- Library - Index by Period
HumanitiesWeb HumanitiesWeb
Periods Alphabetically Nationality Topics Themes Genres Glossary

Sort by Period
Sort Alphabetically
Sort by Nationality
Themes in Literature


Get Your Degree!

Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.

Powered by Campus Explorer

& etc

All Rights Reserved.

Site last updated
28 October, 2012
Real Time Analytics

Index by Period

Ancient Babylonian and Early Hebrew Literature

From the misty ages of bygone centuries to the present day there has been a gradual interlinking of the literatures of different countries. From the Orient to the Occident, from Europe to America, this slow weaving of the thoughts, tastes and beliefs of people of widely different races has been going on, and forms, indeed, a history by itself.

The forerunner and prophet of subsequent Christian literature is the Hebrew. It is not, however, the first complete written literature, as it was supposed to be until a few years ago.

The oldest Semitic texts reach back to the time of Anemurabi, who was contemporaneous with Abraham, five hundred years before Moses. These Semites possessed a literature and script which they largely borrowed from the older non-Semitic races in the localities where the posterity of Thare and Abraham settled.

Recent researches in Assyria, Egypt and Babylonia has brought this older literature and civilization to light; a literature from which the Hebrews themselves largely drew. Three thousand years before Abraham emigrated from Chaldea there were sacred poems in the East not unlike the psalms of David, as well as heroic poetry describing the creation, and written in nearly the same order as the Pentateuch of Moses.

The story of the Deluge, and other incidents recorded in the Old Testament, together with numerous legends, were known and treasured by the Ancients as sacred traditions from the earliest ages of the world.

We learn from St. Paul that "Moses was skilled in all the knowledge of the Egyptians." He must therefore have been familiar not only with the ancient poems and sacred writings, but also with the scientific, historical, legal and didactic literature of the times, from which, no doubt, he borrowed all that was best in the Mosiac Code that he drew up for the Chosen People of God. This old literature Moses confirmed and purified, even as Christ at a later period, confirmed and elevated all that was best in the Hebrew belief. Hence from these Oriental scholars we learn that the Hebrew was only one of several languages which enjoyed at different times a development of the highest culture and polish, although the teaching of the old Rabbis was that the Bible was the first set of historical and religious books to be written. Such was the current belief for many ages; and while this view of the Scriptures is now known to be untrue, they are, in fact, the most ancient and complete writings now in existence, although the discovery in Jerusalem, thirty-five or forty years ago, of the inscriptions of Siloe, take us back about eight hundred years before Christ; but these Siloeian inscriptions are not complete examples of literature.

"The Ancient culture of the East," says Professor A. H. Sayce, "was pre-eminently a literary one. We have learned that long before the day of Moses, or even Abraham, there were books and libraries, readers and writers; that schools existed in which all the arts and sciences of the day were taught, and that even a postal service had been organized from one end of Western Asia to the other. The world into which the Hebrew patriarchs were born, and of which the book of Genesis tells us, was permeated with a literary culture whose roots went back to an antiquity of which, but a short time ago, we could not have dreamed. There were books in Egypt and Babylonia long before the Pentateuch was written; the Mosaic age was in fact an age of a widely extended literary activity, and the Pentateuch was one of the latest fruits of long centuries of literary growth."

There is no doubt that these discoveries of modern times have been a distinct gain to Christianity, as well as to the older Hebrew literature, for it confirms (if confirmation is needed), the history of the creation, to find it was believed by the ancient peoples, whom we have seen were a learned and cultivated race.

In the present day the great College of St. Etienne in Jerusalem, founded by the Dominicans expressly for the study of the Scriptures, carries on a never ending and widely extended perusal of the subject. Parties of students are taken over the Holy Places to study the inscriptions and evidences of Christianity, and the most learned and brilliant members of the Order are engaged in research and study that fits them to combat the errors of the Higher Criticism. Their work, which is of a very superior order, has attracted attention among scholars of every country in Europe.

In the ancient development of the world there came a time when there was danger of truth being corrupted and mingled with fable among those who did not follow the guidance of God, as did Abraham and the patriarchs; then the great lawgiver, Moses, was given the divine commission to make a written record of the creation of the world and of man and to transmit it to later ages; and because he was thus commanded and inspired by God, his literature represents the most perfect and trustworthy expression of the primitive revelations. From the very beginning, therefore, we trace this interdependence of literature. Moses, authorized by God, turns to all that is best in the older Babylonian, Egyptian and Indic literature, and uses it to regenerate and uplift the Hebrew race, so that we see the things contained in the Bible remained the same truths that God had been teaching from the beginning of time. The older Egyptian and Babylonian literature became lost to the world for thousands of years until in the nineteenth century modern research in the Pyramids and elsewhere, brought it to light; but the Hebrew literature was passed down to the Christian era, and thence to our own times, intact. It excels in beauty, comprehensiveness, and a true religious spirit, any other writing prior to the advent of Christ. Its poetry, which ranges from the most extreme simplicity and clearness, to the loftiest majesty of expression, depicts the pastoral life of the Patriarchs, the marvellous history of the Hebrew nation, the beautiful scenery in which they lived and moved, the stately ceremonial of their liturgy, and the promise of a Messiah. Its chief strength and charm is that it personifies inanimate objects, as in the sixty-fourth Psalm, where David says:

"The beautiful places of the wilderness shall grow fat; and the hills shall be girded about with joy. The rams of the flock are clothed, and the vales shall abound with corn they shall shout, yea they shall sing a hymn."

And again in the seventeenth Psalm, he says:

He bowed the Heavens and came down . . . and He flew upon the wings of the winds . . . He made darkness His covert, His pavilion round about Him: dark waters in the clouds of the air."

In time the Hebrew language began to be influenced by others, although, as a people, they rank with the Greeks and Spaniards as being very little moulded by any outside influence on their literature. From the time of Abraham to the age of Moses the old stock was changed by the intermarriage of some of their race with the Egyptians and Arabians. During this period their literature was influenced by Zoroaster, and by the Platonist and Pythagorean schools. This is especially noticeable in the work of Philo of Alexandria, who was born a few years B.C.E.

Josephus, who first saw the light in A.D. 37; and Numenius, who lived in the second century, were Jews, who as such remained, while adopting Greek philosophy. The learned writings of the Rabbis became known as Rabbinical literature. It is written in a language that has its roots in the Hebrew and Chaldaic; though it has also borrowed largely from the Arabian, Greek and Latin. In the sixteenth century Christian scholars began to make an extensive study of Hebrew and Rabbinical literature, and they were not slow to discover the value of these Oriental works. These writings, however, are subject to change, and it is in the Bible alone that we find the fundamental teaching of Hebrew literature. Differing entirely from the Mythological and Oriental Nations, it taught, as its cardinal principle, the unity of God. Its historical worth has been recognized by the greatest scholars in all ages, and it has influenced not only the ancient world, but also the literature and poetry of the Middle Ages and of modern times. It forms a contrast to the philosophy of the Greeks, and to that of Europeans of a later age. When the latter have tried to explain the great mystery of God and man, they have invariably failed. In the beautiful writings of the Greeks, wherein we find the height of artistic expression and polish, there is a subsequent gradual decline; but such is not the case in the Old Testament. In every age fresh beauty and hidden treasure is found in its pages. Another phase of the Bible which has had a far reaching and lasting effect upon all language and literature, is its prevailing spirit of types and symbols. This is conspicuous both in the poetical books and in those that are didactic or historical. It has had the same influence on the thoughts and imagination of all Christian people and upon the poetry and imitative arts of the Middle Ages (and nearly the same upon later and more cultivated times) that Homer had upon the Ancients. For in it we find the standard of all our Christian images and figures, and it gives us a model of imitation that is far more beautiful in itself, and far more world-wide in its application than anything we can borrow from the Greeks. We see this in Dante and Tasso, and in other Christian poets. To the Hebrew, as the original custodians of the Old Testament, we are indebted for keeping the faith pure when all other nations either forgot or abandoned it, or else mixed it up with errors and idolatry. What Moses records of the creation of the world and the first ten Fathers, is embodied by the Persians, Indians and Chinese in whole volumes of mythology, and surrounded by a host of fanciful traditions. Thus we see in the Hebrew as the chosen people of God, a nation able to preserve its literature intact through captivity, dispersion and persecution, for a period of four thousand years.


Terms Defined

In Context