A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom
Chapter 17 - From Babel to Comparative Philology

The Sacred Theory of Language in its Second Form

But the war was soon to be waged on a wider and far more important field. The inspiration of the Hebrew punctuation having been given up, the great orthodox body fell back upon the remainder of the theory, and intrenched this more strongly than ever: the theory that the Hebrew language was the first of all languages - that which was spoken by the Almighty, given by him to Adam, transmitted through Noah to the world after the Deluge - and that the "confusion of tongues" was the origin of all other languages.

In giving account of this new phase of the struggle, it is well to go back a little. From the Revival of Learning and the Reformation had come the renewed study of Hebrew in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and thus the sacred doctrine regarding the origin of the Hebrew language received additional authority. All the early Hebrew grammars, from that of Reuchlin down, assert the divine origin and miraculous claims of Hebrew. It is constantly mentioned as "the sacred tongue" - sancta lingua. In 1506, Reuchlin, though himself persecuted by a large faction in the Church for advanced views, refers to Hebrew as "spoken by the mouth of God."

This idea was popularized by the edition of the Margarita Philosophica, published at Strasburg in 1508. That work, in its successive editions a mirror of human knowledge at the close of the Middle Ages and the opening of modern times, contains a curious introduction to the study of Hebrew, In this it is declared that Hebrew was the original speech "used between God and man and between men and angels." Its full-page frontispiece represents Moses receiving from God the tables of stone written in Hebrew; and, as a conclusive argument, it reminds us that Christ himself, by choosing a Hebrew maid for his mother, made that his mother tongue.

It must be noted here, however, that Luther, in one of those outbursts of strong sense which so often appear in his career, enforced the explanation that the words "God said" had nothing to do with the articulation of human language. Still, he evidently yielded to the general view. In the Roman Church at the same period we have a typical example of the theologic method applied to philology, as we have seen it applied to other sciences, in the statement by Luther's great opponent, Cajetan, that the three languages of the inscription on the cross of Calvary "were the representatives of all languages, because the number three denotes perfection."

In 1538 Postillus made a very important endeavour at a comparative study of languages, but with the orthodox assumption that all were derived from one source, namely, the Hebrew. Naturally, Comparative Philology blundered and stumbled along this path into endless absurdities. The most amazing efforts were made to trace back everything to the sacred language. English and Latin dictionaries appeared, in which every word was traced back to a Hebrew root. No supposition was too absurd in this attempt to square Science with Scripture. It was declared that, as Hebrew is written from right to left, it might be read either way, in order to produce a satisfactory etymology. The whole effort in all this sacred scholarship was, not to find what the truth is - not to see how the various languages are to be classified, or from what source they are really derived - but to demonstrate what was supposed necessary to maintain what was then held to be the truth of Scripture; namely, that all languages are derived from the Hebrew.

This stumbling and blundering, under the sway of orthodox necessity, was seen among the foremost scholars throughout Europe. About the middle of the sixteenth century the great Swiss scholar, Conrad Gesner, beginning his Mithridates, says, "While of all languages Hebrew is the first and oldest, of all is alone pure and unmixed, all the rest are much mixed, for there is none which has not some words derived and corrupted from Hebrew."

Typical, as we approach the end of the sixteenth century, are the utterances of two of the most noted English divines. First of these may be mentioned Dr. William Fulke, Master of Pembroke Hall, in the University of Cambridge. In his Discovery of the Dangerous Rock of the Romish Church, published in 1580, he speaks of "the Hebrew tongue,... the first tongue of the world, and for the excellency thereof called 'the holy tongue."'

Yet more emphatic, eight years later, was another eminent divine, Dr. William Whitaker, Regius Professor of Divinity and Master of St. John's College at Cambridge. In his Disputation on Holy Scripture, first printed in 1588, he says: "The Hebrew is the most ancient of all languages, and was that which alone prevailed in the world before the Deluge and the erection of the Tower of Babel. For it was this which Adam used and all men before the Flood, as is manifest from the Scriptures, as the fathers testify." He then proceeds to quote passages on this subject from St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and others, and cites St. Chrysostom in support of the statement that "God himself showed the model and method of writing when he delivered the Law written by his own finger to Moses."

This sacred theory entered the seventeenth century in full force, and for a time swept everything before it. Eminent commentators, Catholic and Protestant, accepted and developed it. Great prelates, Catholic and Protestant, stood guard over it, favouring those who supported it, doing their best to destroy those who would modify it.

In 1606 Stephen Guichard built new buttresses for it in Catholic France. He explains in his preface that his intention is "to make the reader see in the Hebrew word not only the Greek and Latin, but also the Italian, the Spanish, the French, the German, the Flemish, the English, and many others from all languages." As the merest tyro in philology can now see, the great difficulty that Guichard encounters is in getting from the Hebrew to the Aryan group of languages. How he meets this difficulty may be imagined from his statement, as follows: "As for the derivation of words by addition, subtraction, and inversion of the letters, it is certain that this can and ought thus to be done, if we would find etymologies - a thing which becomes very credible when we consider that the Hebrews wrote from right to left and the Greeks and others from left to right. All the learned recognise such derivations as necessary;... and... certainly otherwise one could scarcely trace any etymology back to Hebrew."

Of course, by this method of philological juggling, anything could be proved which the author thought necessary to his pious purpose.

Two years later, Andrew Willett published at London his Hexapla, or Sixfold Commentary upon Genesis. In this he insists that the one language of all mankind in the beginning "was the Hebrew tongue preserved still in Heber's family." He also takes pains to say that the Tower of Babel "was not so called of Belus, as some have imagined, but of confusion, for so the Hebrew word ballal signifieth"; and he quotes from St. Chrysostom to strengthen his position.

In 1627 Dr. Constantine l'Empereur was inducted into the chair of Philosophy of the Sacred Language in the University of Leyden. In his inaugural oration on The Dignity and Utility of the Hebrew Tongue, he puts himself on record in favour of the Divine origin and miraculous purity of that language. "Who," he says, "can call in question the fact that the Hebrew idiom is coeval with the world itself, save such as seek to win vainglory for their own sophistry?"

Two years after Willett, in England, comes the famous Dr. Lightfoot, the most renowned scholar of his time in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin; but all his scholarship was bent to suit theological requirements. In his Erubhin, published in 1629, he goes to the full length of the sacred theory, though we begin to see a curious endeavour to get over some linguistic difficulties. One passage will serve to show both the robustness of his faith and the acuteness of his reasoning, in view of the difficulties which scholars now began to find in the sacred theory." Other commendations this tongue (Hebrew) needeth none than what it hath of itself; namely, for sanctity it was the tongue of God; and for antiquity it was the tongue of Adam. God the first founder, and Adam the first speaker of it.... It began with the world and the Church, and continued and increased in glory till the captivity in Babylon.... As the man in Seneca, that through sickness lost his memory and forgot his own name, so the Jews, for their sins, lost their language and forgot their own tongue.... Before the confusion of tongues all the world spoke their tongue and no other but since the confusion of the Jews they speak the language of all the world and not their own."

But just at the middle of the century (1657) came in England a champion of the sacred theory more important than any of these - Brian Walton, Bishop of Chester. His Polyglot Bible dominated English scriptural criticism throughout the remainder of the century. He prefaces his great work by proving at length the divine origin of Hebrew, and the derivation from it of all other forms of speech. He declares it "probable that the first parent of mankind was the inventor of letters." His chapters on this subject are full of interesting details. He says that the Welshman, Davis, had already tried to prove the Welsh the primitive speech; Wormius, the Danish; Mitilerius, the German; but the bishop stands firmly by the sacred theory, informing us that "even in the New World are found traces of the Hebrew tongue, namely, in New England and in New Belgium, where the word Aguarda signifies earth, and the name Joseph is found among the Hurons." As we have seen, Bishop Walton had been forced to give up the inspiration of the rabbinical punctuation, but he seems to have fallen back with all the more tenacity on what remained of the great sacred theory of language, and to have become its leading champion among English-speaking peoples.

At that same period the same doctrine was put forth by a great authority in Germany. In 1657 Andreas Sennert published his inaugural address as Professor of Sacred Letters and Dean of the Theological Faculty at Wittenberg. All his efforts were given to making Luther's old university a fortress of the orthodox theory. His address, like many others in various parts of Europe, shows that in his time an inaugural with any save an orthodox statement of the theological platform would not be tolerated. Few things in the past are to the sentimental mind more pathetic, to the philosophical mind more natural, and to the progressive mind more ludicrous, than addresses at high festivals of theological schools. The audience has generally consisted mainly of estimable elderly gentlemen, who received their theology in their youth, and who in their old age have watched over it with jealous care to keep it well protected from every fresh breeze of thought. Naturally, a theological professor inaugurated under such auspices endeavours to propitiate his audience. Sennert goes to great lengths both in his address and in his grammar, published nine years later; for, declaring the Divine origin of Hebrew to be quite beyond controversy, he says: "Noah received it from our first parents, and guarded it in the midst of the waters; Heber and Peleg saved it from the confusion of tongues."

The same doctrine was no less loudly insisted upon by the greatest authority in Switzerland, Buxtorf, professor at Basle, who proclaimed Hebrew to be "the tongue of God, the tongue of angels, the tongue of the prophets"; and the effect of this proclamation may be imagined when we note in 1663 that his book had reached its sixth edition.

It was re-echoed through England, Germany, France, and America, and, if possible, yet more highly developed. In England Theophilus Gale set himself to prove that not only all the languages, but all the learning of the world, had been drawn from the Hebrew records.

This orthodox doctrine was also fully vindicated in Holland. Six years before the close of the seventeenth century, Morinus, Doctor of Theology, Professor of Oriental Languages, and pastor at Amsterdam, published his great work on Primæ val Language. Its frontispiece depicts the confusion of tongues at Babel, and, as a pendant to this, the pentecostal gift of tongues to the apostles. In the successive chapters of the first book he proves that language could not have come into existence save as a direct gift from heaven; that there is a primitive language, the mother of all the rest; that this primitive language still exists in its pristine purity; that this language is the Hebrew. The second book is devoted to proving that the Hebrew letters were divinely received, have been preserved intact, and are the source of all other alphabets. But in the third book he feels obliged to allow, in the face of the contrary dogma held, as he says, by "not a few most eminent men piously solicitous for the authority of the sacred text," that the Hebrew punctuation was, after all, not of Divine inspiration, but a late invention of the rabbis.

France, also, was held to all appearance in complete subjection to the orthodox idea up to the end of the century. In 1697 appeared at Paris perhaps the most learned of all the books written to prove Hebrew the original tongue and source of all others. The Gallican Church was then at the height of its power. Bossuet as bishop, as thinker, and as adviser of Louis XIV, had crushed all opposition to orthodoxy. The Edict of Nantes had been revoked, and the Huguenots, so far as they could escape, were scattered throughout the world, destined to repay France with interest a thousandfold during the next two centuries. The bones of the Jansenists at Port Royal were dug up and scattered. Louis XIV stood guard over the piety of his people. It was in the midst of this series of triumphs that Father Louis Thomassin, Priest of the Oratory, issued his Universal Hebrew Glossary. In this, to use his own language, "the divinity, antiquity, and perpetuity of the Hebrew tongue, with its letters, accents, and other characters," are established forever and beyond all cavil, by proofs drawn from all peoples, kindreds, and nations under the sun. This superb, thousand-columned folio was issued from the royal press, and is one of the most imposing monuments of human piety and folly - taking rank with the treatises of Fromundus against Galileo, of Quaresmius on Lot's Wife, and of Gladstone on Genesis and Geology.

The great theologic-philologic chorus was steadily maintained, and, as in a responsive chant, its doctrines were echoed from land to land. From America there came the earnest words of John Eliot, praising Hebrew as the most fit to be made a universal language, and declaring it the tongue "which it pleased our Lord Jesus to make use of when he spake from heaven unto Paul." At the close of the seventeenth century came from England a strong antiphonal answer in this chorus; Meric Casaubon, the learned Prebendary of Canterbury, thus declared: "One language, the Hebrew, I hold to be simply and absolutely the source of all." And, to swell the chorus, there came into it, in complete unison, the voice of Bentley - the greatest scholar of the old sort whom England has ever produced. He was, indeed, one of the most learned and acute critics of any age; but he was also Master of Trinity, Archdeacon of Bristol, held two livings besides, and enjoyed the honour of refusing the bishopric of Bristol, as not rich enough to tempt him. Noblesse oblige: that Bentley should hold a brief for the theological side was inevitable, and we need not be surprised when we hear him declaring: "We are sure, from the names of persons and places mentioned in Scripture before the Deluge, not to insist upon other arguments, that the Hebrew was the primitive language of mankind, and that it continued pure above three thousand years until the captivity in Babylon." The power of the theologic bias, when properly stimulated with ecclesiastical preferment, could hardly be more perfectly exemplified than in such a captivity of such a man as Bentley.

Yet here two important exceptions should be noted. In England, Prideaux, whose biblical studies gave him much authority, opposed the dominant opinion; and in America, Cotton Mather, who in taking his Master's degree at Harvard had supported the doctrine that the Hebrew vowel points were of divine origin, bravely recanted and declared for the better view.

But even this dissent produced little immediate effect, and at the beginning of the eighteenth century this sacred doctrine, based upon explicit statements of Scripture, seemed forever settled. As we have seen, strong fortresses had been built for it in every Christian land: nothing seemed more unlikely than that the little groups of scholars scattered through these various countries could ever prevail against them. These strongholds were built so firmly, and had behind them so vast an army of religionists of every creed, that to conquer them seemed impossible. And yet at that very moment their doom was decreed. Within a few years from this period of their greatest triumph, the garrisons of all these sacred fortresses were in hopeless confusion, and the armies behind them in full retreat; a little later, all the important orthodox fortresses and forces were in the hands of the scientific philologists.

How this came about will be shown in the third part of this chapter.

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