The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought

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Overview

According to a commonplace narrative, the rise of modern political thought in the West resulted from secularization—the exclusion of religious arguments from political discourse. But in this pathbreaking work, Eric Nelson argues that this familiar story is wrong. Instead, he contends, political thought in early-modern Europe became less, not more, secular with time, and it was the Christian encounter with Hebrew sources that provoked this radical transformation.

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The Hebrew Republic: Jewish sources and the transformation of European political thought

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Overview

According to a commonplace narrative, the rise of modern political thought in the West resulted from secularization—the exclusion of religious arguments from political discourse. But in this pathbreaking work, Eric Nelson argues that this familiar story is wrong. Instead, he contends, political thought in early-modern Europe became less, not more, secular with time, and it was the Christian encounter with Hebrew sources that provoked this radical transformation.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Christian scholars began to regard the Hebrew Bible as a political constitution designed by God for the children of Israel. Newly available rabbinic materials became authoritative guides to the institutions and practices of the perfect republic. This thinking resulted in a sweeping reorientation of political commitments. In the book’s central chapters, Nelson identifies three transformative claims introduced into European political theory by the Hebrew revival: the argument that republics are the only legitimate regimes; the idea that the state should coercively maintain an egalitarian distribution of property; and the belief that a godly republic would tolerate religious diversity. One major consequence of Nelson’s work is that the revolutionary politics of John Milton, James Harrington, and Thomas Hobbes appear in a brand-new light.

Nelson demonstrates that central features of modern political thought emerged from an attempt to emulate a constitution designed by God. This paradox, a reminder that while we may live in a secular age, we owe our politics to an age of religious fervor, in turn illuminates fault lines in contemporary political discourse.

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Editorial Reviews

New Republic online

[A] magnificent book...The Hebrew Republic boldly claims that the secularism-as-modernism narrative is incomplete at best, and at worst totally backwards...Not only has [Nelson] significantly revised the history of some key concepts in early modern European political thought. It may be that he has written a paradigm-shifter, the kind of book that fundamentally realigns the way scholars look at a period as a whole...The Hebrew Republic demonstrates unforgettably that we need to understand piety to comprehend politics. This will not be news to scholars working on the Middle East or the Middle Ages. But for many historians of European and American politics and political thought, The Hebrew Republic may help force belief—not just religious institutions—back into the center of the story.
— Nathan Perl-Rosenthal

Forbes.com

Many of the political freedoms that we enjoy today have their roots in the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinical commentaries that explained it. Eric Nelson outlines this in his brilliant new book The Hebrew Republic, showing, for example, how the triumph of republican government over monarchy is in large part thanks to the Bible and the rabbis.
— Daniel Freedman

Tablet Magazine

Deeply learned and thought-provoking...No doubt specialists will be debating the arguments of The Hebrew Republic for some time to come—which is a testimony to Eric Nelson's profound and original book.
— Adam Kirsch

Choice

Nelson powerfully argues that [the 17th century] had as its driving force an intense scholarly interest in the Israelite constitution, occasioned by the discovery of new Rabbinic texts and the growth of Hebrew scholarship in Europe. Nelson's account is remarkable because it shows just how serious great political thinkers of the 17th century were about the details of an ancient polity that many or most Christian scholars of the time believed was God's approved constitution for all time. No matter how much contemporary political thought really is a product of the 17th century, Nelson explains, modern political theory has deeper theological roots than is generally believed.
— J. John

Jewish Ideas Daily

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.
— Diana Muir Appelbaum

Choice
Nelson powerfully argues that [the 17th century] had as its driving force an intense scholarly interest in the Israelite constitution, occasioned by the discovery of new Rabbinic texts and the growth of Hebrew scholarship in Europe. Nelson's account is remarkable because it shows just how serious great political thinkers of the 17th century were about the details of an ancient polity that many or most Christian scholars of the time believed was God's approved constitution for all time. No matter how much contemporary political thought really is a product of the 17th century, Nelson explains, modern political theory has deeper theological roots than is generally believed.
— J. John
Forbes.com
Many of the political freedoms that we enjoy today have their roots in the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinical commentaries that explained it. Eric Nelson outlines this in his brilliant new book The Hebrew Republic, showing, for example, how the triumph of republican government over monarchy is in large part thanks to the Bible and the rabbis.
— Daniel Freedman
Tablet Magazine
Deeply learned and thought-provoking...No doubt specialists will be debating the arguments of The Hebrew Republic for some time to come--which is a testimony to Eric Nelson's profound and original book.
— Adam Kirsch
New Republic online
[A] magnificent book...The Hebrew Republic boldly claims that the secularism-as-modernism narrative is incomplete at best, and at worst totally backwards...Not only has [Nelson] significantly revised the history of some key concepts in early modern European political thought. It may be that he has written a paradigm-shifter, the kind of book that fundamentally realigns the way scholars look at a period as a whole...The Hebrew Republic demonstrates unforgettably that we need to understand piety to comprehend politics. This will not be news to scholars working on the Middle East or the Middle Ages. But for many historians of European and American politics and political thought, The Hebrew Republic may help force belief--not just religious institutions--back into the center of the story.
— Nathan Perl-Rosenthal
Jewish Ideas Daily
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.
— Diana Muir Appelbaum
The Tablet
Deeply learned and thought-provoking...No doubt specialists will be debating the arguments of The Hebrew Republic for some time to come--which is a testimony to Eric Nelson's profound and original book.
— Adam Kirsch
Anthony Grafton
Rarely -- all too rarely -- one reads a book that can really transform a major field of study. Eric Nelson has produced such a book -- and he has done it with lucidity, economy, and grace. The Hebrew Republic teaches us to read early modern political thought in a radically new way.
Michael Walzer
Eric Nelson's deep knowledge of the Hebrew, as well as the Greek and Latin, sources of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century political thought is brilliantly deployed in this book. Nelson provides a provocative and persuasive account of the remarkable effects of taking biblical and rabbinic texts seriously.
Tablet Magazine - Adam Kirsch
Deeply learned and thought-provoking...No doubt specialists will be debating the arguments of The Hebrew Republic for some time to come--which is a testimony to Eric Nelson's profound and original book.
New Republic online - Nathan Perl-Rosenthal
[A] magnificent book...The Hebrew Republic boldly claims that the secularism-as-modernism narrative is incomplete at best, and at worst totally backwards...Not only has [Nelson] significantly revised the history of some key concepts in early modern European political thought. It may be that he has written a paradigm-shifter, the kind of book that fundamentally realigns the way scholars look at a period as a whole...The Hebrew Republic demonstrates unforgettably that we need to understand piety to comprehend politics. This will not be news to scholars working on the Middle East or the Middle Ages. But for many historians of European and American politics and political thought, The Hebrew Republic may help force belief--not just religious institutions--back into the center of the story.
Forbes.com - Daniel Freedman
Many of the political freedoms that we enjoy today have their roots in the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinical commentaries that explained it. Eric Nelson outlines this in his brilliant new book The Hebrew Republic, showing, for example, how the triumph of republican government over monarchy is in large part thanks to the Bible and the rabbis.
Choice - J. John
Nelson powerfully argues that [the 17th century] had as its driving force an intense scholarly interest in the Israelite constitution, occasioned by the discovery of new Rabbinic texts and the growth of Hebrew scholarship in Europe. Nelson's account is remarkable because it shows just how serious great political thinkers of the 17th century were about the details of an ancient polity that many or most Christian scholars of the time believed was God's approved constitution for all time. No matter how much contemporary political thought really is a product of the 17th century, Nelson explains, modern political theory has deeper theological roots than is generally believed.
Jewish Ideas Daily - Diana Muir Appelbaum
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.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674062139
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 10/15/2011
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 990,624
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Eric Nelson is Professor of Government, Harvard University.
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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted February 16, 2012

    Winner of the 2012 Laura Shannon Prize in Contemporary European Studies

    This work by Eric Nelson received the 2012 Laura Shannon Prize for European Studies in the Humanities, an award which carries a $10,000 prize and is administered by the Nanovic Institute for European Studies at the University of Notre Dame. The jury statement reads, "An electrifying, bold analysis, Eric Nelson's The Hebrew Republic is a transformative work in political and intellectual history that makes a significant contribution to European studies. Nelson argues persuasively that a European engagement with Jewish political thought was central to the development of modern notions of republican government, the redistribution of wealth, and religious tolerance. Using rabbinical commentaries and examining republican thought, Nelson's careful scholarship offers a wealth of new and counter-intuitive insights. This is a watershed in presenting the history of political thought and is a very important book with which scholars will engage and argue for decades to come." The final jury was composed of Caryl Emerson, A. Watson Armour III University Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Princeton University; Don Howard, Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values, University of Notre Dame; Suzanne L. Marchand, Professor of History, Louisiana State University; Mark W. Roche, Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C. Professor of German Language and Literature, University of Notre Dame; and Paul Woodruff, Professor of Philosophy and inaugural Dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies, University of Texas at Austin.

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    Posted March 22, 2014

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