Warfare of Science with Theology   Chapter XVII: From Babel to Comparative Philology


It may be instructive, in conclusion, to sum up briefly the history of the whole struggle.

First, as to the origin of speech, we have in the beginning the whole Church rallying around the idea that the original language was Hebrew; that this language, even including the medieval rabbiinical punctuation, was directly inspired by the Almighty; that Adam was taught it by God himself in walks and talks; and that all other languages were derived from it at the ``confusion of Babel.''

Next, we see parts of this theory fading out: the inspiration of the rabbinical points begins to disappear. Adam, instead of being taught directly by God, is ``inspired'' by him.

Then comes the third stage: advanced theologians endeavour to compromise on the idea that Adam was ``given verbal roots and a mental power.''

Finally, in our time, we have them accepting the theory that language is the result of an evolutionary process in obedience to laws more or less clearly ascertained. Babel thus takes its place quietly among the sacred myths.

As to the origin of writing, we have the more eminent theologians at first insisting that God taught Adam to write; next we find them gradually retreating from this position, but insisting that writing was taught to the world by Noah. After the retreat from this position, we find them insisting that it was Moses whom God taught to write. But scientific modes of thought still progressed, and we next have influential theologians agreeing that writing was a Mosaic invention; this is followed by another theological retreat to the position that writing was a post-Mosaic invention. Finally, all the positions are relinquished, save by some few skirmishers who appear now and then upon the horizon, making attempts to defend some subtle method of ``reconciling'' the Babel myth with modern science.

Just after the middle of the nineteenth century the last stage of theological defence was evidently reached - the same which is seen in the history of almost every science after it has successfully fought its way through the theological period - the declaration which we have already seen foreshadowed by Wiseman, that the scientific discoveries in question are nothing new, but have really always been known and held by the Church, and that they simply substantiate the position taken by the Church. This new contention, which always betokens the last gasp of theological resistance to science, was now echoed from land to land. In 1856 it was given forth by a divine of the Anglican Church, Archdeacon Pratt, of Calcutta. He gives a long list of eminent philologists who had done most to destroy the old supernatural view of language, reads into their utterances his own wishes, and then exclaims, ``So singularly do their labours confirm the literal truth of Scripture.''

Two years later this contention was echoed from the American Presbyterian Church, and Dr. B. W. Dwight, having stigmatized as ``infidels'' those who had not incorporated into their science the literal acceptance of Hebrew legend, declared that ``chronology, ethnography, and etymology have all been tortured in vain to make them contradict the Mosaic account of the early history of man.'' Twelve years later this was re-echoed from England. The Rev. Dr. Baylee, Principal of the College of St. Aidan's, declared, ``With regard to the varieties of human language, the account of the confusion of tongues is receiving daily confirmation by all the recent discoveries in comparative philology.'' So, too, in the same year (1870), in the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland, Dr. John Eadie, Professor of Biblical Literature and Exegesis, declared, ``Comparative philology has established the miracle of Babel.''

A skill in theology and casuistry so exquisite as to contrive such assertions, and a faith so robust as to accept them, certainly leave nothing to be desired. But how baseless these contentions are is shown, first, by the simple history of the attitude of the Church toward this question; and, secondly, by the fact that comparative philology now reveals beyond a doubt that not only is Hebrew not the original or oldest language upon earth, but that it is not even the oldest form in the Semitic group to which it belongs. To use the words of one of the most eminent modern authorities, ``It is now generally recognised that in grammatical structure the Arabic preserves much more of the original forms than either the Hebrew or Aramaic.''

History, ethnology, and philology now combine inexorably to place the account of the confusion of tongues and the dispersion of races at Babel among the myths; but their work has not been merely destructive: more and more strong are the grounds for belief in an evolution of language.

A very complete acceptance of the scientific doctrines has been made by Archdeacon Farrar, Canon of Westminster. With a boldness which in an earlier period might have cost him dear, and which merits praise even now for its courage, he says: ``For all reasoners except that portion of the clergy who in all ages have been found among the bitterest enemies of scientific discovery, these considerations have been conclusive. But, strange to say, here, as in so many other instances, this self-styled orthodoxy - more orthodox than the Bible itself - directly contradicts the very Scriptures which it professes to explain, and by sheer misrepresentation succeeds in producing a needless and deplorable collision between the statements of Scripture and those other mighty and certain truths which have been revealed to science and humanity as their glory and reward.''

Still another acknowledgment was made in America through the instrumentality of a divine of the Methodist Episcopal Church, whom the present generation at least will hold in honour not only for his scholarship but for his patriotism in the darkest hour of his country's need - John McClintock. In the article on Language, in the Biblical Cyclopæ dia, edited by him and the Rev. Dr. Strong, which appeared in 1873, the whole sacred theory is given up, and the scientific view accepted.

It may, indeed, be now fairly said that the thinking leaders of theology have come to accept the conclusions of science regarding the origin of language, as against the old explanations by myth and legend. The result has been a blessing both to science and to religion. No harm has been done to religion; what has been done is to release it from the clog of theories which thinking men saw could no longer be maintained. No matter what has become of the naming of the animals by Adam, of the origin of the name Babel, of the fear of the Almighty lest men might climb up into his realm above the firmament, and of the confusion of tongues and the dispersion of nations; the essentials of Christianity, as taught by its blessed Founder, have simply been freed, by Comparative Philology, from one more great incubus, and have therefore been left to work with more power upon the hearts and minds of mankind.

Nor has any harm been done to the Bible. On the contrary, this divine revelation through science has made it all the more precious to us. In these myths and legends caught from earlier civilizations we see an evolution of the most important religious and moral truths for our race. Myth, legend, and parable seem, in obedience to a divine law, the necessary setting for these truths, as they are successively evolved, ever in higher and higher forms. What matters it, then, that we have come to know that the accounts of Creation, the Fall, the Deluge, and much else in our sacred books, were remembrances of lore obtained from the Chaldeans? What matters it that the beautiful story of Joseph is found to be in part derived from an Egyptian romance, of which the hieroglyphs may still be seen? What matters it that the story of David and Goliath is poetry; and that Samson, like so many men of strength in other religions, is probably a sun-myth? What matters it that the inculcation of high duty in the childhood of the world is embodied in such quaint stories as those of Jonah and Balaam? The more we realize these facts, the richer becomes that great body of literature brought together within the covers of the Bible. What matters it that those who incorporated the Creation lore of Babylonia and other Oriental nations into the sacred books of the Hebrews, mixed it with their own conceptions and deductions? What matters it that Darwin changed the whole aspect of our Creation myths; that Lyell and his compeers placed the Hebrew story of Creation and of the Deluge of Noah among legends; that Copernicus put an end to the standing still of the Sun for Joshua; that Halley, in promulgating his law of comets, put an end to the doctrine of ``signs and wonders''; that Pinel, in showing that all insanity is physical disease, relegated to the realm of mythology the witch of Endor and all stories of demoniacal possession; that the Rev. Dr. Schaff, and a multitude of recent Christian travellers in Palestine, have put into the realm of legend the story of Lot's wife transformed into a pillar of salt; that the anthropologists, by showing how man has risen everywhere from low and brutal beginnings, have destroyed the whole theological theory of ``the fall of man''? Our great body of sacred literature is thereby only made more and more valuable to us: more and more we see how long and patiently the forces in the universe which make for righteousness have been acting in and upon mankind through the only agencies fitted for such work in the earliest ages of the world - through myth, legend, parable, and poem.