Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

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Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

By G.R.S. Mead


THE third stream which poured into the matrix of the Christian origins, was that of Jewry. Even The Influence of Babylon.before the Exile the undisciplined tribes composing this peculiar nation had had their "Schools of the Prophets," small communities holding themselves apart and recruited by seers and visionaries. Up to this time the traditions of the Jews and their conceptions of religion had been mostly of a very crude nature compared to those of the more highly civilized nations which surrounded them, although of course they were distinguished by the particularism of a nascent exclusive monotheism and a growing detestation of idolatry.

In Babylon, however, they came into intimate contact with a great and very ancient civilization, and the impression it made upon them can be clearly traced in the history of their subsequent religious development.

Most of the nation remained contentedly in Babylon, while the leaders of those who returned set to work to rewrite their old traditions and reformulate their religious conceptions, by the light of the wider views they had absorbed--all of which is to be clearly traced in the various stages of evolution of their national scripture, the various deposits of which are revealed to us by the patient researches of scientific Biblical scholars and the ever new discoveries of archæology.

The Jewish writers appropriated to themselves the traditions of the great Semitic race and of the nations of Chaldæa and of Babylon, and used them for the glorification of their own origins and history, in the strange conviction that they all applied to them as the "chosen people" of God. The elaborate doctrine of purity on which the Persian Zoroastrian tradition laid such stress was eagerly adopted by their priesthood, and we perceive in their library of religious books the gradual elimination of the cruder ideas of Deity and the gradual development of far higher conceptions in (at times) most wonderful poetic outbursts.

It must not be supposed, however, that the re-writers and editors of the old traditions were The Writing of Scripture History.forgers and falsifiers in any ordinary sense of the word. Antiquity in general had no conception of literary morality in its modern meaning, and all writing of a religious character was the outcome of an inner impulse. The wealth of technical terms bestowed on these ancient writers and their methods by modern Biblical critics forces the student almost unconsciously to read into those times ideas and standards that had then no existence. Again, a common fault is to endow these ancient worthies of the Jews with motives of action and refinements of belief which only belong to the best in Christendom; and so we not only do grave injustice to their memories, but we read into their history an atmosphere of too great refinement for the actual Jew of the period to have lived in. It should also be remembered that the mythologizing of history and the historicizing of mythology were not peculiar to the Jews, but common to the times; what was peculiar to them was their fanatical belief in Divine favouritism and their egregious claim to the monopoly of God's providence.

Now the Jews, as all children of the desert, had ingrained in them an invincible longing for The Mythology of History.freedom, and at the same time they had the innate poetic imagination of all those who live in close contact with nature.

The two "kingdoms" that were always fighting among themselves and with their neighbours, "Israel" and "Judah," were successively deported by the Assyrian authorities, to remove a centre of perpetual disturbance.

The "ten tribes" who were the first to be deported, consisting as they did of elements more adaptable to their surroundings than the Judæans, settled down in Babylonia and gradually adapted themselves to their new environment; it would be interesting to know what development occurred in the schools of their prophets in contact with the ancient Chaldæan wisdom, and the subsequent history of that "Israel" which not only thus settled in Babylon, but remained there.

When the more turbulent Judæan tribes were subsequently in their turn deported, some of them followed the example of their kinsfolk; but most of the Judæans refused to adapt themselves to the new conditions, they pined for their freedom, and in spite of their being surrounded by the monuments of a great civilisation, looked back to their poor settlement of Jerusalem as though it had been in the land of Paradise, and its meagre homes the palaces of kings. The fathers wove for the children stories of the beauty and richness of their native land, of the glories of its palaces, and the great deeds of their ancient sheiks; above all things they insisted on their peculiar destiny as men who had made a compact with a God who had promised them victory over all foes. The fathers, who had gradually grown to believe their own stories, died before the conqueror Cyrus, in gratitude for their help against the Assyrian power, granted the return of the Judæan folk. Those who returned were of the next generation, and they reoccupied the ruins of Jerusalem with ideas of a former greatness which existed in the poetic imagination and love of freedom of their sires rather than in actual history.

Filled with an enthusiasm for the past, they wrote what their fathers had told them, expanding the old records into a splendid "history," and bringing into it all that they had developed of religion by controversy with the Babylonians and Persians--a controversy which consisted in persistently maintaining that their religion was better than their opponents’, claiming the best in their opponents’ position or tradition as their own, and ever asserting that they had something still higher as well.

Now the Jew had such a firm conviction that Honest Self-delusion.he was the Chosen of God that he probably really believed all his assertions; in any case the sense of history did not exist in those days, and there was no one to check the enthusiasm of these early scribes.

They probably argued: We are the chosen people of God; our religion is better than any other religion, in fact all other religions are false, all other Gods false; the palmy days of our religion were before the Captivity; those times must have been greater than the best times in other nations, our temple must have been grander, our sacrifices greater than any other in the world; our fathers have said it and we feel it is true. In such a frame of mind and with the innate poetic fervour of their nature they felt impelled to write, and by their writing transformed the old records out of all historic recognition, and from such beginnings gradually evolved a literature which future generations received without question, not only as a precise record of fact but as a divinely written scripture verbally inspired.

The development of this literature was a natural growth, though the distinct factors which played a part in it are somewhat difficult to disentangle; but there are distinct signs of repeated modifications of cruder conceptions, and of the leavening of the nation by a steadily developing spiritual force. Whence came this persistent spiritualizing of the old conceptions?

In seeking for an answer to this question, the point of departure may be found in the fact that the The Spiritualizing of Judaism.majority of the nation did not return; and not only this, but that the majority of the Jews in course oftime preferred to live among the Gentiles. In fact the members of the nation gradually became the great traders of the ancient world, so that we find colonies of them scattered abroad in all the great centres; for instance, shortly after the founding of Alexandria we hear of a colony of no fewer than 40,000 Jews planted there. These Jews of the Diaspora or Dispersion were in constant contact with their Palestinian co-religionists on the one side, and on the other in intimate contact with the great civilizations in which they found a home.

The expectation of the salvation of the race and of a Saviour of the race, which the Jews Zealotism.absorbed from Zoroastrianism, they adapted to their own needs and to the conviction that Israel was the Chosen of God. This expectation was for long entirely of a material nature; they looked for a king who should restore them to freedom and tread under foot the nations of the world, when he would reign for one thousand years in Jerusalem. All this was to be effected by the direct interposition of Yahweh, their God. For some four hundred years, up to the final destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, we are presented with the spectacle of a most determined struggle for freedom; for the Jews were ever disappointed of their hopes, and had to submit to the successive overlordship of Greece and Rome. But hope ever sprang up again and again after every new disappointment, and we find in their literature the record of a determined opposition to the conqueror, fanned into fever heat by the fiery exhortations and denunciations of a pseudoprophetical character which has no parallel in the history of the world. If in the Greek genius was centred the struggle for the freedom of the intellect, in the Jewish nation was centred the struggle for personal freedom; and in the Roman Empire, after the destruction of Jerusalem, Jewry finally became the centre of all disaffection and revolutionary ideas.

At the back of all of this was the peculiarly Pharisaismexclusive faith which the Jew had evolved, and which from a Roman point of view constituted him "the hater of mankind." But this fanatical Zealotism, although it was directly nourished by the more unbalanced pronouncements of the religious writers and prophets, became more and more distasteful to the better elements in the nation. These better elements we find represented by the more spiritual views that by degrees worked into the sacred literature, and the nation was gradually leavened by Pharisaism, which, though running to the extreme of minute ceremonial and the most elaborate rules of external purity, was nevertheless a most potent factor in the widening of the religious horizon. The external side of Pharisaism is fairly well known to us; but the inner side of this great movement, to which all the most learned of the Jews belonged, is but little understood.

Pharisaism was in course of time divided into numerous schools, the strictest of which led the life of rigid internal purity. Leading such a life, it could not but be that their ideas became of a more spiritual nature; indeed Pharisaism had its origin in Babylon, and it represented the main stream of Chaldæan and Persian influence on Jewry.

Along this line of tradition we find gradually evolved a far more spiritual view of the Messiah- doctrine; The Chassidim and Essenes.Israel was not the physical nation of the Jews, but the Elect of God chosen out of all nations; the servants of God were those who served Him with their hearts and not with their lips; the God of this Israel abhorred their blood sacrifices.

But such views as these, although they indirectly influenced the public scripture of the nation, could not be boldly declared among a people that had ever stoned its prophets and delighted in blood-sacrifice. Such views could only be safely discussed in private, and we find numerous records of the existence of schools of Chassidim and those whom Josephus calls Essenes, among whom were the most pure and learned of the Jews, the "Rabbis of the South," living apart and in retirement.

These schools and communities seem to have looked back to the stern physical discipline of the Schools of the Prophets on the one hand, and to have been in contact with the spiritual ideas of the Babylonian wisdom-discipline on the other.

In Babylon we see how one of the nation's seers The Inner Schools.contacted part of the Chaldæan wisdom-tradition, and the famous "Vision of Ezekiel" was subsequently invoked as canonical authority for all that range of ideas which we find revived so many hundreds of years later in Mediæval Kabalism. But in order to understand the nature of the studies and inner experiences of the members of these mystic schools of Chassidim and their imitators, it is necessary to have a critical acquaintance with non-canonical Jewish writings, especially the wisdom-literature and those numerous apocrypha, and apocalypses, and apologies for unfulfilled prophecy--a mass of pseudepigraphs which were so busily produced in the last centuries preceding our era and in its earliest centuries. It is true we possess only the fragmentary remains of this once enormous literature, most probably only the works that were written for general circulation, and principally by those members of these communities who were still obsessed by the Zealot conception of Israel; but enough remains to fill in some very necessary outlines of the background of the Gnosis, and to enable us to realise how earnestly men were striving for a purer life and greater knowledge of God in those early days.

These mystic schools of Jewish theosophy had an enormous influence on nascent Christianity; the innermost schools influenced the inner schools of Christendom, and the general literature of the intermediate circles left a deep mark on general Christianity.

Most of these mystic schools and communities, whether of Greek or Egyptian or Jewish descent, when they came in contact with each other, gave and received. True that some of them refused to mix in person or doctrine, and there were rigidly conservative mystic schools of all three lines of descent; others, however, if not in their corporate capacity, at any rate in the persons of their individual members, gave and received, and so modified their preconceptions and enlarged their horizon. Indeed, in the last two centuries prior to and first two centuries of our era there was an enormous enthusiasm for syncretism and syntheticism among the members of such schools, the effects of which are plainly traceable in the fragments of the Gnosis preserved to us by the polemical citations of the heresiologists of later orthodoxy.



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