Monday, 12 December 2016

BIBLE FOLK LORE

Readers of Rabbi Jeshua, a work published a few years since by the anonymous author of the volume to be presently noticed, will probably be surprised to find how widely Bible Folk Lore varies in structure and method as compared with its predecessor. In the one case we have a realistic story of Jesus of Nazareth with the supernatural eliminated ; the life of the Great Teacher being, however, constructed according to the author's scholarly conception of Syrian geography and manners, blended with Jewish traditions, and especially as the latter connect themselves with the home and synagogue life of Palestine on the one hand, and with the rule of Rome on the other. In the book now to be considered, the writer aspires to the fulfilment of a more ambitions task. From a rationalistic biographer of the founder of Christianity he develops into a full fledged comparative archaeologist, embracing in the range of his learned analysis the entire circle of Oriental religions. But the central object to which he subordinates the vast and manifold sacred legendary lore he has collected is the application of the principle of evolution to the history of Hebrew and Christian beliefs. His main contention is "that the biblical literature can no longer be considered to stand alone as a unique production of genius or inspiration ; but that its real origin and meaning can only be understood by the application of the comparative method which has as yet been only very imperfectly utilised in connection with the Bible traditions." No one acquainted with the subject can regard the mythical hypothesis as directed to the interpretation of the faiths of Egypt, the East, Africa, America and Polynesia as, in any sense, a novelty. Nevertheless, it must be confessed that students of prehistoric religious symbolism in relation to the dogmas and rites of modern cults constitute an insignificant minority among the learned, and their published researches have necessarily a limited circulation among the orthodox. Esoteric specialists in this department look upon themselves, rightly or wrongly, as the epoplai, or "initiated," who dive into the penetralia and essence of all organised religions in contradistinction to the votaries of mere "pectoral theology," the mystae, or "uninitiated" worshippers of concrete non-essentials. Max Müller, in his Lectures on the Science of Language, remarks that "he who knows only one language virtually knows none." Similarly, it is claimed by those who demand for comparative religion the rank of a science that, as links of dependence can be traced in the development of all modern tongues leading up to an Akkadian original, so all existing faiths, even the most elaborate in doctrine and rubric, contain, in some form, more or less obscured, a radical meaning in common with the rudest primitive cult. It is affirmed by representatives of this branch of study that, instead of the "ghost" theory, as Herbert Spencer maintains, correctly accounting for the origin of religion in the mind of primeval man, the worship of the UNKNOWABLE, in all the infinite diversity of its manifestations, sprang from an instinctive curiosity to penetrate the arcana of being and a concurrent sentiment of reverence for the mysterious Power under whose administrative control the processes of waste and repair in the universe are unceasingly carried on. The combined mental effort to grapple with august questions centring in individual and relative life, and at the same time to preserve a devout recognition of the inscrutable Demiurge by whose might the phenomena of nature were sustained, found expression (authorities on the science of comparative religion inform us), first, in the consecration to holy uses of phallic symbolism; and subsequently, in the rites of sun and planetary worship. All this has been abundantly illustrated already by Payne Knight, Drummond, Taylor, Dulaure, Dupuis, Inman, Lajard, Cox, Wake, Westropp, Forlong and most of the Hibbert lecturers.

But the author of Rabbi Jeshua thinks sufficient materials are now available to demonstrate the existence of a detailed parallelism between the cardinal mythologies embodied in the sacred books of Egypt, India and Persia on the one hand, and the canons of the Hebrew and Christian literature on the other. This, in fact, is the specific labor he has imposed on himself ; and it is one which, no matter with what reverent and scholarly qualifications it may be undertaken, cannot be expected to meet with favor from either Jews or Christians who have been trained to believe in their respective Scriptures as miraculously composed and revealed. But repugnant as this writer's investigations can hardly fail to be to implicit believers in a supernatural revelation, he is not even entitled to the distinction of a pioneer in his own peculiar line. The new path he regards himself as having in a sense explored has long been familiar to those who have kept au courant with this class of reading. De Gubernatis, with potent oriental implements, has cultivated extensively the same field, suggestively remarking in his Zoological Mythology: — "When we shall be able to bring into Semitic studies the same liberty of scientific criticism which is conceded to Aryan studies, we shall have a Semitic mythology." Goldziher long since applied the idea of the solar myth to the interpretation of patriarchal and tribal names and histories in the Old Testament with a minuteness which leaves nothing to be desired, and we are disposed to think this author has borrowed from him more than he has acknowledged. Œdipus Judaicus is well known to travel in the same direction. Lenormant, the author, in his marginal references, owns himself largely indebted to Old Testament Legends, by T. L. Strange, and Sources and Development of Christianity by the same writer, are books which aim at one goal with Bible Folk Lore. Still, it cannot be denied that the author, however distasteful his conclusions may prove to many of us, has brought to the consideration of his theme an ample store of learning as the result of the fourteen years' consecutive toil he has expended on the study of Oriental faiths. He is evidently an excellent Arabic and Hebrew scholar, and critical traveller in the leading countries with which his subject is concerned. If he does not happen to possess acquaintance with Persian and Indian languages, he has, at least, mastered from these sources, secondhand, all the facts indispensable for his purpose, As regards the bulk of the narratives in the earlier books of the Old Testament he is disposed to regard them as mythical, having a common origin with legends bearing a distinct family likeness, and prevailing in the literature and monumental remains, not only of countries bordering on Syria, but of these lying much farther east. He is of opinion that many of the legends found imbedded in the Pentateuch filtrated into the Bible from India, through Babylon, being imported to Palestine by the captives on their return from Assyrian bondage. The Elohistic document of Genesis opens with a cosmogony exactly similar to that of Assyria as recovered by George Smith, or of Persia as preserved in the Visparad, . . The earth and heavens were created, according to Asiatic cosmogonies, by the breath or spirit of a Being who dwelt alone before the existence of the heavens, giving life to the abyss of waters which formed the earliest material. Tiamat (the primaeval waters) and Apsu (the abyss) brought forth the god of love in Chaldea. In Phœnicia, Colpiah (the voice of wind, the spirit of God) and Bahu (the chaos of Genesis) were the creators of man. In Persia the six days saw the heavens and stars, the waters and firmament, the earth, the trees, the animals, and finally man himself, created respectively. Fragments of a similar account are common to all the races of Western Asia." Cognate legends, equally striking, describe the story of man's primitive happiness in a garden containing " trees of life," and the temptation of the serpent, throughout all the regions above named. Adam, Eve, Seth, Enos, Cain, Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech, Noah, Shem, Ham and Japhet represent personages who are matched by counterparts in other Oriental "folk lore" and are resolved by mythical analogies into zodiacal signs. The narrative of the flood is disposed of in like manner. It is noteworthy that in the Chaldean account of this catastrophe Hasisatra, like the Noah of the Jehovistic story, sends forth a dove which comes back again ; next a swallow, which also returns ; finally, a raven, which flies away. The argument of the author is that if the writers of Genesis have drawn from the traditions of Nineveh and Babylon the whole system of their cosmogony and their cycle of legends, " these legends, as related in the Old Testament, cannot be less evidently mythical than the originals from which they are derived." The patriarchs, the twelve tribes, "the Epic of the Exodus," with the traditional adventures of the Israelites during their forty years' wanderings in the desert, the achievements of the Judges and the prophets are dealt with seriatim, and shown to be but variations of older myths recorded in the Vedas, the Mahabharata, Yasna, Ramayana, Mihir Yasht, Romance of Antar, Bundahish, Vendidad, Kalika, Parana, Aitareya Brahmana and Zendavesta. Each article of the High Priest's dress and official decoration, with the altar fire, the seven lamps, incense, libations, holy oil, the scapegoat, the ashes of a heifer, and the passover sacrifice are elaborately paralleled in the religious rites of pre-existing nations. The "wheels" of Ezekiel, the equestrian imagery of Zechariah, and the sea dragon of Isaiah are exhibited by a great array of learning, as reproductions of myths reaching back to Persia, Assyria, Egypt and India, and to periods long prior to the existence of the Hebrews as a nation.
But what is of most vital consequence to Christians, the author, with an immense amount of learned ingenuity, applies the same description of archaeological iconoclasm to reduce to its primary mythical elements the Messianic idea. " In India the idea of a future universal monarch and that of a universal prophet existed side by side at least as early as 600 years B.C., and the former is connected with the sun in the following gatha, or song, which is probably as old as the time of Gautama. 'If a mother in her dream behold the sun god enter her right side, that mother shall bear a son who shall become a universal monarch.' " In the earliest books of Persia, Loshyaut, to be born "in the region of the dawn," and preceded by three fore-runners, (the mother of each of the three being the subject of a miraculous conception) will restore the world to perennial joy and beauty and smite mortally the fiend, the will of Ahura being afterwards universally performed. Again, in the third Sibylline book, written in Alexandria about 140 B.C., God is said to send "a king from the sun" and in the second book of Ezdras, dating not earlier than the first century, of our era, Messiah rises from the sea like the Persian prophet. The famous passage in Isaiah which predicts the conception of a son by "a virgin" (Almeh), " young woman," is viewed as occurring only in a birth day ode of King Hezekiah. After the royal houses of David and Judas Maccabaeus had respectively become extinct, it would appear that the notion of a Messianic king became dearer to the hearts of the Hebrews, and the present writer finds similar longings among the Persians pointing to Mithra, who was called, in the hymns sung in his honor, a "good shepherd," "Lord of the sky," "friend of truth," who "takes out of distress the man who has not lied unto him," and "the incarnate word." We are reminded that 600 B.C. Chrishna was pictured in India as the "Saviour" of the Hindoos, son of Brahma, born of Maya, a virgin mother, in a dungeon, which was illumined with glory on his entrance into life. He was cradled among shepherds, and soon after his birth Indian tradition reports him to have been carried away for protection lest a certain tyrant, whom it was foretold he should destroy, should take his life. On the tidings of Chrishna's birth reaching this formidable enemy, he entered all new born babes in his dominions to be slain, Chrishna is said also in after life to have cured a leper, and healed a woman of some disease on her pouring a box of ointment on his head. He deigned to wash the feet of the Brahmins ; founded a new sect ; astonished his tutor by his precocious learning, and encountered the serpent Caluga in a severe conflict. He is represented in the temple at Mathura as crucified, with a Parthian coronet on his head. He is painted with a round hole in his side, with stigmata in his hands, and, sometimes, in his feet. Legends exist of his descent into hell, and, afterwards, of his ascension into heaven. In ancient Buddhist writings Sakya Muni is designated "the Great Physician," "the Light of the world," " the Lion of the tribe of Sakya." His religion is called "the Kingdom of Righteousness," "the Way of life," "the Spiritual Kingdom." His antagonists are described as " blind leaders of the blind," and " the excellent wheel of the law" is likened to " a precious pearl." After the enumeration of many other analogies between the history of Buddha and Jesus, including the doctrine of Maitris, or Charity, the author says: " The question which demands an answer is, whether the similarity arises from an independent development under like circumstances of the same ideas in India and in Palestine, or whether there is a historical connection between the two religions." The author, it need hardly be stated, adopts the latter view. He does not hesitate to believe that Eastern faiths, and especially Buddhism, were imported into Alexandria with trade, and that, subsequently, the Essenes of Egypt (by whom, he maintains, the gospels were composed as pious and edifying romances) sprang from a colony of Buddhist monks who settled in that country, probably before the Hasmonean age; and made Jewish converts. Hence, ultimately the devolopment of the idea of a Jew who should assume the rôle of a Messiah, not for Israel alone, but for the world; and the gradual evolution of Christianity in the first two centuries in the alembic of controversy, partly under the agency of the " Book of Enoch," which dates the century before our era, partly of the Platonism of Philo, partly of Jewish Old Testament speculation, partly of Ebionitism and partly of Egyptian Gnosticism.

It is not the function of a secular journal to discuss the theological merits and bearing of the remarkable work which has, for want of space, of necessity been somewhat fragmentarily reviewed. We nevertheless feel it to be our duty, in the interests of our national faith, to call the attention of Christian teachers of all denominations to the increasing boldness of learned sceptics of high moral character in the parent country who thus persistently menace the foundations of our cherished beliefs by plausible historical arguments. This, unhappily, is only one of many works within the past two years proceeding from cultured persons who profess to give to the world the fruit of intellectual toil extending over many years. Within the last few months the Evolution of Christianity (anonymous), Christianity and Common Sense (by a Barrister), and Creeds of To-day (by H. Coke) have followed each other in quick succession, Herbert Spencer, Mr. Justice Stephens, Mr. Frederic Harrison and other distinguished writers, have likewise addressed the public in the leading English monthlies on the subject, without the slightest attempt to disguise their disbelief in Christianity as a supernatural religion. What renders the new mode of attack upon the faith by such distinguished pens exceptionally insidious is that it is accompanied with no rudeness or malice — qualities only too conspicuous in Shaftesbury, Voltaire, Diderot, Paine, Marechal and other opponents of a past generation, and in the effusions of half informed modern itinerating atheistic lecturers. Through the Nineteenth Century, the Contemporary and the Fortnightly the poison is being widely but insidiously introduced among cultivated families of all ranks; the result being unfortunately the slow alienation of intelligent young men from the churches and doctrines of their fathers. With the exception of Canon Westcott's, Mr. B. H. Cowper's and Prebendary Rows's apologetic Works, the rejoinder of Dr. Lightfoot, six years ago, to Supernatural Religion in the Contemporary, and perhaps Canon Rawlinson's book on Cosmogony, there has been no worthy effort recently made by Christian scholars to grapple with the enemy. It is no longer a mere question of the "evidences" furnished by the first three Centuries. The new battle ground on which the adversary of miraculous revelation has to be met now is the science of comparative religion. The arguments suitable to the days of Hume and Paley are already antiquated. The learned antagonists to be confuted in England, France and Germany would only smile at the denunciations of the "drum ecclesiastic," and treat with scorn the reproachful epithets flung broadcast from the pulpit at conscientious unbelievers. Lugubrious homilies against "the sin of unbelief " are equally wide of the mark. Hostile allegations must be disproved by well authenticated facts ; and, so far as Australia is concerned, the sooner learning is met by learning the better for the comfort of many minds, whose theological equilibrium is disturbed by the work of the stealthy undermining of miraculous dogmas assuredly in progress. In the Church of England — to say nothing of other orthodox sects among us — we have able men who are undeniably equal to the occasion. While anxious to avoid the appearance of being invidious, our readers will agree that two episcopal dignitaries of rare ability and knowledge must readily occur to every colonist— the Metropolitan of Sydney and the Bishop of Melbourne — both men capable, we cannot doubt, of silencing these perpetually recurring objections to our religion. Let them, and other clergymen, perhaps not less able, gird themselves without delay to the urgent task, and they will justly earn the lasting gratitude of every well-wisher of these colonies.

* Bible Folk Lore, a Study in Comparative Mythology. By the author of Rabbi Jeshua. London: Kegan Paul, Trench and Co, 1884

Leader (Melbourne, Vic. : 1862 - 1918), Saturday 2 August 1884, page 35

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