According to a commonplace narrative, the rise of modern political thought in the West resulted from secularization—the exclusion of religious arguments from political discourse. But in this pathbreaking work, Eric Nelson argues that this familiar story is wrong. Instead, he contends, political thought in early-modern Europe became less, not more, secular with time, and it was the Christian encounter with Hebrew sources that provoked this radical transformation.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Christian scholars began to regard the Hebrew Bible as a political constitution designed by God for the children of Israel. Newly available rabbinic materials became authoritative guides to the institutions and practices of the perfect republic. This thinking resulted in a sweeping reorientation of political commitments. In the book’s central chapters, Nelson identifies three transformative claims introduced into European political theory by the Hebrew revival: the argument that republics are the only legitimate regimes; the idea that the state should coercively maintain an egalitarian distribution of property; and the belief that a godly republic would tolerate religious diversity. One major consequence of Nelson’s work is that the revolutionary politics of John Milton, James Harrington, and Thomas Hobbes appear in a brand-new light.
Nelson demonstrates that central features of modern political thought emerged from an attempt to emulate a constitution designed by God. This paradox, a reminder that while we may live in a secular age, we owe our politics to an age of religious fervor, in turn illuminates fault lines in contemporary political discourse.
Rarely -- all too rarely -- one reads a book that can really transform a major field of study. Eric Nelson has produced such a book -- and he has done it with lucidity, economy, and grace. The Hebrew Republic teaches us to read early modern political thought in a radically new way.
Eric Nelson's deep knowledge of the Hebrew, as well as the Greek and Latin, sources of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century political thought is brilliantly deployed in this book. Nelson provides a provocative and persuasive account of the remarkable effects of taking biblical and rabbinic texts seriously.
Deeply learned and thought-provoking...No doubt specialists will be debating the arguments of The Hebrew Republic for some time to come--which is a testimony to Eric Nelson's profound and original book.
[A] magnificent book...The Hebrew Republic boldly claims that the secularism-as-modernism narrative is incomplete at best, and at worst totally backwards...Not only has [Nelson] significantly revised the history of some key concepts in early modern European political thought. It may be that he has written a paradigm-shifter, the kind of book that fundamentally realigns the way scholars look at a period as a whole...The Hebrew Republic demonstrates unforgettably that we need to understand piety to comprehend politics. This will not be news to scholars working on the Middle East or the Middle Ages. But for many historians of European and American politics and political thought, The Hebrew Republic may help force belief--not just religious institutions--back into the center of the story.
Many of the political freedoms that we enjoy today have their roots in the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinical commentaries that explained it. Eric Nelson outlines this in his brilliant new book The Hebrew Republic, showing, for example, how the triumph of republican government over monarchy is in large part thanks to the Bible and the rabbis.
Nelson powerfully argues that [the 17th century] had as its driving force an intense scholarly interest in the Israelite constitution, occasioned by the discovery of new Rabbinic texts and the growth of Hebrew scholarship in Europe. Nelson's account is remarkable because it shows just how serious great political thinkers of the 17th century were about the details of an ancient polity that many or most Christian scholars of the time believed was God's approved constitution for all time. No matter how much contemporary political thought really is a product of the 17th century, Nelson explains, modern political theory has deeper theological roots than is generally believed.
In The Hebrew Republic Nelson has thrown down the gauntlet of a revolution. He means to overturn the accepted foundations of modern intellectual history by re-evaluating the early modern period and asking whether biblical and Jewish ideas were as foundational as Greek and Roman thought in creating the modern world. And Nelson, in being persuaded that the Bible was a motive force in early modern political history, is not alone.
- 2012, Winner of the Laura Shannon Prize
- 240 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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