E. Belfort Bax March 1912

A Noteworthy Book.

Source: New Age, 14 March 1912, p. 472;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

All scholars are familiar with the researches of Mr. Thomas Whittaker on the Neoplatonists, and generally on the religious and speculative history of the first three centuries of the Christian era. In the present volume, to which the name perhaps hardly does justice, the author takes a wider range. Priests, Philosophers and Prophets,” in spite of its title, is not a mere discursive collection of essays on Mr. Whittaker’s special subject. It is the exposition of a new view of the origin of Jewish monotheism, and also of Christianity. Briefly stated this is as follows:- Mr. Whittaker, in opposition to the orthodox higher critics, cannot trace in our Old Testament any original Hebrew development of monotheism. According to his view, the Old Testament represents, not a body of ancient writings collected together, and redacted by Ezra, Nehemiah and their colleagues, but consists to all intents and purposes of a series of free-hand compositions, the oldest of which probably does not date from before the fifth century B.C., while others are much younger. In a word, our Bible is, in its entirety, a product of post-exilian Jewish literary activity. Monotheism was not an original outcome of the Hebrew religious consciousness, but was taken over from Persia, Babylon, and Egypt, whose priestly caste had long since arrived at a quasi-monotheistic view of the world. In Persia especially, this view became embodied in the established cult to which the name of Zoroaster (Zerdusht) has been attached.

The Jewish restorationists of the “return from the captivity,” found themselves confronted with the problem of reconstructing the Jewish state on the basis of a religious organisation or church. The old Hebrew political feudalism with its monarchical head had passed away never to return. But though the old Jahveh, the exclusive inter-tribal God of the Hebrew people, had become meaningless and impossible in his old guise, yet his name and patriotic prestige were still available for the new purpose. The restorationists, therefore (themselves largely risen from the old priestly class, and constituting the intellectual elite of the Jewish people), who had come under the influence of the generalised monotheism then current among the more cultured classes in Western Asia, readily identified the new God of the Universe with the old Hebrew intertribal deity Jahveh. Thus, on this theoretical basis, the new post-exilian church-state of the Jews was founded. Jahveh, in his new role, was no longer the mere God of the Hebrew tribes, but was the author and governor of the universe who had selected the Jews as his chosen people, and their new religious organisation, as the only acceptable embodiment of his worship. Hence all men who truly worship him must become Jews in the religious sense. The old traditions, legends, history, and customary law of the Jewish people had to be completely remoulded to fit into this new theory, and our Old Testament is the result.

Such stated very briefly and in bare outline represents Mr. Whittaker’s view as against that of the orthodox “higher criticism.” It is at once interesting and stimulating. To criticise it in detail is, of course, outside the province of an article such as the present. We may say, however, that in spite of the plausibility of his view, and the ingenuity with which it is enforced, it seems to us that in denying all evidence of development and of pre-exilian writing in the documents comprising our Bible Mr. Whittaker hardly makes out his case to complete satisfaction. Surely evidence for the fact of the existence of earlier or pre-exilian documents embedded in the books of the Old Testament is to be found. For while none of these documents may have been transmitted quite in their original form, yet surely there are many cases in which the pen of the redactor has left their intrinsic character plainly discernible. For example, does it seem conceivable, or at least probable, that portions of the Book of Genesis, let us say, should have been merely the free-hand composition of a post-exilian priestly litterateur? Not being a Hebrew scholar, and making no pretensions to a specialist knowledge of the subject, but speaking simply from the point of view of one who is fairly conversant with the general results of recent scholarship, it seems to the present writer that Mr. Whittaker is inclined to run his theory somewhat too hard. Does it seem likely that barbaric anthropomorphic touches such as the gods “walking in the garden in the cool of the day,” having “smelt a sweet savour” from Noah’s sacrifice, or the divinity wrestling with Jacob, could be the deliberate work of monotheising post-exilian priests? It surely would be much more natural to suppose that these things were, through carelessness, or otherwise, allowed to remain in the old document used, untouched by the hand of the priestly editor and compilator of the whole. We cannot see that Mr. Whittaker has at present made out his case for so complete a reversal of current scholarship, although he has undoubtedly given the latter a severe shaking. His main position, that of the theory of the adoption of monotheism from outside sources by the educated and priestly class during the exile, he seems to have fairly established, as possessing at least a high degree of probability; while, even if somewhat exaggerated, his view of the free-hand post-exilian origin on the new monotheistic basis, of the bulk of the Old Testament writings will probably, in the end, be generally accepted by scholars as not far from the truth.

As regards the beginnings of the Christian church, Mr. Whittaker adopts the view now growing amongst thinkers respecting the origin of the basal ideas embodied in the gospel narrative, a view familiar to those who have read the work of Professor Drews, or the writings of Mr. J.M. Robertson, as to their having their almost exclusive source in the already existing pagan cults of the time.

The old pagan notion of the slain and risen god, which the student so often encounters in his researches into comparative mythology and folklore, here becomes combined with the contemporary Jewish notion of a Messiah. The chief new point of view brought out by Mr. Whittaker in his interesting and scholarly discussion on the origin of Christianity seems to be the emergence of the Christian Church from out of a sect of fanatical followers of the Messianic idea. The beginning of the change from the notion of a Messiah or Christ (the latter word, of course, only representing the Greek translation of the Hebrew) who was to come, to that of a Messiah or Christ who had already come, our author fixes at shortly after the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70. It will surprise many people when Mr. Whittaker denies that the sectaries persecuted by Nero after the great fire of the year 64 were Christians at all there being at that time no Christian religion and no Christian church, in our sense of the word – but only bodies of Jews and others eagerly awaiting the advent of the divine leader under whose auspices the world should be regenerated. The transformation of this expectant attitude to the one of belief that the aforesaid Messiah had already come, his subsequent identification with the slain and risen God of ancient mythic lore, together with the allegedly historical narrative embodying these beliefs, were all, according to Mr. Whittaker, developments subsequent to the destruction of Jerusalem under Titus. As Mr. Whittaker has it (p. 175), “the name of Christianity came, though not from orthodox Judaism, yet from its offshoot Messianism, of which it is a rendering in Latinised Greek.”

Mr. Whittaker’s general position as regards the origin of Christianity as above indicated, it will be seen, is a combination of the view of the late Professor Van Manen as to the late authorship of the Pauline epistles, at least, in their present shape, and that of Professor Drews and Mr. J.M. Robertson, that the gospel story is essentially mythical. His conclusion is (p. 178) “that Christianity, with its rival Mithraism, had its source, at least in part, in old Asiatic religions, having for their essential characters the sacrifice of the god, and the sacrament or communion.”

In conclusion, we can heartily recommend Mr. Whittaker’s book to all those interested in these questions. It is at once scholarly and readable.