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Subjects of Study.
If a faithful picture of society in ancient Greece or Rome were to be presented to view, it is not easy to believe that even they who now most oppose the Bible could wish their aims success. For this, at any rate, may be asserted, without fear of gainsaying, that no other religion than that of the Bible has proved competent to control an advanced, or even an advancing, state of civilisation. Every other bound has been successively passed and submerged by the rising tide; how deep only the student of history knows. Two things are here undeniable. In the case of heathenism every advance in civilisation has marked a progressive lowering of public morality, the earlier stages of national life always showing a far higher tone than the later. On the contrary, the religion of the Bible (under the old as under the new dispensation) has increasingly raised, if not uniformly the public morals, yet always the tone and standard of public morality; it has continued to exhibit a standard never yet attained, and it has proved its power to control public and social life, to influence and to mould it.
Strange as it may sound, it is strictly true that, beyond the boundaries of Israel, it would be scarcely possible to speak with any propriety of family life, or even of the family, as we understand these terms. It is significant, that the Roman historian Tacitus should mark it as something special among the Jews *-- which they only shared with the ancient barbarian Germans--that they regarded it as a crime to kill their offspring!
* Tacitus, Hist. v. 5. In general this fifth book is most interesting, as showing the strange mixture of truth and error, and the intense hatred of the Jewish race even on the part of such men as Tacitus.
This is not the place to describe the exposure of children, or the various crimes by which ancient Greece and Rome, in the days of their highest culture, sought to rid themselves of what was regarded as superfluous population. Few of those who have learned to admire classical antiquity have a full conception of any one phase in its social life--whether of the position of woman, the relation of the sexes, slavery, the education of children, their relation to their parents, or the state of public morality. Fewer still have combined all these features into one picture, and that not merely as exhibited by the lower orders, or even among the higher classes, but as fully owned and approved by those whose names have descended in the admiration of ages as the thinkers, the sages, the poets, the historians, and the statesmen of antiquity. Assuredly, St. Paul's description of the ancient world in the first and second chapters of his Epistle to the Romans must have appeared to those who lived in the midst of it as Divine even in its tenderness, delicacy, and charity; the full picture under bright sunlight would have been scarcely susceptible of exhibition. For such a world there was only one alternative--either the judgment of Sodom, or the mercy of the Gospel and the healing of the Cross. *
8 Let it not be thought that we have been guilty of the slightest exaggeration. The difficulty here is to tell the truth and yet find moderate terms in which to express it. That Christianity should have laid its hold on such a society, found there its brightest martyrs and truest followers, and finally subdued and transformed it, is quite as great a miracle as that of the breaking down of the middle wall of partition among the Jews, or their spiritual transformation of mind and heart from self- righteousness and externalism. In either case, to the student of history the miracle will seem greater than if "one rose from the dead."
When we pass from the heathen world into the homes of Israel, even the excess of their exclusiveness seems for the moment a relief. It is as if we turned from enervating, withering, tropical heat into a darkened room, whose grateful coolness makes us for the moment forget that its gloom is excessive, and cannot continue as the day declines. And this shutting out of all from without, this exclusiveness, applied not only to what concerned their religion, their social and family life, but also to their knowledge. In the days of Christ the pious Jew had no other knowledge, neither sought nor cared for any other--in fact, denounced it--than that of the law of God. At the outset, let it be remembered that, in heathenism, theology, or rather mythology, had no influence whatever on thinking or life--was literally submerged under their waves. To the pious Jew, on the contrary, the knowledge of God was everything; and to prepare for or impart that knowledge was the sum total, the sole object of his education. This was the life of his soul--the better, and only true life, to which all else as well as the life of the body were merely subservient, as means towards an end. His religion consisted of two things: knowledge of God, which by a series of inferences, one from the other, ultimately resolved itself into theology, as they understood it; and service, which again consisted of the proper observance of all that was prescribed by God, and of works of charity towards men--the latter, indeed, going beyond the bound of what was strictly due (the Chovoth) into special merit or "righteousness" (Zedakah). But as service presupposed knowledge, theology was again at the foundation of all, and also the crown of all, which conferred the greatest merit. This is expressed or implied in almost innumerable passages of Jewish writings. Let one suffice, not only because it sounds more rationalistic, but because it is to this day repeated each morning in his prayers by every Jew: "These are the things of which a man eats the fruit in this world, but their possession continueth for the next world: to honor father and mother, pious works, peacemaking between man and man, and the study of the law, which is equivalent to them all" (Peah. i. 1).
And literally "equivalent to them all" was such study to the Jew. The circumstances of the times forced him to learn Greek, perhaps also Latin, so much as was necessary for intercourse; and to tolerate at least the Greek translation of the Scriptures, and the use of any language in the daily prayers of the Shema, of the eighteen benedictions, and of the grace after meat (these are the oldest elements of the Jewish liturgy). But the blessing of the priests might not be spoken, nor the phylacteries nor the Mesusah written, in other than the Hebrew language (Megil. i. 8; Sotah, vii. 1, 2); while heathen science and literature were absolutely prohibited. To this, and not to the mere learning of Greek, which must have been almost necessary for daily life, refer such prohibitions as that traced to the time of Titus (Sotah, ix. 14), forbidding a man to teach his son Greek. The Talmud itself (Men. 99 b) furnishes a clever illustration of this, when, in reply to the question of a younger Rabbi, whether, since he knew the whole "Thorah" (the law), he might be allowed to study "Greek wisdom," his uncle reminded him of the words (Josh 1:8), "Thou shalt meditate therein day and night."Go, then, and consider," said the older Rabbi, "which is the hour that is neither of the day nor of the night, and in it thou mayest study Grecian wisdom." This, then, was one source of danger averted. Then, as for the occupations of ordinary life, it was indeed quite true that every Jew was bound to learn some trade or business. But this was not to divert him from study; quite the contrary. It was regarded as a profanation--or at least declared such--to make use of one's learning for secular purposes, whether of gain or of honor. The great Hillel had it (Ab. i. 13): "He who serves himself by the crown (the 'Thorah') shall fade away." To this Rabbi Zadok added the warning, "Make study neither a crown by which to shine, nor yet a spade with which to dig"--the Mishnah inferring that such attempts would only lead to the shortening of life (Ab. iv. 5). All was to be merely subsidiary to the one grand object; the one was of time, the other of eternity; the one of the body, the other of the soul; and its use was only to sustain the body, so as to give free scope to the soul on its upward path. Every science also merged in theology. Some were not so much sciences as means of livelihood, such as medicine and surgery; others were merely handmaidens to theology. Jurisprudence was in reality a kind of canon law; mathematics and astronomy were subservient to the computations of the Jewish calendar; literature existed not outside theological pursuits; and as for history, geography, or natural studies, although we mark, in reference to the latter, a keenness of observation which often led instinctively to truth, we meet with so much ignorance, and with so many gross mistakes and fables, as almost to shake the belief of the student in the trustworthiness of any Rabbinical testimony.