Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

in any respect one-sided or biased or otherwise incorrect, descriptions; and again, how far the literature that relates the story of long past periods has drawn upon trustworthy records, and how far it is possible to extract historical truth from traditions (such as those of the Pentateuch) that present, owing to the gradual accretions and modifications of intervening generations, a composite picture of the period described, or from a work such as Chronicles, which narrates the past under the influence of the conception that the institutions and ideas of the present must have been established and current in the past; all this falls under Historical Criticism, which, on its constructive side, must avail itself of all available and well-sifted evidence, whether derived from the Old Testament or elsewhere, for its presentation of the history of Israel—its ultimate purpose. Finally, by comparing the results of this criticism as a whole, we have to determine, by observing its growth and comparing it with others, the essential character of the religion of Israel.

In brief, then, the criticism of the Old Testament seeks to discover what the words written actually meant to the writers, what the events in Hebrew history actually were, what the religion actually was; and hence its aim differs from the dogmatic or homiletic treatments of the Old Testament, which have sought to discover in Scripture a given body of dogma or incentives to a particular type of life or the like.

Biblical criticism, and in some respects more especially Old Testament criticism, is, in all its branches, very largely of modern growth. This has been due in part to the removal of conditions unfavourable to the critical study of the evidence that existed, in part to the discovery in recent times of fresh evidence. The unfavourable conditions and the critical efforts which were made in spite of them can only be briefly indicated.

For a long time Biblical study lacked the first essential of sound critical method, viz. a critical text of the literature. Jewish study was exclusively based on the official Hebrew text, which was fixed, probably in the 2nd century A.D., Growth of criticism. and thereafter scrupulously preserved. This text, however, had suffered certain now obvious corruptions, and, probably enough, more corruption than can now, or perhaps ever will be, detected with certainty. The position of Christian (and Jewish Alexandrian) scholars was considerably worse; for, with rare exceptions, down to the 5th century, and practically without exception between the 5th and 15th centuries, their study was exclusively based on translations. Beneath the ancient Greek version, the Septuagint, there certainly underlay an earlier form of the Hebrew text than that perpetuated by Jewish tradition, and if Christian scholars could have worked through the version to the underlying Hebrew text, they would often have come nearer to the original meaning than their Jewish contemporaries. But this they could not do; and since the version, owing to the limitations of the translators, departs widely from the sense of the original, Christian scholars were on the whole kept much farther from the original meaning than their Jewish contemporaries, who used the Hebrew text; and later, after Jewish grammatical and philological study had been stimulated by intercourse with the Arabs, the relative disadvantages under which Christian scholarship laboured increased. Still there are not lacking in the early centuries A.D. important, if limited and imperfect, efforts in textual criticism. Origen, in his Hexapla, placed side by side the Hebrew text, the Septuagint, and certain later Greek versions, and drew attention to the variations: he thus brought together for comparison, an indispensable preliminary to criticism, the chief existing evidence to the text of the Old Testament. Unfortunately this great work proved too voluminous to be preserved entire; and in the form in which it was fragmentarily preserved, it even largely enhanced the critical task of later centuries. Jerome, perceiving the unsatisfactory position of Latin-speaking Christian scholars who studied the Old Testament at a double remove from the original—in Latin versions of the Greek—made a fresh Latin translation direct from the Hebrew text then received among the Jews. It is only in accordance with what constantly recurs in the history of Biblical criticism that this effort to approximate to the truth met at first with considerable opposition, and was for a time regarded even by Augustine as dangerous. Subsequently, however, this version of Jerome (the Vulgate) became the basis of Western Biblical scholarship. Henceforward the Western Church suffered both from the corruptions in the official Hebrew text and also from the fact that it worked from a version and not from the original, for a knowledge of Hebrew was rare indeed among Christian scholars between the time of Jerome and the 16th century.

But if the use of versions, or of an uncritical text of the original, was one condition unfavourable to criticism, another that was not less serious was the dominance over both Jews and Christians of unsound methods of interpretation—legal or dogmatic or allegorical. The influence of these can be traced as early as the Greek version (3rd century B.C. and later); allegorical interpretation is conspicuous in the Alexandrian Jewish scholar Philo (q.v.); it may be seen in many New Testament interpretations of the Old Testament (e.g. Gal. iii. 16, iv. 21-31), found a classical exponent in Origen, and, in spite of the opposition of the school of Antioch, pre-eminently of Theodore (d. A.D. 428), maintained its power virtually unbroken down to the Reformation. It is true that even by the most thorough-going allegorists the literal sense of Scripture was not openly and entirely disregarded; but the very fact that the study of Hebrew was never more than exceptional, and so early ceased to be cultivated at all, is eloquent of indifference to the original literal sense, and the very principle of the many meanings inherent in the sacred writings was hostile to sound interpretation; greater importance was attached to the “deeper” or “hidden” senses, i.e. to the various unreal interpretations, and when the literal sense conflicted with the dogmas or tradition of the Church its validity was wholly denied. The extraordinary ambiguity and uncertainty which allegorical interpretation tacitly ascribed to Scripture, and the ease with which heretical as well as orthodox teaching could be represented as “hidden” under the literal sense, was early perceived, but instead of this leading to any real check on even wild subjectivity in interpretation and insistence on reaching the literal sense, it created an ominous principle that maintained much of its influence long after the supremacy of allegorism was overthrown. This is the principle that all interpretation of Scripture must be according to the Regula fidei—that all interpretation which makes Scripture contradict or offend the traditions of the Church is wrong.

The spirit and the age of humanism and the Reformation effected and witnessed important developments in the study of the Old Testament. It was still long before any considerable results were achieved; but in various ways the dogmatic and traditional treatment of Scripture was undermined; the way was opened for a more real and historical method. It must suffice to refer briefly to two points.

1. Ignorance gave place to knowledge of the languages in which the Old Testament was written. In 1506 the distinguished humanist, Johann Reuchlin, who had begun the study of Hebrew under a Jewish teacher about 1492, published a work entitled De Rudimentis Hebraicis containing a Hebrew lexicon and a Hebrew grammar. In 1504 Konrad Pellikan (Pellicanus), whose study of Hebrew had profited from intercourse with Reuchlin, had published a brief introduction to the language. In 1514 the Complutensian Polyglott began to be printed and in 1522 was published. Various Jewish editions of the Hebrew Bible had already been printed—in part since 1477, entire since 1488; but this work contained the first Christian edition of the text. Certainly the editors did not intend hereby to exalt the original above the versions; for they placed the Vulgate in the centre of the page with the Hebrew on one side, the Greek on the other, i.e. as they themselves explained it, the Roman Church between the synagogue and the Greek Church, as Christ crucified between two thieves. Yet even so the publication of the Hebrew text by Christian scholars marks an important stage; henceforth the study of the original enters increasingly into Christian Biblical schojarship; it already underlay the translations which form so striking a feature of the 16th century. Luther’s German version (Pentateuch, 1523) and Tyndale’s English version (Pentateuch, 1530) were both made from the Hebrew. At first, and indeed down to the middle of the 17th century, Jewish traditions and methods in the study of Hebrew dominated Christian scholars; but in the 17th and 18th centuries the study of other Semitic languages opened up that comparative linguistic study which was systematized and brought nearer to perfection in the 19th century