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The Origin and Permanent Value of the Old Testament Part 13

When successive collections were added, they too were thus canonized.

The result was that the Psalter, when complete, enjoyed a position somewhat similar to that of the Law and the Prophets, although the authority of each rested upon a different basis. That the Psalter was early canonized is further demonstrated by a quotation in I Maccabees vii. 17 (about 125 B.C.) from Psalm lxxix. 2, 3, introduced by the words, _as it is written in the Scriptures_. This conclusion is also supported by the significant reference in the New Testament to the _Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms_ (Lk. xxiv. 44). Jesus' use of the Psalter indicates that in his day its canonicity was already thoroughly established. Lamentations, by a late tradition attributed to Jeremiah, was probably also canonized contemporaneously with the Psalms.

[Sidenote: _The other books of the fathers_]

The canonization of the book of Proverbs, like that of the Psalter, was undoubtedly by successive stages. The Jews of the Greek and Maccabean period were especially appreciative of this type of literature, and it was doubtless accorded its position of authority primarily because it rang true to human experience. That it was attributed to Solomon also told in its favor. Ben Sira's indirect testimony suggests that it and the books of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, which were in close accord with the point of view of later Judaism, were already in his day associated with the Law and the Prophets. The book of Ruth was probably at this time added to the other historical books.

[Sidenote: _Canonization of the book of Daniel_]

The absence of any reference in Ben Sira to Daniel is significant. The first allusion to it comes from the last half of the second century before Christ. First Maccabees i. 54 appears to quote the prediction of Daniel ix. 27, and in I Maccabees ii. 59, 60, Daniel and his three friends are held up as noble examples of virtue. Thus it would seem that within a half century after the book of Daniel was written its authority was recognized. In New Testament times its canonicity is fully established (_e.g., cf_. I Cor. vi. 2, and Dan. vii. 22).

[Sidenote: _Date of the completion of the Hebrew Old Testament canon_]

Concerning the canonicity of two books, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs or Canticles, the opinions of the rabbis continued to differ until the close of the first Christian century. From the Mishna we learn that the school of Shammai accepted Ecclesiastes, while that of Hillel rejected it. Finally, in a conference in Jamnia, about 100 A.D., the two schools finally agreed to accept both books as canonical. From Second Esdras and Josephus, however, we learn that the present Hebrew and Protestant canon of the Old Testament had already for some time been practically adopted by common consent.

[Sidenote: _Contents of the last group of writings_]

The last collection, which includes eleven books known as the _Hagiographa_ or _Sacred Writings_, constitutes the third general division of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is a heterogeneous group of histories, prophecies, stories, and wisdom books. Some, like the Psalter, were, as we have seen, probably canonized as early as the Prophets; although the final canon of the Old Testament was not closed until 100 A.D. Even later the canonicity of Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, and Esther was sometimes questioned; most of them were regarded as authoritative as early as 100 B.C. Here, as in the case of the New Testament, the real decision was not the work of any school or council; but gradually, on the basis of their intrinsic merit, the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible were singled out of a much larger literature and recognized, at least by the Jews of Palestine, as the authoritative record of God's revelation through their race.

[Sidenote: _Differences between the Palestinian and Alexandrian canons_]

Jewish tradition, represented by Second Esdras xiv. and the Talmudic treatise _Baba Bathra_ xv. a, states that all the canonical books were in existence in the time of Ezra. While the tradition is refuted by the historical facts, it appears to have influenced the Jews of Palestine in shaping their canon; since no books purporting to come from a later date or author are found in it. The broader-minded Jews of the dispersion, and especially Alexandria and the early Christian Church, refused to be bound by the narrow principle that divine revelation ceased with Ezra.

Accordingly we find them adopting a larger canon, that included many other later writings known in time as the apocryphal or hidden books.

[Sidenote: _Additional books in the Greek and Christian canon_]

These consisted of three genuine works,--I and II Maccabees and Ben Sira or Ecclesiasticus; two didactic stories,--Tobit and Judith; four books wrongly ascribed to earlier authors,--the Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, the Epistle of Jeremy, and Second Esdras (Gk. IV Esdras); and four additions to the Hebrew canonical books,--First Esdras, an expansion of the book of Ezra, the Prayer of Manasses, and additions to Esther and Daniel.

[Sidenote: _History of the Apocryphal books in the Christian Church_]

As is well known, these books were retained by the Christian Church, as they still are by the Roman Catholic and Greek churches, until the Protestant reformers relegated them, as a whole, to a secondary place.

Ultimately the Bible societies, during the first part of the last century, ceased to print them in the ordinary editions of the Bible.

The result is that the present generation has almost forgotten their existence. The last decade or two, however, has witnessed a significant revival of interest among the scholars of Christendom, and the wholesome tendency to restore certain of the Apocrypha to the working Old Testament canon is very marked. This is only a correction of the error of the Protestant reformers in estimating the Apocryphal books, not by the intrinsic merit of each individual writing but of the group as a whole.

[Sidenote: _Great value of these later Jewish writings_]

Some of the Apocrypha and kindred books like the apocalypse of Enoch, were quoted and recognized by New Testament scholars as having authority equal to that of the other Old Testament Scriptures. The rejection of I and II Maccabees and Ben Sira from the Palestinian canon because they were written after the days of Ezra and not associated with the names of any early Old Testament worthies, was due to a narrow conception of divine revelation, directly contrary to that of Christianity which recognized the latest as the noblest. These later Jewish writings also bridge the two centuries which otherwise yawn between the two Testaments--two centuries of superlative importance both historically and religiously, witnessing as they do the final development of the life and thought of Judaism and the rise of those conditions and beliefs which loom so large in the New Testament.

[Sidenote: _The larger working canon of the Old Testament_]

While they will always be of great value in the study of later Jewish history, literature, and religion, the majority of the apocryphal books undoubtedly belong in the secondary group to which the Palestinian Jews and the Protestant reformers assigned them. Three or four, however, tested by the ultimate principles of canonicity, are equal, if not superior, to certain books like Chronicles, Esther, and Ecclesiastes.

First Maccabees records one of the most important crises in Israelish history. As a faithful historical writing, it is hardly equalled in ancient literature. Its spirit is also genuinely religious. The later but parallel history of II Maccabees is not the equal of the first, although its religious purpose is more pronounced. Its historical character, style, aim, and point of view are strikingly similar to those of the book of Chronicles. The proverbs of Ben Sira, while not all of the same value, yet abound in noble and practical teachings, very similar to those in the book of Proverbs. Not only does the Wisdom of Solomon contain many exalted and spiritual passages, but it is also of unique importance because it represents that wonderful fusion of the best elements in Hebrew and Hellenic thought which formed the background of Christianity. Probably the Church, will ultimately restore to its larger working Old Testament canon the beautiful Prayer of Manasses, already largely adopted in the prayer-book of the Anglican Church.

[Sidenote: _Conclusion_]

Our rapid historical study has revealed the unity and the variety of teaching reflected in the Old Testament, and has suggested its real place in the revelation of the past and its true place in the life of to-day. This older testament is the record of God's gradual revelation of himself through the history of the Israelitish race and the experiences and minds of countless men and women whose spiritual eyes were open and whose ears were attentive to divine truth. The same benign Father who has always spoken to his children has influenced them also to recognize the writings that most faithfully and fully record the spiritual truth thus revealed. Had the task been entrusted to our own or later generations, it is not probable that the result would have differed in any important essential. For a few brief centuries false theories and traditions may partially obscure the truth, but these, like the mists of morning, are sure in time to melt away and reveal the eternal verities in their sublime beauty and grandeur.

XIV

THE INTERPRETATION OF THE EARLY NARRATIVES OF THE OLD TESTAMENT

[Sidenote: _Importance of regarding each story as a unit_]

Of all the different groups of writings in the Old Testament, undoubtedly the early narratives found in the first seven books present the most perplexing problems. This is primarily due to the fact that they have been subject to a long process of editorial revision by which stories, some very old and others very late and written from a very different point of view, have been closely joined together. While there is a distinct aim and unity in the whole, in approaching them it is simplest to study each story as a unit in itself. Not only is this practical, but it is justified by the fact that almost every story was once current in independent form. Often, as in the case of the accounts of creation and the flood, it is possible to recover the older versions and even to trace their origin and earlier history.

[Sidenote: _Classification necessary to determine the point of view_]

The first essential, however, is to determine to the point of view and purpose of the biblical writer, who has taken the given story from the lips of his contemporaries and incorporated it in the cycle of stories in which it is now found, Here the language, literary style, theme, and conceptions of God and religion are the chief guides. If, as in the first chapter of Genesis, the Deity is always designated as _God_ or _Elohim;_ if the literary style is formal, repetitious, and generic; if the theme is the origin of an institution like the Sabbath; and if the Deity is conceived of as a spirit, accomplishing his purpose by progressive stages through the agency of natural forces,--it is not difficult to recognize at once the work of a late priestly writer. If, on the contrary, as in Genesis ii. 4b to iii. 24, _Jehovah_ is the name of the Deity; if the style is vivid, picturesque, and flowing; if the interest centres in certain individuals instead of species; if the themes vitally concern the spiritual life of man; if the Deity is conceived of after human analogies, as intimately associating with men, and as revealing himself directly to them by word and visible presence,--the work of an early prophetic writer is evidently before us.

The identification of the point of view of the author at once puts us into appreciative sympathy with him.

[Sidenote: _Value of knowing an author's point of view_]

It also enables us intelligently to interpret his words and figures.

Knowing, for example, that the first chapter of Genesis was written by a priest who lived long after his race had ceased to think of God as having a body like a man, we cannot make the common mistake of interpreting verse 26 as implying physical likeness. Rather, as his conception of God as a spirit demands and the latter part of the verse proves, his sublime teaching is that man, the end and culmination of the entire work of creation, is like his Creator, a spiritual being, endowed with a mind and a will, and as God's viceregent, is divinely commanded to rule over all created things.

[Sidenote: _Practical value of the critical analysis_]

Where two distinct versions of the same narrative have been amalgamated in the process of editorial revision, the analysis of the original sources is indispensable to a true understanding and interpretation of the thought of the prophet and priest who have each utilized the ancient story,--as, for example, that of the flood,--to illustrate the inevitable consequences of sin and God's personal interest in mankind.

Here the culminating purpose of the prophet, however, is to proclaim Jehovah's gracious promise that he will never thus again destroy man or living things; that (viii. 21, 22):

While the earth remains, Seedtime and harvest, Cold and heat, Summer and winter, Day and night Shall not cease.

The priest, on the other hand, is interested in the renewal of the covenant which insures man's dominion over the natural world, and in the sanctity of blood, and in the primitive, divine origin of the command, Thou shalt not kill (ix. 1-6).

[Sidenote: _The necessary basis for intelligent interpretation_]

Fortunately the work of analysis has been so thoroughly carried out during the last century that there is practical agreement among the Christian scholars of the world on the essential questions. These results are now also available in popular form, so that, without wasting time on technicalities, the pastor and teacher of to-day can utilize them as the basis for more important study and teaching. The origin, the literary form, and the scientific and historical accuracy of each narrative all suggest definite and interesting lines of study, but, as has been noted (p. 106), these are of secondary value compared with the religious truths that each story is intended to illustrate.

[Sidenote: _Principles of religious interpretation_]

Since these stories were preserved because they conserve this higher purpose, it is always safe to ask, What are their distinctive contributions to the grand total of ethical and spiritual teaching found in the Old Testament? At the same time it is exceedingly important always to be sure to read the teachings out of, and not into, a given narrative. By unnatural and fanciful interpretation of these simple stories the friends of the Bible in the past have often wronged it more than have its avowed foes. Each story, like the parables of Jesus, had its one or two central teachings, usually conveyed to the mind by implication rather than by direct statement. The characters who figure in them by their words and deeds proclaim the practical truths and embody the ideals in the minds of the ancient prophets and priests.

[Sidenote: _Theme of Genesis ii. and iii._]

The heterogeneous group of stories found in Genesis i.-xi. constitute the general introduction to the succeeding narratives which gather about the names of the traditional ancestors of the Hebrews. Each of these originally independent stories illustrates its own peculiar religious teachings. None has taken a deeper hold on the imagination and made a deeper impression on the thought and literature of the world than that which is found in the second and third chapters of Genesis. Its theme-- the origin and nature and consequences of sin--is of vital, personal interest to every man of every age.

[Sidenote: _The problem of presenting it in a form intelligible to early man_]

The problem that confronted the early Judean prophet was to present in form intelligible to the minds of his primitive readers a subject that has taxed to the utmost the resources of the world's greatest philosophers and theologians. The task was comparable to that which fell to the Master when he sought to make clear to his untutored disciples the real nature of the mighty tempest of temptation that raged in his soul at the beginning, and, indeed, later in his ministry. The method adopted was strikingly similar in each case. If the language of modern philosophy and psychology had been at the command of these great religious teachers, it would have but obscured the great truths. These truths must be made objective; they must be expressed in the familiar language of the people. Even the inner struggle of conflicting motives must be presented in words so simple that a child could understand.

[Sidenote: _Pictorial elements drawn from popular tradition_]

The second and third chapters of Genesis record the effective way in which a great early prophet dealt with his difficult problem. From the lips of the people he took fragments of ancient Semitic traditions.

Almost all of the elements which enter into the story of man's fall have been traced to far earlier sources; but the narrative in its present unity and suggestiveness never has and never will be found outside the Bible. How far the prophet adapted to his higher purpose the current Hebrew version can not be absolutely determined. The fact alone remains that it is one of the truest bits of history in the Old Testament, and this not because it is a leaf from the diary of Adam and Eve, but because it concretely and faithfully portrays universal human experience.

[Sidenote: _Creation of man and the elements necessary for his development_]

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