French Doctor responds to Dutch Optometrist (Church History Minute)

This Church History minute is about Jean Astruc

Who was he? A French doctor, specifically specializing in the field of dermatology, which was still in its infancy, in the early and mid 1700s. He read quite widely and was familiar with most biological breakthroughs of the time. His family, although likely originally Jewish, had been Protestants, but he converted to Catholicism, likely due to the intense persecution and counter-reformation activities in France. Aside from medicine, Astruc took issue with the suggestion by Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza that, due to certain supposed inconsistencies, Moses did not actually write the Torah (the first five books of the bible). Thus he published an anonymous work, eventually traced back to him, entitled Conjectures sur les mémoires originauz don’t il paroit que Moyse s’est servi pour composer le livre de la Génèse. Avec des remarques qui appuient ou qui éclaircissent ces conjectures (“Conjectures on the original documents that Moses appears to have used in composing the Book of Genesis. With remarks that support or throw light upon these conjectures”). In it he suggested that there were, in fact, four different voices in the Torah that had different styles and vocabularies, but that Moses had actually written each of them. His argument was that Moses had written the four accounts in parallel form, which matched the four Gospels, and that a later editor had smashed them together, though he allowed for the possibility that the later editor was Moses himself.

Why was he important? Well, somewhat unwittingly, Astruc made “higher criticism” of the bible, and specifically source criticism a thing. This would continue, in a decidedly more liberal direction, until it reached its climax with the Wellhausen or Wellhausen-Graf Documentary hypothesis, before beginning to decline, though certainly not fade away. In short, he set the tone for critical biblical study that had been started by Erasmus, brought in liberal directions by Spinoza, and would continue on well after him.

Fun Fact: Astruc thought of himself as a defender of orthodoxy, even though his theories set the groundwork for a move away from that same orthodox position.

Where might I have heard of him? Only if you’ve taken a course or read books on the history of biblical interpretation. His actual work, while interesting in its methodology, does not really have staying power. Alternatively, if you have an interest in the history of medicine, his name may have come up as something of a footnote.


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