But while Spinoza’s technique in the Theological-Political Treatise is
predominantly hermeneutical, philological and historical, at certain
points, notably in chapter
‘On Miracles’, he adopts a very di¡erent and
more explicitly philosophical procedure. Mostly, when discussing biblical
phraseology and expressions, Spinoza claims purposely to have ‘asserted
nothing concerning prophecy which I could not infer from principles
revealed in Scripture’ itself.
For especially when dealing with issues like
prophecy which ‘is beyond human understanding and is a purely
theological issue’, no one can specify what it actually is, in itself, other than
‘on the basis of revealed principles’. Hence, comprehending such a
phenomenon must involve constructing ‘a history of prophecy’ from the
text of Scripture itself as well as the derivation of ‘certain dogmas from it
which would show me its nature and characteristics, so far as that can be
When discussing miracles, on the other hand, the position was
entirely di¡erent. There, he had no alternative, he claims, but to elucidate
this question only from principles known by the natural light of reason, for
with ‘miracles’, the question we are investigating (namely, whether we may
concede that something happens in nature which contradicts its laws or
which does not conform to them) is wholly philosophical.
TheTheological-Political Treatise has been called, with some justi¢cation,
‘the most important seventeenth-century work to advance the study of the
Bible and religion generally’, being the book which ‘disarmed the religious
interpreters who would enforce conformity’.
The novelty of Spinoza’s
approach does not lie in his a⁄rming that Moses was not the author of the
Pentateuch, as Hobbes and La Peyre
` re (and others) had said before, nor in
pointing out that its texts must have been composed and redacted long
after the events they describe, nor in emphasizing the special
characteristics, peculiarities and limitations of the Hebrew language.
Rather, Spinoza revolutionized Bible criticism by insisting on the need to
approach the subject free of all prejudgments about its meaning and
signi¢cance, eyeing every chain of tradition and authority whether Jewish,
Catholic, Protestant or Muslim with equal suspicion and, above all, by
stressing the importance of the distinction ^ never previously
systematized in the history of criticism ^ between the intended or ‘true’
meaning of a passage of text and ‘truth of fact’.
J. Samuel Preus, Spinoza and the Irrelevance of Biblical Authority (Cambridge,
2001), p. x.
The ‘tr ue me aning’ of a text , for Sp ino z a , c ons ists of a c orrect acc ou n t of
the though t pro ce s s e s , a s su mpt ions and in te nde d me aning s of its author
or authors , s o me thing which c an b e don e only by c arefully rec onstr uct ing
b oth the histor ic al and linguist ic c ircu mst ances in which it wa s w r itte n
and analys ing the c once pts us e d in te r ms of a str ictly natu ralist ic
inte r pre t at ion of hu man nature , that is on e that its elf make s no app e al
to sup e r natu ral force s or author ity. G ive n the facts of human natu re and
the c o mplex ways such b eli ef syste ms develop, this ‘tr ue me aning’ of the
text may not have much, or eve n anything, to do with tr uth of fact. For
Sp ino z a , tr uth of fact is an ab s olute and purely phys ic al re ality g rou nde d
on the laws of ‘tr ue’ philo s ophy and s c i e nce , an explanat ion devoid of all
sup e r natu ral age n ts and force s , and all sp ir its and qualit i e s s e parate from
b o di e s , b e ing expre s s e d s olely in te r ms of me chanist ic c aus e and e¡e ct.
A c o ge n t inve st igat ion of the s ig ni¢c ance of a text the refore re quires
that on e c arefully avoid mixing the in te nde d me aning s of the nar rat ive on e
is studying with on e’s ow n vi ews (or tho s e of anyon e els e other than the
authors of that par t icular text) ab out what is tr ue ge n e rally. ‘In order not to
c onfus e the ge nuin e s e ns e of a pa s s age with the tr uth of thing s , we must
inve st igate a pa s s age’s s e ns e only from its us e of the language or from
re a s oning which acce pts no othe r fou ndat ion than Scr iptu re its elf.’
He nce , a c ons iste n t , c ohe ren t histor ic al - cr it ic al me tho d of exe ge s is
c annot b e e ithe r c o mbin e d with, or us e d along s ide , the dog ma s and
re ce ive d op inions of b eli eve rs a s to what that text (or any othe r text) tr uly
s ig ni¢es , or mixe d with the dict ate s of s ou nd c o m m ons e ns e or c o gen t
philo s ophy.
The tr ue me aning of a text (including Scr iptu re) and tr uth of
fact are s i mply two quite dist inct and largely u nc onn e cte d thing s. Sp ino z a
was certainly right here at any rate in so far as the ‘true’ meaning of biblical
or other texts, and ‘truth of fact’, had in his own day, and previously,
invariably been merged and broadly at least identi¢ed as one, or as he
would say ‘confused’.
Hence, for Spinoza, understanding a text is not a matter of ascertaining
what is ‘true’ in it or searching for what is authoritative or divinely
inspired, but strictly an historical-critical as well as linguistic exercise
anchored in a wider naturalistic philosophical standpoint. What was both
quintessentially ‘modern’and revolutionary in Spinoza’s text criticism and
Spinoza, Theological - Political Treatis e , ch.
, para. 2 .
Preus, Spinoza and the Irrelevance,