The History Woman's Blog

Eric Nelson’s Hebrew Republic and the Importance of Jewish Sources

Posted in Early Modern, Political Thought, Religion, Reviews, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on September 13, 2010

In his book on The Hebrew Republic, Eric Nelson sets out to refute the commonly held assumption in early modern historiography that political science came to be separated from religion over the course of the seventeenth century. Instead, he argues that the concept of the respublica Hebraeica was seen as authoritative by many political thinkers, and that in particular three elements of God’s commonwealth were influential: the republican form of government, the redistribution of property by means of agrarian laws, and religious toleration. In their pursuit of the ideal government, seventeenth-century authors did not just rely on the authority of the Bible, but also on the works of the rabbinic tradition. In the three chapters that constitute the main body of his book, Nelson then goes on to prove each of his points in turn.

First, he argues that republican authors came to consider popular government as the only legitimate form of government instead of seeing it as one possible form only. Secondly, Nelson shows that republican authors, most famously James Harrington, came to put more emphasis on the necessity for a redistribution of property by means of agrarian laws influenced by rabbinic scholarship. And finally, he shows that the pursuit of toleration, usually attributed to a process of secularization which involves a separation of state and church, was perfectly compatible with an Erastian church, i.e. a church under government control. For in God’s commonwealth, Nelson argues, there was no separation between the religious and civil spheres, and God gave his laws to the secular ruler.

If you want to buy Nelson’s argument or not, you have to admit it is well put. His work is clearly structured, the prose flows well, and the book is so highly readable that you don’t want to put it down. A must for everybody interested in early modern religion and political thought.

Eric Nelson, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010).

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One Response

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  1. Hels said, on December 6, 2010 at 11:22 pm

    Thanks for the review… I will look out for the book.

    I have lived in a country with a monarchy all my life and find the idea of inherited royalty absurd. But Nelson was arguing from 17th century sources and that was a tougher assignment, I believe. The sentence “there was no separation between the religious and civil spheres, and God gave his laws to the secular ruler” is internally inconsistent and open to governmental abuse (royal or republican). Oliver Cromwell’s republic had the same problem. Cromwell waited for month and months, until God finally made clear His will, on all big decisions.


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