Victor Nuovo on Spinoza: How to read the bible
Editor’s note: This is the tenth in a series of essays on Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza.
What is the Bible? It is a book that contains the sacred scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. However, Jews and Christians differ about its meaning, even though, for the most part, they are referring to much the same thing when they use the name “Bible.” A Christian Bible has two parts, whose names “Old Testament” and “New Testament” signify a theological view of human history that I will explain shortly.
The first part, however, is complete in itself; it comprises the Jewish Scriptures. It consists of writings, originally composed in Hebrew, that narrate the history of the ancient Hebrew commonwealth, its rise and fall, and the subsequent exile and dispersal of its people — the Diaspora; interspersed in the narrative and elaborated in accompanying books are reflections on the fate of the nation and expressions of hope for its reestablishment, for it was believed that God would remain faithful to his promise to Abraham to make of his descendants a great nation. That promise marked the beginning of the nation; of equal importance was the subsequent founding of the Hebrew Commonwealth under Moses, who led the descendants of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, also known as Israel, out of Egypt to the promised land; Moses was not only the founder of the ancient Hebrew state, he was also its chief lawgiver and constitutionalist, and was regarded as the greatest of the Hebrew Prophets, who alone was said to have communicated with God face to face. The founding instruments of the nation and the commonwealth were covenants, between God and the people, they promised mutual fidelity without end. The Hebrew Scriptures are far richer in content than this brief outline can convey, and they rightly count among the world’s classics.
The New Testament consists of founding documents of the Christian Church; they were originally composed in Greek. The name signifies a new covenant, which Christians believed replaced the covenant with Moses. It was believed that Jesus of Nazareth was sent by God to establish a new people, gathered from all the nations of the earth, and that this new nation, called the Church, or Gathering, would replace the nation of Israel as heir to the divine promises made to Abraham and Moses. Like Moses, Jesus was depicted as a lawgiver, and like Moses, he was supposed to have performed miracles to demonstrate his divine vocation. Jesus had another title “Messiah,” or “Christ,” that is, the anointed one, whose coming was supposed to be a turning point in the history of the world.
This requires an explanation. A major development in the history of the Hebrew Commonwealth was the establishment of a monarchy; as the narrative shows, it was controversial. It led to civil war, which ended with David’s triumph and succession to the throne; under his rule and that of his son Solomon, the nation achieved its greatest glory. After this followed a series of misfortunes, civil war, a divided nation, the fall of the monarchy, and exile. Yet out of these misfortunes arose the hope of a future restoration, when God would send a new king, a new David, God’s anointed, the Messiah, to restore the nation and revive the kingdom. Early Christians appropriated this “messianic hope” and made it their founding idea. Their chief claim was that Jesus was the divinely anointed Messiah, and that his dominion would know no national boundaries, although it seems from some places in the New Testament that Jesus himself believed his mission was only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
What has this to do with Spinoza? Very much indeed. He was probably the first to practice what has become known as the higher criticism of the Bible. Higher criticism is the study of ancient texts. It employs linguistic, literary, and historical methods to recapture their original meaning. It is a secular discipline. The account of the Bible that I gave at the beginning of this essay is a summary of accumulated critical biblical interpretation.
But Spinoza had other interests in addition to historical critical ones. He wanted to use this historical evidence to clarify the relation between theology, politics, and morality and from this to draw some important practical conclusions.
To begin with, Spinoza concluded that the Hebrew Bible was basically a political work, whose central narrative was the exodus from Egypt and the founding of the commonwealth under Moses. He supposed that the theological aspects of the narrative are fictional, which is not to say that Moses invented them; rather he imagined them. He notes that other nations had similar theological founding myths. To explain this phenomenon he explores the nature of the prophetic mind. Prophets were biblical personages who received messages from God to deliver to the people. From their writings, he concluded that they were persons endowed with an acute moral sensibility and a rich imagination. The combination made them effective communicators, or preachers, able to inspire and lead people. They were not crowd pleasers; their authority derived from their evident moral seriousness and from what they said. Spinoza regarded Jesus and Moses as the best examples of the prophetic vocation, although he also allowed that there are probably instances of this vocation in other cultures.
Spinoza observes that Moses had little to say about the divine nature, except that God is eternal, that he created order out of chaos at the beginning of the world, and therefore “has supreme right and power over all things.” In sum, the nature of God, as “revealed” in the Scriptures, does not conflict with the philosophical identification of God and Nature. Hence, he concludes that there is nothing in biblical teaching that would prohibit the freedom to philosophize.
Even more, because of the purity of his moral intuition, Moses was able to conceive a law fit to be a law of nature, for its primary virtues, justice and mercy, were universally acceptable; Moses’ successors, the Hebrew prophets, used them to establish a purely moral religion, purged of all sacerdotal rites and sacrifices. The prophet Micah epitomized their achievement in this dialogue between a penitent and a prophet (Micah 6:6–8):
“How shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
“He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”
Because he found them to be eminently rational, for they were an effective means to establish social harmony and peace, Spinoza took these virtues as models of civic virtues, and this moral religion as the standard of civil religion, which stands above and apart from all sectarian religion.
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