The Sacred Books of the Jews
Theosophical Forum, July, 1901
Hardly any Orientalist who writes about the Sacred Books of India can help falling into wonder and astonishment over the marvelous expedients adopted by the schools of the Brahmins to preserve the purity of their texts, and especially of the Rig Veda hymns.
We are told of the Anukramanis, or Indexes, giving the first words of each hymn, the number of verses in each hymn, the name and family of the seer of each of the hymns, the names of the deities to which the hymns are addressed, the metre in which every verse is written. Of these wonderful indexes, for the Yajur Veda there are three, for the Sama Veda two, for the Rig Veda one, and for the Atharva Veda—whose orthodoxy is hardly more than tolerated by its three superior brethren—also one. Besides these indexes, there are marvelously elaborated commentaries, including every single syllable of the text commented on, paraphrasing every single syllable, explaining every syllable. Then there are subsidiary treatises on the hymns that teach their pronunciation, their metres, and music—if I may use the word music for the voice-inflections that are generally called accents,—their relations, as sacrificial formulas, to the planets—as fixed and movable feasts; more supplementary treatises—the Brahmanas—that speak of the legends growing up around the hymns, the ceremonies they are to be used at, and a mass of details concerning them, which could only be represented fairly by quoting large portions of those books themselves.
Then again we are asked to admire the complexity and abundance of philosophic speculation that grew up round the hymns; the schools that were occupied with their forms and ceremonies; the schools that were occupied with their spirit; the legal schools that were occupied with their application to daily life; the old legal books and the new legal books; the old commentaries and the new commentaries, commentaries without rest, without cessation, without end; all pointing back to the hymns, all based on the hymns, all, in some sort, growing out of the hymns.
All these things, I have said, we are told with the greatest wonder and admiration, and we are expected to receive them with equal wonder and admiration, we are told, what is undeniably true, that “the labour of the schools in the conservation of their sacred texts was extraordinary, and has been crowned with such success that the text of each school, whatever may be its differences from those of other schools, is virtually without various readings, preserved with all its peculiarities of dialect, and its smallest and most exceptional traits of phonetic form, pure and unobscured.” The writer of this sentence goes on to expatiate on “the means by which, in addition to the religious care of the sectaries, the accuracy was secured; forms of text, lists of peculiarities and treatises upon them”; and so on.
All this is very wonderful, very admirable; but there is something more wonderful still.
In all I remember to have read on this subject, I cannot recall a single word, a single hint, that every one of these manifold and various precautions has its exact parallel in the means that were taken to preserve another set of sacred books that we are particularly and specially familiar with—the books of the Old Testament—the sacred writings of the Jews. So curious is the parallel between the precautions of the Brahmins to preserve their hymns and the means taken by the Jews to perpetuate the form of the sacred texts, that some account of the latter cannot fail to be of the highest interest to readers familiar with the former.
It would be out of place here even to touch on the earliest period of the Sacred Books of the Jews—the period that lies behind the Septuagint and the Samaritan Bible—the former about three centuries before the Christian era, the latter perhaps five or six. I can only take up the history of the Hebrew Sacred Books after the canon was finally closed, and see how they stood the shock of time during the last two thousand years.
The Hebrew texts had run the greatest danger of destruction during the invasion of the mad Syrian King Antiochus, and again when Jerusalem fell before the arms of the Romans. The manuscripts that survived this ruin of Jewish nationality were literally rescued from the flames. In the period of quiet that followed this storm of conquest, some eighteen hundred years ago, schools of Jewish learning began to spring up, as at Cæsarea, Lydda, Japhneh, and, most famous of all, the schools on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias.
In the school of Tiberias the sacred writings were studied, commented on, their grammatical details painfully sought out and numbered, the traditions that had grown up round them gathered into orderly coherence, under learned Jewish Rabbins like the Rabbi Judah, the Rabbi Johanan, the Rabbi Akiba, and many more; and after this first great sanctuary of Hebrew learning suffered eclipse, the work of these men passed to others not less learned, in the academies of Babylon.
Hardly anything was studied in these Jewish schools but the Sacred Books, especially the five called the Books of Moses, and what ministered to the Sacred Books. Round these books of the laws of Moses,—the Torah, as the Hebrews called them—grew up a series of traditional explanations, called the Mishna, handed down from one learned teacher to another; and the writing down to this Mishna, or traditional commentary on the Mosaic Law, was one of the chief things accomplished by the school of Tiberias, under the direction of the Rabbi Judah.
And precisely in the manner of the Brahminical schools, this first traditional commentary gave birth to other commentaries, the Gemaras; and to these first Mishna commentaries, and the later Gemara commentaries thereon, was given the collective name of Talmud. Here are one or two Jewish sayings, on the relation of the commentaries to the law, quoted by the author of The Old Documents and the New Bible:—
“He that is learned in the Law and not in the Mishna, is a blockhead; the Law was given to Moses by day, the Mishna by night; the Law is like salt, the Mishna like pepper, the Gemara like balmy spice.”
Along with this collecting of commentaries and traditions,—which, quite inevitably, gave birth to a certain spirit of criticism,—grew up a critical study of the text of the Law itself. Even at this time a certain form of the text had become stereotyped; and these good doctors of Tiberias dreaded any alteration even of passages that seemed unquestionably and palpably wrong. Doubtful readings they marked with dots along the top of the line; and readings that were clearly faulty they corrected in the margin, though leaving them unchanged in the text. This great dependence on the margin, it may he noted, has strongly touched the work of the English revisers, whose labours filled so much of the last decade’s mental horizon.
Then these doctors hit upon an expedient already familiar centuries before in India. viz., counting the number of verses in every book the number of words, even the number of letters in every division of their canon. These enumerations, recorded in their turn, took precisely the place of the Indian Anukramanis, or indexes. of which I have spoken already. Here is a specimen of a Talmud note on the Hebrew Law book we call Deuteronomy, as quoted by the author of the work already referred to:—
“Rabbi-ben-Lakish said that three copies were found in the hall of the Temple; in one of them they found written Meoni, in two of them Meonah, and they adopted therefore the text of the two against that of the one.”
Here is another curious analogy with India. It is well known that one of our great checks on the Indian Buddhist books, whether in Sanskrit or Pali, is the existence of translations into Chinese and Tibetan. In just the same way we can check the work of the Jewish schools of Tiberias by the existence of Greek translations of the Law of Moses, made in them by pupils like Aquila. Symmachus, and Theodotion, who worked about seventeen hundred years ago. There are yet other translations from the Hebrew, of the same epoch, in Syriac and in the vernacular of the Jews.
With the writing down of the Talmud was completed the first great work of the Jewish schools; and this work was probably finished by the fifth century of our era. The next great epoch was the epoch of the Massorah, when the “Men of the Massorah”—the Massoretes as they are called—worked the material of the Talmud over once again, stereotyping, crystalising, defining, numbering, noting.
For us, the typical work of the Massoretes is a phonetic one,—the addition of vowels to the formerly vowelless Hebrew; but they did much more, besides inventing the Massoretic vowel-points. They regulated minutely the books, sections, verses, words, letters, and accents; they recorded conjectural readings and emendations; they recorded the parts of the text where anything was supposed to have been added, left out, or altered; they marked all words that seemed to them peculiar or unusual.
In the matter of recording and counting, they probably went further than all the other scholiasts since the beginning of literary history; they counted how often the same word occurs at the beginning, middle, and end of verses; they counted, not only all the verses, words, and letters of the Books of the Law, they went further, and curiously ascertained the middle verse, the middle word, the middle letter, of each book of the Law and of the whole Law, and invented mnemonics to preserve this not very useful knowledge. Thus, a letter in the forty-second verse of the eleventh chapter of what we call Leviticus, in the Hebrew text, the middle letter of the Law; three words in the sixteenth verse of the preceding chapter are the middle words; the eighth verse in the eighth chapter is the middle verse.
The same statistics exist for each of the separate books. Then the letter Aleph, of A., occurs 42,377 times; the letter Beth, or B., occurs 35,218 times, and so on; and all these statistics are woven into anagrams and mnemonic verses.
Then the Massoretes made marginal notes, recording rare words and words occurring once, twice, three, or four times only. So superstitious was their care, that when through the carelessness of the scribe, a word was written twice in the text, they did not venture to erase it, but simply noted in the margin “that though written, it was not to be read.” There are eight instances of this sort in the Hebrew books.
About nine hundred years ago, the work of the Massoretes came to a close, with the result that, at that time and ever since, the Hebrew text is practically without variation of readings, the very result, it will be noted, which Professor Whitney asserted to be the result of the work of the Brahminic doctors.
So that, in the case of the Jewish, as of the Brahminical sacred books, there exist and have existed for a great many centuries, a profoundly reverenced text, specially safeguarded by all kinds of indexes, lists, enumerations, descriptions; a series of commentaries, and commentaries upon commentaries, which cover the phonetic and grammatical, as well as the legal and religious character of the sacred books, in every detail; there are subsidiary works on the pronunciation, legend, formulary, astronomy and ritual; and, to complete the parallel, there is a tradition of plenary, verbal inspiration for the whole of the sacred texts in both cases,—a tradition quite out of harmony with the accounts both sets of sacred books give of themselves.