Hello and thanks for reading! My name is Gloria Sun and I am a student at Wellesley College. The seminar I’m taking this semester is called “Science and the Bible” and I am excited to be sharing my thoughts on this week’s topic with you. As a Christian and an intended STEM major, these topics have a personal importance to me as I figure out my own stance in my future field.
Last time we talked about the Galileo Controversy, and how historical events and discoveries have influenced the relationship between the church and science, even to the present day.
This week’s reading will include books 7-8 of Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, Joel Baden’s The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis (pp. 1-33), and selections of the RSV Bible: Gen. 12, Exod. 1-15, Num. 12, Dtr. 31, Ezra 7. Here are the questions used to prompt our thinking:
- How does this attitude toward scripture resemble that developed by Galileo in his Letters to Castelli and the Grand Duchess Christina? How is it different?
“I may sum up the matter by saying that the method of interpreting Scripture does not widely differ from the method of interpreting nature–in fact, it is almost the same. For as the interpretation of nature consists in the examination of the history of nature and therefrom deducing definitions of natural phenomena on certain fixed axioms, so Scriptural interpretation proceeds by the examination of Scripture, and inferring the intention of its authors as a legitimated conclusion from its fundamental principles.” (bk VII)
To what extent might the different social and religious backgrounds of these two thinkers have contributed to their particular attitudes toward the authority of scripture? How might Spinoza’s approach to scripture, had it been available to Galileo, have changed the terms of his defense?
- Why is the issue of the language in which scripture was written (bk VII) relevant to Spinoza’s argument? How does this affect the idea of scriptural authority?
- Explain the significance of Dtr 33 as evidence for Spinoza against the traditional view of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch (bk VIII). What is the impact of challenging the authorship of the text in this way?
- Why does it matter for Spinoza when the words of scripture were written down?
Spinoza argues that the knowledge of scripture should be sought from scripture alone, in the same way that knowledge of nature should be sought from nature alone. Galileo had the attitude that scripture only teaches the things necessary for salvation and that it doesn’t err, but the interpretations of it can (literal vs. allegorical).
Despite both thinkers believing that only certain truths could and should be taken from the holy text, Spinoza furthermore proposed to accept nothing as an authoritative statement in the bible without taking into account the language, life of the author, and the times in which the book was written. He knew there were contradictory passages in the text and would refuse to assume that it had a certain meaning when the literal interpretation contradicted with reason. In Galileo’s time, people approached scripture with less of an open mind and would not doubt the authenticity or implication of the text with a default mode of inquisitiveness.
Spinoza recognized the influence of power over the validity of human commentary, which associated religion with discord and hatred rather than its teachings of charity. He believed that the authority of scripture could not be proved from miracles, because false prophets could do the same, but by teaching true virtue.
A few paragraphs ago I mentioned language as an important factor in interpreting scripture. Spinoza goes into depth over the different nuances that are lost as the original Hebrew text has been translated into the text we read today. He describes “many phrases of which the meaning is most obscure or altogether inexplicable, though the component words are perfectly plain”, and the lack of vowels in the language, giving rise to ambiguities everywhere. It seems that the commonly taken meaning is only a product of guesswork, which subtracts from the idea of “scriptural authority”.
The Pentateuch of the Old Testament is traditionally attributed to Moses, but Spinoza shows that it is difficult to say that this is the case. Moses is referred to in the third person, he never actually crosses the Jordan even though the narrative continues after his death, he is compared to the prophets who come after him, and the book of rules that Moses “read” to the Israelites was theoretically much shorter than what we have today, which all suggests a different author who compiled the book long after his death. The effect of this debunking makes scripture seem less authoritative and more like a historical account of a random author (probably Ezra) rather than a divine impregnation of knowledge from a holy figure. It makes the bible seem more like a history of a history rather than the primary source that it was assumed to be.
Thank you for reading! Let’s continue the discussion in the comments below.