While simply following the historical wire of the small Jewish nation, one sees that it could not have another end. It is even praised it to have left Egypt like a horde of robbers, carrying all that it had borrowed of the Egyptians: it makes glory never not have saved neither old age, neither the sex, nor childhood, in the villages and the boroughs which it could seize. It dares to spread out an irreconcilable hatred against all the nations; it revolts against all its Masters. Always superstitious, always avid of the good of others, always barbarian, crawling in misfortune, and insolente in prosperity. Here are what were the Jews with the eyes of the Greeks and the Romans who could read their books; but, with the eyes of the Christians lit by the faith, they were our precursors, they prepared us the way, they were the heralds of Providence.
Voltaire, Essai sur les Moeurs et l’Esprit des Nations tr as Test on manners and the Espritdes Nations (Google, 2007 â my emphasis)
Sometimes, you just have to make do. I couldn’t find an English translation of Voltaire’s Essai sur les Moeurs et l’Esprit des Nations available on-line so, in this post, I’ll be working from the Google translation of an on-line copy in the original French. Where I can, I’ll render the Google transliteration into something a little more readable.
That emphasised sentence may be more familiar to you in this form:
The Jewish nation dares to display an irreconcilable hatred toward all nations, and revolts against all masters; always superstitious, always greedy for the well-being enjoyed by others, always barbarous â cringing in misfortune and insolent in prosperity. [This is what the Jews were in the eyes of the Greeks and the Romans who could read their books; but, in the eyes of the Christians lit by the faith, they were our precursors, they paved the way for us, they were the heralds of Providence.]
It looks pretty noxious, doesn’t it, even in the garbled Google translation? Even in the context of the whole paragraph. What was it, exactly, that Voltaire had against the Jews?
That’s not a very useful question. That second sentence â my rendition of the Google translation â is a better pointer to Voltaire’s main game. His main target is the Catholic dogma of his time, which still held that the Bible was literally true. Voltaire’s main point is that if you believe that, you have to accept that various sordid events â notably murders, assassinations and massacre â were divinely inspired and sanctioned. The implied question to the reader is âIs it really reasonable to believe this?â? In that process, the reputation of the Jews comes in for a lot of collateral damage. I apologise to those readers for whom this explanation is unnecessary.
Before we go back to the beginning of the section of the Essai (or Test) on the Jews, let’s take a look at a short extract from the Philosophical Dictionary. It’s a good example of the shtick Voltaire is using in this section of the Essai/Test.
Though the style of the history of Kings and Chronicles is divine, it is nevertheless possible that the actions reported in these histories are not divine. David murders Uriah; Ishbosheth and Mephibosheth are murdered; Absalom murders Ammon; Joab murders Absalom; Solomon murders his brother Adonijah; Baasha murders Nadab; Zimri murders Ela; Omri murders Zimri; Ahab murders Naboth; Jehu murders Ahab and Joram; the inhabitants of Jerusalem murder Amaziah, son of Joash; Shallum, son of Jabesh, murders Zachariah, son of Jeroboam; Menahhem murders Shallum, son of Jabesh; Pekah, son of Remaliah, murders Pekahiah, son of Manehem; and Hoshea, son of Elah, murders Pekah, son of Remaliah. We pass over, in silence, many other minor murders. I pass over in silence many other trifling assassinations. It must be admitted that if the holy spirit wrote this history he did not choose a very edifying subject.
(âHistory of Jewish Kings and Chroniclesâ?, Philosophical Dictionary tr Besterman)
I’ll spare you â and Voltaire’s reputation â the Google rendition of section XXXVIII. of the Test âJews at time when they started to be knownâ?. Here’s my rendition:
We will touch as little as possible on what is divine in the history of the Jews; or if we are forced to speak about it, it is because their miracles have been reported after the events. For the continual wonders which attended every epoch of this nation, we have the respect that one owes them; we believe in them with the reasonable faith required by the church which has replaced the synagogue; we do not question them; we always stick to the facts. We will speak about the Jews as we would speak about the Scythians and the Greeks, by weighing the probabilities and by discussing the facts. Since nobody in the world but themselves had written their history before the Romans destroyed their small State, only their annals will be consulted.
The annals that will be consulted are, of course, the books of the Old Testament. Voltaire’s account of these annals occupies 7 sections â then he moves on to the historian Josephus (which is where the Google translator piked out). Voltaire identifies several inconsistencies and anachronisms in the Biblical record then takes a little time out to:
…see how many Jews were exterminated by their own brothers, or even the order of God, from the time they wandered in the deserts, until the time when they had a king elected by providence.
The numbers are: 23,000 Levites who had their throats cut after worshipping the golden calf; 250 consumed by fire for the revolt of CorÃ©; 14,700 who had their throats cut for the same revolt; 24,000 whose throats were cut for consorting with madianite girls, 42,000 whose throats were cut for not being able to pronounce âShibolethâ?; 40,000 killed by Benjaminites; 45,000 Benjaminites killed by other tribes; 50,070 âWhen the Ark was taken by the Philistines, and God, having afflicted them with haemorrhoids to punish them, they brought back the Ark to BethsamÃ¨s, and offered to the Lord five gold anuses and five gold rats; with the number of Bethsamites who were struck dead for looking at the Ark*â?. After tabulating these figures, Voltaire continues:
Here are two hundred thirty-nine thousand twenty Jews exterminated by the order of God, or by their civil wars, without counting those who perished in the desert, and those who died in the battles against CananÃ©ens, etc; which could go to more than one million men.
If one judged Jews like other nations, one could not conceive how the children of Jacob could have produced a large enough race to support such a loss. But God, who led them, God, who tested them and punished them, made this nation so different in everything from other men that it is necessary to look at them with other eyes than those with which one examines the rest, and not to judge these events as one judges ordinary events.
Whatever else you might say about Voltaire, it would be unwise to question his figures â if he says the Bible records the killing of 239,000 Jews in internecine warfare, then it does. Just as, when he refers, in the Philosophical Dictionary â a work that is much more accessible to readers of English than the Test â to the writings of rabbis, you can trust that he has read them. All the same, it’s possible that Voltaire, in his fixation on discrediting the dogma that the Bible was a literally true work of divine revelation was sometimes too indifferent to the fact that his researches were also producing ammunition for anti-Semites; that he should have practiced a little self-censorship for the benefit of the public order.
If Voltaire was an anti-Semite, what was the origin of this prejudice? Perhaps this passage from the Philosophical Dictionary gives an answer:
If your nurse told you that Ceres presides over corn, or that Vishnu and Xacahave several times taken human form, or that Sammonocodom came to cut down a forest, or that Odin is waiting for youin his hall somewhere in Jutland, or that Mohammed or somebody else made a journey into heaven; if then your tutor drove into your brain what your nurse engraved there, you will keep hold of it for life.
* Google tranlates this as:
When the arch was taken by the Philistines, and that God, to punish them, having afflicted them with hÃ©morroÃ¯des, they brought back the arch to BethsamÃ¨s, and that they offered to the Lord five gold anuses and five gold rats; Bethsamites, struck of died to have looked at the arch, with the number of