Biblical nationalism

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