The Biography of the Bible, by Ernest Sutherland Bates, , at sacred-texts.com
HEINRICH HEINE, with customary grace, wrote as follows of the Bible:
"The Bible, what a book! Large and wise as the world based on the abysses of creation, and towering aloft into the blue secrets of heaven. Sunrise and sunset, promise and fulfilment, birth and death—the whole drama of humanity—are contained in this one book. It is the Book of Books. The Jews may readily be consoled at the loss of Jerusalem, and the Temple, and Ark of the Covenant, and all the crown jewels of King Solomon. Such forfeiture is as naught when weighed against the Bible, the imperishable treasure that they have saved. If I do not err, it was Mahomet who named the Jews the 'People of the Book,' a name which in Eastern countries has remained theirs to the present day, and is deeply significant. That one book is to the Jews their country. Within the well-fenced boundaries of that book they live and have their being; they enjoy their inalienable citizenship, are strong to admiration; thence none can dislodge them.
[paragraph continues] Absorbed in the perusal of their sacred book, they little heeded the changes that were wrought in the real world around them. Nations rose and vanished, States flourished and decayed, revolutions raged throughout the earth,—but they, the Jews, sat poring over this book, unconscious of the wild chase of time that rushed on above their heads."
The Jews wrote the Bible, and the Bible preserved the Jews. In antiquity it saved them from being absorbed and assimilated in the life of their Babylonian and Persian conquerors, from, losing their language and their laws, as the Briton yielded his to the Saxon and the Saxon his to the Norman. It enabled them to resist the intellectual Greek and the all-powerful Roman. And now, for nearly two thousand years it has kept them alive, even without a nation or a home. Their survival has not been due to any biological peculiarities of the "Jewish race," for ethnology recognizes no such race. The blood of every nation runs in Jewish veins today. But their religion, their laws, and their customs, enshrined in the Bible, have constituted a cultural inheritance outrunning space, outlasting time. That there are Jews in the world today is solely owing to the enduring influence of the Bible in their lives. Their experience is the supreme example in history of the
power of the written word. What all the Greek poets, philosophers, and scientists could not do for Greece, what all the Roman statesmen and legislators could not do for Rome, the Bible has done for the Jews.
This is remarkable enough: but it is little compared with the gifts brought by the Bible to the immensely larger non-Jewish world. The most national of books has proved itself to be the most international, the most local, also the most universal. With the words of Heine quoted above may be bracketed those of two other writers, one an Englishman, the other an American. From Robert Louis Stevenson:
"Written in the East, these characters live forever in the West; written in one province, they pervade the world; penned in rude times, they are prized more and more as civilization advances; product of antiquity, they come home to the business and bosoms of men, women, and children in modern days."
And from Walt Whitman:
"How many ages and generations have brooded and wept and agonized over this book! What un-tellable joys and ecstasies, what support to martyrs at the stake, from it! To what myriads has it
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Perpetual Easter Calendar from the King James version
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The generations of Adam in the King James version
been the shore and rock of safety—the refuge from driving tempest and wreck! Translated in all languages, how it has united this diverse world! Of its thousands there is not a verse, not a word, but is thick-studded with human emotion."
Through the Bible, an alien religion became the most cherished possession of peoples infinitely stronger politically and economically than the Jews had ever been. It was more reverenced by the later Greeks than their own Homer, more by the later Romans than their own Virgil. When the Roman Empire perished, the Bible did not perish, because in it every successive wave of the barbarians found the answers to their deepest questions, the food for their most desperate hunger, until in far-distant parts of Europe nations still unborn when the Bible first was written learned from it themselves how to write and built new literatures upon its foundations. Again when later the Church, its guardian, forgot the treasure committed to its care, men sought the Bible out in time of need and deemed life but a little thing to give in its exchange. On its basis, religion was a second time reformed, to usher in the modern world.
In this modern world three nations above all others have known the Bible best: Germany, Great
[paragraph continues] Britain, and the United States of America. The rhythms of Martin Luther are said to pervade German literature. Of that, one not native to the language can hardly judge. But what American will fail to recognize the varied accents of the Bible, its solemn roll and swell and breaking crests and the movement of its inmost spirit in these passages from English classics—passages to which could not a thousand parallels easily be found?
In the Urn Burial, that meditation upon death of Sir Thomas Browne, most philosophical of all physicians:
"Five languages secured not the epitaph of Gordianus. The man of God lives longer without a tomb than any by one. . . . If in the decretory term of the world we shall not all die, but be changed, according to received translation, the last day will make but few graves; at least quick resurrections will anticipate lasting sepultures: some graves will be opened before they be quite closed, and Lazarus be no wonder, when many that feared to die shall groan that they can die but once. The dismal state is the second and living death, when life puts despair on the damned; when men shall wish the coverings of mountains, not of monuments, and annihilation shall be courted."
In the Jerusalem, half verse, half-rhythmic prose, of William Blake who saw the foot of Calvary between South Molton Street and Stratford Place, and took oath to build Jerusalem where England's dark Satanic mills obscured the sun:
In the peroration of De Quincey's Joan of Arc when he summons to ironic trial Joan's accuser and judge, the bishop of Beauvais:
"My lord, have you no counsel? 'Counsel I have none; in heaven above, or on earth beneath, counselor there is none now that would take a brief from me: all are silent.' Is it, indeed, come to this? Alas! the time is short, the tumult is wondrous, the crowd stretches away into infinity; but yet I will search in it for somebody to take your brief; I know
of somebody that will be your counsel. Who is this that cometh from Domrémy? Who is she in bloody coronation robes from Rheims? Who is she that cometh with blackened flesh from walking the furnaces of Rouen? This is she, the shepherd girl, counselor that had none for herself, whom I choose, bishop, for yours. She it is, I engage, that shall take my lord's brief. She it is, bishop, that would plead for you; yes, bishop, she—when heaven and earth are silent."
In Carlyle's passionate outcry against the aristocracy, his passionate eulogy of labor, toward the end of Past and Present:
"Gamepreserving aristocracies, let them 'bush' never so effectually, cannot escape the Subtle Fowler. Game seasons will be excellent, and again will be indifferent, and by and by they will not be at all. The Last Partridge of England, of an England where millions of men can get no corn to eat, will be shot and ended. Aristocracies with beards on their chins will find other work to do than amuse themselves with trundling-hoops.
"But it is to you, ye Workers, who do already work, and are as grown men, noble and honorable in a sort, that the whole world calls for new work and nobleness. Subdue mutiny, discord, widespread
despair, by manfulness, justice, mercy and wisdom. Chaos is dark, deep as Hell; let light be, and there is instead a green flowery world. . . .
"Unstained by wasteful deformities, by wasted tears or heart's-blood of men, or any defacement of the Pit, noble fruitful Labor, growing ever nobler, will come forth,—the grand sole miracle of Man; whereby Man has risen from the low places of this Earth, very literally, into divine Heavens. Ploughers, Spinners, Builders; Prophets, Poets, Kings; Brindleys and Goethes, Odins and Arkwrights; all martyrs, and noble men, and gods are of one grand Host; immeasurable; marching ever forward since the beginnings of the World."
In the social idealism of Carlyle's disciple, Ruskin, at the conclusion of his bitter-sweet lecture, Traffic:
"Solomon made gold, not only to be in his own palace as stones, but to be in Jerusalem as stones. But even so, for the most part, these splendid kingdoms expire in ruin, and only the true kinghoods live, which are of royal laborers governing loyal laborers; who, both leading rough lives, establish the true dynasties. Conclusively you will find that because you are king of a nation, it does not follow that you are to gather for yourself all the wealth of
that nation; neither, because you are king of a small part of the nation, and lord over the means of its maintenance—over field, or mill, or mine,—are you to take all the produce of that piece of the foundation of national existence for yourself. . . .
"But if you can fix some conception of a true human state of life to be striven for—life good for all men as for yourselves—if you can determine some honest and simple order of existence; following those trodden ways of wisdom, which are pleasantness, and seeking her quiet and withdrawn paths which are peace;—then, and so sanctifying wealth into 'commonwealth,' all your art, your literature, your daily labors, your domestic affection, and citizen's duty, will join and increase into one magnificent harmony. You will know then how to build, well enough; you will build with stone well, but with flesh better; temples not made of hands but riveted of hearts; and that kind of marble, crimson-veined, is indeed eternal."
It is a far cry from such language to the stammering doggerel of the first work printed in America, the Bay Psalm Book of 1640. And yet, if we bear in mind the special conditions of their task, it may be said that Richard Mather and the other editors wrought in the spirit of the great translators. It
was neither perversity nor literary deafness that led them to so transmogrify the work of Coverdale; they knew the Psalms well and loved them, knew them so well indeed that they knew they were written to be sung, and on the barren coast of New England were determined to raise the ancient paeans of praise as valid there after all the centuries as they had been in Palestine. But they were limited in their resources; they had only short-meter tunes; it was necessary to cut the pattern of their verse to suit the music. They knew they were not writing poetry and confessed as much in their preface. They were simply endeavoring to incorporate a portion of the Bible in the daily life of the people, and this they accomplished.
Nowhere was there a more strenuous effort to take the Bible as the standard of conduct than in New England. The laws of Massachusetts Bay constantly quoted Biblical sources as authority. When in 1639 the colony of New Haven was founded and all its freemen were assembled to decide the form of civil rule, John Davenport arose and put the question whether the Scriptures "do hold forth a perfect rule for the direction and government of men in all duties," and the answer was a unanimous affirmative.
Unfortunately, but inevitably, men living under primitive conditions tended to stress the primitive parts of the Bible. The harshest sections of the so-called Mosaic law were reinforced by the dark theology of Calvin with its doctrines of predestination, total depravity, and the joy of the elect in the damnation of sinners. Particularly in Massachusetts, the Puritan magistrates and clergy early yielded to a lust for power and left behind them a black record of judicial crimes. Their devotion to the Bible, however earnest, was never pure but from the beginning was sullied by personal and class ambition.
Much deeper and more fundamentally sincere was the Biblical devotion of their victims. To Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson the Bible brought a message of spiritual freedom; where the masters of Massachusetts Bay searched the Scriptures for texts to sanction persecution, the Baptists and Quakers, reading more profoundly, found in them sustenance for their own democratic and humanitarian aspirations. Rhode Island and Pennsylvania counterbalanced Massachusetts and Connecticut, and in the long run Puritanism was conquered, though not without bequeathing an evil legacy in the form of a
tradition of censorship and suppression with which American liberalism has had to battle ever since.
But on one point conservatives and liberals were from the first agreed: the importance of religious education. In 1649 the General Court of Massachusetts took measures for the establishment of schools throughout the colony and gave the reason for this legislation: "It being the chief project of that old deluder Satan to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, as in former times by keeping them in an unknown tongue, so in these latter times by persuading from the use of tongues, that so at least the true sense and meaning of the original might be clouded by false guesses of saint-seeming deceivers; that all learning may not be buried in the grave of our fathers in the church and commonwealth, therefor be it ordered. . . ."
Biblical learning never lapsed in Massachusetts. Cotton Mather, grandson of the editor of the Bay Psalm Book, also translated the Psalms in his Psalterium Americanum and spent fifteen years in preparing a huge commentary on the Bible in six folio volumes, to be called Biblia Americana, which, unfortunately, was never published. His son, the less massive Samuel Mather, made an original translation
of the Lord's Prayer from the Greek, the first instance in America of such direct translation. But the most interesting of these colonial ventures in scholarship, and also one of the earliest, was the Bible for the Indians brought out in 1661–63 by John Eliot, one of the coeditors of the Bay Psalm Book.
Eliot learned the Algonquin dialect soon after coming to America and had lived and taught among the Indians for twenty years before venturing upon his translation. He was probably the most successful of all missionaries in that field, winning eleven thousand converts, training more than twenty native teachers, establishing fourteen Indian schools, and organizing twenty-four Indian congregations. He wrote several interesting accounts of his labors, in which he told of the embarrassing questions sometimes asked by his converts, such as:
"Why does not God, who has full power, kill ye devil that makes men so bad?
"Whether there might not be something, if only a little, gained by praying to ye devil?"
In spite of his familiarity with the native dialect, Eliot found the task of translation extremely difficult, since he had first to transpose the spoken tongue into its written equivalent, thus, as it were,
creating ad hoc a written language. Even with the assistance of an Indian interpreter, he occasionally fell into blunders as when the parable of the ten virgins became that of "the ten pure young men" because the Indians regarded chastity as a masculine virtue and had no word for it of feminine gender.
Twelve years after Eliot completed his translation, King Philip's War broke out and scattered his congregations to the winds. Gradually all knowledge of the dialect in which he wrote was lost until, it is said, no man living today could retranslate his translation into English. The final failure of his great missionary enterprise symbolized the melancholy fate that lay in readiness for future undertakings of the same character.
The final failure of Eliot's great missionary enterprise was but a new chapter in an old story. The Roman Catholics were already cruelly familiar with it. For two centuries Franciscans and Jesuits labored with the utmost heroism and devotion to Christianize the Indians; more than a hundred priests suffered martyrdom for the cause; the noble names of Marquette, Lamy, De Smet, and Serra still shine like beacon-lights across that stormy period of treacheries, massacres, and scalpings wherein the
whites were quick to adopt the most savage customs of the natives and, indeed, often bettered their instructions. If the Indians were, as a whole, exterminated instead of being absorbed as a constituent part of the community the fault was not with the missionaries, Catholic or Protestant, but with the land-grabbers, shyster traders, and gold hunters responsible for that long exploitation of the natives eloquently and indignantly described in Helen Hunt Jackson's A Century of Dishonor (1881). In truth, the Americans had to Christianize themselves before they could well Christianize the Indians.
American life developed on the edge of the wilderness; if men penetrated too far into its fastnesses, they soon relapsed into barbarism. That they did not do so more completely, that in the long run it was not the wilderness that conquered men but men the wilderness, was largely owing to the influence of the Bible. As in the medieval period, religion was the mother of education. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, all founded for the training of clergymen, were followed by hundreds of other religious colleges that bore the brunt of the struggle against ignorance all through the pioneer days and carried the values of civilization ever westward.
Once more, as in medievalism, literature arose out of religion. The Unitarian movement at the end of the eighteenth century and in the early part of the nineteenth was the direct precursor of the literary efflorescence of the eighteen-forties and fifties. The great achievements in literature of those decades were proportionate to the moral aims. The co-operative movements and Utopian societies of the time were no accident. Religion, blessedly freed from dogma; a morality that had outgrown the limitations of Puritanism and looked forward to the creation of positive goods instead of stressing the eternal conflict with the Evil One; and a literature inspired by the new spirit and conscious of its own civilizing function: all these worked together to a common end. Of the creative personalities in that period an amazing number were clergymen who became writers, writers who became clergymen, or men who were both clergymen and writers all the time: the Unitarian ministers, William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker, and James Freeman Clarke; the Universalist, Adin Ballou, the founder of Hopedale; George Ripley, the founder of Brook Farm; Emerson himself; Orestes Brownson, who tried nearly every form of Protestantism and at last found a permanent haven
in the Roman Catholic Church where he became internationally known; these and many another.
One might continue almost indefinitely with the story of Biblical influence, direct and indirect, on American life. An excellent work, The Bible in America (1936), by the Reverend P. Marion Simms, is devoted to the literal influence alone, telling of the various Bibles used in different localities, of the scores of American translations, and of the gigantic missionary efforts of the American Bible Society. And this is only the smallest part of the story, for there remains the history of the great competing Protestant denominations who have flourished in America—the Quakers, the Congregationalists, the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, the Unitarians, the Baptists, the Methodists, and the Disciples, each based upon a slightly different interpretation of the Bible, and each deserving a volume to itself, with at least one other separate volume for the treatment of American Catholicism, another for Mormonism—a heretical form of Christianity—and several for the almost innumerable minor sects from the Ephrata Community to the Buchmanites—all testifying, in one form or another, to the diversity and independence of American religious thought, yet almost all, in the last analysis, loyal
to the fundamental American ideal that religion should function as a moral force in the daily works of man.
And yet it would be treason to the highest spirit of the Bible to end its story in this vein of easy optimism. In the Book of Job, Satan appears as the Accusing Angel in the very courts of heaven. It is as necessary now as then to listen to the worst that can be said, particularly when it is being said on every hand today. That plausible worst runs about as follows:
"Christianity has been anything but the religion of peace and human brotherhood that it pretends to be. Jesus may have preached tolerance, but Christianity has always been the most intolerant of religions. Were not the Catholic Crusades against the Moslems immediately followed by the Catholic Crusade against the Albigensian Catholics? Were the Protestants more than barely safe from the rack and thumbscrew of the Inquisition before they set their wits to devise torments for other Protestants? Even in a new country the terrors of the wilderness and hostile Indians could not unite them, as the persecuted Baptists and Quakers with their slit noses and cropped ears could well report. The wilderness was kinder to Roger Williams than
were his devout fellow Protestants of Boston, and the Indians were less clever in devising tortures than were the magistrates of Massachusetts Bay.
"It took only the pitifully feeble Negro insurrection of Nat Turner to scare the Southern clergy into forgetting their Christianity and to send them hurrying pell-mell to the defense of slavery with the marvelous discovery that Abraham too had been a slaveholder. And it is but twenty years since, in the words of a noted Presbyterian clergyman, 'The Church threw itself into the World War and made itself, next to the daily press, the most powerful agency in repeating the lying propaganda that fed the flames of hatred.' Today in Germany Hitler treads down Luther with a fabricated Nazi Gospel of Saint John made up of passages carefully mistranslated to countenance a persecution of the Jews worse than the Middle Ages ever saw. Admit that man is a bloodthirsty beast, and that the quicker this human carnivore destroys himself the better."
Many bitter truths, which yet do not sum up to one single truth. History, indeed, and never more so than today, often seems a nightmare in which one may easily go mad. The outlook for the future
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The generations of Noah in the King James version
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Title page of John Eliot's Indian Bible (1663)
never seemed so bright as at the end of the nineteenth century, rarely has it seemed darker than now. Western civilization may well be on the eve of self-destruction through wars and revolutions. Still one knows what one knows, and time is not yet done.
It is no news that the Bible has often been turned to most unworthy uses. Men have found in it what they wanted to find. A living book will always take on some of the characteristics of its readers. Noble books will be chosen by the noble-minded, base books by the base, but the base will also lay their hands upon the noble books and turn them to dishonor. Worse still, nobility itself is never pure: no book, no man but shares the imperfections of humanity. All this is granted.
Yet it is no great task to refute the specific charges against the Bible. Why remember the religious persecutors and not the religious persecuted? Were not the Christian martyrs closer to the spirit of Jesus than the hairsplitting theologians of a later time? Joan of Arc was as real as the bishop of Beauvais, Tyndale as real as his judges, Roger Williams as real as the magistrates of Boston, and it is these persecuted ones whom humanity
has chosen to honor and in whom one recognizes the compeers of the writers of the Bible. Strange choice for a "bloodthirsty beast" to make!
If the Church's assumption of omniscience led it to oppose, jealously and benightedly, the development of modern science, that assumption was the Church's, not the Bible's—and even so, it is but fair to remember that the Church first created the schools, thus making that development possible. The list of specific humanitarian efforts directly traceable in whole or part to the Bible is a long one: the care for the poor and the sick, the wounded and the dying, the institution of hospitals, almshouses, poorhouses, the building of libraries, the long struggle against usury, the dignifying of the family relationship, the improvement in the lot of women. If the slaveowners of the South were able to derive comfort from the example of Abraham, the slaves themselves derived far more consolation, often almost their only consolation, from the one book which offered them any hope, creating out of it those Negro spirituals, glowing and pathetic, the most significant example of folk literature in modern times. And it is hardly a mere coincidence that the Anti-Slavery movement itself originated with the Quakers, of all sects the one most vitally
influenced by the Bible. Social reforms of more recent date that owed their inception to Biblical influence, however secularized they may have since become, include the advances in nursing and in the more humane treatment of the insane, the newer methods in penology, the so-called emancipation of women, and the demand for factory and wage legislation.
But beyond all this lies a much larger issue. The modern world has largely put its trust in science, the best of tools and the poorest of masters. For science tells only of what is and of what can be made, disclaiming all interest in what ought to be and in what ought to be made. Unguided by rational ends, science may easily be harmful instead of helpful. And contemporary society has already become adept in using scientific means for evil ends. It has developed the terrible science of modern warfare. It has originated a new science of propaganda or an art of propaganda based on scientific methods—the science or the art of deliberate distortion of the truth. And before our eyes there has grown up in Europe a science or scientific art of miseducation wherein all the resources of psychological conditioning are utilized to prevent individual development and to make the victims
contented slaves of whatever happens to be the government in power. Meanwhile the progressive groups in society have been fatally weakened by confusion in their own ranks, owing to the same neglect of values. One hears today much talk of "the class struggle" and of "the seizure of power," as if a mere class struggle, unless some moral issue is involved, were of any more significance than a conflict between red and black ants, or as if a seizure of power mattered when none are fit to wield the power. Let men fight for justice, justly, and they will have some inner strength. But instead, the old and hateful fallacy of the end's justifying any means has reappeared, complicated by the new fallacy of a supposedly irreconcilable opposition between "individualism" and "collectivism" so that one or the other must take all. This general breakdown of thought and not any natural bloodthirstiness of the human animal constitutes the peril of the hour.
What says the Bible to all this? It deals with Man the Valuer, and it is unwavering in its assertion of both individual and social values as inextricably one. The society it knows is a society made up of individuals, each with his own separate mind and conscience and incommunicable experiences,
but each finding his fulfillment, none the less, in joyous association with his fellows and in subordinating the personal to the common good. Or one may put the same message in the now tarnished terms of democratic idealism which need only to be seen in their true essence with the rhetorical rust removed in order to appear as inspiring as ever: liberty—that integrity of the individual mind proclaimed by Job; and equality—the fact that beneath all differences men are fundamentally alike in their ultimate needs and natures with equal claim upon whatever goods they can turn to account—the teaching of Jesus and the Prophets.
The true goods are noncompetitive and self-validating: physical health, creative labor, love and friendship and companionship, intellectual honesty, wisdom, and justice; to know these is in itself to value them. Here one must take his stand, not to be shouted down by the power lusts of all the political parties in the world.
Beyond the present bank and shoal of time where the stream of life seems caught in momentary swirls and eddies, it is reasonable to suppose that there still lie many happy valleys into which its course will flow. After periods of madness come periods of sanity. How much of what now
exists must quickly perish no one can foresee; but of one thing we may be sure: if only shards and broken pieces of our civilization should remain, among them would still be found the Bible, whole and uninjured. The book that outlived the Roman Empire will outlive any destruction that impends. No nation has so assured a future, as none has had so great a past. And when in the far distant future humanity itself shall perish, it may well be that it will leave behind it no monument any nobler than the Bible.