Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Eric Nelson's "The Hebrew Republic"

Eric Nelson is the Frederick S. Danziger Associate Professor of Government at Harvard University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought, and reported the following:
As it happens, the “page 99 test” works pretty well in the case of The Hebrew Republic. The book challenges the conventional narrative that attributes the emergence of a recognizably “modern” kind of political thought to the phenomenon of “secularization”—the exclusion of religious arguments from political discourse. The Hebrew Republic argues, in contrast, that political thought in early-modern Europe became less, not more secular with time. In particular, it assigns a great deal of significance to the fact that, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Christians began to regard the Hebrew Bible as a political constitution, designed by God himself for the children of Israel. It accordingly became the central objective of political science in this period to replicate the divinely authorized Biblical constitution—and in pursuit of this objective, European Protestants became convinced (reluctantly in most cases) that they should turn for guidance to the full array of newly-available rabbinic materials. I argue that it was this encounter, rather than secularization, that yielded several of the most crucial elements of modern political thought.

Page 99 of the book reproduces a remarkably explicit defense of this enterprise written by the great seventeenth-century political theorist Hugo Grotius. He is commenting on a famous passage in Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian whose works first suggested to Europeans that Biblical Israel could be regarded as a “politeia”—a political constitution in the Greek sense. If Josephus was right about this, a fundamental question had to be answered: namely, what sort of constitution did ancient Israel embody? Greek political science had identified three basic options: the rule of one man, the few, and the many (each having a correct and a degenerate form). But Josephus argued that the Greek philosophers, due to their ignorance of revelation, had omitted one further possibility: “theocracy” (Josephus coined the term), a regime in which God himself was the civil sovereign. This was the regime of ancient Israel. Grotius endorses Josephus’s position, and then draws a set of implications from it that would prove utterly transformative, both for Grotius himself and for the many theorists he influenced (among them Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke).
Read more about The Hebrew Republic at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue