Spinoza: Who Wrote the Bible Determines How We Read It
The philosopher Bento (or Baruch) de Spinoza was born in 1632 to a Portuguese merchant family in Amsterdam. They belonged to a Jewish community recently founded by Iberian “conversos” (Jews forced to convert to Catholicism generations earlier) fleeing the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
Young Bento received a traditional Jewish education, although he cut short his schooling while in his teens, after the death of his father, to help run the family importing business. Still, he seems to have remained an active member of the Talmud Torah congregation. In 1656, however, when he was 23, Spinoza was issued a writ of herem (expulsion) by the community’s parnassim (lay leaders), most likely for his heterodox views on God and Jewish law. The ban was never rescinded.
Spinoza dedicated the rest of his short life—he died in The Hague in 1677, at the age of 44—to the study and writing of philosophy, although he also made a modest living through lens-grinding. He wrote in Latin, even using a Latinized version of his name, Benedictus (Baruch, Bento and Benedictus all mean “blessed”). Many of his works—including his most important treatise, the Ethics—remained unpublished at his death, in part because of the uproar caused by one of the two works that he did publish in his lifetime: the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (Theological-Political Treatise), which appeared anonymously but to great alarm in 1670.
What generated perhaps the most outrage and earned Spinoza the deep and lasting enmity of Jewish and gentile critics were his radical and extraordinary views on the status and interpretation of the Bible. Others before Spinoza had suggested that Moses was not the author of the entire Pentateuch. But no one had taken that claim to the extreme limit that Spinoza did. Nor had anyone before Spinoza been willing to draw the conclusions about the meaning and interpretation of the Bible that Spinoza drew.
Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise (TTP, from the Latin title Tractatus Theologico-Politicus) was regarded by his contemporaries as the most “atheistic,” “blasphemous” and “soul-destroying” book ever written. (One overwrought critic called it “a book forged in hell by the devil himself.”) Spinoza’s views on miracles, God, “superstitious” religious ceremonies, and the relationship between “church” and state scandalized his seventeenth-century readers. Perhaps nothing troubled them more, however, than Spinoza’s views on the Bible.
In chapters seven through ten of the TTP, Spinoza denies that the Bible is literally of divine origin and that Moses (either as God’s amanuensis or on his own) wrote all or even most of the Torah. Much of the evidence he brings forward for this thesis was not unfamiliar to contemporary Bible scholars. It had been used before to argue against Moses’ comprehensive authorship, most famously by Abraham ibn Ezra in the twelfth century, but also by other writers before Spinoza. In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther, and in the seventeenth century, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the French Calvinist Isaac de la Peyrère and the English Quaker leader (living in Amsterdam) Samuel Fisher, all questioned the Mosaic authorship of the entire Pentateuch.
Most of these earlier thinkers, however, had argued for a very limited claim, namely, that Moses did not write every single line of the Pentateuch. After all, Moses could not have related the circumstances of his own death (Deut 34). Spinoza, by contrast, goes quite a bit further. He notes that not only is Moses consistently referred to throughout the Torah in the third person, but that the writer of these texts also claims to “bear witness” to many details concerning him.
Moreover, the narration describes not only the death, burial and mourning of Moses, but also compares him to all the prophets who came after him; refers to places not by the names that they bore in Moses’s time but by names that they acquired only much later; and continues beyond the death of Moses. All of these points, Spinoza insists, “make it clear beyond a shadow of a doubt” that the writings, commonly referred to as “the Five Books of Moses,” were, in fact, written by someone who lived many generations after Moses.
TaNaKH: Its Authors and Editors
Spinoza grants that Moses did compose some books of history and law, and remains and traces of those long lost writings can be found in the Pentateuch. But the Torah as we have it, as well as the “historical” books of the Hebrew Bible (such as Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel and Kings), were written neither by the individuals whose names they bear nor by any person appearing in them. Spinoza argues that these books were, in fact, all composed by a single historian living many generations after the events narrated, and that this was most likely Ezra the Scribe.
It was this post-exilic leader who took the many writings that had come down to him and began weaving them into a single (but not seamless) narrative. Ezra’s work was later completed and supplemented by the editorial labors of others. What we now possess, then, is nothing but a compilation of human literature, and a rather mismanaged, haphazard and “mutilated” one at that:
If one merely observes that all the contents of these five books, histories and precepts, are set forth with no distinction and with no regard to chronology, and that frequently the same story is repeated, with variations, it will readily be recognized that all these materials were collected indiscriminately and stored together with a view to examining them and arranging them more conveniently at some later time. And not only the contents of these five books but the other histories in the remaining seven books right down to the destruction of the city were compiled in the same way.
As for the writings of the literary prophets, they are of even later provenance, compiled (“carelessly heaped together [perturbate accumulentur]” in Spinoza’s words) from a variety of sources by chroniclers or scribes later in the Second Temple period. The compilers were eclectic in their sources and selective in what they included. The result is thus a fragmentary and often unrepresentative collection of prophecies:
The writers of these books did not collect all the prophecies of all who prophesied, nor all the prophecies of those prophets whom we do possess.
The canonization of these writings, Spinoza concludes, occurred only in the second century B.C.E., when the Pharisees selected a number of texts from a multitude of others. Because the process of transmission was a historical one, involving the conveyance of human writings over a long period of time through numerous scribes and redactors, and because the decision to include some texts but not others was made by ordinary, fallible and historically situated human beings, there are good reasons for believing that a significant portion of the extant text of TaNaKH is, relative to the original texts, corrupt.
Spinoza was working within a well-known tradition. There was nothing original, by 1670, not only in claiming that Moses did not write all (or even most of) the Torah, but even in suggesting that the Bible was composed by human beings and transmitted through a fallible historical process; Samuel Fisher, for one, had been willing to go this far in The Rustick’s Alarm to the Rabbies, published in 1660.
Still, it was not a common view, and in the eyes of most contemporary theologians and scholars, denying the general Mosaic authorship remained a highly unorthodox and subversive position. Spinoza notes that “the author [of the Pentateuch] is almost universally believed to be Moses,” and he knew that rejecting that dogma would earn an author the condemnation of religious authorities.
However, where Spinoza’s real originality appears is in his radical and innovative claim that this account of the origin of the biblical texts holds great significance for how they are to be read and interpreted. He was dismayed by the way in which Scripture itself was worshiped, by the reverence accorded to words on the page rather than to the moral message they convey.
A Work of Nature
If the Bible is an historical and thus natural document, then it should be treated like any other work of nature. The study of Scripture, or biblical hermeneutics, should therefore, Spinoza insists, proceed as natural science proceeds. Just as the study of the “Book of Nature”—operating according to the inductive method codified by Francis Bacon earlier in the century—gathers and rationally evaluates empirical data (especially causes and effects) in order to discover the laws of nature, so must the “science” of Scripture examine the book itself and its “causal” or compositional background for its general principles:
I hold that the method of interpreting Scripture is no different from the method of interpreting Nature, and is in fact in complete accord with it. For the method of interpreting Nature consists essentially in composing a detailed study of Nature from which, as being the source of our assured data, we can deduce the definitions of things of Nature. Now in exactly the same way the task of Scriptural interpretation requires us to make a straightforward study of Scripture, and from this, as the source of our fixed data and principles, to deduce by logical inference the meaning of the authors of Scripture … allowing no other principles or data for the interpretation of Scripture and study of its contents except those that can be gathered only from Scripture itself and from a historical study of Scripture.
Just as the knowledge of nature must be sought from nature alone, so must the knowledge of Scripture—the discovery of its authors’ intended meanings—be sought from Scripture alone (sola Scriptura), that is, from the text and the circumstances of its composition.
The goal is to ascertain the most general principles being proclaimed by the Bible, especially moral imperatives, and to do so through the reading and analysis of its texts and a study of the backgrounds of its authors, its composition and transmission, and the religious and political contexts of its canonization, without appealing to any independent authority or criteria external to the text and its history (such as ecclesiastic tradition or the pronouncements of philosophy and “reason”):
We must first seek … that which is most universal and forms the basis and foundations of all Scripture; in short, that which is commended in Scripture by all the prophets as doctrine most eternal and most profitable for all mankind. For example, that God exists, one alone and omnipotent, who alone should be worshiped, who cares for all, who loves above all others those who worship him and love their neighbors as themselves.
It follows that the implementation of the method to discover the meaning of Scripture, to learn what its authors intended to teach, requires a number of linguistic, textual and historical skills—above all, a knowledge of the original language and the culture of the ancient Hebrews. Since much of this information has been lost to time, especially concerning the language, there are obstacles to even the most well-trained of scholars who seek to discover the meaning of the prophetic writings.
However, Spinoza’s account does mean that the true interpretation of the Bible is, at least in principle, open and accessible to any person endowed with intelligence and who is able and willing to acquire the necessary scholarly skills. You do not have to be a rabbi, a priest or a philosopher. (It is noteworthy, as well, that Spinoza made his own contribution to this scholarly endeavor by composing his own Hebrew grammar, the Compendium Grammatices Linguae Hebrae [Grammatical Compendium of the Hebrew Language]).
Spinoza vs. Maimonides
Spinoza’s account of the interpretation of Scripture is a direct attack on Maimonides’ approach in the Moreh Nevukhim (Guide of the Perplexed)—a copy of which he owned and which he cites in the TTP—and along the line of rationalist exegetes before him (such as Saadya ben Joseph [Saadya Gaon] and Abraham ibn Ezra).
Maimonides had argued that deciphering the meaning of Biblical texts is a matter of seeing what is “approved” by reason. Because Scripture is the word of God, and thus the work of an omniscient and necessarily veracious author, its intended meaning must be consistent with demonstrable truth. Thus, if some passage, when read literally, cannot possibly be accepted by reason as true, then the literal meaning must be rejected in favor of a figurative one so as to make it consistent with what is absolutely true.
For example, the Bible speaks of God’s bodily parts. But reason/philosophy tells us, with demonstrative certainty, that an eternal, perfect God must be immaterial and therefore cannot have a body. Thus, any Biblical texts that refer to God’s feet, face or hands—or appearance in a form such as fire—must be read metaphorically. On the other hand, because, Maimonides insists, reason cannot demonstrate absolutely that the world is eternal, there is no justification for reading the Bible’s account of creation figuratively.
For Spinoza, this type of exegetical approach to the Biblical text is illegitimate in so far as it appeals to something beyond Scripture itself—that is, to an external standard of rationality or truth (such as, in Maimonides’s case, Aristotelian philosophy):
The question of whether Moses did or did not believe that God is fire must in no way be decided by the rationality or irrationality of the belief, but solely from other pronouncements of Moses.
There is no reason to expect that what the Bible says is either rational or true, any more so than what is to be expected by any other work of human literature.
The Bible and Truth
For Spinoza, then, the Bible should not be regarded as a source of truth: not historical truth, not metaphysical truth, not truths about nature and the cosmos, not even truths about God. The Bible is not philosophy, history, or science. What the Bible does proclaim, loud and clear (according to Spinoza, at least)—the truth that is the heart of all the prophetic writings when they are read and interpreted properly and according to Spinoza’s hermenutical method—is a simple, moral one: Love God above all, and love one’s neighbor as oneself.
This imperative does indeed agree with reason in the sense that our rational faculties approve it. But that Scripture teaches such a message can be discovered only through the “historical” or natural method of interpretation.
When, then, is a figurative or metaphorical reading of a passage from the Bible warranted? Only when a literal reading is in clear violation of the “basic principles derived from the study of Scripture,” that is, only when a literal reading stands in the way of clarifying the intentions or beliefs of its author(s) or contradicts the Bible’s clear moral message. The question, then, is not whether God is, in metaphysical truth, fire, or susceptible to passions such as anger and jealousy, but only whether the proper method of interpreting Scripture reveals that the particular prophet-author believed these things and intended to convey them through his writings.
One needs to keep in mind, Spinoza tells us, that the purpose of Scripture is not to communicate speculative truths but to compel obedience to God’s Law.
The Divinity of Scripture
In response to the accusation that he has robbed Scripture of its authority, and that, on his view, it follows that “the Word of God is faulty, mutilated, adulterated and inconsistent,” Spinoza insists that, on the contrary, he has restored the true luster and original utility of the work:
A thing is called sacred and divine when its purpose is to foster piety and religion, and it is sacred only for as long as men use it in a religious way… So Scripture likewise is sacred, and its words divine, only as long as it moves men to devotion towards God.
If a book succeeds in inspiring piety and showing people the way to salvation, if it moves them to treat others with justice and charity, then there is nothing corrupt about it; in fact, this is precisely what makes it “divine.” Conversely, it follows that if a book is not actually morally edifying in this way—and surely the Bible does not move all people to justice and charity—or it is used by certain people for nefarious and immoral purposes, then it is not divine, at least for them:
What is called sacred and divine is what is destined for the practice of piety and religion. It will be sacred only so long as men use it in a religious manner. If men cease to be pious, the thing likewise will cease to be sacred; if it is devoted to impious uses, then that which before was sacred will become unclean and profane.
The thing is, what is true for the Bible is in principle true for other works of human literature. If reading Shakespeare’s The Tempest or Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn moves one to obey God’s Law by practicing justice and mercy, or if reading Dickens’ Hard Times inspires one toward love and charity toward others, then these works too are “divine and sacred.” The word of God, Spinoza says, “isn’t contained in a certain number of books.” It just so happens that the authors of the Biblical texts, morally superior individuals gifted with vivid imaginations and thus skilled at morally inspiring storytelling, were particularly well-suited to this task.
In Spinoza’s view, if an account of Scripture and its interpretation forestalls the idolatrous worship of mere paper and ink and turns people toward the genuine devotion to God, to pious behavior, then it has made an important contribution to dispelling superstition and to the propagation of true religion.
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July 8, 2020
September 22, 2020
Prof. Steven Nadler is the William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy and Evjue-Bascom Professor in Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University, is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His books include Menasseh ben Israel: Rabbi of Amsterdam (Yale, “Jewish Lives” series, 2018); A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza's Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age (Princeton, 2011); The Philosopher, the Priest and the Painter: A Portrait of Descartes (Princeton, 2013); Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge, 1999; 2nd ed. 2018), winner of the Koret Jewish Book Award), and Rembrandt's Jews (Chicago, 2003). He is also the author, with his son Ben Nadler, of the graphic book Heretics! The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy (Princeton, 2017). His latest book is Think Least of Death: Spinoza on How to Live and How to Die (Princeton, 2020).
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