1Montesquieu had numerous copies of the Bible in his library, one of which was the Biblia hebraica et latina (Catalogue, no. 1), also translations into Latin, French (no. [‣]), and English (no. [‣]). In addition to these editions he had parts of the Old Testament, and several editions of the New Testament, one in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, published in Paris in 1584 (no. [‣]) and four in French (nos. [‣]-[‣]). There are other writings besides the Bible itself: numerous texts of biblical history, concordances and commentaries by many authors. Among them we find Maimonides (no. [‣]), Catholic interpreters like Erasmus (no. [‣]), Jansen (no. [‣]), the Oratorians Lamy and Senault (no. [‣] and no. [‣]) or the Jesuits Del Rio (no. [‣]) and Maldonado (no. [‣], nos. [‣]- [‣]), Protestants such as Calvin (no. [‣]- [‣]), Johannes Drusius (no. [‣]- [‣]), Grotius (nos. [‣] and [‣]) and Vermigli or Rivet (no. [‣] et no. [‣]). But our President, who had studied at the Oratorian college in Juilly, maintains with respect to the Bible a different attitude from the other great philosophes of his century such as Rousseau or Voltaire. He knows the Bible well, but he is not a great reader of the sacred book like Rousseau, and unlike Voltaire he does not practice any systematic examination of Scripture. Thus Montesquieu, a political writer and not a theologian, who in L’Esprit des lois examines religion as a social phenomenon and in doing so does not take the Bible into consideration, is obliged to defend himself from the accusation that he looks on “all the precepts of the Gospel as advice” (“tous les préceptes de l’Évangile comme des conseils”, Défense, OC, t. VII, p. 90).
2To find more direct references to the Bible we have to read the more private and personal writings such as the Pensées or the Spicilège, where several elements of his critique of the sacred book can be detected. Montesquieu there reveals his anthropological interest for religion by analyzing the biblical passage on “Saul’s pythoness” (Spicilège, no. 421). He takes advantage of it to make known his knowledge of biblical criticism when he asserts that several scholars “believe that the Pentateuch was not compiled by Esdras” (Spicilège, no. 370) or when he says that there is in “Jeremiah a remarkable passage where he seems to be trying to weaken the authority of the laws of Moses” (“Jérémie un passage remarquable par lequel il semble vouloir affaiblir l’autorité des lois de Moïse”, Spicilège, no. 411). Further, Montesquieu testifies to his scientific mind in the critique of the miracle of Joshua which could have been verified only by the destruction of the land and men (Pensées, no. 22) or in contesting the story of the Flood. In his opinion, “the Flood was not universal; it is even impossible to conceive of that” (“le Déluge n’était pas universel ; il est même impossible de le concevoir”, Spic., no. 404), and he demonstrates in a “scientific” note that, after Torricelli’s experiments, the flood described in Genesis is inadmissable and contrary to experience.
Robert Shackleton, “La religion de Montesquieu”, Actes du congrès Montesquieu, Bordeaux, 1956, p. 287-294, reprinted in Robert Shackleton, Essays on Montesquieu and on the Enlightenment, David Gilson and Martin Smith ed., Oxford, 1988, p. 109-116.
Marie-Hélène Cotoni, L’Exégèse du Nouveau Testament dans la philosophie française du XVIIIe siècle, Oxford : Voltaire Foundation,1984.
Yvon Belaval et Dominique Bourel (dir.), Le Siècle des Lumières et la Bible, Paris : Beauchesne, 1986.