A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom
Chapter 18 - From the Dead Sea Legends to Comparative Mythology

Theological Efforts at Compromise - Triumph of the Scientific View

The theological effort to compromise with science now came in more strongly than ever. This effort had been made long before: as we have seen, it had begun to show itself decidedly as soon as the influence of the Baconian philosophy was felt. Le Clerc suggested that the shock caused by the sight of fire from heaven killed Lot's wife instantly and made her body rigid as a statue. Eichhorn suggested that she fell into a stream of melted bitumen. Michaelis suggested that her relatives raised a monument of salt rock to her memory. Friedrichs suggested that she fell into the sea and that the salt stiffened around her clothing, thus making a statue of her. Some claimed that a shower of sulphur came down upon her, and that the word which has been translated "salt" could possibly be translated "sulphur." Others hinted that the salt by its antiseptic qualities preserved her body as a mummy. De Saulcy, as we have seen, thought that a piece of salt rock fell upon her, and very recently Principal Dawson has ventured the explanation that a flood of salt mud coming from a volcano incrusted her.

But theologians themselves were the first to show the inadequacy of these explanations. The more rationalistic pointed out the fact that they were contrary to the sacred text: Von Bohlen, an eminent professor at Konigsberg, in his sturdy German honesty, declared that the salt pillar gave rise to the story, and compared the pillar of salt causing this transformation legend to the rock in Greek mythology which gave rise to the transformation legend of Niobe.

On the other hand, the more severely orthodox protested against such attempts to explain away the clear statements of Holy Writ. Dom Calmet, while presenting many of these explanations made as early as his time, gives us to understand that nearly all theologians adhered to the idea that Lot's wife was instantly and really changed into salt; and in our own time, as we shall presently see, have come some very vigorous protests.

Similar attempts were made to explain the other ancient legends regarding the Dead Sea. One of the most recent of these is that the cities of the plain, having been built with blocks of bituminous rock, were set on fire by lightning, a contemporary earthquake helping on the work. Still another is that accumulations of petroleum and inflammable gas escaped through a fissure, took fire, and so produced the catastrophe.

The revolt against such efforts to reconcile scientific fact with myth and legend had become very evident about the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1851 and 1852 Van de Velde made his journey. He was a most devout man, but he confessed that the volcanic action at the Dead Sea must have been far earlier than the catastrophe mentioned in our sacred books, and that "the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah had nothing to do with this." A few years later an eminent dignitary of the English Church, Canon Tristram, doctor of divinity and fellow of the Royal Society, who had explored the Holy Land thoroughly, after some generalities about miracles, gave up the whole attempt to make science agree with the myths, and used these words: "It has been frequently assumed that the district of Usdum and its sister cities was the result of some tremendous geological catastrophe.... Now, careful examination by competent geologists, such as Monsieur Lartet and others, has shown that the whole district has assumed its present shape slowly and gradually through a succession of ages, and that its peculiar phenomena are similar to those of other lakes." So sank from view the whole mass of Dead Sea myths and legends, and science gained a victory both for geology and comparative mythology.

As a protest against this sort of rationalism appeared in 1876 an edition of Monseigneur Mislin's work on The Holy Places. In order to give weight to the book, it was prefaced by letters from Pope Pius IX and sundry high ecclesiastics - and from Alexandre Dumas! His hatred of Protestant missionaries in the East is phenomenal: he calls them "bagmen," ascribes all mischief and infamy to them, and his hatred is only exceeded by his credulity. He cites all the arguments in favour of the salt statue at Usdum as the identical one into which Lot's wife was changed, adds some of his own, and presents her as "a type of doubt and heresy." With the proverbial facility of dogmatists in translating any word of a dead language into anything that suits their purpose, he says that the word in the nineteenth chapter of Genesis which is translated "statue" or "pillar," may be translated "eternal monument"; he is especially severe on poor Monsieur De Saulcy for thinking that Lot's wife was killed by the falling of a piece of salt rock; and he actually boasts that it was he who caused De Saulcy, a member of the French Institute, to suppress the obnoxious passage in a later edition.

Between 1870 and 1880 came two killing blows at the older theories, and they were dealt by two American scholars of the highest character. First of these may be mentioned Dr. Philip Schaff, a professor in the Presbyterian Theological Seminary at New York, who published his travels in 1877. In a high degree he united the scientific with the religious spirit, but the trait which made him especially fit for dealing with this subject was his straightforward German honesty. He tells the simple truth regarding the pillar of salt, so far as its physical origin and characteristics are concerned, and leaves his reader to draw the natural inference as to its relation to the myth. With the fate of Dr. Robertson Smith in Scotland and Dr. Woodrow in South Carolina before him - both recently driven from their professorships for truth-telling - Dr. Schaff deserves honour for telling as much as he does.

Similar in effect, and even more bold in statement, were the travels of the Rev. Henry Osborn, published in 1878. In a truly scientific spirit he calls attention to the similarity of the Dead Sea, with the river Jordan, to sundry other lake and river systems; points out the endless variations between writers describing the salt formations at Usdum; accounts rationally for these variations, and quotes from Dr. Anderson's report, saying, "From the soluble nature of the salt and the crumbling looseness of the marl, it may well be imagined that, while some of these needles are in the process of formation, others are being washed away."

Thus came out, little by little, the truth regarding the Dead Sea myths, and especially the salt pillar at Usdum; but the final truth remained to be told in the Church, and now one of the purest men and truest divines of this century told it. Arthur Stanley, Dean of Westminster, visiting the country and thoroughly exploring it, allowed that the physical features of the Dead Sea and its shores suggested the myths and legends, and he sums up the whole as follows: "A great mass of legends and exaggerations, partly the cause and partly the result of the old belief that the cities were buried under the Dead Sea, has been gradually removed in recent years."

So, too, about the same time, Dr. Conrad Furrer, pastor of the great church of St. Peter at Zurich, gave to the world a book of travels, reverent and thoughtful, and in this honestly acknowledged that the needles of salt at the southern end of the Dead Sea "in primitive times gave rise to the tradition that Lot's wife was transformed into a statue of salt." Thus was the mythical character of this story at last openly confessed by Leading churchmen on both continents.

Plain statements like these from such sources left the high theological position more difficult than ever, and now a new compromise was attempted. As the Siberian mother tried to save her best-beloved child from the pursuing wolves by throwing over to them her less favoured children, so an effort was now made in a leading commentary to save the legends of the valley of Siddim and the miraculous destruction of the cities by throwing overboard the legend of Lot's wife.

An amusing result has followed this development of opinion. As we have already seen, traveller after traveller, Catholic and Protestant, now visits the Dead Sea, and hardly one of them follows the New Testament injunction to "remember Lot's wife." Nearly every one of them seems to think it best to forget her. Of the great mass of pious legends they are shy enough, but that of Lot's wife, as a rule, they seem never to have heard of, and if they do allude to it they simply cover the whole subject with a haze of pious rhetoric.

Naturally, under this state of things, there has followed the usual attempt to throw off from Christendom the responsibility of the old belief, and in 1887 came a curious effort of this sort. In that year appeared the Rev. Dr. Cunningham Geikie's valuable work on The Holy Land and the Bible. In it he makes the following statement as to the salt formation at Usdum: "Here and there, hardened portions of salt withstanding the water, while all around them melts and wears off, rise up isolated pillars, one of which bears among the Arabs the name of 'Lot's wife.' "

In the light of the previous history, there is something at once pathetic and comical in this attempt to throw the myth upon the shoulders of the poor Arabs. The myth was not originated by Mohammedans; it appears, as we have seen, first among the Jews, and, I need hardly remind the reader, comes out in the Book of Wisdom and in Josephus, and has been steadily maintained by fathers, martyrs, and doctors of the Church, by at least one pope, and by innumerable bishops, priests, monks, commentators, and travellers, Catholic and Protestant, ever since. In thus throwing the responsibility of the myth upon the Arabs Dr. Geikie appears to show both the "perfervid genius" of his countrymen and their incapacity to recognise a joke.

Nor is he more happy in his rationalistic explanations of the whole mass of myths. He supposes a terrific storm, in which the lightning kindled the combustible materials of the cities, aided perhaps by an earthquake; but this shows a disposition to break away from the exact statements of the sacred books which would have been most severely condemned by the universal Church during at least eighteen hundred years of its history. Nor would the explanations of Sir William Dawson have fared any better: it is very doubtful whether either of them could escape unscathed today from a synod of the Free Church of Scotland, or of any of the leading orthodox bodies in the Southern States of the American Union.

How unsatisfactory all such rationalism must be to a truly theological mind is seen not only in the dealings with Prof. Robertson Smith in Scotland and Prof. Woodrow in South Carolina, but most clearly in a book published in 1886 by Monseigneur Haussmann de Wandelburg. Among other things, the author was Prelate of the Pope's House-hold, a Mitred Abbot, Canon of the Holy Sepulchre, and a Doctor of Theology of the Pontifical University at Rome, and his work is introduced by approving letters from Pope Leo XIII and the Patriarch of Jerusalem. Monseigneur de Wandelburg scorns the idea that the salt column at Usdum is not the statue of Lot's wife; he points out not only the danger of yielding this evidence of miracle to rationalism, but the fact that the divinely. inspired authority of the Book of Wisdom, written, at the latest, two hundred and fifty years before Christ, distinctly refers to it. He summons Josephus as a witness. He dwells on the fact that St. Clement of Rome, Irenaeus, Hegesippus, and St. Cyril, "who as Bishop of Jerusalem must have known better than any other person what existed in Palestine," with St. Jerome, St. Chrysostom, and a multitude of others, attest, as a matter of their own knowledge or of popular notoriety, that the remains of Lot's wife really existed in their time in the form of a column of salt; and he points triumphantly to the fact that Lieutenant Lynch found this very column.

In the presence of such a continuous line of witnesses, some of them considered as divinely inspired, and all of them greatly revered - a line extending through thirty-seven hundred years - he condemns most vigorously all those who do not believe that the pillar of salt now at Usdum is identical with the wife of Lot, and stigmatizes them as people who "do not wish to believe the truth of the Word of God." His ignorance of many of the simplest facts bearing upon the legend is very striking, yet he does not hesitate to speak of men who know far more and have thought far more upon the subject as "grossly ignorant." The most curious feature in his ignorance is the fact that he is utterly unaware of the annual changes in the salt statue. He is entirely ignorant of such facts as that the priest Gabriel Giraudet in the sixteenth century found the statue lying down; that the monk Zwinner found it in the seventeenth century standing, and accompanied by a dog also transformed into salt; that Prince Radziwill found no statue at all; that the pious Vincent Briemle in the eighteenth century found the monument renewing itself; that about the middle of the nineteenth century Lynch found it in the shape of a tower or column forty feet high; that within two years afterward De Saulcy found it washed into the form of a spire; that a year later Van de Velde found it utterly washed away; and that a few years later Palmer found it "a statue bearing a striking resemblance to an Arab woman with a child in her arms." So ended the last great demonstration, thus far, on the side of sacred science - the last retreating shot from the theological rear guard.

It is but just to say that a very great share in the honour of the victory of science in this field is due to men trained as theologians. It would naturally be so, since few others have devoted themselves to direct labour in it; yet great honour is none the less due to such men as Reland, Mariti, Smith, Robinson, Stanley, Tristram, and Schat.

They have rendered even a greater service to religion than to science, for they have made a beginning, at least, of doing away with that enforced belief in myths as history which has become a most serious danger to Christianity.

For the worst enemy of Christianity could wish nothing more than that its main Leaders should prove that it can not be adopted save by those who accept, as historical, statements which unbiased men throughout the world know to be mythical. The result of such a demonstration would only be more and more to make thinking people inside the Church dissemblers, and thinking people outside, scoffers.

Far better is it to welcome the aid of science, in the conviction that all truth is one, and, in the light of this truth, to allow theology and science to work together in the steady evolution of religion and morality.

The revelations made by the sciences which most directly deal with the history of man all converge in the truth that during the earlier stages of this evolution moral and spiritual teachings must be inclosed in myth, legend, and parable. "The Master" felt this when he gave to the poor peasants about him, and so to the world, his simple and beautiful illustrations. In making this truth clear, science will give to religion far more than it will take away, for it will throw new life and light into all sacred literature.

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