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Chapter VI. Teaching By Anachronism. 1 Chron. ix. (cf. xv., xvi., xxiii.-xxvii., etc.).

And David the king said, ... Who then offereth willingly?... And they gave for the service of the house of God ... ten thousand darics.—1 Chron. xxix. 1, 5, 7.

Teaching by anachronism is a very common and effective form of religious instruction; and Chronicles, as the best Scriptural example of this method, affords a good opportunity for its discussion and illustration.

All history is more or less guilty of anachronism; every historian perforce imports some of the ideas and circumstances of his own time into his narratives and pictures of the past: but we may distinguish three degrees of anachronism. Some writers or speakers make little or no attempt at archæological accuracy; others temper the generally anachronistic character of their compositions by occasional reference to the manners and customs of the period they are describing; and, again, there are a few trained students who succeed in drawing fairly accurate and consistent pictures of ancient life and history.

We will briefly consider the last two classes before returning to the first, in which we are chiefly interested.

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Accurate archæology is, of course, part of the ideal of the scientific historian. By long and careful study of literature and monuments and by the exercise of a lively and well-trained imagination, the student obtains a vision of ancient societies. Nineveh and Babylon, Thebes and Memphis, rise from their ashes and stand before him in all their former splendour; he walks their streets and mixes with the crowds in the market-place and the throng of worshippers at the temple, each “in his habit as he lived.” Rameses and Sennacherib, Ptolemy and Antiochus, all play their proper parts in this drama of his fancy. He can not only recall their costumes and features: he can even think their thoughts and feel their emotions; he actually lives in the past. In Marius the Epicurean, in Ebers's Uarda, in Maspero's Sketches of Assyrian and Egyptian Life, and in other more serious works we have some of the fruits of this enlightened study of antiquity, and are enabled to see the visions at second hand and in some measure to live at once in the present and the past, to illustrate and interpret the one by the other, to measure progress and decay, and to understand the Divine meaning of all history. Our more recent histories and works on life and manners and even our historical romances, especially those of Walter Scott, have rendered a similar service to students of English history. And yet at its very best such realisation of the past is imperfect; the gaps in our information are unconsciously filled in from our experience, and the ideas of the present always colour our reproduction of ancient thought and feeling. The most accurate history is only a rough approximation to exact truth; but, like many other rough approximations, it is exact enough for many important practical purposes.

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But scholarly familiarity with the past has its drawbacks. The scholar may come to live so much amongst ancient memories that he loses touch with his own present. He may gain large stores of information about ancient Israelite life, and yet not know enough of his own generation to be able to make them sharers of his knowledge. Their living needs and circumstances lie outside his practical experience; he cannot explain the past to them because he does not sympathise with their present; he cannot apply its lessons to difficulties and dangers which he does not understand.

Nor is the usefulness of the archæologist merely limited by his own lack of sympathy and experience. He may have both, and yet find that there are few of his contemporaries who can follow him in his excursions into bygone time. These limitations and drawbacks do not seriously diminish the value of archæology, but they have to be taken into account in discussing teaching by anachronism, and they have an important bearing on the practical application of archæological knowledge. We shall return to these points later on.

The second degree of anachronism is very common. We are constantly hearing and reading descriptions of Bible scenes and events in which the centuries before and after Christ are most oddly blended. Here and there will be a costume after an ancient monument, a Biblical description of Jewish customs, a few Scriptural phrases; but these are embedded in paragraphs which simply reproduce the social and religious ideas of the nineteenth century. For instance, in a recent work, amidst much display of archæological knowledge, we have the very modern ideas that Joseph and Mary went up to Bethlehem at the census, because Joseph and perhaps Mary also had property in Bethlehem, and 114 that when Joseph died “he left her a small but independent fortune.” Many modern books might be named in which Patriarchs and Apostles hold the language and express the sentiments of the most recent schools of devotional Christianity; and yet an air of historical accuracy is assumed by occasional touches of archæology. Similarly in mediæval miracle-plays characters from the Bible appeared in the dress of the period, and uttered a grotesque mixture of Scriptural phrases and vernacular jargon. Much of such work as this may for all practical purposes be classed under the third degree of anachronism. Sometimes, however, the spiritual significance of a passage or an incident turns upon a simple explanation of some ancient custom, so that the archæological detail makes a clear addition to its interest and instructiveness. But in other cases a little archæology is a dangerous thing. Scattered fragments of learned information do not enable the reader in any way to revive the buried past; they only remove the whole subject further from his interest and sympathy. He is not reading about his own day, nor does he understand that the events and personages of the narrative ever had anything in common with himself and his experience. The antique garb, the strange custom, the unusual phrase, disguise that real humanity which the reader shares with these ancient worthies. They are no longer men of like passions with himself, and he finds neither warning nor encouragement in their story. He is like a spectator of a drama played by poor actors with a limited stock of properties. The scenery and dresses show that the play does not belong to his own time, but they fail to suggest that it ever belonged to any period. He has a languid interest in the performance as a 115 spectacle, but his feelings are not touched, and he is never carried away by the acting.

We have laid so much stress on the drawbacks attaching to a little archæology because they will emphasise what we have to say about the use of pure anachronism. Our last illustration, however, reminds us that these drawbacks detract but little from the influence of earnest men. If the acting be good, we forget the scenery and costumes; the genius of a great preacher more than atones for poor archæology, because, in spite of dress and custom, he makes his hearers feel that the characters of the Bible were instinct with rich and passionate life. We thus arrive at our third degree of pure anachronism.

Most people read their Bible without any reference to archæology. If they dramatise the stories, they do so in terms of their own experience. The characters are dressed like the men and women they know: Nazareth is like their native village, and Jerusalem is like the county town; the conversations are carried on in the English of the Authorised Version. This reading of Scripture is well illustrated by the description in a recent writer of a modern prophet in Tennessee132132   Craddock, Despot of Bromsgrove Edge. Teck Jepson is, of course, an imaginary character, but none the less representative.:—

“There was nought in the scene to suggest to a mind familiar with the facts an Oriental landscape—nought akin to the hills of Judæa. It was essentially of the New World, essentially of the Great Smoky Mountains. Yet ignorance has its licence. It never occurred to Teck Jepson that his Bible heroes had lived elsewhere. Their history had to him an intimate personal relation, as of the story of an ancestor, in the homestead ways and closely familiar. He brooded 116 upon these narratives, instinct with dramatic interest, enriched with poetic colour, and localised in his robust imagination, till he could trace Hagar's wild wanderings in the fastnesses, could show where Jacob slept and piled his altar of stones, could distinguish the bush, of all others on the ‘bald,’ that blazed with fire from heaven when the angel of the Lord stood within it. Somehow, even in their grotesque variation, they lost no dignity in their transmission to the modern conditions of his fancy. Did the facts lack significance because it was along the gullied red clay roads of Piomingo Cove that he saw David, the smiling stripling, running and holding high in his hand the bit of cloth cut from Saul's garments while the king had slept in a cave at the base of Chilhowie Mountain? And how was the splendid miracle of translation discredited because Jepson believed that the chariot of the Lord had rested in scarlet and purple clouds upon the towering summit of Thunderhead, that Elijah might thence ascend into heaven?”

Another and more familiar example of “singular alterations in date and circumstances” is the version in Ivanhoe of the war between Benjamin and the other tribes:—

“How long since in Palestine a deadly feud arose between the tribe of Benjamin and the rest of the Israelitish nation; and how they cut to pieces well-nigh all the chivalry of that tribe; and how they swore by our blessed Lady that they would not permit those who remained to marry in their lineage; and how they became grieved for their vow, and sent to consult his Holiness the Pope how they might be absolved from it; and how, by the advice of the Holy Father, the youth of the tribe of Benjamin carried off from a superb tournament all the ladies who were there present, and 117 thus won them wives without the consent either of their brides or their brides' families.”

It is needless to say that the chronicler was not thus hopelessly at sea about the circumstances of ancient Hebrew history; but he wrote in the same simple, straightforward, childlike spirit. Israel had always been the Israel of his own experience, and it never occurred to him that its institutions under the kings had been other than those with which he was familiar. He had no more hesitation in filling up the gaps in the book of Kings from what he saw round about him than a painter would have in putting the white clouds and blue waters of to-day into a picture of skies and seas a thousand years ago. He attributes to the pious kings of Judah the observance of the ritual of his own times. Their prophets use phrases taken from post-Exilic writings. David is regarded as the author of the existing ecclesiastical system in almost all matters that do not date back to Moses, and especially as the organiser of the familiar music of the Temple. David's choristers sing the hymns of the second Temple. Amongst the contributions of his nobles towards the building of the Temple, we read of ten thousand darics, the daric being a coin introduced by the Persian king Darius.

But we must be careful to recognise that the chronicler writes in perfect good faith. These views of the monarchy were common to all educated and thoughtful men of his time; they were embodied in current tradition, and were probably already to be met with in writing. To charge him with inventing them is absurd; they already existed, and did not need to be invented. He cannot have coloured his narrative in the interests of the Temple and the priesthood. When 118 he lived, these interests were guaranteed by ancient custom and by the authoritative sanction of the Pentateuchal Law. The chronicler does not write with the strong feeling of a man who maintains a doubtful cause; there is no hint of any alternative view which needs to be disproved and rejected in favour of his own. He expatiates on his favourite themes with happy, leisurely serenity, and is evidently confident that his treatment of them will meet with general and cordial approval.

And doubtless the author of Chronicles “served his own generation by the will of God,” and served them in the way he intended. He made the history of the monarchy more real and living to them, and enabled them to understand better that the reforming kings of Judah were loyal servants of Jehovah and had been used by Him for the furtherance of true religion. The pictures drawn by Samuel and Kings of David and the best of his successors would not have enabled the Jews of his time to appreciate these facts. They had no idea of any piety that was not expressed in the current observances of the Law, and Samuel and Kings did not ascribe such observances to the earlier kings of Judah. But the chronicler and his authorities were able to discern in the ancient Scriptures the genuine piety of David and Hezekiah and other kings, and drew what seemed to them the obvious conclusion that these pious kings observed the Law. They then proceeded to rewrite the history in order that the true character of the kings and their relation to Jehovah might be made intelligible to the people. The only piety which the chronicler could conceive was combined with observance of the Law; naturally therefore it was only thus that he could describe piety. His work would be read with eager interest, and would play a definite and 119 useful part in the religious education of the people. It would bring home to them, as the older histories could not, the abiding presence of Jehovah with Israel and its leaders. Chronicles interpreted history to its own generation by translating older records into the circumstances and ideas of its own time.

And in this it remains our example. Chronicles may fall very far short of the ideal and yet be superior to more accurate histories which fail to make themselves intelligible to their own generation. The ideal history no doubt would tell the story with archæological precision, and then interpret it by modern parallels; the historian would show us what we should actually have seen and heard if we had lived in the period he is describing; he would also help our weak imagination by pointing us to such modern events or persons as best illustrate those ancient times. No doubt Chronicles fails to bring before our eyes an accurate vision of the history of the monarchy; but, as we have said, all history fails somewhat in this respect. It is simply impossible to fulfil the demand for history that shall have the accuracy of an architect's plans of a house or an astronomer's diagrams of the orbit of a planet. Chronicles, however, fails more seriously than most history, and on the whole rather more than most commentaries and sermons.

But this lack of archæological accuracy is far less serious than a failure to make it clear that the events of ancient history were as real and as interesting as those of modern times, and that its personages were actual men and women, with a full equipment of body, mind, and soul. There have been many teachers and preachers, innocent of archæology, who have yet been able to apply Bible narratives with convincing power 120 to the hearts and consciences of their hearers. They may have missed some points and misunderstood others, but they have brought out clearly the main, practical teaching of their subject; and we must not allow amusement at curious anachronisms to blind us to their great gifts in applying ancient history to modern circumstances. For instance, the little captive maid in the story of Naaman has been described by a local preacher as having illuminated texts hung up in her bedroom, and (perambulators not being then in use) as having constructed a go-cart for the baby out of an old tea-chest and four cotton reels. We feel inclined to smile; but, after all, such a picture would make children feel that the captive maid was a girl whom they could understand and might even imitate. A more correct version of the story, told with less human interest, might leave the impression that she was a mere animated doll in a quaint costume, who made impossibly pious remarks.

Enlightened and well-informed Christian teachers may still learn something from the example of the chronicler. The uncritical character of his age affords no excuse to them for shutting their eyes to the fuller light which God has given to their generation. But we are reminded that permanently significant stories have their parallels in every age. There are always prodigal sons, and foolish virgins, importunate widows, and good Samaritans. The ancient narratives are interesting as quaint and picturesque stories of former times; but it is our duty as teachers to discover the modern parallels of their eternal meaning: their lessons are often best enforced by telling them afresh as they would have been told if their authors had lived in our time, in other words by a frank use of anachronism.

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It may be objected that the result in the case of Chronicles is not encouraging. Chronicles is far less interesting than Kings, and far less useful in furnishing materials for the historian. These facts, however, are not inconsistent with the usefulness of the book for its own age. Teaching by anachronism simply seeks to render a service to its own generation; its purpose is didactic, and not historical. How many people read the sermons of eighteenth-century divines? But each generation has a right to this special service. The first duty of the religious teacher is for the men and women that look to him for spiritual help and guidance. He may incidentally produce literary work of permanent value for posterity; but a Church whose ministry sacrificed practical usefulness in the attempt to be learned and literary would be false to its most sacred functions. The noblest self-denial of Christian service may often lie in putting aside all such ambition and devoting the ability which might have made a successful author to making Divine truth intelligible and interesting to the uncultured and the unimaginative. Authors themselves are sometimes led to make a similar sacrifice; they write to help the many to-day when they might have written to delight men of literary taste in all ages. Few things are so ephemeral as popular religious literature; it is as quickly and entirely forgotten as last year's sunsets: but it is as necessary and as useful as the sunshine and the clouds, which are being always spent and always renewed. Chronicles is a specimen of this class of literature, and its presence in the canon testifies to the duty of providing a special application of the sacred truths of ancient history for each succeeding generation.

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