chapter  5
30 Pages

Voltaire’s reading of the Old Testament

Voltaire’s knowledge and dissection of the Old Testament has attracted

much scholarly attention.1 The extent of his reading-he did not have a knowledge of Hebrew and relied on translations-in the words of the editors

of the Dictionnaire philosophique, was ‘‘immense,’’ and included a Latin

translation of the Mishnah (the selection of oral laws from the Talmud);

French translations of Philo of Alexandria, (Philo Judaeus), the Hellenized

Jewish theologian (ca. 20 BCE-50 CE); the translation of Flavius Josephus by

Arnaud d’Andilly (OC, 35, 76-77). It leaned on the Commentaire by the

Benedictine Dom Calmet, hardly a friend to the Jews; Etienne Fourmont,

author of a study of Calmet’s Commentaire (Lettre de R. Ismael juif converti, a` M. l’abbe´ Houteville sur son livre intitule´ La Religion chre´tienne prouve´e par

les faits), Paris, 1722, a distinguished Arabic and Hebraic scholar who

taught in the early years of the eighteenth century at the Colle`ge des Lec-

teurs Royaux and wrote sympathetically about rabbinic contributions to

science, medicine, philosophy, and biblical scholarship; and Richard Simon,

a prolific writer on Jewish subjects. Jacques Basnage, to whom we referred in

an earlier chapter, was another important source. His Histoire de la religion

des Juifs, depuis Je´sus-Christ jusqu’a` pre´sent, pour servir de supple´ment et de continuation a` l’Histoire de Joseph was published in 1706-7, and in an

expanded version in 1716-21. Yosef Yerushalmi, who argues that Jews had

preferred mythology to history, describes Basnage’s work as ‘‘the first real

attempt in modern times at a coherent and comprehensive post-biblical his-

tory of the Jews.’’2 It was, he says, from outside Judaism that a Jewish his-

toriography came into being. Basnage challenged Catholicism by

establishing a basis for its corruptions in rabbinic corruptions of revelation

and sought to create a theologic and historic foundation for Protestantism’s ‘‘pure’’ links with an uncorrupted primitive Judaism.3 Voltaire made this

theme an important part of his own polemic and, of course, was much more

intent on supporting Basnage’s first, rather than his second, claim.