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From An Introduction to the History of History, by James T. Shotwell; Columbia University Press; New York; 1922; pp. 108-113.




THERE still remains the question of how this mass of Hebrew writings took the form and shape in which it is known to us, as the Old Testament. The process was a long and slow one, and part of it has already been traced above. We recall how the legends of the earliest days were first thrown into connected written narrative in the eighth or ninth century B.C., in the schools of the prophets, as J and E, how then in the close of the seventh century they were combined (JE); how, about the same time, a code was prepared in Jerusalem in the name of Moses (D), then promulgated in the eighteenth year of the reign of Josiah (621 B.C.) and shortly afterward combined with the history (JED);.1 how during the exile a new ritual-law, traced to the influence of Ezekiel, was responsible for a new and thoroughgoing recasting of the narrative from a priestly standpoint (P) and then how, after various changes, the whole composite mass became our Hexateuch. One might expect from this, that the books of the Jews would go on developing, modified to the changing needs of successive ages, and so, to a certain extent, they did. But there was one influence making strongly against change. The texts themselves became sacred. The use of the Law, as the five “books of Moses” were termed, by the priests in the actual administration of justice may have had something to do in this process of crystallization, but a deeper reason lies in the very mystery of “the written word,” which attains an undue authority over all primitive minds and holds its tyranny even in the modern world of encyclopædias and newspapers. What is written attains a life of its own, and only here and there can one find the unfeeling skeptic indifferent to its fate. But when the word that is written is regarded as the utterance of God, — as in practically all early 109 codes of law, — the skeptic has little chance to commit his sacrilege.2

In Israel this respect for the scriptures attained the dignity of a separate superstition, one which was destined to cast its influence over the whole subsequent history of Jewish and of Christian thought. The early scribes had felt free to arrange and annotate the law as part of their work. Indeed, as we have seen, the law itself was a product of repeated revision and rectification. But from about the middle of the fifth century it became fixed and rigid,3 the object of religious reverence which protected itself by an enlarged use of old taboos. The books of “the Prophets,” — including, it will be recalled, the earlier histories, — were stereotyped into their canon by about two centuries later, about 250 B.C. The two lessons read in the synagogue were drawn, one from the law, the other from the prophets, so that the latter shared inevitably the fate of the former. The “scriptures,” or “hagiographa,” were not so easily moulded into place. The rabbis disputed long over what ones to accept, and were unable to come to final conclusions until after the Christians had begun to plunder the sacred arsenal for their revolt.

The difficulty lay in the test of inclusion or exclusion, which was not subject-matter but authorship. Only those scriptures were to be admitted which had been written by God, through inspired mediums as in the case of Law and Prophets. Such a test, however, made disagreement inevitable, since there was no ready way of establishing or denying the inspiration. History has never discovered other than two possible lines of evidence for assigning authorship: external evidence, such as that of witnesses who were present when the work was written or had access to knowledge as to how it was written, and internal evidence from the nature of the text. Although it was obviously presumptuous, involving the danger of blasphemy, for any man to use the second test consciously, since he would in the circumstances be making himself judge of what God should be credited with saying and what 110 not, nevertheless what could not be risked by the individual was done by the mass.4 A consensus fidelium, that “agreement among all those who believe,” was arrived at, as is the case with all doctrines truly catholic. In this process, however, the external test of authorship was used to an extent which really led to a study of the contents of the books involved. The books, it must be admitted, were already prepared for such a test, or readily adjusted themselves to it. In arrangement of time and circumstance, and miraculous evidences of the presence of the divine Author, the later books even protested somewhat too much, as the apocalyptic literature shows. Two historical devices were also used: ascribing books to authors already accepted in the canon as inspired, and the antedating of works to give them greater claim upon the credulity of the present. Psalms which were perhaps written as late as the Maccabean struggle were grouped with older ones, — all possibly being later than the Exile, — and attributed to David. Solomon was made responsible for wisdom of a later day, and thus poetry and proverb enriched the history of the royal period with a new and sophisticated myth. More interesting still to the historian is the antedating of prophecy, such as that of the book of Daniel. We know from its contents that it was written in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes (175-164 B.C.), yet it purports to come from the days of Nebuchadnezzar, over four centuries earlier. Upon the whole the exigencies of the situation produce a somewhat bewildering misappropriation of texts. But no higher critics were at hand, and the canon of the Old Testament was framed, — for two religions.5


The decisions of the rabbis enabled the Christians in their turn to meet pagan criticism entrenched behind a sacred text, and no greater tribute could be paid to the work of rabbi and theologian, or, perhaps, to the weakness of the critical attitude in man, than that from that day of warring creeds to the present the citadel of faith and inspiration has held against the assaults of inquiry and historical skepticism, and still asserts an almost undiminished sway. The early Christians, however, did not at first pay any very strict attention to the opinions of the rabbis as to which of the “scriptures” were canonical and which were not. They were eager for them all, especially for those that bore Messianic prophecy; which put a premium upon some of the very ones which the rabbis were inclined to discard. As a matter of fact the test of authorship as over against that of the contents of writings again broke down. A new consensus fidelium had to be satisfied. “The Christians discovered no reason in the books themselves why Esther, for example, should be inspired and Judith not; or why Ecclesiastes, with its skepticism about the destiny of the soul, should be divinely revealed, and the Wisdom of Solomon, with its eloquent defence of immortality, a purely human production; or, again, why the Proverbs of Solomon were Scripture, and the Proverbs of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus) nothing but profane wisdom.”6 Christian scholarship did not challenge this process until Jerome prepared his famous text at the close of the fourth century.

The mention of Jerome suggests the last problem to be considered, the origin of the text as we have it now. The Christians used the Greek, not the Hebrew Bible. This had been translated into the Greek from the Hebrew,7 by Jews of Alexandria. Legend had it, as also recorded by Josephus,8 that the law was translated in seventy-two days by seventy-two persons; hence the name Septuagint9 by which the Greek Old Testament became known. In 112 reality it was the work of different scholars through different ages, and was probably not completed before the second century B.C. It was from this Greek text that the Christian Bible was drawn at first. During the second and third century there was some stirring among Christian scholars to have a Hebrew collation. The greatest of these scholars, Origen, drew up a collection of six parallel texts,10 but it was Jerome who set to work actually to procure a reliable Latin translation for common use in the West, based upon Hebrew texts, in the notion that, being Hebrew, they were more genuine than the Greek version, — a notion which turned out to be mistaken, however, since the Septuagint was in reality from older Hebrew texts than those used by him. In preparing this edition, Jerome took the Jewish point of view as to what books should be included as inspired and what ones should not, thus denying the canonicity of scriptures which were in constant use, and modifying texts by his new translation to the disturbance of the faith of believers, — as Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, ventured to admonish him.11 The Church of the Middle Ages in general tended to follow the liberal view of the churchman rather than the narrow interpretation of the scholar, and when Luther, and Protestantism following him, made the Hebrew Bible the test, reverting to the position of Jerome,12 the Catholic Church at Trent declared on the other hand that these works, e.g. Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus and the Maccabees, were an intrinsic part of the canonical scriptures, adding the usual sanction — “If any man does not accept as sacred and canonical these books, entire, with all their parts, as they have been customarily read in the Catholic Church and are contained in the ancient common Latin edition . . .  let him be anathema.13


It is easy to see how the skeptics of the eighteenth century might reverse the doubt of the early Christians and demand not why one should limit the list of inspired books but why one should regard any of them as inspired at all. Such doubts made possible genuine textual criticism, which began with Astruc in the eighteenth century. The development of philology and archæology supplied the tools for the two-fold task of textual studies on the one hand and of external comparison with the rest of ancient history upon the other, with the result that we now know more of how the Bible was put together than the very scribes who copied or rabbis who used it in the immemorial service of the ancient synagogue; as we know more of the history of Israel than the very authors who compiled its last revision.


1   This incidentally shows how highly the historical texts were regarded, that D should be united with them. For D came with authority.

2  The same authority may attach to spoken words, but their reporters are bound to modify them in terms of their own time and thought. The beliefs about the logos occur to one in this connection.

3   Cf. Nehemiah, 8-10.

4  This is an excellent example of a most important principle, familiar to sociologists and anthropologists, but strangely ignored by historians. All the world’s history is affected by it. We have ordinarily considered it as belonging exclusively to a myth-making society; but we are still making myths and resting content with our consensus fidelium.

5  The authoritative form was apparently settled for the Jews at a congress or council of rabbis held at Jamnia, the successor to destroyed Jerusalem, in the year 90 A.D. Josephus, however, in his book Against Apion (Bk. I, Chap. VIII), written 93-95 A.D., states that the Old Testament has 22 books, whereas the regular Jewish version has 24. They are: the five books of the Law; eight books of “Prophets,” including Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, “the twelve” major prophets, and the minor prophets, the latter as one book; and eleven books of “Scriptures,” Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah together, Chronicles. The Christians, by dividing Samuel, Kings, Ezra, and Chronicles and counting the rest separately, reckon thirty-nine books.

6  G. F. Moore, The Literature of the Old Testament, p. 14. Cf. C. A. Briggs, General Introduction to the Study of the Holy Scriptures (1899), pp. 118 sqq., and articles in Encyclopædia Britannica and Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible.

7  A few chapters in Ezra (48-618) and Daniel (24-7) are in Aramaic .

8  Antiquities of the Jews, Bk. XII, Chap. II.

9  From the Latin, septuaginta, seventy. The name strictly speaking is applicable only to the Pentateuch. But it was loosely extended to cover the whole of the Old Testament.

10  The famous Hexapla. They were: (1) The Hebrew Text, (2) Transliteration of Hebrew Text into Greek Letters, (3) Greek versions of Aquila, (4) of Symmachus, (5) of the Septuagint, (6) of Theodotion; 3, 4, and 6 are from the second century A.D.

11  This correspondence between Augustine and Jerome offers an illuminating section in Christian historiography. Augustine not only stood for the traditional text, he was in favor of the traditional inclusion of Judith, Tobit, First and Second Maccabees, Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon. Cf. De Doctrina Christiana, Bk. II, Chap. VIII, written 397 A.D.

12  Luther placed the Apocrypha between Old and New Testaments, with this further caption, “Books that are not equally esteemed with the Holy Scriptures, but nevertheless are profitable and good to read.”

13  In the fourth session.