May 09, 2010

Review: The Hebrew Republic

Republican exclusivism [the belief the only legitimate government was a republic], [economic] redistribution and toleration have all been defended on different grounds in the intervening centuries: but in the beggining, all were authorised by the divine will made manifest in the constitution of the Hebrew Republic. (Nelson 139)
Eric Nelson's recent book is a shot across the bows of almost everyone who studies the seventeenth century or who thinks seriously about politics. The first shot is to the presumptions of historians. We all know or think we know that the roots of seventeenth century Republicanism lay in Rome. In particular English thinkers are said to have concentrated their thinking upon Rome as interpreted by Machiavelli and as discussed in Cicero. Nelson suggests we are wrong. He suggests that there was a second less scholastic republicanism which opened up around the Bible. Here comes the second shot. He suggests that that second Republicanism advocated religious toleration, economic equality and the principle that Republics were the best and only good form of government: all of this he traces to the discussion of particular biblical passages in early modern Hebrew and then English writing. For the historians the shock is the creation of a new republican tradition, for everyone else the suggestion that the origins of the left lie in Biblical fundementalism.

Let us take each of the three themes that Nelson identifies. What in particular did he say that early modern thinkers were doing with the Bible. What are the texts that they drew upon? His three themes are separate and relate to three different passages within the Hebrew Bible, what brought them together was that their discovery by the Republicans followed from a particular method of scholarship. Firstly Republicans argued that republicanism was the only good system. Aristotle and most classical writers had suggested that any system might be good. It was from scripture though that the republicans learnt that the monarchy of Saul had been rejected: the choice for Isreal had been between a monarchy of God or a monarchy of men and they had chosen the latter. For a thinker like John Cook, Lord President of Munster under Cromwell, this demonstrated that monarchy was an evil and pernicious system: it was cursed as Samuel had told the Jews. If the republic of the Jews was a republic founded by God, they argued that it must have had nigh on perfect laws. Christ had dispensed with some of those laws- ceremonial laws to do with the Sabbath but had said nothing about the other laws. The Republicans adopted from the Jewish Republic the Mosaic law of property: this stated that the land of Israel was divided by tribe into equal lots and at the end of the fiftieth year, each tribe and each man had returned to him his lot. Inequality could never be perpetual. Indeed as Nelson points out it is crucial in this context that ancient Hebrew has one word for the concepts of Justice and charity! Lastly they found in scripture a justification for toleration as well: based upon the postulate that in the Bible the authority to bind men religiously is given to the civil power rather than the church. Teachings could be repressed if they threatened the stability of the state but not if they threatened the queasy stomach of a cleric.

These are radical doctrines to derive from the Old Testament. Nelson suggests that they arose at this point in time because of the growing awareness in Christian debate of Jewish thought concerning these matters. He attempts to suggest, not merely that biblical ideas were crucial in the development of early modern thought, but also that they were crucial as transmitted by a Jewish and Talmudic tradition into that thought. So for example he shows how the details of the treatment of the landlaw in early modern Europe came in part from the interpretation of the great Jewish scholar Maimonides. Equally in interpreting the passages in Samuel when Israel asked for a King, European scholars turned to Jewish sources: in the controversy between Milton and Salamasius about whether the English could and should execute their King and inaugurate a republic, both glossed the comments of Rabbi Yose and referred directly to a debate in the Talmud. Milton and Salamasius mention a Rabbi Jose, but it is clear who they mean. Harrington when discussing toleration mentions 'a tradition with the Rabbins' about who should control religious life and justifies through it the imposition only of universal, not particular religious obligations. Nelson produces several other examples of major thinkers quoting and considering the work of the Rabbis in elucidating passages from the Hebrew Bible.

The scholarly dust will take a while to settle on this thesis. To say it is provocative is to say the straightforward. There are some obvious strengths to the argument and there are some obvious weaknesses. The first strength is that Nelson is definitely right. Early modern thinking revolved around the Bible. Whether you are thinking about John Selden, Hugo Grotius or even Thomas Hobbes, they all published long pieces (particularly the first two) about what the Old Testament meant for modern Europe. Early modern Protestants in particular really did see Isreal as a model. They thought that Isreali law could be brought in tout court: hence the suggestion in 1653 that England might, at a moment of constitutional crisis, be governed by a Sanhedrin The eyes of historians tend to glaze over when confronted with a 500 page treatise on the resemblance of a true church to a garden, using gospel analogies, but those treatises were read. The weakness of the argument lies in the fact that this was always an elite discourse; very few of the early modern thinkers could read Hebrew, very few knew of these debates, what Nelson is studying is something that lay at the far end of discussion: the equivalent of the meetings of MIT's quantum physicists! Perhaps more disturbing is that Nelson still thinks in a constitutional mode: my own work on seventeenth century English protestants, and Jonathan Scott's (more importantly as he is a published Professor) suggests the importance of the spirit and providence as against constitutions. The insight goes back to John Pocock but sees the Christian caught up in time, making decisions about salvation, rather than designing a perfection that could only be reached when Christ arrived. Thomas Harrison warned the Whitehall debates in 1648 that England could not anticipate the only truly virtuous rule of God: Oliver Cromwell told the army that constitutions were but 'as dross and dung' compared to Christ. Others may criticise as well, particularly on Nelson's treatment of the big authors- I am not qualified to do so.

Having said that, I welcome this book. It is a slim volume and it is provocative and it will shake up the study of the century. It is important as it suggests some of the radical potential embodied in Christianity and some of the Christian roots of radicalism. There is a fond idea around that Christianity has had nothing to do with the story of democracy, socialism or toleration in the West, that idea is absolutely false. Another story we need to add to our account of the seventeenth century is the story of the influence of Biblical models on radical thought or republican thought, whether elite or not.