Chapter 17 - From Babel to Comparative Philology
The Sacred Theory in its First Form
Among the sciences which have served as entering wedges into
the heavy mass of ecclesiastical orthodoxy - to cleave it,
disintegrate it, and let the light of Christianity into it - none
perhaps has done a more striking work than Comparative Philology.
In one very important respect the history of this science differs
from that of any other; for it is the only one whose conclusions
theologians have at last fully adopted as the result of their own
studies. This adoption teaches a great lesson, since, while it
has destroyed theological views cherished during many centuries,
and obliged the Church to accept theories directly contrary to
the plain letter of our sacred books, the result is clearly seen
to have helped Christianity rather than to have hurt it. It has
certainly done much to clear our religious foundations of the
dogmatic rust which was eating into their structure.
How this result was reached, and why the Church has so fully
accepted it, I shall endeavour to show in the present chapter.
At a very early period in the evolution of civilization men
began to ask questions regarding language; and the answers to
these questions were naturally embodied in the myths, legends,
and chronicles of their sacred books.
Among the foremost of these questions were three: "Whence
came language?" "Which was the first language?" "How came the
diversity of language?"
The answer to the first of these was very simple: each
people naturally held that language was given it directly or
indirectly by some special or national deity of its own; thus, to
the Chaldeans by Oannes, to the Egyptians by Thoth, to the
Hebrews by Jahveh.
The Hebrew answer is embodied in the great poem which opens
our sacred books. Jahveh talks with Adam and is perfectly
understood; the serpent talks with Eve and is perfectly
understood; Jahveh brings the animals before Adam, who bestows on
each its name. Language, then, was God-given and complete. Of the
fact that every language is the result of a growth process there
was evidently, among the compilers of our sacred books, no suspicion,
The answer to the second of these questions was no less
simple. As, very generally, each nation believed its own chief
divinity to be "a god above all gods," - as each believed itself
"a chosen people," - as each believed its own sacred city the
actual centre of the earth, so each believed its own language to
be the first - the original of all. This answer was from the first
taken for granted by each "chosen people," and especially by the
Hebrews: throughout their whole history, whether the Almighty
talks with Adam in the Garden or writes the commandments on Mount
Sinai, he uses the same language - the Hebrew.
The answer to the third of these questions, that regarding
the diversity of languages, was much more difficult. Naturally,
explanations of this diversity frequently gave rise to legends
The "law of wills and causes," formulated by Comte, was
exemplified here as in so many other cases. That law is, that,
when men do not know the natural causes of things, they simply
attribute them to wills like their own; thus they obtain a theory
which provisionally takes the place of science, and this theory
forms a basis for theology.
Examples of this recur to any thinking reader of history.
Before the simpler laws of astronomy were known, the sun was
supposed to be trundled out into the heavens every day and the
stars hung up in the firmament every night by the right hand of
the Almighty. Before the laws of comets were known, they were
thought to be missiles hurled by an angry God at a wicked world.
Before the real cause of lightning was known, it was supposed to
be the work of a good God in his wrath, or of evil spirits in
their malice. Before the laws of meteorology were known, it was
thought that rains were caused by the Almighty or his angels
opening "the windows of heaven" to let down upon the earth "the
waters that be above the firmament." Before the laws governing
physical health were known, diseases were supposed to result from
the direct interposition of the Almighty or of Satan. Before the
laws governing mental health were known, insanity was generally
thought to be diabolic possession. All these early conceptions
were naturally embodied in the sacred books of the world, and
especially in our own.
So, in this case, to account for the diversity of tongues,
the direct intervention of the Divine Will was brought in. As
this diversity was felt to be an inconvenience, it was attributed
to the will of a Divine Being in anger. To explain this anger, it
was held that it must have been provoked by human sin.
Out of this conception explanatory myths and legends grew as
thickly and naturally as elms along water-courses; of these the
earliest form known to us is found in the Chaldean accounts, and
nowhere more clearly than in the legend of the Tower of Babel.
The inscriptions recently found among the ruins of Assyria have
thrown a bright light into this and other scriptural myths and
legends: the deciphering of the characters in these inscriptions
by Grotefend, and the reading of the texts by George Smith, Oppert,
Sayce, and others, have given us these traditions more nearly in
their original form than they appear in our own Scriptures.
The Hebrew story of Babel, like so many other legends in the
sacred books of the world, combined various elements. By a play
upon words, such as the history of myths and legends frequently
shows, it wrought into one fabric the earlier explanations of the
diversities of human speech and of the great ruined tower at
Babylon. The name Babel (bab-el) means "Gate of God" or "Gate of
the Gods." All modern scholars of note agree that this was the
real significance of the name; but the Hebrew verb which
signifies to confound resembles somewhat the word Babel, so that
out of this resemblance, by one of the most common processes in
myth formation, came to the Hebrew mind an indisputable proof
that the tower was connected with the confusion of tongues, and
this became part of our theological heritage.
In our sacred books the account runs as follows:
"And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
"And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that
they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
"And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and
burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had
they for mortar.
"And they said, Go to, let us build us a city, and a tower,
whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest
we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
"And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which
the children of men builded.
"And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have
all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will
be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
"Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language,
that they may not understand one another's speech.
"So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face
of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
"Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord
did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence
did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth."
(Genesis xi, 1-9.)
Thus far the legend had been but slightly changed from the
earlier Chaldean form in which it has been found in the Assyrian
inscriptions. Its character is very simple: to use the words of
Prof. Sayce, "It takes us back to the age when the gods were
believed to dwell in the visible sky, and when man, therefore,
did his best to rear his altars as near them as possible." And
this eminent divine might have added that it takes us back also to
a time when it was thought that Jehovah, in order to see the tower
fully, was obliged to come down from his seat above the firmament.
As to the real reasons for the building of the towers which
formed so striking a feature in Chaldean architecture - any one
of which may easily have given rise to the explanatory myth which
found its way into our sacred books - there seems a substantial
agreement among leading scholars that they were erected primarily
as parts of temples, but largely for the purpose of astronomical
observations, to which the Chaldeans were so devoted, and to
which their country, with its level surface and clear atmosphere,
was so well adapted. As to the real cause of the ruin of such
structures, one of the inscribed cylinders discovered in recent
times, speaking of a tower which most of the archæ ologists
identify with the Tower of Babel, reads as follows:
"The building named the Stages of the Seven Spheres, which
was the Tower of Borsippa, had been built by a former king. He
had completed forty-two cubits, but he did not finish its head.
During the lapse of time, it had become ruined; they had not
taken care of the exit of the waters, so that rain and wet had
penetrated into the brickwork; the casing of burned brick had
swollen out, and the terraces of crude brick are scattered in heaps."
We can well understand how easily "the gods, assisted by the
winds," as stated in the Chaldean legend, could overthrow a tower thus built.
It may be instructive to compare with the explanatory myth
developed first by the Chaldeans, and in a slightly different
form by the Hebrews, various other legends to explain the same
diversity of tongues. The Hindu legend of the confusion of
tongues is as follows:
"There grew in the centre of the earth the wonderful 'world
tree,' or 'knowledge tree.' It was so tall that it reached almost
to heaven. It said in its heart, 'I shall hold my head in heaven
and spread my branches over all the earth, and gather all men
together under my shadow, and protect them, and prevent them from
separating.' But Brahma, to punish the pride of the tree, cut off
its branches and cast them down on the earth, when they sprang up
as wata trees, and made differences of belief and speech and
customs to prevail on the earth, to disperse men upon its surface."
Still more striking is a Mexican legend: according to this,
the giant Xelhua built the great Pyramid of Cholula, in order to
reach heaven, until the gods, angry at his audacity, threw fire
upon the building and broke it down, whereupon every separate
family received a language of its own.
Such explanatory myths grew or spread widely over the earth.
A well-known form of the legend, more like the Chaldean than the
Hebrew later form, appeared among the Greeks. According to this,
the Aloidæ piled Mount Ossa upon Olympus and Pelion upon Ossa,
in their efforts to reach heaven and dethrone Jupiter.
Still another form of it entered the thoughts of Plato. He
held that in the golden age men and beasts all spoke the same
language, but that Zeus confounded their speech because men were
proud and demanded eternal youth and immortality.
But naturally the version of the legend which most affected
Christendom was that modification of the Chaldean form developed
among the Jews and embodied in their sacred books. To a thinking
man in these days it is very instructive. The coming down of the
Almighty from heaven to see the tower and put an end to it by
dispersing its builders, points to the time when his dwelling was
supposed to be just above the firmament or solid vault above the
earth: the time when he exercised his beneficent activity in such
acts as opening "the windows of heaven" to give down rain upon
the earth; in bringing out the sun every day and hanging up the
stars every night to give light to the earth; in hurling comets,
to give warning; in placing his bow in the cloud, to give hope;
in coming down in the cool of the evening to walk and talk with
the man he had made; in making coats of skins for Adam and Eve; in
enjoying the odour of flesh which Noah burned for him; in eating
with Abraham under the oaks of Mamre; in wrestling with Jacob; and
in writing with his own finger on the stone tables for Moses.
So came the answer to the third question regarding language;
and all three answers, embodied in our sacred books and implanted
in the Jewish mind, supplied to the Christian Church the germs of
a theological development of philology. These germs developed
rapidly in the warm atmosphere of devotion and ignorance of
natural law which pervaded the early Church, and there grew a
great orthodox theory of language, which was held throughout
Christendom, "always, everywhere, and by all," for nearly two
thousand years, and to which, until the present century, all
science has been obliged, under pains and penalties, to conform.
There did, indeed, come into human thought at an early
period some suggestions of the modern scientific view of
philology. Lucretius had proposed a theory, inadequate indeed,
but still pointing toward the truth, as follows: "Nature
impelled man to try the various sounds of the tongue, and so
struck out the names of things, much in the same way as the
inability to speak is seen in its turn to drive children to the
use of gestures." But, among the early fathers of the Church, the
only one who seems to have caught an echo of this utterance was
St. Gregory of Nyssa: as a rule, all the other great founders of
Christian theology, as far as they expressed themselves on the
subject, took the view that the original language spoken by the
Almighty and given by him to men was Hebrew, and that from this
all other languages were derived at the destruction of the Tower
of Babel. This doctrine was especially upheld by Origen, St.
Jerome, and St. Augustine. Origen taught that "the language given
at the first through Adam, the Hebrew, remained among that
portion of mankind which was assigned not to any angel, but
continued the portion of God himself." St. Augustine declared
that, when the other races were divided by their own peculiar
languages, Heber's family preserved that language which is not
unreasonably believed to have been the common language of the
race, and that on this account it was henceforth called Hebrew.
St. Jerome wrote, "The whole of antiquity affirms that Hebrew, in
which the Old Testament is written, was the beginning of all
Amid such great authorities as these even Gregory of Nyssa
struggled in vain. He seems to have taken the matter very
earnestly, and to have used not only argument but ridicule. He
insists that God does not speak Hebrew, and that the tongue used
by Moses was not even a pure dialect of one of the languages
resulting from "the confusion." He makes man the inventor of
speech, and resorts to raillery: speaking against his opponent
Eunomius, he says that, "passing in silence his base and abject
garrulity," he will "note a few things which are thrown into the
midst of his useless or wordy discourse, where he represents God
teaching words and names to our first parents, sitting before
them like some pedagogue or grammar master." But, naturally, the
great authority of Origen, Jerome, and Augustine prevailed; the
view suggested by Lucretius, and again by St. Gregory of Nyssa,
died, out; and "always, everywhere, and by all," in the Church,
the doctrine was received that the language spoken by the Almighty
was Hebrew, - that it was taught by him to Adam, - and that all other
languages on the face of the earth originated from it at the
dispersion attending the destruction of the Tower of Babel.
This idea threw out roots and branches in every direction,
and so developed ever into new and strong forms. As all scholars
now know, the vowel points in the Hebrew language were not
adopted until at some period between the second and tenth
centuries; but in the mediæ val Church they soon came to be
considered as part of the great miracle, - as the work of the
right hand of the Almighty; and never until the eighteenth
century was there any doubt allowed as to the divine origin of
these rabbinical additions to the text. To hesitate in believing
that these points were dotted virtually by the very hand of God
himself came to be considered a fearful heresy.
The series of battles between theology and science in the
field of comparative philology opened just on this point,
apparently so insignificant: the direct divine inspiration of the
rabbinical punctuation. The first to impugn this divine origin of
these vocal points and accents appears to have been a Spanish
monk, Raymundus Martinus, in his Pugio Fidei, or Poniard of the
Faith, which he put forth in the thirteenth century. But he and
his doctrine disappeared beneath the waves of the orthodox ocean,
and apparently left no trace. For nearly three hundred years
longer the full sacred theory held its ground; but about the
opening of the sixteenth century another glimpse of the truth was
given by a Jew, Elias Levita, and this seems to have had some little
effect, at least in keeping the germ of scientific truth alive.
The Reformation, with its renewal of the literal study of
the Scriptures, and its transfer of all infallibility from the
Church and the papacy to the letter of the sacred books,
intensified for a time the devotion of Christendom to this sacred
theory of language. The belief was strongly held that the writers
of the Bible were merely pens in the hand of God (Dei calami).
hence the conclusion that not only the sense but the words,
letters, and even the punctuation proceeded from the Holy Spirit.
Only on this one question of the origin of the Hebrew points was
there any controversy, and this waxed hot. It began to be
especially noted that these vowel points in the Hebrew Bible did
not exist in the synagogue rolls, were not mentioned in the
Talmud, and seemed unknown to St. Jerome; and on these grounds
some earnest men ventured to think them no part of the original
revelation to Adam. Zwingli, so much before most of the Reformers
in other respects, was equally so in this. While not doubting the
divine origin and preservation of the Hebrew language as a whole,
he denied the antiquity of the vocal points, demonstrated their
unessential character, and pointed out the fact that St. Jerome
makes no mention of them. His denial was long the refuge of those
who shared this heresy.
But the full orthodox theory remained established among the
vast majority both of Catholics and Protestants. The attitude of
the former is well illustrated in the imposing work of the canon
Marini, which appeared at Venice in 1593, under the title of
Noah's Ark: A New Treasury of the Sacred Tongue. The huge
folios begin with the declaration that the Hebrew tongue was
"divinely inspired at the very beginning of the world," and the
doctrine is steadily maintained that this divine inspiration
extended not only to the letters but to the punctuation.
Not before the seventeenth century was well under way do we
find a thorough scholar bold enough to gainsay this preposterous
doctrine. This new assailant was Capellus, Professor of Hebrew
at Saumur; but he dared not put forth his argument in France: he
was obliged to publish it in Holland, and even there such
obstacles were thrown in his way that it was ten years before he
published another treatise of importance.
The work of Capellus was received as settling the question
by very many open-minded scholars, among whom was Hugo Grotius.
But many theologians felt this view to be a blow at the sanctity
and integrity of the sacred text; and in 1648 the great scholar,
John Buxtorf the younger, rose to defend the orthodox citadel: in
his Anticritica he brought all his stores of knowledge to
uphold the doctrine that the rabbinical points and accents had
been jotted down by the right hand of God.
The controversy waxed hot: scholars like Voss and Brian
Walton supported Capellus; Wasmuth and many others of note were
as fierce against him. The Swiss Protestants were especially
violent on the orthodox side; their formula consensus of 1675
declared the vowel points to be inspired, and three years later
the Calvinists of Geneva, by a special canon, forbade that any
minister should be received into their jurisdiction until he
publicly confessed that the Hebrew text, as it to-day exists in
the Masoretic copies, is, both as to the consonants and vowel
points, divine and authentic.
While in Holland so great a man as Hugo Grotius supported
the view of Capellus, and while in France the eminent Catholic
scholar Richard Simon, and many others, Catholic and Protestant,
took similar ground against this divine origin of the Hebrew
punctuation, there was arrayed against them a body apparently
overwhelming. In France, Bossuet, the greatest theologian that
France has ever produced, did his best to crush Simon. In
Germany, Wasmuth, professor first at Rostock and afterward at
Kiel, hurled his Vindiciæ at the innovators. Yet at this very
moment the battle was clearly won; the arguments of Capellus
were irrefragable, and, despite the commands of bishops, the
outcries of theologians, and the sneering of critics, his
application of strictly scientific observation and reasoning
carried the day.
Yet a casual observer, long after the fate of the battle was
really settled, might have supposed that it was still in doubt.
As is not unusual in theologic controversies, attempts were made
to galvanize the dead doctrine into an appearance of life. Famous
among these attempts was that made as late as the beginning of
the eighteenth century by two Bremen theologians, Hase and Iken,
They put forth a compilation in two huge folios simultaneously at
Leyden and Amsterdam, prominent in which work is the treatise on
The Integrity of Scripture, by Johann Andreas Danzius, Professor
of Oriental Languages and Senior Member of the Philosophical
Faculty of Jena, and, to preface it, there was a formal and
fulsome approval by three eminent professors of theology at
Leyden. With great fervour the author pointed out that "religion
itself depends absolutely on the infallible inspiration, both
verbal and literal, of the Scripture text"; and with impassioned
eloquence he assailed the blasphemers who dared question the
divine origin of the Hebrew points. But this was really the last
great effort. That the case was lost was seen by the fact that
Danzius felt obliged to use other missiles than arguments, and
especially to call his opponents hard names. From this period the
old sacred theory as to the origin of the Hebrew points may be
considered as dead and buried.