1. Evangelical

The English Quaker Who Subverted the Bible’s Authority

This is a strange and enlightening account of where Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677, portrait above), one of the first truly radical critics of the Bible, may have gotten some of his ideas.

Taken from Richard Popkin, “Spinoza and Bible Scholarship,” in Don Garrett, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza (2006):

Starting with Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, “there is an increasingly forceful questioning of whether Moses can have been the author of all of [the Pentateuch], and whether we have an accurate text. A further strong challenge appeared in the work of the Quaker Bible scholar, Samuel Fisher, 1605-65. Fisher was one of the few early Quakers who had a university background. He had graduated from Oxford, where he learned Hebrew. Then he became a Baptist minister. In 1654 he became a Quaker.

He took the message of the Quakers to Jewish communities in Amsterdam, Germany, and Italy, and held long discussions with Jewish leaders wherever he went. When he returned to England in 1660, he wrote his 900-page answer to the Puritan contention that Scripture is the Word of God, The Rustic’s Alarm to the Rabbies, combining the popular English Bible criticism with his own learned case (Fisher 1660). Christopher Hill has called Fisher “the most radical Bible critic of the time.”

The question of the Mosaic authorship comes up in a marginal note questioning whether Moses could have written the passage about his own death. But for Fisher there are two central questions,
one whether the text that we possess is an accurate version of the ancient Hebrew or Greek text, and the other, whether a written document, written sometime in human history, can be the Word of

On the first point Fisher brought up two central problems. One was that of whether there is any basis for calling the particular collection of documents that have come down to us “Scripture,” and
the other whether these documents have been passed down to us in exact copies of the originals. Scholars knew the history of the Old Testament canon, as reported in Josephus’s History of the Jews, and
in the Talmud, namely that a rabbinical council, either in Ezra’s time, or around 300 B.C., decided which texts were canonical. Fisher challenged the reliability of such a human decision to have determined which texts were revealed ones, and stressed that there were more books available than those now bound in the Bible. Why are only the included books “Scripture”?

Fisher spent an inordinate amount of time on the second point, the transmission problem. The Westminster Confession of 1658 had declared that the text had been transmitted exactly and that God had guaranteed and protected the text. But then what about all of the thousands of variants in different manuscripts? Fisher learned from various Jewish and Christian authorities…that Hebrew vowel markings did not exist in the original Bible, and were introduced much later. Therefore the text has changed, and we do not possess an exact fixed text of God’s Word. None of the manuscripts now existing is a holograph manuscript written by Moses, by any of the Prophets, or by Ezra. The manuscripts we have are copies of copies of copies, made by fallible human beings…

The upshot for Fisher is that one cannot tell whether a given manuscript or book contains the Word of God exact and entire, unless one knows independently what the Word of God is. The Word of God presumably existed before any attempt was made to write it down. It was known before Moses by Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and so forth, none of whom had a copy. It was even known to Moses before he supposedly wrote it down.

Fisher rushed further to a form of Quaker universalism. The Word of God can be known anywhere at any time in any language – why should it only be stateable in Hebrew and Greek? Fisher was in Amsterdam for around six months in 1657-8, before he left for Rome and Constantinople to try to convert the Pope and the Sultan. He attended Synagogue services, and spent lots of time trying to convince members of the community of the Quaker message. He was then also translating two pamphlets by Margaret Fell, the mother of the Quakers, into Hebrew, to try to convert the Jews.

I have offered evidence elsewhere that Benedict de Spinoza, after his excommunication [from Synagogue], became involved with the Quakers, and that he joined with Samuel Fisher in translating the pamphlets. If this was the case, Fisher and Spinoza could easily have shared their views about the Biblical text. Spinoza, in the Theological-Political Treatise, expressly set forth the thesis that the Word of God is not a physical object. The Word of God would remain and be recognizable even if all physical books disappeared. For Fisher the Word would be recognized by the Spirit or Light within, for Spinoza by reason.”

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