Biblical nationalism and the sixteenth-century states

Posted by dianamuir on October 31, 2013
Bible, Biblical nationalism, Sixteenth century nationhood / Comments Off on Biblical nationalism and the sixteenth-century states

Sixteenth-century biblical nationalism was the unintended side effect of a Reformation intended to save souls.

Before Luther published almost no one in Europe actually read the Bible.  they read paraphrases, epitomes and commentaries, that offer an interpretation of the Bible that is often markedly different form the plain text.  Full-text Bibles were available in most European languages – except English.  Christians preferred paraphrases, abridgments and commentaries that presented the complex and often contradictory text in a useful way.  Until Luther gave them a reason to read the full text.

The full text presented a story previously unfamiliar to Latin Christians.  The story of a people liberated from servitude, assembled to enter a covenant with God in which they accepted a distinctive law code, organized a government, demanded a king (against God’s advice), and built a rather startlingly egalitarian political and economic system.  Part of the shock to the European political system in the 1500s came from the portrait of an ancient Hebrew society far more egalitarian than the ranked orders of villeins, freemen, and barons of medieval Europe. But the greatest immediate political impact that came out of the new Bibles was to introduce the idea of the nation to a mass public, and to instantiate the nation-state as a European political form.

The new, full-text Bibles offered a developed model of nationhood to readers primed to seek in the Bible models for the reform of their own societies.   It offers an expansive description of a world arranged into ‘kindreds, tongues, lands, and nations’.   This model had not been visible in the major paraphrases and abridgments.   It overturned the ideal of a Christian world united under a single Christian Emperor, replacing it with the Biblical ideal of a world of discrete nation states within mutually-respected, defined borders: the Westphalian system.

Engaging scholarship on nations and nationalism

Scholars who have considered the origins of nationalism generally concur that it is a product of modernity that cannot have arisen before a nationalist discourse was elaborated and made available to a mass public, or before such key enabling conditions as the modern state, secularization, industrialization (Gellner), and print capitalism (Anderson). In recent decades, however, a series of studies of particular peoples and territories have described the existence of biblical nationalism during the Reformation in the Netherlands, England, Scandinavia, and Hungary , and during the proto-Reformation in Hussite Bohemia (Šmahel).   The result is a literature largely divided between systemic explanations and theories of the rise of nationalism in the modern period, and a mounting body of evidence describing phenomena that appear similar to modern nationalism centuries before these theories allow for its existence. This paper offers a preliminary attempt to answer John Breuilly’s 2005 call for ‘a search for specific explanations for this cluster of cases,’ consolidating the growing body of work on sixteenth-century nationalism by proposing a causal mechanism (the rediscovery of the full text Bible) and offering a novel account of why this mechanism had a powerful and near simultaneous impact across such a large area.


The biblical model of nationhood, the Bible’s programmatic political discourse on the rights of nations and its presentation of an extended narrative history of the Israelite nation, enabled the rapid development of a cluster of sixteenth-century Protestant nations. This paper brings forward three very specific reasons for the sudden advent of this cluster of nations that have not previously been considered in the extensive literature discussing the political impact of the Bible on sixteenth-century nations and nationalism.
The Bible had a powerful and sudden impact on the Latin Christian world because: (1) before the 1520s full-text Bibles were rarely read, even in Latin; (2) vernacular Bibles were rare because paraphrases were preferred until Luther gave Christians a compelling reason to read the full text; and (3) much of the text of the Bible – particularly the biblical model of nationhood – was omitted or obscured in the Bible substitutes used before 1520 and, therefore, was so unfamiliar to that it had the impact of new revelation.
Given the overdetermined nature of all historical phenomena, it is rarely possible to offer dispositive proof of the causal influence of a single variable. Nevertheless, several pieces of evidence point to the Bible as a crucial motive force in the creation of sixteenth-century nation-states: (1) the close temporal correlation between the appearance of enormous print runs of vernacular Bibles and the development of several nation-states and nationalist movements; (2) the diverse geographical loci in which these nations arose – from Hungary to Scotland; and (3) the fact that each of these nations understood itself a ‘New Israel’ and identified itself as the chosen nation of the Bible.
I do not argue that this political impact was intentional on the part of those who promoted broad access to vernacular translations of the Bible. The sixteenth-century motivation for translating and reading the Bible was salvation of the soul. Biblical nationalism and the formation of new national identities were an unintended side effect of profound and lasting significance.

Biblical nationalism and the sixteenth-century states, National Identities, 2013

Construction of Nationhood, by Adrian Hastings

Posted by dianamuir on December 25, 2012
Bible, Medieval nationhood / Comments Off on Construction of Nationhood, by Adrian Hastings

The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997

Excerpts from “Adrian Hastings on nations and nationalism,” Anthony D. Smith, March 18 2003, Nations and Nationalism


“Hastings’s…   aim in The Construction of Nationhood (1997), published four years before his untimely death, was to outline that debate and put the case for those medievalist historians who could not accept the prevailing modernist orthodoxy on the nature and rise of nations and nationalism.

“The argument is threefold. Hastings’s first and most important contention is that nations as well as nationalisms, though they may have spread more rapidly in the modern period… (were not)  the product of modernity. On the contrary, a sizeable number of European nations (and their nationalisms) can be traced back to the Middle Ages…

“The other two arguments serve to support his main thesis. The first is that nations and nationalism were products of the spread of Christianity in Europe, because Christianity sanctioned the use of vernacular languages in biblical translations and in the liturgy, and nations are founded on literary languages. The second argument holds that, since Christianity had adopted the Old Testament (while rejecting the Jews), it had also to adopt the Old Testament ideal of a polity, because the New Testament possessed no political ideal of its own. As a result, the biblical ideal of the ancient Israelite polity, with its fusion of land, people and religious polity, which Christianity spread throughout Europe and beyond, was almost monolithically national. No other religious tradition possessed such a political prototype; and that is why nations and nationalism are exclusively Judaeo-Christian, and European, phenomena…

The article can be found in full here.


Thoughtful Ross Douthat Post on Supersessionism

Posted by dianamuir on October 10, 2012
Bible, Supersession / Comments Off on Thoughtful Ross Douthat Post on Supersessionism

In part,

“I suspect that the Christian decision to swallow the Hebrew Bible whole into its scripture – and to preserve, rather than elide, Jesus’ own obvious self-understanding as a Jew – ultimately creates deeper grounds for dialogue than does Islam’s insistence that the narrative of the Hebrew scriptures was deliberately corrupted and required correction from Muhammed.

“Put another way, Christian tradition seems to have more respect for the essential integrity and God-givenness of pre-Christian Judaism than does Islamic tradition. This makes it difficult to imagine a Muslim version of the sort of rethinking of what, precisely, supersessionism means than we’ve seen from Evangelicals and Catholics in this century – a rethinking that’s been crucial for the development of Judeo-Christian dialogue. And by the same token, there’s no equivalent in the foundational narrative of Islam to the striking Jewishness of Jesus, a quality which would seem to make Jewish engagement with the Gospel narratives – and Christian engagement with that engagement – more plausible and intellectually fruitful in the long run than Jewish engagement with the figure of Muhammed.”

The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, Yoram Hazony

Posted by dianamuir on September 10, 2012
Bible / 1 Comment

Yoram Hazony has a bone to pick with Tertullian, the second-century Christian theologian who asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”

For Tertullian, the life of the mind was a choice between two paths.  A wise man took the path of Jerusalem—of faith.  Although there is a far distance between second-century Christianity and Mormonism, Tertullian’s position might be summed up in a lyric from The Book of Mormon, advertised as the “greatest Broadway musical of the 21st century”: “I am a Mormon, and a Mormon just believes.”

Tertullian wanted Christians to avoid the path of Athens, the path of intellectual inquiry.  For Tertullian, true answers to questions about the will of God could not be discovered by even the best efforts of the human mind; therefore, God sent Jesus to reveal these answers.  Tertullian advised the Christian to think just hard enough to accept the truth of scripture as taught by the church, then stop, “lest he should come to know what he ought not.”

Yoram Hazony’s new book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, is a refutation not only of Tertullian but of a Western intellectual tradition that errs by dividing the world into opposing categories: reason versus faith, philosophy versus revelation, Athens versus Jerusalem, Plato versus the Bible.  Hazony tells us that this dichotomy fundamentally misunderstands the Hebrew Bible and the human mind.

In the New Testament, Paul offers revealed wisdom, a divine gift of ideas that the human mind is incapable of working out for itself, a gift that wise men should  accept on faith and because a series of miracles, attested to by the Gospels, proves these divine mysteries true.  Paul and the Apostles announce the “good news” of this “hidden wisdom,” secrets that the “powers that rule the world have never known” but that that “God has revealed to us through the Spirit.”

The Hebrew Bible, in Hazony’s view, offers nothing of the kind.  Far from revealing holy mysteries, the final editor of the Hebrew Bible wants to “persuade his readers that there exists a law whose force is of a universal nature, because it derives from the way the world itself was made, and therefore from the natures of men and nations in this world.”  This Bible is not a series of mysteries requiring divine revelation, it is a Bible of ideas with which the human mind can reason.  This Bible comes to convince the exiles in Babylon, and us, that “the law of Moses was the very first systematic expression of this natural law, written down for the benefit of Israel and of all mankind.”

Far from a Tertullianesque claim that faith trumps reason, Hebrew scripture wants readers to reason with the complex ideas it presents.

Hazony’s book targets two audiences.  First, it asks intellectuals to free their minds from Tertullian’s dichotomy and take a clear-eyed look at a Hebrew Bible that they have failed to see until now because their avowedly secular minds have been so completely blinkered by Christian paradigms.

Hazony is one of a number of contemporary scholars who contend that philosophers and historians have ignored the impact of the Bible on the development of Western political thought.  Hazony’s contribution is his thesis that political theorists have failed to perceive the Bible as philosophy because its arguments are couched in the language of metaphor and narrative.

But Hazony’s primary audience is made up of the readers of Jewish Ideas Daily.  For Hazony, it is not enough that Israel provide a refuge for the Jews who were ethnically cleansed from Egypt, Iraq, or Poland.  He wants to persuade Jews to build a state shaped by ideas found in the Hebrew Bible.

Hazony understands the Bible as a variegated “compendium.”  Its teachings cannot be distilled into a single “brief and sharply delineated” statement like a Christian catechism.  Rather, the Hebrew Bible is “a school of viewpoints” containing the political, literary, philosophical, and historical traditions of ancient Israel. As Hazony summarizes them in an article in the October issue of First Things, these writings grapple with “questions that are usually considered to be central to political philosophy,” such as “the relationship of the individual to the state, the virtues and dangers of anarchy, the reasons for the establishment of government, the dangers of government, the best form of political order, the responsibilities of rulers, and the causes of the decline of the state.”  Scholarly misunderstanding of the Bible is partly the result of the fact that the text’s consideration of these questions is not written in the form of Socratic debate.  The Hebrew Bible takes philosophical stances but presents them as metaphor, depending on “narratives for its force and significance.”

Hazony does not write simply to persuade us to agree or disagree with his interpretation of any particular story.   Reviewers who think so do him an injustice.  Instead, Hazony wants to persuade us that to read the Bible is to engage in a necessary argument over how to build a good society.

Hazony’s Bible does not deal with a God who advises us to suffer patiently until messiah comes.   It does not deal with Tertullian’s God, who saves by faith alone.  It does not deal in easy promises.  Instead, the biblical narrative presented by Hazony permits us to “position the law, and our observance of it, within a life lived according to reason.”  The stories, psalms, and prophetic books “explain the law and to qualify it so that we retain an understanding of why observance of this law is something that we should want—and that all men should want.”

Hazony’s Jerusalem is different from Athens, but not in the way that Tertullian suggests.  The Hebrew Bible is different because it calls on all human beings to wrestle with fundamental questions of good and evil.  Unlike Socrates or Tertullian, the Bible does not view the obligation and the right to contemplate demanding moral questions as the province of the elite alone.

But the characters and compositors of Hazony’s Bible also differ from those of Tertullian’s imagining in a particularly contemporary way.  They “struggle with the question of how one is to find that which will stand and that which can be relied upon to benefit mankind in the face of an epistemic jungle.”  They contend with a “confused and frightening reality in which such knowledge is chronically distant.  They believe that such wisdom can be found in the world, because they believe that God has spoken it.”

To find “that which is true and just” is not, as Tertullian would have it, a simple matter of having faith.  It demands a “lifelong quest.”

Now go and study.



Jewish Ideas Daily, Sept. 10, 2012



Reading Yoram Hazony’s Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture

Posted by dianamuir on August 30, 2012
Bible, Translation / 1 Comment

“Jeremiah  actually has quite a bit to say about the human mind but this fact often escapes notice because of faulty translation.   The Hebrew word lev (לב), taken literally, refers to the physical organ we call the heart, and as a consequence most translations use the English heart whenever the original Hebrew has lev

“The fact that most Westerners read the biblical authors as though they are talking about the heart whenever they refer to the mind means that the entire biblical corpus takes on a kind of romantic, sentimental feeling that is absent in the original.  and as a byproduct, it makes it almost impossible to understand what the biblical authors have to say about human thought.  This is certainly the case for Jeremiah, whose orations regularly use the word lev to refer to the mind.” (p. 171)


Yoram Hazony, The Philosophy of the Hebrew Scripture

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