Chapter 18 - From the Dead Sea Legends to Comparative Mythology
Post-Reformation Culmination of the Dead Sea Legends - Beginnings of a Healthful Scepticism
The first effect of the Protestant
Reformation was to popularize the older Dead Sea legends, and to make the
public mind still more receptive for the newer ones.
Luther's great pictorial Bible, so powerful in fixing the ideas of the German
people, showed by very striking engravings all three of these earlier myths -
the destruction of the cities by fire from heaven, the transformation of Lot's
wife, and the vile origin of the hated Moabites and Ammonites; and we find the
salt statue, especially, in this and other pictorial Bibles, during generation
Catholic peoples also held their own in this display of faith. About 1517
Francois Regnault published at Paris a compilation on Palestine enriched with
woodcuts: in this the old Dead Sea legend of the "serpent Tyrus"
reappears embellished, and with it various other new versions of old stories.
Five years later Bartholomew de Salignac travels in the Holy Land, vouches for
the continued existence of the Lot's wife statue, and gives new life to an old
marvel by insisting that the sacred waters of the Jordan are not really poured
into the infernal basin of the Dead Sea, but that they are miraculously
absorbed by the earth.
These ideas were not confined to the people at large; we trace them among
In 1581, Bunting, a North German professor and theologian, published his
Itinerary of Holy Scripture, and in this the Dead Sea and Lot
legends continue to increase. He tells us that the water of the sea
"changes three times every day"; that it "spits forth fire"
that it throws up "on high" great foul masses which "burn like
pitch" and "swim about like huge oxen"; that the statue of Lot's
wife is still there, and that it shines like salt.
In 1590, Christian Adrichom, a Dutch theologian, published his famous work on
sacred geography. He does not insist upon the Dead Sea legends generally, but
declares that the statue of Lot's wife is still in existence, and on his map he
gives a picture of her standing at Usdum.
Nor was it altogether safe to dissent from such beliefs. Just as, under the
papal sway, men of science were severely punished for wrong views of the
physical geography of the earth in general, so, when Calvin decided to burn
Servetus, he included in his indictment for heresy a charge that Servetus, in
his edition of Ptolemy, had made unorthodox statements regarding the physical
geography of Palestine.
Protestants and Catholics vied with each other in the making of new myths.
Thus, in his Most Devout Journey, published in 1608, Jean
Zvallart, Mayor of Ath in Hainault, confesses himself troubled by conflicting
stories about the salt statue, but declares himself sound in the faith that
"some vestige of it still remains," and makes up for his bit of
freethinking by adding a new mythical horror to the region -
"crocodiles," which, with the serpents and the "foul odour of
the sea," prevented his visit to the salt mountains.
In 1615 Father Jean Boucher publishes the first of many editions of his
Sacred Bouquet of the Holy Land. He depicts the horrors of the
Dead Sea in a number of striking antitheses, and among these is the statement
that it is made of mud rather than of water, that it soils whatever is put into
it, and so corrupts the land about it that not a blade of grass grows in all
In the same spirit, thirteen years later, the Protestant Christopher Heidmann
publishes his Palestina, in which he speaks of a fluid resembling
blood oozing from the rocks about the Dead Sea, and cites authorities to prove
that the statue of Lot's wife still exists and gives signs of life.
Yet, as we near the end of the sixteenth century, some evidences of a healthful
and fruitful scepticism begin to appear.
The old stream of travellers, commentators, and preachers, accepting tradition
and repeating what they have been told, flows on; but here and there we are
refreshed by the sight of a man who really begins to think and look for
First among these is the French naturalist Pierre Belon. As regards the
ordinary wonders, he had the simple faith of his time. Among a multitude of
similar things, he believed that he saw the stones on which the disciples were
sleeping during the prayer of Christ; the stone on which the Lord sat when he
raised Lazarus from the dead; the Lord's footprints on the stone from which he
ascended into heaven; and, most curious of all, "the stone which the
builders rejected." Yet he makes some advance on his predecessors, since
he shows in one passage that he had thought out the process by which the
simpler myths of Palestine were made. For, between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, he
sees a field covered with small pebbles, and of these he says: "The common
people tell you that a man was once sowing peas there, when Our Lady passed
that way and asked him what he was doing; the man answered "I am sowing
pebbles" and straightway all the peas were changed into these little
His ascribing belief in this explanatory transformation myth to the
"common people" marks the faint dawn of a new epoch.
Typical also of this new class is the German botanist Leonhard Rauwolf. He
travels through Palestine in 1575, and, though devout and at times credulous,
notes comparatively few of the old wonders, while he makes thoughtful and
careful mention of things in nature that he really saw; he declines to use the
eyes of the monks, and steadily uses his own to good purpose.
As we go on in the seventeenth century, this current of new thought is yet more
evident; a habit of observing more carefully and of comparing observations had
set in; the great voyages of discovery by Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Magellan,
and others were producing their effect; and this effect was increased by the
inductive philosophy of Bacon, the reasonings of Descartes, and the suggestions
So evident was this current that, as far back as the early days of the century,
a great theologian, Quaresmio of Lodi, had made up his mind to stop it forever.
In 1616, therefore, he began his ponderous work entitled The Historical,
Theological, and Moral Explanation of the Holy Land. He laboured upon it
for nine years, gave nine years more to perfecting it, and then put it into the
hands of the great publishing house of Plantin at Antwerp: they were four years
in printing and correcting it, and when it at last appeared it seemed certain
to establish the theological view of the Holy Land for all time. While taking
abundant care of other myths which he believed sanctified by Holy Scripture,
Quaresmio devoted himself at great length to the Dead Sea, but above all to the
salt statue; and he divides his chapter on it into three parts, each headed by
a question: First, "How was Lot's wife changed into a statue of
salt?" secondly, "Where was she thus transformed?" and,
thirdly, "Does that statue still exist?" Through each of these
divisions he fights to the end all who are inclined to swerve in the slightest
degree from the orthodox opinion. He utterly refuses to compromise with any
modern theorists. To all such he says, "The narration of Moses is
historical and is to be received in its natural sense, and no right-thinking
man will deny this." To those who favoured the figurative interpretation
he says, "With such reasonings any passage of Scripture can be
As to the spot where the miracle occurred, he discusses four places, but
settles upon the point where the picture of the statue is given in Adrichom's
map. As to the continued existence of the statue, he plays with the opposing
view as a cat fondles a mouse; and then shows that the most revered ancient
authorities, venerable men still living, and the Bedouins, all agree that it is
still in being. Throughout the whole chapter his thoroughness in scriptural
knowledge and his profundity in logic are only excelled by his scorn for those
theologians who were willing to yield anything to rationalism.
So powerful was this argument that it seemed to carry everything before it, not
merely throughout the Roman obedience, but among the most eminent theologians
As regards the Roman Church, we may take as a type the missionary priest Eugene
Roger, who, shortly after the appearance of Quaresmio's book, published his own
travels in Palestine. He was an observant man, and his work counts among those
of real value; but the spirit of Quaresmio had taken possession of him fully.
His work is prefaced with a map showing the points of most importance in
scriptural history, and among these he identifies the place where Samson slew
the thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, and where he hid the gates
of Gaza; the cavern which Adam and Eve inhabited after their expulsion from
paradise; the spot where Balaam's ass spoke; the tree on which Absalom was
hanged; the place where Jacob wrestled with the angel; the steep place where
the swine possessed of devils plunged into the sea; the spot where the prophet
Elijah was taken up in a chariot of fire; and, of course, the position of the
salt statue which was once Lot's wife. He not only indicates places on land,
but places in the sea; thus he shows where Jonah was swallowed by the whale,
and "where St. Peter caught one hundred and fifty-three fishes."
As to the Dead Sea miracles generally, he does not dwell on them at great
length; he evidently felt that Quaresmio had exhausted the subject; but he
shows largely the fruits of Quaresmio's teaching in other matters.
So, too, we find the thoughts and words of Quaresmio echoing afar through the
German universities, in public disquisitions, dissertations, and sermons. The
great Bible commentators, both Catholic and Protestant, generally agreed in
But, strong as this theological theory was, we find that, as time went on, it
required to be braced somewhat, and in 1692 Wedelius, Professor of Medicine at
Jena, chose as the subject of his inaugural address The Physiology of the
Destruction of Sodom and of the Statue of Salt.
It is a masterly example of "sanctified science." At great length he
dwells on the characteristics of sulphur, salt, and thunderbolts; mixes up
scriptural texts, theology, and chemistry after a most bewildering fashion; and
finally comes to the conclusion that a thunderbolt, flung by the Almighty,
calcined the body of Lot's wife, and at the same time vitrified its particles
into a glassy mass looking like salt.
Not only were these views demonstrated, so far as theologico-scientific
reasoning could demonstrate anything, but it was clearly shown, by a continuous
chain of testimony from the earliest ages, that the salt statue at Usdum had
been recognised as the body of Lot's wife by Jews, Mohammedans, and the
universal Christian Church, "always, everywhere, and by all."
Under the influence of teachings like these - and of the winter rains - new
wonders began to appear at the salt pillar. In 1661 the Franciscan monk Zwinner
published his travels in Palestine, and gave not only most of the old myths
regarding the salt statue, but a new one, in some respects more striking than
any of the old - for he had heard that a dog, also transformed into salt, was
standing by the side of Lot's wife.
Even the more solid Benedictine scholars were carried away, and we find in the
Sacred History by Prof. Mezger, of the order of St. Benedict,
published in 1700, a renewal of the declaration that the salt statue must be a
But it was soon evident that the scientific current was still working beneath
this ponderous mass of theological authority. A typical evidence of this we
find in 1666 in the travels of Doubdan, a canon of St. Denis. As to the Dead
Sea, he says that he saw no smoke, no clouds, and no "black, sticky
water"; as to the statue of Lot's wife, he says, "The moderns do not
believe so easily that she has lasted so long"; then, as if alarmed at his
own boldness, he concedes that the sea may be black and sticky in
the middle; and from Lot's wife he escapes under cover of some pious
generalities. Four years later another French ecclesiastic, Jacques Goujon,
referring in his published travels to the legends of the salt pillar, says:
"People may believe these stories as much as they choose; I did not see
it, nor did I go there." So, too, in 1697, Morison, a dignitary of the
French Church, having travelled in Palestine, confesses that, as to the story
of the pillar of salt, he has difficulty in believing it.
The same current is observed working still more strongly in the travels of the
Rev. Henry Maundrell, an English chaplain at Aleppo, who travelled through
Palestine during the same year. He pours contempt over the legends of the Dead
Sea in general: as to the story that birds could not fly over it, he says that
he saw them flying there; as to the utter absence of life in the sea, he saw
small shells in it; he saw no traces of any buried cities; and as to the
stories regarding the statue of Lot's wife and the proposal to visit it, he
says, "Nor could we give faith enough to these reports to induce us to go
on such an errand."
The influence of the Baconian philosophy on his mind is very clear; for, in
expressing his disbelief in the Dead Sea apples, with their contents of ashes,
he says that he saw none, and he cites Lord Bacon in support of scepticism on
this and similar points.
But the strongest effect of this growing scepticism is seen near the end of
that century, when the eminent Dutch commentator Clericus (Le Clerc) published
his commentary on the Pentateuch and his Dissertation on the Statue of
At great length he brings all his shrewdness and learning to bear against the
whole legend of the actual transformation of Lot's wife and the existence of
the salt pillar, and ends by saying that "the whole story is due to the
vanity of some and the credulity of more."
In the beginning of the eighteenth century we find new tributaries to this
rivulet of scientific thought. In 1701 Father Felix Beaugrand dismisses the
Dead Sea legends and the salt statue very curtly and dryly - expressing not his
belief in it, but a conventional wish to believe.
In 1709 a scholar appeared in another part of Europe and of different faith,
who did far more than any of his predecessors to envelop the Dead Sea legends
in an atmosphere of truth - Adrian Reland, professor at the University of
Utrecht. His work on Palestine is a monument of patient scholarship, having as
its nucleus a love of truth as truth: there is no irreverence in him, but he
quietly brushes away a great mass of myths and legends: as to the statue of
Lot's wife, he treats it warily, but applies the comparative method to it with
killing effect, by showing that the story of its miraculous renewal is but one
among many of its kind.
Yet to superficial observers the old current of myth and marvel seemed to flow
into the eighteenth century as strong as ever, and of this we may take two
typical evidences. The first of these is the Pious Pilgrimage of Vincent
Briemle. His journey was made about 171O; and his work, brought out under the
auspices of a high papal functionary some years later, in a heavy quarto, gave
new life to the stories of the hellish character of the Dead Sea, and
especially to the miraculous renewal of the salt statue.
In 172O came a still more striking effort to maintain the old belief in the
north of Europe, for in that year the eminent theologian Masius published his
great treatise on The Conversion of Lot's Wife into a Statue of
Evidently intending that this work should be the last word on this subject in
Germany, as Quaresmio had imagined that his work would be the last in Italy, he
develops his subject after the high scholastic and theologic manner. Calling
attention first to the divine command in the New Testament, "Remember
Lot's wife," he argues through a long series of chapters. In the ninth of
these he discusses "the impelling cause" of her looking
back, and introduces us to the question, formerly so often treated by
theologians, whether the soul of Lot's wife was finally saved. Here we are glad
to learn that the big, warm heart of Luther lifted him above the common herd of
theologians, and led him to declare that she was "a faithful and saintly
woman," and that she certainly was not eternally damned. In justice to the
Roman Church also it should be said that several of her most eminent
commentators took a similar view, and insisted that the sin of Lot's wife was
venial, and therefore, at the worst, could only subject her to the fires of
The eleventh chapter discusses at length the question how she was
converted into salt, and, mentioning many theological opinions, dwells
especially upon the view of Rivetus, that a thunderbolt, made up apparently of
fire, sulphur, and salt, wrought her transformation at the same time that it
blasted the land; and he bases this opinion upon the twenty-ninth chapter of
Deuteronomy and the one hundred and seventh Psalm.
Later, Masius presents a sacred scientific theory that "saline particles
entered into her until her whole body was infected"; and with this he
connects another piece of sanctified science, to the effect that "stagnant
bile" may have rendered the surface of her body "entirely shining,
bitter, dry, and deformed."
Finally, he comes to the great question whether the salt pillar is still in
existence. On this he is full and fair. On one hand he allows that Luther
thought that it was involved in the general destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah,
and he cites various travellers who had failed to find it; but, on the other
hand, he gives a long chain of evidence to show that it continued to exist:
very wisely he reminds the reader that the positive testimony of those who have
seen it must outweigh the negative testimony of those who have not, and he
finally decides that the salt statue is still in being.
No doubt a work like this produced a considerable effect in Protestant
countries; indeed, this effect seems evident as far off as England, for, in
172O, we find in Dean Prideaux's Old and New Testament connected a
map on which the statue of salt is carefully indicated. So, too, in Holland, in
the Sacred Geography published at Utrecht in 1758 by the
theologian Bachiene, we find him, while showing many signs of rationalism,
evidently inclined to the old views as to the existence of the salt pillar; but
just here comes a curious evidence of the real direction of the current of
thought through the century, for, nine years later, in the German translation
of Bachiene's work we find copious notes by the translator in a far more
rationalistic spirit; indeed, we see the dawn of the inevitable day of
compromise, for we now have, instead of the old argument that the divine power
by one miraculous act changed Lot's wife into a salt pillar, the suggestion
that she was caught in a shower of sulphur and saltpetre, covered by it, and
that the result was a lump, which in a general way is called in our
sacred books "a pillar of salt."
But, from the middle of the eighteenth century, the new current sets through
Christendom with ever-increasing strength. Very interesting is it to compare
the great scriptural commentaries of the middle of this century with those
published a century earlier.
Of the earlier ones we may take Matthew Poole's Synopsis as a
type: as authorized by royal decree in 1667 it contains very substantial
arguments for the pious belief in the statue. Of the later ones we may take the
edition of the noted commentary of the Jesuit Tirinus seventy years later:
while he feels bound to present the authorities, he evidently endeavours to get
rid of the subject as speedily as possible under cover of conventionalities; of
the spirit of Quaresmio he shows no trace.
About 1760 came a striking evidence of the strength of this new current. The
Abate Mariti then published his book upon the Holy Land; and of this book, by
an Italian ecclesiastic, the most eminent of German bibliographers in this
field says that it first broke a path for critical study of the Holy Land.
Mariti is entirely sceptical as to the sinking of the valley of Siddim and the
overwhelming of the cities. He speaks kindly of a Capuchin Father who saw
everywhere at the Dead Sea traces of the divine malediction, while he himself
could not see them, and says, "It is because a Capuchin carries everywhere
the five senses of faith, while I only carry those of nature." He speaks
of "the lies of Josephus," and makes merry over "the rude and
shapeless block" which the guide assured him was the statue of Lot's wife,
explaining the want of human form in the salt pillar by telling him that this
complete metamorphosis was part of her punishment.
About twenty years later, another remarkable man, Volney, broaches the subject
in what was then known as the "philosophic" spirit. Between the years
1783 and 1785 he made an extensive journey through the Holy Land and published
a volume of travels which by acuteness of thought and vigour of style secured
general attention. In these, myth and legend were thrown aside, and we have an
account simply dictated by the love of truth as truth. He, too, keeps the torch
of science burning by applying his geological knowledge to the regions which he
As we look back over the eighteenth century we see mingled with the new current
of thought, and strengthening it, a constantly increasing stream of more
strictly scientific observation and reflection.
To review it briefly: in the very first years of the century Maraldi showed the
Paris Academy of Sciences fossil fishes found in the Lebanon region; a little
later, Cornelius Bruyn, in the French edition of his Eastern travels, gave
well-drawn representations of fossil fishes and shells, some of them from the
region of the Dead Sea; about the middle of the century Richard Pococke, Bishop
of Meath, and Korte of Altona made more statements of the same sort; and toward
the close of the century, as we have seen, Volney gave still more of these
researches, with philosophical deductions from them.
The result of all this was that there gradually dawned upon thinking men the
conviction that, for ages before the appearance of man on the planet, and
during all the period since his appearance, natural laws have been steadily in
force in Palestine as elsewhere; this conviction obliged men to consider other
than supernatural causes for the phenomena of the Dead Sea, and myth and marvel
steadily shrank in value.
But at the very threshold of the nineteenth century Chateaubriand came into the
field, and he seemed to banish the scientific spirit, though what he really did
was to conceal it temporarily behind the vapours of his rhetoric. The time was
propitious for him. It was the period of reaction after the French Revolution,
when what was called religion was again in fashion, and when even atheists
supported it as a good thing for common people: of such an epoch Chateaubriand,
with his superficial information, thin sentiment, and showy verbiage, was the
foreordained prophet. His enemies were wont to deny that he ever saw the Holy
Land; whether he did or not, he added nothing to real knowledge, but simply
threw a momentary glamour over the regions he described, and especially over
the Dead Sea. The legend of Lot's wife he carefully avoided, for he knew too
well the danger of ridicule in France.
As long as the Napoleonic and Bourbon reigns lasted, and indeed for some time
afterward, this kind of dealing with the Holy Land was fashionable, and we have
a long series of men, especially of Frenchmen, who evidently received their
impulse from Chateaubriand.
About 1831 De Geramb, Abbot of La Trappe, evidently a very noble and devout
spirit, sees vapour above the Dead Sea, but stretches the truth a little -
speaking of it as "vapour or smoke." He could not find the salt
statue, and complains of the "diversity of stories regarding it." The
simple physical cause of this diversity - the washing out of different statues
in different years - never occurs to him; but he comforts himself with the
scriptural warrant for the metamorphosis.
But to the honour of scientific men and scientific truth it should be said that
even under Napoleon and the Bourbons there were men who continued to explore,
observe, and describe with the simple love of truth as truth, and in spite of
the probability that their researches would be received during their lifetime
with contempt and even hostility, both in church and state.
The pioneer in this work of the nineteenth century was the German naturalist
Ulrich Seetzen. He began his main investigation in 1806, and soon his learning,
courage, and honesty threw a flood of new light into the Dead Sea questions.
In this light, myth and legend faded more rapidly than ever. Typical of his
method is his examination of the Dead Sea fruit. He found, on reaching
Palestine, that Josephus's story regarding it, which had been accepted for
nearly two thousand years, was believed on all sides; more than this, he found
that the original myth had so grown that a multitude of respectable people at
Bethlehem and elsewhere assured him that not only apples, but pears,
pomegranates, figs, lemons, and many other fruits which grow upon the shores of
the Dead Sea, though beautiful to look upon, were filled with ashes. These good
people declared to Seetzen that they had seen these fruits, and that, not long
before, a basketful of them which had been sent to a merchant of Jaffa had
turned to ashes.
Seetzen was evidently perplexed by this mass of testimony and naturally anxious
to examine these fruits. On arriving at the sea he began to look for them, and
the guide soon showed him the "apples." These he found to be simply
an asclepia, which had been described by Linnaeus, and which is found
in the East Indies, Arabia, Egypt, Jamaica, and elsewhere - the
"ashes" being simply seeds. He looked next for the other fruits, and
the guide soon found for him the "lemons": these he discovered to be
a species of solanum found in other parts of Palestine and elsewhere,
and the seeds in these were the famous "cinders." He looked next for
the pears, figs, and other accursed fruits; but, instead of finding them filled
with ashes and cinders, he found them like the same fruits in other lands, and
he tells us that he ate the figs with much pleasure.
So perished a myth which had been kept alive two thousand years, - partly by
modes of thought natural to theologians, partly by the self-interest of guides,
and partly by the love of marvel-mongering among travellers.
The other myths fared no better. As to the appearance of the sea, he found its
waters not "black and sticky," but blue and transparent; he found no
smoke rising from the abyss, but tells us that sunlight and cloud and shore
were pleasantly reflected from the surface. As to Lot's wife, he found no salt
pillar which had been a careless woman, but the Arabs showed him many boulders
which had once been wicked men.
His work was worthily continued by a long succession of true investigators, -
among them such travellers or geographers as Burckhardt, Irby, Mangles,
Fallmerayer, and Carl von Raumer: by men like these the atmosphere of myth and
legend was steadily cleared away; as a rule, they simply forgot Lot's wife
In this noble succession should be mentioned an American theologian, Dr. Edward
Robinson, professor at New York. Beginning about 1826, he devoted himself for
thirty years to the thorough study of the geography of Palestine, and he found
a worthy coadjutor in another American divine, Dr. Eli Smith. Neither of these
men departed openly from the old traditions: that would have cost a
heart-breaking price - the loss of all further opportunity to carry on their
researches. Robinson did not even think it best to call attention to the
mythical character of much on which his predecessors had insisted; he simply
brought in, more and more, the dry, clear atmosphere of the love of truth for
truth's sake, and, in this, myths and legends steadily disappeared. By doing
this he rendered a far greater service to real Christianity than any other
theologian had ever done in this field.
Very characteristic is his dealing with the myth of Lot's wife. Though more
than once at Usdum, - though giving valuable information regarding the sea,
shore, and mountains there, he carefully avoids all mention of the salt pillar
and of the legend which arose from it. In this he set an example followed by
most of the more thoughtful religious travellers since his time. Very
significant is it to see the New Testament injunction, "Remember Lot's
wife," so utterly forgotten. These later investigators seem never to have
heard of it; and this constant forgetfulness shows the change which had taken
place in the enlightened thinking of the world.
But in the year 1848 came an episode very striking in its character and effect.
At that time, the war between the United States and Mexico having closed,
Lieutenant Lynch, of the United States Navy, found himself in the port of Vera
Cruz, commanding an old hulk, the Supply. Looking about for
somnething to do, it occurred to him to write to the Secretary of the Navy
asking permission to explore the Dead Sea. Under ordinary circumstances the
proposal would doubtless have been strangled with red tape; but, fortunately,
the Secretary at that time was Mr. John Y. Mason, of Virginia. Mr. Mason was
famous for his good nature. Both at Washington and at Paris, where he was
afterward minister, this predominant trait has left a multitude of amusing
traditions; it was of him that Senator Benton said, "To be supremely happy
he must have his paunch full of oysters and his hands full of cards."
The Secretary granted permission, but evidently gave the matter not another
thought. As a result, came an expedition the most comical and one of the most
rich in results to be found in American annals. Never was anything so
happy-go-lucky. Lieutenant Lynch started with his hulk, with hardly an
instrument save those ordinarily found on shipboard, and with a body of men
probably the most unfit for anything like scientific investigation ever sent on
such an errand; fortunately, he picked up a young instructor in mathematics,
Mr. Anderson, and added to his apparatus two strong iron boats.
Arriving, after a tedious voyage, on the coast of Asia Minor, he set to work.
He had no adequate preparation in general history, archaeology, or the physical
sciences; but he had his American patriotism, energy, pluck, pride, and
devotion to duty, and these qualities stood him in good stead. With great
labour he got the iron boats across the country. Then the tug of war began.
First of all investigators, he forced his way through the whole length of the
river Jordan and from end to end of the Dead Sea. There were constant
difficulties - geographical, climatic, and personal; but Lynch cut through them
all. He was brave or shrewd, as there was need. Anderson proved an admirable
helper, and together they made surveys of distances, altitudes, depths, and
sundry simple investigations in a geological, mineralogical, and chemical way.
Much was poorly done, much was left undone, but the general result was most
honourable both to Lynch and Anderson; and Secretary Mason found that his
easy-going patronage of the enterprise was the best act of his official life.
The results of this expedition on public opinion were most curious. Lynch was
no scholar in any sense; he had travelled little, and thought less on the real
questions underlying the whole investigation; as to the difference in depth of
the two parts of the lake, he jumped - with a sailor's disregard of logic - to
the conclusion that it somehow proved the mythical account of the overwhelming
of the cities, and he indulged in reflections of a sort probably suggested by
his recollections of American Sunday-schools.
Especially noteworthy is his treatment of the legend of Lot's wife. He found
the pillar of salt. It happened to be at that period a circular column of
friable salt rock, about forty feet high; yet, while he accepts every other old
myth, he treats the belief that this was once the wife of Lot as "a
One little circumstance added enormously to the influence of this book, for, as
a frontispiece, he inserted a picture of the salt column. It was delineated in
rather a poetic manner: light streamed upon it, heavy clouds hung above it,
and, as a background, were ranged buttresses of salt rock furrowed and
channelled out by the winter rains: this salt statue picture was spread far and
wide, and in thousands of country pulpits and Sunday-schools it was shown as a
tribute of science to Scripture.
Nor was this influence confined to American Sunday-school children: Lynch had
innocently set a trap into which several European theologians stumbled. One of
these was Dr. Lorenz Gratz, Vicar-General of Augsburg, a theological professor.
In the second edition of his Theatre of the Holy Scriptures,
published in 1858, he hails Lynch's discovery of the salt pillar with joy,
forgets his allusion to the old theory regarding it as a superstition, and does
not stop to learn that this was one of a succession of statues washed out
yearly by the rains, but accepts it as the originaL Lot's wife.
The French churchmen suffered most. About two years after Lynch, De Saulcy
visited the Dead Sea to explore it thoroughly, evidently in the interest of
sacred science - and of his own promotion. Of the modest thoroughness of
Robinson there is no trace in his writings. He promptly discovered the
overwhelmed cities, which no one before or since has ever found, poured
contempt on other investigators, and threw over his whole work an air of piety.
But, unfortunately, having a Frenchman's dread of ridicule, he attempted to
give a rationalistic explanation of what he calls "the enormous needles of
salt washed out by the winter rain," and their connection with the Lot's
wife myth, and declared his firm belief that she, "being delayed by
curiosity or terror, was crushed by a rock which rolled down from the mountain,
and when Lot and his children turned about they saw at the place where she had
been only the rock of salt which covered her body."
But this would not do at all, and an eminent ecclesiastic privately and
publicly expostulated with De Saulcy - very naturally declaring that "it
was not Lot who wrote the book of Genesis."
The result was that another edition of De Saulcy's work was published by a
Church Book Society, with the offending passage omitted; but a passage was
retained really far more suggestive of heterodoxy, and this was an Arab legend
accounting for the origin of certain rocks near the Dead Sea curiously
resembling salt formations. This in effect ran as follows:
"Abraham, the friend of God, having come here one day with his mule to buy
salt, the salt-workers impudently told him that they had no salt to sell,
whereupon the patriarch said: 'Your words are, true. you have no salt to sell,'
and instantly the salt of this whole region was transformed into stone, or
rather into a salt which has lost its savour."
Nothing could be more sure than this story to throw light into the mental and
moral process by which the salt pillar myth was originally created.
In the years 1864 and 1865 came an expedition on a much more imposing scale:
that of the Duc de Luynes. His knowledge of archaeology and his wealth were
freely devoted to working the mine which Lynch had opened, and, taking with him
an iron vessel and several savants, he devoted himself especially to
finding the cities of the Dead Sea, and to giving less vague accounts of them
than those of De Saulcy. But he was disappointed, and honest enough to confess
his disappointment. So vanished one of the most cherished parts of the legend.
But worse remained behind. In the orthodox duke's company was an acute
geologist, Monsieur Lartet, who in due time made an elaborate report, which let
a flood of light into the whole region.
The Abbe Richard had been rejoicing the orthodox heart of France by exhibiting
some prehistoric flint implements as the knives which Joshua had made for
circumcision. By a truthful statement Monsieur Lartet set all France laughing
at the Abbe, and then turned to the geology of the Dead Sea basin. While he
conceded that man may have seen some volcanic crisis there, and may have
preserved a vivid remembrance of the vapour then rising, his whole argument
showed irresistibly that all the phenomena of the region are due to natural
causes, and that, so far from a sudden rising of the lake above the valley
within historic times, it has been for ages steadily subsiding.
Since Balaam was called by Balak to curse his enemies, and "blessed them
altogether," there has never been a more unexpected tribute to truth.
Even the salt pillar at Usdum, as depicted in Lynch's book, aided to undermine
the myth among thinking men; for the background of the picture showed other
pillars of salt in process of formation; and the ultimate result of all these
expeditions was to spread an atmosphere in which myth and legend became more
and more attenuated.
To sum up the main points in this work of the nineteenth century: Seetzen,
Robinson, and others had found that a human being could traverse the lake
without being killed by hellish smoke; that the waters gave forth no odours;
that the fruits of the region were not created full of cinders to match the
desolation of the Dead Sea, but were growths not uncommon in Asia Minor and
elsewhere; in fact, that all the phenomena were due to natural causes.
Ritter and others had shown that all noted features of the Dead Sea and the
surrounding country were to be found in various other lakes and regions, to
which no supernatural cause was ascribed among enlightened men. Lynch, Van de
Velde, Osborne, and others had revealed the fact that the "pillar of
salt" was frequently formed anew by the rains; and Lartet and other
geologists had given a final blow to the myths by making it clear from the
markings on the neighbouring rocks that, instead of a sudden upheaval of the
sea above the valley of Siddim, there had been a gradual subsidence for ages.
Even before all this evidence was in, a judicial decision had been pronounced
upon the whole question by an authority both Christian and scientific, from
whom there could be no appeal. During the second quarter of the century Prof.
Carl Ritter, of the University of Berlin, began giving to the world those
researches which have placed him at the head of all geographers ancient or
modern, and finally he brought together those relating to the geography of the
Holy Land, publishing them as part of his great work on the physical geography
of the earth. He was a Christian, and nothing could be more reverent than his
treatment of the whole subject; but his German honesty did not permit him to
conceal the truth, and he simply classed together all the stories of the Dead
Sea - old and new - no matter where found, whether in the sacred books of Jews,
Christians, or Mohammedans, whether in lives of saints or accounts of
travellers, as "myths" and "sagas."
From this decision there has never been among intelligent men any appeal.
The recent adjustment of orthodox thought to the scientific view of the Dead
Sea legends presents some curious features. As typical we may take the travels
of two German theologians between 1860 and 1870 - John Kranzel, pastor in
Munich, and Peter Schegg, lately professor in the university of that city.
The archdiocese of Munich-Freising is one of those in which the attempt to
suppress modern scientific thought has been most steadily carried on. Its
archbishops have constantly shown themselves assiduous in securing cardinals'
hats by thwarting science and by stupefying education. The twin towers of the
old cathedral of Munich have seemed to throw a killing shadow over intellectual
development in that region. Naturally, then, these two clerical travellers from
that diocese did not commit themselves to clearing away any of the Dead Sea
myths; but it is significant that neither of them follows the example of so
many of their clerical predecessors in defending the salt-pillar legend: they
steadily avoid it altogether.
The more recent history of the salt pillar, since Lynch, deserves mention. It
appears that the travellers immediately after him found it shaped by the storms
into a spire; that a year or two later it had utterly disappeared; and about
the year 1870 Prof. Palmer, on visiting the place, found at some distance from
the main salt bed, as he says, "a tall, isolated needle of rock, which
does really bear a curious resemblance to an Arab woman with a child upon her
And, finally, Smith's Dictionary of the Bible, the standard work
of reference for English-speaking scholars, makes its concession to the old
belief regarding Sodom and Gomorrah as slight as possible, and the myth of
Lot's wife entirely disappears.