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Theologico-Political Treatise 1862/Chapter 7

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OF THE INTERPRETATION OF SCRIPTURE.


That the Scriptures are the word of God is in everybody's mouth; and it is also said that they teach true happiness, and point out the way of everlasting life to man. But the thing itself is plainly judged of very differently; for the generality of men seem to care for nothing less than to live according to the precepts of Holy Writ, and whilst some are seen eager to parade their own conceits for God's word, others, under pretext of zeal for religion, seem only solicitous to force the rest of the world to think as they do themselves. Theologians, I say, have hitherto shown themselves especially ingenious in extorting their own conceits and figments from the letter of Scripture, and in supporting their various conclusions by divine authority: they never proceed more rashly and with fewer scruples than when they set about interpreting the Scriptures. If they show anxiety about anything, it is not lest they should connect error with the Holy Spirit; but lest they themselves should be convicted of mistake, and so have their proper authority contemned. But did mankind feel that hearty conviction of the excellence of the Scriptures which they are ready enough to avow with their mouths, they would pursue a very different manner of living; their souls would not be disturbed by so many discordant passions, nor distracted by such ardent hatreds; neither would they make so many and such rash attempts to interpret Scripture and to produce novelties in religion. They would not venture to embrace as Scripture doctrine aught which was not most plainly set forth as such in Scripture itself. Then, too, would those sacrilegious men who have not feared to tamper with Scripture in many places, have withheld their hands from such wickedness. But vanity and audacity have gone so far that religion is made at length to consist less in obeying the decrees of the Holy Spirit than in adopting and defending the commentaries and conclusions of men; the effect of which is, that instead of teaching charity and good-will, religion becomes the vehicle of hatred and discord in the world, and all under the name and pretext of zeal for sacred things. With such ills superstition, moreover, has been associated, — superstition which teaches men to despise reason and nature, and only to admire and respect that which these alike ignore. It is not to be wondered at therefore if some, whilst striving to excite a greater reverence and respect for Scripture, have actually explained it in such a way as to make its precepts seem repugnant both to common sense and nature. This is the reason why such profound mysteries have been supposed to lurk in Holy Writ, and why, in searching after these, to the entire neglect of useful truths, many have plainly lost their way, have ascribed their own delirious dreams to the Holy Spirit, and expended their strength and ingenuity in defending absurdities. For even thus does it fare with man: That which he conceives by pure intelligence, that he defends by reason and understanding; and that which he imagines by the affections of his mind, that does he justify by temper and passion.

That we may not get entangled in this maze, that we may keep our minds free from theological prejudices, and not adopt the imaginations of man as divine truths, we shall now proceed to treat of the true method of interpreting Scripture, and of commenting upon it; for without this we can know nothing certainly of what Scripture or the Holy Spirit would teach. Now on this point, in few words, I say that the proper method of interpreting Scripture does not differ from the proper method of interpreting nature, but agrees with it almost in every particular. For, inasmuch as the way of interpreting nature consists especially in bringing together, in arranging and contrasting, the facts of natural science, from whence, as from assured data, we arrive at general conclusions and definitions; so also in interpreting Scripture it is necessary to co-ordinate its simple statements and histories, and from them, as from fixed data and principles, to come to legitimate conclusions in regard to the meaning and purpose of the authors of the narrative. "Whoever proceeds in this way, taking particular care to assume no other principles nor data in his interpretations than those which are contained in Scripture itself, may advance without fear of mistake, and even discuss matters which are beyond our comprehension, as well as those which we appreciate by our common faculties.

But that this may be clearly seen, not merely as the safe way, but as the only way, and as agreeing entirely with the method of interpreting nature, it is to be observed that Scripture most commonly treats of matters which cannot be deduced from the principles supplied by natural intelligence; for by much the larger portion of the Bible is made up of histories and revelations; and the histories are principally of miracles, that is, they are narratives of extraordinary and unusual events in nature, accommodated to the opinions and prejudices of the writers; whilst the revelations, as we have shown in Chapter II., are in conformity with the opinions and lights of the prophets .who propound them, and, indeed, they very frequently transcend human capacity altogether. Whence it follows that the interpretation of all these things, i.e. of almost everything contained in Scripture, is to be sought from Scripture alone, even as the interpretation of nature is to be derived from nature. As to the moral doctrines which are also comprised in the Bible, although these may be demonstrated from common or natural notions, still, the demonstration that Scripture teaches in a particular way must not be sought for by natural light, but must be derived from the words of Scripture itself. If, indeed, and without prejudice, we would test the divineness of Scripture, we ought to be assured out of itself that its teaching is of sound moral doctrine; for in this way only can its divineness be demonstrated; just as we have already shown that certainty of the true prophet was especially derived from an assurance of his manifesting a mind and temper solely disposed to goodness and truth, so much being imperative before faith could be put in his words. But it is impossible to have any assurance of the divinity of God from miracles, as has been already shown; for miracles were also performed by false prophets. Wherefore, the sole sufficient test of the divineness of Scripture lies in the excellence of the precepts it declares, in the fact that it teaches true virtue. Now that it does so can only be shown from itself. "Were it otherwise, we should indeed be much to blame in adopting Scripture as our guide, and in speaking of it as of divine origin. The knowledge of Scripture, therefore, is to be wholly and solely derived from its own pages. Scripture, however, never gives definitions of the things of which it speaks, any more than does nature itself. Wherefore, whatever the conclusions formed in regard to natural things, they are to be drawn from the different narratives that occur in Scripture, in regard to each individual thing. The universal rule in interpreting Scripture, then, is, never to ascribe as Scripture doctrine aught which we do not most plainly find set forth in its narratives. It will now be our business to inquire as to what we should expect Scripture history to be, and of what things it should principally speak.

1. Scripture history necessarily includes the nature and properties of the language in which it is written, and in which its authors were wont to speak. From these, under the guidance of common usage, we should be enabled to investigate the various senses in which each word, phrase, or expression is employed. And as all the writers, both of the Old and New Testament, were Jews, it is certain that a knowledge of the Hebrew tongue is above all things necessary, not only to the understanding of the books of the Old Testament, which are written in this language, but also of those of the New Testament, which, although promulgated in other languages, nevertheless have the strong impress of Hebrew peculiarity upon them.

2. The matter treated in each book being noted and reduced under distinct heads, an immediate and connected view of every passage that treats of the same thing is obtained; and the passages which are of doubtful or obscure meaning, or which contradict one another, are to be indicated: — I call clear or obscure those passages which of themselves, or from the context, are either readily or with difficulty understood; for our business here is with the meaning only of the passages in question, nowise with their truth. Wherefore it is of prime necessity, whilst investigating the sense of Scripture, that we be not pre-occupied with our own reasonings, based though they may be on an adequate knowledge of natural things. I say nothing here of our prejudices, lest we confound the true sense of the text with natural truths; the sense of Scripture being to be made out from the words of the text itself, or by legitimate ratiocination upon them alone, no ground of induction being admitted but that which Scripture itself contains. That this position may be the more clearly understood I shall illustrate it by an example. The views of Moses when he says that God is fire, and that God is jealous, are plain enough so long as we regard the meaning of the words only; and these expressions I therefore place in my category of plain things, although in regard to truth and reason they are most obscure. Still, although the literal sense of the words is repugnant to natural reason, unless they be also clearly opposed to the principles and fundamentals of Scripture, this sense, viz. the literal sense, must be retained; and, on the contrary, if the expressions, literally interpreted, are seen to disagree with the principles derived from Scripture, although entirely accordant with reason and natural light, they must be interpreted otherwise or taken metaphorically. That we may truly know therefore whether Moses believed God to be fire or not is by no means to be inferred from this, that such an opinion agrees with, or is repugnant to, reason, but solely from the other expressed opinions and views of Moses. Now, as Moses in many places pointedly declares that God has no likeness to anything which is in heaven or earth, we must needs conclude that the words quoted are to be explained metaphorically. But as we are bound to depart as little as possible from the literal sense, in any case, we are first to inquire whether the words in the single phrase God is fire may not have another sense than the literal one; that is, whether the word Fire ever signifies anything else than fire, the effect of combustion; and if it were found, from the uses of the Hebrew tongue, that the word which is equivalent to fire is not employed in any other sense, then were the phrase God is fire not to be interpreted in any way that is not repugnant to reason; but, against everything else in harmony with reason, the interpretation of literal, fire would have to be adopted. Again, supposing that even this could not be done in conformity with the usages of the language, then would the different interpretations be found irreconcilable, and we should be forced to suspend our judgment in regard to the true meaning of the phrase. But when we find the word fire also used to signify anger and wrath (vide Job xxxi. 12), then are the views of Moses readily reconciled, and we legitimately conclude that the two phrases, God is fire and God is jealous, embody one and the same meaning. Moreover, as Moses clearly teaches that God is a jealous God, and nowhere informs us that God is without passions or affections of the mind, we readily conclude that Moses himself believed, or at all events desired to teach, what he says, although the opinion expressed is in our apprehension repugnant to reason. For, as I have already shown, we are not at liberty to twist the sense of Scripture into conformity with the dictates of our reason and our preconceived opinions, but the interpretation of the whole Bible is to be derived from itself alone.

3. Finally, Scripture history ought to comprise an account of all the books of the prophets that have come down to us, the life, manners, and culture of the author of each particular book: who he was, on what occasion, at what time, to whom, and, lastly, in what language he wrote; and then the fortune of the several books should be made known, viz. how and in what way each was first received, and into whose hands it fell; next, how many different versions of it are extant, by whose advice it was received among the number of the sacred books, and, lastly, how the books, all of which are now acknowledged as sacred, were gathered together into one body. All these things, I say, are to be expected in a history of the Hebrew Scriptures. For, in order that we may know what matters are propounded as laws and what as moral precepts, it is proper that we should know something of the life, manners, and occupation of their authors; besides, we the more readily explain the words of any one, as we are the better informed in regard to his genius and acquirements. Then, it is well to know the occasion on which, and the age and nation to which, writings are addressed, in order that we may not be led to confound eternal and universal decrees with such as are temporary only, or of limited applicability. It is important, further, to be informed of the other particulars just enumerated: that, besides the books themselves, and the authorities for their acknowledgment, we should know whether they may not have been tampered with by unscrupulous hands; or at all events whether errors may not have crept into them, and whether the text have been revised and corrected by men sufficiently skilful and perfectly worthy of trust. All of these things are most necessary to be known, lest, carried away by blind impulse, we come to embrace whatever is obtruded upon us, instead of that only which is certain and of vital import.

Even after we have secured and solidly established this history of the Scriptures, when we have certainly set down nothing as prophetic doctrine which does not follow from the narrative, or may not be clearly inferred from it, then it will be time for us to gird ourselves up for inquiry into the purposes of the prophets and the Holy Spirit. But for this end method and order are required similar to that which we employ in interpreting nature from its history. For, as in inquiring into natural things we endeavour above all to discover those which are most general, which are common to nature at large, viz. motion, attraction, gravitation, &c., and their laws, which nature always observes and by which she always; acts, and from these proceed step by step to other less general laws, so also in Scripture history, that is first to be ascertained which is most general, which is the basis and foundation of the whole superstructure, and which finally leads to the special eternal law commanded by the prophet and most necessary to all mankind; such a law or doctrine as this for example, — that there is One omnipotent and eternal God, who alone is to be worshipped, who rules over all, who cares for all, and especially regards those who worship him in truth, who love their neighbours as themselves, &c. These and other similar precepts are so clearly taught in Scripture that there never was man yet found who questioned the sense of the passages in which they are contained. But as to what God is, in what respect he sees all things, and provides for all things, &c., on these, and like matters, Scripture does not professedly teach anything as eternal doctrine. On the contrary, it has been already shown that the prophets themselves were not agreed on such topics; so that nothing in regard to them is to be assumed as the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, although natural light would often of itself suffice for coming to satisfactory conclusions.

This most general or universal doctrine of Scripture being satisfactorily determined, we then proceed to search for other doctrines less general, which still bear reference to the common usages of life, and which are derived as offshoots from the grand doctrine; such as the outward manifestation of the true virtues [charity, meekness, justice, temperance, &c.], which are only called into action with the occasion given. When any obscurity or doubt presents itself in connection with these less general precepts of Scripture, it is to be cleared up or resolved by reference to the universal doctrine; and, again, when any contradiction is encountered, the occasion, the time, and the writer are then to be passed in review before any conclusion is come to. Thus, when Christ says, "Blessed are the mourners, for they shall be comforted," the text tells us nothing as to who the mourners were, nor for what they grieved; but when he afterwards teaches that we are to be solicitous about nothing save only the kingdom of God and his righteousness, which he declares to be the highest good (vide Matt. vi. 33), it follows that he understands those only who mourn for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, neglected of men; for these only can they grieve who love nothing but the divine rule and equity, and openly contemn all other things, the gifts of fortune. So also must we interpret that passage wherein Christ desires him who is struck on the right cheek to turn the left also to the smiter; had Christ given such a command as a legislator he would have gone counter to the law of Moses, which certainly gives very different advice. Wherefore we are to inquire as to the time at which, and the persons to whom, Christ spake. Now we find that Christ then spoke not as a legislator who lays down laws, but as a doctor or teacher of precepts, whose grand purpose was not to inculcate external observance, but to improve the mental state of mankind. And then he uttered the words quoted to men oppressed, to members of a corrupt state, where justice was little heeded, and whose ruin he saw was imminent. We find Jeremiah using very similar language under somewhat similar circumstances when prophesying the first destruction of Jerusalem (vide Lament, iii.). Wherefore, seeing that Christ and the prophets only taught in such terms in seasons of oppression and public distress; that such precepts are nowhere in Scripture propounded as laws; that Moses, who did not write in times of disaster and oppression, but laboured to found a prosperous commonwealth, and who, though he condemns hatred and revenge against a neighbour, nevertheless inculcated equal pains for equal damage done, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, &c., it follows most clearly, from the very fundamentals of Scripture, that the teaching of Christ and Jeremiah on the endurance of wrong and giving way to the wicked in all things, was only intended for times of oppression, when justice was despised, and nowise for citizens in a well-regulated state, where justice is respected, and where every one who feels a regard for right brings his wrongs before the judge (vide Levit. v. 1), not from any feeling of revenge (Ib. xix. 17, 18), but that he may assert the supremacy of justice and the laws of his country, and give no countenance to the evil-disposed in their wickedness. And this agrees in every respect with natural reason. It were easy for me to adduce many other instances confirmatory of the principles I am now advocating; but I think these may suffice to illustrate my views, and to show the utility of the method of interpretation which it is my especial purpose at present to enforce.

Hitherto I have only spoken of the interpretation of such passages of Scripture as bear upon the common concerns of life, and which must therefore be held as more easy of investigation; about these, indeed, there has never been any controversy among Bible commentators. Other matters occurring in Scripture, however, which are purely speculative, cannot be so easily set at rest; the way here becomes narrower, for inasmuch as the prophets differ among themselves on speculative things, and their narratives are mostly accommodated to the prejudices of the age in which they were written, we are by no means at liberty to interpret obscure passages of one prophet by clearer passages of another, unless it most obviously appears that the two writers entertained one and the same opinion. Of the way in which the opinion of the prophets in such cases is to be discovered from Scripture, I shall proceed to say a few words as necessary to our subject. Now, here, as in preceding instances, we must begin with universals in the first degree; inquiry above all is to be made from the clearest announcements of Scripture as to what constitutes prophecy or revelation, as to that in which it especially consists; next we are to learn what a miracle is, and so in succession arrive at more common things; then we come down to the opinions of each prophet, and from these we reach at length the meaning of each particular prophecy, history and miracle. Of the precautions to be taken, lest in this course the views of prophets and historians be confounded with the purpose of the Holy Spirit and the truth of the thing itself, we have already spoken in the proper place, and illustrated our remarks with numbers of examples; wherefore I do not now hold it necessary to say more on the subject here. I will but add, in connection with the sense of prophecy, that our method only enables us to investigate that which the prophets saw or heard, but not what they desired to signify or represent by their hieroglyphics; this indeed may be conjectured, but cannot be certainly deduced from the fundamentals of Scripture.

We have thus discussed the method of interpreting Scripture, and have at the same time shown that it supplied the sole and certain way of ascertaining its true meaning. I confess, however, that they, were there any such persons in existence, would be still more certain of the meaning of Scripture who had received a definite traditional explanation of its text from the prophets themselves, as the Pharisees think they have, or who had a pontiff who could not err in his interpretations, as the Roman Catholic Christians think boast that they have. Still, as we could not really be certain either of this Pharisaic tradition, nor of the pontifical authority, so could we found nothing upon either of these; for the earliest Christians, and the most ancient sects of the Jews, denied the existence of any such infallible authority. And then, when we look to the long series of years (I say nothing of other things) over which the traditions extend, which the Pharisees have received from their Rabbins, who carry them back to the time of Moses, we find they can have no foundation in fact, as I shall show at length in another place. Such tradition indeed would be suspicious under any circumstances; and although according to our method of proceeding we are obliged to suppose one of the traditions of the Jews to be uncorrupted, to wit, the signification of the words of the Hebrew language which we receive from them, still, whilst often feeling grave doubts of the events narrated, we feel none about the meaning of the words in which they are described, for usage never yet changed the signification of a word, though it has frequently altered the sense of a phrase. To change the meaning of a word, indeed, were very difficult, for whoever should attempt to do so would have to explain the word in the new sense from every writer who had used it in its old and usual signification; and then the vulgar in their every-day intercourse use and preserve language as well as the learned, whilst the learned are mostly interested in the meaning of ornate discourses and of books. So that whilst it is easy to imagine the learned to have altered or corrupted the sense of some passage in a rare book, they cannot have touched the meaning of a single word within it; add to this, that if any one had a mind to change the meaning of a common word he could scarcely hope to secure the observance of the change by posterity, or cause it to meet with acceptance in every-day conversation and writing. From these, and other like considerations, we readily conceive that it could never enter into the mind of any one to corrupt a language, though it might very well happen, and has very often happened, that the meaning of an author has been altered by tampering with his expressions, or by misinterpreting his language.

Since the method of investigation we have propounded, then, appears to be the true and only one — the entire method being founded on the principle of seeking a knowledge of Scripture from Scripture itself — it may be assumed that what Scripture will not supply towards enabling us to obtain a knowledge of its meaning, is plainly to be despaired of. And here I think it advisable to consider some of the difficulties which inhere in the method I have proposed, as well as what more were to be desired, in order that by its means we should arrive at a thorough and certain knowledge of the sacred writings. The first great difficulty connected with our method arises from the consummate knowledge of the Hebrew tongue, which its due application implies. But whence is this now to be obtained? The ancient masters of the Hebrew tongue have left nothing to posterity on the elements and principles of the language; we, at all events, have little or nothing of theirs — no dictionary, no grammar, no syntax. The Hebrew nation has lost all that it ever had of the elegances and ornaments of life (nor is this wonderful, after such long ages of depression, disaster, and persecution), and has preserved nothing but a few fragments of its language and its literature; almost all the names of fruits, trees, birds, beasts, fishes, &c., and much besides, have perished. Then the meaning of many nouns and verbs which are met with in the Bible is either wholly unknown or is subject of dispute. With all this, when we apply ourselves to study the syntax of this language, a matter of so much moment, and seek to discover the idioms and modes of expression peculiar to the Hebrew people, we find that time, the consumer, has blotted them almost all from the memory of man. We shall not therefore always be able, as we should wish, to determine the precise meaning of every passage which the common uses of the language would permit, and we shall come upon many sentences which, although expressed in words extremely well known, are nevertheless of meaning most obscure, and are sometimes even incomprehensible.

To these difficulties, which spring from the impossibility of having a perfect history of the Hebrew language, must be added those that arise from the constitution and nature of the language itself, which occasion so many ambiguities that it is impossible to find such a method as shall assuredly teach us how to investigate the true sense of all the expressions of Scripture.[1] Besides the causes of ambiguity common to and inherent in all languages there are certain others, peculiar to the Hebrew, from which many extraordinary difficulties arise, and on the nature of which it is proper that I should say something.

1. In the first place, doubt and obscurity are often produced in the Bible from this; that the letters of the same organ are used reciprocally one for another. The Jews divide the letters of their alphabet into five classes, in consonance with the five instruments or organs of the mouth which subserve articulation, viz. the lips, the teeth, the tongue, the palate, and the throat. For example, Alpha, Ghet, Ghain, He are called gutturals, and without any distinction, any at all events known to us,. are used one for another. El, again, which generally signifies to, towards, is often used for hgal, which commonly means above, and vice versá, whence it comes that the whole of a sentence is often rendered of doubtful import, or made to look as if it had no meaning at all.

2. A second source of ambiguity exists in the numerous meanings that are attached to the Hebrew conjunctions and adverbs. For example, vau serves indifferently for conjunction and disjunction, and signifies but, became, then, and however. Ki has seven or eight significations, wherefore, although, if, when, inasmuch, as, because, combustion, &c., and so almost of all particles.

3. The third source of doubt, and it is a very fertile one, consists in this, that in the indicative mood, verbs want the present tense, the preterite imperfect, the preterpluperfect, the future perfect, and various other tenses of most common use in other languages; in the imperative and infinitive moods, verbs have nothing but the present, and they are altogether without the subjunctive. And although all these defects in moods and tenses may be met and supplied, often with extreme elegance, by certain rules easily deduced from the structure of the language, still the older writers neglect them entirely, and make use indifferently of the future for the present and the past, and contrariwise of the preterite for the future; moreover, they assume the indicative for the imperative and subjunctive, — all, as may be conceived, not without an endless amount of doubtful meaning as the consequence.

Besides the three causes of obscurity now noted in the Hebrew language, there yet remain to be mentioned two others, each of much more moment than all the rest. The first of these is, that the Hebrew has no vowels; the second, that it is without spaces between the words and sentences, and has no accents to indicate the proper pronunciation; and although these two deficiences, viz. the vowels and signs of accentuation, are wont to be supplied by points, it is impossible that we should acquiesce in the sufficiency of these, inasmuch as they are the invention and resource of men of these later times, whose authority can have no weight with us. The ancient Hebrews wrote without points (i.e. without vowels and accents), as appears from the most ample testimony. The moderns supplied vowel-points and accents, as it seemed good to them that the Bible should be interpreted; wherefore they are to be regarded as mere interpolations of yesterday, and deserve no greater faith, as they have no higher authority, than the lucubrations of ordinary commentators. They who are ignorant of this cannot understand how it comes that the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (xi. 21) should have interpreted the text he quotes from Genesis (xlvii. 31) very differently from the way in which it presents itself in the pointed and accented Hebrew text, — as if the apostle had to learn the sense of Scripture from the punctists! To me these persons appear to err, and not the apostle; and that the discrepancy may be seen to have arisen solely from the deficiency of vowels in the language, I lay both versions before the reader. The punctists with the assistance of their points, read: "And Israel bowed himself upon the bed's head," but the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews reads, "Jacob worshipped, leaning on the top of his staff;" reading *** mate, instead of *** mita, a difference due entirely to the use of a vowel point. Now as in the original narrative it is Jacob's age only that is in question, not his death, which is not spoken of till the next chapter, it seems more probable that it was the narrator's intention to say that Jacob leant upon the head of the staff, which the aged so commonly use for their support, than that he bowed himself upon the head of his bed. In this example, it has not been so much my purpose to reconcile the version of the apostle with the text of Genesis, as to show how little faith is due to our modern points and accents, and thus to prove that he who would interpret Scripture conscientiously is bound to have these in doubt, and to inquire for himself at the fountain-head.

Resuming the thread of our subject, the glimpses now given of the constitution and nature of the Hebrew language will enable every one readily to conceive that so many doubts and difficulties must arise as to make any method of investigation incompetent to resolve them all. For it is in vain to expect that the meaning of every passage can be ascertained by its collation with others; (and we have shown that in general this was the only way of eliciting the true sense from among the many senses which each particular passage will often bear when considered textually.) Such a collation of passages, however, cannot, save by chance, serve for the illustration of any particular passage, inasmuch as none of the prophets wrote with the express view of explaining either his own or another's writings; and then we cannot conclude as to the mind and meaning of one prophet from the mind and meaning of another; unless perchance it be in regard to matters bearing upon ordinary life and conversation, as we have already shown; for when the question is of speculative things, or when miracles and histories are narrated, we can come to no conclusion whatever. I could, moreover, readily show by examples that there are many passages in Scripture which are absolutely inexplicable; but I prefer to pass these by for the present, in order that I may proceed with my business of showing still further wherein the true method of interpreting Scripture is itself defective, and with what other difficulties it is beset. Another difficulty in following out our method arises from its requiring a particular account of all that has ever happened to the books of Scripture. Now of this we for the most part know nothing. Of the authors, or, if you please, writers, of many of the books, we either know almost nothing, or we entertain grave doubts as to the correctness with which the several books are ascribed to the parties whose names they bear, as I shall immediately show. Then, we neither know upon what occasion nor at what time those books were indited, the writers of which are unknown to us. Further, we know nothing of the hands into which the books fell; nor of the codices which have furnished such a variety of readings, nor whether perchance there were not many other variations in other copies. But of the great importance of information on all these points I have already spoken briefly in the proper place, where however I have on purpose omitted certain considerations which must now come under review.

If we have a book under perusal containing many incredible or incomprehensible statements, written, too, in language sufficiently obscure, of whose author we know nothing, neither anything of the time in which or the occasion on which he wrote, we shall certainly mostly strive in vain to master the true meaning of the text. For all these matters unknown, we can in nowise know either what was or what might have been the purpose of the author. With all preliminaries known, on the contrary, we could then so rule our thoughts, that, preoccupied by no prejudices, we should ascribe neither more nor less than of right belongs to the author, or to him on whose account he wrote, and should think of nothing but that which the author may have had in his mind, or which the time and the occasion of writing seemed to require. So much, I think, will be admitted by all. It very often happens indeed that we read histories in different books, which In many respects resemble one another, but of which we form very dissimilar estimates, according to the opinion we entertain of the writers, or of the purpose of their writing. I know that formerly I read in a certain book of a hero named Orlando, who was wont to fly through the air on the back of a winged monster over various regions of the earth, slaughtering vast numbers of men and giants, with other fantastical recitals of the same sort, all plainly absurd and inconceivable when tested by reason and understanding. In Ovid, again, I have read a similar history, of which Perseus is the hero; and in the Books of Judges and Kings we have the history of Samson, who alone and unarmed [save with the jaw-bone of an ass] slew thousands of men; and of Elijah, who flew through the air, and at length went up to heaven in a fiery chariot drawn by fiery horses. These, I say, are all obviously tales of the same character; nevertheless we form very different estimates of each of them: for of the first, we say the writer had no purpose but to indite vanities for our amusement; of the second, that he had a political aim in view; and of the third, that the matter is sacred, and all this for no other reason than because we entertain different opinions of the writers of the several narratives. It is certain therefore that some knowledge of the authors whose writings contain matter obscure or incomprehensible is essentially necessary to the right understanding of their works. For the same reason, moreover, and that we may choose the proper reading from, among a great variety of readings of extremely obscure productions, it is necessary that we know in what copies the several readings are found, and whether there be not others extant of still higher authority.

Another difficulty which we find in interpreting certain books of Scripture on this plan lies in this, that we have not these books in the language in which they were originally composed. The Gospel according to Matthew and unquestionably also the Epistle to the Hebrews were written, as all agree, in Hebrew; but the Hebrew version is now nowhere extant. Of the language in which the Book of Job was written great doubts are entertained. Aben Ezra affirms in his commentaries that it was translated from some other language into Hebrew, and that this is the cause of its obscurity. Of the Apocryphal books I say nothing, for they are of very different authority.

Such are the difficulties that attend upon the system of attempting to interpret Scripture from its own contents, difficulties which I esteem so great, that I have no hesitation in affirming that after all the true meaning of many passages will either entirely escape us, or be but vaguely conjectured. Still it must be observed that these difficulties are only especially felt when we have to investigate the opinions of the prophets upon matters incomprehensible, and which can only be imagined, and not upon things which can be appreciated by the understanding, and of which a clear conception can be formed; for the things which are readily appreciated from their own nature can never be put so obscurely, but that they are readily enough understood,[2] according to the proverb which says, A word is enough to the wise. Euclid, for example, who only wrote of extremely simple and perfectly intelligible matters, is easily understood of every one in his own language; for to be certain of the meaning here, it is not indispensable to have a perfect knowledge of the tongue in which the author wrote; a very ordinary and almost puerile proficiency suffices; neither do we here find it requisite to study the life and manners of the author, nor are we interested in knowing in what language he wrote, in what age he lived, to whom he addressed himself, &c.; neither do we see it necessary to inquire into the fortune of the books, nor their various readings, nor how nor by whose advice they were accepted as genuine. Saying so much of Euclid, the same is to be understood of all who have written of things appreciable in themselves; and so let us conclude that the meaning of Scripture on all matters of moral doctrine is easily and certainly to be ascertained from itself. For the principles of true piety are expressed in the most familiar words, inasmuch as they are common to all, as there is nothing more simple or more easy of apprehension, and as the conditions to salvation and true happiness consist in purity of life and peace of mind. Now, as we only entirely acquiesce in those things which we clearly understand, it follows most obviously that we can be perfectly certain of the meaning of Scripture in all things salutary and needful to conduct of life and peace of mind; wherefore there is no reason why we should be very anxious about the rest; for as this cannot, for the most part, be embraced by the reason and understanding, it is really more matter of curiosity than of importance.

And now I think I have exposed the true method of interpreting Scripture, and sufficiently explained my views of its value. I do not doubt but every one will see that this method requires nothing save natural light or understanding; for the nature and excellence of natural light consists especially in this, that it leads by legitimate deduction from things known or assumed as known to a knowledge of things obscure or unknown; nor is there any other concession which our method of inquiry demands. And although we admit that it does not suffice for coming to definite conclusions on everything that is contained in the Bible, this does not arise from any deficiency in the method itself, but from this, that the way which it points out as the right and safe one has never been regularly trodden by scholars; so that, with the lapse of time, it has become overgrown, entangled as it were, and almost impassable, a fact which I think sufficiently indicated by the difficulties I have myself pointed out to the course along it.

We have now to examine the opinions of those who differ from us in our view of the proper method of searching the Scriptures. And the first adverse opinions we shall touch upon are of those who maintain that natural light is of non-avail in interpreting Scripture; that for this end a supernatural illumination is imperative, the nature of which I must leave to their own explanation. I, at all events, can only conjecture that in terms more obscure than are in common use, they have been willing to confess with the rest of the world that they often doubted of the true meaning of many parts of Scripture; for if we attend to the explanations they offer, we find nothing supernatural about them, nothing indeed but mere conjectures. The explanations of the supernaturalists indeed are often found identical with those of the critics, who ingenuously avow that they have no guide but their natural understanding, and arrive at their conclusions by entirely human means, viz. long, painful, and laborious research. They who say that natural light does not suffice for this, speak unadvisedly; for the difficulty of interpreting Scripture arises in nowise from any deficiency of human capacity, as we have already shown, but wholly from, the carelessness (I will not say malice) of mankind, who neglected the history of Scripture when they might have secured and verified it; and also from this, that all (unless I deceive myself) confess the supernatural light to be a divine gift, intrusted to the faithful only. The prophets and apostles, however, were wont to preach not to the faithful alone, but to infidels and impious persons also, who were nevertheless apt enough to understand the meaning of the words addressed to them: had it been otherwise the prophets and apostles would have reserved their teaching for infants and children, and not have addressed grown men endowed with reason; in vain would Moses have prescribed his laws, could they only have been understood by the faithful, who in fact require no law. They who have recourse to supernatural light for understanding the discourses of the prophets and apostles, plainly show themselves to be without natural human light; and I am therefore very far from conceding to such the possession of any supernatural and divine gift.

Maimonides, I must here admit, was of a very different opinion from mine; for he thought that every part of Scripture admitted of various and even contrary interpretations, and maintained that we could never be certain of the truth of any one of these, unless we knew that the particular part, interpreted as proposed, contained nothing which either did not entirely agree with reason, or which was seen to be completely repugnant to reason, for if the passage in its literal sense were found wholly repugnant to reason, although clearly enough expressed, he thought that the sentence required to be otherwise than literally interpreted. This idea he distinctly enunciates in the second book of his More Nebouchim, where he says: "Know that we do not shrink from saying that the world existed from all eternity, because of the texts on Creation which are met with in Scripture. For the texts which teach that the world was created, are not more numerous than those which speak of God as corporeal; nor do we feel ourselves precluded from explaining the passages that speak of the creation of the world, even as we have explained those that refer to God as corporeal and shown him to be incorporeal; nay, it were perchance found much easier to explain the texts referring to creation, and to show the world eternal, than we found it, with the Scriptures before us, to remove the idea of corporealness from the blessed God. But I am moved by two reasons neither to believe in the eternity of the world, nor to seek to demonstrate its eternal existence. 1. Because it can be clearly demonstrated that God is incorporeal, and it is necessary to explain away all the passages whose literal sense is repugnant to this demonstration; for it is certain that they must admit of another explanation besides the literal one. But the eternity of the world admits of no demonstration, so that it is not requisite to force the Scriptures, and to explain them in conformity with an opinion, to the opposite of which, swayed by some particular reason, we might rather incline. 2. Secondly, because to believe that God is incorporeal is not repugnant to fundamental law, &c., whilst to believe that the world is eternal, in the sense understood by Aristotle, destroys the law from its foundation." Such are the words of Maimonides, and from them the consequence we have spoken of evidently follows: Had he satisfied himself from his reason that the world was eternal, he would not have shrunk from twisting and interpreting Scripture in such a way as at length to make it appear to teach the thing he thought. He would indeed have become perfectly certain that Scripture, although everywhere openly disclaiming any such conclusion, intended to teach the eternity of the world; and so he would have remained uncertain of the true meaning of Scripture, however clearly expressed, so long as he remained in doubt of the truth of a fact, or had not made up his mind on the subject. For so long as the truth of a thing is not ascertained, so long do we remain ignorant as to whether the thing agrees with or is repugnant to reason; and consequently also we do not know whether the literal sense be verily true or false. Could such an opinion be shown to be well founded, I should concede unreservedly that we needed another than our natural light for the interpretation of Scripture. For of all that is found in Scripture almost nothing can be deduced from principles acknowledged by natural light (as we have already shown). The truth of the things there set forth could not therefore be ascertained by the light of nature, from which consequently nothing could be known of the true sense and meaning of Scripture. To determine this another light beyond that of nature would be required. Whence it would follow, if the opinion in question were correct, that the vulgar, as for the most part they either ignore demonstrations, or do not appreciate them, could know nothing of Scripture save from the explanations of critical philosophers. And were it once to be supposed that these could not err in their interpretations, they would constitute a new authority in the Church, a new order of priests or pontiffs, which the vulgar would be more disposed to laugh at than to respect. Now although our method of investigation requires a knowledge of the Hebrew language, a study to which the vulgar are not likely ever to betake themselves, still this is no valid objection to our plan; for the vulgar among the Jews and Gentiles, to whom the prophets and apostles of old addressed themselves, understood the language, and followed the meaning of their teachers, though they may not have appreciated the reasons of the things taught, which, according to the opinion of Maimonides, they ought also to have known in order to understand the preaching and writing of the prophets and apostles.

It does not follow therefore as a consequence of our method that the people at large should be obliged to acquiesce in the conclusions of interpreters; for I show a people conversant with the language of the prophets and apostles, which they could, therefore, interpret for themselves; but Maimonides cites no community conversant with the causes of things from whom a knowledge of Scripture meanings might be attained. And as to the commonalty of the present time, we have already shown that all things necessary to salvation, although their causes may be unknown, are nevertheless easily appreciated in every language, they being of sufficiently common and familiar import. And here, though it may not be the case when causes are in question, the vulgar are competent and sufficient judges. In other respects — in matters not bearing upon life and conversation — the vulgar and the learned are on the same level.

But this opinion of Maimonides appears to require some further investigation. First, he supposes that the prophets agreed among themselves on all subjects, and that they were consummate philosophers and theologians, for he will have it that their conclusions are always drawn from the truth of things absolutely, an idea which we have shown in our second chapter to be without any foundation in fact. Next, he supposes that the sense of Scripture cannot be learned from Scripture itself, for the absolute truth of things is not apparent from Scripture, inasmuch as Scripture demonstrates nothing, neither does it teach the things of which it speaks by definitions and references to their first causes; wherefore, according to Maimonides, neither could its true meaning be ascertained from itself, nor were this even to be sought for in the text. But that these notions are erroneous appears also from the matter of our present chapter, in which we have shown both by reason and example that the sense of Scripture can not only be known from itself alone, but that it can be determined from no other source, when matters accessible to natural understanding are spoken of. Maimonides finally supposes that we are at liberty even to deny and explain away, or to twist and torture, the literal sense of the words of Scripture, although most obvious and express, into something else in consonance with our prejudices and preconceived opinions. Such licence, besides that it is diametrically opposed to all we have demonstrated in this chapter and elsewhere, must needs be seen by every one as equally rash and inadmissible. But were we even to grant Maimonides such excessive liberty of interpretation, wherein would it serve him? In, nothing assuredly; for the matters that are not susceptible of demonstration, and that form the greater bulk of the Scriptures, could not be investigated satisfactorily on such grounds as he proposes, nor could they be explained and interpreted by such rules as he lays down. By pursuing our own plan, on the contrary, we find that we are able to explain and confidently to discuss many things that are obscure, as has been already proven, both on the ground of reason and of fact; whilst those parts that are by their nature easily intelligible are at once interpreted from the context alone. The method proposed by Maimonides therefore is obviously useless; and when we see that by its means all the certainty of the meaning of Scripture which the mere reading of the text affords, and which indeed follows from any other mode of interpretation, disappears, it is seen to be totally inadmissible. We therefore denounce the method which Maimonides proposes for the interpretation of Scripture as useless, noxious, and absurd.

With regard to the traditional interpretation of the Pharisees, we have already said that it is not in harmony with itself; and of the Roman pontifical system, I say, it requires clearer evidence for its authority than any I can discover. I therefore reject it for this and no other reason. For if the Scriptures now present to us the same matters with the same certainty as they did formerly to the Jewish high priests, I should not be disturbed by the fact that among the Roman pontiffs there had been found more than one heretical and impious man; because we know that among the Jewish high priests of old heretical and impious men were also encountered, men who obtained the office of high priest by sinister means, in spite of which they were nevertheless invested by the command of Scripture itself with the supreme power of construing the law (vide Exodus xvii. 11, 12, and xxxiii. 10, and Malachi ii. 8). But as the Roman pontiff can show no such authority for the right he assumes, his power is questionable; and lest any one, misled by the example of the Hebrew high priest, should think that the Roman Catholic religion also required a pontiff, t is to be noted that the laws of Moses were the laws of the country, the ground of public right, and necessarily required some public authority for their preservation; for had every one been at liberty to interpret the laws of the State in his own arbitrary way, there would soon have been no true republic; its fabric would have been dissolved, and public right converted into private right. But it is altogether different with regard to religion; for inasmuch as it consists much less in outward acts than in simplicity and purity of soul, it has nothing whatever to do with public right and power. Purity and probity of soul are founded on no power of law, on no public authority: — no one can be compelled by law or constraint to follow the path of true happiness. To pursue this, pious advice, friendly and fraternal counsel, good education, and, above all, a well-balanced and liberal mind, are indispensable. Since therefore the indefeasible right of thinking independently on all subjects, even on religion, belongs to every one, and as it is impossible to conceive any reasonable man divesting himself of this right, the full and perfect title and authority to judge religion independently, and consequently to explain and interpret Scripture for himself, belongs of right to every man. The privilege of administering the laws and pronouncing final judgments on public affairs is lodged with the magistrate, for no other reason than that it is the public right of which he is the guardian and expounder; and in like manner is the right of judging and interpreting religion lodged with each individual man, because it is his own peculiar and private business. There is a great deal wanting therefore to satisfy us, when from the authority of the Jewish high priest to interpret the laws of his country, it is inferred that the Roman pontiff is .also by right possessed of authority to interpret the Christian religion to the whole world. On the contrary, we much more readily arrive at the conclusion, from the nature of religion, that every one can best do this for himself. And herein we believe that we see another proof of the excellence of the method we have proposed for arriving at a knowledge of the Scriptures. For assuming as we do that the supreme right to interpret the Bible belongs to every one individually, we conclude that the standard of interpretation should be nothing but the natural light or understanding which is common to all, and not any supernatural light, nor any extrinsic authority; for the task ought not to be so difficult as only to be practicable by the most learned philosophers, but should be found within the scope of the common genius and capacity of mankind, as it is by the plan which we have proposed; for we have seen that the difficulties which still attach to it are owing to the carelessness of men, and do in nowise belong to the nature of the subject itself.


Notes[edit]

  1. I should say, impossible for us who are not accustomed to the Hebrew language, and who have lost the secret of its syntax.
  2. By things appreciated by their own nature I do not understand those only that are demonstrable in a rigorous manner, but those also which our mind can embrace with moral certainty, and which we conceive without amazement, though it be impossible to demonstrate them. Every one conceives the propositions of Euclid before he has read the demonstration of their truth. In the same way we at once apprehend historical narratives whether they refer to the past or the present, provided they be but credible, — the institutions of nations, their legislators, their manners, &c. — such things I call conceivable and clear, although no mathematical demonstration of them can be given. I call inconceivable, on the contrary, all hieroglyphics to which no meaning can be attached, and such historical narratives as it is impossible to credit. It may be remarked, however, that there are many of these narratives where our method admits of critical investigation being called in with a view to discover the intention of the writer.