CHAPTER XVII. FROM BABEL TO COMPARATIVE PHILOLOGY.
I. THE SACRED THEORY IN ITS FIRST FORM.
AMONG the sciences which have served as entering wedges into the heavy mass of ecclesiastical orthodoxy--to cleave it, disintegrate it, and let the light of Christianity into it--none perhaps has done a more striking work than Comparative Philology. In one very important respect the history of this science differs from that of any other; for it is the only one whose conclusions theologians have at last fully adopted as the result of their own studies. This adoption teaches a great lesson, since, while it has destroyed theological views cherished during many centuries, and obliged the Church to accept theories directly contrary to the plain letter of our sacred books, the result is clearly seen to have helped Christianity rather than to have hurt it. It has certainly done much to clear our religious foundations of the dogmatic rust which was eating into their structure.
How this result was reached, and why the Church has so fully accepted it, I shall endeavour to show in the present chapter.
At a very early period in the evolution of civilization men began to ask questions regarding language; and the answers to these questions were naturally embodied in the myths, legends, and chronicles of their sacred books.
Among the foremost of these questions were three: "Whence came language?" "Which was the first language?" "How came the diversity of language?"
The answer to the first of these was very simple: each people naturally held that language was given it directly or indirectly by some special or national deity of its own; thus, to the Chaldeans by Oannes, to the Egyptians by Thoth, to the Hebrews by Jahveh.
The Hebrew answer is embodied in the great poem which opens our sacred books. Jahveh talks with Adam and is perfectly understood; the serpent talks with Eve and is perfectly understood; Jahveh brings the animals before Adam, who bestows on each its name. Language, then, was God-given and complete. Of the fact that every language is the result of a growth process there was evidently, among the compilers of our sacred books, no suspicion,
The answer to the second of these questions was no less simple. As, very generally, each nation believed its own chief divinity to be "a god above all gods,"--as each believed itself "a chosen people,"--as each believed its own sacred city the actual centre of the earth, so each believed its own language to be the first--the original of all. This answer was from the first taken for granted by each "chosen people," and especially by the Hebrews: throughout their whole history, whether the Almighty talks with Adam in the Garden or writes the commandments on Mount Sinai, he uses the same language--the Hebrew.
The answer to the third of these questions, that regarding the diversity of languages, was much more difficult. Naturally, explanations of this diversity frequently gave rise to legends somewhat complicated.
The "law of wills and causes," formulated by Comte, was exemplified here as in so many other cases. That law is, that, when men do not know the natural causes of things, they simply attribute them to wills like their own; thus they obtain a theory which provisionally takes the place of science, and this theory forms a basis for theology.
Examples of this recur to any thinking reader of history. Before the simpler laws of astronomy were known, the sun was supposed to be trundled out into the heavens every day and the stars hung up in the firmament every night by the right hand of the Almighty. Before the laws of comets were known, they were thought to be missiles hurled by an angry God at a wicked world. Before the real cause of lightning was known, it was supposed to be the work of a good God in his wrath, or of evil spirits in their malice. Before the laws of meteorology were known, it was thought that rains were caused by the Almighty or his angels opening "the windows of heaven" to let down upon the earth "the waters that be above the firmament." Before the laws governing physical health were known, diseases were supposed to result from the direct interposition of the Almighty or of Satan. Before the laws governing mental health were known, insanity was generally thought to be diabolic possession. All these early conceptions were naturally embodied in the sacred books of the world, and especially in our own.[]
So, in this case, to account for the diversity of tongues, the direct intervention of the Divine Will was brought in. As this diversity was felt to be an inconvenience, it was attributed to the will of a Divine Being in anger. To explain this anger, it was held that it must have been provoked by human sin.
Out of this conception explanatory myths and legends grew as thickly and naturally as elms along water-courses; of these the earliest form known to us is found in the Chaldean accounts, and nowhere more clearly than in the legend of the Tower of Babel.
The inscriptions recently found among the ruins of Assyria have thrown a bright light into this and other scriptural myths and legends: the deciphering of the characters in these inscriptions by Grotefend, and the reading of the texts by George Smith, Oppert, Sayce, and others, have given us these traditions more nearly in their original form than they appear in our own Scriptures.
The Hebrew story of Babel, like so many other legends in the sacred books of the world, combined various elements. By a play upon words, such as the history of myths and legends frequently shows, it wrought into one fabric the earlier explanations of the diversities of human speech and of the great ruined tower at Babylon. The name Babel (_bab-el_) means "Gate of God" or "Gate of the Gods." All modern scholars of note agree that this was the real significance of the name; but the Hebrew verb which signifies _to confound_ resembles somewhat the word Babel, so that out of this resemblance, by one of the most common processes in myth formation, came to the Hebrew mind an indisputable proof that the tower was connected with the confusion of tongues, and this became part of our theological heritage.
In our sacred books the account runs as follows:
"And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
"And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
"And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.
"And they said, Go to, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
"And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
"And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
"Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.
"So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
"Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth." (Genesis xi, 1-9.)
Thus far the legend had been but slightly changed from the earlier Chaldean form in which it has been found in the Assyrian inscriptions. Its character is very simple: to use the words of Prof. Sayce, "It takes us back to the age when the gods were believed to dwell in the visible sky, and when man, therefore, did his best to rear his altars as near them as possible." And this eminent divine might have added that it takes us back also to a time when it was thought that Jehovah, in order to see the tower fully, was obliged to come down from his seat above the firmament.
As to the real reasons for the building of the towers which formed so striking a feature in Chaldean architecture--any one of which may easily have given rise to the explanatory myth which found its way into our sacred books--there seems a substantial agreement among leading scholars that they were erected primarily as parts of temples, but largely for the purpose of astronomical observations, to which the Chaldeans were so devoted, and to which their country, with its level surface and clear atmosphere, was so well adapted. As to the real cause of the ruin of such structures, one of the inscribed cylinders discovered in recent times, speaking of a tower which most of the archaeologists identify with the Tower of Babel, reads as follows:
"The building named the Stages of the Seven Spheres, which was the Tower of Borsippa, had been built by a former king. He had completed forty-two cubits, but he did not finish its head. During the lapse of time, it had become ruined; they had not taken care of the exit of the waters, so that rain and wet had penetrated into the brickwork; the casing of burned brick had swollen out, and the terraces of crude brick are scattered in heaps."
We can well understand how easily "the gods, assisted by the winds," as stated in the Chaldean legend, could overthrow a tower thus built.
It may be instructive to compare with the explanatory myth developed first by the Chaldeans, and in a slightly different form by the Hebrews, various other legends to explain the same diversity of tongues. The Hindu legend of the confusion of tongues is as follows:
"There grew in the centre of the earth the wonderful `world tree,' or `knowledge tree.' It was so tall that it reached almost to heaven. It said in its heart, `I shall hold my head in heaven and spread my branches over all the earth, and gather all men together under my shadow, and protect them, and prevent them from separating.' But Brahma, to punish the pride of the tree, cut off its branches and cast them down on the earth, when they sprang up as wata trees, and made differences of belief and speech and customs to prevail on the earth, to disperse men upon its surface."
Still more striking is a Mexican legend: according to this, the giant Xelhua built the great Pyramid of Cholula, in order to reach heaven, until the gods, angry at his audacity, threw fire upon the building and broke it down, whereupon every separate family received a language of its own.
Such explanatory myths grew or spread widely over the earth. A well-known form of the legend, more like the Chaldean than the Hebrew later form, appeared among the Greeks. According to this, the Aloidae piled Mount Ossa upon Olympus and Pelion upon Ossa, in their efforts to reach heaven and dethrone Jupiter.
Still another form of it entered the thoughts of Plato. He held that in the golden age men and beasts all spoke the same language, but that Zeus confounded their speech because men were proud and demanded eternal youth and immortality.[]
But naturally the version of the legend which most affected Christendom was that modification of the Chaldean form developed among the Jews and embodied in their sacred books. To a thinking man in these days it is very instructive. The coming down of the Almighty from heaven to see the tower and put an end to it by dispersing its builders, points to the time when his dwelling was supposed to be just above the firmament or solid vault above the earth: the time when he exercised his beneficent activity in such acts as opening "the windows of heaven" to give down rain upon the earth; in bringing out the sun every day and hanging up the stars every night to give light to the earth; in hurling comets, to give warning; in placing his bow in the cloud, to give hope; in coming down in the cool of the evening to walk and talk with the man he had made; in making coats of skins for Adam and Eve; in enjoying the odour of flesh which Noah burned for him; in eating with Abraham under the oaks of Mamre; in wrestling with Jacob; and in writing with his own finger on the stone tables for Moses.
So came the answer to the third question regarding language; and all three answers, embodied in our sacred books and implanted in the Jewish mind, supplied to the Christian Church the germs of a theological development of philology. These germs developed rapidly in the warm atmosphere of devotion and ignorance of natural law which pervaded the early Church, and there grew a great orthodox theory of language, which was held throughout Christendom, "always, everywhere, and by all," for nearly two thousand years, and to which, until the present century, all science has been obliged, under pains and penalties, to conform.
There did, indeed, come into human thought at an early period some suggestions of the modern scientific view of philology. Lucretius had proposed a theory, inadequate indeed, but still pointing toward the truth, as follows: "Nature impelled man to try the various sounds of the tongue, and so struck out the names of things, much in the same way as the inability to speak is seen in its turn to drive children to the use of gestures." But, among the early fathers of the Church, the only one who seems to have caught an echo of this utterance was St. Gregory of Nyssa: as a rule, all the other great founders of Christian theology, as far as they expressed themselves on the subject, took the view that the original language spoken by the Almighty and given by him to men was Hebrew, and that from this all other languages were derived at the destruction of the Tower of Babel. This doctrine was especially upheld by Origen, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine. Origen taught that "the language given at the first through Adam, the Hebrew, remained among that portion of mankind which was assigned not to any angel, but continued the portion of God himself." St. Augustine declared that, when the other races were divided by their own peculiar languages, Heber's family preserved that language which is not unreasonably believed to have been the common language of the race, and that on this account it was henceforth called Hebrew. St. Jerome wrote, "The whole of antiquity affirms that Hebrew, in which the Old Testament is written, was the beginning of all human speech."
Amid such great authorities as these even Gregory of Nyssa struggled in vain. He seems to have taken the matter very earnestly, and to have used not only argument but ridicule. He insists that God does not speak Hebrew, and that the tongue used by Moses was not even a pure dialect of one of the languages resulting from "the confusion." He makes man the inventor of speech, and resorts to raillery: speaking against his opponent Eunomius, he says that, "passing in silence his base and abject garrulity," he will "note a few things which are thrown into the midst of his useless or wordy discourse, where he represents God teaching words and names to our first parents, sitting before them like some pedagogue or grammar master." But, naturally, the great authority of Origen, Jerome, and Augustine prevailed; the view suggested by Lucretius, and again by St. Gregory of Nyssa, died, out; and "always, everywhere, and by all," in the Church, the doctrine was received that the language spoken by the Almighty was Hebrew,--that it was taught by him to Adam,--and that all other languages on the face of the earth originated from it at the dispersion attending the destruction of the Tower of Babel.[]
This idea threw out roots and branches in every direction, and so developed ever into new and strong forms. As all scholars now know, the vowel points in the Hebrew language were not adopted until at some period between the second and tenth centuries; but in the mediaeval Church they soon came to be considered as part of the great miracle,--as the work of the right hand of the Almighty; and never until the eighteenth century was there any doubt allowed as to the divine origin of these rabbinical additions to the text. To hesitate in believing that these points were dotted virtually by the very hand of God himself came to be considered a fearful heresy.
The series of battles between theology and science in the field of comparative philology opened just on this point, apparently so insignificant: the direct divine inspiration of the rabbinical punctuation. The first to impugn this divine origin of these vocal points and accents appears to have been a Spanish monk, Raymundus Martinus, in his _Pugio Fidei_, or Poniard of the Faith, which he put forth in the thirteenth century. But he and his doctrine disappeared beneath the waves of the orthodox ocean, and apparently left no trace. For nearly three hundred years longer the full sacred theory held its ground; but about the opening of the sixteenth century another glimpse of the truth was given by a Jew, Elias Levita, and this seems to have had some little effect, at least in keeping the germ of scientific truth alive.
The Reformation, with its renewal of the literal study of the Scriptures, and its transfer of all infallibility from the Church and the papacy to the letter of the sacred books, intensified for a time the devotion of Christendom to this sacred theory of language. The belief was strongly held that the writers of the Bible were merely pens in the hand of God (_Dei calami_). hence the conclusion that not only the sense but the words, letters, and even the punctuation proceeded from the Holy Spirit. Only on this one question of the origin of the Hebrew points was there any controversy, and this waxed hot. It began to be especially noted that these vowel points in the Hebrew Bible did not exist in the synagogue rolls, were not mentioned in the Talmud, and seemed unknown to St. Jerome; and on these grounds some earnest men ventured to think them no part of the original revelation to Adam. Zwingli, so much before most of the Reformers in other respects, was equally so in this. While not doubting the divine origin and preservation of the Hebrew language as a whole, he denied the antiquity of the vocal points, demonstrated their unessential character, and pointed out the fact that St. Jerome makes no mention of them. His denial was long the refuge of those who shared this heresy.
But the full orthodox theory remained established among the vast majority both of Catholics and Protestants. The attitude of the former is well illustrated in the imposing work of the canon Marini, which appeared at Venice in 1593, under the title of _Noah's Ark: A New Treasury of the Sacred Tongue_. The huge folios begin with the declaration that the Hebrew tongue was "divinely inspired at the very beginning of the world," and the doctrine is steadily maintained that this divine inspiration extended not only to the letters but to the punctuation.
Not before the seventeenth century was well under way do we find a thorough scholar bold enough to gainsay this preposterous doctrine. This new assailant was Capellus, Professor of Hebrew at Saumur; but he dared not put forth his argument in France: he was obliged to publish it in Holland, and even there such obstacles were thrown in his way that it was ten years before he published another treatise of importance.
The work of Capellus was received as settling the question by very many open-minded scholars, among whom was Hugo Grotius. But many theologians felt this view to be a blow at the sanctity and integrity of the sacred text; and in 1648 the great scholar, John Buxtorf the younger, rose to defend the orthodox citadel: in his _Anticritica_ he brought all his stores of knowledge to uphold the doctrine that the rabbinical points and accents had been jotted down by the right hand of God.
The controversy waxed hot: scholars like Voss and Brian Walton supported Capellus; Wasmuth and many others of note were as fierce against him. The Swiss Protestants were especially violent on the orthodox side; their formula consensus of 1675 declared the vowel points to be inspired, and three years later the Calvinists of Geneva, by a special canon, forbade that any minister should be received into their jurisdiction until he publicly confessed that the Hebrew text, as it to-day exists in the Masoretic copies, is, both as to the consonants and vowel points, divine and authentic.
While in Holland so great a man as Hugo Grotius supported the view of Capellus, and while in France the eminent Catholic scholar Richard Simon, and many others, Catholic and Protestant, took similar ground against this divine origin of the Hebrew punctuation, there was arrayed against them a body apparently overwhelming. In France, Bossuet, the greatest theologian that France has ever produced, did his best to crush Simon. In Germany, Wasmuth, professor first at Rostock and afterward at Kiel, hurled his _Vindiciae_ at the innovators. Yet at this very moment the battle was clearly won; the arguments of Capellus were irrefragable, and, despite the commands of bishops, the outcries of theologians, and the sneering of critics, his application of strictly scientific observation and reasoning carried the day.
Yet a casual observer, long after the fate of the battle was really settled, might have supposed that it was still in doubt. As is not unusual in theologic controversies, attempts were made to galvanize the dead doctrine into an appearance of life. Famous among these attempts was that made as late as the beginning of the eighteenth century by two Bremen theologians, Hase and Iken, They put forth a compilation in two huge folios simultaneously at Leyden and Amsterdam, prominent in which work is the treatise on _The Integrity of Scripture_, by Johann Andreas Danzius, Professor of Oriental Languages and Senior Member of the Philosophical Faculty of Jena, and, to preface it, there was a formal and fulsome approval by three eminent professors of theology at Leyden. With great fervour the author pointed out that "religion itself depends absolutely on the infallible inspiration, both verbal and literal, of the Scripture text"; and with impassioned eloquence he assailed the blasphemers who dared question the divine origin of the Hebrew points. But this was really the last great effort. That the case was lost was seen by the fact that Danzius felt obliged to use other missiles than arguments, and especially to call his opponents hard names. From this period the old sacred theory as to the origin of the Hebrew points may be considered as dead and buried.
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