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- Peyrère, de la
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Isaac de la Peyrère was a speculative eclectic theologian and messianic rationalist. He was the personal secretary of the illustrious Prince of Condé, Louis II de Bourbon. In 1656 he was arrested and forced by the authorities in the Catholic Spanish Netherlands to become a Roman Catholic and ask forgiveness for his set of evil opinions (cf. Morrow, 2011a, p. 3).
La Peyrère earned an idiosyncratic reputation in radical biblical criticism with Du Rappel des juifs (1643) in which the development to a universal Christian Church and the return of the Jews to the Holy Land is propagated. He wrote provocatively on pre-Adamites and dismissed the Pentateuch’s Mosaicity. La Peyrère knew Menasseh ben Israel personally and resided about six months in Amsterdam in 1655 to arrange for publication of Prae-Adamitae/Systema theologicum, but there are no indications whatsoever confirming that he ever met Spinoza or was in some sort of contact with him.
This well-read book, that was immediately banned upon publication (cf. Acta et decreta, 1939–40, vol. 1, p. 316; Jorink, 2008b, pp. 429–30), included the short treatise Prae-Adamitae (Men before Adam), which La Peyrère had begun arranging around 1635 (cf. Morrow, 2011a, p. 5.), and the much longer Systema theologicum (Theological System), treatises both considered essential for the birth and development of early-modern biblical criticism. From the mid-1640s, scores of his manuscripts were widely circulating and seriously rebutted by scholars in the intellectual milieux in France and in the Netherlands. His critics mainly concluded that La Peyrère’s irreligious and heretical viewpoints were highly disturbing and dangerously rallying against the encroachments of organised religion. In Prae-Adamitae/Systema theologicum, La Peyrère explains his reading audience—as also Spinoza would later explain in Tractatus theologico-politicus—that some inexplicable cases presented in the Bible were only events generated by the universal laws of nature. The French author also cogently takes up the controversial anthropological, polygenetic creation notion that humans, ancestors of the indigenous people of the newly discovered parts of the world, had lived prior before Adam (Prae-Adamitae/Systema theologicum, book 4, ch. 1–2, pp. 195–208).
If, according to La Peyrère, Adam sinned morally according to the first (Adamic) convenant, this significantly implied that there must have been a lawless world inhabited with people (pre-Adamites) before him (cf. Strauss, 1981, p. 43; Almond, 1999, p. 53). Moreover, La Peyrère also claimed that the Torah simply nowhere indicates who exactly married Cain—first mentioned in the Bible after his parents Adam and Eve and his twin brother Abel who he murdered—, thus concluding that he therefore must have married a woman of pre-Adamite origin. This theory, undermining Abrahamic religion, was strongly connected with much older pagan debates about human antiquity that even date back to the second century BCE (cf. Popkin, 1987a, p. 27).
La Peyrère also calls into question in his two highly provocative treatises the Pentateuch’s Mosaicity, the backbone of his biblical investigation and critique sets forth in Systema theologicum (cf. Strauss, 1981, pp. 50–2). La Peyrère carefully worked out intuitive theoretical ideas that sparked off international debates in the early modern era about what the Bible actually meant to say, how the coherence of the ensemble of the Bible books should be seen, and how its verses should be dealt with. Also, if what was said in it could indeed be relied upon to be the revealed word of God or not. This straightforwardly paved the way of religious scepticism in which Spinoza took pride of place, a debate which would later draw heavily on the notions of secularism in the age of Enlightenment.
Spinoza was influenced by the latter’s speculative heterodox ideas and he also borrowed passages from Systema theologicum to support his own internal reading of the Hebrew Bible and his mere conclusions derived from its own textual evidence he expounded in Tractatus theologico-politicus (cf. Strauss, 1981, pp. 287–8). The inventory of his private library also shows that a copy of Prae-Adamitae/Systema theologicum was at Spinoza’s disposition.