16] Let us explain this more clearly. Among the questions the Bible
seeks to teach that require purely philosophical reasoning, the most
important are that there is a God, or being, that made all things and directs
and sustains all things with the highest wisdom, and who takes the greatest
care of men, or rather of those who live piously and honestly, while in£ict-
ing many punishments on the rest and segregating them from the good.
These things Scripture proves by experience alone, by means of the his-
tories which it narrates. It provides no de¢nitions of these things but
accommodates all its words and reasons to the understanding of the com-
mon people. But experience can neither yield nor teach any clear knowl-
edge of these matters, nor tell us what God is or how he sustains and
directs all things and cares for human beings, though it can still teach and
illumine men su⁄ciently to instil
obedience and devotion in their minds.
From this I think it is clear for whom and for what reason belief in the
biblical narratives is necessary. From what we have just shown it very
plainly follows that knowing them and believing them is supremely
necessary to ordinary people whose minds are not competent to perceive
things clearly and distinctly.
It also follows that anyone who rejects these
histories because he does not believe there is a God or that He provides for
men and things, is impious. But in the case of someone who is ignorant of
them but who does know, by the natural light of reason, that there is a God
and so forth, as we have expressed it above, and who also possesses a true
code for living, he is entirely happy, and happier than the common people,
because, besides true opinions, he possesses a clear and distinct under-
standing of them. It follows ¢nally that anyone who neither knows the
biblical histories nor knows anything by the natural light of reason, though
not actually impious or obstinate, is however inhuman and almost brutish,
and has no gift from God.
17] We should add, though, that when we say an awareness of the bib-
lical narratives is most necessary for the common people, we do not mean
awareness of literally all the histories in the sacred writings, but only the
ones that are most important and which most clearly demonstrate, on their
own, apart from the others, the doctrine just mentioned, and which have
the most in£uence on people’s minds. For if all the biblical histories were
‘Clearly and distinctly’ was almost a technical term in the late seventeenth century, being fre-
quently used by Cartesians to denote rigorous philosophical deduction that is (supposedly)
On ceremonies and narratives
required to prove its doctrine, and it were impossible to draw a conclusion
without a thorough consideration of absolutely all the narratives, then
obviously the demonstration and derivation of the Bible’s doctrine would
surpass the capacity and abilities not just of the common people but all
mankind. Who could simultaneously attend to such a large number of
accounts, and all the circumstances and doctrinal aspects that should be
derived from so many histories of such di¡erent types? I at least remain
unpersuaded that those who left Scripture to us, as we have it, were so
rich in talent that they could manage such a demonstration themselves,
and much less do I believe it impossible to comprehend Scripture’s
teaching without hearing of the quarrels of Isaac, the counsels which
Achitophel gave to Absalom, the civil war between Judah and Israel, and
other such accounts, or that the doctrine itself could not have been
demonstrated to the earliest Jews who lived at the time of Moses equally
readily from stories, as it could
to those who lived in Ezra’s day. I will say
more about this later.
18] The common people, therefore, are required to know only those
histories which can most move their hearts to obedience and devotion.
But the people themselves are not su⁄ciently skilled to make judgments
about them, since they get more pleasure from stories and from strange
and unexpected events than from the actual doctrine of the histories.
This is why, in addition to reading the histories, they also need pastors or
church ministers to explain these to them, owing to the weakness of their
19] However, let us not wander from our purpose, but let us state the
conclusion we set out to prove, namely that, whatever the nature of these
histories, belief in them is not relevant to the divine law, nor do they make
men happy in themselves, nor do they serve any purpose other than for
their doctrine, and this is the only reason why some of them may be more
important than others. It is due to the salutary opinions that follow from
them that the narratives of the Old and New Testaments are superior to
other, non-sacred legends, and even among these, some are superior to
others. Hence if anyone reads the stories of holy Scripture and believes all
of them without paying attention to the doctrine that the Bible uses them
to teach, and without amending his life, he might just as well read the
Koran or the dramatic plays of the poets, or at any rate the common
chronicle s , with the s ame atte n t ion that the c o m mo n p e ople usually g ive
to the ir re ading. On the othe r hand, a s we have s aid, he who is c o mple tely
ig noran t of the m, and n eve r thele s s ha s s alutar y op inions and a tr ue c on -
ce pt ion of living, is tr uly happy and tr uly ha s within hi m the spi r it of
C hr ist.
Howeve r, the Jews hold c o mple tely to the opp o s ite view. They think
that tr ue op inions and a tr ue c once ption of life make no c on tr ibut ion to
happ in e s s whe n eve r p e ople re ceive the m by the natural ligh t of re a s on
alon e and not a s te aching s prophe t ic ally reve ale d to Mo s e s. Mai m onide s
dares op e nly to a s s e r t this (Ki n g s , ch.
in the s e words :
‘Eve r yon e who acce pts the s eve n
pre ce pts
and dilige n tly pract is e s the m
is am ong the p ious of the nat ions and an he ir of the world to c o me ; that
is , if he acce pts the m and pract is e s the m b e c aus e Go d pre s cr ib e d the m
in the Law and reve ale d to us through Mo s e s that the s ame require me n ts
had b e e n pre s cr ib e d to the s ons of No ah b efore. But if he pract is e s the m
b e c aus e he ha s b e e n c onvince d by rea s on that he should, he is not on e of
us , nor do e s he b elong to the p ious or le ar n e d of the nat ions’. The s e are
the words of Mai m onide s. Rabbi Jo s e ph b e n She m Tov, in his b o ok
e n t itle d Kevod Elohim , or Glor y of God ,
adds that Ar istotle (who he
supp o s e s ha s w r itte n the supre me Ethics , and who m he e ste e ms ab ove all
othe rs) mis s e d nothing that wa s relevan t to tr ue m orality and exp ou nde d
it all in his Ethics and would have put it all c ons c i e n t iously in to pract ice.
Neve r thele s s , he adds , this would not have help e d hi m towards s alvat ion,
since he did not receive these teachings as divine doctrine prophetically
revealed, but derived them from the dictate of reason alone. I think it is
evident to anyone who reads this attentively that all this is mere fabrica-
tion and does not rest upon the authority of the Bible, and hence one
need only expound it in order to refute it.
Neither do I intend at this point formally to refute the opinion of those
who are convinced that the natural light of reason can yield no sound
Mai m o ni de s , Mishneh Torah [Code of L aw] , B o o k of K i ng s , ch.
, law 11.
Spinoza’s footnote: N.B. the Jews think that God gave seven commandments to Noah, and the
nations are bound only by these; to the Hebrew people alone he gave many other commandments,
in order to render them happier than the rest.
Kevod Elohim printed at Ferrara in
1556, was written in 1442 by Joseph ben Shem Tov Ibn Shem
1400-c.1460), a Spanish Jewish physician and philosopher who, in that work, rejects the
equivalence between biblical and Aristotelian ethics argued by Maimonides; nevertheless, he
too was a great admirer of Aristotle and, at Segovia, in
1455, wrote a detailed commentary on
the Hebrew version of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.
On ceremonies and narratives