The Political Thought of John Locke and the Significance of Political Hebraism

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Abstract: Political Hebraism flourished in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe and in political theory from Bodin to Locke, although its impact on the political ideas of early modernity has not yet been sufficiently acknowledged. This paper reexamines the thought of John Locke in this light. For the last three decades, scholarship has taken Locke’s use of biblical references quite seriously. But it has attributed these references to Locke’s Christianity and New Testamentism, or to the fact that he was responding to Robert Filmer upon the latter’s rhetorical battlefield. On closer inspection, however, what has been called New Testamentism in Locke may be better seen as theism. Moreover, Locke’s ‘Two Treatises on Government,’ his major contribution to political theory, does not mention Jesus or Paul. It does, however, mention and often discuss at length such Old Testament figures as Aaron, Abel, Abimelech, Abraham, Adam, Adonitzedek, Ahaz, Cain, Esau, Eve, Isaac, Ishmael, Jeptah, Moses and many others. The claim here is that Locke went much further in his reliance on the Bible, and especially on the Old Testament, than would have been necessary had he meant only to respond to Filmer. For Locke, the Bible is a historical record of a people in history – the Israelites – with a constitution and in many senses a model system of law and governance. Locke is well-known for having stated that “in the beginning all the World was America.” Yet it is far less famous that Locke’s America is Genesis-like, and that the Old Testament actually informs his ideas of natural and early society, as well as the positive statements of political morality in the ‘Two Treatises.’

Biography: Fania Oz-Salzberger is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Haifa, and the director of the Posen Research Forum for Jewish European and Israeli Political Thought at the Faculty of Law. Her books include Translating the Enlightenment: Scottish Civic Discourse in Eighteenth-Century Germany (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) and Israelis in Berlin (Hebrew, Jerusalem: Keter, 2001; German, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2001). She recently co-edited, with Eveline Goodman-Thau, the volume Das jüdische Erbe Europas (German and English, Berlin: Philo, 2005).

Volume 1, Number 5 (Fall 2006) pp. 568–592