publishing Company, Chicago, 1948.
71. Thomas Nelson and Sons, N.Y., 1946.