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Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677)

He initially thought of training as a rabbi, but was soon taken with a deep interest in the natural sciences and in Descartes’ philosophy. It was the reading of Descartes which inculcated in Spinoza a rational frame of mind, and he began to question a certain number of the traditional teachings of the Synagogue: for example, the fact that the Pentateuch was written by Moses, or that Adam had really been the first man. At 24, he was expelled from the Amsterdam Jewish community, with the connivance of the Calvinist city authorities: he was condemned as a heretic, even as an atheist. After this, he devoted himself to philosophy and to developing his own ideas, whilst earning a living as a lens-polisher for microscopes. In order not to be too isolated, he attached himself to liberal Protestant groups – Dutch Christians who no longer espoused pure Calvinism but who were closer to the Mennonites, Anabaptists or Remonstrants (a liberal Reformed Church established in 1619 in opposition to Calvin’s ideas on predestination).

The sole work he published during his lifetime was the Theologico-Political Treatise, in which he explains that freedom of thought is inimical neither to religious faith nor to peace nor to State security. He proposed a political system – democracy – and above all he defended religious freedom. The status of the Scriptures and the measures necessary to understand them properly occupy eighteen chapters. Throughout the book, Spinoza exhibits a firm rationalism, inspired by a Cartesian frame of mind as well as by Medieval Jewish philosophy which was itself influenced by Aristotle. Spinoza leaves no place for revealed knowledge or for supernatural phenomena, because the laws of nature are the divine law: to depart from these laws is to depart from God, that is, to go nowhere.

The Bible is a human document, with each of its books situated in a given place and time, a reality we must acknowledge in order to understand that the rites, counsels and beliefs they contain only have value when their historical context is made clear. We therefore have to return to the history of the texts, from which we can tease out the original intentions of their authors. To do this, we need to analyse the language, discover the origins of the texts, assess the various variant readings, enquire into the lives and interests of the authors, into their social and cultural milieux, and understand which groups of people were the original target-audience. We similarly need to research how the texts were put together, and how they came to be included in the biblical canon.

The texts also need to be allowed to argue amongst themselves, to have their contradictions, incoherences and inaccuracies unveiled. This is what Spinoza calls the interpretation of Scripture by Scripture, which allows us not to confuse the Word of God with human words. This difficult work of understanding does not disturb faith in the one God, who requires justice and love of neighbour. On the contrary, it permits us to distinguish the message which stretches across the whole of Scripture from what is pure conjecture.

These ideas, wholly rejected in Spinoza’s day, including by most Protestants, ended up having major repercussions when they were taken up again by German liberal Protestants in the 19th century. Spinoza was the precursor of modern biblical exegesis and of an enlightened understanding of the Bible. Sick, probably from tuberculosis, he died early at 44.

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