‘Jesus Nazarenus legislator’: Adam Boreel’s defence of Christianity

  • Rob Iliffe
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 148)


In this paper, I discuss the manuscript work on the Christian religion of the Dutch Collegiant Adam Boreel (1602–1665), a copy of which is now among the Boyle Papers of the Royal Society of London.’ Although scholars have been aware of its existence for some time, it has not been studied in any detail. I begin by describing the background to its production and in particular, the efforts of men like John Dury, Samuel Hartlib, and Henry Oldenburg to see it published. Secondly, I offer an account of the order and content of the work and suggest a rough dating for its composition. I also show how Boreel believed that attacks on Christianity could be overcome by means of a series of different types of proof. Finally, I assess its significance in the light of the three-impostors thesis.


Human Race Christian Religion True Religion Divine Origin Cartesian Method 
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  1. 1.
    R. H. Popkin, The history of scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979 ). See also H. Van Leeuwen, The problem of certainty in English thought, 1630–1680 ( The Hague: Nijhoff, 1963 ).Google Scholar
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    See R. Orr, Reason and authority: The thought of William Chillingworth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967 ); and Henning Graf Reventlow, The authority of the Bible and the rise of the modern world ( London: SCM Press, 1984 ), 147–54.Google Scholar
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    For the broad range of subscribers to the Hartlib program, see Charles Webster, The great instauration: science, medicine and reform, 1626–1660 (London: Duckworth, 1975); and in particular, id., `Henry More and Descartes: Some new sources,’ British journal for the history of science, 4 (1969): 359–77, esp. 364–70.Google Scholar
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    Dury to Hartlib, 31 Aug. 1646, cited in E. G. E. van der Wall, “`Without partialitie towards all men”: John Durk on the Dutch Hebraist Adam Boreel’, in J. van den Berg and E. G. E. van der Wall (eds.), Jewish—Christian relations in the seventeenth century: studies and documents (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1988), 145–9, at 147; and Dury to Hartlib, 9 Dec. 1654; Sheffield University, Hartlib MS 4/3/65, cited in Van der Wall, `De mystieke Chiliast Petrus Serrarius (160o-1669) en zijn wereld’ (PhD thesis, University of Leiden, 1989), 66o; cf. also 230–33. I am grateful to Dr. Van der Wall for allowing me to consult her thesis. Cf. also J. C. van Slee, De geschiedenis van het Socinianisme in de Nederlanden (Haarlem, 1914); and W. J. Kuehler, Het Socinianisme in Nederland (Leiden, 1912 ).Google Scholar
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    Oldenburg to Boreel, April 1656, in A. R. Hall and M. B. Hall (eds.), The correspondence of Henry Oldenburg (hereafter OC), (Madison and Milwaukee: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965), 1: 89–92; Oldenburg to Menasseh ben Israel, 25 July 1657, ibid., 123–7; and Hartlib to John Worthington, 12 Dec. 1655, in J. Crossley (ed.), The diary and correspondence of John Worthington (Chetham Society series x111,1847), I: 78–9. It is not known when Oldenburg and Bored first made contact with each other.Google Scholar
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    Oldenburg to Hartlib, 13 and 27 Aug. 1659; ibid., 302–4 and 306–1o. Oldenburg also had occasion to refer to the `libertinisme and profanenesse’ in England, in particular that of Henry Stubbe, assistant to Thomas Barlow (friend of Boyle and at this time chief librarian of the Bodleian); cf. also Champion in this volume. Oldenburg requested that Boyle should get Stubbe to search for some books for Oldenburg’s acquaintances in Paris; cf. Oldenburg to Hartlib, 13 Aug. and 19 Nov. 1659; OC, 1: 303 and 332.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., xi’, fols. 6r ff.; xv, nos. 58 and 185–7. Vol. x11 is (in the main) an uncomplicated outline of the structure of JNL. The most probable dates for the composition of these volumes are: Vol. am in the late 165os, Vol. mil in 166o—i, and Vol. xv in 1662–3. A significant part of Vol. xv is comprised of a series of `Miscellaneous’ notes numbered I-454. Since there are gaps and discrepancies in the foliation, I shall refer to individual numbers of these notes.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., xv, nos. 3o9, 320–23, and 228. Earlier, he had suggested that JNL be directed only towards the non-believers; ibid., xui, fols. Ir ff. (from the notes of 22 June 166o).Google Scholar
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    Ibid., xv, nos. 209–20 and 238. Boreel planned at this stage (c.1662) to introduce variant readings and annotations of authors like Socinus, Ficino, Savonarola, and Grotius into the margins of JNL; ibid., xv, nos. 390, 400, and 147–9.Google Scholar
  25. 34.
    Ibid., xv, nos. 221–5 and 239.Google Scholar
  26. 35.
    For prophecy, see for example ibid., xv, nos. 67 and 242; for speech, nos. 24o and 277, and for writing, nos. 241 and 278.Google Scholar
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    See for example ibid., xv, nos. 246 and 306. In the latter note, Revelation is accredited with a wholly different sort of certainty from anything else.Google Scholar
  28. 37.
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    Ibid., xv, nos. 359–61, 363, and 153. John io: 37–8 is `If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not. But if I do, though ye believe not me, believe the works; that ye may know, and believe, that the Father is in me, and I in Him.’ 43 R. S. Boyle MS xv, nos. 119, 333, 244, and 285.Google Scholar
  30. 44.
    Ibid., xv, nos. 179, 191, 196, 2S7, and 30o-93, esp. 389–9o. Argument from design was not considered seriously by Boreel as evidence for the nature of Divine moral law, since one might `argue that the power of fire was wise and good’, but it could play a corroborative role once the truth of Christianity had been established; cf. nos. 248 and 426.Google Scholar
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    Cf. ibid., xv, no. 396.Google Scholar
  32. 46.
    Ibid., xv, passim.Google Scholar
  33. 47.
    Ibid., xv, nos. 249–50, 256, 318, 377 and 67. There is no evidence that Boreel vigorously countered the claims of the chiliasts in JNL. For a significant analysis of the testimony associated with miracles, see no. 429.Google Scholar
  34. 48.
    Ibid., xv, 249, 396–8, and ibid., xin (4th foliation), fol. 4r. This last note is in a piece which is preceded by a comparative section on the laws of the Jews; Boreel returned to this subject in work which now follows the miscellaneous notes of Vol. xv.Google Scholar
  35. 49.
    Ibid., xv, nos. 38o, 177, and 178. No. 381 emphasises that one should keep to the literal words of the Bible.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., xv, nos. 153, 196, and 452. See also ibid., xn (3rd foliation), fol. 5Y, and xv, fol. 70, where the individual certainty about Christianity is described as `internal Revelation’. P Nevertheless, see ibid., xv, fols. 3or ff., in which Boreel has written a series of `Theses’ and `Antitheses’, the latter claiming that what can be said about Christianity can also be said about Islam and `the Chinese religion’.Google Scholar
  37. 51.
    Cf. Popkin, `Spinoza and the three imposters’, passim; a similar description was offered by Richard Smith in his `Observations on the report of a blasphemous treatise by some affirmed to have been of late years published in print of three grand impostors’, composed between 1648 and 1671, which is now British Library, Sloane MSS 1024 and 388. Oldenburg took notes on the Queen of Sweden in his commonplace book of 1654–1661; Royal Society, Misc. MS i, pp. 154–72.Google Scholar
  38. 53.
    R.S. Boyle MS xi’, fol. 5v.Google Scholar
  39. 54.
    That is, the bishops referred to the general features of Christ’s doctrine for which Boreel wished to argue. Boreel suggested that this constituted corroborative and continuous evidence that Christ lived and did the things he is said to have done; he did not argue that the bishops’ actual practice conformed to Christ’s precepts.Google Scholar
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    Spinoza, A theologico-political treatise, trans. R. H. M. Elwes (New York: Dover, 1951), 64–8 and 79.Google Scholar
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    See in particular R. Popkin, ‘Spinoza’s relations with the Quakers in Amsterdam’, Quaker history, 70 (1984), esp. p. 27; and H. Siebrand, Spinoza and the Netherlanders: an inquiry into the early reception of his philosophy of religion (Assen and Maastricht, 1988 ).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rob Iliffe
    • 1
  1. 1.Imperial CollegeUniversity of LondonUK

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