Three Generations

T. H. H., Leonard Huxley, and Julian Huxley

Appleton ed., Vol. IV frontispiece

Preface IV

Science and Hebrew Tradition

[v] For more than a thousand years, the great majority of the most highly civilised and instructed nations in the world have confidently believed and passionately maintained that certain writings, which they entitle sacred, occupy a unique position in literature, in that they possess an authority, different in kind, and immeasurably superior in weight, to that of all other books. Age after age, they have held it to be an indisputable truth that, whoever may be the ostensible writers of the Jewish, Christian, and Mahometan scriptures, God Himself is their real author; and, since their conception of the attributes of the Deity excludes the possibility of error and–at least in relation to this particular matter–of wilful deception, they have drawn the logical conclusion that the denier of the accuracy of any statement, the questioner of the binding force of any command, to be found in these documents is not merely a fool, but a blasphemer. From the point of view of mere reason he grossly blunders; from that of religion he grievously sins.

[vi] But, if this dogma of Rabbinical invention is well founded; if, for example, every word in our Bible has been dictated by the Deity;1 or even, if it be held to be the Divine purpose that every proposition should be understood by the hearer or reader in the plain sense of the words employed (and it seems impossible to reconcile the Divine attribute of truthfulness with any other intention), a serious strain upon faith must arise. Moreover, experience has proved that the severity of this strain tends to increase, and in an even more rapid ratio, with the growth in intelligence of mankind and with the enlargement of the sphere of assured knowledge among them.

It is becoming, if it has not become, impossible for men of clear intellect and adequate instruction to believe, and it has ceased, or is ceasing, to be possible for such men honestly to say they believe, that the universe came into being in the fashion described in the first chapter of Genesis; or to accept, as a literal truth, the story of the making of woman, with the account of the catastrophe which followed hard upon it, in the second chapter; or to admit that the earth was re-peopled with terrestrial inhabitants by migration from [vii] Armenia or Kurdistan, little more than 4,000 years ago, which is implied in the eighth chapter; or finally, to shape their conduct in accordance with the conviction that the world is haunted by innumerable demons, who take possession of men and may be driven out of them by exorcistic adjurations, which pervades the Gospels.

Nevertheless, if there is any justification for the dogma of plenary inspiration, the damnatory prodigality of even the Athanasian Creed is still too sparing. "Whosoever will be saved" must believe, not only all these things, but a great many others of equal repugnancy to common sense and everyday knowledge.

The doctrine of biblical infallibility, which involves these remarkable consequences, was widely held by my countrymen within my recollection: I have reason to think that many persons of unimpeachable piety, a few of learning, and even some of intelligence, yet uphold it. But I venture to entertain a doubt whether it can produce any champion whose competency and authority would be recognised beyond the limits of the sect, or theological coterie, to which he belongs. On the contrary, apologetic effort, at present, appears to devote itself to the end of keeping the name of "Inspiration" to suggest the divine source, and consequent infallibility, of more or less of the biblical literature, while carefully emptying the term of any definite sense. For "plenary inspiration" we are asked to substitute [viii] a sort of "inspiration with limited liability," the limit being susceptible of indefinite fluctuation in correspondence with the demands of scientific criticism. Where this advances that at once retreats.

This Parthian policy is carried out with some dexterity; but, like other such manœuvres in the face of a strong foe, it seems likely to end in disaster. It is easy to say, and sounds plausible, that the Bible was not meant to teach anything but ethics and religion, and that its utterances on other matters are mere obiter dicta; it is also a specious suggestion that inspiration, filtering through human brains, must undergo a kind of fallibility contamination; and that this human impurity is responsible for any errors, the existence of which has to be admitted, however unwillingly.

But how does the apologist know what the biblical writers intended to teach, and what they did not intend to teach? And even if their authority is restricted to matters of faith and morals, who is prepared to deny that the story of the fabrication of Eve, that of the lapse from innocence effected by a talking snake, that of the Deluge and the demonological legends, have exercised, and still exercise, a profound influence on Christian theology and Christian ethics? The very apologists who put forth this plea are never weary of declaring that the Divine authority for the moral law is the only safe foundation of ethics. But if [ix] several of the most important Pentateuchal narratives prove to be utterly unworthy of credit, what pretence is there for accepting other uncorroborated stories of a no less improbable character? If the writers of the gospels have taken fiction for truth, the survivals of pagan superstition for religion, in one department of spiritual knowledge, what guarantee have we for their infallibility in other departments? If the "human element" must be admitted to have already encroached so largely beyond the bounds, erstwhile thought to be set by Divine authority, what justification is there for imagining that any limit can be set to the discovery of further invasions?

The truth is that the pretension to infallibility, by whomsoever made, has done endless mischief; with impartial malignity it has proved a curse, alike to those who have made it and those who have accepted it; and its most baneful shape is book infallibility. For sacerdotal corporations and schools of philosophy are able, under due compulsion of opinion, to retreat from positions that have become untenable; while the dead hand of a book sets and stiffens, amidst texts and formulæ, until it becomes a mere petrifaction, fit only for that function of stumbling block, which it so admirably performs. Wherever bibliolatry has prevailed, bigotry and cruelty have accompanied it. It lies at the root of the deep-seated, sometimes disguised, but never absent, antagonism of all the varieties of ecclesiasticism to the freedom of thought and to the [x] spirit of scientific investigation. For those who look upon ignorance as one of the chief sources of evil; and hold veracity, not merely in act, but in thought, to be the one condition of true progress, whether moral or intellectual, it is clear that the biblical idol must go the way of all other idols. Of infallibility, in all shapes, lay or clerical, it is needful to iterate with more than Catonic pertinacity, Delenda est.

The essays contained in the present and the following volume are, for the most part, intended to contribute, in however slight a degree, to this process of deletion. Unless I greatly err, the arguments adduced go a long way to prove that the accounts of the Creation and of the Deluge in the Hebrew scriptures are mere legends; and further, that the evidence for the existence and activity of a demonic world, implicitly and explicitly inculcated throughout the Christian scriptures, and universally held by the primitive Churches, is totally inadequate to justify the expression of belief in it.

This much on the negative side of the discussion. On the positive side, the essay on the "Evolution of Theology," as I imagine, shows cause for the conclusion that the Israelitic religion, in the earliest phase of which anything is really known, is neither more nor less rational, neither better nor worse ethically, than the religions of other nations in a similar state of [xi] civilisation; that, in the natural course of its evolution, it reached, in the prophetic age, an elevation and an ethical purity which have never been surpassed; and that, since the new birth of the prophetic spirit, in the first century of our era, the course of Christian dogmatic development, along its main lines, has been essentially retrogressive. The revived prophetic ideal was gradually overshadowed by the results of Jewish and Greek theological and metaphysical speculation, and buried beneath old-world superstitions and liturgical conjurations, gradually infiltrated from the pagan surroundings of the new religion; until, in the mediæval "ages of faith," it was well-nigh smothered beneath the monstrous agglomeration of spurious doctrines and idolatrous practices.

The ordinary reader, to whom these essays are addressed, will doubtless be surprised, if not shocked, at the many passages which expressly, or by implication, contradict the notions respecting the age and authority of the Hebrew scriptures, and especially of the Pentateuch, in which he has been brought up, and which have, quite recently, received high ecclesiastical sanction. "Helps to the Study of the Bible" are proffered to lay ignorance and simplicity, and those who hunger for trustworthy information will undoubtedly find much wholesome food in the banquet set forth by the Helpers. All the more pity that some of the bread is so very full of stones. For example, the [xii] commentary on the Pentateuch tells the student that Moses wrote or compiled the book of Genesis from documentary evidence extant in his time; that the book of Exodus was written by him, or under his immediate direction and authority; that the book of Leviticus, if not written by him, was compiled by authorised scribes under his supervision; that the book of Numbers was drawn up under his immediate oversight; that the book of Deuteronomy, containing the last addresses of the inspired legislator, specially recorded by official writers, assumed its present form under the hand of Joshua; and that the several books were enriched with numerous notes, archæological and explanatory, from the hands of later editors and revisers.2

Whether this view of the case implies plenary inspiration, or not, is more than I presume to say; nor do I wish to inquire whether there is, or is not, any rational foundation for it. The singularity that impresses me is the absence of the slightest hint to the ignorant layman that a large number of biblical scholars of the highest reputation, of undeniable competency and sincerity, repudiate every one of these propositions, and give an account of the origin of the Pentateuch, and of the age and authorship of its various constituents totally irreconcilable with it. There is no living biblical scholar who can ignore authorities of the [xiii] rank of Reuss and Wellhausen, of Robertson Smith and Kuenen, without gross presumption; I might even say without raising a serious doubt of his scientific integrity. But what is the general result of the patient study which these men, and many more such, have devoted, through long years, to the elucidation of the difficult and complicated problem of the origin of the first five books of the Old Testament?

An excellent work, which has just made its appearance, supplies an answer. I may be permitted to say that it can hardly be ranked as a "shallow infidel" publication; not the last, insomuch as it is dedicated to the theological faculty of the University of Giessen; not the first, since its author, Dr. Smend, is a distinguished professor in the University of Göttingen.

After pointing out the importance of the question of the date of the priestly code (that is to say the so-called Levitical Law, which occupies so large a place in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers), Dr. Smend says, it may now be considered to be proved, that this code "was first made known by Esra, about 444 B.C., and raised to the position of the fundamental law of Judaism. The kernel of the priestly code may be a few decades or even a century older; but it assuredly did not exist before Deuteronomy.... At the present day, it is almost universally admitted that there was no divine law book of [xiv] public authority in Israel before Josiah; especially, that the cultus and religious customs rested upon no divine law book; and that the chosen representatives of religion, before the exile, knew nothing whatever of such a law book.3

"Deuteronomy is the result of the reformatory movement set afoot by the Prophets. In fact, the Prophets, though unintentionally, became the founders of Judaism and its religion of legality. Therein lies their far-reaching historical influence. But the Prophets stand in complete antagonism to old Israel. They foretold the fall of kingdom and people, and so commenced a bitter warfare against the traditional conceptions of Israelitic religion. On the other hand, they were much more than founders of the Jewish community: they rise high above later Judaism; in them, the religion of the Old Testament substantially approaches Christianity" (l. c. p.9).

If I were to publish "Helps to the Study of Zoology" for popular use, in which the progress of science in the last fifty years was ignored and every recent authority passed over in silence, I am afraid, and indeed hope, that I should get into great trouble. But to be sure I should be judged by mere lay standards of right and wrong.

Hodeslea, Eastbourne
October 9th, 1893.

1 "Whoso says that Moses wrote even a single verse [of the Pentateuch] from his own knowledge, denies and contemns the Word of God," bab Sanhedrin, 99a, cited by Schürer, Geschichte des Jüdischen Volkes, Bd. II. p. 249. The account of the death of Moses in the last eight verses of Deuteronomy was, of course dictated to and written by himself, like all the rest. Admit prophetic inspiration and what becomes of the difficulty? Surely, a quite unanswerable argument.

2 The Oxford Bible for Teachers, "Helps to the Study of the Bible," p. 10. New Edition, 1893.

3 Smend, Lehrbuch der Alttestamentlichen Religionsgeschichte, 1893, p.8 (Sammlung Theologischer Lehrbücher.)


I On the Method of Zadig [1890]
(Lecture at the Working Men's College, Great Ormond Street)
II The Rise and Progress of Palæontology [1881] 24
III Lectures on Evolution [New York, 1876] 46
IV The Interpreters of Genesis and the Interpreters of Nature [1885] 139
V Mr. Gladstone and Genesis [1886] 164
VI The Lights of the Church and the Light of Science [1890] 201
VII Hasisadra's Adventure [1881] 239
VIII The Evolution of Theology: An Anthropological Study [1886] 287

Huxley's Collected Essays.

Volume I, Method and Results
Volume II, Darwiniana
Volume III, Science & Education
Volume IV, Science and Hebrew Tradition
Volume V, Science and Christian Tradition
Volume VI, Hume: With Helps to the Study of Berkeley
Volume VII, Man's Place in Nature
Volume VIII, Discourses: Biological & Geological
Volume IX, Evolution & Ethics and Other Essays



1.   THH Publications
2.   Victorian Commentary
3.   20th Century Commentary

1.   Letter Index
2.   Illustration Index

Gratitude and Permissions

C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University

§ 1. THH: His Mark
§ 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake
§ 3. A Sort of Firm
§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog
§ 5. Hidden Bond: Evolution
§ 6. Frankensteinosaurus
§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution
§ 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm
§ 9. Medusa
§ 10. Liberal Education
§ 11. Scientific Education
§ 12. Unity in Diversity
§ 13. Agnosticism
§ 14. New Reformation
§ 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible
§ 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis
§ 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons
§ 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race
§ 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology
§ 20. The Good of Mankind
§ 21.  Jungle Versus Garden