The Dangerous Mr. Nelson

(First published in Jewish Ideas Daily, Feb 6, 2012 )

Eric Nelson is a danger to academia.

You would not think so from his background. He is the Frederick S. Danziger Associate Professor of Government at Harvard University. He has had a proper education, at Harvard and Trinity College, Cambridge. Although both of these institutions were founded by believing Christians, Harvard and Trinity got over all that a long time ago.

Nelson knows that taking the Bible seriously as a source of political theory is simply not done. His first, highly regarded book, The Greek Tradition in Republican Thought, establishes the central importance of Greek texts—which had been newly recovered in the Renaissance—in the formation of early modern republicanism. His second book was a scholarly edition of the translation of Homer done by Thomas Hobbes—that Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century thinker who helped found modern political philosophy by rejecting ancient authority and arguing that the principles of just government can instead be reasoned out by an intelligent mind closely observing nature and its mechanisms. Intellectual historians understand that Hobbes and the philosophers who followed him drew on Greek and Roman ideas but most certainly not on the political ideas found in the Bible.

We have all been taught that it was the dethroning of revealed religion that produced political modernity. Everyone knows this, knows that European political thought was not transformed and made modern by reading the Bible (let alone the Talmud); it was remade by a rejection of the Bible in favor of rationalism. So how can a Harvard professor like Nelson have produced the book he did, entitled The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought?

Nelson is one of a group of scholars engaged in the enterprise of re-evaluating the origins of modern political theory. As is well known, in the broad intellectual questing that marked the Renaissance, scholars increasingly ventured beyond the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible to seek, firsthand, the meaning of the original Hebrew and Greek biblical texts. During the Reformation that followed, the number of Christian scholars working in Hebrew grew dramatically. The 17th century saw the publication of over a hundred books by Christian scholars about the political ideas and constitution of ancient Israel. Most were written by Protestant reformers, some by Catholics. More than a few of these books, prefiguring Nelson’s latest work, were titled "The Hebrew Republic."

These were serious efforts to derive the principles of just government from the pages of the Bible—and the Talmud. But the importance of this fact has perhaps not been fully considered until now. Indeed, Nelson and others argue that the foundational impact of these texts on political theory in the 1600s, the early dawn of the Enlightenment, has been virtually ignored.

Anyone who has read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, as many of us did as undergraduates, knows that this sort of thing—near-universal inattentiveness by researchers to facts that, in retrospect, look critical—happens all the time. When a coherent, persuasive theory, supported by solid evidence, dominates any field of thought, it can be difficult for scholars to perceive the theory’s flaws and omissions. In the assessment of the origins of modern political theory, perhaps something more personal has operated as well. Most academics are "freethinkers," a word coined in the 1690s to describe the new phenomenon of men who rejected the authority of revealed faith; modern academe is made up largely of men and women who reject God. It is not, of course, necessary for a contemporary scholar to believe in God in order to argue that the Bible and men who did believe had a profound impact on Western political theory in the seventeenth century. But nothing is more deeply and personally congenial to an atheist than the idea that it was the rejection of God that gave birth to modernity; thus, there is nothing more difficult than to see the flaws in this idea.

I do not know Eric Nelson; but I know that in completing his graduate work and producing his first book, The Greek Tradition in Republican Thought, he must have read page after page in which the early modern thinkers engaged in serious discussion of biblical texts. To judge by Nelson’s early work, his reading of these pages did not immediately make him question the basic paradigm, in which the rejection of religion is accepted as the source of modern thought. But at some point in the process of his scholarship, Nelson must have begun to mutter under his breath, like Galileo after being told countless times that the earth was stationary, "And yet it moves." Nelson is persuaded that in the Bible was a motive force in early modern political history. In The Hebrew Republic, he argues that, "Taken together, these texts"—not their rejection—"radically transformed European political thought."

Nelson makes three discrete points. First, he argues that "republican exclusivism"—our modern idea that democratic elections are the only legitimate basis of government—came into the world at the hands of John Milton, who drew it from the pages of the Bible and the Talmud. Second, Nelson proposes that the doctrine of religious toleration, which appeared in the 17th century and greatly influenced the American founding fathers (who are the subject of Nelson’s next book), is biblically based. Third, he argues that the biblically-mandated redistribution of land in Jubilee years made the idea of redistributing wealth to achieve political and social equality a mainstream concept in European political thought.

In sum, 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.

A lot of ink will be spilled, and careers and reputations will lie bleeding on the ground, before this battle ends. It is likely to be exciting, not least because it is fun to watch evidence-based scholarship triumph over dogma defended as truth.

Diana Muir Appelbaum is an American author and historian. She is at work on a book tentatively entitled Nationhood: The Foundation of Democracy.