In John Locke’s Political Philosophy and the Hebrew Bible, the Israeli scholar Yechiel Leiter analyzes biblical influences on the ideas of the 17th-century English thinker, noting that his work is informed far more by the Tanakh than by the New Testament. Crucial to Locke’s political system, for instance, is the principle that the overthrow of tyrannical regimes is justified. Evelyn Gordon writes in her review:
[T]he legitimacy of rebelling against tyrants is a recurrent theme in the Hebrew Bible, yet contrasts markedly with the New Testament’s doctrine of obedience to authority. The latter is epitomized by Paul’s dictum, “The powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God” (Romans 13:1-2).
Leiter argues that Locke’s view of human equality similarly derives not from the New Testament—where equality, to quote the book of Galatians, stems from being “One in Jesus Christ,” seemingly excluding anyone who doesn’t accept Christianity—but from the creation story in Genesis, where all people are created by “one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker,” in Locke’s words. . .
Leiter shows that Locke himself [explained his preference for the Hebrew Bible] in an earlier work, Two Treatises of Government. The New Testament, Locke wrote, “is for the most part silent as to governmental and civil power,” since Jesus “seems to refuse deliberately to involve himself in civil affairs” and left “the civil government of the commonwealth . . . unchanged.” The Hebrew Bible, by contrast, is anything but silent regarding “governmental and civil power.” A significant portion of the Pentateuch consists of laws that are supposed to govern the soon-to-be-established Jewish commonwealth. And a significant portion of the subsequent books describes how Jewish self-government played out in practice. . . .
Leiter’s book thus reinforces what should already have been obvious: the Bible is too important to the Western political tradition to be as widely ignored by serious students of politics, as it currently is in both America and Israel. The West’s greatest political philosophers believed that the Hebrew Bible had something worthwhile to say about politics. Both countries’ dysfunctional political systems might benefit from following those philosophers’ lead.
More about: Hebrew Bible, History & Ideas, John Locke, Political philosophy