Where Did “Historical Criticism” of the Bible Come From? (Part One)

In the previous blog post in this series, we considered a useful definition of “historical criticism” of the Bible. Put succinctly, historical criticism seeks to understand the origins of ancient texts in order to better get at the world “behind the text.” As the most read book ever written, the Bible qualifies as one of the most studied book, in the field of historical criticism.

But what are the roots of historical criticism, when it comes to the Bible? Where did historical criticism come from? Or to put it another way, what are the habits of mind, associated with historical criticism, that can influence how even Christians today read the Bible, and where did these habits originate?

In this second blog post from this series (the first one is here), we look at the first of two books that explore the history behind “historical criticism,” as seen through the lives of a group of 17th century European philosophers. “Part two” will come out about a week from now. Stick around.


Historical Criticism on the “Historical Criticism” Movement

Several books that I have recently read examines the question above in detail, by applying historical criticism to the development of historical criticism itself, by looking at the some of leading early figures of the movement, namely Isaac La Peyrère, Thomas Hobbes, and especially Baruch Spinoza. Steven Nadler, the author of A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age, tells us the story of Baruch Spinoza’s most controversial 17th century book, that really kick started the whole historical criticism movement.

Baruch Spinoza grew up in the Spanish Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. Western Europe had been engulfed in a series of religious wars, commonly known as the Thirty Years War, where nearly 1 out of 4 (or 5) Europeans died, prior to the Peace of Westphalia, in 1648, as Roman Catholics and Protestants fought against one another for control of various parts of Europe. The conflagration pretty much ended the medieval social order established by the Holy Roman Empire, resulting in the development of various city-states and regional governments, each one declaring adherence to one form of Roman Catholic or Protestant confession, or another.

Spinoza’s family had been “conversos,” Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity on the Iberian peninsula. However, such “conversos” were often viewed with suspicion by more established Christians, as to whether they were truly converted. When Spinoza’s family left to go to Amsterdam, to take advantage of the growing religious diversity there in the Netherlands, they were hoping to re-establish their roots in the Jewish faith. However, at age 23, Baruch Spinoza was expelled from the Jewish community in Amsterdam, for expressing theological views at the time that did not agree with the local rabbis. Spinoza had been raised to take over the family import business, but he was able to release himself from these obligations in order to dedicate himself fully to the task of doing philosophy.

He had been left in relative obscurity, until the publication of his Theologico-Political Treatise, in 1670. In his various writings, Spinoza argued that the hotly contested theological conflicts of the day could not be resolved by spiritual authorities alone. Rather, Spinoza argued for a type of “scientific” enterprise that would seek to resolve the conflicts between Roman Catholics, Protestants and Jews on how to interpret the Bible. But the development of his ideas led critics to conclude that Spinoza had become an atheist, and that his book(s) should be banned.

Spinoza the Controversialist

The most well known controversial claim made by Spinoza had to do with the authorship of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. Like most pious Jews (and Christians) of the time, he was taught in synagogue to believe that Moses wrote everything we find in those five books. Spinoza did note, however, some problems with that entire teaching. But he certainly was not the first to do so.

For example, at the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, the last chapter describes the death of Moses. Scholars for centuries had concluded that Moses simply could not have written about his death, prior to dying himself. The most common solution to this was to suggest that it was Joshua who added in the part about Moses’ death, at a later point in time.

The 4th century Bible translator of the Latin Vulgate, Jerome, living well over a thousand years before Spinoza, believed that Ezra, the scribal priest living after the Babylonian Exile of the Jews, in the 5th c. BCE, either “edited” or “restored” the first five Books of Moses, nearer to the form we now have them.

However, what made Spinoza so controversial is that he proposed a far more radical solution to some of the problems found in the Pentateuch. Instead of suggesting that certain parts of the Pentateuch were added in later or edited, by another scribe, Spinoza concluded that very little, if anything, in those five books could be attributed to Moses in the first place. In other words, much of what we read in the Pentateuch was written perhaps centuries after Moses even lived.

But that was just the start for Spinoza. Spinoza went onto say that the Bible was not literally the Word of God, that divine providence and Scriptural prophecy did not work the way most Jews and Christians thought it did, and that the miracles found in the Bible never happened. For most Jews and Christians alike, Spinoza’s views were scandalous. One particular critic of Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise called it “a book forged in hell by the devil himself.”

It would be several centuries before Julius Wellhausen would teach his students about the “documentary hypothesis,” but the ground work for such radical views about the Bible had been laid by Spinoza. Today, such views about the Bible remain standard teaching among the vast majority of departments of religion in secular (and sometimes even in some Christian) universities.

The World After Baruch Spinoza

The 21st century West lives in the shadow of Baruch Spinoza. Some historians speak of the world before Spinoza as “the Age of Faith.” After Spinoza, they say the world entered “the Age of Reason.” What will future historians think of the 21st century remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the impact of Spinoza’s ideas in the wake of the Thirty Years War, and the bitter strife between Roman Catholics and Protestant Reformers, continues to be felt today.

I will have more to say about Spinoza, and Steven Nadler’s analysis of Spinoza’s writings and life, in “part two” of the history behind “historical criticism” coming soon. Plus, I will also include a brief look at Isaac La Peyrère and Thomas Hobbes, two other 17th century philosophers who stimulated the thought of Baruch Spinoza, in reshaping the world we live in today. Stay tuned.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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