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Select Masterpieces Of Biblical Literature by Various

INTRODUCTION

That which we call 'The Bible' has the outward appearance of a book: in reality it is -- what the word 'bible' implies in the original Greek -- a whole library. More than fifty books, the production of a large number of different authors, representing periods of time extending over many centuries, are all comprehended between the covers of a single volume. There is no greater monument of the power of printing to diffuse thought than this fact, that the whole classic literature of one of the world's greatest peoples can be carried about in the hand or the pocket.

But there is another side to the matter. A high price has been paid for this feat of manufacturing a portable literature: no less a price than the effacement from the books of the Bible of their whole literary structure. Where the literature is dramatic, there are (except in one book) no names of speakers nor divisions of speeches; there are no titles to essays or poems, nor anything to mark where one poem or discourse ends and another begins; not only is there nothing to reflect finer rhythmic distinctions in poetry, but (in King James's version) there is not even a distinction made between poetry and prose. It is as if the whole were printed 'solid,' like a newspaper without the newspaper headings. The most familiar English literature treated in this fashion would lose a great part of its literary interest; the writings of the Hebrews suffer still more through our unfamiliarity with many of the literary forms in which they are cast. Even this statement does not fully represent the injury done to the literature of the Bible by the traditional shape in which it is presented to us. Between the Biblical writers and our own times have intervened ages in which all interest in literary beauty was lost, and philosophic activity took the form of protracted discussions of brief sayings or 'texts.' Accordingly this solidified matter of Hebrew literature has been divided up into single sentences or 'verses,' numbered mechanically one, two, three, etc., and thus the original literary form has still further been obscured. It is not surprising that to most readers the Bible has become, not a literature, but simply a storehouse of pious 'texts.'

If the sacred Scriptures then are to be appreciated as literature, it is necessary to restore their literary form and structure. To do this, with all the assistance that the modern printed page gives to the reader, is the aim of the 'Modern Reader's Bible.' The present volume is intended as an introduction to the series, and, it is hoped, to the literary study of the Bible in general, by Select Masterpieces, illustrating the different types of literature represented in Scripture.

It is natural to enquire, What are the leading literary forms under which the sacred writings may be classified?

A large proportion of the Bible is History: the History of the People of Israel as presented by themselves. How Israel is chosen from all the nations to be the special people of Jehovah; how the invisible Jehovah is at first their only ruler; how gradually the spirit of assimilation to surrounding nations leads to a demand for visible kings. Just as this tendency to secular kingship becomes strong, there comes into prominence an order of 'prophets': the word signifies 'interpreters,' and the prophets are accepted as the interpreters of Jehovah's will to Israel. Under such rule as that of David, the man after God's own heart, the work of the prophets may fall into the background; but where, as usually happened, the secular government tends to ungodliness, the order of prophets stands forth as an organised opposition. On lines like these the historic narrative of the Bible pursues its course; and with the thread of narrative are interwoven legal and statistical documents which give it support. The History Series of the Modern Reader's Bible presents the sacred narrative divided according to its logical divisions. Genesis is occupied with the formation of the chosen nation, from the first beginnings of things to the development of the descendants of Abraham as a patriarchal family. The Exodus narrates the migration of the fully formed nation to the land of promise; this is the period of constitutional development, and in this part of the history we find massed together the whole of the constitutional lore of Israel. The group of books constituting The Judges volume represents a period of transition: the 'judges' of Israel correspond to the 'heroes' of other peoples, and amid a succession of these judges the incidents of Israel's history reveal the efforts of the people of Jehovah towards a secular government. The Kings takes up the history of the nation from the establishment of the dynasty of David, and covers the struggle between the prophetic and the secular parties until the time of the fall and captivity. Upon the return of the remnant from Babylon all opposition to the theocracy has ceased; to the prophets have succeeded the 'scribes,' or interpreters of the written law, and The Chronicles is the ecclesiastical history, not of a Hebrew nation, but of a Jewish church.

From History we must, in literary analysis, distinguish Story: the one is founded on the sense of record and scientific explanation of events, the other appeals to the imagination and the emotions. The Story literature of most peoples is 'fiction,' in the sense that its matter is invented solely for literary purposes. The stories of the Bible are part of the sacred history, differing only in the mode in which the matter is presented; and a long series of these stories is scattered through the historical books, with nothing to distinguish them, in the ordinary versions, from the historic context. In the volumes of this series the distinction is made by titles; the reader can thus, without difficulty, bring to each of these varieties of literature the kind of attention it requires; it is further possible, and highly desirable, for him to make a separate study of Scriptural Story. History it is not easy to illustrate by selections; but the stories of the sacred books are represented in the present volume by typical specimens.

One book that has a place in the historic sequence of the Bible introduces us in reality to a different class of literature -- Oratory. Deuteronomy is made up of the Orations (and Songs) of Moses, constituting his Farewell to the People of Israel. It is oratory in the fullest sense of the term, representing the words as they may be supposed to come direct from the speaker. For the most part however the sacred literature of oratory is of a different kind; not exact reports of spoken words, but the substance, it may be, of several similar speeches worked up afresh into a form of written discourse. In this wider sense, the oratorical literature of the Bible is of considerable extent; it includes the prophetic discourses, and reflects the fervid contests over first principles of righteousness which constituted the main life of Israel. The principal varieties of Biblical oratory are illustrated in this volume.

Philosophy has an important place in Scripture. The word however is not there used to describe a division of literature, but the sacred philosophy is called 'wisdom,' -- a term suggestive of its close application to matters of human life and duty. This Wisdom literature started from the 'proverbs' -- simple thoughts conveyed in a couplet or triplet of verse, which were collected together by King Solomon and other of the wise men of Israel. From these proverbs the form of wisdom enlarged to verse epigrams and sonnets, or prose maxims and essays, until we find books of wisdom comprehending complete systems of thought. To catch the development of this Wisdom literature, it is necessary to take in two books of 'The Apocrypha'; a portion of sacred Scripture which in the last century used to be bound up with Bibles, standing in its historical position between the Old and New Testaments, though now it is usually separated. In theology, which is concerned with questions of authority, the distinction between the Bible and the Apocrypha is fundamental: the one is accepted as authoritative in matters of faith, whereas the Apocryphal books are merely recommended for devout reading. But in literary study the distinction disappears; and two books of the Apocrypha are of the highest literary importance, -- Ecclesiasticus and The Wisdom of Solomon. The Wisdom series of the Modern Reader's Bible arranges the representative books of Biblical philosophy in the order of its logical development. The Proverbs is a Miscellany of Sayings and Poems, embodying isolated observations of life. Ecclesiasticus is a Miscellany including longer compositions, but still embodying only isolated observations of life. In Ecclesiastes we find a connected series of writings, in which attempt is made to solve the mystery of the universe: but the attempt breaks down in despair. The Wisdom of Solomon renews the attempt in the light of an immortal life beyond the grave, and despair yields to serenity of spirit. The four books thus reflect a philosophical advance. In The Book of Job -- one of the world's literary marvels -- men's varying attitudes towards the mystery of life are represented in various speakers, and drawn together into a unity by the movement of a dramatic plot. Such is the wisdom of the sacred Scriptures viewed as a whole; in the present volume it is only possible to illustrate the different forms, whether of poetry or of prose, in which Biblical philosophy is conveyed.

Biblical Lyrics may be mentioned next. Originally, all poetry was spoken with musical accompaniment; when this primitive literature began to divide up into specialised forms, Lyric was the literary form which retained most of the spirit of music. It includes Songs and Odes, in which the very structure of the poem is determined by the mode of its performance; Psalms and Lamentations; the Traditional Poetry scattered through the historical books; again, considerable portions of prophetic literature are found to take a lyric form. Even in the ordinary versions the Psalms and Lamentations retain something of their poetic structure; the less obvious features of lyric rhythm will be illustrated in the selections admitted into this volume.

Of the fundamental divisions of literature there yet remains one -- the Drama. The relation of this to the Bible is interesting. It is impossible to read the scriptures of the Old Testament without feeling that the genius of the Hebrew people is strongly dramatic. Yet the natural instrument for the expression of dramatic creations -- the theatre -- is not a Hebrew institution. Accordingly the dramatic instinct, denied its readiest outlet, is found to leaven all other literary forms. We have already noticed dramatic wisdom in Job. Dramatic lyrics are found, not only in some of the psalms, but on a larger scale in the love songs of Solomon. But there is a more important type of dramatic literature in the sacred Scriptures. The prophets of Israel were not only statesmen and preachers, they were also poets, and from them has come down to us a form of spiritual drama to which may be given the name 'Rhapsody.'

[Footnote 1: This Lyric Idyl of 'Solomon's Song,' together with some narrated stories of the same idyllic spirit, are united in a single volume of this series under the name of Biblical Idyls.]

These spiritual dramas of the prophets are occupied with that fundamental topic of Hebrew thought which is expressed by the word 'judgment': the eternal contest between good and evil, and the Divine overthrow of wrong. They are dramas which no actual theatre could ever express, for their action covers all space and all time. Their personages include not only the prophet and the nation of Israel, but also God himself and the celestial hosts. The working of events towards the judgment is brought out before us with the general impression of dramatic movement; but the means by which this movement is realised go beyond the machinery of drama: not only dialogue and monologue, but song and even discourse are made to bear their part in the total effect. The grand example of rhapsody which covers the latter part of our Book of Isaiah can be represented in the present volume only by its prelude and one of its seven acts or 'visions.' But some of the shorter, and hardly less splendid, rhapsodies are given in full; and the selections further illustrate how a prophecy may set out as a simple discourse, and suddenly rise to the level of rhapsodic presentation.

I believe few people realise what an immense addition has been made to the literary patrimony of the English reader by the Revised Version of the Bible, and such other presentations of the sacred Scriptures as this Revised Version has made possible. The language of Biblical writers, and the sentences of which their writings are made up, have long been familiar through the earlier versions; the Revisers, by the attention they have given to connectedness of thought, have carried forward translated language into translated literature. It is thus open to a person of average culture to add to his other mental possessions the whole expression of itself which a great people has made in poetry and prose throughout all the periods of its development. With the exception of humorous writing, which is foreign to the genius of the ancient Hebrews, the whole range of literary production is here illustrated; and varieties of literary form are presented to which classic Greek or modern European writers furnish no parallel. It is a literature numbering among its authors some who -- by critics entirely outside the ranks of theologians -- have been classed with the greatest names in the world's roll of honour. More than this, the English reader who gives attention to the literary side of the Bible is studying what is to him ancestral literature. The Hebrew writers of the Old Testament, and their followers the Christian Hebrews of the New Testament, have been the inspiration of those who have inspired our own writers: their style has largely leavened the style of modern English, their thought has become so closely interwoven with English thought of the last three centuries that it is impossible to sever the two. And, if the question be of what is higher than literary impressions, no reader need fear that the more sacred uses of the Bible will be imperilled by his reading, not with the spirit only, but with the understanding also.

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In this, as in the other volumes of this series, the text of the Selections is that of the Revised Version, the marginal alternatives being often substituted for the readings in the text. For the use of this Revised Version I express my obligation to the University Presses of Oxford and Cambridge. A Reference Table at the end connects the Selections with the volumes of the Modern Reader's Bible from which they are taken, and with the chapters and verses of the ordinary versions.

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