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Art. II. A Dissertation on the Phrase, End
ESSAYS ON IMPORTANT SUBJECTS.
Opinions and Phraseology of the Jews concerning the Future State; from the time of Moses, to that of their final dispersion by the Romans.
Though we propose so long a period for the scope of our survey, yet it is with reference particularly to the age of Christ and his apostles, that we shall aim to exhibit our subject. To this ultimate purpose, we shall accordingly make all the previous stages of our inquiry subservient. What were the notions, and what the accustomed phraseology, of the Jews, concerning the future state, at the time of our Saviour's ministry, is a question which evidently involves the natural meaning of many passages in the New Testament; for it was in the midst of those very notions and of that very phraseology, whatsoever they were, that our Saviour taught and his apostles wrote. They were themselves Jews, brought up among the Jews of that time, surrounded by their opinions, and habituated to their modes of expression. Their language it was, which they used; and they used it in clear view of its customary signification. To Jews indeed, either as unbelievers or as converts, they addressed the larger part of their in
structions; and their method of teaching, we may presume, was adapted to the prevalent habits both of thought and of expression. These, it is therefore necessary to know, and to keep in view, in order justly to interpret those instructions. Whenever Christ and his inspired followers introduce such representations as we find to have been appropriated, by cotemporary usage, to the future state, it is natural to suppose, even from that consideration alone, that they likewise refer to the same topic, unless we are apprized to the contrary by some other circumstance, sufficiently strong to set aside the ordinary import. And it is equally plain, that when they employ ideas and forms of expression, which, at that time, were not thus appropriated, we ought not so to apply them, without other evidence, whatever may be our modern usage of the like phraseology. We are apt, unwarily, to overlook the peculiarities of the ancient, in our habitual attention to the present. Especially is it the case, that, on discovering some points of resemblance between the two states of things, we are ready to conclude at once that there is a similarity throughout, and so take it for certain that the same language must have struck people then, in the same manner as now.
Instances of this oversight are frequent with interpreters : it is sufficient to mention a single example: It is well known, that the Jews, in our Saviour's day, generally believed in an eternal retribution for mankind, after death. What, then, we are asked, must a people, accustomed to such views, have understood him to mean, when he spoke of everlasting fire, of everlasting punishment, of the damnation of hell, of a hell where
the worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched ? These are the leading phrases of the doctrine of endless misery; and we must remember, it is said, that Christ was fully aware of the common opinion, among his hearers, on the subject. What, then, could he expect, or intend, but to enforce it, by the use of such language? This appeal may, indeed, be silenced, perhaps, but it will seldom be satisfied, by the reply, that those expressions, when introduced by our Saviour, were generally accompanied by certain intimations or explicit remarks, which show that he did not refer to the future world. Point out this circumstance in relation to the several cases, and though the objector feels baffled, the real difficulty still remains: the terms, the tenor of the representations, the figures, in a word, all the language, is such, he knows, as is now appropriated to the idea of eternal punishment after death; and as this doctrine was as familiar with the original hearers as with us, what else could be intended, or thought of? He suspects some break in the context, some change of the subject, between the contrary intimations that may be pointed out, and the significant passages themselves. Such is the state of mind in which he is left. Now, the direct and proper answer to this particular appeal, (for what relates to the context, belongs to another branch of the illustration,) is, that the natural import of those expressions, if taken thus alone, depends on certain circumstances which he has not yet considered: on the peculiar form in which the Jews held their doctrine of eternal retribution, and on the distinguishing phraseology which they actually appropriated to it, rather than on the