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As we drift through the last quarter of the nineteenth century, amid the wreck of ancient superstitions, the time has come for all candid and impartial inquirers to determine their relationship with supernatural religion.
The most enlightened of modern communities accept some form of Christianity as the only possible religion assignable to divine revelation. If, therefore, its supernatural elements should perish in collision with scientific Rationalism, the theological vacuum cannot be filled by any
other ancient or modern creed. We cannot become disciples of Buddha, Zoroaster, Confucius, or Mahommed; and the miraculous materials indispensable to the evolution of a new faith vanish at the touch of scientific analysis. A modern prophet, honestly believing and boldly proclaiming his supernatural mission in London, Paris, or New York, would find his signs and wonders so pitilessly tested by ruthless professors as to drive him in despair from the haunts of an uncongenial civilisation, in search of that primitive faith indispensable to the existence of miracles.
As our choice, therefore, lies between Christianity and Scepticism, we would forthwith hasten to study every word which fell from the lips of Jesus of Nazareth ; but as the religion established in his name is the offshoot of a more ancient theology, the supernatural pretensions of Judaism first claim our attention. Those who simply see in Jesus the illustrious Master of a great school in ethics may study the gospel apart from Moses and the prophets; but, as a divine revelation, the kingdom of heaven is inseparable from the kingdom of Judah.
On the threshold of inquiry we are arrested by the startling coincidence that Judaism, Christianity, and the Reformation all originated in assumptions shown by the lapse of time to have been popular delusions.
I. The Hebrew religion rests on the promise of Jehovah that, in consideration of national adoption of the rite of circumcision, the descendants of Abraham should occupy the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession. If, therefore, the Hebrew patriarch could have foreseen Jehovah's violation of the solemn covenant, he would have, obviously, refused to ratify the fatal contract, which lured his descendants to destruction in the vain pursuit of a phantom empire; and the world would never have heard of a Chosen Race or a Peculiar People.
II. Christianity originated in faith that the Messiah should reappear in the clouds within a generation, to restore the kingdom of Judah, or establish the kingdom of heaven. If, therefore, the simple-minded communists, who parted with all their earthly possessions in enthusiastic expectation of the impending advent, had not been ignorant that nearly two thousand years would elapse without any tidings of Jesus, the supernatural claims of Christianity could not have survived the first century
i Gen, xyii, 8,
III. At the era of the Reformation, Protestant theologians disavowed the authority of the Supreme Pontiff, through faith in Scripture as the infallible criterion of divine truth. If, therefore, they could have foreseen the collapse of this pious illusion in the light of modern criticism, on what foundation could they have erected the superstructure of Protestantism? Devout Jews and Catholics, holding the faith of Moses or the creed of Rome in absolute independence of human reason, may smile at the conclusions of modern Scepticism; but Protestants, whose theological existence rests on the appeal to reason, can claim no exemption from inquiry into all which purports to be supernatural in their creed ; and the old Puritan faith in an infallible Bible as the word of God, in the same sense as if uttered by a voice from heaven, is as incapable of rational proof as any Roman dogma rejected at the Reformation.
Modern research, gleaping historical fragments from generations remote from the pious traditions of the Reformation, sees in ancient Hebrew literature nothing more than the unattested compilations of Ezra, Nehemiah, and a succession of editorial scribes, who exercised free discretion in correcting, interpolating, and transposing the contents of ancient records; and in even canonising the recent compositions of anonymous authors in the names of ancient prophets. Thus, the last twenty-seven chapters of Isaiah are not the work of that eminent Nâbi, but of some unknown bard of the Captivity, to whom the name of his predecessor was, doubtless, given to sustain the patriotic and pious fiction that a Hebrew seer had, centuries previously, named Cyrus as the anointed of Jehovah, predestined to restore the Israelites to Palestine.1
In 2 Esdras xiv. we read that the law, having been burnt, was reproduced by Ezra under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This version of the editorial work of the Restoration was adopted by primitive Christians, as shown in the following words of Clement of Alexandria : • The Scriptures having been destroyed in the Captivity of Nebuchadnezzar, Ezra, the Levite, inspired as a prophet, reproduced the whole of the Sacred Scriptures in the time of Artaxerxes, the king of the Persians.'? This pious fiction, obviously originating in the desire to invest recent compositions with the authority of ancient records, gives traditional confirmation to the post-Babylonian compilation of Hebrew Scripture.
That Ezra and later canon-makers merely accomplished editorial work, subject to all the errors of human judgment, is shown in the incongruous mass of materials collected within the pages of the book known to us as the Old Testament Zealous and learned theologians have exhausted the resources of criticism in the vain attempt to unravel the enigma of authorship, dates, and verifiable text, with no more satisfactory result than the development of interminable controversies, establishing nothing more clearly than universal ignorance on the subject.
In reviewing the work of Hebrew scribes, it is diffi1 Isa. xliv. 28, xly. 1-4,
Strom. i. 22,
cult to judge the actions of men who, some five-andtwenty centuries ago, committed literary forgery as a pious duty ; let us, however, acquit them of wilfully perverting divine revelation, by assuming that they worked in absolute ignorance of the modern theory of an infallible Bible.
If Ezra and his successors had, however, possessed and faithfully transcribed existing manuscripts, even then, according to the weighty evidence of Jeremiah, no reliance could be placed on the text of Hebrew Scripture: 'How do we say, We are wise and the law of the Lord is with us? Lo, certainly the false pen of the scribes worketh for falsehood.'1 If we thus learn, on the authority of so great a prophet, that the Divine Oracles may reach us in a perverted form, may not revelation prove a greater danger than a blessing to Humanity?
The acceptance of the Mosaic fiction of Deuteronomy as the autogram of the great Hebrew Prophet, although disclosing its later authorship in language, ideas, and narrative, is one of the most remarkable episodes in the history of pseudonymous literature ; and its prescriptive right to a place among the five books of Moses betrays the poverty of primitive and mediæval criticism. It has now, however, been identified by modern research as the mysterious Book of the Law said to have been found in the Temple in the reign of Josiah, composed about the period of its alleged discovery by Jeremiah or some other zealous prophet who, in pious collusion with the High Priest, sought to awaken, through the male
1 Jer. viii. 8.
2 2 Kings xxii