Costa, Uriel da (1585–1640)

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Uriel da Costa, or Gabriel Acosta, an opponent of traditional religion, was born in Portugal to a New Christian family, that is, one forced to convert to Catholicism from Judaism. After completing studies at Coimbra, he held a minor church office. According to his autobiography, biblical studies led him back to Judaism, which he then expounded to his family as he deduced it from the Bible. The family fled to Amsterdam to escape the Inquisition and to practice their religion freely. Da Costa soon found that his biblical Judaism was in conflict with actual practices, which he claimed were too rigid and ritualistic. He attacked "the Pharisees of Amsterdam" and wrote a book arguing that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul was doubtful and unbiblical. The next year da Costa completed his Examen dos tradiçoens Phariseas conferidas con a ley escrita (Examination of the Traditions of the Pharisees Compared with the Written Law; 1624), a work considered so dangerous that the author was excommunicated by the Jews and arrested by the Dutch authorities as a public enemy of religion. He was fined, and the book was publicly burned. (Its contents can be reconstructed from a reply by Samuel da Silva.) In 1633 he sought readmission to the Jewish community. Though he had not changed his views, he needed the communal life, and so, he said, he would "become an ape among apes," and submit to the synagogue. However, he soon found himself doubting whether the Mosaic law was really God's law, and asking whether all religions were not human creations. He transgressed all sorts of Jewish regulations and observances, and finally was condemned for discouraging two Christians from becoming Jews. He was again excommunicated. In 1640 he submitted once more and underwent the most severe penance, first recanting before the whole synagogue, then receiving thirty-nine lashes, and finally lying prostrate while the congregation walked over him. He then went home, wrote his autobiography (Exemplar Humanae Vitae ), and shot himself.

Da Costa's tragic career has made him a symbol of the dangers of religious intolerance, as well as a precursor of modern naturalism and higher criticism. One romantic painting shows him as a kindly scholar, holding young Benedict de Spinoza on his knee, teaching him.

Almost all our information about da Costa comes from his autobiography, published in 1687 from a Latin manuscript. It is not known if it is the original text or an altered version. Very little other data have turned up concerning his actual relations with Amsterdam Jewry or Spinoza. I. S. Révah's 1962 study, based on Portuguese Inquisition records, indicates that da Costa's initial conversion was not, in fact, from Catholicism to biblical Judaism, but rather to a peculiar Iberian form of crypto-Judaism. Then, Révah suggests, in Amsterdam da Costa developed first a biblical Judaism, and later a variety of deism or natural religion.

Da Costa's influence, from the eighteenth century onward, has been mainly on religious liberals opposing traditional orthodoxies. It is his martyrdom, rather than his doctrines (which we hardly know), that has affected people. Considering the many intellectuals gruesomely killed by Protestants and Catholics, it is odd that da Costa has stood out as the example of a freethinker destroyed by religious bigotry. Possibly Enlightenment and romantic thinkers could better accept a hero victimized by Judaism than one victimized by their own previous Christian traditions.


works by da costa

Die Schriften des Uriel da Costa. With introduction, translation, and index, edited by Carl Gebhardt. Amsterdam: Hertzberger, 1922. Bibliotheca Spinozana Tomus II.

Une vie humaine. Translated, with a study of the author, by A.-B. Duff and Pierre Kann. Paris, 1926.

Examination of Pharisaic Traditions. Translated by H. Salomon and I. Sassoon. Leiden: Brill, 1993.

works on da costa

"Acosta, Uriel." In Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. I, 167168.

Bayle, Pierre. "Acosta." In Dictionnaire philosophique et critique. Rotterdam, 16951697.

Israel, J., and D. Katz, eds. Sceptics, Millenarians and Jews. Leiden: Brill, 1990.

Popkin, R. "The Jewish Community of Amsterdam." In History of Jewish Philosophy, edited by D. Frank and O. Leaman, 600611. London: Routledge, 1997.

Révah, I. S. "La Religion d'Uriel da Costa." Revue de l'histoire des religions 161 (1962): 4576.

Révah, I. S. Uriel da Costa et Les Marranes de Porto. Paris: Centre Culturel Calouste Gulbenkian, 2004.

Salomon, H. "A Copy of Uriel da Costa's Examen des tradicoes phariseas Located in the Royal Library of Copenhagen." Studia Rosenthaliana 24 (1990): 153168.

Richard H. Popkin (1967)

Bibliography updated by Oliver Leaman (2005)