Letters on Spiritual Christianity——THE MIRACLES OF THE OLD TESTAMENT

My dear ——,

Your last letter now comes to the point which I have been long anticipating, or rather it recurs to the point from which our correspondence started—the credibility of the miracles attributed to Christ. You tell me that during the long vacation you have been rapidly reviewing my letters and attempting to enter into my views. There is much, you say, that is new, and there is something that improves on acquaintance, in this form of “Christian Positivism” as you call it; its intellectual security has attractions for you, and it seems to you to satisfy at once the aspirations of those who are drawn to worship humanity, and of those who are drawn to worship something above humanity. All this looks very well on paper, you say; but when you take up the Gospels, it seems to fade away into a mere student’s dream: and you state the objection thus: “For our knowledge of Christ, we depend almost entirely upon the New Testament; now the New Testament contains accounts of miracles; these miracles we are unable to accept as historical; consequently the New Testament must be regarded as non-historical, and the whole story of Christ becomes a myth.”

In return for this argument about the New Testament let me supply you with a similarly sceptical one about the Old Testament, and ask you whether you are prepared 143consistently to adopt it. “For our knowledge of the children of Israel, we depend almost entirely upon the Old Testament; now the Old Testament contains accounts of miracles; these miracles we are unable to accept as historical; consequently the Old Testament must be regarded as non-historical, and the story of the descendants of Israel becomes a myth.”

Now are you really satisfied with this argument? The so-called Law of Moses, the wandering in the Wilderness, the conquest of Canaan, the lives of the wonder-working Gideon and of Barak, the wars and songs of David, the denunciations, warnings, consolations, sorrows, visions, of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the other prophets, are they indeed, in your judgment, converted into mere myths by the admixture of the miraculous element? Are they even made so far mythical as not to reveal the story of the training of one of the most remarkable of nations, a nation theologically quite singular upon earth? I contend on the contrary, that the removal of the miraculous element results in a two-fold advantage, on the one hand placing the story of Israel in the province of history, and on the other hand, not bringing it down to the level of the common-place, but elevating it to a pinnacle among the histories of nations, and making it in a certain sense more wonderful than before. If Moses was a plenipotentiary miracle-worker from God, then there was nothing unexpected or wonderful in the spiritual results that he achieved; and the wonder rather is that he achieved so little. Give me the thunders of Sinai, with power to burn, blast, and plague my opponents; add to these the power of producing without labour and without delay miraculous supplies of manna, quails, and water, and I myself would undertake to terrify or allure any nation into obeying a far less noble and attractive code of laws than was set forth in the name of Moses. But when I see a lawgiver with no such powers, doing what Moses did, and shaping, or preparing the way for shaping, one of the most carnal and unspiritual of races into a nation of Priests and Prophets for the civilised world, then I am ready to fall upon my face and to take my shoes from off my feet, saying from the depth of my heart, “Truly God is in this place.” “But,” say you, “the so-called Law of Moses is no more due to Moses than trial by jury is due to Alfred.” That matters not. It is not any one Israelite; it is Israel as a whole, Israel and its lawgivers and poets and prophets collectively; it is the evolution of the spiritual from the carnal Israel that I revere; and all the more, if that evolution be natural. Regarded as miraculous, the history of Israel is somewhat of a failure and a bathos; but, regarded as non-miraculous, it becomes a most miraculous triumph of divine intention and persistence, even though the walls of Jericho succumbed to the trumpets of Israel only in hyperbole, and although the sun stood still at the bidding of Joshua only in the impassioned language of an Oriental poet.

I am quite sure you must feel this as strongly as I do; you cannot honestly and sincerely put aside all the history of Israel as a myth because it contains a non-historic element of miracles, any more than you put aside the battles of Salamis and Regillus because they too have received their miraculous adornment. But some are probably perplexed and scandalized at the task that is apparently set before them of disentangling the true from the false, the myth from the non-myth: “How strange,” they say, “that the story of the training of the Priests of the world, that story which should have been a light to guide our feet, has been suffered to shed darkness instead of light and falsehood instead of truth! Is it probable, is it even decent and reverent, to suppose that God should have allowed the Book of Revelation to be so falsified 145that the simple and unlearned cannot depend upon it without the aid of scholars and specialists?”

My reply is that, as long as men reason in this way, assuming that Revelation ought to have been conveyed by some perfect medium, and therefore that it must have been conveyed by some perfect medium, so long it will be as impossible to refute them as it was to refute the Aristotelian astronomers who argued that “The planets ought to move in perfect curves; and the circle is a perfect curve; and therefore the planets must move in circles.” We are like children crying for the moon if we demand that this world, or that anything in this world, shall be arranged as if the world were the best of all possible worlds. It is not the best possible world, and we know it is not. Some things attest the glory of God more perfectly than others; but nothing attests it quite perfectly. You might as well hope to remove refraction from the atmosphere, as to remove from the human mind the prejudices which compel and always have compelled mankind to exaggerate and misrepresent divine truth by forcing us to think that God must have acted as we should have acted had we been in His place.

If you and I were omnipotent and had to re-make the Universe, I suppose there is no question but we should make man perfectly good (according to our notions of goodness) and that we should force him to remain good. And if you or I were omnipotent and had to reveal anything to men, we should write it large and clear in the sky, or in the heart, legible to all without effort, so that men should be forced to understand it. But God has neither done this nor anything like it. Therefore, since in other respects He has departed so very far from our notions of the best method, we cannot be surprised if He has not composed the Old Testament quite in the manner which would commend itself to us as the best. From our point of view the Bible teems with obvious imperfections. In the first place there are none of the modern arrangements for securing accuracy. No special newspaper reporters, not even contemporary writers of memoirs or histories, have handed down to posterity the exact words and deeds of Moses, David, Isaiah, and the great heroes and prophets of Israel. Might we not almost say that there have been as it were arrangements for securing inaccuracy? The authors wrote, in many cases, long after the events they recorded, under conditions which rendered accuracy of detail quite impossible. They have often been lengthy where we could have desired brevity (as for example in the enumerations of pedigrees and in the details of the furniture and ritual of the Temple or the Tabernacle) and very brief where we should have prized amplitude. Writing as Orientals for the most part write history, without statistical exactness, they have sometimes made mistakes (sometimes self-contradictory mistakes) in numbers and names, which it is now impossible to rectify. Nay, we can hardly acquit them sometimes of moral error; they have at all events sometimes appeared to praise, or at least not to blame, sometimes even to impute to God, acts that would seem to us—even when all due allowance is made for difference between ancient and modern standards of morality—deserving of express and severe censure.

But their special error which we are now considering remains yet unmentioned. You know that nations, like individuals, in their infancy have very vague notions of the uniformity of Nature, and very strong notions of the personality of Nature or of some Beings behind Nature. Even in modern times Orientals would say that God or Allah did this or that, where we say that this or that “happened;” and I remember hearing not many years ago that some Jews of Palestine, suffering from the consequences of extensive conflagration, wrote to England for relief in a letter which declared—in perfect good faith, and without any intention to imply a miracle—that God had “sent down fire from heaven upon their town.” An Eastern traveller of modern times tells an amusing story to the same effect how a camel-driver, when questioned as to the cause of his rheumatism, could not be induced for a long time to make any other answer except that “Allah had caused it;” and even when the traveller had elicited the immediate cause, the man would still persist that “Allah had sent the rheumatism, though it had followed upon drinking a great quantity of camels’ milk when he was in a violent heat.” You should therefore accustom yourself, if you want to understand the Bible, to look at Western narrative from an Oriental point of view. Take for example the interesting account given by the African traveller Mungo Park of the manner in which a trifling incident saved his life in the desert. Alone and desperate, faint and famished, he had thrown himself down to die, when he suddenly caught sight of a small but exquisitely shaped plant of great rarity and interest: “And can God have taken so much thought and care for the creation of this little plant,” he cried, “and have no thought or care for me?” In the strength of this suggestion he started up, pressed on his way, and reached safety. Now compare this striking little story with the similar incident of the gourd, recorded in the Book of Jonah, and imagine how a prophet of Israel could have described the message of salvation. He would have told us (as the prophet Jonah tells us) how the Lord God in the same day caused a plant to grow up before the face of the man, and how the Lord God said unto the man “Hath the Lord thy God taken thought for this plant, and shall He take no thought for thee? Arise, go on thy way”—giving, as from God, the actual words of the thought which the Western traveller describes as suggesting itself or occurring to his 148mind. You must surely see how naturally this conversion of the natural into the seemingly miraculous would have been effected by a penman of Israel, without the least intention to imply a real suspension of the laws of nature.

Keeping yourself still in the position of an Oriental historian, consider what you would be called on to describe, in setting down the story of Israel. You would find, as your materials, various traditions, mostly oral, mostly perhaps poetic, describing a great deliverance wrought in every particular by the hand of Jehovah Himself: you would find the nation around you, and yourself among the rest, believing that Jehovah Himself had drowned the Egyptians in the Red Sea, that His terrible voice had given the Law from Sinai, that He had been to wandering Israel a cloud in the noontide to protect them from the sun, and a light in the darkness to give them guidance, that He had supplied them with food from Heaven and spread a table for them in the wilderness, that He had Himself given them water from Himself (the Rock of Israel!) to quench their thirst. If the Jordan’s fords, unusually shallow, had allowed the whole nation to pass across, as upon dry land, you would be taught as a child to hear and sing, in hymns that reiterated the national deliverance, that the Lord Himself had done this: “The waters saw thee, O Lord, the waters saw thee, and were afraid.” If, in the general terror of the Canaanites, a strong city suffered itself to be taken on the mere onset and war cry of the invaders as easily as though it had been an unwalled hamlet, the traditions would tell how the walls fell flat at the sound of the trumpets of Joshua; if some sudden storm, accompanied with hail and immediately followed by an inundation of swollen streams, threw the chariots and horses of the enemy into confusion and ensured their speedy rout; or if, on another occasion, the sudden gloom of a storm had been succeeded by a long evening of peculiar brightness 149and clearness facilitating the pursuit and destruction of the foe, then you would hear that the “stars in their courses” fought against Sisera, or that in the day of Beth-horon the Lord Himself sent down hailstones upon the enemy and stopped the sun at the prayer of Joshua:—

“The sun and moon stood still in their habitation;
At the light of thine arrows as they went,
At the shining of thy glittering spear.”[9]
All these materials, expressed in terse poetic phrase, you, as a historian, would have to amplify into prose. Is it not easy to see how, in the process, without any fraud or conscious exaggeration on your part, you would transmute the natural into the miraculous?

To go through the whole of the miracles in the Old Testament and to attempt to shew how in almost every case the miraculous part of the story may have crept in without intention to deceive, would be a task far above my powers; and it would require a book not a letter. If you were to study with care the articles in the Encyclopædia Britannica on the books of the Old Testament they would give you a good deal of light on this subject. But the problem is complicated by the fact that the causes that originated the miraculous element are not always the same. For example the seven miracles of Elijah and the fourteen miracles of Elisha (the latter number being exactly the double of the former in order to fulfil the prayer of Elisha for a “twofold” portion of the spirit of his master) cannot be explained in the same way as the miracles of the Wanderings or as those in the life of Samson. The eminent Hebraist to whom we are indebted for the Articles above-mentioned would confer on all students of the Bible a very great benefit, if he would give us a separate treatise on the Old Testament miracles. Meantime I must content myself with shewing how some miracles, of what I may call a “grotesque” kind, may be explained as the mere result of misunderstood names. You must be familiar with this kind of explanation, I think, in ancient history, and even in modern English history, although you have never thought of applying it to the Bible. Perhaps you have read in Mr. Isaac Taylor’s Words and Places how the sexton in Leighton Buzzard used to show the eagle of the lectern as the identical buzzard from which the place derived its name—little guessing that “Buzzard” is a mere corruption of “Beaudésert;” and the porter at Warwick Castle, when he shows you the bones of the “dun cow” slain by Guy of Warwick, hands down a similar erroneous tradition probably derived from a misunderstanding of “dun.”[10] A far more famous instance connects itself with the Phœnician name of “Bosra,” belonging to the citadel of Carthage. This name meant, in the Phœnician language, “citadel;” but the Greeks confused it with the Greek word “Bursa,” a “hide;” and then they proceeded to invent a story to explain the name. Queen Dido, they said, had bought for a small price as much ground as she could encompass with a hide; she had cut the hide into thin thongs and thereby purchased the site of a city for a trifle: hence the city received the name of “Hide.” Thus subtilized the Greeks; but it may interest you to know that our own ancestors consciously or unconsciously followed in their footsteps. There is near Sittingbourne a castle called Tong or Thong Castle, situated on a “tongue” of land (Norse, tunga) which has given it its name. But tradition has invented or imitated the old Greek story, and has declared that the castle was so-called because the site was bought like Dido’s, a trifling price being given for so much land as could be included in the “thong” made from a bull’s hide.

But now to come to the particular instance which is the only one I shall give from the Old Testament. You must recollect, and I think you ought to have been perplexed by, the astounding incident in the life of Samson, connected with the “ass’s jawbone.” The hero is said first to have slain some hundreds of men with the jawbone of an ass, and then to have thrown away the jawbone in the anguish of a parching thirst. Upon this, the Lord is said, (in the Old Version of the Bible) to have opened a fountain of water in the hollow of the jawbone in answer to his cry: and the fountain was henceforth named En-hakkore, i.e. the “fountain of him that calleth,” because Samson “called upon the Lord.” Moreover, when he cast away the jawbone, he is said to have called the place Ramath-lehi; which the margin (not of the New Version but of the Old) interprets, “the lifting up of the jawbone” or “the casting away of the jawbone.” Without pausing to dwell on the extreme improbability of the details of the story, I will merely state the probable explanation. It is probable that the valley containing the “hollow” in which the fountain lay, was called, from the configuration of the place, “the Ass’s Jawbone,” before the occurrence of any exploit of Samson in it. Indeed we find it actually called “Lehi,” or “Jawbone,” in the narrative now under discussion, just before the supposed incident of the jawbone took place: “The Philistines went up, and pitched in Judah, and spread themselves in Lehi (Jawbone),” Judges xv. 9. This latter fact indeed is not conclusive (as the narrator, living long after the event, might possibly use the name of the place handed down to him, even in writing of a time when he believed the name to have been not yet given): but the probability of a natural explanation of the origin of the name receives strong confirmation from a passage in Strabo  who actually mentions some other place (I think in Peloponnesus) called the “Ass’s Jawbone.” I need not say that Strabo narrates no such Samsonian incident to explain the name, and that it was probably derived (like Dogs Head, Hog’s Back and many other such names) from some similarity between the shape of an ass’s jawbone and the shape of the valley. Moreover, the word translated “hollow,” though it might represent the cavity in an ass’s jawbone, might also represent the hollow in a valley, as in Zephaniah (i. 11) “Howl, ye inhabitants of the hollow.” Again, the name Ramath-lehi cannot mean “casting away of the jawbone;” it means “lifting up,” or “hill,” of Lehi: and accordingly the Revised Version translates, “that place was called Ramath-lehi;” and the margin interprets the name thus, “The hill of the jawbone”. I should add also that the Revisers—instead of the Old Version, “clave an hollow place that was in the jaw”—give us now, “clave the hollow place that is in Lehi.” You must see now surely how on every side the old miraculous interpretation breaks down and makes way for a natural and non-miraculous explanation of the legend. But we have still to explain the name of the fountain, said to have been given from the “calling” of Samson. This is easily done. It appears that the phrase “him that calleth,” or “the Caller,” is a Hebrew name for the Partridge, so named from its “call,” or cry. The “Fountain of the Caller,” therefore, in the “hollow place” of the “Ass’s Jawbone,” was simply, as we might say, Partridge Well in Jawbone Valley, which lay below Jawbone Hill.

But now, many years after the champion of Israel had passed away, comes the legendary poet or historian, who has to tell of some great exploit of deliverance wrought by the hero Samson in this Valley of the Jawbone of the Ass by the side of the Fountain of the Caller. Straight-way, every local name must be connected with the incident that fills his mind and the minds of all his countrymen who live in the neighbourhood. And so “Jawbone Valley” became so called because it was there that Samson smote the Philistines with “the jawbone of an ass;” and “Jawbone heights” are so-called because on this spot Samson “lifted up” the jawbone against his foes, or “threw it away” after he had destroyed them; and “the Well of the Caller” derives not only its name but even its miraculous existence from “the calling of Samson upon Jehovah.”

I think you will now perceive the kind of reasoning which has compelled me to give up the miracles of the Old Testament. It is not in any way because I have an a priori prejudice against miracles: on the contrary, I started with an a priori prejudice for miracles in the Bible, though against miracles in general. It is not simply because there is not sufficient evidence for them; it is in great measure because there is evidence against them. For, when you can shew how a supposed miracle may naturally have occurred, and how the miraculous account may naturally and easily have sprung up, I think that amounts to evidence against the miracle. And of course when you find yourself compelled to explain in this way a large number of miracles in the Old Testament, it becomes far more probable than before that the rest are susceptible of some natural explanation. I do not pretend to have investigated in detail every miraculous narrative in the Old Testament. I am ready to admit that at the bottom of the miraculous, there may have been in many cases something very wonderful. Being for example personally very much inclined to the mysterious, I would not deny that in the Hebrew race, as in some others, there may have been some strange power, natural but at present inexplicable, of “second sight;” but, on the whole, looking at the evidence for and against the miracles of the Old Testament, I have now no hesitation in rejecting them as miracles, however much I may admire the spirit that suggested the narratives, as exhibiting a profound and spiritual sense of the sympathy of God with men.

But we may perhaps be called upon to believe in the miracles of the Old Testament on the authority, so to speak, of the miracles of the New Testament. Such at least I take to be the meaning of the following extract from an author who has done so much good educational as well as episcopal work, and has manifested such an openness to new truth, that I differ from him with diffidence where I may possibly have misunderstood his meaning, and with regret where I am confident that I have understood him correctly. The passage is from Bishop Temple’s Bampton Lectures,[11] and I will give it at full length, partly because I may have to refer to it again, partly because I am afraid of misinterpreting it if I separate one or two sentences from the context:

“We have to ask what evidence can be given that any such miracles as are recorded in the Bible have ever been worked? It is plain at once that the answer must be given by the New Testament. No such[12] evidence can now be produced on behalf of the miracles of the Old Testament. The times are remote; the date and authorship of the Books not established with certainty; the mixture of poetry with history, no longer capable of any sure separation into its parts; and, if the New Testament did not exist, it would be impossible to show such a distinct preponderance of probability as could justify us in calling many [? any] to accept the miraculous parts of the narrative as historically true.”

If I understand this argument, I fear I must dissent from it. But let us try at least to understand it. Dr. Temple admits (what I should not be disposed to have admitted without a good deal of qualification) that “the mixture of poetry with history” (and the context makes it clear that he is referring to the miraculous accounts of the Old Testament) is “no longer capable of any sure separation into its parts.” This is a very important admission indeed. A plain Englishman may miss, at first sight, the full importance of it. He may be disposed to say, “What does this matter to me? What do I care whether a miracle is told in poetry or in prose, provided only it is true?” But by “poetry” Dr. Temple does not mean “verse;” he means hyperbole, poetic figures of speech and metaphors; in plain English, he means language that is literally and historically untrue. Consequently the admission amounts to this, that it is now no longer possible in the miraculous narratives of the Old Testament to separate what is historically true from what is historically untrue. If this be so, I cannot understand how the question is substantially affected by the New Testament. Let us suppose for a moment that, many centuries after the times of Moses and Samson, real miracles were wrought by Christ and the apostles; suppose even, in addition, that the reality of the miracles wrought by Christ and his followers could constitute any evidence for the Mosaic Miracles or could refute the evidence against such stories as that of the Ass’s jawbone; yet even then, what is the use of knowing that there may be a miracle somewhere concealed in an Old Testament narrative in which it is impossible to “make any sure separation” of the historically true from the historically untrue?

But for my part I am quite unable to adopt either of these suppositions. I cannot see how “a distinct preponderance of probability” for the Samsonian myth or the story of the stopping of the sun could be secured by the fact that miracles were really, long afterwards, performed by Christ. All that could fairly be said, as it seems to me, would be this, that since miracles were actually wrought by the Redeemer of the race, who was Himself a child of Israel, it is not so improbable as before that miracles might have been also wrought by other previous deliverers of Israel. But this could not go far, and certainly cannot constitute “a distinct preponderance of probability,” if we find positive evidence for a miracle almost wanting, and negative evidence against it very strong.[13]

So far as Dr. Temple’s argument has weight, so far it appears to me to be capable of being used in the opposite direction to that which he intended. For if there is any connection between the miracles of the Old and of the New Testament, so that the probability of the latter may be fairly said—I will not say to constitute “a distinct preponderance of probability,” but to contribute slightly to the probability of the former, then surely we must also admit that the demonstrated improbability of the former must contribute slightly to the a priori improbability which we ought to attach to the latter. If the Bible is to be regarded as a whole, and Bible miracles as a whole, then the fact that the Divine Author of the Bible allowed revelation in the earlier part of the Book to be conveyed through an imperfect and non-historical medium will constitute a reasonable probability that He may also have conveyed His later revelations through the same means. In other words, the acknowledged presence of the law of “Truth through Illusion” in the Old Testament should prepare us not to be disappointed if we find the same law traceable in the New Testament: and the collapse of miracles in the former should prepare us for a collapse of miracles in the latter.

Do not however suppose for a moment that a collapse of miracles implies a collapse of the Bible, and do not be disheartened by such expressions as that “the mixture of poetry with history is no longer capable of any sure separation into its parts.” If that expression refers merely to some of the legends of the times of the Patriarchs, or to a few isolated passages elsewhere, it may be accepted without fear; but it cannot apply to the great bulk of the history of the Chosen People. Here you will find very little difficulty in rejecting the obviously non-historical and miraculous element; and you will lose nothing by the rejection. Read through Stanley’s Lectures on the Jewish Church and ask yourself whether you have missed anything from the campaigns of Joshua and the exploits of Gideon and Samson because the miracles have vanished from his pages. Where miraculous narratives are manifestly not deliberate fabrications, but (as here) late prosaic interpretations of early poetic traditions, they very often afford trustworthy evidence of ancient historical events which imprinted themselves upon the hearts of a simple people. Certainly I can say for myself that I never realized Israel as a nation and had not half my present appreciation of the wisdom and wonder of the deliverance and training of Israel by Jehovah till I had learned to interpret the miracles as being nothing more than man’s inadequate attempt to set forth in visible shape the unique redemption of the Chosen People. Spiritually as well as intellectually, my enjoyment of the Old Testament has been doubled ever since I have been able, however imperfectly, to separate the historical element in it from the non-historical, and to interpret the prose as prose and the poetry as poetry.

Leave a Reply

error: Content is protected !!