Friday, October 7, 2016

Did the Ancient Jews in fact have a Republic?

Below is an email I sent to a libertarian friend of mine (for the record, I am a libertarian, but am open minded on making exceptions that many libertarians would not) for whom I have tremendous respect and admiration. I sent him an email which he didn't respond to. It's below.
I know that John Milton was good on a lot of liberty issues. But I wonder what you make of his thoughts on economic liberty. Eric Nelson of Harvard has done a lot of interesting research that transcends ideological boundaries.
The way I see it, Madison's vision, which is close to the laissez-faire that libertarians would endorse, prevailed (in no small part because of the hard work he and others did for that to happen). This is the "liberal" stream of thought of the Founding era.
However, the "republican" or we could say "commonwealth" view was something arguably more economically egalitarian. This is a reason why some notable left of center scholars -- the ones who aren't busy trying to "deconstruct" the American Founding -- may stress "republicanism" over "liberalism."
Nelson's thesis is, regardless of Madison's vision prevailing at the American Founding, the world we have today -- the "mixed" system of capitalism that currently predominates geopolitics, where we have simultaneously inequality of outcomes and private holdings, but also a government that steps in and decides how much is too much and taxes affluence more in order to redistribute -- is the vision of Milton and some other British commonwealthsmen.
It's also an explicitly religious vision. I could go on.
Yes on page 56 of The Hebrew Republic, Nelson claims that we are living in the age of Milton as opposed to that of Thomas Hobbes (I will have a subsequent post where I argue that we are actually living in the age of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau and the hebraic republicans represent a more authentically Anglo example of the egalitarianism that the continental Rousseau would later champion).

Did you get that? Nelson isn't arguing that Milton prevailed during the time of the American Founding. Rather, that the system that predominates TODAY in 1st world nations -- not just the United States, but Western Europe, Australia, Canada, the developed Asian nations, etc. -- traces to Milton and the other hebraic republicans.

A question that interests me is, did the Ancient Hebrews in fact have a "republic"? As I read the text of the Bible, I don't see it. But I'm just some dude. And on faith matters, I am radically individualistic. I will decide for myself how to interpret the Bible, the context, not limited to but including, matters of doctrine, which texts are inspired, what the errors are (if any) and which books belong in the canon. And my faith beliefs change from day to day.

But on theological matters, I am a nobody.  So I wonder what the prevailing theologians make of the idea that the Ancient Hebrews had a "republic." I may be ignorant here but I can't think of any current "leading" Christian theologian of whatever ideological stripe endorsing the notion that the Ancient Jews had a "republic." Not Pope Benedict, not R.C. Sproul, not Russell Moore, not N.T. Wright, not (the relatively recently departed) Jaroslav Pelikan, not Miroslav Volf, not Bishop Spong, not Rachael Held Evans, etc. They may have made these arguments or addressed the issue; I'm just not aware of them.

In the past, yes, very notable thinkers did make this argument which had, according to Dr. Nelson, profound consequences. They took the notion of "republicanism" that was entirely a matter of pagan Greco-Roman origin, and grafted it onto the Old Testament. But in so doing, drafted what they saw as the economic egalitarianism of Ancient Jews into the concept of "republicanism."

The Ancient Greco-Roman republicans on the other hand were, like James Madison, not economic egalitarians. They weren't concerned with inequality of outcomes.

Milton et al. did borrow from Jewish sources -- rabbis who were his contemporaries or preceded him. But I too wonder about where prevailing Jewish thought among the different strains -- conservative, reformed, Orthodox, etc. -- is on this matter.

For that, I will ask my friend, the estimable Seth Barrett Tillman.


Tom Van Dyke said...

You need to define "republic" in order to get any further with this. I submit that anything between the autocratic rule of one man [king, emperor, dictator-for-life, whathaveyou] and direct democracy probably qualifies as a republic of some sort. Thomas Paine, "Common Sense:"

"Near three thousand years passed away, from the Mosaic account of the creation, till the Jews under a national delusion requested a king. Till then their form of government (except in extraordinary cases where the Almighty interposed) was a kind of Republic, administered by a judge and the elders of the tribes. Kings they had none, and it was held sinful to acknowledge any being under that title but the Lord of Hosts."


jimmiraybob said...

"A question that interests me is, did the Ancient Hebrews in fact have a 'republic'?"

As Tom notes and John Adams writes in his Thoughts on Government (1776),"Of Republics, there is an inexhaustable variety, because the possible combinations of the powers of society, are capable of innumerable variations."

Given the nature of the blog I'd think that it's more interesting to know if some portion of the FFs felt that the Hebraic model was suitable for the nation that they were creating. To that end, Adam's TOG is one good start. But, before considering the style of government, Adams considered the end goal of government:

"We ought to consider, what is the end of government, before we determine which is the best form. Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government, as all Divines and moral Philosophers will agree that the happiness of the individual is the end of man. From this principle it will follow, that the form of government, which communicates ease, comfort, security, or in one word happiness to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.

"All sober enquiries after truth, ancient and modern, Pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity consists in virtue. Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, Mahomet, not to mention authorities really sacred, have agreed in this."

One question might be, could the Hebraic model satisfy this end?

Tom Van Dyke said...

" From this principle it will follow, that the form of government, which communicates ease, comfort, security, or in one word happiness to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.

Utilitarianism? Antithetical to the American concept of the primacy of natural rights. I give him credit for his early work on the Massachusetts constitution, but I often question Adams' conceptualizing and its influence.

""Government is founded not on force, as was the theory of Hobbes; nor on compact, as was the theory of Locke and of the revolution of 1688; nor on property, as was the assertion of Harrington. It springs from the necessities of our nature, and has an everlasting foundation in the unchangeable will of God."---James Otis 1763

Jonathan Rowe said...

Was Adams reading Jeremy Bentham?

Anonymous said...

"As I read the text of the Bible, I don't see it. But I'm just some dude."

I, too, am just some dude, but I am with you on this. The republican tradition not only meant "government by laws and not by men," but also that power rests with all or part of the people. That is the meaning of res publica--a public affair. It excludes monarchy--in which the land and its people are part of some dynasty's realm.

The Hebrew polity was definitely government of laws and not of men. But beyond their affirmation of the Mosaic covenant ("All that the Lord has said we will do and be obedient")the Hebrews did not engage in law making either directly or through representative constituent assemblies. Moses gave the commandments and dozens of examples of what we might call "case law" and named judges to settle disputes. An anthropologist would probably call their polity a chiefdom, at least until the death of Joshua. Then they degenerated into separate tribes or clans until united again under the hereditary Davidic dynasty. Not much to offer by means of example to an 18th (or 21st century for that matter) commercial republic.

Anonymous said...

As for agrarian laws, there was no republican consensus on that. I did not realize that I had read a different book by your Eric Nelson. He notes the openness to agrarian laws in ancient Greece. In contrast, he explains that the Roman Republic rejected those kinds of laws. It was the efforts of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchi to introduce agrarian laws that started the political convulsions that brought about an end to the republic. I guess an end to primogeniture and entail is about as radical as the Americans got.

Anonymous said...

And the Hebrew "government of law not of men" even malfunctioned--see the murders of Uriah and Naboth.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Blogger Lee Ewell said...
And the Hebrew "government of law not of men" even malfunctioned--see the murders of Uriah and Naboth.

King David and King Ahab were to blame in those stories, not the law.

As Tom Paine said

"But where says some is the King of America? I'll tell you Friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal Brute of Britain. Yet that we may not appear to be defective even in earthly honors, let a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth placed on the divine law, the word of God; let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far as we approve as monarchy, that in America THE LAW IS KING."

Anonymous said...

King David and King Ahab were to blame in those stories, not the law.

Exactly my point, Tom, however inarticulately expressed. A law was in place to establish justice, but the monarchs disregarded it. I guess I should have written that the concept of government by law etc etc. malfunctioned or was subverted by the monarchs.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Monarchy is a government of men. Why Lex, Rex, the law is king [as opposed to the divine right of kings], was a radical--indeed revolutionary--concept when Samuel Rutherford wrote a book of that title in 1644, in the thick of Britain's Puritan Revolution.

If you followed the link to my essay on "Common Sense," it's Paine's point as well, that monarchs will not be bound by law, which is why the Hebrew "republic" was a superior form of government.


Rutherford's Lex, Rex utilizes arguments from Scripture, Natural Law and Scottish law, and along with the sixteenth century Vindiciae contra tyrannos, it attacked royal absolutism and emphasized the importance of the covenant and the rule of law (by which Rutherford included Divine Law and Natural Law as well as positive law).

The "Calvinist Connection" is rather a live wire at this blog, argued against the Enlightenment being given all the credit by the secular-minded.