1. Hebrew Literature; its Divisions.—2. The Language; its Alphabet; its Structure; Peculiarities, Formation, and Phases.—3. The Old Testament.— 4. Hebrew Education.—5. Fundamental Idea of Hebrew Literature.—6. Hebrew Poetry.—7. Lyric Poetry; Songs; the Psalms; the Prophets.—8. Pastoral Poetry and Didactic Poetry; the Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.—9. Epic and Dramatic Poetry; the Book of Job.—10. Hebrew History; the Pentateuch and other Historical Books.—11. Hebrew Philosophy.—12. Restoration of the Sacred Books.—13. Manuscripts and Translations.—14. Rabbinical Literature.—15. The New Revision of the Bible, and the New Biblical Manuscript.
1. HEBREW LITERATURE.—In the Hebrew literature we find expressed the national character of that ancient people who, for a period of four thousand years, through captivity, dispersion, and persecution of every kind, present the wonderful spectacle of a race preserving its nationality, its peculiarities of worship, of doctrine, and of literature. Its history reaches back to an early period of the world, its code of laws has been studied and imitated by the legislators of all ages and countries, and its literary monuments surpass in originality, poetic strength, and religious importance those of any other nation before the Christian era.
The literature of the Hebrews may be divided into the four following periods:—
The first, extending from remote antiquity to the time of David, 1010 B.C., includes all the records of patriarchal civilization transmitted by tradition previous to the age of Moses, and contained in the Pentateuch or five books attributed to him after he had delivered the people from the bondage of Egypt.
The second period extends from the time of David to the death of Solomon, 1010-940 B.C., and to this are referred some of the Psalms, Joshua, the Judges, and the Chronicles.
The third period extends from the death of Solomon to the return from the Babylonian captivity, 940-532 B.C., and to this age belong the writings of most of the Prophets, The Song of Solomon, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the books of Samuel, of Kings, and of Ruth.
The fourth period extends from their return from the Babylonian Captivity to the present time, and to this belong some of the Prophets, the Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, the final completion of the Psalms, the Septuagint translation of the Bible, the writings of Josephus, of Philo of Alexandria, and the rabbinical literature.
2. THE LANGUAGE.—The Hebrew language is of Semitic origin; its alphabet consists of twenty-two letters. The number of accents is nearly forty, some of which distinguish the sentences like the punctuation of our language, and others serve to determine the number of syllables, or to mark the tone with which they are to be sung or spoken.
The Hebrew character is of two kinds, the ancient or square, and the modern or rabbinical. In the first of these the Scriptures were originally written. The last is deprived of most of its angles, and is more easy and flowing. The Hebrew words as well as letters are written from right to left in common with, the Semitic tongues generally, and the language is regular, particularly in its conjugations. Indeed, it has but one conjugation, but with seven or eight variations, having the effect of as many different conjugations, and giving great variety of expression. The predominance of these modifications over the noun, the idea of time contained in the roots of almost all its verbs, so expressive and so picturesque, and even the scarcity of its prepositions, adjectives, and adverbs, make this language in its organic structure breathe life, vigor, and emotion. If it lacks the flowery and luxuriant elements of the other oriental idioms, no one of these can be compared with the Hebrew tongue for the richness of its figures and imagery, for its depth, and for its majestic and imposing features.
In the formation, development, and decay of this language, the following periods may be distinguished:—
First. From Abraham to Moses, when the old stock was changed by the infusion of the Egyptian and Arabic. Abraham, residing in Chaldea, spoke the Chaldaic language, then traveling through Egypt, and establishing himself in Canaan or Palestine, his language mingled its elements with the tongues spoken by those nations, and perhaps also with that of the Phoenicians, who early established commercial intercourse with him and his descendants. It is probable that the Hebrew language sprung from the mixture of these elements.
Second. From Moses and the composition of the Pentateuch to Solomon, when it attained its perfection, not without being influenced by the Phoenician. This is the Golden Age of the Hebrew language.
Third. From Solomon to Ezra, when, although increasing in beauty and sweetness, it became less pure by the adoption of foreign ideas and idioms.
Fourth. From Ezra to the end of the reign of the Maccabees, when it was gradually lost in the Aramaean or Chaldaic tongue, and became a dead language.
The Jews of the Middle Ages, incited by the learning of the Arabs in Spain, among whom they received the protection denied them by Christian nations, endeavored to restore their language to something of its original purity, and to render the Biblical Hebrew again a written language; but the Chaldaic idioms had taken too deep root to be eradicated, and besides, the ancient language was found insufficient for the necessities of an advancing civilization. Hence arose a new form of written Hebrew, called rabbinical from its origin and use among the rabbins. It borrowed largely from many contemporary languages, and though it became richer and more regular in its structure, it retained little of the strength and purity of the ancient Hebrew.
3. THE OLD TESTAMENT.—The literary productions of the Hebrews are collected in the sacred books of the Old Testament, in which, according to the celebrated orientalist, Sir William Jones, we can find more eloquence, more historical and moral truth, more poetry,—in a word, more beauties than we could gather from all other books together, of whatever country or language. Aside from its supernatural claims, this book stands alone among the literary monuments of other nations, for the sublimity of its doctrine, as well as for the simplicity of its style.
It is the book of all centuries, countries, and conditions, and affords the best solution of the most mysterious problems concerning God and the world. It cultivates the taste, it elevates the mind, it nurses the soul with the word of life, and it has inspired the best productions of human genius.
4. HEBREW EDUCATION.—Religion, morals, legislation, history, poetry, and music were the special objects to which the attention of the Levites and Prophets was particularly directed. The general education of the people, however, was rather simple and domestic. They were trained in husbandry, and in military and gymnastic exercises, and they applied their minds almost exclusively to religious and moral doctrines and to divine worship; they learned to read and write their own language correctly, but they seldom learned foreign languages or read foreign books, and they carefully prevented strangers from obtaining a knowledge of their own.
5. FUNDAMENTAL IDEA OF HEBREW LITERATURE.—Monotheism was the fundamental idea of the Hebrew literature, as well as of the Hebrew religion, legislation, morals, politics, and philosophy. The idea of the unity of God constitutes the most striking characteristic of Hebrew poetry, and chiefly distinguishes it from that of all mythological nations. Other ancient literatures have created their divinities, endowed them with human passions, and painted their achievements in the glowing colors of poetry. The Hebrew poetry, on the contrary, makes no attempt to portray the Deity by the instruments of sensuous representation, but simple, majestic, and severe, it pours forth a perpetual anthem of praise and thanksgiving. The attributes of God, his power, his paternal love and wisdom, are described in the most sublime language of any age or nation. His seat is the heavens, the earth is his footstool, the heavenly hosts his servants; the sea is his, and he made it, and his hands prepared the dry land.
Placed under the immediate government of Jehovah, having with Him common objects of aversion and love, the Hebrews reached the very source of enthusiasm, the fire of which burned in the hearts of the prophets so fervently as to cause them to utter the denunciations and the promises of the Eternal in a tone suited to the inspired of God, and to sing his attributes and glories with a dignity and authority becoming them, as the vicegerents of God upon earth.
6. HEBREW POETRY.—The character of the people and their language, its mission, the pastoral life of the patriarchs, the beautiful and grand scenery of the country, the wonderful history of the nation, the feeling of divine inspiration, the promise of a Messiah who should raise the nation to glory, the imposing solemnities of the divine worship, and finally, the special order of the prophets, gave a strong impulse to the poetical genius of the nation, and concurred in producing a form of poetry which cannot be compared with any other for its simplicity and clearness, for its depth and majesty.
These features of Hebrew poetry, however, spring from its internal force rather than from any external form. Indeed, the Hebrew poets soar far above all others in that energy of feeling, impetuous and irresistible, which penetrates, warms, and moves the very soul. They reveal their anxieties as well as their hopes; they paint with truth and love the actual condition of the human race, with its sorrows and consolations, its hopes and fears, its love and hate. They select their images from the habitual ideas of the people, and personify inanimate objects—the mountains tremble and exult, deep cries unto deep. Another characteristic of Hebrew poetry is the strong feeling of nationality it expresses. Of their two most sublime poets, one was their legislator, the other their greatest king.
7. LYRIC POETRY.—In their national festivals the Hebrews sang the hymns of their lyric poets, accompanied by musical instruments. The art of singing, as connected with poetry, flourished especially under David, who instituted twenty-four choruses, composed of four thousand Levites, whose duty it was to sing in the public solemnities. It is generally believed that the Hebrew lyric poetry was not ruled by any measure, either of syllables or of time. Its predominant form was a succession of thoughts and a rhythmic movement, less of syllables and words than of ideas and images systematically arranged. The Psalms, especially, are essentially symmetrical, according to the Hebrew ritual, their verses being sung alternately by Levites and people, both in the synagogues and more frequently in the open air. The song of Moses after the passage of the Bed Sea is the most sublime triumphal hymn in any language, and of equal merit is his song of thanksgiving in Deuteronomy. Beautiful examples of the same order of poetry may be found in the song of Judith (though not canonical), and the songs of Deborah and Balaam. But Hebrew poetry attained its meridian splendor in the Psalms of David. The works of God in the creation of the world, and in the government of men; the illustrious deeds of the House of Jacob; the wonders and mysteries of the new Covenant are sung by David in a fervent out-pouring of an impulsive, passionate spirit, that alternately laments and exults, bows in contrition, or soars to the sublimest heights of devotion. The Psalms, even now, reduced to prose, after three thousand years, present the best and most sublime collection of lyrical poems, unequaled for their aspiration, their living imagery, their grand ideas, and majesty of style.
When at length the Hebrews, forgetful of their high duties and calling, trampled on their institutions and laws, prophets were raised up to recall the wandering people to their allegiance. ISAIAH, whether he foretells the future destiny of the nation, or the coming of the Messiah, in his majestic eloquence, sweetness, and simplicity, gives us the most perfect model of lyric poetry. He prophesied during the reigns of Azariah and Hezekiah, and his writings bear the mark of true inspiration.
JEREMIAH flourished during the darkest period in the history of the kingdom of Judah, and under the last four kings, previous to the Captivity. The Lamentations, in which he pours forth his grief for the fate of his country, are full of touching melancholy and pious resignation, and, in their harmonious and beautiful tone, show his ardent patriotism and his unshaken trust in the God of his fathers. He does not equal Isaiah in the sublimity of his conceptions and the variety of his imagery, but whatever may be the imperfections of his style, they are lost in the passion and vehemence of his poems.
DANIEL, after having straggled against the corruptions of Babylon, boldly foretells the decay of that empire with terrible power. His conceptions and images are truly sublime; but his style is less correct and regular than that of his predecessors, his language being a mixture of Hebrew and Chaldaic.
Such is also the style of EZEKIEL, who sings the development of the obscure prophesies of his master. His writings abound in dreams and visions, and convey rather the idea of the terrible than of the sublime.
These four, from the length of their writings, are called the Greater Prophets, to distinguish them from the twelve Minor Prophets: HOSEA, JOEL, AMOS, OBADIAH, JONAH, MICAH, NAHUM, HABAKKUK, ZEPHANIAH, HAGGAI, ZECHARIAH, and MALACHI, all of whom, though endowed with different characteristics and genius, show in their writings more or less of that fire and vigor which can only be found in writers who were moved and warmed by the very spirit of God.
8. PASTORAL POETRY AND DIDACTIC POETRY.—The Song of Solomon and the history of Ruth are the best specimens of the Hebrew idyl, and breathe all the simplicity of pastoral life.
The books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes contain treatises on moral philosophy, or rather, are didactic poems. The Proverb, which is a maxim of wisdom, greatly used by the ancients before the introduction of dissertation, is, as the name indicates, the prevalent form of the first of these books. In Ecclesiastes we have described the trials of a mind which has lost itself in undefined wishes and in despair, and the efficacious remedies for these mental diseases are shown in the pictures of the vanity of the world and in the final divine judgment, in which the problem of this life will have its complete solution. SOLOMON, the author of these works, adds splendor to the sublimity of his doctrines by the dignity of his style.
9. EPIC AND DRAMATIC POETRY.—The Book of Job may be considered as belonging either to epic or to dramatic poetry. Its exact date is uncertain; some writers refer it to the primitive period of Hebrew literature, and others to a later age; and, while some contend that Job was but an ideal, representing human suffering, whose story was sung by an anonymous poet, others, with more probability, regard him as an actual person, exposed to the trials and temptations described in this wonderful book. However this may be, it is certain that this monument of wisdom stands alone, and that it can be compared to no other production for the sublimity of its ideas, the vivacity and force of its expressions, the grandeur of its imagery, and the variety of its characters. No other work represents, in more true and vivid colors, the nobility and misery of humanity, the laws of necessity and Providence, and the trials to which the good are subjected for their moral improvement. Here the great straggle between evil and good appears in its true light, and human virtue heroically submits itself to the ordeal of misfortune. Here we learn that the evil and good of this life are by no means the measure of morality, and here we witness the final triumph of justice.
10. HEBREW HISTORY.—Moses, the most ancient of all historians, was also the first leader and legislator of the Hebrews. When at length the traditions of the patriarchs had become obscured and confused among the different nations of the earth, Moses was inspired to write the history of the human race, and especially of the chosen people, in order to bequeath to coming centuries a memorial of revealed truths and of the divine works of eternal Wisdom. Thus in the first chapters of Genesis, without aiming to write the complete annals of the first period of the world, he summed up the general history of man, and described, more especially, the genealogy of the patriarchs and of the generations previous to the time of the dispersion.
The subject of the book of Exodus is the delivery of the people from the Egyptian bondage, and it is not less admirable for the importance of the events which it describes, than for the manner in which they are related. In this, and in the following book of Numbers, the record of patriarchal life gives place to the teachings of Moses and to the history of the wanderings in the deserts of Arabia.
In Leviticus the constitution of the priesthood is described, as well as the peculiarities of a worship.
Deuteronomy records the laws of Moses, and concludes with his sublime hymn of thanksgiving.
The historical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, etc., contain the history of the Hebrew nation for nearly a thousand years, and relate the prosperity and the disasters of the chosen people. Here are recorded the deeds of Joshua, of Samson, of Samuel, of David, and of Solomon, the building of the Temple, the division of the tribes into two kingdoms, the prodigies of Elijah and Elisha, the impieties of Ahab, the calamities of Jedekiah, the destruction of Jerusalem and of the first Temple, the dispersion and the Babylonish captivity, the deliverance under Cyrus, and the rebuilding of the city and Temple under Ezra, and other great events in Hebrew history.
The internal evidence derived from the peculiar character of each of the historical books is decisive of their genuineness, which is supported above all suspicion of alteration or addition by the scrupulous conscientiousness and veneration with which the Hebrews regarded their sacred writings. Their authenticity is also proved by the uniformity of doctrine which pervades them all, though written at different periods, by the simplicity and naturalness of the narrations, and by the sincerity of the writers.
These histories display neither vanity nor adulation, nor do they attempt to conceal from the reader whatever might be considered as faults in their authors or their heroes. While they select facts with a nice judgment, and present the most luminous picture of events and of their causes, they abstain from reasoning or speculation in regard to them.
11. HEBREW PHILOSOPHY.—Although the Hebrews, in their different sacred writings, have transmitted to us the best solution of the ancient philosophical questions on the creation of the world, on the Providence which rules it, on monotheism, and on the origin of sin, yet they have nowhere presented us with a complete system of philosophy.
During the Captivity, their doctrines were influenced by those of Zoroaster, and later, when many of the Jews established themselves in Egypt, they acquired some knowledge of the Greek philosophy, and the tenets of the sects of the Essenes bear a strong resemblance to the Pythagorean and Platonic schools. This resemblance appears most clearly in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, a Jew, born a few years before the birth of our Saviour. Though not belonging to the sect of the Essenes, he followed their example in adopting the doctrines of Plato and taking them as the criterion in the interpretation of the Scriptures. So, also, Flavius Josephus, born in Jerusalem, 37 A.D., and Numenius, born in Syria, in the second century A.D., adopted the Greek philosophy, and by its doctrines amplified and expanded the tenets of Judaism.
12. RESTORATION OF THE SACRED BOOKS.—One of the most important eras in Hebrew literature is the period of the restoration of the Mosaic institutions, after the return from the Captivity. According to tradition, at that time Ezra established the great Synagogue, a college of one hundred and twenty learned men, who were appointed to collect copies of the ancient sacred books, the originals of which had been lost in the capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, and Nehemiah soon after placed this, or a new collection, in the Temple. The design of these reformers to give the people a religious canon in their ancient tongue induces the belief that they engaged in the work with the strictest fidelity to the old Mosaic institutions, and it is certain that the canon of the Old Testament, in the time of the Maccabees, was the same as that which we have at present.
13. MANUSCRIPTS AND TRANSLATIONS.—Of the canonical books of the Old Testament we have Hebrew manuscripts, printed editions, and translations. The most esteemed manuscripts are those of the Spanish Jews, of which the most ancient belong to the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The printed editions of the Bible in Hebrew are numerous. The earliest are those of Italy. Luther made his German translation from the edition of Brescia, printed in 1494. The earliest and most famous translation of the Old Testament is the Septuagint, or Greek translation, which was made about 283 B.C. It may, probably, be attributed to the Alexandrian Jews, who, having lost the knowledge of the Hebrew, caused the translation to be made by some of their learned countrymen for the use of the Synagogues of Egypt. It was probably accomplished under the authority of the Sanhedrim, composed of seventy elders, and therefore called the Septuagint version, and from it the quotations in the New Testament are chiefly taken. It was regarded as canonical by the Jews to the exclusion of other books written in Greek, but not translated from the Hebrew, which we now call, by the Greek name, the Apocrypha.
The Vulgate or Latin translation, which has official authority in the Catholic Church, was made gradually from the eighth to the sixteenth century, partly from an old translation which was made from the Greek in the early history of the Church, and partly from translations from the Hebrew made by St. Jerome.
The English version of the Bible now in use in England and America was made by order of James I. It was accomplished by forty-seven distinguished scholars, divided into six classes, to each of which a part of the work was assigned. This translation occupied three years, and was printed in 1611.
14. RABBINICAL LITERATURE.—Rabbinical literature includes all the writings of the rabbins, or teachers of the Jews in the later period of Hebrew letters, who have interpreted and developed the literature of the earlier ages. The language made use of by them has its foundation in the Hebrew and Chaldaic, with various alterations and modifications in the use of words, the meaning of which they have considerably enlarged and extended. They have frequently borrowed from the Arabic, Greek, and Latin, and from those modern tongues spoken where they severally resided.
The Talmud, from the Hebrew word signifying he has learned, is a collection of traditions illustrative of the laws and usages of the Jews. The Talmud consists of two parts, the Mishna and the Gemara. The Mishna, or second law, is a collection of rabbinical rules and precepts made in the second century. The Gemara (completion or doctrine) was composed in the third century. It is a collection of commentaries and explanations of the Mishna, and both together formed the Jerusalem Talmud.
The Babylonian rabbins composed new commentaries on the Mishna, and this formed the Babylonian Talmud. Both Talmuds were first committed to writing about 500 A.D. At the period of the Christian Era, the civil constitution, language, and mode of thinking among the Jews had undergone a complete revolution, and were entirely different from what they had been in the early period of the commonwealth. The Mosaic books contained rules no longer adapted to the situation of the nation, and many difficult questions arose to which their law afforded no satisfactory solution. The rabbins undertook to supply this defect, partly by commentaries on the Mosaic precepts, and partly by the composition of new rules.
The Talmud requires that wherever twelve adults reside together in one place, they shall erect a synagogue and serve the God of their fathers by a multitude of prayers and formalities, amidst the daily occupations of life. It allows usury, treats agricultural pursuits with contempt, and requires strict separation from the other races, and commits the government to the rabbins. The Talmud is followed by the Rabbinites, to which sect nearly all the European and American Jews belong. The sect of the Caraites rejects the Talmud and holds to the law of Moses only. It is less numerous, and its members are found chiefly in the East, or in Turkey and Eastern Russia.
The Cabala, or oral tradition, is, according to the Jews, a perpetual divine revelation, preserved among the Jewish people by secret transmission. It sometimes denotes the doctrines of the prophets, but most commonly the mystical philosophy, which was probably introduced into Palestine from Egypt and Persia. It was first committed to writing in the second century A.D. The Cabala is divided into the symbolical and the real, of which the former gives a mystical signification to letters. The latter comprehends doctrines, and is divided into the theoretical and practical. The first aims to explain the Scriptures according to the secret traditions, while the last pretends to teach the art of performing miracles by an artificial use of the divine names and sentences of the sacred Scriptures.
The Jews of the Middle Ages acquired great reputation for learning, especially in Spain, where they were allowed to study astronomy, mathematics, and medicine in the schools of the Moors. Granada and Cordova became the centres of rabbinical literature, which was also cultivated in France, Italy, Portugal, and Germany. In the sixteenth century the study of Hebrew and rabbinical literature became common among Christian scholars, and in the following centuries it became more interesting and important from the introduction of comparative philology in the department of languages. Rabbinical literature still has its students and interpreters. In Padua, Berlin, and Metz there are seminaries for the education of rabbins, which supply with able doctors the synagogues of Italy, Germany, and France. There is also a rabbinical school in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Polish rabbins and Talmudists, however, are the most celebrated.
15. THE NEW REVISION OF THE BIBLE.—The convocation of the English House of Bishops, which met at Canterbury in 1870, recommended a revised version of the Scriptures, and appointed a committee for the work of sixty-seven members from various ecclesiastical bodies of England, to which an American committee of thirty-five was added, and by their joint labors the revised edition of the New Testament was issued in 1881. The revised Old Testament is expected to appear during 1884. The advantages claimed for these new versions are: a more accurate rendering of the text, a correction of the errors of former translations, the removal of misleading archaisms and obsolete terms, better punctuation, arrangement in sections as well as chapters and verses, the metrical arrangement of poetry, and an increased number of marginal readings.
In 1875, Bryennios, a metropolitan of the Greek Church, discovered in the library of the Most Holy Sepulchre at Constantinople a manuscript belonging to the second century A.D., which contains, among other valuable and interesting documents, one on the “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” many points of which bear on the usages of the church, such as the mode of baptism, the celebration of the Eucharist, and the orders of the ministry. It was at first considered authentic and highly important, but more deliberate study tends to discredit its authority.