Part 8- Harbingers of the Depression Era

The Attack on Religion

Both the initial challenge to the literal accuracy of biblical texts and a new hobby of stamp collecting arose about the same time; both stemmed from the same intellectual curiosity that permeated mid-19th century society.  Not only Christian textual tradition was challenged.  At the same time, Frankfurt’s chief rabbi, Abraham Geiger, a student of comparative theology who authored Judaism and Islam, together with Berlin’s chief rabbi, Samuel Holdheim, undertook a critical reexamination of Jewish doctrine and created the Reform movement.  This movement took particular root in the United States.  Islam did not undergo a similar reexamination of its doctrines, leading to the present day conflict between Muslim theocrats and Western culture.

The reexamination of biblical texts was threefold in nature textual, historical and literary, with the latter two being dubbed the ‘higher criticism’; all three were basically German in nature.  Textual criticism involved collating all known documents and checking the differences among them, while sorting out which derived from which.  At the same time, the texts were examined for letter and word confusion, lacuna, mistranslation, repetition, transpositions, and interpolations, including those of marginal comments.  Few, if any, Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament could be tracked prior to the ninth century A.D., although individual passages such as in Isaiah were known from earlier dates.  Too, the ancient Hebrew alphabet consisted of consonants only, like that of their Phoenician and Aramaean neighbors.  Between the fifth and ninth centuries A.D., Jewish scholars had inserted vowels and accents; further, the early texts were ‘run-on’ with no word separation.  Te result of these students’ work was an approximate text as it might have been in 300 B.C.  It was considered probable that errors still lurked that could only be corrected by conjectural emendation.  Such emendations have been suggested by upholders of particular metric theories; however, these yield verses that don’t fit very well into the existing texts.

Georg H. A. von Ewald wrote a Hebrew grammar that inaugurated the new era in biblical philology, while his great Gëschichte des Volkes Israel, published in 1859, synthesized the chronological studies to that date, making mincemeat of the long-standing biblical dating of Bishop Ussher.  At the same time, non-biblical documents began to pour out of Egyptian, Babylonian and Hittite archives that helped, along with new archeological data, to give historical perspective to the literal texts.  This historical analysis is still going on today with new archeological evidence ranging from the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Sinai altar and calf.  The 1977 publication of the 1945 discovery of the Nag Hammadi library of Gnostic texts, buried since 400 A.D., fleshed out what was known about this group from other manuscript source.  For instance, this group of early Christians attacked some of the same people condemned as ‘Gnostics’ in 180 A.D. by Irenaeus, and by his follower Hippolytus around 210 A.D. in his Refutation of all Heresies (Philosophumena) found at Mt. Athos in 1842.  The Gnostics texts supply perspective to early Christian thought.

Literary criticism was used to deconstruct the texts of both Old and New Testaments as well as of some Church Fathers.  Apparently the first to attempt this deconstruction was a French Catholic physician, Jean Astruc, who in 1753, a century earlier than the bulk of the ‘higher criticism,’ noted the blending together of several versions of biblical narrative that could be identified, in part, by the use of the word ‘Elohim’ for God (E text) or ‘Yahweh’ (J Text).  The latter is also known to have characteristic plays or puns on words. Two other strands are the ‘P’ for its apparent priestly source, and ‘R’ for the redactor or editor or editors who attempted to blend the other strands together.  Colenso in his 1862 Pentateuch gave a searching analysis of the ‘P’ narrative.

Similar analyses were made of New Testament documents such as the Pauline epistles and the dates of the four synoptic gospels.  One conclusion was that there was an, as yet undiscovered, early document termed theLogia, which was largely made up of the sayings of Christ and that this document was used by several of the synoptic gospel authors.  Such a document was first noted at the beginning of this century and confirmed in the Nag Hammadi library as the Gospel of Didymos Judas Thomas, supposedly Christ’s brother according to Syrian church reports.  However, it lacks some characteristics expected of the ‘Q’ or Logia documents.

  1. Lachmann, in his 1850 publication of N.T. Graece et Latine, broke with the traditional New Testament text and the late manuscripts and attempted to reconstruct the texts based upon the earliest authorities, an important textual step forward.  However, he ignored the concept of grouping connected manuscripts as earlier proposed by J. J. Griebach who had suggested a Western Alexandrian and Constantinopolitan set of text groupings.  All of the work of the ‘higher criticism’ let to a new more accurate Revised Version of the bible published between 1881 and 1895.  It certainly lacked the emotional appeal and literary grandeur of the King James.  Modernizing the style and incorporating even newer research let to the 1933 Goodspeed ‘Short Bible.’

Conflict with Evolution

Historian Samuel Eliot Morison in his Oxford history of the American People wrote that:

“The Roman Catholic Church, though emphasis on sacraments rather than sacred Scriptures, escaped the controversy over Darwinism that rocked most of the Protestant churches to their foundations.  And it successfully rode out the storm of German ‘higher criticism’ of the Bible because most of the German theologians were unintelligible.  Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) however, was read by almost every literate American sooner or later.  It inculcated the doctrine of evolution through natural selection and taught that man was the end process of development from lower forms of life.  Asa Gray of Harvard begged Darwin to postulate some Grand Design, some Beneficent Deity in all this; but Darwin could not persuade himself ‘that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or…that the eye was expressly designed.’…the more intellectual and prominent Protestant clergy…unable to refute Darwin’s facts or challenge his conclusions, conceded that the Book of Genesis could not be taken literally.  This was no embarrassment to the Unitarians, who already regarded the Bible as symbolical.  But the evangelical churches in general rejected the Darwinian view of the cosmos as blasphemous and even persuaded several Southern states to pass laws against the teaching of evolution in the schools.  In support of the law in Tennessee (Scopes case), William Jennings Bryan won the case but lost his last battle in 1925; and in 1964 that law was still on the books…But there is no doubt that it (the controversy) weakened the hold of religion on the average American.  He stopped reading the Bible when it no longer could be considered divine truth; and in so doing his character suffered.  For, as Romain Rolland’s Jean Christophe says, ‘The Bible is the marrow of lions.  Strong hearts have they who feed on it…The Bible is the backbone for people who have the will to live.’”

The 1925 Scopes trial inaugurated the ensuing cultural wars between the biblical literalists and the rational analysts that flavored the rest of the 120th century.  It brought together the consequences of Darwin’s theses on he mutability of living forms and the causes thereof, with the ‘higher criticism’ and textual challenges to the biblical texts that led to the new 1933 Goodspeed Bible.

Today we find arguments that animals have cultures which are transmitted non-genetically and which are not instinctual.  The idea of animal cultures had not been conceived of at the beginning of the century.  Thus, in 1999, Dr. Bryan Norton, professor of environmental public policy at Georgia Tech could note: “Putting a captive bred animal in the wild is equivalent to dropping a contemporary human being in a remote area in the 18th or 19th century and saying, ‘Let’s see you make it.’”  This view is a clear repudiation of the earlier Robinson Crusoe thesis that civilized man in a primitive environment conquers it.  This moral thesis was put forth by Daniel Defoe in his 1719 Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.  Those who doubt Defoe was moralizing need only read his earlier Jure Divino and The Family Instructor.

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