The Biography of the Bible, by Ernest Sutherland Bates, , at sacred-texts.com
p. 1p. 2 p. 3
A GREAT BOOK is a living organism. Months, years, or centuries may go into its gestation. When finally composed and written down, it can be said to be born, but only born. It then grows and develops through the interpretations of generation after generation of readers, critics, editors, and translators, each adding something, great or little, to its expanding magnitude.
The life of the Bible, above all other books, is a life made up of countless lives, embodying their joys and agonies, their visions, their defeats and aspirations. Four thousand years cling about it. A full millennium of myths and legends passed into it; another millennium was consumed in the writing; bitter battles over canon and creed occupied a third; a fourth has seen the ever-continuing translations into modern tongues.
No individual, no Caesar or Napoleon, has had such a part in the world's history as this book. Wars, reformations, martyrdoms, religions, lie heavy on its head; men fought and died over its meaning; down
through the ages it has continued to evolve, affecting for good and also for ill millions and millions of lives.
Not until the fourth century A.D. was it called the Bible. Saint John Chrysostom, the golden-mouthed, well deserved that sobriquet when he named the collection of Jewish and Christian sacred scriptures the Bible—one book, the Book. For in spite of the length of time consumed in its creation and in spite of the greatest diversity in the literary and moral value of the various parts, the unity of the Bible is its most compelling feature, so compelling that centuries after the original work was completed, when men of other races and languages sat down to translate the Bible, although they usually collaborated in large groups, nevertheless under the spell of the original they often found themselves writing as one man. This unusual and significant literary phenomenon appeared even in the Septuagint of the first translators, the legendary two and seventy Jewish elders of Alexandria who, according to the tale, in two and seventy days of the third century B.C. rendered the Old Testament into Greek. In all these cases, the quality of the translation sprang from the quality of the original.
When one asks, however, just wherein resides
this unity, so evident to sense that it has always been overemphasized rather than underemphasized, the answer is not easy. The older and still customary explanation that it consists in a definite type of religion maintained from first to last will not bear scrutiny. The religion of the earliest parts of the Old Testament is a tribal religion, strong and stern, intolerant, only half ethical and not even consistently monotheistic; the Prophets introduced nothing less than a religious and moral revolution; the later books of the Old Testament reveal the conflict between humanistic and nationalistic aspirations; and the coming of Christianity brought so great a change that the Jews themselves could not accept it. Yet all these varying attitudes are expressed fully and powerfully in the Bible.
Nor can one say with truth that the Bible is unified because it is always inspired by some religious viewpoint, however divergent the successive viewpoints may be. The collection of love lyrics known as the Song of Songs is purely secular, and the greater part of Ecclesiastes is a work of skeptical philosophy. Yet these are included, and one feels that the pattern is not broken.
The one enduring characteristic which does mark the Bible from first to last is a pronounced attitude
of mind that reveals itself in literary style and content.
The content of the Bible is Man. Alone among the ancient nations, the Jews accepted Man as the object of chief interest. Their religion, while in all its manifold forms preaching absolute submission to God, in another way made God himself subordinate to Man; where half of the Greek myths deal with the doings of the gods among themselves, gods who think only occasionally of the creatures of a day on earth, Jehovah is shown as making the destiny of Man his chief concern. Where the pagan gods are transparent personifications of natural phenomena gradually humanized, Jehovah is fundamentally Man himself gradually idealized to the height of human imaginings of good.
The content furthermore is Average Man. There are no Homeric heroes in the Bible. Abraham is brave and cowardly by turns, Jacob is loyal and a trickster, Joseph indulges in the vainglorious babblings of youth, the noblehearted David under the influence of lust will cause the murder of a devoted servitor, Solomon's wisdom cannot keep him from debauchery. As a result, where Agamemnon and Achilles and all the highborn heroes of Greek tragedy move us but aesthetically, our spirits are
touched simply and directly by our sorrowful twin brothers who acted so like ourselves centuries ago. We can find Abraham in the flesh on a Vermont farm, meet Jacob in the streets of New York, encounter Joseph in any gentle but pampered favorite child, and discover degenerate Solomons in night clubs from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast.
Finally, the content is Collective Man. Behind these sharply defined individuals, one is always conscious of their ancestors, and stretching before them one sees the long line of their descendants. A compensatory dignity accrues to the persons in the tale from their relation to the social whole. The group, the nation, and ultimately all mankind form a perpetual background against which the characters stand out the more plainly but into which they eventually merge and their relation to which constitutes the criterion of their conduct.
From this interest in the average man and the collective man springs the democratic and revolutionary character of the Bible. The constant admonitions to heed the poor, the widow, and the orphan; the diatribes against the corruptions of the court, the law, the men of power and wealth; the ever-repeated pleas for social justice; to the extent that these have entered into the thought of the
world we have in the first instance to thank the Bible.
The literary style of the Bible is in harmony with the unusual content. It is a style that moves effortlessly from the familiar to the sublime; from Job scratching himself among the potsherds to the same Job holding converse with God in the whirlwind. The Jews were the first realists.
Even the Jewish myths were localized and definite. Not only does the Ark of Noah come to rest upon Mount Ararat but its exact size is recorded—three hundred cubits by fifty by thirty. Abraham, visited by three angels, has water brought to wash their feet and tells his wife Sarah to "make ready three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes upon the hearth." In the Book of Tobit, Asmodeus, that wicked spirit, slayer of husbands, is put to flight by the homely ritual of raising a smoke from the heart and liver of a fish laid over smoldering ashes. Such precise vivid details lend verisimilitude to the most fantastic narratives. The persistence of the belief in the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures and in their complete inerrancy is largely due to the impression on the reader that he is hearing for the first time a story told by an eyewitness of the events recorded.
The Jewish imagination, running always to the concrete, emphasized action. One could say with slight exaggeration that the Jews were behaviorists in their psychology, leaving motivation to be inferred from deeds, uninterested in it otherwise. The style moves with the swiftness of narrative as well in reflective passages as in those directly concerned with events. Wisdom is condensed into antitheses and aphorisms. Nature is never presented for itself in set pictures but as momentary illustration or background. All is condensation, concision, brevity. Enlargement comes not through the logical development of an idea but rather through concentration upon a single idea until it is seen to be exemplified everywhere, swelling to amplitude through reiteration, as in music or in life itself the same theme is repeated with multiplying significance.
Thence comes the characteristic parallelism of word, phrase, or strophe which forms the chief basis of Hebrew versification. Less of a deliberate artifact than the quantitative structure of classical poetry or the accentual basis of modern systems, it lay close to prose, in the sense that writers, as their mood heightened or relaxed, could move from prose to verse, from verse to prose, without
violent transition. While as in other early poetry there is usually present a liturgical flavor of chanting that effectually sets the verse of the Bible apart from modern rhythms, the form undoubtedly suggested the poetic prose and free verse of Ossian, Blake, Carlyle, Ruskin, Walt Whitman, and other moderns.
Thus, both in content and in form, the greater part of the Bible when taken directly and not hardened into dogma, has been throughout history a freeing and liberalizing force. Unfortunately, freedom, obtainable only through law, is often lost through law. Much in the Bible itself proved a bondage to the Jews, and to this very day passages torn from their textual or historical context still furnish instruments to those who love to inflict or suffer bondage. Through its very closeness to life, the Bible has shared the fortunes of life. Its biography, like that of individuals and nations, is a tale of conflicting forces, and of struggles alike internal and external.