12 Hobbes, Ezra, and the Bible: The History of a Subversive Idea

I

On 23 December 1696 Thomas Aikenhead, a twenty-year-old student of Edinburgh University, was put on trial for blasphemy. Under a recently passed Scottish law, this offence could include not only 'railing upon' God and denying his existence, but also impugning 'the authority of the holy Scripture'. Aikenhead's opinions about the Bible featured prominently in his indictment:

Lykeas you scoffed at, and endeavoured to ridicule the holy scriptures, calling the Old Testament Ezra's fables, by a profane allusion to Esop's fables, and saying that Ezra was the inventor therof, and that being a cunning man he drew a number of Babylonian slaves to follow him, for whom he made up a feigned genealogie as if they had been descended of kings and princes in the land of Canaan, and therby imposed upon Cyrus who was a Persian and stranger, persuading him by the device of a pretendit prophecy concerning himself. 1

In other words, the Pentateuch and the historic and prophetic books of the Bible were written not by Moses and the prophets, but by Ezra the Scribe—the person who, according to the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, was allowed by Cyrus to go to Jerusalem and teach the law to those Jews who had returned there from the Babylonian captivity. Even without the extra details of trickery and pretence embroidered, apparently, on to Ezra's story by Aikenhead, the mere suggestion that the Pentateuch was written not by Moses, but by someone who lived many centuries after that prophet's death, would have been shockingly offensive to orthodox faith. On 24 December Aikenhead was found guilty of blasphemy, and on 8 January 1697 he was hanged.

Thirteen years later a book was published anonymously in Holland, under the title Les Voyages et avantures de Jaques Massé; it would become a popular work

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