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FORGED APOSTOLICAL WRITINGS.—THE CHRISTIAN BIBLE.
Meanwhile, however, the world would persist in not coming to an end, and it required all that inexhaustible measure of patience, self-denial and gentleness which formed the basis of the character of every Christian, when they saw how slowly the prophecies of' Jesus were being accomplished. The years went by, and the vast Northern glorious light in the centre of which, it was believed, the Son of Man would appear did not yet begin to dawn in the clouds. Men grew weary of seeking for the cause of this delay, and whilst some grew discouraged, others murmured. St Luke, in his Gospel, announced that he would avenge his Elect speedily, that the long-suffering of God would come to an end, and that, by praying day and night under their persecution, the elect would obtain justice like the importunate widow did over the unjust judge. Nevertheless, they began to be tired of waiting. That generation which was not to have passed away before the appearance of Christ in His Glory must all have been dead. More than fifty years had passed since those events had taken place, which were only to precede the accomplishment 59of the prophecies of Jesus by a very little. All the towns in Judea had heard Christian preachers, and malicious men began to make this the occasion of mocking. The reply of the faithful was that the first rule of the true believer was not to calculate dates. “He will come like a thief in the night,” said the wise; “The appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which in his own times he shall show,” says the author of the Epistle to Timothy; and, meanwhile, that good and practical pastor laid down rules which, admitting the approaching end of the world, did not contain much sense, and men aspired to escape from that provisional state in which those who believed in the hourly appearance of the Messiah would always have remained enthralled.
Then it was that a pious writer, in order to make these doubts cease, had the idea of disseminating amongst the faithful an epistle that was attributed to Peter. The Churches of St Paul had just collected their master’s works, and made important additions to them. It appears that a Christian of Rome, who belonged to that group which wished to reconcile St Peter and St Paul at any price, wished to enlarge the very slight literary legacy which the Galilean apostle had left behind him. Already there was one epistle which bore the name of the chief of the apostles, and by taking it for a foundation, and embodying in it phrases borrowed from all sides, there resulted a “Second Epistle of Peter” which, it was hoped, would circulate on the same footing as the former.
Nothing was neglected in the composition of the second epistle to make it coextensive in authority with the first. Whilst composing this little work, the author certainly had before him the short letter of the Apostle Jude, and, no doubt, supposing that it was very little known, he did not scruple to incorporate it almost wholly into his own writing. He was penetrated 60by the spirit of St Paul’s Epistles, of which he possessed the complete edition; and he also made use of the Apocalypse of Esdras or of Baruch. He even attributed to Peter expressions and direct allusions to gospel facts, and to an allegation in St Paul’s Epistles, which certainly never found place in anything that Cyphus dictated. The pious forger’s object was to reassure the faithful about the long delay of Messiah’s second coming, to show that Peter and Paul were agreed on this fundamental mystery of the Christian faith, and to combat the errors of Gnosticism. In several churches his Epistle was favourably received, but protests were also raised against it, which the orthodox canon of Scripture did not put an end to for a long time.
The teaching of the Epistle, however, is quite worthy of the apostolic age, by its purity and loftiness of thought. The Elect become participators of the divine nature because they renounce the corruptions of the world. Patience, sobriety, piety, paternal love, horror of heresy, to wait, to be always waiting and expecting, is the whole Christian life (2 Peter iii. 1, et seq.).
With the Second Epistle of Peter ended, about a hundred years after the death of Jesus, the cycle of writings, which were called, later on, the New Testament, in contradiction to the Old. This second Bible, which was inspired by Jesus, although there is not a single line of his in it, was far from admitting any settled canon; many small works, all more or less pseudo-epigraphs, were admitted by some and discarded by others. The new writings were, as yet, very little circulated, and very unequally read, and the list was not looked upon as final; and we shall see that other works, such as the Pastor of Hermas, take their place by the side of writings which were already sacred, almost on a footing of equality. Yet the idea of a new revelation 61was already fully accepted. In the so-called “Second Epistle of St Peter,” St Paul’s Epistles are ranked amongst the Scriptures, and this was not the first time that such an expression had been used. Christianity had thus its sacred book, an admirable collection, which would be sure to make its fortune in those far ages when the immediate recollection of its origin was lost, and no religions were worth anything except by their written texts.
Of course the Jewish Bible maintained all its authority, and continued to be looked upon as the direct revelation of God. That ancient Canon and the apocryphal writings that had been appended to it (such as the Book of Enoch, the Assumption of Moses, etc., etc.) were looked upon, above all, as the immediate revelation of God. It was not touched; whereas, with regard to the new Scriptures, neither additions nor suppressions, nor arbitrary manipulations were forbidden. Nobody had any scruple in attributing to the Apostles and Christ himself such words and writings as they thought good, useful, and worthy of such a divine origin. If they had not said all those beautiful things, they could have said them, and that was enough. An ecclesiastical usage, that of reading aloud in churches, was an incentive to these sort of frauds, and made them almost necessary. In their meetings, the reading of the prophetical and apostolical writings was to take up all the time that was not occupied by the mysteries and the sacraments. The prophetical and the genuine apostolical writings were soon exhausted, and so something fresh was required: and to provide for the constantly occurring requirements of these readings, any edifying work was eagerly welcomed, as long as it had the slightest appearance of apostolicity, or bore the most distant resemblance to the writings of the ancient prophets.62
Thus Christianity had accomplished the first duty of a religion, which is to introduce a new sacred book to the world. Another Bible had been added to the old one, which was much inferior to it in classic beauty, but was very efficacious for the conversion of the world. The old Hebrew language, that venerable aristocratic instrument of poetry, of the feelings of the soul and of passion, had been dead for centuries. The Semetic-Aramean patois of Palestine, and that popular Greek, which the Macedonian conquest had introduced into the East, and which the Alexandrian translators of the Bible raised to the height of a sacred language, could not act as the organs for those literary master-pieces; but although it lacked genius, it possessed goodness; and though it had no great writers, it had men who were filled with Jesus, and who have given us the reflex of his spirit. The New Testament introduced a new idea into the world, that of popular beauty, and in any case there is no book which has dried so many tears and soothed so many hearts as it has.
We cannot speak in a general manner of the style of the New Testament, because its writings are divided into four or five different styles. All these various parts, however, have something in common, and it is just that something which imparts their power and success to them. Though written in Greek, their conception is Semetic. Such phrases, without any circumlocution, that language whose everything is black or white, sunshine or darkness, as, “Jacob have I loved; but Esau have I hated,” to express “I preferred Jacob to Esau,” have carried away the world by their rugged grandeur. Our races were not used to Oriental fulness, to such energetic partiality, to this manner of procedure, all at once used, as it were, by bounds; and so they were overcome and crushed, and even at this present time that style constitutes the great power of 63Christianity which fascinates souls and wins them over to Jesus.
The canon of Old Testament Scripture, which the Christians admitted, was, as far as regarded the essential works, the same as that of the Jews. Christians who were ignorant of Hebrew read these ancient writings in the Alexandrine version, which is called the Septuagint, and which they reverenced as equal to the Hebrew text, and where the Greek version adds expansions to the original, as is the case in Esther and Daniel, these additions were accepted. Less severely guarded than the Jewish canon, the Christian admitted besides such books as Judith, Tobias, Baruch, the Fourth Book of Esdras, the assumption of Moses, Enoch, and the Wisdom of Solomon, which the Jewish rabbis excluded from the sacred volume and even systematically destroyed; whilst such books as Job, the Song of Solomon, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, were very little read by people who looked, above all things, for edification, on account of their bold or altogether profane character. The books of the Maccabees were preserved rather as instructive or pious books, than as sources of inspiration.
The Old Testament, which has been mauled in different ways, and been interpreted with all the latitude that a text without vowels allows of, was the storehouse for the arguments of Christian apologists and Jewish polemics. Most frequently these disputes took place in Greek, and though the Alexandrine versions were used, they daily became more and more insufficient. The advantages which the Christians gained from them made the Jews suspicious of them, and a saying was disseminated, which was reputed to be prophetic, in which some wise men of old had announced all the evil that should some day spring from those accursed versions. The day on which the Septuagint version was made 64was compared to that on which the golden calf was cast, and it was even asserted that that day was followed by three days of darkness. On the other hand, the Christians admitted the legends which represented this version as having been miraculously revealed. Rabbi Aquiba and his school had invented the absurd principle, that nothing in the whole Bible is insignificant, that every letter was written with some particular purpose, and has some influence on the sense. From thenceforward the Alexandrine translators who had done their work by human means, like philologists and not like cabalists, did not seem as if they could be of any use in the controversies of the time; unreasonable objections to grammatical peculiarities were brought forward, and they wished for translations of the Bible, in which every Hebrew word, or rather root, should be rendered by a Greek word, even if the translation had no sense in consequence.
Aquila was the most celebrated of those who were devoted to a senseless literal translation. His work dates from the twelfth year of Hadrian’s reign. Although he was a mere proselyte, he had very likely been educated by Aquiba, and, in fact, his exegesis is an exact pendant to the rabbi’s casuistry. A Greek word corresponds exactly to every Hebrew word, even when nothing but nonsense is the result.
The Christians soon got to know Aquila’s translation, and they were much vexed at it, for, as they were accustomed to depend on the Septuagint for their texts, they saw that this new translation would overthrow all their methods and their apologetic system. One passage especially troubled them very much. The churches wished at any price to see the prophetic announcement of the birth of Jesus from a virgin from Isaiah 7, xiv., which indeed means something quite different, but where the word παρθένος, employed for the Hebrew alma, and 65applied to the mother of the symbolical Emmanuel, God with us, is rather peculiar. Aquila overthrew this little scaffolding by translating alma by νεᾶνις. They declared that it was pure wickedness on his part, and a system of pious calumnies was invented to explain how, having been a Christian, he learned Hebrew and devoted himself to that tremendous work merely for the sake of contradicting the Septuagint, and to do away with the passages that proved that Jesus was the Messiah.
The Jews, on the other hand, delighted at the apparent exactness of the new version, openly proclaimed their preference for it over the Septuagint. The Ebionites or Nazarenes also frequently used it, for the manner in which Aquila had rendered the passage of Isaiah enabled them to prove that Jesus was merely the son of Joseph.
However, Aquila was not the only one who translated Hebrew after Rabbi Aquiba’s method. The Greek version of Ecclesiastes, which forms part of the Greek Vulgate, presents the very same peculiarities which Rabbi Aquiba caused the translators of his school to adopt, and yet that version is not by Aquiba.
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