From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
It is an early criticism of religious intolerance and a defense of secular government. In particular, it was a preemptive defense of his later work, Ethics (published posthumously in 1677), for which Spinoza anticipated harsh criticism. It was written in New Latin.
In the treatise, Spinoza put forth his most systematic critique of Judaism, and all organized religion in general. To Spinoza, all "revealed" religion had to be analyzed on the basis of reason, not simply blind faith.
Nevertheless, theology and philosophy, Spinoza argued, must be kept separate, particularly in the reading of scripture. Whereas the goal of theology is obedience, philosophy aims at understanding rational truth. Scripture does not teach philosophy and thus cannot be made to conform with it, otherwise the meaning of scripture will be distorted. Conversely, if scripture is to be accepted as based in reason, then, Spinoza argues, "the prejudices of a common people of long ago...will gain a hold on his understanding and darken it."
He reinterpreted the belief that there were such things as prophecy, miracles, or supernatural occurrences.(See Spinoza's Views on Miracles) He argued that God acts solely by the laws of "his own nature". He rejected the view that God had a particular end game or purpose to advance in the course of events; to Spinoza, those who believed so were only creating a delusion for themselves out of fear.
Spinoza was particularly attuned to the idea of interpretation; he felt that all organized religion was simply the institutionalized defense of particular interpretations. He rejected the view that Moses composed first five books of the Bible, called the Pentateuch by Christians or Torah by Jews, in their entirety. He provided an analysis of the structure of the Bible which demonstrated that it was essentially a compiled text with many different authors and diverse origins; in his view, it was not "revealed" all at once.
The treatise also rejected the Jewish notion of "chosenness"; to Spinoza, all peoples are on par with each other, as God has not elevated one over the other. Spinoza also offered a sociological explanation as to how the Jewish people had managed to survive for so long, despite facing relentless persecution. In his view, the Jews had been preserved due to a combination of Gentile hatred and Jewish separatism.
He also gave one final, crucial reason for the continued Jewish presence, which in his view, was by itself sufficient to maintain the survival of the nation forever: circumcision. It was the ultimate anthropological expression of bodily marking, a tangible symbol of separateness which was the ultimate identifier.
Spinoza also posited a novel view of the Torah; he claimed that it was essentially a political constitution of the ancient state of Israel. In his view, because the state no longer existed, its constitution could no longer be valid. He argued that the Torah was thus suited to a particular time and place; because times and circumstances had changed, the Torah could no longer be regarded as a valid document.
It is unlikely that the text ever had political support of any kind, with attempts being made to suppress it even before Dutch magistrate Johan de Witt's murder in 1672 (Israel, 2001). In 1673, it was publicly condemned by the Synod of Dordrecht and banned officially the following year.