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THE LITERARY MAN’S BIBLE
§ I. THE BIBLE AS LITERATURE. NATURALLY I have often asked myself in the course of preparing this work what was my precise object in attempting it. The book originated in a conversation as to the literary merits of the Bible. It was maintained that, whatever original literary merits the Bible may have possessed, they had been obscured by a long series of ecclesiastical comments, due to the fact that the Bible was mainly, if not exclusively, employed for “instruction in righteousness.” To those, on the other hand, to whom the Bible had been familiar from childhood, the idea of regarding it as other than a manual for pious use seemed strange and a trifle irreverent. The question was whether a book that had come so close to our business and bosoms could possibly be relieved from its didactic implications, and regarded as a collection of texts illustrating the characteristic tendencies of Jewish writers and exhibiting certain high standards of literature. The answer to some of those who engaged in this conversation was frankly in the negative-because it is one of the melancholy effects of allowing any documents to be entirely manipulated by priests that all original features are obliterated in one dead level of uniform doctrinal applicability. The case stands as it does very largely with school-books based on the work of Greek and Roman writers. Everything is viewed and misprized as “lessons." The truth that Æschylus and Plato wrote for their generation in precisely
the same manner as Milton and Shakespeare wrote for theirs rarely dawns on the mind of a school-boy, and, if he be not interested in classical studies, remains absolutely inoperative through his life. Generally the Bible suffers because it is a “good Book," not to be touched by profane or irreverent fingers.
When so many people seem to imagine that the Bible has nothing to do with literature, it appeared to me to be not an unprofitable task to attempt to prove that the Bible contains literary elements of priceless merit. Only, however, under certain conditions could such a task be even attempted. The first thing is to modify the doctrine of verbal inspiration. The doctrine is either false or unnecessary. All the highest literature of the world is equally inspired, or, if you like, equally uninspired. If by inspiration we mean that the authors of certain books had the incomparable advantage of being told what to say by the Almighty, and if it be further added that only the books included in the sacred Canon are to be so regarded, the judgment, I fear, of experienced literary students will be one of profound scepticism, if not of absolute denial. The books of the Bible are exactly like other books, so far as Literature is concerned, to be appraised by identical standards. It seems a much more reasonable proposition to assert that all the great thoughts of all the great thinkers in all ages, which have fed the minds of humanity and built up the edifice of their hopes, visions, dreams and faiths, have a supreme and incalculable quality of their own, which, indeed, may be called inspiration, because beyond the capacity of ordinary men. To me, I confess, Isaiah is as inspired as Shakespeare, but not more so Plato is as inspired as Job, though perhaps a little more so. One thing, at all events, is indisputable—that if you mark off certain writings in a class by themselves as inspired, they may be endowed with a kind of sanctity of their own, but they will always be imperfectly understood, and rarely receive their due appreciation. They are locked up, but not read, or else they are read in mechanical, conventional fashion, as not having much to do with the busy life of the world.
Alone on their pinnacle they are, it may be, worshipped from afar, but never lovingly handled by men immersed in business and working in the heat of the day. To study the Bible as literature we must, I think, get rid of the misleading connotations of inspiration, and frankly subject it to scholarly and enlightened criticism.
Directly this embargo is removed the whole aspect of affairs is changed, nor will the result be so dreadful as some simple religious minds suppose. In the long run we shall admire with a better grace, because we have obtained reasons for our admiration which appeal to our intelligence. The process, no doubt, will be a long one, and will occasionally be not a little disconcerting. We shall find, for instance, that the two Books of Chronicles constitute "a literary forgery,"1 and if we are honest men we must not hesitate to call them so. We shall find that the Book of Esther is an almost shocking example of Jewish intolerance and spite. We shall discover that the Jews derived their ideas of cosmogony mainly from Babylonia, and that the laws of Moses were largely indebted to the code of Hammurabi. We shall become aware that a great deal was put under the names of David and Isaiah which neither of these two eminent men could possibly have written, and that, indeed, all the early documents of the Hebrews were subjected to a series of revisions which in many cases conceal and distort their original meaning. We shall also find grave reason to doubt the precise time and the precise manner in which the Canon of scriptures was framed. There was something absolutely arbitrary in the principles according to which some books were included and others excluded from the sacred Canon, and it is possible, though not certain, that we may have to come down as late as to the ninth century A.D. for the final arrangement of the Canon itself. Many other conclusions may have to be formed on which I need not at present enlarge. The only point I wish to urge here is that if the Bible is to be regarded as literature we must be no more afraid of the results of textual criticism than we should be in accepting the work of scholars on the
1 The phrase belongs to Cornill.