Baruch Spinoza is often thought of as the father of the modern world. But in the 17th century, he was not alone in bringing in ideas that would take advantage of the confusion in post-Reformation Europe, and challenging traditional Christian ideas about the Bible. As we explore how the rise of “historical criticism” developed, we can consider the stories of Isaac La Peyrère and Thomas Hobbes, and how they tie in with Spinoza’s story.
…. This is the third in a series of blog posts examining the “historical criticism” of the Bible. “Part one” of the history behind “historical criticism” can be found here. Now we look at “part two” of the history behind “historical criticism”…..
Spinoza’s Intellectual Compatriots: Isaac La Peyrère and Thomas Hobbes
Jeffrey Morrow, author of Three Skeptics and the Bible: La Peyrère, Hobbes, Spinoza, and the Reception of Modern Biblical Criticism, highlights the stories of French philosopher Isaac La Peyrère and English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who influenced Baruch Spinoza, in promoting skepticism about the Bible.
Isaac La Peyrère, like Spinoza, had a “conversos” background, with Jewish family roots. La Peyrère grew up in France as a Protestant, but felt forced to convert to Roman Catholicism towards the end of his life, once he published some of his views on the Bible. La Peyrère was deeply interested in the question of where the “Indians”, the native Americans in the New World, actually came from, as it was not obvious from the Bible as to where such people originated.
Many thinkers during the colonial era, up through the 19th century, tried to figure out the origins of America’s native peoples. Most famously, Joseph Smith popularized the speculative hypothesis that the Native Americans were the descendants of the “Lost Ten Tribes,” who disappeared after the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel, as described in the Bible. Smith’s “Book of Mormon” continues to enamor people today, though few 21st century anthropologists find any evidence to support the claims presented in the Book of Mormon. Still, it is a fascinating question.
How did Native Americans get to the Americas in the first place? La Peyrère proposed a solution that he believed was consistent with Scriptural teaching that could explain the origin of Native Americans, in his book Prae-Adamitae. Much of La Peyrère’s thesis fits within an orthodox view of the Bible. However, La Peyrère went onto explore more radical ideas about the Bible that would influence Spinoza, and stimulate all sorts of speculations, primarily that Moses had nothing to do with the writing of the Pentateuch. This is what got La Peyrère into trouble.
La Peyrère had been influenced by the Englishman, Thomas Hobbes, who just a few years prior to Prae-Adamitae published his Leviathan. Hobbes had lived his mid-adult life during the intense conflict of the English Civil War, between Puritans like Oliver Cromwell and Roman Catholic sympathizers like King Charles I. Hobbes argued in Leviathan that a strong centralized government was required to prevent civil war, particularly when the participants in the civil conflict were motivated by contrasting theological perspectives. Thomas Hobbes believed that theological dogmatism should always be tempered by a commitment to reason. This appealed to La Peyrère, who had such a family history, where the nature of one’s theological commitments were suspect. It is easy to see how La Peyrère and Thomas Hobbes therefore became intellectual companions to Baruch Spinoza.
Among conservative evangelical scholars today, the more extreme conclusions about the Bible made by Baruch Spinoza, and his philosophical friends, are largely rejected. However, some insights made by Spinoza, and his followers, have been incorporated into a more nuanced description of how the Bible came together. A number of evangelical Bible scholars today adopt what might be called variations on the “supplementary hypothesis,” which contends that the substantial core of literary material in the Pentateuch can be traced back to Moses, but that later editors of the text made certain changes in order to keep the material “up to date.” Such changes were made over several centuries until the Pentateuch’s placement in the Old Testament canon became fixed, in the manner that we now have it.
For a classic example, noted by Bible scholar Claude Mariottini, Genesis 14:14 makes a reference to the city of “Dan,” in northern Israel, the place where Abram (Abraham) rescued his nephew, Lot. The problem here is that the name for this city, “Dan,” did not exist during this time period, and the son of Jacob named “Dan” had not yet been born. Furthermore, Moses as an author certainly would not have known anything about the city of “Dan,” as he died before crossing the Jordan River, into the Promised Land. The city of “Dan” would only become settled by the descendants of Dan, during the conquest of the Promised Land described in the Book of Joshua. While scholars continue to debate the specifics of a solution, it is generally agreed that probably some later editor changed the original name of this area to “Dan,” which reflected a more recent understanding of the city’s location. In this sense, it could be understood that the text of Genesis was kept “up to date” by a later editor, as place names often changed names somewhat frequently over the centuries, as people moved around due to displacement by wars, etc.
One central idea behind historical criticism, articulated so controversially by Baruch Spinoza, is that we should analyze the Bible just like we would analyze any other ancient book. There is a sense in which Spinoza’s approach is to be welcomed, but yet there is another sense in which this approach falls flat. Like many of the great ancient books, the Bible is truly a great work of human literature, and historical criticism has done much to enhance our appreciation and understanding of the historical context of the Bible as literature. However, most ancient books lack a claim to being divine revelation, whereas the uniqueness of the Bible is founded upon the idea that it is the inspired Word of God. The tendency among certain advocates of historical criticism to divorce the human, literary aspects of the Scriptural text from the claim of divine inspiration is a bad habit of mind, that has had far reaching consequences over the recent centuries.
Historical Criticism: A Tool for Deconstruction … Or Reconstruction, for Christian Faith?
A much repeated story these days is that for some, who grow up in a Christian community, the personal discovery of the “historical criticism” of the Bible leads to a deconstruction of Christian faith. Walter Lippmann, a 20th century journalist and political theorist, famously stated that it is the “acids of modernity” that corrode traditional faith. For some this corrosion results in a form of “progressive Christianity” that hangs onto Christian faith, but only by a slim thread of substance. For others, it leads to agnosticism, if not outright atheism. But is such corrosion the only trajectory of such deconstruction? Or can it instead lead to a type of reconstruction of faith, placed on better footing?
Steven Nadler, a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in his A Book Forged in Hell, that was partially reviewed in a previous blog post, makes much of Spinoza’s intention to find a more “scientific” approach to the Bible, that supersedes the theological wrangling of different dogmatic commitments to the Bible. In 17th century Europe, where theological disputes often boiled over into heated political disputes, that even led to violence, Spinoza argued that a more rational approach to the Bible, based on “scientific” principles, would lead to peace between those who held different views of the Bible.
Spinoza despised superstition, assigned both traditional Judaism and Christianity into that category, and ironically argued that a belief in miracles was actually counter to the true knowledge of God. For Spinoza, the value of Scripture comes from its ability to move people to treat others with justice and charity, as would any other piece of great literature. It is in this sense, and only in this sense, of the Bible as a source for encouraging good moral behavior, that Spinoza would ascribe the notion of “divine” to the Bible. Spinoza’s views, radical for the 17th century, have become the assumed foundation for a secular worldview, in the 21st century, where science is often viewed as the only reliable, objective means for human thought and ethics.
The problem with this narrative is that it assumes that pure objectivity, when it comes to historical criticism, is rationally attainable. Professional historians are quick to say they deal more in the realm of historical probabilities, rather than historical certainties. Though a noble aim, the quest for certainty, in using the scientific tools of historical criticism, even for interpreting the Bible, does not result in the type of certainty that many would like.
Furthermore, the claim of the Bible itself, is not that it is a collection of morally inspiring thoughts derived from merely human authors. Rather, the Bible itself claims to be the inspired Word of God, surely written by humans, but not merely human, being divinely originated as well. However, if one follows the path of Spinoza that Steven Nadler admiringly portrays, that inherently corrosive terminus of deconstruction is all but guaranteed. Like pulling on the loose threads of a sweater, as one’s faith begins to unravel, some might try to salvage some of those loose threads, whereas others will simply toss the whole mess of sweater remains in the garbage. Is there yet not another path?
Towards the Reconstruction of Christian Faith
Jeffrey Morrow, the author of Three Skeptics and the Bible, was raised culturally Jewish, then became a Protestant evangelical, and then ultimately entered the Roman Catholic Church, and who is now a theologian at Seton Hall University. In Three Skeptics and the Bible, Morrow challenges the narrative that true objectivity, when it comes to historical criticism, is possible. Contemporary historical criticism rightly has explored the reception history of the Bible, as the message of the Bible has been received by different communities across the ages in very different ways. Nevertheless, Morrow argues that the discipline of historical criticism itself has had its own reception history, particularly since its genesis in the thought of Baruch Spinoza and his 17th century philosophical friends.
Morrow’s thesis is that the original development of historical criticism, pioneered by Spinoza, is rooted in the historical context of the 17th century, political church-state debate. The questions that Spinoza faced when reading the Bible were not new to him. People had been wrestling with such questions for centuries. What was new with Spinoza was his desire to take the control of Biblical interpretation out of the hands of spiritual authorities and place it in the hands of the political authorities of the state. In Spinoza’s historical context of living in the pluralism of 17th century Dutch society, this meant that every spiritual authority, whether it be Jewish, Protestant or Roman Catholic, would come under the secular authority of the state.
Did Baruch Spinoza really understand the drawn-out consequences of his own thesis? One specific critique of historical criticism, in its most skeptical form, is that in the effort to read the Bible like any piece of ancient literature, the tendency to set aside the claim that God had a hand in authoring the Bible, robs the text of its underlying unity. We all know that the Bible was written by dozens of authors, across many centuries, in many different specific historical and literary contexts. But what keeps the Bible together as a whole is buttressed by the claim that God is ultimately the divine author throughout, working through the human authors, in order to give us a coherent, unified text. Without that sense of an underlying unity, the tendency among some scholars is to divide the Scriptures into multiple, disparate parts, thus cutting away the coherency of the text, that has been maintained by Jewish and Christian readers for centuries.
Furthermore, this Scriptural text was meant to be read, studied, prayed through, and sung in community. The Bible was not meant to be merely a book. Rather, it was meant to be an invitation to experience the deep mysteries of life, within the context of corporate worship. Spinoza, prompted by La Peyrère and Hobbes, turned the Bible into a mere book, to be dissected.
This does not mean we should simply gloss over the diversity in the Scriptural text as being inconsequential. For example, why is it that certain parts of the Pentateuch exclusively use the name “Yahweh” (singular) for God, while other parts only use the name “Elohim” (plural) for God? Does the Old Testament embrace some concept of a “divine council”? Some Christians unfortunately take a Wizard of Oz, “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” approach to such questions. Instead the tools provided by historical criticism can help us to make better sense of what the text is trying to tell us. The probing challenges offered by Baruch Spinoza and his followers, properly framed, without going to extremes, can actually help us.
As a Roman Catholic, Jeffrey Morrow comes down on the Protestant Reformers, contending that the trend away from more allegorical readings of the Bible, and a concern for a more literal approach to Scripture, inevitably led to the skepticism of La Peyrère, Hobbes, and Spinoza. This critique is difficult for a Protestant evangelical like me to hear, but it is still worth hearing. Morrow values the sacramental aspect of interacting with the Bible, something that many of my fellow Protestants tend to be weaker on than our Roman Catholic friends.
The main lesson offered by Morrow in his Three Skeptics and the Bible is that while historical criticism, properly understood, can indeed inform our understanding of the Bible, it nevertheless can not completely supersede the bias of the scholar. When we only look to scholars for the answers to our theological questions, divorced from a local Christian community, it can easily distort our vision of faith. Therefore, if left unchecked, such biases can lead to certain habits of mind that can cloud our understanding of the Bible, as it was meant to be understood by God. Instead, Christians need to be a part of a healthy local church, where people can wrestle with their questions about the Bible, in an atmosphere of worship, love, support, and understanding.
Historical criticism of the Bible has certain benefits, but it also has certain limitations. If we begin our study of the Bible with a certain radical skepticism of thought, that sets off any claim to divine inspiration to the side, then it is very difficult to get back to a genuinely historically orthodox perspective of the Christian faith. It often leads to a deconstruction of Christian faith. On the other hand, if we approach the text of Scripture with more of a trust in God’s ability to communicate through Scripture, and instead apply skepticism towards our own ability to understand the text, then it is more likely that this will lead to a reconstruction of faith, gaining a greater sense of confidence that God is truly speaking to us, through His Word in Scripture.
In our next blog post in this series, coming out in a week or so, we will look at a short case study (shorter than this current blog post), examining how the assumptions brought to the Scriptural text will make a difference when applying historical criticism. Stay tuned.