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From An Introduction to the History of History, by James T. Shotwell; Columbia University Press; New York; 1922; pp. 79-85.





WHEN we turn from these poor and thin records of the great empires of the East to the history of that little branch of the Semites which clung to the perilous post on the land-bridge between the Euphrates and the Nile, the Hebrews of Palestine, we are struck at once with the comparative wealth of its national annals. In contrast with the product of Egypt or Babylonia, the Bible stands out as an epoch-making achievement. A composite work of many centuries, filled with much that the historian rejects, it yet embodies the first historical work of genuinely national importance which has come down to us.1 Higher criticism has robbed it of its unique distinction as a special revelation of Jehovah, denied the historicity of its account of the Creation and destroyed the claim of the legends of the patriarchs to be regarded as authentic; the great name of Moses disappears as the author of the Pentateuch, and that of David from the book of Psalms; the story of Joseph becomes a romance, the Decalogue a statement of late prophetic ideals; the old familiar books dissolve into their component parts, 80 written at different times and by different hands. In short, a national record, of varying value and varying historical reliability, has replaced the Bible of the churches, of stately uniform text and unvarying authority. Nevertheless, it is possible to claim that, judged as historical material, the old Testament stands higher today than when its text was protected with the sanctions of religion. For it was not until its exceptional and sacred character was denied that it could be appraised by the standards of history and its value as a repository of national, if not of world, story be fairly appreciated. So long as the distinction existed which exalted the Jewish scriptures as sacred inspiration above the rest of the world’s literature, the historicity of the Old Testament had to be accepted on a different basis from that of other narratives. Sacred and profane history are by nature incomparable; for the author of the one is God, of the other, man. Now, no higher tribute could be paid to the historical worth of the Old Testament than the statement that, when considered upon the profane basis of human authorship, it still remains one of the greatest products in the history of History, a record of national tradition, outlook and aspiration, produced by a poor, harassed, semi-barbarous people torn by feud and swept by conquest, which yet retains the undying charm of genuine art and the universal appeal of human interest. That is not to say that, viewed from the standpoint of modern history, it is a remarkable performance; for while it embodies some passages of great power and lasting beauty, the narrative is often awkward, self-contradictory, clogged with genealogies and overloaded with minute and tiresome ceremonial instructions. The historian, however, should not judge it from the modern standpoint. He should not compare Genesis with Ranke, but with the product of Egypt and Assyria. Judged in the light of its own time the literature of the Jews is unique in scope as in power. It is the social expression of a people moving up from barbarism to civilization; and if its pastoral tales reveal here and there the savage Bedouin and its courtly chronicle is touched with the exaggerations of hero-myths, if its priestly reforms and prophetic morals are allowed to obscure the currents of more worldly politics, all of these elements but mirror a changing outlook of different ages in the evolution of one of the most highly gifted peoples of the ancient world.


The trouble has been that this mass of literary remains has been taken for something other than what it was. The rabbis came to view its last editorial revision as the authoritative and divine statement of the whole world’s story, and the theologians of succeeding centuries accepted their outlook with unquestioning faith. In short, the Bible became more and more unhistorical as it became more and more sacred. Higher criticism, viewing the texts historically, at last reveals their setting in their own time and place, and presents them as a national product instead of a record of creation in the words of the Creator. For the former it is adequate, for the latter no doctrinal apologies could save it from the shafts of ridicule.

The most important service, however, which higher criticism has rendered the Old Testament, is that it has allowed us to distinguish between the validity of different parts, to detect the naïve folk-tale in which Jahveh and the patriarchs meet at old hill-sanctuaries and the late priestly narrative reconstructing the whole in terms of the temple at Jerusalem. The finer passages are no longer involved in the fate of the rest. It is therefore possible to appreciate the genuine achievements of the chief historians of Israel for the first time.

The Bible, as the name implies, is a collection of books.2 It is not a single, consistent whole, but a miscellany. The first step in understanding it is to realize that it comprises the literary heritage of a nation, — all that has survived, or nearly so, of an antiquity of many centuries. It includes legends from the camps of nomads, borrowings from Babylon, Egypt and Persia, annals of royal courts, laws, poems and prophecies. It preserves these, not in their original form, but in fragments recast or reset to suit the purpose of a later day. For, down to the very close of Jewish history the process of editing and re-editing this huge, conglomerate mass went on. Moreover, as the editors were theologians rather than historians, the result was as bad for history as it has been accounted good for theology, and the historian today has to undo most of 82 their work to reach the various layers of sources upon which they built the Bible as we know it, — sources which represent the real heritage of the ancient days. One must dig for these beneath the present text, just as one digs the soil of ancient cities for the streets and walls of former times. For the literary and the material monuments of a people share a somewhat similar fate. The Bible of today stands like some modern Athens or Rome upon the fragments of its former elements. The legends and laws of the early time are buried deep beneath the structures of later ages. More than once they have been burned over by conquest and civil feud, and, when restored, built up to suit new plans and different purposes. Today, however, the historian can lay bare the various strata, recover the ancient landmarks, and from their remains reconstruct in imagination each successive stage of the story. So, like the archæologist, who sees not merely the city of the present or of its classic splendor, but the cities of every era in the long, eventful past, the student of higher criticism can now trace the process of the formation of the Bible from the crude, primitive beginnings — the tenements of barbarian thought — to the period when its contents were laid out in the blocks of books as we have them now, faced with the marble of unchangeable text, and around them all were flung the sacred walls of canonicity. The walls are now breached; and the exploring scientist can wander at will through the historic texts, unhampered by any superstitious fears. We shall follow him — hurriedly.

There was once a historian of our southern states who prepared himself for his life’s work in the highly controversial period of the Civil Wall by taking a doctorate in mediæval history. In an alien field, where his personal feelings could not warp his judgment, he learned the scientific temper. Something of his discipline is incumbent upon every student of the Bible. Let us imagine, for instance, that instead of the Jewish scriptures we are talking of those of the Greeks. Suppose that the heritage of Hellas had been preserved to us in the form of a Bible. What would be the character of the book? We should begin, perhaps, with a few passages from Hesiod on the birth of the gods and the dawn of civilization mingled with fragments of the Iliad and both set into long excerpts from Herodotus. The dialogues of Plato might be given by Homeric heroes 83 and the text of the great dramatists (instead of the prophets) be preserved interspersed one with another and clogged with the uninspired and uninspiring comments of Alexandrian savants. Then imagine that the sense of their authority was so much obscured as centuries passed, that philosophers — for philosophers were to Greece what theologians were to Israel — came to believe that the large part of this composite work of history and philosophy had been first written down by Solon as the deliverance of the oracle of Apollo at Delphi. Then, finally, imagine that the text became stereotyped and sacred, even the words taboo, and became the heritage of alien peoples who knew nothing more of Greek history than what this compilation contained. Such, with some little exaggeration, would be a Hellenic Bible after the fashion of the Bible of the Jews. If the comparison be a little overdrawn there is no danger but that we shall make sufficient mental reservations to prevent us from carrying it too far. Upon the whole, so far as form and structure go, the analogy holds remarkably well.

The Jews divided their scriptures into three main parts: The Law or Torah, the Prophets, and a miscellany loosely termed “The Writings.” The Law is better known to Christians by the name given it by the Jews of Alexandria when they translated it into Greek, the Pentateuch3 — or five books — or by the more definite title of “The Five Books of Moses,” an attribution which rests on a late Jewish tradition.4 It is with these books that we have mainly to deal, for they furnish most of the fundamental historical problems of the Old Testament; but the finest narrative lies rather in the second group, which included as well as the books of prophecies, the four histories, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings.5 The third 84 division, the “Writings” or “Scriptures,” of which the Psalms, Job and Proverbs are typical, contained as well some of the later histories — the Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah.6

To the first of these groups we now turn.


The higher criticism of the Old Testament and its analysis into its constituent parts goes back to the middle of the eighteenth century, and to the work of Dr. J. Astruc, Conjectures sur les mémoires originaux dont il parôit que Moyse se servit pour composer le livre de la Genèse, published in 1753. Slowly but steadily during the century following, scholarship gained upon prejudice, but it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that the doors were really thrown wide open to criticism by the great work of J. Wellhausen. His Prolegomena to the History of Israel (English translation, 1885) and his article Israel and those by W. Robertson Smith in the ninth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica marked the end of an era. The modern literature is so vast that only a few references can be given here. Most of the important foreign works have been translated, and the articles in the leading encyclopædias may be turned to for introductory outlines and bibliographies of specific sections. Popular introductions to the subject are to be found in G. F. Moore, The Literature of the Old Testament (Home University Library, 1913); G. B. Gray A Critical Introduction to the Old Testament (1913); H. T. Fowler, A History of the Literature of Ancient Israel from the Earliest Times to 135 B.C. (1912). Other works are S. R. Driver, An Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament (9th ed., 1913); C. H. Cornill, Introduction to the Canonical Books of the Old Testament (tr. 1907); E. Kautzsch, An Outline of the History of the Literature of the Old Testament (tr. 1899). For an edition of the books of the Old Testament based on the results of modern scholarship, see C. F. Kent, Student’s Old Testament (5 vols., 1904-1914), esp. Vol. I, “Beginnings of Hebrew History,” and Vol. II, “Israel’s Historical and Biographical Narratives.” See also the large commentaries on the various books of the Old Testament, especially those in the series of the International Critical Commentary and The Expositor’s Bible. For the relation of Hebrew history to general Semitic history, see A. Jeremias, The Old Testament in the Light of the Ancient East (2 vols., tr. 1911) (a book to be used with caution); G. A. Barton, A Sketch of Semitic Origins, Social and Religious (1902); and the works of R. W. Rogers and Morris Jastrow noted above. For the general history of Israel, see the monumental works of H. Ewald, The History of Israel (8 vols., tr. 1869-1886) which, though old, is still useful in many parts, 85 and H. Grætz, History of the Jews (5 vols., tr. 1891-1898) esp. Vol. I. Other histories of the Hebrews are: R. I. Ottley, A Short History of the Hebrews to the Roman Period (1901); C. F. Kent, History of the Hebrew People (2 vols., 1896-1897); Heroes and Crises of Early Hebrew History (1908); Founders and Rulers of United Israel (1908); C. H. Cornill, History of the People of Israel (tr. 1898, 4th ed., 1909); H. P. Smith, Old Testament History (1903); R. Kittel, History of the Hebrews (2 vols., tr. 1895-1896); H. Guthe, Geschichte des Volkes Israel (3d ed., 1914); W. F. Badè, The Old Testament in the Light of Today (1915). See, in general, W. Robertson Smith, The Old Testament in the Jewish Church (2d ed., 1902). There is a short history of the higher criticism by A. Duff, A History of Old Testament Criticism (1910), which is useful for a sketch of Jewish antecedents. Those wishing to read the Bible for study purposes should use the American Revision, Standard Edition (1901).


1   The treatment of the historical records of the Jews is here taken up from the standpoint of the completed output, the Bible as we now have it. This is mainly for the sake of clarity. A more historical treatment would be to begin with the elements as they existed in the earliest days and bring the story down, as it really happened, instead of going backwards, analyzing the completed text. The historical treatment has been admirably followed out by H. Schmidt in his booklet in the Religionsgeschichtliche Volksbücher series (Series II, No. 16), entitled Die Geschichtschreibung im alten Testament (1911). The volume by Julius Bewer in this series (of the Records of Civilization, to be published shortly), The Literature of the Old Testament in its Historical Development, should be at hand to develop, and perhaps to correct, the points touched upon in these pages.

2  βίβλος was the inner bark of the papyrus, hence applied to the paper made from it. From this it was applied to the book made of the paper. βιβλία (bible) is the plural of βιβλίον a diminutive of βίβλος. Vide supra, Chap. III.

3  They are also responsible for the names of the separate books, Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Leviticus. Numbers (Numeri) comes from the Latin. It is customary now to group with these five books, Joshua, which is closely connected both in form and matter. This makes a Hexateuch instead of a Pentateuch.

4  This attribution of the Pentateuch to Moses is probably found in II Chronicles 2318, 254, 3512, Ezra 32, 618; Nehemiah 131; Daniel 911, 13. It is found in Philo (fl. at the time of Christ), and in Josephus (first century A.D.) It also occurs in the New Testament.

5  The “Prophets” included the three major prophets, Israel, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and “the Twelve” (i.e. minor prophets), whose prophecies formed one book.

6  The full list of “the Scriptures” is: Ruth, Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles.