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The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought Paperback – November 14, 2011

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The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought + Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought + Political Hebraism: Judaic Sources in Early Modern Political Thought
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (November 14, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674062132
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674062139
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #826,452 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


Rarely -- all too rarely -- one reads a book that can really transform a major field of study. Eric Nelson has produced such a book -- and he has done it with lucidity, economy, and grace. The Hebrew Republic teaches us to read early modern political thought in a radically new way. (Anthony Grafton, author of Worlds Made By Words)

Eric Nelson's deep knowledge of the Hebrew, as well as the Greek and Latin, sources of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century political thought is brilliantly deployed in this book. Nelson provides a provocative and persuasive account of the remarkable effects of taking biblical and rabbinic texts seriously. (Michael Walzer, Institute for Advanced Study)

Deeply learned and thought-provoking...No doubt specialists will be debating the arguments of The Hebrew Republic for some time to come--which is a testimony to Eric Nelson's profound and original book. (Adam Kirsch Tablet Magazine 2010-03-16)

[A] magnificent book...The Hebrew Republic boldly claims that the secularism-as-modernism narrative is incomplete at best, and at worst totally backwards...Not only has [Nelson] significantly revised the history of some key concepts in early modern European political thought. It may be that he has written a paradigm-shifter, the kind of book that fundamentally realigns the way scholars look at a period as a whole...The Hebrew Republic demonstrates unforgettably that we need to understand piety to comprehend politics. This will not be news to scholars working on the Middle East or the Middle Ages. But for many historians of European and American politics and political thought, The Hebrew Republic may help force belief--not just religious institutions--back into the center of the story. (Nathan Perl-Rosenthal New Republic online 2010-05-05)

Many of the political freedoms that we enjoy today have their roots in the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinical commentaries that explained it. Eric Nelson outlines this in his brilliant new book The Hebrew Republic, showing, for example, how the triumph of republican government over monarchy is in large part thanks to the Bible and the rabbis. (Daniel Freedman 2010-07-22)

Nelson powerfully argues that [the 17th century] had as its driving force an intense scholarly interest in the Israelite constitution, occasioned by the discovery of new Rabbinic texts and the growth of Hebrew scholarship in Europe. Nelson's account is remarkable because it shows just how serious great political thinkers of the 17th century were about the details of an ancient polity that many or most Christian scholars of the time believed was God's approved constitution for all time. No matter how much contemporary political thought really is a product of the 17th century, Nelson explains, modern political theory has deeper theological roots than is generally believed. (J. John Choice 2010-11-01)

In The Hebrew Republic Nelson has thrown down the gauntlet of a revolution. He means to overturn the accepted foundations of modern intellectual history by re-evaluating the early modern period and asking whether biblical and Jewish ideas were as foundational as Greek and Roman thought in creating the modern world. And Nelson, in being persuaded that the Bible was a motive force in early modern political history, is not alone. (Diana Muir Appelbaum Jewish Ideas Daily 2012-02-06)

About the Author

Eric Nelson is Professor of Government at Harvard University.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

30 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Sceptique500 on July 4, 2010
Format: Hardcover
On a sparingly furnished stage the author conjures and comments with clear and crystalline voice the great Protestant political thinkers of the XVIIth century: Erastus, Grotius, Harrington, Hobbes and, as grand finale, the secularising Spinoza, as they argue their political thoughts. The great Talmudists - from Rabbi Yehudah to Maimonides - form the choir that gives strength to the voices seeking dramatic illumination as to the character of the perfect common-wealth.

Nelson's main point is that the Renaissance did not innovate much in political thought, as it is usually thought - hugging the ancient Romans too closely as well as the Medieval philosophical tradition. The three great novel principles:

* Republican exclusivism (the idea that a Republic is the ONLY possible political system);
* Redistribution of wealth in favour of the poor;
* Religious tolerance;

emerged in the Low Countries as Protestant scholars sought a reading of the Bible not contaminated by 1000 years of Catholic tradition and hit on the Talmudic commentaries, which had arrived with the Jews expelled from Lisbon.

So well is the dramatic representation crafted, so subtle the marshalling of the arguments that I found myself compelled not to put down the pleasingly shortish book - and for sure the subject matter is arcane, and the arguments far from easy to grasp in their subtle differences. This work is an intellectual feast of the prime order - one that is seldom on the academic menu. Mostly one gets contrived and confused cogitations of obtuse minds in desperate search "theory" - as if intellectual life depended on it.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By William D. Walton on September 27, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Eric Nelson at once provides a highly focused look into our political past, while at the same time, unknowingly provides a glimpse into our political future.

The Reformation radically changed the way men approached political science. As Nelson points out, "It became the central ambition of political science to approximate, as closely as possible, the paradigm of what European authors began to call the respublica Hebraeorum (republic of the Hebrews)." Previous authors had looked elsewhere for political guidance, now they would have to look to "the perfect constitution designed by the omniscient God." Old Testament Israel was now seen as the Divine model to imitate in political affairs.

Nelson focuses on three major political areas impacted by the "Hebrew Revival" as he tags it: exclusive republican government, the inseparable link between land distribution and political liberty, and religious toleration. Nelson does not extrapolate his excellent study into the future, but it will become obvious to the student of history that the American colonies were major beneficiaries of the "Hebrew Revival", continuing its trajectory long after European counterparts had jumped ship. The radical politics of Thomas Jefferson can be seen as rooted in the study of God's Law, as Jefferson drank deeply from James Harrington, a major player in the period under Nelson's scope. After reading the Hebrew Republic, it will become apparent where Jefferson got his desire to distribute 50 acres of land to practically every adult male in Virginia in order to secure widespread political liberty.

What happened?

Nelson locates the demise of the "Hebrew Revival" in the demise of faith in the God of the Old Testament Scriptures, a product of the 18th Century Age of Reason.
Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have always heard that the founding fathers designed a new form of government drawn from long study of classic sources and debate among learned scholars. But I never questioned who were these sources. Eric Nelson, in this 229-page book (including notes and index), introduced me to many of these classic Greek and Roman sources by way of analysis alongside the introduction of classic Hebrew sources. I agree with others who comment that it is a vast subject to compress in under 300 pages. But Eric Nelson writes well and I appreciated the brevity, since I would not be able to tackle a much larger work. I have tagged a dozen pages with quotes to share with friends; and bracketed many sections to review before I shelve the book. I think it is worth keeping as a good reference work.
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