Interview with Joseph Davis- Ten Questions of Eliezer Eilburg

Can one be an atheist without the vocabulary for it? Seventy years ago, the great French historian Lucien Febvre introduced the study of how people thought in different ages, argued that a 16th century person could not have been an atheist, any more than he could have been a Freudian or a Marxist. The world around those who lived in the 16th century from the divine right of kings to the physical order having God as a first cause to religious calendar precluded being an atheist. There were no terms for the concept, there was no social meaning to the word. Hence, even if you were a skeptic or non-believer, the non-belief had to be integrated into the philosophical worldview of the era. By extension, we all are limited to the language of our era. Febvre focused on what he called mentalite, or the thoughts and feelings of people and groups.  In The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century, he uses the mentalite of sixteenth century writers to show how they thought differently that we do. Lucien Febvre. The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais.  trans. Beatrice Gottlieb. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass.; London, 1982. (Le problème de l’incroyance au 16e siècle : la religion de Rabelais. Albin Michel: Paris, 1942)

When turning to the study of the Jewish world, the study of the mentalite history of Jewish religious beliefs is rarely done, before either the whiggish or presentism models of understanding.  Losing one’s belief in the established orthodoxy of the era was not uncommon in the pre-modern world,  but it should not be understood in contemporary terms. Azariah deRossi was a renaissance textual critic but not a modern agnostic and medieval radical Maimonideans were not Reform Jews.

Twenty years ago, Prof Joseph M. Davis, published an article entitled “The ‘Ten Questions’ of Eliezer Eilburg and the Problem of Jewish Unbelief in the Sixteenth. Century” about a 16th century Jewish thinker who denied the divinity of the Bible or its value, and who also denied creation, miracles, prophets, resurrection, and the idea of the chosen people. I told him that this was the most important thing he published and that he should turn this into a book. Here we are twenty years later with the book version- Eliezer Eilburg: The Ten Questions and Memoir of a Renaissance Jewish Skeptic (Cincinnati, Hebrew Union College Press/ University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020).


Joseph M. Davis attended Brown University. Professor Davis’s teachers include Professor Jacob Neusner, Rabbi William Braude, Rabbi Saul Leeman, and his grandfather, Professor Rabbi Louis Finkelstein.  His Ph.D. is from Harvard University in the field of medieval Jewish history and literature under Professor Isadore Twersky and Professor Bernard Septimus.  Professor Davis teaches at Gratz College where he is the director of the MA program in Jewish Studies. He lives in Bala Cynwyd with his wife Susan and Dustball, the cat.

Professor Davis’s first book was Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller: Portrait of a Seventeenth Century Rabbi (Oxford: Littman Library, 2004).  Most recently, with Magdalena  Janošiková, he has published an edition and translation of two important sixteenth century Hebrew texts, titled Eliezer Eilburg: The Ten Questions and Memoir of a Renaissance Jewish Skeptic (Cincinnati, Hebrew Union College Press/ University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020).

I thought Davis’ first book on Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller was one of the best portraits of a rabbi written under the guidance of Prof Twersky clearly written, avoiding presentism, and being familiar with contemporary scholarship of the study of general religious history. This new book of Davis is a wonderful piece of academic scholarship combining textual analysis along with historical imagination opening new vistas for the study of Renaissance Jewish thought.  In a similar way, this interview does not disappoint for a clear presentation of the issues in his new book.

In general, we do not give enough attention to the Jewish thought of Renaissance Italy (including Renaissance cities of Prague and Krakow). Prof Davis expertise is on the nexus of the rabbinic rationalist Yom Tov Heller, the skeptic Averroist Eliezer Eilburg, the textual scholar Azariah deRossi, and the defense of the rabbinic tradition against these trends by the Maharal, who based much of his defense on renaissance trends and his teaching of gentiles.  If we add the thinkers of the prior two generations, Ovadiah Seforno, Yohanan Alemano,  Eliyahu Delmedigo, Judah Abrabanel, and David Messer & Judah Messer Leon, then we have an important world of Italian Jewish thought with a strong humanistic element. If many now include a knowledge the 18th -19th Eastern European Jewish thinkers as essential, so too this world should be better integrated into our thought.

Despite being a very clear book, the book remains an edited text with most contextualization in citations in the footnotes. Workable for me, but for most people there should be a separate volume about Eilburg and his thought the same way there is a separate narrative volume for Abraham Farissol, Leon deModena or Anthony Grafton’s Cardano’s Cosmos: The Worlds and Works of a Renaissance Astrologer. My most serious complaint about the book is that the autobiography does not translate or even transcribe Eilburg’s kabbalistic writings; they are skipped over. If Eilburg writes that the true meaning of Torah is to be found in his own Abulafia inflected commentary on thirteen exegetical principles used by rabbinic texts to understand the Torah, then I cannot synthesis or evaluate what Eilburg thinks until I have seen it. In the meantime, the volume opens up many doors of research requiring an academic conference to explicate them.

Jewish skepticism is not new, and this book deserves its place in the center of the history of Jewish skepticism. You can gain by comparing him to the Averroism of Ibn Kammuna who accepts revelation and the value of revelation, and the naturalist approach of the 13th century Maimonideans. After you read the interview and book, think how much a few quotes from Eilburg would add to a classroom worksheet on the topic.

Interview with Prof Joseph Davis

  1. What are the Ten Questions of Eilburg?

The Ten Questions is one of the most radical documents written by any Jew before the modern period, challenging practically the whole theological structure of Judaism.  Or at least, the whole structure of Jewish belief as it was understood before the modern period.   Eilburg challenges the entire idea of a religion based on the Bible as a revealed religion.

The book is not just ten questions, it is a series of ten essays, that start with questions, and end with questions, but in the middle, the essays offer arguments.

The first question  (or argument) is that there is not any basis for believing that the Torah was written by God or given by God to Moses.  You could say the basis for believing this is faith, but Eilburg argues that “faith” here is just a name for not having any basis, not any rational basis, but also not any other objective basis; he argues that “faith” is based mainly on social pressure.  You could say miracles can be adduced as proof, but how do you know that the miracles stories are true ?  How do you know that any of the stories are true ?  You could say prophecy, but how do we know that God spoke to Moses ?  And so on.

Eilburg wrote all this about 1565.  Some of these arguments are pretty familiar to people in 2020, but in 1565, this was incredibly radical.  People got burnt at the stake for saying less than half of the things that Eilburg writes here.  This is a century before Spinoza who got excommunicated.

And this first question is just the beginning; Eilburg is just getting going questioning the edifice of Jewish thought.  Why aren’t the Gentiles in the Bible more scared of the Jews, if they could do all these miracles?   If Jews believe in the Bible, then why is Judaism today so different from Biblical religion?  Why do Jews believe that the Torah is letter-perfect, that it is letter for letter the same book that God gave Moses at Sinai?  Are there any other books from ancient times that claim not to include scribal errors ?   Why couldn’t part of the Torah have gotten lost?  Why couldn’t part of it have been added later?   Why do we say that the heroes of the Bible – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob – were such saints?  They don’t seem to be spiritual people at all.

In addition, Eilburg rips into the idea of a chosen nation.  Why do so many Jews believe (this was in 1565 or so) that Jews all go to Heaven and non-Jews do not?  He mocks the idea of resurrection.  He argues that it is theologically sound to not believe in a creation.  Most surprisingly, he is skeptical that observing the Torah is as useful or as beneficial as Jews think.

Eilburg was pushing the boundaries of what people could possibly think about the Bible, let alone say or write, in his time. Perhaps never had such an intense barrage of attacks, specifically on the Bible, been collected together by a single Jewish author.  Eilburg attacked not only the veracity of the Bible, but also its utility; additionally he questioned its authorship; he questioned its morality; he questioned its authenticity; and he challenged not only whether it is the basis of Judaism as it is currently practiced, but also whether it should be.  Medieval attacks on the Bible, whether by Muslim intellectuals such as Ibn Hazm, or Jewish scholars like Hiwi al-Balkhi, or by the Aristotelian philosophers, seem relatively limited and almost mild by comparison.  There is no one else like Eilburg until Spinoza, and in certain ways, Eilburg is even more skeptical, about the Bible, than Spinoza is.

2. Why is his autobiography interesting and important?

Eilburg’s autobiography is one of the very first Jewish autobiographies.   It might not even be an autobiography; it depends what you mean by that word, and some scholars would definitely not call it that.  The modern autobiography hadn’t really been invented yet.  But it is – let me put it this way – closer to a modern autobiography than anything written by practically any Jew before Eilburg for a thousand years, since Josephus.  It is a collection of writings about his life that was put together by a man who desperately wanted to talk about himself and his life, or the parts of his life he wanted to reveal, and to tell his story.

His story is like this.  The Protestant Reformation came along and the Lutherans came to power in Braunschweig (Brunswick), in Germany, where Eilburg’s family lived, and they expelled the Jews from Braunschweig.  Some of his family moved to the land of Israel, but Eilburg moved first to Poland, and then to Italy, and in Italy, Eilburg decided to become a doctor.  He had been a businessman or a banker, but his business went sour while he lived in Poland, and he spent time in prison, probably for debt.

And in Italy, while he was studying medicine, he was discovered philosophy.  He writes that he met Jews from Greece (maybe from Salonika), who were living in Italy, and he studied Jewish philosophy with them, and medicine, and kabbalah.   All in Hebrew.   He includes a book list of some of these books, such as Maimonides, ibn Ezra, and Isaac Arama, among Jewish philosophers; and Abraham Abulafia among the kabbalists.    Eilburg became enlightened.  It is like the stories of the yeshiva students in the 1800’s who would read German philosophy in secret, and who become Maskilim, “modern” “enlightened” Jews.  Eilburg even uses that language of enlightenment-such as maskil, haskala- to explain his new knowledge. He saw the light.

Now, the autobiography is very different from the Ten Questions.  The Ten Questions is a work of radical religious rationalism.  In his autobiographical writings, by contrast, Eilburg portrayed himself basically as a kabbalist.  He includes stories of how kabbalistic secrets were revealed to him in by angels, who visited him in dreams.   And his booklist is selective.  They don’t appear in his booklist, but by the time he wrote the Ten Question, he had also read a few works of Averroes, Avicenna, and probably some other Muslim philosophers, and also some Jewish philosophers whom he did not mention in his booklist, notably Narboni and Gersonides.

Eilburg’s journey was the opposite of Luther’s journey.  Luther visited Italy in 1511, and the whole experience seems to have set him against the Papacy, and sent him back to the Bible; Luther became a professor of Bible, and his whole notion of reformation involved returning back to the pure teachings of the Bible.  Whereas Eilburg went to Italy, discovered Maimonides, philosophy and Kabbalah, and wrote a whole attack on the Bible. Eilburg even mentions Martin Luther by name.  He makes a little pun and calls him Lo-tahor, “impure” in Hebrew.

3. How common do you think Jewish skeptics were?

I think that skeptics were common.  Philosophical skeptics were rare. That is, I think that a lot of pre-modern Jews had a lot of experiences that caused them sometimes to question and rethink their Jewish beliefs, or even their Jewish identity.   And I think that probably a lot of them responded by being privately skeptical.

This is similar to pre-modern Christians.  A lot of them were not so orthodox and not so pious.   Shakespeare is a famous example; it is anybody’s guess if Shakespeare believed in God.  But he was a respectable Christian and he was buried in church.  On the other hand, Jews (or Christians) who had studied philosophy and became skeptics of that particular rationalistic type, like Leon Modena, were much less common.  And someone like Modena was orthodoxy personified compared to skepticism of Eilburg.  Eilburg was a rare bird.  He was probably not unique, but the only Jewish author who put his skeptical thoughts into writing.

And by the end of the 1500’s, they were becoming even less common.  People think that every generation is less religious than the one before it.  But in the 1500’s, the trend for Italian Jews was the other way to becoming more religious.

4. How is Eilburg an Averroist?

An Averroist, as a follower of the Twelfth century Muslim philosopher Averroes, is a particular type of medieval Aristotelian.   However, Averroism became a term for those followed medieval Aristotelian philosophy leading them to deny the truth claims to medieval religious doctrines.

Averroists emphasized three teachings of Averroes.  First, is that there was no Creation.  The universe has existed for an infinite length of time, and it will always exist, and has only changed and only ever will change in small ways.   The universe has a permanent nature.  Second, the individual human soul does not survive death.  Only the Universal Soul is immortal.  Both of these were regarded as arch-heresies in the Middle Ages.

Third, the Averroists believed that the stories of the Bible in general, and religion in general – is to be taken literally to mean exactly what it says, but it isn’t true according to philosophy. Scripture is solely for the philosophically unlettered masses.

And of course, the Bible begins with a very detailed description of Creation.  So what about that?  Some Aristotelians such as Maimonides, who also believe in Creation, went with the idea of allegory: the story of Creation is not literal; the Bible does not literally mean that the world was created literally in seven days.

But not the Averroists. For them, religion serves a crucial social function in its literal non-philosophical form. In their view, without religion and its stories motivating obedience, society would fall apart.  Philosophy and rationalism cannot replace religion; they are too effete.  Philosophy is never going to convince Joe in the diner to remain faithful to his wife, or to pay his taxes, or not to beat up his brother-in-law.  Religion can convince him to be ethical, but it does that by telling Joe stories to follow scripture and religious law, even though the stories that scripture contains are not true.

Eilburg was a Jewish Averroist.  He was in fact the very last Jewish Averroist, as far as anyone knows, the end of a three or four hundred year tradition of Jewish Averroism.  By 1565, Aristotelianism was fading, Averroism was disappearing, and Jewish Averroism was practically all gone.

5. What sort of universal religion did he expect or envision?

There isn’t any universal religion.  Eilburg has a passage in which he muses sort of wistfully that it would be nice if there were a universal religion, and then people would not hate each other on account of their religions.  Christians wouldn’t hate Jews, for example – that would be nice.  Why did God create different religions, he asks.  Was that fair ?  But he hints at the answer, which is that people are wicked in all kinds of ways, and they would hate each other even if they all belonged to the same religion.  In fact, they would hate each so much, they would probably split up the religion.  Eilburg lived through the Reformation, after all.

6. What did he mean when he said that every nation tell stories of its religion? 

Eilburg has a whole theory of how religions start and how they work.   He believes that religions are begun by successful magicians or magician/legislators.  Some are about reward and punishment- people who bad things are punished, or who do good things are rewarded.  Punished and rewarded not just by people but by God or gods.

Some have stories are about the founder of the religion, and that he was great, and about the Scripture (he thinks all religions have scriptures) and how they were revealed.  Some of the stories might even be true, but some are not.  Some stories are about the importance of having faith.  Stories that are not true are often just as effective as stories that are.

There is also one passage which is really remarkably universalistic or tolerant, but in a way that involves magic.  Eilburg seems to suggest in one place that copies of all Scripture, of all different religions, have magical powers.   All different Scriptures, of different religions.  Magic is in its way a universalistic religion for Eilburg.   He apparently believed that all religions, including Judaism, are ways of “drawing down” the powers of the planets and the stars.  Different groups and regions need different religions, because astrologically they are different, but they all work roughly the same way.

7. How can a person question the Bible but accept magic? Is this a Renaissance thing?

In the Renaissance period, almost everybody believed in magic.  For example there are interesting parallels between him and the Aristotelian philosopher Pietro Pomponazzi.  Becoming skeptical of the Bible did not shake Eilburg’s belief in magic.  Why should it?  What happened was the opposite.  The same medieval philosophers, whose books he read, who shook his confidence in the Bible, reinforced his belief in magic.  Many of the medieval Jewish philosophers, such as Abraham Ibn Ezra and Moses Narboni, were very into magic.  Narboni also interpreted Maimonides as believing in astrology and magic, and so does Eilburg.

8. How can one be both a skeptic about the Bible and still accept Kabbalah?

I am not going to try to reconcile everything that Eilburg writes in his Ten Questions, and everything he writes in his kabbalistic writings.  Perhaps he changed his mind – the kabbalistic writings seem older.  Maybe when he wrote his kabbalistic stuff, he was hiding some of his true views, as radical Maimonideans do, even Eilburg.   He proclaimed himself, in his autobiographical writings, to be a follower of Abraham Abulafia, and he also wrote how much he cherished the kabbalistic Torah commentary of Bahya ben Asher.  But his arguments against the Bible don’t really fit well with the idea that everything in the Bible has a secret kabbalistic meaning.

But it is also true that he probably managed to combine Averroism and Abulafian kabbalah to a large degree.   In one place, Eilburg casts doubt on the idea that the teachings of kabbalah are the original meaning or the only true meaning of the Bible.  But that doesn’t imply that kabbalah is useless or not full of wisdom.  Just for example, Eilburg very probably believed in using kabbalistic techniques to attain visions of angels.  He believed that angels exist, and that the techniques to see them worked.  However, he probably did not believe that the techniques were secretly coded into the Bible by Moses or by God.

9. How are mizvot only appropriate for a certain period or a certain place ?

Eilburg shows a real awareness of the process of change in history, similar to a lot of intellectuals in the 1500’s.  The most famous one was Luther who saw the differences between the Bible and current Christian practice.  For Luther, the Reformation is all about the differences between Catholicism today, and the religion of the Bible.

One of the ten questions is about the differences between Biblical religion and Judaism as it was practiced in his own day.  The prayers are different, and the holidays are different, and the laws (he noticed) seem to have become much stricter.  And at the same time, a large part of Biblical religion has vanished.  The Temple is destroyed, and there are many other differences.

None of this was exactly a secret in 1565, but people resisted the logical conclusion that Judaism had changed a lot.  I mean it seems logical to us, because we are surrounded by historical change.  It seemed much less logical in the Middle Ages when societies and cultures seemed much more stable.   Maimonides, I am willing to bet, could not point to a single technology that (as far as he knew) was invented since ancient times. There had been some, but he probably didn’t need to account for it.

Anyway, unlike Luther, Eilburg does not  propose going back to the Bible.  Not unless the Jews return to their land and rebuild their kingdom. Spinoza will say a similar statement 100 years later. Until then, Eilburg was willing to assume that many of the changes had been instituted wisely, by the wise legislators of the times.  His theory of why rules should change was astrological, but he associated it with the rules of medicine.  You don’t give people the same medicines in the winter as in the summer.  His theory of medicine was also astrological, so he would have said Capricorn and Gemini in place of winter and summer.

10. According to Eilburg, how did the Torah accept Egyptian and pagan practices?

Eilburg talks about the two cherubim, the two statues of angels, that were in the Temple.  Eilburg took a suggestion that Maimonides  made in the Guide of the Perplexed about the ancient context of Jewish practice, and expanded it.   Maimonides’s argument is that many commandments in the Bible, including animal sacrifices, makes sense when you keep in mind that all of the other ancient religions did the same, that is, they also sacrificed animals. Eilburg applies this also to the cherubim – the Egyptians worshiped idols, and the cherubim are idols.  Eilberg argues that there are quite a number of holdovers of Egyptian worship in Biblical Judaism.  This did not bother him much; he thought of the Egyptians as very wise.

11. What does this work say about Azariah de’ Rossi? And Eilburg’s relationship to him?

Azariah de’ Rossi was an Italian Jew in the 1500’s, a contemporary of Eilburg.  He was a doctor, an intellectual, and in his spare time, he was a historian.   His book, The Light of the Eyes, was he most impressive example of the new sensitivity to history among 16th century Jewish intellectuals.

Eilburg seems to have been in some sort of contact with de’ Rossi.  He might have read some of the chapters of de’ Rossi’s book in manuscript before it was published.  I think that the Ten Questions strengthens the argument that De’ Rossi pretended to be much more orthodox that he was.  That is what you would expect a radical Maimonidean or an Averroist to do.  Eilburg is out there, letting the cat out of the bag, arguing against the Bible.  De’ Rossi, like Maimonides himself, was much more discrete.  He swore up and down that he believed in every Jewish belief.   Between the lines, de’ Rossi does not actually seem to believe in Creation, and he was skeptical about miracles, and he may even have had some suspicions that our text of the Bible is not letter-perfect, and  maybe other beliefs that were heretical in the 16th century.  But he only drops hints about this.

Maharal, for example, who was then the rabbi of Prague, wrote that de’ Rossi’s book should be burned.  He might not have meant it literally.  De’ Rossi does signal, not in hints but quite clearly, that he did not believe in everything in the Talmud.  That was enough to get into hot water in the Jewish world of the 1500’s.

12. What was Eilberg’s relationship to Maharal ? Did Eilburg want to convince Maharal or was he looking for answers?

The Ten Questions are in the form of a letter addressed to Maharal of Prague.  Maharal was not famous yet.  This was before he had written any of his books.  He wasn’t even in Prague yet, he was still in Austerlitz (today, Slavkov), a much smaller town.  But somehow Eilburg had run into him during his years wandering around central Europe, and Eilburg had him in mind as the man who needed to be convinced that the philosophers are right and the Bible isn’t what people think it is.

I think he was trying to convince him.  The questions assume that the reader is a Jew who thinks of himself as a follower of Maimonides, but a follower who also believes in Talmudic aggadot and in all of the basic medieval Jewish dogmas.  The questions are supposed to move a reader like that into a much more radical interpretation of Maimonides, a much more skeptical view of the Talmud and midrashim, and a much more skeptical view of the Bible.

So we don’t actually know whether Eilburg ever actually sent the letter, or whether Maharal ever read it.  But I think he might have.

I even think that this might have been part of what made Maharal into the extraordinary thinker that he became.  I mean if you get a book like this in the mail, it makes you think.  It didn’t make Maharal into a skeptic, but maybe the opposite.  Maybe Maharal read it and he said to himself, these are questions that need to be answered.

If Moderate Maimonideanism had set up all these questions, Maharal might have said to himself, Maimonideanism has no way to answer them because one cannot start out with the idea that you are going try to reconcile Aristotle and Judaism, or make a compromise between them.   You have to start out with the idea that these are opposite ways of viewing the universe, and each one has its own separate logic.

So when Maharal read Azariah de’ Rossi’s book, he could see Azariah has started down a path, and that Eilburg’s radical Maimonideanism shows where that leads.   And so Maharal says, no, Judaism has a whole different logic, the logic of faith in the Torah, and the authority of the rabbis, and belief in miracles and so on.

13. It is not an academic question or provable, but do you think Eilburg was observant? Why would he stick with mizvot?

It is just a guess, but I would assume that Eilburg was quite observant of the mitzvot.  He might even have been very devout.   He criticizes Jews who are lax about the laws against wine made by non-Jews.  He was trying to become respected as a doctor and a scholar in the Jewish community; being lax in his observances would undermine that.  Being pious would support it.  Also, as we just said, it is not that he did not believe in performing the commandments.  He thought that there are important magical as well as practical benefits that flow from the mitzvot.  He might have cut himself some slack, but probably just privately, on some mitzvot that might have seemed less beneficial to him, or customs that he was not familiar with.

14. How does this book change the way we think of early modern Jewish life? How is Lucian Febvre relevant to the book ?

The book pushes the envelope of what early modern Jews could possibly believe.  As a historian, I have thought a lot about a book that was written in 1937 by a great French historian, Lucien Febvre. The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais.  trans. Beatrice Gottlieb. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass.; London, 1982. (Le problème de l’incroyance au 16e siècle : la religion de Rabelais. Albin Michel: Paris, 1937, 1942)

The book is about the French writer Rabelais, who was a little bit older than Eilburg, or at least Febvre starts out with Rabelais, and he asks, could Rabelais have been an atheist ?  And he argues that Rabelais couldn’t possibly have been an atheist, any more than he could have been a Freudian or a Marxist.  There was literally nobody in the 1500’s (this is Febvre’s argument) who did not believe that God existed.  Not believing in God, would have been (at that time) like not believing that there is such a thing as a king; it literally wouldn’t make any sense to them at all.

So Eilburg believes in God, the God of Aristotle like the medieval philosophers, but in that way he fits Febvre’s argument that atheism was not an option for a person with medieval education.

But without Eilburg,  we would have said, you couldn’t be a Jew, living in the Jewish community, functioning as a Jewish scholar, and not believe in the Bible.  What would possibly lead you to that kind of skepticism ?  And Eilburg shows us: it was possible.  Maybe a lot of other Jews, who were less vocal than Eilburg, or more discrete, had some of the same thoughts.  A century before Spinoza.

15. How does this book change the way we think about Biblical criticism?

The book changes the way we think about the story of where Bible criticism came from.   It makes Maimonides and the Aristotelians and Averroists part of that story, as they should be.

Bible criticism, the way scholars study Bible in academia, goes back to 16th century writings of Spinoza and Hobbes. But where did they get it from?  The usual way to tell the story is to trace Bible criticism back to Erasmus, who looked at manuscripts of the New Testament and started to argue that our Bibles are not letter-perfect.  And also back to Luther, who argued that many current day religious traditions aren’t rooted in the Bible, and the Bible doesn’t mean what tradition says it means.  And certainly Erasmus and Luther were crucially important, but that Aristotle and the Aristotelians were also important, in a way that usually is not recognized.   If you look at the standard ways of telling the story pf Biblical criticism, the Aristotelians never appear in it at all.  Scholars mention everybody else, the Platonists even, the skeptics naturally, Descartes even – but everyone thinks that the Aristotelians all gave the Bible two thumbs up.  And many did.

But for the really serious Aristotelians of the 1500’s, especially in Italy, philosophy does not really allow you to believe in a book that is Divine.  A magical book maybe.   If you are a serious Aristotelian, you believe that all books are human.  A sixteenth century Aristotelian would hold that all books have human authors, who lived in particular times, and who were, like all humans, imperfect and changing.  The Bible itself, the physical Bible, is imperfect and changing, and religion is imperfect and constantly changing.  The Bible includes imperfect laws, because all laws are imperfect; and imperfect heroes, because all heroes are human and imperfect.

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