[Letter of John James Taylor to Francis William Newman.]
March 17th, 1847
We have sometimes talked of the probable antiquity of the books of the Old Testament—particularly of the Pentateuch—in their actual form. The right use of these books, as sources of historical truth, and a just estimate of earlier Hebrew history, must depend on our making our way towards a proximate conclusion on this point. On reading Ewald's very interesting introduction to his translation of the Prophets some time since, the following suggestions occurred to me. You can tell me, when you have a few minutes to spare, whether you think there is any weight in them.—In reference to this subject, it must be very important to notice the first indications of the general use of prose composition, and what we may perhaps assume as contemporaneous with it, the general use of writing in place of the merely oral record, or the monumental inscription, such as Joshua is said to have employed for preserving a knowledge of the blessings and curses of the law, or Moses in the two tables of the Decalogue. Now Ewald has a peculiar theory about the prophetic style. He distinguishes it from the poetic, as occupying a sort of middle region between poetry and prose—sometimes dropping into simple historical narrative—sometimes rising into genuine lyrical enthusiasm—but, on the whole, characterized by its fitness to act on practical life, and stir men to action—partaking in fact of the character of a highly impassioned and figurative oratory. It has occurred to me, whether we do not see in this prophetic style the transition-process of an ancient language from poetry to prose, as the ordinary vehicle of meditated and connected discourse. The early addresses of the Hebrew prophets accompanied by impassioned gesture and symbolism, remind one of the animated harangues of a North American Indian. The oldest prophets, Joel, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, are the most purely poetic in their style and their contents; as we proceed, the prose element increases; in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, it becomes actually predominant. Does this gradual increase of prose indicate a growing command over the materials and implements of writing, and such facility in the use of them, as we must presuppose before the composition of a long work, of very various materials, like the Pentateuch, becomes even conceivable? But without laying any very particular stress on Ewald's theory of the prophetic style, which from his extreme love of differing from all his predecessors, he has perhaps pushed to the utmost (he has made his translation into prose, merely indicating a sort of rhythmus by marks), it is certainly remarkable, when we consider the influence of the prophets on Hebrew history, that none of their oracles should have been collected and reduced to writing before the time of Joel, in the latter part of the ninth century before Christ; that of Samuel and Elijah and Elisha, whose personal agency was so strong and decisive, and whose names were held in such veneration—nothing should have been preserved but the legendary fragments that have been incorporated with the national history—although upon the received theory, writing had been practised by the Levitical order for centuries, and a large body of written law was habitually studied and expounded by them. Do these circumstances point to the probability, that writing was beginning to be more common about the time that the most ancient oracles preserved to us were collected, and put into a permanent form; and that the still older remains of primeval song and legend and law had up to that time been transmitted orally—what we yet have of David and Solomon being preserved in this way? You can tell me whether scholars do not now generally suppose, that the reduction of the Homeric poems to their present form was coincident with the more general use of written characters among the Greeks, and that with the increase of this practice, prose began by degrees to encroach on the more ancient poetry, and the εποποιοι to be succeeded by the λογοποιοι. Was this a parallel crisis in the development of the Greek mind, to that which I have supposed to be indicated among the Hebrews? The alleged discovery of the Law in the reign of Josiah would occur nearly 200 years later than the date assigned to Joel.—I write, I assure you, more to get your ideas, than under the belief that I can suggest anything of much value in my own.—I have left no time and room for other matters. I have read your article on Ireland twice. I am convinced you have indicated the quarter whence relief and reformation must come. Two facts which the papers daily witness, substantially confirm your general view of the utter oppression of the peasantry—the apathy of some, and their unwillingness to take any trouble, even to put seed into the ground—and the efforts making by those who have any energy left, to scrape together what they can and emigrate.—Thank you for your kind notice of my son.