Freethought Archives > Baron D'Holbach > Ecce Homo (1769)




However slightly we cast our eyes over the history of the Jews, as contained in their sacred books, we are forced to acknowledge, that these people were at all times the blindest, the most stupid, the most credulous, the most superstitious, and the silliest that ever appeared on earth. Moses, by dint of miracles, or delusions, succeeded in subjugating the Israelites. After having liberated them from the iron rod of the Egyptians, he put them under his own. This celebrated legislator had evidently the intention to subject the Hebrews for ever to his purposes, and, after himself, to render them the slaves of his family and tribe. It is obvious, that the mosaical economy had no other object than to deliver up the people of Israel to the tyranny and extortions of priests and Levites. These the law, which was promulgated in name of the Eternal, authorised to devour the rest of the nation, and to crush them under an insupportable yoke. The chosen people of God were destined solely to be the prey of the priesthood; to satiate their avarice and ambition; and to become the instrument and victim of their passions.

Hence, by the law, and by the policy of the priests, the people of God were kept in a profound ignorance, in an abject superstition, in an unsocial and savage aversion for the[Pg 20] rest of mankind; in an inveterate hatred of other forms of worship, and in a barbarous and sanguinary intolerance towards every foreign religion. All the neighbors of the Hebrews, were, therefore, their enemies. If the holy nation was the object of the love of the most high, it was an object of contempt and horror to all who had occasion to know it—a fact admitted by their own historian, Josephus. For this it was indebted to its religious institutions, to the labors of its priests, to its diviners, and its prophets, who continually profitted by its credulity, in displaying wonders and kindling its delirium.

Under the guidance of Moses, and of generals or judges who governed them afterwards, the Jewish people distinguished themselves only by massacres, unjust wars, cruelties, usurpations, and infamies, which were enjoined them in the name of the Eternal. Weary of the government of their priests, which drew on them misfortunes and bloody defeats, the descendants of Abraham demanded kings; but, under these, the state was perpetually torn with disputes between the priesthood and the government. Superstition aimed at ruling over policy. Prophets and priests pretended to reign over kings, of whom such as were not sufficiently submissive to the interpreters of heaven, were renounced by the Lord, and, from that moment, unacknowledged and opposed by their own subjects. Fanatics and impostors, absolute masters of the understandings of the nation, were continually ready to rouse it, and excite in its bosom the most terrible revolutions. It was the intrigues of the prophets that deprived Saul of his crown, and bestowed it on David, the man according to God's own heart—that is to say, devoted to the will of the priests. It was the prophets, who, to punish the defection of Solomon in the person of his son, occasioned the separation of the kingdoms of Judea and Israel. It was the prophets who kept these two kingdoms continually at variance; weakened them by means of each other, desolated them by religious and fatal wars, conducted them to com[Pg 21]plete ruin, a total dispersion of their inhabitants, and a long captivity among the Assyrians.

So many calamities did not open the eyes of the Jews, who continued obstinate in refusing to acknowledge the true source of their misfortunes. Restored to their homes by the bounty of Cyrus, they were again governed by priests and prophets, whose maxims rendered them turbulent, and drew on them the hatred of sovereigns who subdued them. The Greek princes treated with the greatest severity a people whom the oracles and promises of their prophets rendered always rebellious, and ungovernable. The Jews, in fine, became the prey of the Romans, whose yoke they bore with fear, against whom impostors often incited them to revolt, and who, at last, tired of their frequent rebellions, entirely destroyed them as a nation.

Such, in a few words, is the history of the Jewish people. It presents the most memorable examples of the evils which fanaticism and superstition produce; for it is evident that the continual revolutions, bloody wars, and total destruction of that nation, had no other cause than its unwearied credulity, its submission to priests, its enthusiasm, and its furious zeal, excited by the inspired. On reading the Old Testament, we are forced to confess, that the people of God (thanks to the roguery of their spiritual guides) were, beyond contradiction, the most unfortunate people that ever existed. Yet the most solemn promises of Jehovah seemed to assure to that people a flourishing and puissant empire. God had made an eternal alliance with Abraham and his posterity; but the Jews, far from reaping the fruits of this alliance, and far from enjoying the prosperity they had been led to expect, lived continually in the midst of calamities, and were, more than all other nations, the sport of frightful revolutions. So many disasters, however, were incapable of rendering them more considerate; the experience of so many ages did not hinder them from relying on oracles so often contradicted; and the more unfortunate they found themselves, the more rooted[Pg 22] were they in their credulity. The destruction of their nation could not bring them to doubt of the excellence of their law, of the wisdom of their institutions, or of the veracity of their prophets, who successively relieved each other, either in menacing them in the name of the Lord, or in re-animating their frivolous hopes.

Strongly convinced that they were the sacred and chosen people of the Most High, alone worthy of his favors, the Jews, in spite of all their miseries, were continually persuaded that their God could not have abandoned them.—They, therefore, constantly looked for an end to their afflictions, and promised themselves a deliverance, which obscure oracles had led them to expect. Building on these fanatical notions, they were at all times disposed to listen with avidity to every man who announced himself as inspired by heaven; they eagerly ran after every singular personage who could feed their expectations; they followed whoever had the secret of astonishing them by impostures, which their stupidity made them consider supernatural works, and unquestionable signs of divine power. Disposed to see the marvellous in the most trifling events, every adroit impostor was on the watch to deceive them, and was certain of making more or less adherents, especially among the populace, who are every where destitute of experience and knowledge.

It was in the midst of a people of this disposition that the personage appeared whose history we write. He very soon found followers in the most despicable of the rabble. Seconded by these, he preached, as usual, reformation to his fellow citizens, he wrought wonders; he styled himself the envoy of the Divinity. He particularly founded his mission on vague, obscure, and ambiguous predictions, contained in the sacred books of the Jews, which he applied to himself. He announced himself as the messiah or messenger, the deliverer of Israel, who for so many ages was the object of the nation's hope. His disciples, his apostles, and afterwards[Pg 23] their successors, found means to apply to their master the ancient prophecies, wherein he seemed the least perceptibly designed. The Christians, docile and full of faith, have had the good fortune to see the founder of their religion predicted in the clearest manner throughout the whole Old Testament. By dint of allegories, figures, interpretations, and commentaries, their doctors have brought them to see, in this shapeless compilation, all that they had an interest in pointing out to them. When passages taken literally did not countenance deceit agreeably to their views, they contrived for them a two-fold sense: they pretended that it was not necessary to understand them literally, but to give them a mystical, allegorical, and spiritual meaning. To explain these pretended predictions, they continually substituted one name for another; they rejected the literal meaning, in order to adopt a figurative one; they changed the most natural signification of words they applied the same passages to events quite opposite; they retrenched the names of some personages plainly designed, in order to introduce that of Jesus; and, in all this, they did not blush to make the most crying abuse of the principles of language.

The third chapter of Genesis furnishes a striking example of the manner in which the doctors of the Christian religion have allegorized passages of scripture, in order to apply then to Jesus. In this chapter, God says to the serpent, convicted of having seduced the woman, the seed of the woman shall bruise thy head. This prophesy appears with so much the more difficulty to apply to Jesus, that these words follow—and thou shalt bruise his heel. We do not comprehend, why the seed of the woman must be understood of Jesus. If he was the Son of God, or God himself, he could not be produced from the seed of the woman. If he was man, he is not pointed out in a particular manner by these words, for all men, without exception, are produced from the seed of women. According to our interpreters, the serpent is sin, and the seed of the woman that bruises it is Jesus incarnate in the womb[Pg 24] of Mary. Since the coming of Jesus, however, sin, typified by the serpent, has at all times existed; from which we are led to conclude, that Jesus has not destroyed it, and that the prediction is neither literally nor allegorically accomplished.

In the twenty-second chapter of Genesis, God promises to Abraham, that in his seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed. What we style prosperity, the Hebrews termed blessings. If Abraham and his race enjoyed prosperity, it was only for a short period; the Hebrews became afterwards the slaves of the Egyptians, and were, as has been seen, the most unfortunate people on earth. Christians have also given a mystic sense to this prophecy:—they substitute the name of Jesus for that of Abraham, and it is in him that all the nations shall be blessed. The advantages they shall enjoy will be persecutions, calamities, and misfortunes of every kind; and his disciples, like himself, shall undergo the most painful punishments. Hence we see, that, following our interpreters, the word blessing has changed its meaning; it no longer implies prosperity; it signifies what, in ordinary language, is termed curses, disasters, afflictions, troubles, divisions, and religious wars—calamities with which the Christian nations have been continually blessed since the establishment of the church.

Christians believe that they see Jesus announced in the 49th chapter of Genesis. The patriarch Jacob there promises sovereign power to Judah. "The sceptre (says he) shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come, and unto him shall the gathering of the people be." It is thus that several interpreters translate the tenth verse of the 49th chapter of Genesis. Others have translated it thus, "the authority shall forever be in Judah, when the Messiah shall have come." Others read, "the authority shall be in Judah, till the messenger receive in Shiloh the sovereign power." Others again render the passage in this manner, "the people of Judah shall be in affliction,[Pg 25] till the messenger of the Lord comes to put an end to it;" and according to others, "till the city of Shiloh be destroyed."

This diversity in the translation of the same passage ought, unquestionably, to render the prophecy very suspicious. First, we see that it is impossible to determine the signification of the word Shiloh, or to ascertain, whether it be the name of a man or a city? Secondly, it is proved by the sacred books, received equally by Jew and Christians, that the sovereign power is gone from Judah; was wholly annihilated during the Babylonish captivity, and has not been re-established since. If it is pretended, that Jesus came to restore the power of Judah, we assert, on the contrary, that, in the time of Jesus, Judah was without authority, for Judah had submitted to the Romans. But our doctors have again recourse to allegory:—according to them, the power of Judah was the spiritual power of Jesus over Christians, designated by Judah.

They, in like manner, see Jesus foretold by Balaam, who, by the bye, was a false prophet. He thus expresses himself: (Numbers xxiv. 16,)—"He hath said, who heard the words of God, and knew the knowledge of the Most High, who saw the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance, but having his eyes open: I shall see him but not now; I shall behold him but not nigh; there shall come a star out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel," &c. In this unintelligible jargon, they pretend to shew Christians a clear prediction of the founder of their religion. It is he who is the star, because his luminous doctrine enlightens all minds. This sceptre, which shall rise out of Israel, is the cross of Jesus, by the aid of which he has triumphed over the Devil, who, in spite of this victory, ceases not to reign on earth, and to render useless the triumph of the Son of God.

But of all the prophecies contained in the Old Testament, there is not one to which the Christian doctors have attached more importance than that found in Isaiah, chap. vii. 14[Pg 26] A young woman shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. To find out Jesus in this prediction, it is, first of all, necessary to be convinced, that this woman is Mary; next, it is necessary to ascertain that Immanuel is the same with Jesus. It will always be objected against this pretended prophecy, that it is sufficient to read the chapter of Isaiah whence the passage is taken, to be satisfied that the prophet had in view Ahaz king of Judah. This prince is there represented as in consternation, on account of the arrival of Rezin and Pekah, kings of Syria and Israel, who, with their united armies, threatened his dominions. Isaiah encouraged him, by representing that he still had forces sufficient, and promised him the assistance of the Lord, whom every prophet made to be of his own party. To guarantee his promises, Isaiah told his sovereign, that he had only to ask of him a sign. The dispirited prince replied, that he did not wish to tempt the Lord. The prophet, however, wishing to convince him, announced a sign—"A young woman shall conceive, and bring forth a son, who shall be called Immanuel." Now the following chapter informs us who this young woman was: she was the wife of Isaiah himself.—"I took unto me (says he) faithful witnesses; and I went unto the prophetess, and she conceived and bare a son." The simple inspection of this text, evidently shows that it is in no respect applicable to Jesus. If what is recorded in 2d Chron. c. v. be true, the prophecy was not even accomplished, but the reverse of its fulfilment took place. Instead of Ahaz defeating his enemies, as Isaiah promised he would, his whole army was routed, 120,000 killed, and 200,000 carried into captivity by the kings of Syria and Israel. It is evident, then, that this famous sign of "a young woman shall conceive," &c. served only in the first instance to deceive the king of Judah, and has since been employed to mislead those who, like that king, relied on the professions of priests and prophets.

Proceeding forward in the perusal of Isaiah (chap. ix. 6,) we[Pg 27] find the following passage:—"Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder." If the child foretold by Isaiah was born in his time, it can no longer be said, that the prophet meant to speak of Jesus, who was born several centuries after him; for the birth of that person being so distant, could not be a sign of deliverance to Ahaz, as his enemies pressed so closely upon him. To this it is answered, that the prophets spoke of future events as if they were past or present; but this answer requires to be established by proof. It is likewise said, that the birth of Isaiah's son was only a type of that of Jesus; for to him, it is affirmed, is applicable "the government on the shoulder," in which our doctors perceive distinctly pointed out the cross that Jesus carried on his shoulders when going to Calvary. Our interpreters have thus the happiness of seeing the sign of dominion, or empire, in what appears to eyes less enlightened, the sign of punishment, weakness, and slavery.

It is proper also to inquire why it is said, in the Christian system, that it is not necessary a prophecy have relation, in all its parts, to the subject or fact to which it is applied. The sacred writers do not mean to cite a whole prophecy, but only a passage, a detached phrase, or often a single word, apposite to the subject they treat of, without troubling themselves whether what precedes, or what follows their quotation has connexion or not with what they are speaking of. In the example under discussion, Matthew, wishing to quote Isaiah and apply a prophecy to Jesus, takes of this prophecy these detached words only, A young woman shall conceive, &c.—he stood in need of no more of it. According to that Evangelist, Mary had conceived:—Isaiah had said, that a girl, or woman, should conceive. Matthew therefore concluded, that the conception of Jesus was foretold by Isaiah. This vague connection is sufficient for all Christians, who, like Matthew, believe they see their founder pointed out in prophecy.[Pg 28]

Following this strange method, they have referred to Isaiah to prove that Jesus was the messiah promised to the Jews. In the 53d chapter, this prophet describes in a very pathetic manner the misfortunes and sufferings of his brother Jeremiah. The clergy have long labored to apply that prophecy to Jesus: they have distinctly seen him pointed out in the "man of sorrows;" so that it is regarded rather as a faithful and circumstantial narrative of the passion of Jesus, than as a prediction. But, agreeably to sound criticism, this history relates only to Jeremiah. Not to deprive themselves, however, of the resources so useful a passage might furnish, they have decided, that, in the case of prophecies, the indirect relation should have place. By this means, in admitting that the narrative of Isaiah had Jeremiah for its object, they maintained that Jeremiah was a figure or type of Jesus. It is not that their lives were strictly consentaneous; but, in the Christian religion, conformity followed by affinities, is not absolutely requisite to the justice of the comparison.

This manner of reasoning, peculiar to the Christian religion, has been very convenient for it. Paul especially, like most of the first preachers of Christianity, and after them the fathers and doctors of the church, employed this curious method of proving their system. According to them, all under the ancient law was the image of the new; and the most celebrated personages in the Old Testament, typified Jesus and his church. Abel, assassinated by his brother, was a prophetic figure of Jesus put to death by the Jews. The sacrifice of Isaac, which was not accomplished, was the image of that accomplished on the cross. The relations or predictions which had for their object Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Solomon, Jeremiah, Zorobabel, or other ancient personages, were applied to Jesus. His death was represented by the blood of he-goats and of bulls. By aid of these allegories, the books of the Jews served only to announce the[Pg 29] events in the life of Jesus, and the history of the establishment of his religion. In this manner it is easy to find in the scriptures whatever we desire.

It would be useless to investigate the famous prophecy of the seventy weeks of Daniel, in which the Christian doctors believe they see the coming of Jesus clearly announced. It is true, that if Daniel, or his editors, had specified the nature of these weeks, they would have prevented much trouble to interpreters: this prediction might then have been a great resource to Christianity. The ablest critics, however, declare that they are greatly embarrassed when attempting to fix the commencement and the end of these weeks. On this they are never unanimous, nor can they agree on a precise date, which hitherto is wanting to the great event of the coming of the messiah. We know the Jews made use of weeks of days, weeks of weeks, and weeks of years. It is by a conjecture, merely hazarded, they advance in the bible of Louvain, that the weeks mentioned in Daniel are weeks of years. Yet that supposition throws light on nothing, for the chronological table, which the doctors of Louvain have published, gives only three hundred and forty-three years intervening between the time when they make the weeks to commence and the death of Jesus. Many have believed that this prediction was subsequently added to the text of Daniel, in favor of Jonathan Maccabeus. We may judge of the little credit that can be given to this prophecy, from the prodigious number of commentaries that have been made on it.[Pg 30]

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