The Bible and Political Thought Conference, Pontifical Biblical Institute

The Bible and Political Thought Conference was held at Aula Magna of the Pontifical Biblical Institute (Rome), on September 27-28, 2018.

Early Jewish communities considered themselves governed by divine law revealed in the Torah of
Moses. This political function of the Mosaic law is grounded in the Pentateuch itself, which narrates
the origins of Israel and the people’s constitution in their covenant with God at Mount Sinai. Early
Christians considered themselves living in the ‘kingdom of God’, which brought them in conflict
with Roman emperors’ claims to divine veneration. When Roman emperors were themselves
Christians, however, they were soon portrayed as new Davids and Solomons, a tradition continued
by medieval kings. Biblical narratives were frequently invoked when nationalisms arose in the 16th17th centuries, e.g., in the Netherlands, Scotland or England, claiming the respective ‘nation’ to be
a divinely chosen people like Israel – a historical development that could be called, with Philip
Gorski, ‘the Mosaic Moment’. The early modern political reception of the Bible is a climax in a
complex genealogy of biblical political thought and its reception over more than two millennia. This
conference will explore the political dimension of the Bible in exemplary themes from its emergence
in the world of the ancient Near East to the present day.

Thursday, September 27

08:30-09:15 Eckart Otto (LMU Munich): Athens and Jerusalem. A Comparison of the Political
Theory of Plato’s NOMOI and the Hebrew Torah

The legal corpora of the Torah in the Covenant Code in Exodus 20-23 and the Book of Deuteronomy
and Plato’s political philosophy of the Politeia, Politicos and Nomoi aimed at answering the question
of how to keep societies together in Israel and Greece. These societies were in danger of falling to
pieces, especially because of unsolved social tensions. Both groups of texts developed strategies of
how to organize the economy, minimizing the tensions between poor and rich and limiting the
political power of officials.

09:15-10:00 Wolfgang Oswald (University of Tübingen): The Literary Compositions of the Hebrew
Bible as Documents of Ancient Political Thought. An Overview and a Tentative Synthesis

Most books of the Hebrew Bible have Israel as their main subject. How did Israel come into being?
How was Israel organized? Who was part of Israel? Who was in power? Some literary works in the
Hebrew Bible accept monarchy as the traditional form of government and merely discuss the
legitimacy of dynasties. Others restrict the power of the king while some even deny the legitimacy
of monarchy at all. And still others imagine an ideal king to come. Some literary works in the
Hebrew Bible do not show awareness or acceptance of written laws. Others, on the contrary, are
constitutions defining a society based on written laws. Still others accept written laws but qualify
their validity. What was the role of the people? Were they merely subjects of the king or did they
make up the popular assembly, i.e. the legislative body? Who was the sovereign? The great king
from abroad as for example Cyrus or the indigenous king from Judah as David and the Davidides?
The governor as Gedaliah or Nehemiah or some prophet-like figure as Jeremiah? The high-priest?
Or no human being at all but the law as the book of Deuteronomy demands? Or God himself without
any mediation as Psalm 146 declares? In this paper I shall trace these lines of political thought in
the Hebrew Bible. Since these voices interact it seems possible to reconstruct a discourse that
continued for more than three centuries.

10:00-10:45 Peter Dubovský (Pontifical Biblical Institute): The Use and the Abuse of the King
Solomon Figure in Traditions

King Solomon became the key figure for discussion and art both in the ecclesiastical and secular
world. The figure was used for exhortative goals and abused for ideological purposes. This paper
will apply the hermeneutical approach proposed by John W. O’Malley who organized the Western
tradition into “Four Cultures”. Following this model, I will organize the interpretations of Solomon
into four groups: academic, prophetic, humanistic, and artistic cultures. By doing so, I will argue
how the same figure was used in dialogue and war.

11:15-12:00 Oda Wischmeyer (University of Erlangen): Romans 13. Paul and Politics

Romans 13 has been the focus of theological thought on politics since the church fathers. During
the last decades a new debate on how to read Romans 13 has been launched. At present, New
Testament scholars heavily disagree about both the meaning of Rom 13:1-7 and the possible
hermeneutical applications of the Pauline text. Whilst Stefan Krauter in his exegetical study on
Romans 13 (2009) bluntly denies the relevance of Romans 13 for theologically based political
ethics, eminent scholars from the last generation such as Helmut Koester and Dieter Georgi and in
their wake contemporary colleagues as Neil Elliot and Richard A. Horsley read especially the Letter
to the Romans as a political text. In “Liberating Paul” Neil Elliott interprets Romans as a manifesto
of a sort of liberation theology.
In my paper I shall try for a fresh exegetical look at the text and for a hermeneutical reflection that
takes into consideration the many-faceted Wirkungsgeschichte of the famous chapter. The possibilities
for contemporary applicative readings of Romans 13 range from affirmative interpretations to
revolutionary approaches. Application largely depends on the political systems at issue – Western
democracies or totalitarian systems like China or illegitimate states or governments like various states
in the global South. Western exegesis has to reflect that perhaps Paul’s ideas of Roman governance
have a different meaning according to the opposing political reality of many of our present regimes.
At any rate, current politically oriented critical application of Romans 13 should not be restricted to
our Western experiences and political values and directed to the model of democracy, but also discuss
the status of Christianity in what we call dictatorial or illegitimate regimes and explore ways of reading
and applying Romans 13 under these kinds of conditions.

12:00-12:45 Katell Berthelot (CNRS Aix-en-Provence): Sinai versus Rome. Rabbinic Perspectives on
Roman Law Courts and Roman Justice

Although Rome did not impose its laws upon the conquered peoples it came to dominate, Roman
law and Roman courts were part of Rome’s imperial presence, both from an ideological and a
practical point of view—because the Romans claimed to have the best legal system ever written,
and because some of Rome’s provincial subjects practiced what is commonly called “forum
shopping,” and tried to have their case judged by a Roman court rather than by a local one. After
212 CE the phenomenon became all the more common as nearly all free people had become Roman
citizens.
In this context, I would like to examine the few sources that explicitly reflect the rabbis’ rejection
of Roman or, more broadly, non-Jewish courts and laws during the tannaitic period, and then
proceed with the analysis of the underlying religious or theological rationale for this rejection,
arguing that some rabbis at least associated non-Jewish law courts with idolatry, a statement that
has deep implications for a proper understanding of the rabbis’s political counter-model in the
context of the Roman Empire.

15:30-16:15 Nicholas Morton (Nottingham Trent University): Crusade and Reform. Biblical Exegesis
and the Role of Crusading within Broader Papal Policy

It is very easy to view crusading as a highly distinct activity in medieval society – individual, and
separate from other aspects of Church policy. It has certainly been studied as a discreet entity for
decades. Even so, the biblical imagery employed by the pope and other crusading preachers tells a
different story. In their sermons, letters and bulls, such advocates of crusading drew upon exegetical
themes which immediately connected crusading to a range of other activities such as: resistance to
secular authority, internal peacemaking within Europe, the moral reform of society. Thus, such
biblical material demonstrates the synergies between crusading and other such activities. This paper
will explore several key biblical themes found in crusading sources, focusing especially on passages
from Ezekiel, Maccabees, the gospels, as well as some pan-biblical themes to demonstrate how a
study of such exegetical material can shed considerable light on the way in which crusading was
conceived and understood by the medieval church.

16:15-17:00 Yvonne Sherwood (University of Kent): Biblicisation without Templates, or Accidents of
the Biblical in Sixteenth Century Mesoamerica

This paper explores how alien landscapes and cultures were understood through biblical analogies
in the work of 16th and early 17th century Spanish and mestizo authors such as José d’Acosta, Diego
Durán, Guaman Poma, Bartolomé de las Casas, and Bernardino de Sahagún. In contrast to the more
secure and self-affirming use of the Bible in the Victorian Empire, the Bible was mapped
onto Mesomerica in surprising, bleak, and often self-critical ways.

17:00-17:45 Dominik Markl (Pontifi cal Biblical Institute): The Bible and Politics. How to Analyse a
Complex Relationship?

The Bible contains political thought, for example in elements of constitututional law in the Pentateuch,
in the historiography of Israel’s leaders, and in reflections on imperialism in both narratives and
prophecy. The political reception of the Bible, however, has not been limited to intrinsic political
thought, but has included legal ideas and ethical values expressed in diverse literary modes. This is just
one of the reasons why the political use of the Bible has been complex and diverse. This paper will
outline a theory of the reception of canonical, sacred literature to propose a framework for analysis of
its specific political use, which will be illustrated by historical and contemporary examples.

Friday, September 28

08:30-9:15 Kevin Killeen (University of York): The Eye-Sore of the Bible. Varieties of Political
Radicalism in Seventeenth Century England

This paper will deal with the bible in the political and popular thought of the post-reformation era. It
will attend, firstly, to the ubiquity of the scriptural in early modern English culture, its diffusion in the
vernacular, and a pervasive sermon culture. It will consider the remit of the political-scriptural, in an
era that deployed the Bible to such varied ends, eschatological, soteriological and doctrinal. The paper
will attend to the frequent and perhaps baffling elision of radical (in the sense of regicidal) writing, both
Catholic and Protestant, and it will explore the co-existence of the belief that Catholics distrusted and
maligned the Bible and the concern that they were troublingly adept in their exegesis. Looking at the
Jesuit Robert Persons, it will make the case that his work was troubling for his Protestant adversaries
less because he claimed that the spiritual censure of Rome had a bearing on English kingship, than
because he claimed the Bible did, usurping, if not satirising, the discursive ground that Protestants
considered rightfully theirs, by making of it a language of thorough-going political sedition.

09:15-10:00 Joachim J. Krause (University of Tübingen): The Trouble with Prophets. A Political
Problem from Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty to Thomas Hobbes

A classic of early modern political thought and champion of the political reception of the Bible,
in his magnum opus “Leviathan or, The Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth,
Ecclesiastical and Civil,” Thomas Hobbes gives a full account of religion and politics. The book
features a whole range of major biblical issues, most of them from the Old Testament. A child
of unstable times, Hobbes’ main motivation as a political thinker and interpreter of the Bible is
to conceive a theory of politics which will help to prevent unrest and civil war. Key to this
matter, in his view, is to defuse confessional conflict. For this end, he advocates a radical
reduction of the creed to an unum necessarium: “Jesus is the Christ.” Bringing thus the Bible
into political thought, Hobbes provides a prime example for the historian of ideas. It was Carl
Schmitt who, in his “Political Theology,” argued that all important ideas of modern political
reasoning were secularized theological ideas. Engaging Schmitt, Jan Assmann suggests to invert
this train of thought. According to him, the important ideas of theological reasoning are
theologized political ideas. However, Assmann does not simply turn Schmitt’s reconstruction
on its head. Rather he seeks to expand it by its prehistory. In this venture, Hobbes’ work may
be cited as a case in point. This will become obvious when we, as the present paper suggests,
focus on a particularly delicate problem for statecraft throughout the ages: the trouble with
prophets. Given that his main goal is to invest the sovereign with enough power so as to be able
to keep the war of everyone against everyone at bay, Hobbes clearly perceives prophecy as a
source of political instability. Therefore he postulates two essential characteristics of a true
prophet: the true prophet will work miracles which in fact take place and will teach no other
religion than the one already established in the state. As is plain to see, Hobbes draws on
Deuteronomy 13 here, and in fact he repeatedly cites the injunctions given in that chapter.
While at first glance it might appear that in so doing, the early modern political thinker has
secularized a theological idea into a political one, when we look further for the prehistory of
Deuteronomy 13 and the idea itself, namely the Assyrian succession treaty of Esarhaddon, it
will become obvious that, in a way, Hobbes only ties in with the more original meaning of the
argument.

10:00-10:45 John Coffey (University of Leicester): The Bible and the Antislavery Movement

The Bible was both a liability and an asset for the abolitionist movements that emerged in
America, Britain and France during the later eighteenth century. For centuries, Scripture had been
used to defend slavery, and abolitionists were forced to counteract proslavery exegesis. Yet the
Bible could also be deployed against racism, slave trading and even slavery itself. Scripture
was cited to demonstrate the fundamental unity and equality of human persons regardless of race;
God’s judgment against injustice; and the divine imperative to ‘release the oppressed’. Biblical
texts were emblazoned on antislavery banners, inscribed on medallions, and quoted in speeches,
sermons, pamphlets, and verse. This paper will examine the abolitionist use of the Bible from the
mid-eighteenth century to contemporary anti-trafficking movements, arguing that while Scripture
was a powerful resource, abolitionists and proslavery activists were fighting a battle for the Bible
that led some to question biblical authority.

11:15-12:00 Andrew Mein (Durham University): The Mobilization of Biblical Israel in First World
War Biblical Scholarship

The outbreak of war in August 1914 saw a spate of patriotic publication by academics on both sides.
Biblical scholars were no exception to this rule, and the national and martial focus of the Old
Testament gave it fresh relevance to the crisis of a world at war. In this paper I will examine some
of the ways in which British and German scholars made biblical Israel a model for the modern nation
at war, and how their reflection played into the typical themes of wartime propaganda.

12:00-12:45 Fania Oz-Salzberger (University of Haifa): The Hebrew Bible, Politics, and Modern Israel

This paper begins by suggesting a typology of several modes in which the Hebrew bible was
politicised in the history of ideas. Focusing on the Israeli test case, it explores the vast array of
Biblical rhetoric and inspirations in Zionist and Israeli ideologies, history and politics. It proceeds
to analyses some of the complex impacts of Biblical language, poetics, law and moral philosophy
across Israel’s political spectrum.

15:30-16:15 Eric Nelson (Harvard University): “The Lord Alone Shall be King of America”.
Hebraism and the Republican Turn of 1776

It is well known that Thomas Paine’s Common Sense fueled an abrupt “republican turn” in American
political thought during the early months of 1776. Less well understood is that it did so by
reintroducing into Anglophone political discourse a seventeenth-century, Hebraizing tradition of
republican political theory, one grounded in the conviction that it is idolatrous to assign any human
being the title and dignity of a king. This theory was both more and less radical than more familiar
forms of European republicanism: more radical, in that it denied the legitimacy of all monarchies,
however limited; less radical, in that it left open the possibility of an extremely powerful chief
magistrate, so long as he was not called “king.” The history of American constitutionalism and the
history of Christian Hebraism turn out to be deeply intertwined.

16:15-17:00 James P. Byrd (Vanderbilt University): The Bible in the American Revolution and the
American Civil War. A Comparison with Selected Texts

In this presentation, James P. Byrd offers insights from his analysis of scripture in the American
Revolution and the Civil War. He has published a book on the Bible in the American Revolution,
and he is currently writing a book on the Bible and the American Civil War, both with Oxford
University Press. His methodology draws on a database analysis of biblical citations in these wars,
taken from a variety of sources, including sermons, diaries, newspapers, and soldiers’ letters and
journals. Byrd will examine selected texts that most influenced Amercians in these wars, and will
show how they contributed to American ideas of violence, civil religion, and “manifest destiny.”

17:00-18:00 Peter Machinist (Harvard University): Response; Discussion

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