The Lights of the Church and the Light of Science This is Essay #6 from "Science and Hebrew Tradition"
Thomas Henry Huxley

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The Lights of the Church and the Light of Science
by Thomas Henry Huxley
This is Essay #6 from "Science and Hebrew Tradition"

There are three ways of regarding any account of past
occurrences, whether delivered to us orally or recorded
in writing.

The narrative may be exactly true. That is to say, the words,
taken in their natural sense, and interpreted according to the
rules of grammar, may convey to the mind of the hearer, or of
the reader an idea precisely correspondent with one which would
have remained in the mind of a witness. For example, the
statement that King Charles the First was beheaded at Whitehall
on the 30th day of January 1649, is as exactly true as any
proposition in mathematics or physics; no one doubts that any
person of sound faculties, properly placed, who was present at
Whitehall throughout that day, and who used his eyes, would have
seen the King's head cut off; and that there would have remained
in his mind an idea of that occurrence which he would have put
into words of the same value as those which we use to
express it.

Or the narrative may be partly true and partly false. Thus, some
histories of the time tell us what the King said, and what
Bishop Juxon said; or report royalist conspiracies to effect a
rescue; or detail the motives which induced the chiefs of the
Commonwealth to resolve that the King should die. One account
declares that the King knelt at a high block, another that he
lay down with his neck on a mere plank. And there are
contemporary pictorial representations of both these modes of
procedure. Such narratives, while veracious as to the main
event, may and do exhibit various degrees of unconscious and
conscious misrepresentation, suppression, and invention, till
they become hardly distinguishable from pure fictions.
Thus, they present a transition to narratives of a third class,
in which the fictitious element predominates. Here, again, there
are all imaginable gradations, from such works as Defoe's quasi-
historical account of the Plague year, which probably gives a
truer conception of that dreadful time than any authentic
history, through the historical novel, drama, and epic, to the
purely phantasmal creations of imaginative genius, such as the
old "Arabian Nights" or the modern "Shaving of Shagpat." It is
not strictly needful for my present purpose that I should say
anything about narratives which are professedly fictitious.
Yet it may be well, perhaps, if I disclaim any intention of
derogating from their value, when I insist upon the paramount
necessity of recollecting that there is no sort of relation
between the ethical, or the aesthetic, or even the scientific
importance of such works, and their worth as historical
documents. Unquestionably, to the poetic artist, or even to the
student of psychology, "Hamlet" and "Macbeth" may be better
instructors than all the books of a wilderness of professors of
aesthetics or of moral philosophy. But, as evidence of
occurrences in Denmark, or in Scotland, at the times and places
indicated, they are out of court; the profoundest admiration for
them, the deepest gratitude for their influence, are consistent
with the knowledge that, historically speaking, they are
worthless fables, in which any foundation of reality that may
exist is submerged beneath the imaginative superstructure.

At present, however, I am not concerned to dwell upon the
importance of fictitious literature and the immensity of the
work which it has effected in the education of the human race.
I propose to deal with the much more limited inquiry: Are there
two other classes of consecutive narratives (as distinct from
statements of individual facts), or only one? Is there any known
historical work which is throughout exactly true, or is there
not? In the case of the great majority of histories the answer
is not doubtful: they are all only partially true. Even those
venerable works which bear the names of some of the greatest of
ancient Greek and Roman writers, and which have been accepted by
generation after generation, down to modern times, as stories of
unquestionable truth, have been compelled by scientific
criticism, after a long battle, to descend to the common level,
and to confession to a large admixture of error. I might fairly
take this for granted; but it may be well that I should entrench
myself behind the very apposite words of a historical authority
who is certainly not obnoxious to even a suspicion of
sceptical tendencies.

Time was--and that not very long ago--when all the relations of
ancient authors concerning the old world were received with a
ready belief; and an unreasoning and uncritical faith accepted
with equal satisfaction the narrative of the campaigns of Caesar
and of the doings of Romulus, the account of Alexander's marches
and of the conquests of Semiramis. We can most of us remember
when, in this country, the whole story of regal Rome, and even
the legend of the Trojan settlement in Latium, were seriously
placed before boys as history, and discoursed of as
unhesitatingly and in as dogmatic a tone as the tale of the
Catilline Conspiracy or the Conquest of Britain. ...

But all this is now changed. The last century has seen the birth
and growth of a new science--the Science of Historical
Criticism. ... The whole world of profane history has been
revolutionised. ...<1>

If these utterances were true when they fell from the lips of a
Bampton lecturer in 1859, with how much greater force do they
appeal to us now, when the immense labours of the generation now
passing away constitute one vast illustration of the power and
fruitfulness of scientific methods of investigation in history,
no less than in all other departments of knowledge.

At the present time, I suppose, there is no one who doubts that
histories which appertain to any other people than the Jews, and
their spiritual progeny in the first century, fall within the
second class of the three enumerated. Like Goethe's
Autobiography, they might all be entitled "Wahrheit und
Dichtung"--"Truth and Fiction." The proportion of the two
constituents changes indefinitely; and the quality of the
fiction varies through the whole gamut of unveracity.
But "Dichtung" is always there. For the most acute and learned
of historians cannot remedy the imperfections of his sources of
information; nor can the most impartial wholly escape the
influence of the "personal equation" generated by his
temperament and by his education. Therefore, from the narratives
of Herodotus to those set forth in yesterday's "Times," all
history is to be read subject to the warning that fiction has
its share therein. The modern vast development of fugitive
literature cannot be the unmitigated evil that some do vainly
say it is, since it has put an end to the popular delusion of
less press-ridden times, that what appears in print must be
true. We should rather hope that some beneficent influence may
create among the erudite a like healthy suspicion of manuscripts
and inscriptions, however ancient; for a bulletin may lie, even
though it be written in cuneiform characters.
Hotspur's starling, that was to be taught to speak nothing but
"Mortimer" into the ears of King Henry the Fourth, might be a
useful inmate of every historian's library, if "Fiction" were
substituted for the name of Harry Percy's friend.

But it was the chief object of the lecturer to the congregation
gathered in St. Mary's, Oxford, thirty-one years ago, to prove
to them, by evidence gathered with no little labour and
marshalled with much skill, that one group of historical works
was exempt from the general rule; and that the narratives
contained in the canonical Scriptures are free from any
admixture of error. With justice and candour, the lecturer
impresses upon his hearers that the special distinction of
Christianity, among the religions of the world, lies in its
claim to be historical; to be surely founded upon events which
have happened, exactly as they are declared to have happened in
its sacred books; which are true, that is, in the sense that the
statement about the execution of Charles the First is true.
Further, it is affirmed that the New Testament presupposes the
historical exactness of the Old Testament; that the points of
contact of "sacred" and "profane" history are innumerable;
and that the demonstration of the falsity of the Hebrew records,
especially in regard to those narratives which are assumed to be
true in the New Testament, would be fatal to Christian theology.

My utmost ingenuity does not enable me to discover a flaw in the
argument thus briefly summarised. I am fairly at a loss to
comprehend how any one, for a moment, can doubt that Christian
theology must stand or fall with the historical trustworthiness
of the Jewish Scriptures. The very conception of the Messiah, or
Christ, is inextricably interwoven with Jewish history; the
identification of Jesus of Nazareth with that Messiah rests upon
the interpretation of passages of the Hebrew Scriptures which
have no evidential value unless they possess the historical
character assigned to them. If the covenant with Abraham was not
made; if circumcision and sacrifices were not ordained by
Jahveh; if the "ten words" were not written by God's hand on the
stone tables; if Abraham is more or less a mythical hero, such
as Theseus; the story of the Deluge a fiction; that of the Fall
a legend; and that of the creation the dream of a seer; if all
these definite and detailed narratives of apparently real events
have no more value as history than have the stories of the regal
period of Rome--what is to be said about the Messianic doctrine,
which is so much less clearly enunciated? And what about the
authority of the writers of the books of the New Testament, who,
on this theory, have not merely accepted flimsy fictions for
solid truths, but have built the very foundations of Christian
dogma upon legendary quicksands?

But these may be said to be merely the carpings of that carnal
reason which the profane call common sense; I hasten, therefore,
to bring up the forces of unimpeachable ecclesiastical authority
in support of my position. In a sermon preached last December,
in St. Paul's Cathedral,<2> Canon Liddon declares:--

For Christians it will be enough to know that our Lord Jesus
Christ set the seal of His infallible sanction on the whole of
the Old Testament. He found the Hebrew canon as we have it in
our hands to-day, and He treated it as an authority which was
above discussion. Nay more: He went out of His way--if we may
reverently speak thus--to sanction not a few portions of it
which modern scepticism rejects. When He would warn His hearers
against the dangers of spiritual relapse, He bids them remember
"Lot's wife."<3> When He would point out how worldly engagements
may blind the soul to a coming judgment, He reminds them how men
ate, and drank, and married, and were given in marriage, until
the day that Noah entered into the ark, and the Flood came and
destroyed them all.<4> If He would put His finger on a fact in
past Jewish history which, by its admitted reality, would
warrant belief in His own coming Resurrection, He points to
Jonah's being three days and three nights in the whale's belly
(p. 23)."<5>

The preacher proceeds to brush aside the common--I had almost
said vulgar--apologetic pretext that Jesus was using ad
arguments, or "accommodating" his better knowledge
to popular ignorance, as well as to point out the
inadmissibility of the other alternative, that he shared the
popular ignorance. And to those who hold the latter view sarcasm
is dealt out with no niggard hand.

But they will find it difficult to persuade mankind that, if He
could be mistaken on a matter of such strictly religious
importance as the value of the sacred literature of His
countrymen, He can be safely trusted about anything else. The
trustworthiness of the Old Testament is, in fact, inseparable
from the trustworthiness of our Lord Jesus Christ; and if we
believe that He is the true Light of the world, we shall close
our ears against suggestions impairing the credit of those
Jewish Scriptures which have received the stamp of His Divine
authority" (p. 25).

Moreover, I learn from the public journals that a brilliant and
sharply-cut view of orthodoxy, of like hue and pattern, was only
the other day exhibited in that great theological kaleidoscope,
the pulpit of St. Mary's, recalling the time so long passed by,
when a Bampton lecturer, in the same place, performed the
unusual feat of leaving the faith of old-fashioned
Christians undisturbed.

Yet many things have happened in the intervening thirty-one
years. The Bampton lecturer of 1859 had to grapple only with the
infant Hercules of historical criticism; and he is now a full-
grown athlete, bearing on his shoulders the spoils of all the
lions that have stood in his path. Surely a martyr's courage, as
well as a martyr's faith, is needed by any one who, at this
time, is prepared to stand by the following plea for the
veracity of the Pentateuch:--

Adam, according to the Hebrew original, was for 243 years
contemporary with Methuselah, who conversed for a hundred years
with Shem. Shem was for fifty years contemporary with Jacob, who
probably saw Jochebed, Moses's mother. Thus, Moses might by oral
tradition have obtained the history of Abraham, and even of the
Deluge, at third hand; and that of the Temptation and the Fall
at fifth hand. ...

If it be granted--as it seems to be--that the great and stirring
events in a nation's life will, under ordinary circumstances, be
remembered (apart from all written memorials) for the space of
150 years, being handed down through five generations, it must
be allowed (even on more human grounds) that the account which
Moses gives of the Temptation and the Fall is to be depended
upon, if it passed through no more than four hands between him
and Adam.<6>

If "the trustworthiness of our Lord Jesus Christ" is to stand or
fall with the belief in the sudden transmutation of the chemical
components of a woman's body into sodium chloride, or on the
"admitted reality" of Jonah's ejection, safe and sound, on the
shores of the Levant, after three days' sea-journey in the
stomach of a gigantic marine animal, what possible pretext can
there be for even hinting a doubt as to the precise truth of the
longevity attributed to the Patriarchs? Who that has swallowed
the camel of Jonah's journey will be guilty of the affectation
of straining at such a historical gnat--nay, midge--as the
supposition that the mother of Moses was told the story of the
Flood by Jacob; who had it straight from Shem; who was on
friendly terms with Methuselah; who knew Adam quite well?

Yet, by the strange irony of things, the illustrious brother of
the divine who propounded this remarkable theory, has been the
guide and foremost worker of that band of investigators of the
records of Assyria and of Babylonia, who have opened to our
view, not merely a new chapter, but a new volume of primeval
history, relating to the very people who have the most numerous
points of contact with the life of the ancient Hebrews.
Now, whatever imperfections may yet obscure the full value of
the Mesopotamian records, everything that has been clearly
ascertained tends to the conclusion that the assignment of no
more than 4000 years to the period between the time of the
origin of mankind and that of Augustus Caesar, is wholly
inadmissible. Therefore the Biblical chronology, which Canon
Rawlinson trusted so implicitly in 1859, is relegated by all
serious critics to the domain of fable.

But if scientific method, operating in the region of history, of
philology, of archaeology, in the course of the last thirty or
forty years, has become thus formidable to the theological
dogmatist, what may not be said about scientific method working
in the province of physical science? For, if it be true that the
Canonical Scriptures have innumerable points of contact with
civil history, it is no less true that they have almost as many
with natural history; and their accuracy is put to the test as
severely by the latter as by the former. The origin of the
present state of the heavens and the earth is a problem which
lies strictly within the province of physical science; so is
that of the origin of man among living things; so is that of the
physical changes which the earth has undergone since the origin
of man; so is that of the origin of the various races and
nations of men, with all their varieties of language and
physical conformation. Whether the earth moves round the sun or
the contrary; whether the bodily and mental diseases of men and
animals are caused by evil spirits or not; whether there is such
an agency as witchcraft or not--all these are purely scientific
questions; and to all of them the Canonical Scriptures profess
to give true answers. And though nothing is more common than the
assumption that these books come into conflict only with the
speculative part of modern physical science, no assumption can
have less foundation.

The antagonism between natural knowledge and the Pentateuch
would be as great if the speculations of our time had never been
heard of. It arises out of contradiction upon matters of fact.
The books of ecclesiastical authority declare that certain
events happened in a certain fashion; the books of scientific
authority say they did not. As it seems that this unquestionable
truth has not yet penetrated among many of those who speak and
write on these subjects, it may be useful to give a full
illustration of it. And for that purpose I propose to deal, at
some length, with the narrative of the Noachian Deluge given
in Genesis.

The Bampton lecturer in 1859, and the Canon of St. Paul's in
1890, are in full agreement that this history is true, in the
sense in which I have defined historical truth. The former is of
opinion that the account attributed to Berosus records
a tradition--

not drawn from the Hebrew record, much less the foundation of
that record; yet coinciding with it in the most remarkable way.
The Babylonian version is tricked out with a few extravagances,
as the monstrous size of the vessel and the translation of
Xisuthros; but otherwise it is the Hebrew history down to its
(p. 64).

Moreover, correcting Niebuhr, the Bampton lecturer points out
that the narrative of Berosus implies the universality of
the Flood.

It is plain that the waters are represented as prevailing above
the tops of the loftiest mountains in Armenia--a height which
must have been seen to involve the submersion of all the
countries with which the Babylonians were acquainted (p. 66).

I may remark, in passing, that many people think the size of
Noah's ark "monstrous," considering the probable state of the
art of shipbuilding only 1600 years after the origin of man;
while others are so unreasonable as to inquire why the
translation of Enoch is less an "extravagance" than that of
Xisuthros. It is more important, however, to note that the
Universality of the Deluge is recognised, not merely as a part
of the story, but as a necessary consequence of some of its
details. The latest exponent of Anglican orthodoxy, as we have
seen, insists upon the accuracy of the Pentateuchal history of
the Flood in a still more forcible manner. It is cited as one of
those very narratives to which the authority of the Founder of
Christianity is pledged, and upon the accuracy of which "the
trustworthiness of our Lord Jesus Christ" is staked, just as
others have staked it upon the truth of the histories of
demoniac possession in the Gospels.

Now, when those who put their trust in scientific methods of
ascertaining the truth in the province of natural history find
themselves confronted and opposed, on their own ground, by
ecclesiastical pretensions to better knowledge, it is,
undoubtedly, most desirable for them to make sure that their
conclusions, whatever they may be, are well founded. And, if
they put aside the unauthorised interference with their business
and relegate the Pentateuchal history to the region of pure
fiction, they are bound to assure themselves that they do so
because the plainest teachings of Nature (apart from all
doubtful speculations) are irreconcilable with the assertions
which they reject.

At the present time, it is difficult to persuade serious
scientific inquirers to occupy themselves, in any way, with the
Noachian Deluge. They look at you with a smile and a shrug, and
say they have more important matters to attend to than mere
antiquarianism. But it was not so in my youth. At that time,
geologists and biologists could hardly follow to the end any
path of inquiry without finding the way blocked by Noah and his
ark, or by the first chapter of Genesis; and it was a serious
matter, in this country at any rate, for a man to be suspected
of doubting the literal truth of the Diluvial or any other
Pentateuchal history. The fiftieth anniversary of the foundation
of the Geological Club (in 1824) was, if I remember rightly, the
last occasion on which the late Sir Charles Lyell spoke to even
so small a public as the members of that body. Our veteran
leader lighted up once more; and, referring to the difficulties
which beset his early efforts to create a rational science of
geology, spoke, with his wonted clearness and vigour, of the
social ostracism which pursued him after the publication of the
"Principles of Geology," in 1830, on account of the obvious
tendency of that noble work to discredit the Pentateuchal
accounts of the Creation and the Deluge. If my younger
contemporaries find this hard to believe, I may refer them to a
grave book, "On the Doctrine of the Deluge," published eight
years later, and dedicated by its author to his father, the then
Archbishop of York. The first chapter refers to the treatment of
the "Mosaic Deluge," by Dr. Buckland and Mr. Lyell, in the
following terms:

Their respect for revealed religion has prevented them from
arraying themselves openly against the Scriptural account of it
--much less do they deny its truth--but they are in a great
hurry to escape from the consideration of it, and evidently
concur in the opinion of Linnaeus, that no proofs whatever of
the Deluge are to be discovered in the structure of the
earth (p. 1).

And after an attempt to reply to some of Lyell's arguments,
which it would be cruel to reproduce, the writer continues:--

When, therefore, upon such slender grounds, it is
determined, in answer to those who insist upon its universality,
that the Mosaic Deluge must be considered a preternatural event,
far beyond the reach of philosophical inquiry; not only as to
the causes employed to produce it, but as to the effects most
likely to result from it; that determination wears an aspect of
scepticism, which, however much soever it may be unintentional
in the mind of the writer, yet cannot but produce an evil
impression on those who are already predisposed to carp and
cavil at the evidences of Revelation (pp. 8-9).

The kindly and courteous writer of these curious passages is
evidently unwilling to make the geologists the victims of
general opprobrium by pressing the obvious consequences of their
teaching home. One is therefore pained to think of the feelings
with which, if he lived so long as to become acquainted with the
"Dictionary of the Bible," he must have perused the article
"Noah," written by a dignitary of the Church for that standard
compendium and published in 1863. For the doctrine of the
universality of the Deluge is therein altogether given up; and I
permit myself to hope that a long criticism of the story from
the point of view of natural science, with which, at the request
of the learned theologian who wrote it, I supplied him, may, in
some degree, have contributed towards this happy result.

Notwithstanding diligent search, I have been unable to discover
that the universality of the Deluge has any defender left, at
least among those who have so far mastered the rudiments of
natural knowledge as to be able to appreciate the weight of
evidence against it. For example, when I turned to the
"Speaker's Bible," published under the sanction of high Anglican
authority, I found the following judicial and judicious
deliverance, the skilful wording of which may adorn, but does
not hide, the completeness of the surrender of the
old teaching:--

Without pronouncing too hastily on any fair inferences from the
words of Scripture, we may reasonably say that their most
natural interpretation is, that the whole race of man had become
grievously corrupted since the faithful had intermingled with
the ungodly; that the inhabited world was consequently filled
with violence, and that God had decreed to destroy all mankind
except one single family; that, therefore, all that portion of
the earth, perhaps as yet a very small portion, into which
mankind had spread was overwhelmed with water. The ark was
ordained to save one faithful family; and lest that family, on
the subsidence of the waters, should find the whole country
round them a desert, a pair of all the beasts of the land and of
the fowls of the air were preserved along with them, and along
with them went forth to replenish the now desolated continent.
The words of Scripture (confirmed as they are by universal
tradition) appear at least to mean as much as this. They do not
necessarily mean more.<7>

In the third edition of Kitto's "Cyclopaedia of Biblical
Literature" (1876), the article "Deluge," written by my friend,
the present distinguished head of the Geological Survey of Great
Britain, extinguishes the universality doctrine as thoroughly as
might be expected from its authorship; and, since the writer of
the article "Noah" refers his readers to that entitled "Deluge,"
it is to be supposed, notwithstanding his generally orthodox
tone, that he does not dissent from its conclusions. Again, the
writers in Herzog's "Real-Encyclopadie" (Bd. X. 1882) and in
Riehm's "Handworterbuch" (1884)--both works with a conservative
leaning--are on the same side; and Diestel,<8> in his full
discussion of the subject, remorselessly rejects the
universality doctrine. Even that staunch opponent of scientific
rationalism--may I say rationality?--Zockler<9> flinches from a
distinct defence of the thesis, any opposition to which, well
within my recollection, was howled down by the orthodox as mere
"infidelity." All that, in his sore straits, Dr. Zockler is able
to do, is to pronounce a faint commendation upon a particularly
absurd attempt at reconciliation, which would make out the
Noachian Deluge to be a catastrophe which occurred at the end of
the Glacial Epoch. This hypothesis involves only the trifle of a
physical revolution of which geology knows nothing; and which,
if it secured the accuracy of the Pentateuchal writer about the
fact of the Deluge, would leave the details of his account as
irreconcilable with the truths of elementary physical science as
ever. Thus I may be permitted to spare myself and my readers the
weariness of a recapitulation of the overwhelming arguments
against the universality of the Deluge, which they will now find
for themselves stated, as fully and forcibly as could be wished,
by Anglican and other theologians, whose orthodoxy and
conservative tendencies have, hitherto, been above suspicion.
Yet many fully admit (and, indeed, nothing can be plainer) that,
as a matter of fact, the whole earth known to him was inundated;
nor is it less obvious that unless all mankind, with the
exception of Noah and his family, were actually destroyed, the
references to the Flood in the New Testament are unintelligible.

But I am quite aware that the strength of the demonstration that
no universal Deluge ever took place has produced a change of
front in the army of apologetic writers. They have imagined that
the substitution of the adjective "partial" for "universal,"
will save the credit of the Pentateuch, and permit them, after
all, without too many blushes, to declare that the progress of
modern science only strengthens the authority of Moses.
Nowhere have I found the case of the advocates of this method of
escaping from the difficulties of the actual position better put
than in the lecture of Professor Diestel to which I have
referred. After frankly admitting that the old doctrine of
universality involves physical impossibilities, he continues:--

All these difficulties fall away as soon as we give up the
universality of the Deluge, and imagine a partial
flooding of the earth, say in western Asia. But have we a right
to do so? The narrative speaks of "the whole earth." But what is
the meaning of this expression? Surely not the whole surface of
the earth according to the ideas of modern geographers,
but, at most, according to the conceptions of the Biblical
author. This very simple conclusion, however, is never drawn by
too many readers of the Bible. But one need only cast one's eyes
over the tenth chapter of Genesis in order to become acquainted
with the geographical horizon of the Jews. In the north it was
bounded by the Black Sea and the mountains of Armenia;
extended towards the east very little beyond the Tigris;
hardly reached the apex of the Persian Gulf; passed, then,
through the middle of Arabia and the Red Sea; went southward
through Abyssinia, and then turned westward by the frontiers of
Egypt, and inclosed the easternmost islands of the
Mediterranean (p. 11).

The justice of this observation must be admitted, no less than
the further remark that, in still earlier times, the pastoral
Hebrews very probably had yet more restricted notions of what
constituted the "whole earth." Moreover, I, for one, fully agree
with Professor Diestel that the motive, or generative incident,
of the whole story is to be sought in the occasionally excessive
and desolating floods of the Euphrates and the Tigris.

Let us, provisionally, accept the theory of a partial deluge,
and try to form a clear mental picture of the occurrence. Let us
suppose that, for forty days and forty nights, such a vast
quantity of water was poured upon the ground that the whole
surface of Mesopotamia was covered by water to a depth certainly
greater, probably much greater, than fifteen cubits, or twenty
feet (Gen. vii. 20). The inundation prevails upon the earth for
one hundred and fifty days and then the flood gradually
decreases, until, on the seventeenth day of the seventh month,
the ark, which had previously floated on its surface, grounds
upon the "mountains of Ararat"<10> (Gen. viii. 34). Then, as
Diestel has acutely pointed out ("Sintflut," p. 13), we are to
imagine the further subsidence of the flood to take place so
gradually that it was not until nearly two months and a half
after this time (that is to say, on the first day of the tenth
month) that the "tops of the mountains" became visible. Hence it
follows that, if the ark drew even as much as twenty feet of
water, the level of the inundation fell very slowly--at a rate
of only a few inches a day--until the top of the mountain on
which it rested became visible. This is an amount of movement
which, if it took place in the sea, would be overlooked by
ordinary people on the shore. But the Mesopotamian plain slopes
gently, from an elevation of 500 or 600 feet at its northern
end, to the sea, at its southern end, with hardly so much as a
notable ridge to break its uniform flatness, for 300 to 400
miles. These being the conditions of the case, the following
inquiry naturally presents itself: not, be it observed, as a
recondite problem, generated by modern speculation, but as a
plain suggestion flowing out of that very ordinary and archaic
piece of knowledge that water cannot be piled up like in a heap,
like sand; or that it seeks the lowest level. When, after 150
days, "the fountains also of the deep and the windows of heaven
were stopped, and the rain from heaven was restrained" (Gen.
viii.2), what prevented the mass of water, several, possibly
very many, fathoms deep, which covered, say, the present site of
Bagdad, from sweeping seaward in a furious torrent; and, in a
very few hours, leaving, not only the "tops of the mountains,"
but the whole plain, save any minor depressions, bare? How could
its subsistence, by any possibility, be an affair of weeks
and months?

And if this difficulty is not enough, let any one try to imagine
how a mass of water several perhaps very many, fathoms deep,
could be accumulated on a flat surface of land rising well above
the sea, and separated from it by no sort of barrier.
Most people know Lord's Cricket-ground. Would it not be an
absurd contradiction to our common knowledge of the properties
of water to imagine that, if all the mains of all the waterworks
of London were turned on to it, they could maintain a heap of
water twenty feet deep over its level surface? Is it not obvious
that the water, whatever momentary accumulation might take place
at first, would not stop there, but that it would dash, like a
mighty mill-race, southwards down the gentle slope which ends in
the Thames? And is it not further obvious, that whatever depth
of water might be maintained over the cricket-ground so long as
all the mains poured on to it, anything which floated there
would be speedily whirled away by the current, like a cork in a
gutter when the rain pours? But if this is so, then it is no
less certain that Noah's deeply laden, sailless, oarless, and
rudderless craft, if by good fortune it escaped capsizing in
whirlpools, or having its bottom knocked into holes by snags
(like those which prove fatal even to well-built steamers on the
Mississippi in our day), would have speedily found itself a good
way down the Persian Gulf, and not long after in the Indian
Ocean, somewhere between Arabia and Hindostan. Even if,
eventually, the ark might have gone ashore, with other jetsam
and flotsam, on the coasts of Arabia, or of Hindostan, or of the
Maldives, or of Madagascar, its return to the "mountains of
Ararat" would have been a miracle more stupendous than all
the rest.

Thus, the last state of the would-be reconcilers of the story of
the Deluge with fact is worse than the first. All that they have
done is to transfer the contradictions to established truth from
the region of science proper to that of common information and
common sense. For, really, the assertion that the surface of a
body of deep water, to which no addition was made, and which
there was nothing to stop from running into the sea, sank at the
rate of only a few inches or even feet a day, simply outrages
the most ordinary and familiar teachings of every man's daily
experience. A child may see the folly of it.

In addition, I may remark that the necessary assumption of the
"partial Deluge" hypothesis (if it is confined to Mesopotamia)
that the Hebrew writer must have meant low hills when he said
"high mountains," is quite untenable. On the eastern side of the
Mesopotamian plain, the snowy peaks of the frontier ranges of
Persia are visible from Bagdad,<11> and even the most ignorant
herdsmen in the neighbourhood of "Ur of the Chaldees," near its
western limit, could hardly have been unacquainted with the
comparatively elevated plateau of the Syrian desert which lay
close at hand. But, surely, we must suppose the Biblical writer
to be acquainted with the highlands of Palestine and with the
masses of the Sinaitic peninsula, which soar more than 8000 feet
above the sea, if he knew of no higher elevations; and, if so,
he could not well have meant to refer to mere hillocks when he
said that "all the high mountains which were under the whole
heaven were covered" (Genesis vii. 19). Even the hill-country of
Galilee reaches an elevation of 4000 feet; and a flood which
covered it could by no possibility have been other than
universal in its superficial extent. Water really cannot be got
to stand at, say, 4000 feet above the sea-level over Palestine,
without covering the rest of the globe to the same height. Even
if, in the course of Noah's six hundredth year, some prodigious
convulsion had sunk the whole region inclosed within "the
horizon of the geographical knowledge" of the Israelites by that
much, and another had pushed it up again, just in time to catch
the ark upon the "mountains of Ararat," matters are not much
mended. I am afraid to think of what would have become of a
vessel so little seaworthy as the ark and of its very numerous
passengers, under the peculiar obstacles to quiet flotation
which such rapid movements of depression and upheaval would
have generated.

Thus, in view, not, I repeat of the recondite speculations of
infidel philosophers, but in the face of the plainest and most
commonplace of ascertained physical facts, the story of the
Noachian Deluge has no more claim to credit than has that of
Deucalion; and whether it was, or was not, suggested by the
familiar acquaintance of its originators with the effects of
unusually great overflows of the Tigris and Euphrates, it is
utterly devoid of historical truth.

That is, in my judgment, the necessary result of the application
of criticism, based upon assured physical knowledge to the story
of the Deluge. And it is satisfactory that the criticism which
is based, not upon literary and historical speculations, but
upon well-ascertained facts in the departments of literature and
history, tends to exactly the same conclusion.

For I find this much agreed upon by all Biblical scholars of
repute, that the story of the Deluge in Genesis is separable
into at least two sets of statements; and that, when the
statements thus separated are recombined in their proper order,
each set furnishes an account of the event, coherent and
complete within itself, but in some respects discordant with
that afforded by the other set. This fact, as I understand, is
not disputed. Whether one of these is the work of an Elohist,
and the other of a Jehovist narrator; whether the two have been
pieced together in this strange fashion because, in the
estimation of the compilers and editors of the Pentateuch, they
had equal and independent authority, or not; or whether there is
some other way of accounting for it--are questions the answers
to which do not affect the fact. If possible I avoid a
arguments. But still, I think it may be urged,
without imprudence, that a narrative having this structure is
hardly such as might be expected from a writer possessed of full
and infallibly accurate knowledge. Once more, it would seem that
it is not necessarily the mere inclination of the sceptical
spirit to question everything, or the wilful blindness of
infidels, which prompts grave doubts as to the value of a
narrative thus curiously unlike the ordinary run of
veracious histories.

But the voice of archaeological and historical criticism still
has to be heard; and it gives forth no uncertain sound. The
marvellous recovery of the records of an antiquity, far superior
to any that can be ascribed to the Pentateuch, which has been
effected by the decipherers of cuneiform characters, has put us
in possession of a series, once more, not of speculations, but
of facts, which have a most remarkable bearing upon the question
of the truthworthiness of the narrative of the Flood. It is
established, that for centuries before the asserted migration of
Terah from Ur of the Chaldees (which, according to the orthodox
interpreters of the Pentateuch, took place after the year 2000
B.C.) Lower Mesopotamia was the seat of a civilisation in which
art and science and literature had attained a development
formerly unsuspected or, if there were faint reports of it,
treated as fabulous. And it is also no matter of speculation,
but a fact, that the libraries of these people contain versions
of a long epic poem, one of the twelve books of which tells a
story of a deluge, which, in a number of its leading features,
corresponds with the story attributed to Berosus, no less than
with the story given in Genesis, with curious exactness. Thus,
the correctness of Canon Rawlinson's conclusion, cited above,
that the story of Berosus was neither drawn from the Hebrew
record, nor is the foundation of it, can hardly be questioned.
It is highly probable, if not certain, that Berosus relied upon
one of the versions (for there seem to have been several) of the
old Babylonian epos, extant in his time; and, if that is a
reasonable conclusion, why is it unreasonable to believe that
the two stories, which the Hebrew compiler has put together in
such an inartistic fashion, were ultimately derived from the
same source? I say ultimately, because it does not at all follow
that the two versions, possibly trimmed by the Jehovistic writer
on the one hand, and by the Elohistic on the other, to suit
Hebrew requirements, may not have been current among the
Israelites for ages. And they may have acquired great authority
before they were combined in the Pentateuch.

Looking at the convergence of all these lines of evidence to the
one conclusion--that the story of the Flood in Genesis is merely
a Bowdlerised version of one of the oldest pieces of purely
fictitious literature extant; that whether this is, or is not,
its origin, the events asserted in it to have taken place
assuredly never did take place; further, that, in point of fact,
the story, in the plain and logically necessary sense of its
words, has long since been given up by orthodox and conservative
commentators of the Established Church--I can but admire the
courage and clear foresight of the Anglican divine who tells us
that we must be prepared to choose between the trustworthiness
of scientific method and the trustworthiness of that which the
Church declares to be Divine authority. For, to my mind, this
declaration of war to the knife against secular science, even in
its most elementary form; this rejection, without a moment's
hesitation, of any and all evidence which conflicts with
theological dogma--is the only position which is logically
reconcilable with the axioms of orthodoxy. If the Gospels truly
report that which an incarnation of the God of Truth
communicated to the world, then it surely is absurd to attend to
any other evidence touching matters about which he made any
clear statement, or the truth of which is distinctly implied by
his words. If the exact historical truth of the Gospels is an
axiom of Christianity, it is as just and right for a Christian
to say, Let us "close our ears against suggestions" of
scientific critics, as it is for the man of science to refuse to
waste his time upon circle-squarers and flat-earth fanatics.

It is commonly reported that the manifesto by which the Canon of
St. Paul's proclaims that he nails the colours of the straitest
Biblical infallibility to the mast of the ship ecclesiastical,
was put forth as a counterblast to "Lux Mundi"; and that the
passages which I have more particularly quoted are directed
against the essay on "The Holy Spirit and Inspiration" in that
collection of treatises by Anglican divines of high standing,
who must assuredly be acquitted of conscious "infidel"
proclivities. I fancy that rumour must, for once, be right, for
it is impossible to imagine a more direct and diametrical
contradiction than that between the passages from the sermon
cited above and those which follow:--

What is questioned is that our Lord's words foreclose certain
critical positions as to the character of Old Testament
literature. For example, does His use of Jonah's resurrection as
a type of His own, depend in any real degree upon whether
it is historical fact or allegory? ... Once more, our Lord uses
the time before the Flood, to illustrate the carelessness of men
before His own coming. ... In referring to the Flood He
certainly suggests that He is treating it as typical, for He
introduces circumstances--"eating and drinking, marrying and
giving in marriage "--which have no counterpart in the original
narrative" (pp. 358-9).

While insisting on the flow of inspiration through the whole of
the Old Testament, the essayist does not admit its universality.
Here, also, the new apologetic demands a partial flood:

But does the inspiration of the recorder guarantee the exact
historical truth of what he records? And, in matter of fact, can
the record with due regard to legitimate historical criticism,
be pronounced true? Now, to the latter of these two questions
(and they are quite distinct questions) we may reply that there
is nothing to prevent our believing, as our faith strongly
disposes us to believe, that the record from Abraham downward
is, in substance, in the strict sense historical (p. 351).

It would appear, therefore, that there is nothing to prevent our
believing that the record, from Abraham upward, consists of
stories in the strict sense unhistorical, and that the pre-
Abrahamic narratives are mere moral and religious "types"
and parables.

I confess I soon lose my way when I try to follow those who walk
delicately among "types" and allegories. A certain passion for
clearness forces me to ask, bluntly, whether the writer means to
say that Jesus did not believe the stories in question, or that
he did? When Jesus spoke, as of a matter of fact, that "the
Flood came and destroyed them all," did he believe that the
Deluge really took place, or not? It seems to me that, as the
narrative mentions Noah's wife, and his sons' wives, there is
good scriptural warranty for the statement that the
antediluvians married and were given in marriage; and I should
have thought that their eating and drinking might be assumed by
the firmest believer in the literal truth of the story.
Moreover, I venture to ask what sort of value, as an
illustration of God's methods of dealing with sin, has an
account of an event that never happened? If no Flood swept the
careless people away, how is the warning of more worth than the
cry of "Wolf" when there is no wolf? If Jonah's three days'
residence in the whale is not an "admitted reality," how could
it "warrant belief" in the "coming resurrection?" If Lot's wife
was not turned into a pillar of salt, the bidding those who turn
back from the narrow path to "remember" it is, morally, about on
a level with telling a naughty child that a bogy is coming to
fetch it away. Suppose that a Conservative orator warns his
hearers to beware of great political and social changes, lest
they end, as in France, in the domination of a Robespierre;
what becomes, not only of his argument, but of his veracity, if
he, personally, does not believe that Robespierre existed and
did the deeds attributed to him?

Like all other attempts to reconcile the results of
scientifically-conducted investigation with the demands of the
outworn creeds of ecclesiasticism, the essay on Inspiration is
just such a failure as must await mediation, when the mediator
is unable properly to appreciate the weight of the evidence for
the case of one of the two parties. The question of
"Inspiration" really possesses no interest for those who have
cast ecclesiasticism and all its works aside, and have no faith
in any source of truth save that which is reached by the patient
application of scientific methods. Theories of inspiration are
speculations as to the means by which the authors of statements,
in the Bible or elsewhere, have been led to say what they have
said--and it assumes that natural agencies are insufficient for
the purpose. I prefer to stop short of this problem, finding it
more profitable to undertake the inquiry which naturally
precedes it--namely, Are these statements true or false? If they
are true, it may be worth while to go into the question of their
supernatural generation; if they are false, it certainly is not
worth mine.

Now, not only do I hold it to be proven that the story of the
Deluge is a pure fiction; but I have no hesitation in affirming
the same thing of the story of the Creation.<12> Between these
two lies the story of the creation of man and woman and their
fall from primitive innocence, which is even more monstrously
improbable than either of the other two, though, from the nature
of the case, it is not so easily capable of direct refutation.
It can be demonstrated that the earth took longer than six days
in the making, and that the Deluge, as described, is a physical
impossibility; but there is no proving, especially to those who
are perfect in the art of closing their ears to that which they
do not wish to hear, that a snake did not speak, or that Eve was
not made out of one of Adam's ribs.

The compiler of Genesis, in its present form, evidently had a
definite plan in his mind. His countrymen, like all other men,
were doubtless curious to know how the world began; how men, and
especially wicked men, came into being, and how existing nations
and races arose among the descendants of one stock; and,
finally, what was the history of their own particular tribe.
They, like ourselves, desired to solve the four great problems
of cosmogeny, anthropogeny, ethnogeny, and geneogeny. The
Pentateuch furnishes the solutions which appeared satisfactory
to its author. One of these, as we have seen, was borrowed from
a Babylonian fable; and I know of no reason to suspect any
different origin for the rest. Now, I would ask, is the story of
the fabrication of Eve to be regarded as one of those pre-
Abrahamic narratives, the historical truth of which is an open
question, in face of the reference to it in a speech unhappily
famous for the legal oppression to which it has been wrongfully
forced to lend itself?

Have ye not read, that he which made them from the beginning
made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man
leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; and the
twain shall become one flesh?" (Matt. xix. 5.)

If divine authority is not here claimed for the twenty-fourth
verse of the second chapter of Genesis, what is the value of
language? And again, I ask, if one may play fast and loose with
the story of the Fall as a "type" or "allegory," what becomes of
the foundation of Pauline theology?--

For since by man came death, by man came also the
resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in
Christ shall all be made alive (1 Corinthians xv. 21, 22).

If Adam may be held to be no more real a personage than
Prometheus, and if the story of the Fall is merely an
instructive "type," comparable to the profound Promethean
mythus, what value has Paul's dialectic?

While, therefore, every right-minded man must sympathise with
the efforts of those theologians, who have not been able
altogether to close their ears to the still, small, voice of
reason, to escape from the fetters which ecclesiasticism has
forged; the melancholy fact remains, that the position they have
taken up is hopelessly untenable. It is raked alike by the old-
fashioned artillery of the churches and by the fatal weapons of
precision with which the enfants perdus of the advancing
forces of science are armed. They must surrender, or fall back
into a more sheltered position. And it is possible that they may
long find safety in such retreat.

It is, indeed, probable that the proportional number of those
who will distinctly profess their belief in the
transubstantiation of Lot's wife, and the anticipatory
experience of submarine navigation by Jonah; in water standing
fathoms deep on the side of a declivity without anything to hold
it up; and in devils who enter swine--will not increase.
But neither is there ground for much hope that the proportion of
those who cast aside these fictions and adopt the consequence of
that repudiation, are, for some generations, likely to
constitute a majority. Our age is a day of compromises. The
present and the near future seem given over to those happily, if
curiously, constituted people who see as little difficulty in
throwing aside any amount of post-Abrahamic Scriptural
narrative, as the authors of "Lux Mundi" see in sacrificing the
pre-Abrahamic stories; and, having distilled away every
inconvenient matter of fact in Christian history, continue to
pay divine honours to the residue. There really seems to be no
reason why the next generation should not listen to a Bampton
Lecture modelled upon that addressed to the last:--

Time was--and that not very long ago--when all the relations of
Biblical authors concerning the whole world were received with a
ready belief; and an unreasoning and uncritical faith accepted
with equal satisfaction the narrative of the Captivity and the
doings of Moses at the court of Pharaoh, the account of the
Apostolic meeting in the Epistle to the Galatians, and that of
the fabrication of Eve. We can most of us remember when, in this
country, the whole story of the Exodus, and even the legend of
Jonah, were seriously placed before boys as history; and
discoursed of in as dogmatic a tone as the tale of Agincourt or
the history of the Norman Conquest.

But all this is now changed. The last century has seen the
growth of scientific criticism to its full strength. The whole
world of history has been revolutionised and the mythology which
embarrassed earnest Christians has vanished as an evil mist, the
lifting of which has only more fully revealed the lineaments of
infallible Truth. No longer in contact with fact of any kind,
Faith stands now and for ever proudly inaccessible to the
attacks of the infidel.

So far the apologist of the future. Why not? Cantabit


(1) Bampton Lectures (1859), on "The Historical Evidence
of the Truth of the Scripture Records stated anew, with Special
Reference to the Doubts and Discoveries of Modern Times," by the
Rev. G. Rawlinson, M.A., pp. 5-6.

(2) The Worth of the Old Testament, a Sermon preached in
St. Paul's Cathedral on the second Sunday in Advent, 8th Dec.,
1889, by H. P. Liddon, D.D., D.C.L., Canon and Chancellor of St.
Paul's. Second edition revised and with a new preface, 1890.

(3) St. Luke xvii. 32.

(4) St. Luke xvii. 27.

(5) St. Matt. xii. 40.

(6) Bampton Lectures, 1859, pp. 50-51.

(7) Commentary on Genesis, by the Bishop of Ely, p. 77.

(8) Die Sintflut, 1876.

(9) Theologie und Naturwissenschaft, ii. 784-791 (1877).

(10) It is very doubtful if this means the region of the
Armenian Ararat. More probably it designates some part either of
the Kurdish range or of its south-eastern continuation.

(11) So Reclus (Nouvelle Geographie Universelle, ix.
386), but I find the statement doubted by an authority of the
first rank.

(12) So far as I know, the narrative of the Creation is not now
held to be true, in the sense in which I have defined historical
truth, by any of the reconcilers. As for the attempts to stretch
the Pentateuchal days into periods of thousands or millions of
years, the verdict of the eminent Biblical scholar, Dr. Riehm
(Der biblische Schopfungsbericht, 1881, pp. 15, 16) on
such pranks of "Auslegungskunst" should be final. Why do the
reconcilers take Goethe's advice seriously?--
"Im Auslegen seyd frisch und munter!
Legt ihr's nicht aus, so legt was unter."


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