Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

La Peyrère, Isaac

LA PEYRÈRE, ISAAC (1594 or 1596–1676), French theologian, Bible critic, and anthropologist, apparently of Marrano background. He was born in Bordeaux and raised a Calvinist. In 1640 he became the Prince of Condé's secretary. In 1642–43 he wrote Praeadamitae and Du Rappel des Juifs, which constitute one continuous theory of Bible criticism and Messianism. The Rappel des Juifs was published anonymously in 1643, while the more revolutionary Praeadamitae ("Men Before Adam") was banned and circulated privately in manuscript in France, Holland, and Denmark. In 1644 La Peyrère went to Copenhagen with the French ambassador, and there wrote Relation de Groenland (published 1647), and Relation de l'Islande (published 1663; An Account of Iceland, 1732), landmarks in early anthropology. Queen Christina of Sweden saw his manuscript of the Praeadamitae in Brussels, urged its publication, and agreed to pay the costs. It was printed in 1655 in Amsterdam and Basle (five editions in Latin, 1655; English as Men Before Adam, 1656; Dutch as Praeadamiten, 1661). The book was banned and burned everywhere for its heretical claims that Adam was not the first man, that the Bible is not the history of mankind, but only the history of the Jews, that the Flood was a local event, that Moses did not write the Pentateuch, and that no accurate copy of the Bible exists. Many refutations immediately appeared. La Peyrère was arrested and told he would be released if he turned Catholic and recanted to the Pope, which he did in hypocritical fashion, saying that his heresies resulted from his Calvinist upbringing, and that though all Jews and Christians disagreed with him, and though he could still find no Scriptural or reasonable evidence against his theories, he would abjure them because the Church said they were wrong (Lettre de la Peyrère à Philotime, 1658; Apologie de Peyrère, 1663). The Pope offered him a post, but La Peyrère returned to Paris and became Condé's librarian and a lay member of the Oratorians. There he collected more evidence for his pre-Adamite theory, arguing with the great Bible scholar, Father Richard Simon, and trying unsuccessfully to publish a new version of his Messianic Rappel des Juifs. When he died, one of his friends wrote:

Here lies La Peyrère, that good Israelite, Huguenot, Catholic and finally Pre-Adamite. Four religions pleased him at the same time and his indifference was so uncommon that after 80 years when he had to make a choice the Good Man departed and did not choose any of them.

La Peyrère has been interpreted as a heretic, atheist, deist, Socinian, father of Bible criticism, and father of Zionism. His overall theory is a Marrano Messianist view. La Peyrère argued that the Jews are about to be recalled, that the Messiah is coming for them, that they should join the Christians, and with the king of France rebuild Zion. Then the Jews will rule the world from Jerusalem. La Peyrère was a combination of hard-headed scientist and kabbalistic messianist in developing his case. He argued his pre-Adamite theory first on a farfetched interpretation of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, then from information about pagan history, and finally from anthropological evidence about the Indians, Eskimos, and Chinese. His analysis of the Bible played a great role in the development of Higher Criticism, influencing Spinoza and Richard Simon. La Peyrère's messianic theories resemble those of some of the Spanish New Christians and Postel's Kabbalism, but seem unrelated to Shabbetai Ẓevi's movement. His separation of Jewish and gentile histories influenced Vico in the developing secular historiography. La Peyrère's pre-Adamite theory was revived in the early 19th century as a basis for polygenesis and modern racism, claiming the American Indians and the blacks were not sons of Adam.


D.C. Allen, The Legend of Noah (1949, 19632), index; D.R. Mc-Kee, in: Publications of the Modern Language Association, 59 (1944), 456–85; R. Pintard, Le libertinage érudit dans la première moitié du xviie siècle, 2 v. (1943), index; H.J. Schoeps, Philosemitismus im Barock (1952), 3–18, 81–87; L. Strauss, Spinoza's Critique of Religion (1965), 64–85.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.