The Hebrew Republic:
Jewish Sources and
the Transformation of European Political Thought
by Eric Nelson
Harvard, 240 pp., $27.95
How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought
by Joshua A. Berman
Oxford, 264 pp., $39.95
In the longstanding, periodically eruptive political fight over whether the United States is historically a “Christian nation,” the hotspot was recently the state board of education in Texas, where a group of Christian activists on the board has amended education standards to emphasize the Christian motivations of our country’s Founders. This could affect the way textbooks are written not only in Texas but, given the state’s size and influence, in many other states as well. The prospect of a generation of students growing up to think there’s something inherently Christian about America has secularists feeling anxious.
The issue turns, in part, on whether as men of the Enlightenment, the Founders were more likely to be wary of religion’s influence on government than friendly to it. In a long essay in the New York Times Magazine on the Texas situation, Russell Shorto summarizes, “In fact, the Founders were rooted in Christianity—they were inheritors of the entire European Christian tradition—and at the same time they were steeped in an Enlightenment rationalism that was, if not opposed to religion, determined to establish separate spheres for faith and reason.”
The simple equation between the Enlightenment and an intellectual unease with biblical religion is familiar, but is it factual? Two new books, dealing not with the American founding but more broadly with the biblical roots of European liberal political thought, substantially and interestingly complicate the question. If anything, the tradition of political reflection that educated the men who signed the Declaration of Independence turns out to be less Christian than, well, Jewish.
In The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought, Harvard government professor Eric Nelson tells a story with few actual Jewish participants. His protagonists, with names like Grotius, Selden, Harrington, and Cunaeus, instead are Christian political thinkers and legal theorists of the 16th and 17th centuries. Yet the Jewish, and specifically rabbinic, influence is startlingly direct and pronounced. “It will not do to talk about a single, unitary Enlightenment in European intellectual history,” writes Nelson, “still less to assume the Enlightenment and revealed religion were invariably (or even usually) opposed.” That’s an understatement.
The rise of Protestantism and the concomitant belief in the ability of an individual reader to interpret the Bible for himself brought a heightened sensitivity to the importance of grappling with Scriptural texts in their original languages. For help in understanding the Bible’s often cryptic Hebrew (and some Aramaic), necessarily masked and whitewashed when rendered in other languages, Christian Bible scholars turned to the Jewish community, especially that of Holland. Translations of classic works of rabbinic exegesis, from the Talmud and Midrash to the legal and philosophical works of Maimonides, duly appeared. One English Hebraist, Henry Ainsworth, typically explained in his Bible commentary (1611-1622) that such an effort could only be adequately accomplished under the guidance of “Hebrew doctors of the ancienter sort, and some later of best esteeme for learning, as Maimony, or Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, (who abridged the Talmuds) & others.” The impact of this openness to Jewish scholarship far exceeded matters of theology and soon encouraged a revolution in political thinking.
Nelson concentrates on three areas: the rejection of monarchy in favor of an exclusive commitment to republicanism, the increased willingness to use the power of government to equalize citizens through the redistribution of wealth, and the insistence on tolerance for religious minorities.
Impatience with kings developed under the influence of discussions in the Talmud’s tractate Sanhedrin, which presents monarchy as a divine command, set against the rabbinic view in the Midrashic commentary on Deuteronomy, Devarim Rabbah, that sees setting up a king as a sin, that of rejecting divine rule in favor of human. “I follow the opinion of these rabbis” in the Midrash, explained John Milton, who studied the rabbinic text either in Latin translation or possibly in the original, in a 1654 political tract. He knew Hebrew and Aramaic, making ample use of Midrash in Paradise Lost. Arguments against monarchy from Hebraists including Milton, James Harrington (citing learned disputes among Rabbeinu Bachya, Rabbah bar Nachmani, Gersonides, David Kimchi, and Maimonides), and Algernon Sidney would, a century later, turn up in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense>.
In De Republica Hebraeorum (1617) the Dutchman Petrus Cunaeus explained that, on political matters, the Hebrew Bible could be relied on with assurance, for the ancient Hebrew republic was “the most holy, and the most exemplary in the whole World.” Cunaeus developed the view that biblical land laws, requiring that the holy land be divided into parcels and distributed equitably among the members of the Israelite tribes (excluding the priestly Levites), were a model for modern European countries.
Under Jewish law, inherited land, even if sold, returned to the original owner on the Jubilee, every 50 years. Large landholding wealth was therefore impossible. The idea flowed down to liberal thinkers, including Montesquieu, Rousseau, Jefferson, and Tocqueville, who saw extreme wealth as a hazard for republican government. Of course, the leveling impulse, for better or worse, remains with us.
Most provocatively, Nelson shows how the idea of “theocracy,” the word itself having been adopted from the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, came in the hands of Jewish-influenced Christian thinkers to embody the case for downgrading the political power of orthodoxy-enforcing priests in favor of religious toleration. In the Jewish republic as described in Deuteronomy, priests were a caste with privileges but also severe economic disadvantages—they could not own land—and no role in governing. Instead, God was king and lawmaker. Among the features of divine-backed rabbinic legislation is the Talmud’s designation of non-Jews as Noachides, children of Noah, with their own table of minimal laws (seven in all) to be observed as citizens of the Hebrew republic. The Dutch lawyer and philosopher Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) delved into Maimonides’ description of the Noachide code. In “the standing Practice of the Jews,” Grotius found a rationale for leaving religious dissenters alone. Just as Jewish law allowed pagans to live in the holy land undisturbed, so long as they observed a modest list of moral requirements, so too a Christian country may penalize neither unorthodox Christians nor non-Christians merely because “they are doubtful, or erroneous as to some Points either not delivered in Sacred Writ, or not so clearly but to be capable of various Acceptations.” Grotius influenced John Selden (1584-1654), an Englishman who, in his scholarship, put even greater emphasis on the Noachide laws as “demonstrat[ing] God’s embrace of broad toleration,” writes Nelson. Selden was followed, in turn, by John Locke who, in the Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), likewise emphasized the ancient Hebrew model.
There were, of course, other Enlightenment voices critical of biblical faith—Spinoza, the French philosophes—but it was the theorists of the Hebrew republic who had the greater impact on Western liberal political thought. You could object that, even so, these thinkers made use of the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic texts as source or quote books while misrepresenting their spirit. Sure, in the founding generation, as before and after, many Christians drew comparisons between themselves and the Israelites of old. Samuel Langdon, pastor and representative to New Hampshire’s state constitutional convention, declared in a 1788 sermon favoring ratification of the Constitution, “If I am not mistaken, instead of the twelve tribes of Israel we may substitute the thirteen States of the American union.” But doesn’t the Hebrew Bible call for burning witches, stoning homosexuals, and wiping out an entire city of Jews should they succumb to the lust for idolatry? How “liberal,” and how American, is that?
A second and invaluable book, Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought by Israeli scholar Joshua A. Berman, reminds us to consider the political teachings of the Bible as an organic whole, a text presenting a certain worldview, rather than pick out individual verses to condemn or praise. Berman, who teaches at Bar-Ilan University, shows the dramatic way the Bible overturned oppressive political ideas dominant in the ancient Near East in favor of a turn to egalitarianism. He places the Hebrew Bible in its proper historical context, contrasting it with other, contemporary cultures that were rigidly hierarchical, composed of tribute-receivers and tribute-givers, a few powerful men and a great horde of the powerless and insignificant. Even Athenian democracy assumed such a hierarchy, with each human being confined by fate to his rank or station, rising above which would be unthinkable.
The Bible, on the other hand, presents its law as a treaty of sorts—between God and the whole people Israel—precisely modeled on international treaties between kings in use at the time. Alternatively, Scripture pictures the relationship between the Jews and their God as a marriage: “So I spread My robe over you and covered your nakedness, and I entered into a covenant with you by oath—declares the Lord God; thus you became Mine” (Ezekiel 16:8). In either case, the key relationship is not God’s with the Jewish king or royal family, but with all the people.
In the 20th century, Friedrich Hayek traced the idea of equality before the law to ancient Greek sources, but Berman more convincingly starts its genealogy with the book of Deuteronomy. In the biblical commonwealth, there are no powerful castes, no classes, no aristocracy. As Berman notes, the Bible lacks even a word for such things. The people themselves nominate their judges (Deuteronomy 16:18). Any native-born male may be king (17:15). God chooses the king (17:15) through the medium of the prophets, but the prophets themselves are assessed and approved by the people (18:20-22). Whether having a king in itself is a concession to human perversity or a positive good would later be debated by the rabbis.
Unlike other Near Eastern societies at the time, the king has no divine right to impose tributes. There are tithes expected to be paid but not to the government, and they are, in any event, voluntary with no punishment indicated for nonpayment. (This casts, by the way, Eric Nelson’s point about wealth redistribution in a different light.) In Berman’s treatment, the political philosophy of Deuteronomy starts to sound not just classically liberal but, in more modern terms, almost conservative. Thus, public welfare is cared for through what he smartly sees as a kind of—again, voluntary—communal insurance plan. You pay your charitable tithes and if you, then, fall on hard times yourself, you are entitled to collect your claim on public support—which, as an insurance claim, is not a gift but not really a loan, either, as we today would understand it. Therefore it is not subject to interest (23:20).
In the Hebrew republic of Deuteronomy, there is no infantilizing of any part of the citizenry. Some degree of literacy, for example, is assumed among the people, rather than education being sequestered among scribes and priests as in then-contemporary neighboring societies. Israel as a whole should stand out as a “wise and discerning nation” (4:6) or, as Exodus puts it, a “kingdom of priests” (19:6). This comes out most clearly in the weighty moral expectations—moral egalitarianism—placed on every individual without exception. Writes Berman:
The Pentateuch has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature—it expects that an entire nation can behave in exemplary fashion with regard to one another and with regard to their sovereign king, God. Earthly kingship is greatly attenuated, and the various seats of power in Deuteronomy are all subject to the aegis and supervision of the people as a whole—“you.”
It is easy to see why other cultures of the time imagined their gods as sanctioning rigid class structures and top-down hierarchies. The king represented the people to the gods and the gods to the people. He might be a god himself. That the noble class should then portray the divine world as approving the domination of the powerless masses makes sense. But as Berman observes, when the question of cui bono? is put to the Bible, the answer is not at all obvious. The Pentateuch’s revolutionary politics benefited no one in any power structure.
So where did the Pentateuch come from? It claims to be a revelation, of course. The theologian William Paley famously argued, in 1802, that if on some lonely heath you unexpectedly stumble upon a pocketwatch lying on the ground, you may logically infer that the watch is no product of nature, despite being discovered in a natural setting, but rather that of a creative artificer. Coming across the Bible in its Near Eastern historical setting poses a similar enigma: The book bears a profound dissimilarity to the very humanly understandable religious and legal systems that preceded and followed it. Religious believers take this as a hint that its origins are not human.
Whatever view you take on that vexed question, Nelson and Berman together perform the revelatory task of demonstrating that, once having originated, the Hebrew Bible went on to inspire a way of thinking about politics also radically different from anything that came before.