The History of the Jews (by Henry Hart Milman, 1863)
Mr. Milman’s publication of a third edition of his History of the Jews would at any time require notice. Just now it is interesting, not merely in a literary and theological point of view, but because it is an act of great courage on the part of a Church dignitary, at a moment when the dignitaries of the Church are doing so little for the dignity of the Church. Whatever may be the merits of the theological questions now at issue, no one can doubt that the timid way in which they are treated by those in authority is lowering the Church in public estimation to a degree which its friends must view with the deepest concern. In such a state of things, it is satisfactory to see that the one living theological writer whose name has a right to be inscribed on the list of great English divines should republish a book which, thirty years ago, formed as natural an introduction to preferment as well-meaning ignorance has too often done in the present day. In his preface to the present edition of his work, Dr. Milman honestly, and in the plainest possible language, avows his opinions on some of the subjects which so much scare the present generation of Bishops. He has the courage to own that his opinions on the inspiration of the Bible are substantially the same as those of Tillotson and Burnet—opinions which the judgment of the Court of Arches upon the Essays and Reviews expressly recognised as legal; and he has the honesty to say that he considers many of the controversies which at present terrify so many zealous, but very ignorant Christians, totally irrelevant to the fundamental parts of Christianity, however interesting they may be in themselves. The truth or falsehood of such opinions is not a question which can be discussed in these columns; but we may properly express satisfaction at finding that there is still one dignified English clergyman who can write like a man upon these great subjects.
Of the general nature and merits of a work which has been so long before the public it would be superfluous to say much. The concluding sentences of the present edition modestly and truthfully denote its place in literature:—
‘I would gladly hail a Jewish Neander, but even Jost . . . will hardly fill that place which no Christian, perhaps, has a right to occupy—not even Ewald in the earlier scenes of Jewish history, certainly not Basnage in the later; least of all one like myself, who began too early, and have been called off too much by other studies, fully to appropriate or worthily to execute this work of universal, of perpetual, interest to mankind.’It is as the historian of Latin Christianity that Dr. Milman will be known in English literature. His History of the Jews is less learned and less ripe. It bears traces of a defect which it is not altogether easy to describe at once justly and kindly. To say of the first volume that it is the Old Testament re-written in the style of a prize essay would be considerably too severe, and, in reference to particular parts, untrue; but that is what a critic, erring on the side of severity, would say with some plausibility. The truth is that, till we arrive at times when there are some materials for history, it is not possible to write history. Till a comparatively late period, when the politics of Palestine came to be connected with those of the great Gentile nations, a Bible with sensible notes is all that is worth having. All that is, or ever can or will be, known about Abraham is to be found in certain chapters of the book of Genesis, and not only do we gain nothing, but we are pretty sure to lose something important, by translating it into modernized English. It is a most fortunate accident that the language of the authorized version has in itself an archaic turn which, to some extent, suggests the fact that the events related belong to a state of things utterly remote from our own experience. We bring them no nearer to ourselves by describing them in the ordinary style of sustained English composition. If anything, we remove them further from us. A Bible reprinted from the authorized version, with notes warning the reader what inferences to draw from peculiarities in the phraseology and in the arrangement of the story, and a moderate number of appendixes on particular points, would tell all that is to be told. The plan adopted by Dr. Milman has the most singular effect, especially upon the miraculous parts of the narrative. The transition from what is ordinary and commonplace to what is an exercise of faith is made in so sudden and startling a manner as needlessly to increase any difficulties which may suggest themselves to the reader. Thus, for instance, an excellent description — taken partly from Dr. Stanley—is given of the valley of the Jordan, of the steep banks bounding the Promised Land by a strange natural trench, the rapid stream, and the adjoining country; but when all this is brought into connexion with the rolling back of the stream, and the miraculous passage of the Israelites, the mind receives a strange sort of shock. The difficulty is, of course, one of the imagination only. Looked at merely as a matter of reason, it is not more easy to make the Jordan the scene of such an event than the Thames; but most people would require far more evidence as to the one than as to the other.
Notwithstanding its defects, such as they are, Dr. Milman's book is the only one, with the exception of Dr. Stanley's Lectures on the Jewish Church, which conveys to English readers a connected popular account of the Jewish people; and though to execute such a work thoroughly would be extremely difficult, there can be no question that, when executed, it would constitute—to use Dr. Milman's own phrase—“a work of universal, of perpetual interest to mankind.”. Its interest would, of course, depend upon its connexion with religion; but the history of the Jews, though closely and vitally connected with Christianity, may be viewed apart from special theological questions. Such questions refer, for the most part, if not entirely, to the miraculous part of the narrative, and, by their very nature, miracles occupy a position of their own. They always are, and always will be, believed or disbelieved according to the general views of those who consider the subject. There is a frame of mind in which they will be regarded as proofs of the truth of the history in which they are described. There is another state of mind in which they will be regarded as interpolations or untruths; but whichever of these views is adopted, the general course of the history itself remains the same, and the same general observations arise upon it. It is by reason of the general observations which they suggest, and the general outline of the story which they tell, that such works as Dean Milman's are entitled to the high place which they hold in literature. Laying out of the question, as unsuited to discussion here, these parts of the history, and looking only at that part of it which cannot be made the subject of serious controversy, it is, upon the whole, the most wonderful and one of the most instructive histories in the world. One of the most remarkable points connected with it is its strange continuity. From the days of Abraham down to the siege of Jerusalem, and, in one sense, down to the present day, there is a continuous progress, both economical and intellectual. The nomad life of Abraham and Lot, the tribe regulations of the Israelites when they came out of Egypt, their history under the Judges, their history under the Kings, and their state after the return from Babylon, are all different from each other, and each represents a different and successive stage in all that we call civilization.
Condensing the history into a few sentences, and setting aside, for the reasons already given, the purely theological part of it, the story stands thus:– At a very remote time, which cannot now be fixed with even proximate certainty, the ancestors of the Jewish race were so chiefs wandering over Syria. They settled in Egypt, and there became a numerous but enslaved tribe. When freed from the oppression under which they had suffered, they resumed their nomad life for about a generation, and then conquered Palestine, and nearly, though not quite, exterminated the ancient inhabitants. For a length of time they lived under a variety of chiefs or judges, who never founded a dynasty; but at last they were ruled over by kings who converted the country into what was, for a short period, a powerful and extensive empire, trading with Egypt on the one side and India on the other. By bad government and internal divisions the whole country was thrown into confusion, and a long series of calamities ended in the Babylonish captivity. On their return from Babylon, all the institutions of the country were, so to speak, revised and corrected, and the nation at large became fanatically attached to their civil and religious constitution. They retained it, notwithstanding foreign conquests, to which, when their masters were unusually oppressive, they offered the most desperate resistance. At last a series of remarkable men erected the country into one of those half-dependent monarchies which the Roman Empire first protected and then annexed, much as we dealt with some of the native Princes in India. The nation became rich, populous, educated, and, in a word, civilized, to a high degree; but the presence of the laws and the religion of the Romans fretted and galled the Jews till they broke into the furious revolt which ended in their destruction as a nation, and left them to drag out a lingering and miserable existence down to the present time, rather as a religious sect than as a nation.
These are the principal facts in Jewish history, thrown into their most compressed form. Of course, they serve merely as an envelope to the religion from which they derive their importance. Viewing them in that light, and leaving on one side the numerous controversies by which they have been perplexed, it cannot be denied that the story is one of the most wonderful that are to be found in the annals of mankind. Take any possible view of the early history of the nation — concede, for the sake of argument, that the miraculous part of the history is all fable or legend, and that the historical part is confused, perplexed, transposed, and that it bears the marks of several successive revisions—and the part of the narrative which neither is nor can be contested is still extraordinary in the highest degree. In the first place, it is indisputable that the Book of Genesis, at all events the chief part of it, is immensely ancient, and that it is an historical account of real persons. On this point, Dr. Milman contrasts, with great effect, the Abraham of Genesis with the Abraham of Persian, Arabian, and perhaps Indian tradition, according to which he was the teacher, “not merely of religious truth, but of science, arithmetic, mathematics, and astronomy to the Egyptians.” It is equally certain that the conceptions of the Divine Nature ascribed to him have never to this day been improved upon. This belief formed the corner-stone of the whole Jewish history, the key-note of the whole of their literature, and the foundation of what at that time was probably unexampled elsewhere—a written law binding upon the whole nation, rulers and subjects alike. This leading fact may not strike the imagination at first sight like the miracles of Moses or Elijah; but when it is considered attentively, it will appear to be to them what the still small voice was to the storm and the earthquake. There is nothing like it in the early history of any of the other great nations of the world. The constitutions of all the countries of modern Europe have been the work of ages. Some of them, indeed, have been thrown into a definite codified form at a given moment, but they have always represented the experience of centuries. The Constitution of the United States could never have been drawn up unless its authors had been able to resort for guidance to the history of the colonies and the history of England. All modern experience shows that a written constitutional code is one of the latest products of civilization. However late a date may be assigned to the Pentateuch as we have it, there can be no doubt that the Israelites lived under a written constitutional law for ages before the Babylonish captivity, or that that law was founded upon that which all the greatest nations of the world have recognised as the true doctrine on the most awful of all subjects—the being and attributes of God.
No doubt Ezra and his successors, on the return from Babylon, revised the institutions of the country, but that they should have invented them out of their own heads is simply incredible. Hence the fact, that the Jewish nation as a body not only believed in the unity of God, but lived under laws expressly referring to and founded upon that belief, is indisputable. Compare this with the condition of any other people in the world, and it will be found to be a fact standing alone. In almost all other countries, any approach to a reasonable view of the Divine Nature was the highest distinction of a select class of philosophers. It is even doubtful whether the most distinguished of their number really entertained such a belief. That the writers of the Psalms, of Deuteronomy, of Exodus and Genesis, believed in one God is past all question. Whether Aristotle, Plato, or Cicero did, and what meaning they attached to the words, is a doubtful question. The belief of the Jews was not a mere speculative opinion. The institutions founded on it brought home a belief in it to the bulk of the people. The declaration with which the Ten Commandments open, and the first and second of those commandments, have become so familiar to us that we do not perceive how marvellous they are; yet there can be no doubt that, in a very remote antiquity, they formed the basis of the morality, and even of the laws, of a nation which had nothing attractive about it except its religion.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of Dr. Milman's book—certainly the part which has most novelty for common readers—is his description of the period which succeeded the return from the Captivity. To most of us it is nearly a blank, more or less indistinctly filled by revolts, civil wars, and unconnected and not familiar names. Whether it will ever be described as it ought to be, no one can tell. During a considerable period— more than two centuries—there are no authorities at all, and the history is a mere blank. The whole interval from the return from Babylon to the destruction of Jerusalem comprehends the same period as the history of Rome, from the time when it first begins to be authentic, down to the reign of Vespasian. If its secrets could be disinterred, we should know how the canon of the Old Testament was formed; how the sects of the Pharisees and Sadducees came to divide between them all the educated part of the nation; how the old religion gradually hardened into and was superseded by that intense fanaticism which marked off the Jews from all the rest of the world; and how the belief in a coming Messiah grew into form, and, concurrently with other causes, paved the way for the great events by which the whole subsequent, history of the human race has been so deeply affected. All this history is past and gone beyond the reach of recovery; but the few scattered hints of it which have reached us are full of interest. One of the most remarkable of these is the history of the Sadducees. They would appear to have been one of the most singular sects that ever had a corporate existence, and connected with it the possession of political power. On the one hand, they were firm theists. They believed in God with the same undoubting faith as the rest of their nation; and they obviously derived this belief from the books of Moses, for they drew from them the further inference that there was no future life for men. Dr. Milman says that he feels no doubt that the book of Ecclesiasticus represents their views, and was written by one of their number. Certainly some passages in it categorically deny the immortality of the soul. “All things cannot be in men, because the son of man is not immortal.” “Weep for the dead, for he hath lost the light, and weep for the fool, for he wanteth understanding; make little weeping for the dead, for he is at rest, but the life of the fool is worse than death.” The whole book is well described by Dr. Milman as full of “magnificent descriptions of God's creative power, of his all-comprehending providence, of his chastisement of unrighteousness, of his rewards of godliness, the most beautiful precepts of moral and social virtue, of worldly wisdom and sagacity, of chastity, temperance, justice, and beneficence; but of a life after death not one word.”
The existence of such a sect is a strong, though, as it were, an inverted, proof of the energy with which the belief in God had been impressed upon the nation at large by its previous history. To us, the connexion between a belief in God and a belief in a future life appears to be so strong that it may be questioned whether any considerable number of persons separate them in their own minds, and whether, if such a separation did take place, the belief in a God would exercise any practical influence over the conduct of those who held it. Indeed, it seems probable that in modern times belief in the separate existence of the human soul is the origin of a belief in God. Materialist and atheist are nearly equivalent terms. With the Jews, the belief in God would appear to have come first. Indeed, it is perfectly clear, as Warburton proved beyond all possibility of doubt, that in the older canonical books of the Old Testament there are, at the very most, only two or three doubtful allusions to any life beyond the present. The doctrine that, in point of fact, there was such a life, probably grew up during and after the Captivity, and may have been derived from Persian and other sources. This fact renders the intense belief in God, which was the distinguishing peculiarity of the Jews in all ages, still more wonderful than it would otherwise have been. The evidence seems to negative the notion that they could have reached that belief by any of the channels by which it is reached in these days, and therefore—apart from the specific assertions of their history—favours the opinion that, in some way or other, it was impressed upon them from without, and that by some tremendous external force. The belief of the Sadducees—the most highly educated of the Jews, and the most faithful to the original laws of the nation, and to the books in which they were recorded — is a standing memorial of this. They deserve more attention than they have ever received. Ecclesiasticus and Ecclesiastes (which is much in the same vein, whoever wrote it) are the two most pathetic books that ever were written. Their piety, their courageous resignation, and the profound undertone of sadness running through them—relieved, however, by a vigorous cheerfulness as to the current events of life—form a touching memorial of the sect of which the Saviour never said anything more than, “Ye do greatly err.” The contrast between this mild reproof and the tremendous denunciations of the hypocrisy of the Scribes and Pharisees might convey a lesson to many in the present day.
There is, perhaps, no event in history which, on the whole, is sadder and more awful than the final dispersion of the Jews and the destruction of their national existence by Vespasian and Titus. The mere material horror of the transaction is terrible enough, though a considerable deduction might perhaps be made on account of the questionable sincerity and the national propensity to exaggerate numbers which disfigure the history of Josephus. The moral significance of the event was, however, far greater. In the long and sad history of the formation of the Roman Empire, we read perpetually of the absorption of one province after another into the great whole which ultimately comprised them all; but in this one instance we get the other side of the story — the view which the conquered party took of the transaction. The revolt of Palestine was the last and one of the fiercest of all the long list of wars of independence which were waged against Rome, and it was carried on by a people who had reached very nearly as high a level of civilization in their own way as the Romans themselves. Their religion and literature were in every way superior to those of their conquerors; and though their laws were local, and adapted exclusively to their peculiar circumstances, they might, under favourable conditions, have been greatly developed, and have supplied to the Roman jurisprudence—or rather to the jurisprudence which gradually grew up under and by reason of the Roman Empire—materials of great value. As it was, all these great and glorious possessions were trampled on, dispersed over the world, and torn into shreds and patches. Instead of being precious to the whole human race, they became the badges of an obscure and scattered sect, hardened by unrelenting persecution into misanthropy and ferocity. In speculating on what might have been, it is impossible not to think for a moment of the benefits which Jews and Christians would have derived from each other if the Jewish nation had been spared, and if it had been gradually, and in due time, converted to Christianity. In so far as we can properly apply the teaching of the New Testament to the particular people to whom it was addressed— and the belief that it had such an application is not in the least inconsistent with the belief that it enunciated principles of universal and eternal application—its policy, so to speak, was that of submission. The political message addressed to the Jews was, “Make the best of your position, turn the left cheek to those who smite the right, go two miles when you are forced to go one, give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and act up to the spirit of those laws of which the form was adapted to the ‘hardness of heart’ of your forefathers—to their peculiar circumstances and temptations.” If this advice had been accepted, the whole history of mankind might have been changed. Palestine might have formed a contented and prosperous part of the Roman Empire, and might in time have leavened the whole of it. What the secret causes of the decline and fall of that vast body were we know very imperfectly, but it is obvious that the chief ones were immorality and oppression, and their consequences. In some parts of the empire the population decayed, in most it became timid and corrupt. Whatever faults the Jews have had, they have never been fools or cowards, nor have they ever been corrupted and broken up by personal vice. The stern morality of the Law and the Prophets has always been respected amongst them. They have been hardy, prolific, industrious, and independent in all countries, and under every possible variety of circumstances. When Titus stormed Jerusalem and dispersed the Jewish nation, he little thought what an inexhaustible source of wealth and power he was diverting from himself and his successors. If the Jews had not been taught to hate mankind, and had condescended to learn from the greatest of all Jews to love their neighbours, their example might have read lessons of wisdom, of courage, and of temperance to all the subjects of Rome. Nor would this have been all. If the Jews had been Christians, they would never have been monks. Nothing corrects asceticism, so powerfully as the Old Testament; and if the sympathies of the Jews had been won to the Christian faith they might have taught its most eminent professors lessons which would have spared mankind the long contest between the Church and the world—a contest in which neither side was wholly right or wholly wrong, and which has contributed many a dark page to all subsequent history.
Saturday Review, June 6, 1863.