Chapter 17 - From Babel to Comparative Philology
The Sacred Theory of Language in its Second Form
But the war was soon to be waged on a wider and far more
important field. The inspiration of the Hebrew punctuation having
been given up, the great orthodox body fell back upon the
remainder of the theory, and intrenched this more strongly than
ever: the theory that the Hebrew language was the first of all
languages - that which was spoken by the Almighty, given by him to
Adam, transmitted through Noah to the world after the Deluge - and
that the "confusion of tongues" was the origin of all other languages.
In giving account of this new phase of the struggle, it is
well to go back a little. From the Revival of Learning and the
Reformation had come the renewed study of Hebrew in the fifteenth
and sixteenth centuries, and thus the sacred doctrine regarding
the origin of the Hebrew language received additional authority.
All the early Hebrew grammars, from that of Reuchlin down, assert
the divine origin and miraculous claims of Hebrew. It is
constantly mentioned as "the sacred tongue" - sancta lingua. In
1506, Reuchlin, though himself persecuted by a large faction in
the Church for advanced views, refers to Hebrew as "spoken by the
mouth of God."
This idea was popularized by the edition of the Margarita
Philosophica, published at Strasburg in 1508. That work, in its
successive editions a mirror of human knowledge at the close of
the Middle Ages and the opening of modern times, contains a
curious introduction to the study of Hebrew, In this it is
declared that Hebrew was the original speech "used between God
and man and between men and angels." Its full-page frontispiece
represents Moses receiving from God the tables of stone written
in Hebrew; and, as a conclusive argument, it reminds us that
Christ himself, by choosing a Hebrew maid for his mother, made
that his mother tongue.
It must be noted here, however, that Luther, in one of those
outbursts of strong sense which so often appear in his career,
enforced the explanation that the words "God said" had nothing
to do with the articulation of human language. Still, he
evidently yielded to the general view. In the Roman Church at the
same period we have a typical example of the theologic method
applied to philology, as we have seen it applied to other
sciences, in the statement by Luther's great opponent, Cajetan,
that the three languages of the inscription on the cross of
Calvary "were the representatives of all languages, because the
number three denotes perfection."
In 1538 Postillus made a very important endeavour at a
comparative study of languages, but with the orthodox assumption
that all were derived from one source, namely, the Hebrew.
Naturally, Comparative Philology blundered and stumbled along
this path into endless absurdities. The most amazing efforts were
made to trace back everything to the sacred language. English and
Latin dictionaries appeared, in which every word was traced back
to a Hebrew root. No supposition was too absurd in this attempt
to square Science with Scripture. It was declared that, as Hebrew
is written from right to left, it might be read either way, in
order to produce a satisfactory etymology. The whole effort in
all this sacred scholarship was, not to find what the truth
is - not to see how the various languages are to be classified, or
from what source they are really derived - but to demonstrate what
was supposed necessary to maintain what was then held to be the
truth of Scripture; namely, that all languages are derived from
This stumbling and blundering, under the sway of orthodox
necessity, was seen among the foremost scholars throughout
Europe. About the middle of the sixteenth century the great Swiss
scholar, Conrad Gesner, beginning his Mithridates, says, "While
of all languages Hebrew is the first and oldest, of all is alone
pure and unmixed, all the rest are much mixed, for there is none
which has not some words derived and corrupted from Hebrew."
Typical, as we approach the end of the sixteenth century,
are the utterances of two of the most noted English divines.
First of these may be mentioned Dr. William Fulke, Master of
Pembroke Hall, in the University of Cambridge. In his Discovery
of the Dangerous Rock of the Romish Church, published in 1580, he
speaks of "the Hebrew tongue,... the first tongue of the world,
and for the excellency thereof called 'the holy tongue."'
Yet more emphatic, eight years later, was another eminent
divine, Dr. William Whitaker, Regius Professor of Divinity and
Master of St. John's College at Cambridge. In his Disputation on
Holy Scripture, first printed in 1588, he says: "The Hebrew is
the most ancient of all languages, and was that which alone
prevailed in the world before the Deluge and the erection of the
Tower of Babel. For it was this which Adam used and all men
before the Flood, as is manifest from the Scriptures, as the
fathers testify." He then proceeds to quote passages on this
subject from St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and others, and cites St.
Chrysostom in support of the statement that "God himself showed
the model and method of writing when he delivered the Law written
by his own finger to Moses."
This sacred theory entered the seventeenth century in full
force, and for a time swept everything before it. Eminent
commentators, Catholic and Protestant, accepted and developed it.
Great prelates, Catholic and Protestant, stood guard over it,
favouring those who supported it, doing their best to destroy
those who would modify it.
In 1606 Stephen Guichard built new buttresses for it in
Catholic France. He explains in his preface that his intention
is "to make the reader see in the Hebrew word not only the Greek
and Latin, but also the Italian, the Spanish, the French, the
German, the Flemish, the English, and many others from all
languages." As the merest tyro in philology can now see, the
great difficulty that Guichard encounters is in getting from the
Hebrew to the Aryan group of languages. How he meets this
difficulty may be imagined from his statement, as follows: "As
for the derivation of words by addition, subtraction, and
inversion of the letters, it is certain that this can and ought
thus to be done, if we would find etymologies - a thing which
becomes very credible when we consider that the Hebrews wrote
from right to left and the Greeks and others from left to right.
All the learned recognise such derivations as necessary;...
and... certainly otherwise one could scarcely trace any etymology
back to Hebrew."
Of course, by this method of philological juggling, anything could
be proved which the author thought necessary to his pious purpose.
Two years later, Andrew Willett published at London his
Hexapla, or Sixfold Commentary upon Genesis. In this he insists
that the one language of all mankind in the beginning "was the
Hebrew tongue preserved still in Heber's family." He also takes
pains to say that the Tower of Babel "was not so called of
Belus, as some have imagined, but of confusion, for so the Hebrew
word ballal signifieth"; and he quotes from St. Chrysostom to
strengthen his position.
In 1627 Dr. Constantine l'Empereur was inducted into the
chair of Philosophy of the Sacred Language in the University of
Leyden. In his inaugural oration on The Dignity and Utility of
the Hebrew Tongue, he puts himself on record in favour of the
Divine origin and miraculous purity of that language. "Who," he
says, "can call in question the fact that the Hebrew idiom is
coeval with the world itself, save such as seek to win vainglory
for their own sophistry?"
Two years after Willett, in England, comes the famous Dr.
Lightfoot, the most renowned scholar of his time in Hebrew,
Greek, and Latin; but all his scholarship was bent to suit
theological requirements. In his Erubhin, published in 1629, he
goes to the full length of the sacred theory, though we begin to
see a curious endeavour to get over some linguistic difficulties.
One passage will serve to show both the robustness of his faith
and the acuteness of his reasoning, in view of the difficulties
which scholars now began to find in the sacred theory." Other
commendations this tongue (Hebrew) needeth none than what it hath
of itself; namely, for sanctity it was the tongue of God; and for
antiquity it was the tongue of Adam. God the first founder, and
Adam the first speaker of it.... It began with the world and the
Church, and continued and increased in glory till the captivity
in Babylon.... As the man in Seneca, that through sickness lost
his memory and forgot his own name, so the Jews, for their sins,
lost their language and forgot their own tongue.... Before the
confusion of tongues all the world spoke their tongue and no
other but since the confusion of the Jews they speak the language
of all the world and not their own."
But just at the middle of the century (1657) came in England
a champion of the sacred theory more important than any of
these - Brian Walton, Bishop of Chester. His Polyglot Bible
dominated English scriptural criticism throughout the remainder
of the century. He prefaces his great work by proving at length
the divine origin of Hebrew, and the derivation from it of all
other forms of speech. He declares it "probable that the first
parent of mankind was the inventor of letters." His chapters on
this subject are full of interesting details. He says that the
Welshman, Davis, had already tried to prove the Welsh the
primitive speech; Wormius, the Danish; Mitilerius, the German;
but the bishop stands firmly by the sacred theory, informing us
that "even in the New World are found traces of the Hebrew
tongue, namely, in New England and in New Belgium, where the word
Aguarda signifies earth, and the name Joseph is found among the
Hurons." As we have seen, Bishop Walton had been forced to give
up the inspiration of the rabbinical punctuation, but he seems to
have fallen back with all the more tenacity on what remained of
the great sacred theory of language, and to have become its
leading champion among English-speaking peoples.
At that same period the same doctrine was put forth by a
great authority in Germany. In 1657 Andreas Sennert published his
inaugural address as Professor of Sacred Letters and Dean of the
Theological Faculty at Wittenberg. All his efforts were given to
making Luther's old university a fortress of the orthodox theory.
His address, like many others in various parts of Europe, shows
that in his time an inaugural with any save an orthodox statement
of the theological platform would not be tolerated. Few things in
the past are to the sentimental mind more pathetic, to the
philosophical mind more natural, and to the progressive mind more
ludicrous, than addresses at high festivals of theological
schools. The audience has generally consisted mainly of
estimable elderly gentlemen, who received their theology in their
youth, and who in their old age have watched over it with jealous
care to keep it well protected from every fresh breeze of
thought. Naturally, a theological professor inaugurated under
such auspices endeavours to propitiate his audience. Sennert goes
to great lengths both in his address and in his grammar,
published nine years later; for, declaring the Divine origin of
Hebrew to be quite beyond controversy, he says: "Noah received it
from our first parents, and guarded it in the midst of the
waters; Heber and Peleg saved it from the confusion of tongues."
The same doctrine was no less loudly insisted upon by the
greatest authority in Switzerland, Buxtorf, professor at Basle,
who proclaimed Hebrew to be "the tongue of God, the tongue of
angels, the tongue of the prophets"; and the effect of this
proclamation may be imagined when we note in 1663 that his book
had reached its sixth edition.
It was re-echoed through England, Germany, France, and America,
and, if possible, yet more highly developed. In England
Theophilus Gale set himself to prove that not only all the
languages, but all the learning of the world, had been drawn from
the Hebrew records.
This orthodox doctrine was also fully vindicated in Holland.
Six years before the close of the seventeenth century, Morinus,
Doctor of Theology, Professor of Oriental Languages, and pastor
at Amsterdam, published his great work on Primæ val Language.
Its frontispiece depicts the confusion of tongues at Babel, and,
as a pendant to this, the pentecostal gift of tongues to the
apostles. In the successive chapters of the first book he proves
that language could not have come into existence save as a direct
gift from heaven; that there is a primitive language, the mother
of all the rest; that this primitive language still exists in its
pristine purity; that this language is the Hebrew. The second
book is devoted to proving that the Hebrew letters were divinely
received, have been preserved intact, and are the source of all
other alphabets. But in the third book he feels obliged to allow,
in the face of the contrary dogma held, as he says, by "not a
few most eminent men piously solicitous for the authority of the
sacred text," that the Hebrew punctuation was, after all, not of
Divine inspiration, but a late invention of the rabbis.
France, also, was held to all appearance in complete
subjection to the orthodox idea up to the end of the century.
In 1697 appeared at Paris perhaps the most learned of all the
books written to prove Hebrew the original tongue and source of
all others. The Gallican Church was then at the height of its
power. Bossuet as bishop, as thinker, and as adviser of Louis
XIV, had crushed all opposition to orthodoxy. The Edict of Nantes
had been revoked, and the Huguenots, so far as they could escape,
were scattered throughout the world, destined to repay France
with interest a thousandfold during the next two centuries. The
bones of the Jansenists at Port Royal were dug up and scattered.
Louis XIV stood guard over the piety of his people. It was in the
midst of this series of triumphs that Father Louis Thomassin,
Priest of the Oratory, issued his Universal Hebrew Glossary. In
this, to use his own language, "the divinity, antiquity, and
perpetuity of the Hebrew tongue, with its letters, accents, and
other characters," are established forever and beyond all cavil,
by proofs drawn from all peoples, kindreds, and nations under the
sun. This superb, thousand-columned folio was issued from the
royal press, and is one of the most imposing monuments of human
piety and folly - taking rank with the treatises of Fromundus
against Galileo, of Quaresmius on Lot's Wife, and of Gladstone on
Genesis and Geology.
The great theologic-philologic chorus was steadily
maintained, and, as in a responsive chant, its doctrines were
echoed from land to land. From America there came the earnest
words of John Eliot, praising Hebrew as the most fit to be made a
universal language, and declaring it the tongue "which it pleased
our Lord Jesus to make use of when he spake from heaven unto
Paul." At the close of the seventeenth century came from England
a strong antiphonal answer in this chorus; Meric Casaubon, the
learned Prebendary of Canterbury, thus declared: "One language,
the Hebrew, I hold to be simply and absolutely the source of
all." And, to swell the chorus, there came into it, in complete
unison, the voice of Bentley - the greatest scholar of the old
sort whom England has ever produced. He was, indeed, one of the
most learned and acute critics of any age; but he was also Master
of Trinity, Archdeacon of Bristol, held two livings besides, and
enjoyed the honour of refusing the bishopric of Bristol, as not
rich enough to tempt him. Noblesse oblige: that Bentley should
hold a brief for the theological side was inevitable, and we need
not be surprised when we hear him declaring: "We are sure, from
the names of persons and places mentioned in Scripture before the
Deluge, not to insist upon other arguments, that the Hebrew was
the primitive language of mankind, and that it continued pure
above three thousand years until the captivity in Babylon." The
power of the theologic bias, when properly stimulated with
ecclesiastical preferment, could hardly be more perfectly
exemplified than in such a captivity of such a man as Bentley.
Yet here two important exceptions should be noted. In
England, Prideaux, whose biblical studies gave him much
authority, opposed the dominant opinion; and in America, Cotton
Mather, who in taking his Master's degree at Harvard had
supported the doctrine that the Hebrew vowel points were of divine
origin, bravely recanted and declared for the better view.
But even this dissent produced little immediate effect, and
at the beginning of the eighteenth century this sacred doctrine,
based upon explicit statements of Scripture, seemed forever
settled. As we have seen, strong fortresses had been built for it
in every Christian land: nothing seemed more unlikely than that
the little groups of scholars scattered through these various
countries could ever prevail against them. These strongholds were
built so firmly, and had behind them so vast an army of
religionists of every creed, that to conquer them seemed
impossible. And yet at that very moment their doom was decreed.
Within a few years from this period of their greatest triumph,
the garrisons of all these sacred fortresses were in hopeless
confusion, and the armies behind them in full retreat; a little
later, all the important orthodox fortresses and forces were in
the hands of the scientific philologists.
How this came about will be shown in the third part of this chapter.