Out of the mouths of Victorian gentlemen…

This evening, an email from soemone looking for help in tracking down a quotation led me to browsing through that remarkable Victorian work which I’ve mentioned before, The Evidence of the Truth of the Christian Religion, by Rev. Alexander Keith. I ran across an interesting quotation, suggesting that minimalism is nothing new:

Of the antiquity of the scriptures there is amplest proof. The books of the Old Testament were not, like other writings, detached and unconnected efforts of genius and research, or mere subjects of amusement or instruction. They were essential to the constitution of the Jewish state; the possession of them was a great cause of the peculiarities of that people; and they contain their moral and their civil law, and their history, as well as the prophecies, of which they were the records and the guardians. They were received by the Jews as of divine authority; and as such they were published and preserved. They were proved to be ancient eighteen hundred years ago. And in express reference to the prophecies concerning the Messiah, contained in them, they were denominated by Tacitus, the ancient writings of the priests. Instead of being secluded from observation, they were translated into Greek above two hundred and fifty years before the Christian era; and they were read in the synagogues every Sabbath-day. The most ancient part of them was received, as divinely inspired, and was preserved in their own language, by the Samaritans, who were at enmity with the Jews. They have ever been sacredly kept unaltered, in a more remarkable degree, and with more scrupulous care, than any other compositions whatever. And the antiquity and authenticity of them rest so little on Christian testimony alone, that it is from the records of our enemies that they are confirmed, and from which is derived the evidence of our faith. Even the very language in which the Old Testament scriptures were originally written, had ceased to be spoken before the coming of Christ. No stronger evidence of their antiquity could be alleged, than what is indisputably true; and if it were to be questioned, every other truth of ancient history must first be set aside. (pp. 9-10, Evidence…, 35th edition. Edinburgh: William Whyte & Co., 1854.)

It’s that, “and if it were to be questioned, every other truth of ancient history must first be set aside” that is so striking, and so wise. And we can see this kind of creeping skepticism working throughout the history of biblical studies, from even before the times of Rev. Keith, as he mentions at various points in his interesting book. It was a different world then, in which bald-faced assertion was still somewhat acceptable, and didn’t have to be couched in bibliographies and bedecked with footnotes. These days, the same message of historical doubt is still being called “modern” for whatever reason, though it’s an attitude nearly as ancient as the writings themselves. Interesting stuff!

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