We now think that any serious religious person would be dismayed by the Bible scholarship of Spinoza and Father Richard Simon. But, though they shocked many of the theologians of the late seventeenth century and afterward, they also carried further historical and critical inquiries about the biblical text that had been developing from the late Middle Ages and through the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Isaac Newton, who devoted about sixty years of his life to studies about the Bible seems to have been affected positively by points made by Spinoza and Simon. And this is curious in that two hundred years later Newton's own exegesis of the books of Daniel and Revelation was republished by the former head of the British Medical Association, Professor William Whitla of Queens College, Belfast, as an answer to the higher criticism of the Bible that had been developed from the ideas and methods of Spinoza and Simon by German scholars in the nineteenth century.
First, did Newton actually know the texts of either of these radical biblical exegetes? We know that he knew of Simon's work, since he owned copies of five of his books, and cited them occasionally in his own work. We know he had ample opportunity to know of Spinoza's writings, especially the work that deals extensively with the Bible, the Tractatus Politico Theologicus It was in the library of Isaac Barrow that Newton had cataloged. The work was known to his colleagues at Cambridge, Ralph Cudworth and Henry More, both of whom were exercised about Spinoza's views and attacked them in print.
Spinoza is usually considered one of the creators of modern Biblical scholarship and Biblical criticism because of the views about the Bible that he expressed in the Theological-Political Treatise and in some of his letters. In this chapter I shall briefly indicate a way in which Spinoza's views might have developed, then present what his views are, and compare and contrast them with those of some of his contemporaries. Finally I will try to evaluate the extent of his originality.
The usual picture of Spinoza’s development is taken from what appears in “the oldest biography,” attributed to one Jean-Maximillien Lucas; in the Life of Spinozaby Johann Colerus,- and from occasional remarks by Spinoza. Spinoza is seen as being born into, and growing up in, a rigid orthodox Jewish community in Amsterdam. He studied in the school of the Portuguese Jewish Synagogue. As a youth he began questioning some of what he was being taught, and by 1655 was rejecting the theological assumptions of the Jewish community, and the views of his teachers, the rabbis of Amsterdam. In July 1656 he was excommunicated, charged with holding outrageous beliefs and execrable practices.
The other essays in this volume describe the tragic history of the Jews in German lands from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment. In this chapter, I focus on a quite different world that existed in the Netherlands, just across Germany's western border. (A somewhat similar story could be told about the condition of Jews living across the eastern border of Germany, in Lithuania and Poland, in the first half of the seventeenth century.) In the Middle Ages, Jews lived in various Dutch cities without the accompanying purges that occurred in German towns. After the success of the Dutch in the rebellion against Spain and the emergence of a new polity, in the Dutch Republic, however, a different kind of Jewish life emerged, different from what existed anywhere else in Europe.
What happened in the Netherlands suggests that there may not necessarily be any connection between the medieval persecutions of Jews in Germany, the repressions associated with the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, the decimation of Jewish communities during the Thirty Years' War, and the Nazi era. What happened in the Netherlands was an alternative scenario, in which the Jewish community was accepted and flourished, until the German army under Hitler conquered the country. There had been no ghettos in the Netherlands until 1940. Although seventeenth-century Dutch Jews lived mainly near the synagogues, as a matter of law they could live where they pleased. Christians too lived in the heart of the Jewish community. Let us remember that Rembrandt lived and painted in his house at 1 Joodenbreestraat, a block from the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue and just behind the house where Spinoza was born. Moreover, Rembrandt's house belonged to Baron Francis Boreel, the Dutch ambassador to France.
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