Story type: Essay
Before any canon was settled, many works had become current in Christian circles whose origin was dubious. The traditions about them varied locally. Some, it is alleged, that would really have been entitled to a canonical place, had been lost by accident; to some, which still survived, this place had been refused upon grounds that might not have satisfied us of this day, if we had the books and the grounds of rejection before us; and, finally, others, it is urged, have obtained this sacred distinction with no right to it. In particular, the Second Epistle of St. Peter, the Second of St. Jude, the Epistle of St. James, and the three of St. John, are denounced as supposititious in the ‘Scaligerana.’ But the writer before us is wrong in laying any stress on the opinions there expressed. They bear the marks of conversational haste and of Scaligeran audacity. What is the objection made, for instance, to ‘in quibus sunt mira, quae non videntur esse Apostolica’? That is itself more strange as a criticism than anything in the epistles can be for its doctrine. The only thing tending to a reason for the summary treatment is that the Eastern Church does not acknowledge them for canonical. But opinions quoted from ana are seldom of any authority; indeed, I have myself too frequently seen the unfaithfulness of such reports. The reporter, as he cannot decently be taking notes at the time of speaking, endeavours afterwards to recall the most interesting passages by memory. He forgets the context; what introduced–what followed to explain or modify the opinions. He supplies a conjectural context of his own, and the result is a romance. But if the reporter were even accurate, so much allowance must be made for the license of conversation–its ardour, its hurry, and its frequent playfulness–that when all these deductions are made, really not a fraction remains that one can honestly carry to account. Besides, the elder Scaliger was drunk pretty often, and Joe seems rather ‘fresh’ at times.
Upon consideration, it may be as well to repeat what it is that Scaliger is reported to have said:
‘The Epistle of Jude is not his, as neither is that of James, nor the second of Peter, in all which are strange things that seem (seem–mark that!) far enough from being Apostolical. The three Epistles of John are not from John the Apostle. The second of Peter and Jude belong to a later age. The Eastern Church does not own them, neither are they of evangelical authority. They are unlearned, and offer no marks of Gospel majesty. As regards their internal value, believe them I may say that I do, but it is because they are in no ways hostile to us.’
Now, observe, the grounds of objection are purely aesthetical, except in the single argument from the authority of the Eastern Church. What does he mean by ‘unlearned,’ or wanting ‘majesty,’ or containing ‘strange things’? Were ever such vague puerilities collected into one short paragraph? This is pure impertinence, and Phil. deserves to be privately reprimanded for quoting such windy chaff without noting and protesting it as colloquial. But what I wish the reader to mark–the [Greek: tho hepimhythion]–is, that suppose the two Scaligers amongst the Christian Fathers engaged in fixing the canon: greater learning you cannot have; neither was there, to a dead certainty, one tenth part as much amongst the canon-settlers. Yet all this marvellous learning fumes away in boyish impertinence. It confounds itself. And every Christian says, Oh, take away this superfluous weight of erudition, that, being so rare a thing, cannot be wanted in the broad highways of religion. What we do want is humility, docility, reverence for God, and love for man. These are sown broadcast amongst human hearts. Now, these apply themselves to the sense of Scripture, not to its grammatical niceties. But if so, even that case shows indirectly how little could depend upon the mere verbal attire of the Bible, when the chief masters of verbal science were so ready to go astray–riding on the billows so imperfectly moored. In the ideas of Scripture lies its eternal anchorage, not in its perishable words, which are shifting for ever like quicksands, as the Bible passes by translation successively into every spoken language of the earth.
What then?–‘What then?’ retorts the angry reader after all this, ‘why then, perhaps, there may be a screw loose in the Bible.’ True, there may, and what is more, some very great scholars take upon them to assert that there is. Yet, still, what then? The two possible errors open to the Fathers of our canon, to the men upon whom rested the weighty task of saying to all mankind what should be Bible, and what should be not Bible, of making and limiting that mighty world, are–that they may have done that which they ought not to have done, and, secondly, left undone that which they ought to have done. They may have admitted writers whom they ought to have excluded; and they may have excluded writers whom they ought to have admitted. This is the extent of their possible offences, and they are supposed by some critics to have committed both. But suppose that they have, still I say–what then? What is the nature of the wrong done to us by the worst mistake ascribed to them? Let us consider. It is supposed by some scholars that we have in the New Testament as it now stands a work written by Apollos, viz., the Epistle to the Romans. Yet, if so, the error amounts only to a misnomer. On the other hand, there are Epistles on which has been charged the same error in relation to the name of the author, and the more important error of thoughts unbecoming to a Christian in authority: for instance, the Epistle of St. James. This charge was chiefly urged by a very intemperate man, and in a very intemperate style. I notice it as being a case which Phil. has noticed. But Phil. merits a gentle rap on his knuckles for the inconsideration with which he has cited a charge made and reported with so much levity. He quotes it from the ‘Scaligerana.’ Now, what right upon such a subject has any man to quote such an authority? The reasons against listening with much attention to the ‘Scaligerana’ are these:
First, the Scaligers, both father and son, were the two most impudent men that ever walked the planet. I should be loath to say so ill-natured a thing as that their impudence was equal to their learning, because that forces every man to say, ‘Ah, then, what impudent fellows they must have been!’ It is kinder and juster to say that their learning was at least equal to their impudence, for that will force every man to exclaim, ‘Ah, if so, what prodigies of learning they must have been!’ Yes, they were–absolute monsters of learning, learned monsters. But as much learning often makes men mad, still more frequently it makes them furious for assault and battery; to use the American phrase, they grow ‘wolfy about the shoulders,’ from a periodical itchiness for fighting. Other men being shy of attacking the Scaligers, it was no fault of theirs, you know, but a necessity, to attack other men–unless you expected them to have no fighting at all. It was always a reason with them for trying a fall with a writer, if they doubted much whether they had any excuse for hanging a quarrel on.
Secondly, all ana whatever are bad authorities. Supposing the thing really said, we are to remember the huge privilege of conversation, how immeasurable is that! You yourself, reader, I presume, when talking, will say more in an hour than you will stand to in a month. I’m sure I do. When the reins are put into my hands I stick at nothing–headlong I drive like a lunatic, until the very room in which we are talking, with all that it inherits, seems to spin round with absolute vertigo at the extravagances I utter.
Thirdly, but again, was the thing really said? For, as another censure upon the whole library of ana, I can assert–that, if the license of conversation is enormous, to that people who inhale that gas of colloquial fermentation seldom mean much above one part in sixty of what they say, on the other hand the license of reporters is far greater. To forget the circumstances under which a thing was said is to alter the thing, to have lost the context, the particular remark in which your own originated, the mitigations of a harsh sentiment from playfulness of manner; in short, to drop the setting of the thoughts is oftentimes to falsify the tendency and value of those thoughts.
NOTE BY THE EDITOR.–The Phil. here referred to is the Philoleutheros Anglicanus of the essay on ‘Protestantism,’ as shortened by De Quincey, and with whom De Quincey, in that essay, deals very effectively and wittily on occasion.