Faith and credulity are the same thing with different names. When a man has plenty of faith he is ready to believe anything. However fantastic it may be, however childish, however infantile, he accepts it with gaping wonder. His imagination is not necessarily strong, but it is easily excited. Macaulay held that savages have stronger imaginations than civilised men, and that as the reason developes the imagination decays. But, in our opinion, he was mistaken. The imagination does not wither under the growth of reason; on the contrary, it flourishes more strongly. It is, however, disciplined by reason, and guided by knowledge; and it only appears to be weaker because the relation between it and other faculties has changed. The imagination of the savage seems powerful because his other faculties are weak. In the absence of knowledge it cuts the most astonishing capers, just as a bird would if it were suddenly deprived of sight. Now the savage is a mental child, and the ignorant and thoughtless are mental savages. They credit the absurdest stories, and indulge in the most ridiculous speculations. When religion ministers to their weakness, as it always does, they gravely discuss the most astonishing puerilities. Indeed, the history of religious thought—that is, of the infantile vagaries of the human mind—is full of puerilites. There is hardly an absurdity which learned divines have not debated as seriously as scientists discuss the nebular hypothesis or the evolution theory. They have argued how many angels could dance on the point of a needle; whether Adam had a navel; whether ghosts and demons could cohabit with women; whether animals could sin; and what was to be done with a rat that devoured a holy wafer. We believe the decision of the last weighty problem, after long debate, was that the rat, having the body of Christ in its body, was sanctified, and that it had to be eaten by the priest, by which means the second person of the Trinity was saved from desecration.
But of all the pious puerilities on record, probably the worst are ascribed to the rabbis. The faith of those gentlemen was unbounded, and they were so fond of trivialities, that where they found none they manufactured them. The rabbis belonged to the most credulous race of antiquity. "Tell that to the Jews," as we see from Juvenal, was as common as our saying, "Tell that to the marines." The chosen people were infinitely superstitious. They had no head for science, nor have they to this day; but they were past-masters in every magical art, and connoisseurs in amulets and charms. Their rabbis were the hierophants of their fanatical folly. They devoted amazing industry, and sometimes remarkable ingenuity, to its development; frequently glossing the very scriptures of their religion with dexterious imbecilities that raise a sinister admiration in the midst of our laughter. This propensity is most noticeable in connection with Bible stories. When the chroniclers and prophets record a good solemn wonder, which reads as though it ought to be true if it is not, they allege or suggest little additions that give it an air of ostentatious silliness. Hundreds of such instances have come under my eyes in foraging for extra-Biblical matter for my Bible Heroes, but I have only room for one or two specimens.
King Nimrod was jealous of young Abraham, as Herod was jealous of young Jesus. He tried various methods to get rid of the boy, but all in vain. At last he resolved to burn Abraham alive. This would have made a striking scene, but the pious puerility of the sequel spoils it all. The king issued a decree, ordering every man in his kingdom to bring wood to heat the kiln. What a laughable picture! Behold every adult subject wending his way to the crematorium with a bundle of sticks on his back—"For Abraham." The The Mussulman tradition (Mohammedans and Jews are much alike, and both their religions are Semitic) informs us that Nimrod himself died in the most extraordinary manner. A paltry little gnat, with a game leg and one eye, flew up his nostril, and lodged in his brain, where it tormented him for five hundred years. During the whole of that period, in which the gnat displayed a longevity that casts Methuselah's into the shade, the agonising king could only obtain repose by being struck on the head; and relays of men were kept at the palace to pound his royal skull with a blacksmith's hammer. The absurdity of the story is transcendent. One is charitably tempted to believe, for the credit of human nature, that it was the work of a subtle, solemn wag, who thought it a safe way of satirising the proverbial thick-headedness of kings.
What reader of the Bible does not remember the pathetic picture of Esau falling on Jacob's neck and weeping, in a paroxysm of brotherly love and forgiveness? But the rabbis daub it over with their pious puerilities. They solemnly inform us that Esau was a trickster, as though Jacob's qualities were catching, and that he tried to bite his brother's neck, but God turned it into marble, and he only broke his teeth. Esau wept for the pain in his grinders. But why did Jacob weep? This looks like a poser, yet later rabbis surmounted the difficulty. Jacob's neck was not turned into marble, but toughened. It was hard enough to-hurt Esau's teeth, and still tender enough to make Jacob suffer, so they cried in concert, though for different reasons.
Satyrs are mentioned in the Bible, although they never existed outside the superstitious imagination. The rabbis undertook to explain the peculiar structure of these fabulous creatures, as well as of fauns, who somewhat resemble them. The theory was started, therefore, that God was overtaken by the Sabbath, while he was creating them, and was obliged to postpone finishing them till the next day. Hence they are misshapen! The rabbis also say that God cut off Adam's tail to make Eve of. The Bible origin of woman is low, but this is lower still. However, if Adam exchanged his tail for a wife he made a very good bargain, despite the apple and the Devil.
Captain Noah, says the Talmud, could not take the rhinoceros into the ark because it was too big. Rabbi Jannai solemnly asserts that he saw a young rhinoceros, only a day old, as big as Mount Tabor. Its neck was three miles long, its head half a mile, and the river Jordan was choked by its excrement. Let us pause at this stretcher, which "stands well for high."
Perhaps the Christian will join us in laughing at such pious puerilities. But he should remember that the Bible is loaded with absurdities that are little inferior. Ravens bring a prophet sandwiches, another prophet besieges a tile, an axe swims on the water, a man slays a thousand men in battle with the jawbone of a donkey, an ass speaks, and a whale swallows and vomits a man. Had these pious puerilities occurred in any other book, they would have been laughed to scorn; but being in the Bible, they must be credited on pain of eternal damnation.