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John Locke, the Bible and Western political tradition

Israel is currently preoccupied with its election campaign and America with its newly divided government, leaving both countries little attention to spare for issues beyond day-to-day politics. But moments of change are excellent times to pause and consider the fundamentals of the Western political tradition. And as a recent contribution to the growing scholarly genre of political Hebraism reminds us, one of those fundamentals is the surprisingly large role the Hebrew Bible has played in Western political thought.

In John Locke’s Political Philosophy and the Hebrew Bible, Yechiel Leiter (full disclosure: a friend and neighbor) convincingly argues that the Bible heavily influenced Locke’s thought. Since Locke’s work, especially his Second Treatise on Government, is widely considered to have significantly influenced America’s founding fathers, this is further evidence that when people talk about America’s “Judeo-Christian” roots, the “Judeo” half is no mere courtesy. Judaism in fact contributed significantly to America’s political traditions.

Nevertheless, this raises an obvious question. Locke and his fellow 17th-century political Hebraists (including John Selden, Hugo Grotius and Thomas Hobbes) were Christians, not Jews. So why, in developing their political thought, did they rely far more on the Hebrew Bible than the Christian New Testament?

In Locke’s First Treatise on Government, for instance, he “quotes the Hebrew Bible more than 80 times,” yet there’s a “near total absence of quotes from the New Testament,” Leiter writes. And even in the Second Treatise, which has fewer biblical quotes, “nothing is quoted with any comparable frequency as the Hebrew Bible.”

Nor are these biblical references mere padding, Leiter argues. Locke uses them to develop several key concepts.

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