Posts Tagged ‘Ancient Israel’

Ilan Pappe’s Demolition of the Myths of Modern Israel and Its Ethnic Cleansing of the Palestinians

March 28, 2019

 

Ilan Pappe, Ten Myths About Israel (London: Verso 2017)

Ilan Pappe is an Israeli historian and activist, who has extensively researched and documented Israel’s ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians from its foundation in 1948 till today. Because of this, he was subjected to abuse and academic censure by the authorities and his university. He now teaches, I believe, at Exeter University. He has been a signatory of several of the letters from academics and leading members of the Jewish community defending Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters from the charges of anti-Semitism.

This book tackles the ten myths Pappe identifies as central to the history of modern Israel and its continuing dispossession of its indigenous people. The blurb for the book states

In this groundbreaking book, published on the fiftieth anniversary of the Occupation, the outspoken and radical Israeli historian Ilan Pappe examines the most contested ideas concerning the origins and identity of the contemporary state of Israel.

The “ten myths” that Pappe explores – repeated endlessly in the media, enforced by the military, accepted without question by the world’s governments – reinforce the region status quo. He explores the claims that Palestine was an empty land at the time of the Balfour Declaration, as well as the formation of Zionism and its role in the early decades of nation building. He asks whether the Palestinians voluntarily left their homeland in 1948, and whether June 1967 was a war of “no choice”. Turning to the myths surrounding the failure of the Camp David Accords and the official reasons for the attacks on Gaza, Pappe explains why the two-state solution is no longer viable. 

The book is divided into three parts. Part 11, ‘Fallacies of the Past’, contains the following chapters attacking these particular myths.

  1. Palestine was an empty land.
  2. The Jews were a people without a land.
  3. Zionism is Judaism.
  4. Zionism is not colonialism.
  5. The Palestinians voluntarily left their homeland in 1948.
  6. The June 1967 War was a war of no choice.

Part II, ‘Fallacies of the Present’, has the following

7. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.

8. The Oslo mythologies.

9. The Gaza mythologies.

Part III ‘Looking Ahead’

10. The two-states solution is the only way forward.

Conclusion: The Settler Colonial state of Israel in the 21st First century.

There’s also a timeline of Israeli/Zionist history from the 1881 pogroms in the Russian Empire to 2015 and the fourth Netanyahu government.

This is a short book, the actual text taking up 153 pages. Although it is properly documented with notes and index, it’s clearly written and seems to be aimed the general reader, rather than an exclusively academic audience. Much of it will be familiar to readers of the blogs of the great Jewish critics and activists against Zionist racism, like Tony Greenstein, Martin Odoni and David Rosenberg. He points out, for example, that Zionism was a minority movement amongst Jews before 1948, and that it was preceded by Christian Zionism, which wished to see the Jews return to Israel in order to hasten Christ’s return to Earth and the End Times, as well as more immediate religious and geopolitical goals. Some hoped that the Jews would convert to Christianity, while others, like Palmerston, believed that a western Jewish presence in the Holy Land would help shore up the decaying Ottoman Empire. Others associated it with restoring the glory of the Crusades. Most Jews at the time, however, were much more eager to remain in the countries of their birth. For Reform Jews and the Socialists of the Bund, this meant fighting for equality as fellow citizens and adopting wider European secular culture to a greater or lesser extent so that they could fully participate in the new societies from the Enlightenment onwards. So determined were they to do so, that Reform Judaism removed altogether references from their services to the return to Israel. They also rejected the idea of a Jewish state because they felt its establishment would cast doubt on their loyalties to their mother countries as proper English or Germans. Orthodox Judaism remained far more conservative, rejecting the Enlightenment, but still determined to remain in their traditional homelands because Israel could only be restored through divine will by the Messiah. Until he came, it was their religious duty to wait out their exile.

Nor was Palestine remotely empty, despite the Zionists maintaining that it was – ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’, as the Zionist maxim ran. 18th and 19th century European travelers noted that Palestine was very definitely occupied, and that ten per cent of its population was Jewish. Zionist settlers there found to their shock and discomfort that there were Arabs there, with whom they were going to have to live. And that these Arabs weren’t like them. Which shouldn’t really be surprising. However marginalised eastern European Jews were, they were still part of European society and so were bound to have certain aspects of their culture in common with other Europeans. As for the Palestinians themselves, they were perfectly willing to provide shelter and help to the early Jewish settlers when it seemed that they were simply migrants, who were not intending to colonise and displace them. They only became hostile, ultimately turning to violence, when it became clear just what the Zionists’ intentions towards them were. Pappe also points out that at the time the first Zionist communities were being founded, Palestinian society was undergoing its second wave of nationalism. The first was the general wave of Arab nationalism from the 19th century onwards, as the Arabs became conscious of themselves as a distinct people with the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire. The second was when the individual Arab nations, such as Syria and Egypt, became conscious of themselves and began demanding their separate independence. And these new, emerging Arab nations included Palestine.

The book also shows how Zionism is colonialism through comparing Israel with other White nations, like those of  North and South America, New Zealand and so on, where the indigenous people were massacred and their land seized for White colonisation. He  then shows how Zionist leaders such as David Ben-Gurion had planned in 1948 to cleanse what they could of the Israel state they were creating of its Arab population in order to ensure that Jews were in the majority. Thus Palestinian towns and villages were razed and their people massacred. At the same time, the Israelis spread propaganda that the Palestinians had somehow voluntarily left their homes, rather than fled. He also argues that the Israeli government was determined to exploit diplomatic and military tensions with Nasser’s Egypt and Syria in 1967 in order to manufacture a war that would allow them to seize the West Bank and the holy places of west Jerusalem, with their rich archaeological sites. Pappe shows that, whatever their composion, whether Labour, Likud, or, as in 1967, a coalition of parties across the Israeli political spectrum, successive Israeli government have pursued a policy of securing the greatest amount of land for Israel with the least amount of Palestinians. This has meant redrawing and redefining the boundaries of what is Jewish territory, with the intention of forcing the Palestinians into minuscule cantons or bantustans, to use the word applied to similar settlements in apartheid South Africa. The Palestinians were to have some autonomy within them, but only if the acted as Israel’s peacekeeper within those territories. This was the real intention of the Oslo Peace Process, which was unacceptable to Yasser Arafat and the Arab leadership because far from improving conditions for the Palestinians, it actually made them much worse. It was a deal that the Palestinians could not accept, hence the breakdown of the talks and the eruption of the Second Intifada.

Pappe describes the Israeli attacks on Gaza as an ‘incremental genocide’. He states that he has been reluctant to call it thus, because it’s a very loaded term, but can find no other way to reasonably describe it. Each stage begins with a Palestinian rocket attack, which kills very few Israelis, if any. The Israelis then launch massive counterattacks, killing hundreds, with names like ‘Summer Rains’, ‘Autumn Rains’, and then ‘Operation Cast lead’, which the Israelis claim are just reprisals against Palestinian terrorism. The goal is supposed to be the removal of the Hamas government in Gaza. While Hamas are an Islamic organisation, they were democratically elected and their rise was initially aided by Israel, who believed that the real threat to their security was the secular, nationalist Fatah.

The chapter arguing against Israel as a democracy shows that it cannot justly be considered such given the apartheid system that dispossesses and marginalises the Palestinians. Part of this apartheid is based on willingness or suitability for military service. Rather like the future Earth of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, civil rights are connected with national service. The Israelis disbar the Palestinians from serving in the armed forces on the grounds that the Palestinians would be unwilling to join them. But even here the Palestinians do the unexpected: a majority of them have shown themselves willing in a poll to join the Israeli army.

Pappe considers that the two-state solution, as a realistic solution to the Palestinian crisis, is near its end. Its only real purpose was to give the Israelis a justification for seizing the most land while dispossessing the indigenous people, who lived there. It will eventually fall, one way or another, because the Israelis are determined to colonise the West Bank and the siege of Gaza. He also makes the point that no discussion of the issue of human rights in the Middle East, in nations like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, for example, can be complete without including the 100 year long persecution of the Palestinians. At the same time, the West allowed Israel to emerge as a settler colonial state, at a time when settler-colonialism was being abandoned, partly out of guilt over the Holocaust. Germany in particular contributed a large amount of funding to the new state. But the foundation of Israel hasn’t solved the problem of anti-Semitism, only increased it. The discrediting of the ten major myths about Israel should ensure better justice for the Palestinians, and a fitting, proper end to the legacy of the Holocaust.

It’s a very effective demolition of the myths Israel uses and exploits to support its own existence and its policies towards the Palestinians. For example, Israel claims that its occupation of the West Bank is only temporary, while the facts on the ground amply demonstrate that it intends to be there permanently. Pappe is also extremely critical about the use of the Bible and archaeology to justify Israel’s occupation of Palestine. He seems to support the Biblical minimalists assessment that the Bible isn’t a reliable source of historical information. I don’t think this can be reasonably maintained, as while archaeology can’t be used to establish whether some episodes in the Bible are historically true, it does seem clear that ancient Israel undoubtedly existed, at least after the Exile and probably before then. But he certainly raises proper moral questions about the use of archaeology to justify the removal of Palestinian communities and their transformation into Israeli settlements on the grounds that they are really ancient Israelite towns and villages.

Pappe has always maintained that his countrymen are decent people, who just need the situation properly explained to them. He attempted to do this himself by holding open evenings at his home every Thursday night, in the Israeli village in which he lived. During these evenings anyone could come to his home and ask him what was really going on. These evenings eventually grew to such an extent that, despite the real anger and hostility against him by the academic and political establishment, he had 30-40 people in his front room. In the book he also properly pays tribute to the courage and determination of those Israelis, who are determined to challenge their country’s attacks on the Palestinians. If there is to be hope for the Palestinians, then they should surely play a part on the Israeli side.

I don’t know if there will ever be proper justice for the Palestinians. The Israel lobby has shown itself to be determined and expert at the demonisation of its opponents here in the West. That’s been shown in the recent expulsions of prinicipled anti-Zionists and anti-racists like Tony Greenstein, Ken Livingstone, Marc Wadsworth, Mike and now Jackie Walker on trumped up charges of ‘anti-Semitism’ from the Labour Party. But there are signs that the Israel lobby is losing its grip. They’re turning from Jews to Christian Evangelicals in America for support, while Ireland has recently passed legislation supporting the BDS movement. These are signs for hope. But the process will be long and difficult. This book, however, helps provide the means by which more people can fight back against Israeli and establishment propaganda to support a proper peace with justice, dignity and proper autonomy for Jews and Palestinians in a single state.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oswald Mosley also Hated ‘the Wrong Kind of Jews’, like the Board of Deputies Hates Jewdas

April 13, 2018

Jewdas is an organisation of religious Jews, who put their faith into practice in left-wing politics. Earlier this month, the Jewish establishment of the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council went berserk at them and Jeremy Corbyn, because Corbyn had the temerity to attend their Passover Seder. Jewdas themselves were pleased to have the Labour leader’s company, and were pleased that he was taking an interest in their community and its issues.

But they’re left-wing, and that can’t be allowed. Not when Arkush, the President of the Board, and very many of its other leading members, are also paid up Tories. They immediately accused Corbyn of anti-Semitism, yet again, because he was ignoring the mainstream Jewish community. By which they obviously means Tory-voting supporters of Israel’s ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. And their venom carried over to Jewdas itself. They were also accused of being a nest of anti-Semitism.

It’s rubbish, of course. Corbyn has been an inveterate enemy of all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism. And Jewdas’ real crime is that they’re left-wingers, who have a different conception of the political implications of their faith than the Board and its right-wing members. They’re not the first Jews to think that way either. Jews were very strongly represented in the Russian Communist party at the time of the Russian Revolution, because the party offered to free the Yiddish-speaking working people of the Russian Empire from oppression by the tsar and capitalism. Hence they formed the Bund, one of the constituent groups in the Russian Social Democratic party, the first Marxist party in Russia. They were also strongly represented in other Marxist and Socialist, and radical socialist parties across Europe. Rudolf Rocker, the German anarcho-syndicalist, had a Jewish wife, and was strongly influenced by the Jewish anarcho-syndicalists amongst whom he lived and worked. Way back in the 19th century Moses Hess, before he became a Zionist, was also a socialist. Hess was a Jew from the Rhinelands, whose wife was Roman Catholic. I can remember reading in Sir Isaiah Berlin’s article, ‘The Life and Opinions of Moses Hess’ way back at College that Hess considered ancient Israel to be an ideal socialist state, because it put into law the abstract moral precepts of the Torah. So close has the connection between Jews and radical politics, including Communism, been that it entered Nazi ideology. Communism and the Russian Revolution were plots by the Jewish bankers to bring down gentile civilisation and enslave Whites.

Mike, and other great bloggers, pointed out how the Board repeated this anti-Semitic trope when they attacked Jewdas, because they were ‘the wrong kind of Jews’.

And Oswald Mosley shared their attitude towards left-wing, immigrant Jewry. I was talking to a friend of mine a little while ago about a book he’d been reading on the history of Marks and Spencer. Before the firm decided that Maggie Thatcher was the best thing to hit British politics since Disraeli and Winston Churchill, the firm had a strong left-wing ethos. Marks was Jewish and also a socialist. After spending a week on his shop floor, he ordered that his shop assistants should have proper podiatric care with Harley street specialists, and was keen that his managers should actually have experience working on the shop floor. Spencer himself was a British aristo, who was content to invest in the firm but didn’t take much interest in actually running it.

One of the stories in the book is that one evening in the ’30s, Oswald Mosley came to call at a dinner party held by the two entrepreneurs. The wannabe dictator then declared how he was going to promote the British Union of Fascists by attacking the Jews. But, the fan of Mussolini and Hitler went on, they were only going to target the poor immigrants coming over from the continent. They would not touch respectable Jews like Marks.

The founders of the high street store naturally weren’t impressed. According to the tale, Spencer rang a little bell to summon the Butler, and told him, ‘Sir Oswald will be leaving now. Please show him out’, and so politely kicked the Fascist thug out.

It’s actually not clear if the story’s true or not. Spencer apparently denied it had ever happened. As for Mosley, he claimed that he wasn’t originally an anti-Semite, and that it was only Jewish opposition to the BUF that turned him against them. But the membership of the BUF contained very many virulent anti-Semites, who expressed their vile hatred in articles in the party’s newspaper, Action. Mosley himself had also chaired debates about anti-Semitism and the Jews between other Jew haters for right-wing groups, before he officially adopted anti-Semitism. It therefore seems to me that, whatever Mosley later claimed, he was already an anti-Semite.

As a Fascist party, the BUF was anti-socialist and virulently anti-Communist, as well anti-democratic and anti-Semitic. They used to order patrols around their stalking grounds in London to defend Britain from Communists. Fortunately, the Communists, Jews and trade unionists they despised fought back and gave them a good hiding.

But there is absolutely nothing implausible about Mosley having a particular hatred for poor, Jewish immigrants. Someone once said that the British will forgive anything, except poverty. Which is absolutely true of the Tories and the Far Right. And Jewish immigrants at that time would have been particularly suspected of being dangerous, left-wing radicals with in-British, continental ideas.

The wrong kind of Jews, in other words. Just like Arkush claimed Jewdas were. Because they’re also left-wing.

The Board has joined the rest of the Israel lobby in slandering decent, self-respecting anti-racist folk, purely out of a cynical desire to preserve the Tory party and defend Israel’s ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. And they have done so using a trope, which, if used by a gentile, would be rightly condemned as anti-Semitic.

They’re hypocrites. Perhaps the real objective should not be reforming the Labour party to crackdown on anti-Semitism. It should be reforming the Board, to make sure they really represent British Jews of all beliefs and political views. And stopping it from smearing decent people, Jews and gentiles, simply for making entirely just and factually accurate opposition to Israel’s persecution of its indigenous Arabs.

The Life and Career of the Prophet Amos

May 2, 2013

Another set of Old Testament readings a little while ago were from the Book of Amos. This was written sometime during the prosperous reign of Jeroboam, c. 760 -750 BC.

Israelite Military Revival and Conquests at the Time of Amos

This was a time when Assyria had crushed Syria as a threat to Israel, but had not attempted to conquer the Palestinian states. This only began with Tiglath-Pileser in 745 BC. King Jehoash (802-786) had reconquered all the cities lost by his father, and recovered lost Israelite territory west and possibly east of the Jordan from the Aramaeans. His successor, Jeroboam II, completely defeated Damascus, and further recovered Israelite territories in Syria. He placed the frontier near Hamath where it had been during Solomon’s reign. He also conquered Aramaean territory in the Transjordan, establishing the frontier with Ammon and Moab by the Brook of Arabah near the Dead Sea. King Uzziah of Judah repaired Jerusalem’s defences, reorganised and outfitted the army and introduced new siege devices. He also imposed his control on the Edomite and north-western Arabian tribes. He rebuilt the port of Ezion-Geber (Elath). A seal belonging to his son and co-regent, Jotham, has been found there. He also took Gath, Jabneh and Ashdod from the Philistines and established a series of forts in the Negeb. Archaeological investigation has revealed that Arad, Hurvat Uza and Tell Beer-Sheba were fortified during this period. Arad had been a small village in the 10th century. During the 9th and 8th centuries it became a royal fortress and a military and administrative centre protecting the road from the Judean hills to the Arabah and Moab. Judah established another fortress at Hurvat Uza, which guarded the road to the Dead Sea and Transjordan. The defences were also built around the settlement of Tell Beer-Sheba. Archaeological evidence also suggests that Tell el-Kheleifah was also possibly a Judean fortress, which in the 7th century passed in Edomite possession. A seal belonging to Jeroboam’s servant, Shema’, was found in 1904. This was engraved with the image of a roaring lion and the inscription lshm’ ‘bdyrhm ‘Belonging to Shema”. The seals of two of King Uzziah’s servants, Abiyau – Abiah, and Shebniyau – Shebnaiah, have also been found. These were both inscribed ‘servant of Uzziyau – Uzziah’.

Material Prosperity at Time of Amos

It was a period of great prosperity. The 8th century was the period when the population of Israel and Judah reached its greatest density. The trade routes through Israel and Judah revived. Apart from the fortresses, the Negeb was extensively settled and developed agriculturally. Some industries, such as weaving and dyeing at Debir, also flourished.

Life and Teaching of Prophet Amos

Amos himself was the first of the great reforming prophets. He was a herdsman and a grower of figs in Tekoa. His prophetic career may only have lasted a few months. He attacked Israel’s enemies for seizing and enslaving Israelites and Judeans. He also condemned the increasing decadence and injustice in Israelite society. Rich merchants were making loans to the poor, who used the money to buy seed. When they were unable to repay the loan, their children were seized and forced in slavery. The merchants also seized part of the peasants’ land, when they were unable to repay the debt. The result was that a class of previously independent independent peasants became tenant farmers. Amos not only condemned this, but also denounced the way the merchants were using false weights and measure to defraud their customers, and bribery and corruption in the courts. He also attacked the dishonest merchants for the way they made lavish sacrifices at Bethel and Gilgal, despite their corruption and exploitation of the poor. Amos declared that the privilege of being God’s people also carried with it the consequence of more certain and severe judgement. There was no distinction between crime and sins against God. Wrongs to fellow humans were also an infringement of the Lord’s Law. He believed that a false, hypocritical observance of religion led to social decadence. God did not want large and expensive sacrifices, but justice and good deeds. Amos contrasted Israel’s poor moral state with that of the Covenant Law. Israel’s privileged status as God’s chosen people did not carry with it a guarantee of protection. Indeed, Israel’s moral decline was so great that even the Egyptians and the Philistines at Gath were morally superior. No sanctuary would be found at the horned altars used at the time, for their horns would fall off.

Luxury, Pagan Revival and Growing Gap between Rich and Poor

There was a revival in the worship of Baal at this time. Examination of the names recorded on ostraca in Samaria show almost as many people with names that included Baal as those, whose names included Yahweh. It appears to have been an age when the gap between rich and poor was increasing. Excavation at Tell el Far’ah has uncovered both a rich and a poor quarter. The rich quarter consisted of a group of large houses. These were composed of a courtyard surrounded by buildings on three sides. A long, straight wall divided these from a group of smaller houses huddled together. The types of houses in Hazor also show evidence of a rigid social hierarchy. The larger and more elaborate houses were located close to the city, while the smaller, poorer homes were more to the south. In his attack on the luxury of the upper classes, Amos mentions ‘houses of ivory’. A building excavated in the acropolis at Samaria contained a hoard of carved ivory. These were probably inlaid in furniture, as described by Amos when he referred to ‘those who recline on ivory beds’.

A large stone altar, similar to that described by Amos, was also discovered at Beersheba by Yohanan Aharoni in 1973. This had been demolished and its sandstones blocks used for the construction of a store room wall. When the stones were removed and placed together, they formed a horned altar five feet high. One of the levels excavated at Hazor –stratum VI – had been destroyed by an earthquake, which was probably the same as that described by Amos and Zechariah.

The period of Amos’ ministry was therefore a time of Israelite military strength and regional power. This led to growing material prosperity for the wealthy, who, although generously giving to the temples and shrines, nevertheless exploited the poor. Some sections of Israelite society were even turning to Baal and paganism. All this was against Israel’s covenant with the Almight, and it was Amos’ mission to call Israel and Judah to return to the Lord and warn them of Israel’s destruction for its sins.

The Medieval Christian Origins of Western Democracy: Part 2

July 19, 2008

In the first part of this essay discussing the medieval Christian contribution to the rise of democracy, I discussed how the medieval idea that political authority lay in the whole of the community, and that monarchs, as well as their subjects, were bound by the law, led to the establishment of constitutional checks on the power of the monarch. Some states went further, and established systems of government in which power was effectively exercised by an assembly, rather than the reigning monarch, such as medieval Novgorod, or attempted to abolish feudalism altogether and establish a republic ruled by the citizens in opposition to the aristocracy. European monarchs had ruled with the advice of assemblies of their lords since the early Middle Ages. In the thirteenth centuries these assemblies, particularly those in England and Spain, began to establish themselves as parliaments. Similar assemblies of the aristocracy, knights and representatives of the municipal elite from the towns were also held in France, Germany, Italy and the papal states as part of the system of government. Such assemblies received powerful philosophical and theological support from Thomas Aquinas and other political theorists, who considered that humans were equal in their essence, stated that laws should be directed towards the common good rather than the personal benefit of the individual ruler, and maintained that the people had the right to depose an unjust monarch.

In the second part of the essay, I will discuss how Aquinas considered that the people were also the source of law as they had produced the customs that governed European society. This view was part of Aquinas’ wider view that laws held their authority through the consent of the people. Although he considered monarchy to be the best form of government, Aquinas also considered that the best constitution was one that included elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, and thus gave philosophical and theological support to the parliamentary assemblies that advised monarchs.

The political theories that resulted in the establishment of secular governmental assemblies also led to similar developments in ecclesiastical government with the emergence of the Conciliarist movement that attempted to establish a general, ecumenical council as the governing authority in the Church, with authority even over the pope. The authority of both political and ecclesiastical governmental assemblies were partly based on the notion of mandated authority, which had been developed by Canon lawyers to establish the legal and constitutional basis for the ability of one section of the church to make decisions on behalf of the wider community. This idea of delegated authority also supported the constitutional position of the feudal councils that advised monarchs, so that they gradually developed into parliamentary assemblies that had powers to check the king on behalf of the subjects.

Furthermore, Canon lawyers stressed that law was rational, and that Natural Law and Roman Law affected the whole of humanity and transcended national boundaries, thus producing a system of international law that allowed disputes between nations to be settled peacefully. The insistence that law must be fundamentally rational resulted in the British constitutional attitude that viewed any law that did not possess a basis in reason was invalid.

I will also discuss how, during the Peasants’ Revolt in England, the serfs argued against their social status partly on religious grounds. Finally, although the medieval states that were governed through parliamentary assemblies were certainly not democratic, as they reserved active political participation only to those members who were considered to be the best qualified, I will nevertheless discuss how they provided the basis for later constitutional developments that made these early governmental assemblies more democratic and allowed them to develop greater power to check the monarch and act as institutions of popular government.

Recognition in Medieval Law of People as Source of Popular, Customary Law

While Aquinas himself did not state whether either the people or their ruler was the source of law, he did recognise that people, rather than the authorities, were the source of the customary law operating during the Middle Ages. Customary law, however, was nevertheless rational in that human actions, like their speech, were the result of reason. Princes had the right to alter laws, but this had to correspond to the common good. Following the Roman legal theorist, Ulpian, Aquinas considered that new laws should possess evident utility. Aquinas argued that the law should correspond to custom as much as possible, as law lost its force when custom was removed. Medieval Canon law viewed customary law as ‘unconstituted postive law’, in contrast to the ‘constituted positive law’ promulgated by an authority such as a pope or monarcy. Unconstituted positive laws were the customs of a particular community, which were considered to derive their power from the implicit consent of the communities, which practised them. Other legal theorists, such as the Canon lawyer, Rufinus, considered that custom only had legal authority if it was recognised and permitted by the authorities, who had the power to alter it. 44 Thus law was considered to derive its power to a certain extent from the consent of the people who lived by it and who, in their day-to-day activities, produced new customs and legal procedures. In the 18th century conservative political theorists, such as Edmund Burke, emphasised the role of tradition in maintaining a nation’s culture and stability against the political turmoil and violence of radical constitutional change produced by the French revolution. In the 20th century libertarian economic theorists, such as Von Hayek, also stressed the immense importance of traditional political institutions in promoting social and economic stability.

Aquinas’ View that Best Constitution Included Elements of Monarchy, Aristocracy and Democracy, and that this Existed in Ancient Israel

Like Aristotle, Aquinas also considered in his Treatise on the Law that the best regime was a ‘well-combined constitution’, which included features of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. 45 Such a regime combined unity, rare virtue, and popular consent. 46 Aquinas considered that this mixed constitution was found in ancient, noting that Moses governed Israel, according to Deuteronomy 1:15 through the chiefs of Israel’s tribes and wise men, and, according to Exodus 18:21, able men who had been chosen from all the people. Thus Aquinas believed that there should be limits on royal power, and advocated a form of constitutional monarchy. 47 Aquinas was almost certainly influenced by the feudal councils of great lords in his view of the aristocratic element in such a mixed constitution. There were, however, no contemporary political institutions that may have influenced Aquinas’ view of the democratic element, and historians have therefore considered that he was either considering the representatives of the towns that were sent to the assemblies of southern Italy, Germany and the Papal States, or simply accepted Aristotle’s view on the subject without reference to any contemporary institution. 48

Thus, while Aquinas certainly was not a democrat, and favoured monarchy as the best form of government, he also recommended constitutional limits on the power of the monarch, viewed sovereignty as ultimately deriving from the people and recommended that the best constitution included a democratic element, as well as monarchy and aristocracy. This ideal constitution, for Aquinas, had existed in ancient Israel. His ideas were further developed to support the deposition of tyrannical kings, and the development of more democratic forms of government. In the 20th century the Roman Catholic political theorists Yves R. Simon and Jacques Maritain based their support of democracy on Aquinas’ political theories.

The Conciliarist Movement and its Attempt to Establishment an Ecumenical Council as Governing Authority in Western Church

The medieval view that sovereignty lay ultimately with the people found radical expression within ecclesiastical as well as secular politics in the Conciliarist movement of the early 15th century. This was an attempt to repair the Schism that had occurred in the late 14th century with the election in September 1378 of Clement VII as a rival pope in Avignon to Urban VI. This Schism, which divided the Church between rival popes in Avignon and Rome, continued for thirty years, so that by the fifteenth century there were three popes claiming leadership of the western Church, John XXIII, Gregory XII and Benedict XIII. The Conciliarist movement was an attempt to end this Schism and restore the unity of Christendom under a single pope by developing the constitutional institutions through which unsuitable popes and rival claimants to the papacy could be deposed.

Initial suggestions for repairing the Schism included arbitration and negotiation between the rival popes and a mutual agreement to abdicate. The University of Paris, however, rejected these suggestions. Jean Gerson, the university’s chancellor, argued that the sovereignty and power to decide ecclesiastical issues, its plenitudo potestatis, lay in the body of the Church as a whole. This sovereignty was duly expressed and exercised through a general ecumenical council. The Conciliarists partly based their ideas on the way the Church held diocesan and provincial synods to solve disputes at the local level, and so recommended that this process should be extended to the Church as a whole to solve the debate that was scandalously dividing the western Church. Thus, Henry of Langenstein argued for such a council, stating that

‘New and dangerous emergencies, which arise in any diocese are dealt with in a council of that particular diocese or a provincial synod, and therefore it follows that new and arduous problems which concern the whole world ought to be discussed by a General Council. For what concerns all ought to be discussed by all, or by the representatives of all.’ 49

Origin of Idea of Delegated Authority of Governing Group from Broader Community in Canon Law to Provide Constitutional Basis for Decisions of Church Councils

In fact meetings of small numbers of clergy, such as cathedral canons and college of cardinals, to decide issues affecting the wider church, such as the whole of the clergy within a particular diocese, or the entire western Christian church, had long been the subject of discussion and debate amongst canon lawyers to investigate by what right the decisions of these individual clergymen could be considered to be binding on their  communities. The canon lawyers solved the problem through the adoption of the idea of mandated authority from Roman commercial law. Late antique Roman law recognised the existence of individuals, termed procurators, the origin of the English word ‘proctor’, who had been granted authority by another to act in their name to conduct business that would otherwise have been inconvenient or impossible for that person. Canon law extended this principle to argue that small groups of individuals, such as a cathedral chapter, also had power mandated to them as representatives of the wider community or group for whom they acted. Thus a cathedral chapter represented the wider Christian community in a diocese in the same way that a Roman procurator acted for his principal, the person who had granted him his power to act for him. 50 When a cathedral chapter thus gave its consent to a bishop’s decision, or the college of cardinals agreed to a particular papal policy, they acted on behalf of each and every member of the wider church, whether of the local diocese or in the whole of the western Church.

Canon Law Idea of Mandated Authority Basis of Constitutional Support for Secular Governing Councils

The theory of mandated authority clearly gave such advisory assemblies great powers and authority. Nevertheless the theory had been developed to solve the practical problem of how each person in the community could be represented in a matter when ‘what touches all should be approved by all’. In the cases of an ecclesiastical issue that affected every member of the church in the diocese, it was difficult or impossible to consult them individually. The idea of mandated authority allowed an advisory assembly, such as a cathedral chapter, to make decisions on their behalf as their representatives. The theory also gave considerable legal support to such councils, whether ecclesiastical or secular, such as the feudal grand councils, parliaments and estates-generals. It thus supported checks on the power of princes and bishops by granting legal rights and status on the councils that advised them. 51 Thus, for historians such as Brian Tierney, ecclesiastical Canon law formed the basis of ‘parliamentary constitutionalism’ – the constitutional rights of parliaments and representative assemblies, rather than monarchs, to make laws. 52

Attempt by Concialiarists to Make Authority of General Council Superior to the Pope

From the view that authority within the Church derived from its members as a whole, expressed and operating through a general council, the movement’s theorists developed more extreme views in which such general councils were therefore superior to the papacy in matters of faith. Furthermore, as the Church was the only infallible earthly institution, it possessed the power to decided church doctrine and correct and depose the pope if his doctrines were incorrect and he was incapable of properly governing the Church. Like Aquinas and the theorists of secular politics, the Conciliarists accepted the subject’s right to resist an unjust ruler, and that the best form of government was a mixed constitution that included elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. These ideas resulted in the declaration of Council of Constance in 1414 that all authority within the Church ultimately derived from such a council, which possessed power over everyone within it, including the pope. 53

This decree has been described as ‘the most revolutionary official document in the history of the world.’ 54 The Council succeeded in ending the Schism by deposing John XXIII, achieving the resignation of Gregory XII, while Benedict XIII was later condemned as a schismatic and heretic. In their place, the Council elected a new pope, Martin V. However, there then followed a period of conflict between the Councils and the papacy, which eventually resulted in the emergence of two Councils, one at Florence and another at Basel, which elected an anti-pope, Felix V. 55 This new period of conflict and schism was eventually resolved in 1460 with the formal condemnation of the movement by Pope Pius II. Pius II had already reconciled the German emperor, Frederick III, to the papacy, and so deprived the Conciliarists of his support. 56

Roman and Canon Law Used also by Secular Courts as International Law for Particular Cases

The constitutional theories and movements that attempted to limit the power of secular princes through the establishment of advisory councils or other checks on their authority, and the Conciliarist movement to subordinate papal authority to a general council of the Church both developed from the interdependence in Europe of secular and Canon law. Both civil and canon law used Roman law, and the revival of Roman law in the 12th century reinforced the canon lawyers’ interest in it. 57 Such was the interdependence between secular and Roman law that when judges and plaintiffs in secular courts were unable to find a way of satisfactory solving a dispute, they turned to Roman and canon law to find a solution. Roman and Canon Law, to medieval lawyers, represented ‘everyone’s general law’, as both were considered to be universally applicable. They thus constituted a ius commune, or international law that could be used to settle disputes when there was a conflict in points of law between two parties of differing legal systems. This system of Roman and Canon law therefore became a ‘peacemaker’s law’ that allowed international disputes to be settled peacefully without military conflict. 58

Medieval View that Law Rational and that Unreasonable Laws therefore had no Force

The medieval Canon lawyers also stressed the rational nature of law, and considered that any law that was unreasonable was therefore invalid. Stoic philosophy had considered that there was a universal Law of Nature affecting human conduct. The Romans identified this Law of Nature with the ius gentium, the universal law that was held to govern the actions of the peoples of all nations. Canon Lawyers identified this natural law with the divine law revealed by the Almighty, which they considered an extension of a natural law. The great canon lawyer Gratian, at the end of his Decretum, declared that the golden rule was the Law of Nature, and that this was superior to all other laws because of its antiquity and dignity, and whose power therefore superceded custom and the legislation of human authorities. The British legal historian Sir Frederick Pollock considered this attitude towards the innate and superior rationality of the Law of Nature to be the origin of the English lawyer’s view that a custom could not be good if it was contrary to reason. It was also for him the origin of the attitude from the 16th to the 18th centuries that a law was invalid if it was held to be against reason and ‘common right’. 59

The thirteenth century Canon lawyer Hostiensis held the same view that laws should be reasonable. In his Golden Summa, extending and commenting on Gratian’s Liber Extra, Hostiensis indeed stated that the divine law revealed by God in Scripture was an extension of natural law, and that any law or judicial decision that was in conflict with rational natural law was invalid and untenable. 60

Conciliarists and Supporters of Secular Governmental Assemblies not Advocates of Democracy

While the Conciliarists considered that the Church’s authority lay in the community of the Church as a whole, and that this authority was expressed and exercised through general councils, they were not democrats in that they did not consider that this meant that everyone should have an equal vote. The extreme Conciliarists believed that everyone, including women, had a right to be heard in the Church’s debates, but considered that only the most important section of the ecclesiastical community was qualified to make decisions. 61

The Conciliarists were not alone in reserving practical political decisions to a better qualified minority, rather than the majority. Secular political theorists, like Marsilius of Padua, who strongly advocated populated sovereignty and rejected any involvement in politics or secular privileges by the Church, also considered that people did not possess an equal right to vote or involvement in politics. In his Defensor Pacis of 1324, Marsilius of Padua argued that the source of legislation was the people, expressing their will through a general assembly, stating that

‘The legislator, or the primary and efficient cause of the law, is the people or the whole body of the citizens, or the weightier part thereof, through its election or will expressed by words in the general assembly of citizens, commanding or determining that something be done or omitted with regard to human civil acts, under a temporal pain or punishment.’ 62 This ‘weightier part’ of the people, according to him, referred to ‘the quantity and quality of the persons in that community over whom the law was made.’ 63 Thus while he appears to have accepted that the whole community did indeed possess the power to make decisions, nevertheless his statement that this could rest in the best-qualified section of the community appears to indicate that he also accepted Aristotle’s view that citizens should participate in the community according to their position in society, with the result that those citizens lower down the social scale would have correspondingly little or no political involvement. 64

Nevertheless, although the Conciliarists were not democrats, their arguments for the sovereign authority of councils, rather than individuals, was a powerful contribution to the development of modern ideas of democracy. The historians Brian Tierney and Francis Oakley, have noted the similarities between the arguments used by the supporters of parliament against the king in 17th century England, such as Philip Hunton, Henry Parker and Charles Herle, and the Conciliarists two centuries previously. Indeed, the Royalist writer, John Maxwell, in his Sacro-Sancta Regum Majestas, had stated that the parliamentarians had been influenced in their idea that the people had the right to depose a monarch by the French Roman Catholics of the League during the Wars of the Religion in the 16th century, and the Conciliarists, including Gerson, Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham. 65

Common Origin of Conciliarist Movement and English 17th Century Parliamentary Political Theory in Medieval Constitutional Political Philosophy

Historians have also suggested that the Conciliarists spread the idea of constitutional limits on power across Europe through its application to the papacy, thus spreading the idea beyond its use in national politics to the whole of western European Christendom. As a result, they preserved the idea of constitutional checks and balances against the development of absolutism, and spread its popularity throughout Europe. 66 Even if there was no direct link between the parliamentary supporters of popular sovereignty and the authority of governmental assemblies and the Conciliarists, it is possible that both were influenced in their views by the common culture of political philosophy that had developed in Medieval Europe. This common culture of political philosophy continued the medieval view of popular sovereignty, derived ultimately from the adoption of Roman ideas of the people as the source of political authority by the early Church.

Theological Arguments by English Serfs During the Peasants’ Revolt for the Abolition of Serfdom

The later Middle Ages was torn by a number of popular revolts against monarchical, aristocratic and municipal oligarchic authority, such as the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 in England, the Jacquerie in Paris of 1358 and the revolt of the Maillotins, again in Paris in 1382, the revolts of the weavers of Ghent and Bruges of 1379-82, and the insurrection of the Ciompi in Florence in 1378. They were primarily the result of economic and political grievances against the abuse of power by the ruling elites, and demanded specific reforms to redress them. The English Peasants, however, justified their revolt against serfdom on religious grounds. According to the French chronicler, Froissart, they argued that there were no slaves and serfs at the beginning of the world, and that slavery should not exist except for those that had betrayed their lords. As, however, both serfs and lords were equally human, the peasants had a right to resist their subjection and demand wages for the services they performed for their lords. 67

Attempts to Establish Government by Parliamentary Assemblies on Partially Successful

The medieval attempts to establish systems of government based on advisory councils or representative assemblies, founded on popular sovereignty, was only partially successful. Republican administration of Novgorod was destroyed in the 15th century when it was annexed by the Grand Duke of Moscow, who carried off its bell. Political turmoil and dissension in the Italian republics resulted in the replacement of democracy by muncipal tyrants such as the Sforza, Visconti and Medici families. The English and Scots parliaments became established parts of these nations’ government, as did the cortes in Spain.

Although the estates-general was regularly held in France during the 14th and 15th century, it failed to become an established, constitutional part of the French governmental system in the way parliament had in England. Louis XI finally established the right of the French crown to levy taxes and wage war without calling the estates, which made its last efforts to assert its authority in 1484. 68 The imperial diets in Germany similarly failed to achieve any effective power, and only met occasionally when the emperor required them to consider the levying of extraordinary taxes. 69

The states-general in Germany was nevertheless successful in establishing itself as a representative body for the whole of Germany, where laws were passed through the consent and decision of the majority. Moreover the German princes managed to establish the local estates-general within their territories as constitutional governmental institutions. 70 As part of the landtag – the estates-general of that particular German state, they acted as a constitutional check to the power of the prince, thus creating a form of balanced constitution. 71 In France the provincial estates-general continued to meet and vote on taxes in the fifteenth century until they, like the national estates-general, were ended by the expansion of royal power by Charles VIII. 72

Conclusion:Medieval Governmental Assemblies not Democratic, but Origins of Later Parliamentary Government and Constitutional Limits to Power of Monarchy, partly Produced and Accepted by Theologians, Philosophers and Canon Lawyers

Even when such assemblies did become an established part of a state’s system of government, they were not democracies. Membership of these governmental councils, and the ability to vote in their election, was confined to members of the aristocracy, knights, and municipal commercial elites. Nevertheless, the Middle Ages had succeeded in establishing constitutional limits to the powers of monarchs and the authority of councils to represent the wider people, based on ideas of popular sovereignty, partly based on the arguments of theologians such as St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and developed by canon lawyers from the conduct of ecclesiastical councils. These theories and their legal support were based on ancient Greek and Roman political theory, and Roman commercial law.

Although such institutions could become secular, such as Marsilius of Padua’s idea of a secular city state ruled by such an assembly of citizens in his Defensor Pacis, the papacy was also willing to call such governmental assemblies of its citizens in the administration of its states, while the Russian Orthodox Church had fully participated in the republican governmental institutions of medieval Novgorod. Even when these parliamentary assemblies failed to become part of system of government, monarchs were still subject to constitutional checks. From the Middle Ages to the French Revolution, the parlement of Paris – not an assembly of subjects, but a committee of lawyers – had the responsibility of examining royal legislation to check whether it was constitutional. These ideas of popular sovereignty, constitutional limits on the power of the monarch and the ability of governmental assemblies to pass legislation and advise the monarch, were further developed in the 16th and 17th centuries to provide the foundations for modern theories of representative government and democracy.

Notes

  1. James A. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law, (Harlow, Longman 1995), pp. 157-8.
  2. Waley, Later Medieval Europe from St. Louis to Luther ( Harlow, Longman 1985), p. 8; Hittinger, Liberty, Wisdom and Grace: Thomism and Democratic Political Theory (Lanham, Maryland, Lexington Books 2002), p. 50.
  3. Hittinger, Liberty, Wisdom and Grace, p. 50.
  4. Waley, Later Medieval Europe, pp. 8-9.
  5. Hittinger, Liberty, Wisdom and Grace, p. 51.
  6. Henry of Langenstein, ‘Consilium Pacis’, cited in Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 105.
  7. James A. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law , p. 107.
  8. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law, p. 108.
  9. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law, p. 110.
  10. Waley, Later Medieval Europe, pp. 105-6.
  11. Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 106.
  12. Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 106; Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church (Oxford, OUP 1963), p. 136.
  13. Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, p. 136.
  14. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law, p.111.
  15. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law, p. 112.
  16. Jacob, ‘Political Thought’, in C.G. Crump and E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages (Oxford, Clarendon Press 1923), p. 527.
  17. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law, p. 157.
  18. David Wootton, ‘Introduction’, in David Wootton, ed., Divine Right and Democracy: An Anthology of Political Writings in Stuart England, (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1986), pp. 48-9.
  19. George Holmes, Europe: Hierarchy and Revolt, 1320-1450, second edition, (Oxford, Blackwell 2000), p. 111.
  20. Holmes, Hierarch and Revolt, p. 111.
  21. Wootton, ‘Introduction’, in Wootton, ed., Divine Right and Democracy, p. 49.
  22. Wootton, ‘Introduction’, in Wootton, ed., Divine Right and Democracy, p. 48.
  23. E.F. Jacob, Political Thought, in Crump and Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 521
  24. Holmes, Hierarchy and Revolt, pp. 74-5.
  25. Charles Johnson, ‘Royal Power and Administration’, in Crump and Jacob, Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 482.
  26. Charles Johnson, ‘Royal Power and Administration’, in Crump and Jacob, Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 483.
  27. Geoffrey Barrowclough, The Origins of Modern Germany (Oxford, Basil Blackwell 1947), p. 349.
  28. Barrowclough, Modern Germany, p. 351.
  29. Johnson, ‘Royal Power and Administration’, in Crump and Jacob, Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 483.

The Bible, Judaism and Christianity and the Origins of Democracy: Part 2

July 6, 2008

In the first part of this blog post I attempted to describe how, while ancient Israel certainly did not possess the institutions of the modern democratic state, nevertheless the revelation of the Bible established the moral values essential to democracy in the notions of human equality before the Lord, concern for human welfare and opposition to tyranny based on God’s justice. These values were maintained, practised and developed by Talmudic Judaism and Christianity. In this section I’m going to discuss how the early Church further developed these values to form the basis of the modern idea of the democratic state.

Adoption of Roman View of Popular Sovereignty By Early Christianity, but Only Secure Basis for Society God’s Justice and Concern for Humanity

The early Christians also adopted the view of contemporary Roman jurists and political philosophers that laws derived their authority through popular sovereignty. This view was developed particularly by Cicero, Seneca, the Cynics and the Stoics. This viewed the state, and the ability of each individual to participate in politics, as based on the common rationality in humanity and the universe. For the Roman lawyers, society was based on private, autonomous individuals, whose rights had to be respected and to whom justice was due because of their common humanity and rationality, regardless of how they were regarded or held by their fellow citizens, or their own ability to use force to enforce their will on others. 45 The early Church adopted the idea of human society as composed of rational creatures, and that the people were the true source of law. St. Augustine thus wrote in the City of God that ‘a populus is an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love; in order to discover the character of any society, we have only to observe what they love.’ 46 For Augustine, however, the most secure basis for society and law was the love of God and the divine command to love one’s neighbour amongst the people, rather than just human rationality itself. Thus St. Augustine declared in the Epistle to Volusianus

‘Here (in Jesus Christ’s summary of the Law and the prophets in the double command to love God and one’s neighbour) is the basis for an admirable commonwealth; for a society can neither be ideally founded nor maintained unless upon the basis and by the bond of faith and strong concord, when the object of love is the universal good which in its highest and truest character is God Himself, and when men love one another with complete sincerity in Him, and the ground of their love for one another is the love of Him from whose eyes they cannot conceal the spirit of their love.’ 47

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Roman Law and its precepts were replaced by customary law, until it was rediscovered by the Church’s canon lawyers in the 12th century. Nevertheless, the Church insisted that kings and princes had a duty to society as a whole through the maintenance of peace and justice, protecting the weak and encouraging and securing love and charity between people. This prepared European society for the revival of the doctrine of popular sovereignty when western European scholars returned to studying Roman Law. 48 The beginning of all Roman legal doctrine from the 12th century onwards was the statement by the Roman lawyer Ulpian, which reached western Europe through Justinian’s Digest, that ‘The prince’s decision has the force of law; inasmuch as by the royal law passed concerning his authority the people has invested him with the whole of its own authority and power.’ 49 Thus the Roman doctrine of popular sovereignty, which became the basis of modern western democracy through the political philosophy of John Locke, was adopted, preserved, and made the basis of western political theory again by Christianity.

Sole Purpose of Authority to Promote Peace and Harmony

Although the early Church recognised that human society required authority, philosophers and theologians such as St. Augustine and Theodoret believed that the sole rightful purpose for such authority was to maintain order and promote harmony and tranquillity. As rulers derived their authority ultimately from God, individuals motivated solely by a desire to rule, rather than promote justice, had no rightful authority. 50 similarly, while the Church itself was hierarchical and stressed obedience to authority, nevertheless it considered that its clergy should rule from a sense of service to the community, rather than a desire for personal power. St. Augustine stated that

‘Those who rule serve those whom they seem to command; for they rule not from a love of power but from a sense of duty – not because they love authority, but because they love mercy.’ 61

Indeed, St. Augustine considered that any member of the clergy who ruled purely from a desire a power had automatically disqualified himself from holding office, as ‘he who loves to govern rather than to do good is no bishop!’ 62

Origin of Separation of Church and State in St. Augustine

St. Augustine further prepared Western society for the separation of church and state that is a part of modern, secular democratic politics. Although the late Roman Empire saw itself very much as a Christian state, in which the church and religious belief and worship were essential institutions and included amongst the secular governmental institutions as a vital aspect of the state, a situation that continued in the new states of the Middle Ages that succeeded the Roman Empire, the early Church distinguished between itself and secular authority. St. Ambrose of Milan in the 4th century in his letters to the emperor Theodosius denied that secular officials had any authority over the Church, whose clergy and property were outside imperial authority.

St. Augustine developed this idea still further in the City of God. While he accepted that society and sovereignty derived from the people, he denied that justice was the ratio, the basis, of the state. 53 As justice derived from God and so lay beyond the state, so humanity’s duty to God superseded their duty to the state. The state may indeed possess and promote justice abundantly, but this was not the essential basis of the state. 54 Indeed, St. Augustine himself had a very negative view of the state. It was only justice that distinguished kingdoms from robbery on a massive scale, and asked ‘for what are robberies but little kingdoms?’ Humans, because of their sinful nature, hated the idea of their equality before God, and so tried to usurp God’s authority by imposing their will on their fellow humans. ‘Sinful man hates the equality of all men under God.’ It was because of his sinful nature that man, ‘as though he were God, loves to impose his own sovereignty upon his fellow men.’ The state existed to protect human society from such tyrants, but was not in itself fundamentally and absolutely just. 55 Furthermore, as states themselves were transient, rising and falling naturally during the course of history, they therefore required the instruction and education of the Church, which was separate from the state and eternal. Thus in the view of the historian Richard Fletcher, by drawing this distinction between church and state, and secular and religious authority St. Augustine ‘detached the state – any state, but in particular, of course, the Roman State – from the Christian community. Under his hands the Roman Empire became theological neutral.’ 56

Church’s Duty to Condemn Oppression, including that of Roman Emperors

Even before St. Augustine, the Church had considered its duty to criticise and punish tyranny and the abuse of power, even when such acts were ordered by the very highest authority, such as the emperor himself. In 390 the emperor Theodosius ordered a massacre of 7,000 citizens assembled at a circus in Thessalonica in reprisal for the murder of a member of the military garrison there. St. Ambrose of Milan strongly condemned the massacre, and in a letter to Theodosius warned him to repent or he would withhold Holy Communion from him. He stated ‘I dare not offer the sacrifice if you intend to be present. Is that which is not allowed after shedding the blood of one innocent person, allowed after shedding the blood of many? I do not think so.’ 57 Theodosius gave in to St. Ambrose’s moral authority, and duly did public penance for the atrocity in Milan cathedral, thus conceding the moral superiority of the Church over the state.

Early Church Doctrine therefore Opposed to Modern Ideas of Totalitarian State

While this prefigured the struggles between Church and state, and popes and emperors to assert their authority and superiority over the other during the Middle Ages, it also directly undermines the concept of the totalitarian state that was fundamental to the Fascist and Communist regimes of the 20th century. These were based on the Hegelian idea that the state represented the highest expression of the forces of history and the divine mind, and so the citizen owed the state his absolute allegiance. The early Church, by making a distinction between Church and state, and declaring that the state was not fundamentally just and that it was subordinate to God and the Church, directly contradicted and attacked the idea of such absolute states.

Membership of Early Church Open to Everyone, Regardless of Gender, Wealth or Nationality

The early Church also differed from contemporary Roman society in that it was open to all members of society, regardless of social rank and gender. In secular Roman society, philosophy and the Gnostic religions, including Gnostic Christianity, were largely confined to leisured aristocrats, while the Mystery religions similarly confined their membership to the initiated. Catholic Christianity, however, was open to anyone who wished to join it and share in the knowledge and worship of Christ. Arnobius Afer stated Christianity’s universal mission to all humanity in the words:

‘Does not He (Jesus Christ) free all alike who invites all alike: or does He thrust back or repel any one from the kindness of the Supreme who gives to all alike the power of coming to Him-to men of high rank, to the meanest slaves, to women, to boys? To all, he says, the fountain of life is open, and no one is hindered or kept back from drinking.’ 58 While pagan opponents of Christianity such as Celsus viewed it with contempt because the Church’s members came from the lower sections of Roman society without a formal education, Christian apologists such as Athenagoras considered it to be a positive aspect of Christianity, that it included people from such sections of society, who lived exemplary lives despite their lack of a formal education. Athenagoras stated

‘Among us (the Christians) you will find uneducated persons, and artisans, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from the persuasion of its truth: they do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed they do not go to the law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbours as themselves.’ 59

The early Church’s concern and mission to all sections of Roman society also led it to criticise the restriction of philosophy and intellectual activity to the aristocratic elites. For theologians and apologists such as Clement of Alexandria, everyone had the right to study the Gospel and philosophy, regardless of their social rank, gender or race:

‘Both slave and free must equally philosophise, whether male or female in sex … whether barbarian, Greek, slave, whether an old man, or a boy, or a woman … And we must admit that the same nature exists in every race, and the same virtue.’60

Advocacy of Freedom of Conscience in Early Church

As well as declaring that every person was capable of receiving the Gospel and so should have the freedom to join the Church, early Christian apologists, such as Tertullian, Lactantius and Hilary of Poitiers also argued for freedom of conscience in their criticisms of their persecution by the Roman state. The Church itself became increasingly repressive of rival faiths and controlled intellectual activity after its establishment as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, these arguments were revived during the Reformation by religious writers, theologians and politicians such as William Penn to create the religious tolerance that eventually resulted in the freedom of conscience that is a fundamental part of modern democratic liberty. 61

Furthermore, although the Church later did much to suppress individual freedom, it also did much to introduce the individual, subject view of the individual into political debate and discussion. In the ancient world, the wellbeing of the individual was frequently identified with that of society as a whole, with the effect that there was little discussion of the freedom of the individual as an ideal, rather than a political reality. However, Christianity introduced the idea of the importance of the individual through the doctrine of the fundamental sanctity of every human life. This was further developed in Western philosophy by the introduction by St. Augustine of the ‘first-person standpoint’ as a fundamental feature of the search for truth according to the historian Charles Taylor. 62 This concern for the subjective, first-person view is demonstrated most clearly by Augustine in his autobiography, The Confessions.

Election of Bishops in Early Christianity

The early Church was also democratic in that originally the bishops were elected by the whole of the Christian community of each diocese, both clergy and laypeople. 63 Cyprian states that this was the practice in almost all the provinces of the Roman Empire in the second century AD. 64 The idea and practice of popular suffrage, through which the people of a diocese could directly choose their bishop, was taken from general Roman electoral practice, such as in the election of secular magistrates. Jews similarly had adopted such electoral practices in the election of synagogue officials. Nevertheless, the Church differed from pagan society in that women and slaves also had a right to vote. 65 Eventually, however, the direct election of bishops declined along with secular democracy. There was opposition to it within the Church by leading members of the clergy, such as Origen. Origen criticised it for the bribery, corruption and factionalism in contemporary popular Episcopal elections that resulted in the appointment of unsuitable candidates who were more interested in power and the financial advantages rather than scholarship and truly ministering to the spiritual needs of their congregation. As a result of such electoral corruption, bishops were succeeded by their brothers or sons. 66 The gradual abolition of the direct election of bishops by the people helped to prevent the post becoming hereditary, and so allowed individuals from other sections of society, such as peasants, to be appointed to the post. 67

The election of the clergy by the congregation returned in Western Christianity with the establishment of the orders of pastors, doctors, elders and deacons by Jean Calvin in the Reformed Church, modelled on what he considered to be the governmental structure of the early Church as found in Scripture. This was remarkably democratic in that these clergy were elected, rather than appointed to office. 68 Although the practise of electing officials was confined to the Church, rather than recommended for society as a whole, nevertheless it was a major contribution to the emergence of democracy in Europe through the notion that ordinary Christians could elect their clergy, who then had the power to criticise the moral failings of their social superiors.

Early Church not Democratic, also Responsible for Intolerance and Oppression, but also Shares Common Democratic Values

The early Church’s conception of society as a family meant that it did not develop an idea of the complete freedom of the individual similar to that in modern political theory. Instead, the early Church viewed individual freedom as limited by the demands and requirements of the wider society of the Church, and the claims of others upon the individual’s love and service. As human liberty was also limited by the divine origin of authority, the Church and European society generally could become extremely repressive with the individual possessing very little freedom. 69 Indeed, the early Church was certainly not a democracy. It accepted the inequalities in wider Roman society, even slavery. 70 Historians have particularly criticised the early Church for its intolerance, and suppression and persecution of different faiths and minorities, such as heretics and Jews. 71 Nevertheless, despite the fact that the early Church was not democratic, historians have argued that it was concerned with all the same fundamental values of democracy, and creating a vital, existential frame of reference within which it was possible to achieve human happiness. 72

Christianity and democracy, it has been argued, are both based on the idea of objectively true, moral values. They both demand that freedom should be limited in the interests of equality and the general welfare of the community, and that equality should similarly be limited in the interests of social harmony and efficiency. They are also opposed to the fragmentation of human society produced by, for example, imperialism, racism, statism, provincialism and class warfare. Both Christianity and democracy also demand that humans be treated as ends in themselves, and not simply as means. In their view that the proper end of human conduct and effort should be the welfare of humanity, both Christianity and democracy are concerned with ordinary people and ‘the disinherited, and submerged groups in every society’. 73

Christianity and Democracy Both Opposed to Totalitarianism and Oppression

The early Church scholar, Albert C. Outler of Duke University, speaking at a conference of American academics, scholars and politicians from science, philosophy, the humanities, arts and Jewish and Christian religions in 1940 concerned with defending democracy from attack from Nazism, Fascism and Communism, declared that Christianity and democracy would remain separate. However, both Christianity and democracy had a strong interest in the international situation, and so in his view had much to offer each other. Indeed he concluded that democracy needed the support of religion, just as religion needed the support of democracy.

‘I do not see how a democratic order can be achieved or remain uncorrupted without a religious undergirding; I do not doubt that democratic order is the best political means to the end of a religious community. The cross-fertilization which a vital Christianity and a genuine democracy could achieve would greatly aid the cause of humanity and serve the Kingdom of God in this generation.’ 74

Fundamental Democratic Values derived from Bible and Hebrew-Christian Tradition, which Opposes Oppression and Tyranny

This concern with the fundamental values that are the basis of democracy is also shared with Judaism. It is derived from the witness of the Bible to God’s love and concern for humanity and the equal value of everyone, regardless of their race, sex or economic status, before the Lord. The Biblical scholar Millar Burrows, speaking at the 1940 conference attempting to combat the totalitarian attack on democracy, stated that the Bible’s respect for people’s rights and personalities, their common, human nature regardless of differences in gender, race and social rank, and the social responsibilities people have towards their fellows and to society as a whole, rather than in the development of specific societal, industrial or political institutions, were ‘the indispensable basis spiritual basis for a true and enduring democracy.’ 75 For Millar the Hebrew-Christian tradition’s great contribution to democracy lay in ‘its fundamental conception of the nature of man and of his relation to his Maker and to his fellow-man.’ 76 This concern is encapsulated in the Lord’s summary of the Mosaic Law linking one’s duty to love the Lord with one’s whole person and one’s neighbour as oneself. For Millar, the Hebrew-Christian conception of humanity and its relationship to God and its fellow people had made it the absolute opponent of tyrants throughout history, and made its continued presence in human history and society a threat to tyrannical regimes that they sought to eradicate.

‘It is this that has made the Old and New Testaments the deathless foes of all dictators in all subsequent ages. The righteous God of the Bible towers so far above all earthly powers that none of them counts for anything in His presence. The humblest man is equal to the mightiest prince before God. Moses can defy Pharaoh, Nathan can rebuke David, Elijah can challenge Ahab, Jeremiah can oppose Jehoiakim, the humble Maccabees can brave the terrible anger of the Macedonian despot. In the presence of the living God of Israel right always outweighs might. Tyranny can never tolerate the cultivation of the Hebrew-Christian tradition.’ 77

Conclusion: Democracy Recent, Created Partly through Biblical and Christian View of Society Based on God’s Justice and Concern for Humanity, which Still Provides Powerful Support for Democratic Politics

While democratic political and social institutions have taken millennia to emerge, they were created in part through the attempts of philosophers, theologians and ordinary men and women to establish a society based on the Biblical concern for a truly just society, based on God’s concern for humanity, their value as individuals, and their responsibilities to each other. This conception of a society based on God’s justice and humans’ responsibilities to the Lord and each other inspired prophets and saints to criticise, condemn and oppose tyrants, and from the Middle Ages onwards led people to attempt to create political institutions to restrain tyranny and promote freedom, a goal that eventually resulted in the emergence of political democracy in the West. Democracy is separate from Christianity, but linked to it through the fundamental concern of justice and humanity that are common to both, so that Christianity, although it has also supported tyrants, is also, and continues to be a vital source of support for democracy itself.

Notes

  1. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 453.
  2. St. Augustine, City of God, XIX:24, cited in Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 454.
  3. St. Augustine, Epistle to Volusianus 137:17, cited in Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 454.
  4. Edouard Meynial, ‘Roman Law’, in C.G. Crump and E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages (Oxford, Clarendon 1926), p. 384.
  5. Edouard Meynial, ‘Roman Law’, in C.G. Crump and E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages (Oxford, Clarendon 1926), p. 385.
  6. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 460.
  7. St. Augustine, City of God, XIX, xiv, cited in Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 467.
  8. St. Augustine, City of God, XIX, xiv, cited in Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 467.
  9. E.F. Jacob, ‘Political Thought’, in Crump and Jacob, Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 512.
  10. E.F. Jacob, ‘Political Thought’, in Crump and Jacob, Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 512.
  11. St. Augustine, cited in Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial: Arguments against Anti-Religious Bigotry (San Francisco, Encounter Books 2002), p. 13.
  12. Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity (New York, H. Holt & Co, 1998), p. 29, cited in Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 13.
  13. St. Ambrose of Milan, cited in Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 10.
  14. Arnobius Afer, Against the Heathen, in Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 462.
  15. Athenagoras, ‘A Plea for the Christians’ xi, in Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 461.
  16. Clement of Alexandria in Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p.2.
  17. Tertullian, cited in William Penn, Liberty of Conscience, in William Penn: The Peace of Europe, the Fruits of Solitude and other Writings, ed. Edwin B. Bronner (London, J.M Dent 1993), p. 179; Lactantius and Hilary, against Auxentius, cited in Penn, Liberty of Conscience, in Penn, Peace of Europe, ed. Bronner, p. 182.
  18. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Makings of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press 1989), pp. 131-33, cited in Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 14.
  19. Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London, Penguin 1964), p. 299.
  20. Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians in the Mediterranean World from the Second Century Ad to the Conversion of Constantine (London, Penguin 506).
  21. Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, p. 508.
  22. Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, p. 511.
  23. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 467.
  24. G.R. Elton, Reformation Europe 1517-1559 (London, Fontana 1963), pp. 226, 227.
  25. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 459.
  26. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 458.
  27. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 465-7.
  28. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 469-70.
  29. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 470.
  30. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 470.
  31. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition, Old and New Testaments’, in in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 412.
  32. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition, Old and New Testaments’, in in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 412.
  33. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition, Old and New Testaments’, in in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 412.

Judaism, Christianity and the Origins of Democracy: Part 1

July 6, 2008

Undoubtedly the greatest achievement of modern western political theory was the emergence of democracy in late 18th and 19th century America and Europe. In many respects the idea is certainly not new. States governed by a council of elders, rather than a single individual invested with absolute monarchical authority had existed as far back as prehistoric Mesopotamia. 1 Constitutional and political historians have traditionally regarded ancient Greece and Rome as the foundations of democracy through the development of the idea of the social contract by the Greek Sophist philosopher Lycophron in the 5th century BC, and in particularly the establishment of democracy in Athens through the constitutional reforms of Solon, Cleisthenes, Pericles and Ephialtes from the early sixth to mid-fifth centuries BC. 2 Ancient Rome had begun its career as an independent, expansionist state after the expulsion of the Etruscan dynasty of the Tarquins and the foundation of the Roman Republic in 510 BC. A series of political and military conflicts between the Roman aristocracy, the patricians, and the non-noble plebeians from the first decade of the fifth century to 300 BC created the classic Roman republican constitution that granted political power to Rome’s non-aristocratic population. 3 Even after the fall of the Republic and the establishment of the Empire, some Roman officials continued to be elected. Outside Rome, other nations also had a republican government. The Saxons in Germany in the 8th century AD were governed not by a king, but through a popular assembly that met annually, composed of an equal number of nobles, freemen and bondsmen. 4

Modern Democracy Different from Historic Conception of the State

These states were not, however, democracies in the modern sense. In all of them political power was confined only to men who possessed a sufficient amount of property. Women and slaves were excluded from voting in the popular assemblies. In ancient Athens, only those whose parents were both Athenians were considered full citizens and so eligible to vote and hold public office. Even in revolutionary France, which established democracy in Europe as a radical, revolutionary force, there was a distinction between active and passive citizens. Only men who possessed a certain amount of wealth were considered to be capable of political responsibility. They were viewed as active citizens, who could vote and be a candidate in the elections. The rest of the population, women, and men, who did not possess sufficient property to qualify for active political involvement, were viewed as passive citizens who, while possessing certain rights could not participate directly in politics. Democracy in the modern, contemporary sense of every adult man and woman having the vote and being able to elect their governmental representatives and stand for public office is very, very recent indeed. British women, for example, were only finally able to vote in elections in the 1920s. Nevertheless, it is democracy in this sense that has become the definitive view of political freedom in Europe, compared to that of earlier centuries that considered freedom to be the amount of personal freedom individuals and groups had to manage their affairs within the limits of a strongly hierarchical society under the authority of a strong, but wise monarch.

Modern Democracy Founded on Ancient Constitutional Theory Adopted by Christian Scholars

Contemporary democratic political theory has been strongly influenced and moulded by Jean-Jacques Rouseau, whose theories of the Social Contract informed the French Revolutionaries, J.S. Mill and Alexis de Toqueville and his observations on democracy in America. Despite this, the foundations of modern democracy and notions of popular sovereignty were established by Christian and Jewish scholars in ancient Rome and medieval and 16th and 17th century Europe. Christian philosophers and theologians like St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Locke and countless others adopted ancient Roman constitutional theory to produce ideas of popular sovereignty and the rights of the individual within a constitutional state. John Locke in particular created modern, liberal political theory, which established the right of the individual to participate in politics and choose his representatives in an elected assembly.

Ancient Israel Theocracy with Concern to Limit Power of Monarch and Preserve God’s Justice and Human Freedom

Religious scholars have noted that democracy in the modern sense is certainly not found in the Bible. As Yale University professor Millar Burrows noted, ‘if by democracy we mean “government of the people by the people and for the people,” in the form of majority rule by the ballot, then the Bible knows nothing of it.’ 5 The ancient Hebrew ideal government was theocracy, not democracy. 6 The Mosaic Law was promulgated by the Lord Himself, and was not the product of human deliberation, so that the great assemblies of the nation of Israel that were called at various points in Israel’s history to ratify the Covenant were there to indicate that Israel had accepted it through acclamation, not to produce it directly themselves. 7 However, the monarchy was never completely accepted as the natural and inevitable form of God’s government of Israel. 8 Before the establishment of the monarchy, such as during the period of the Judges, Israelite society was based on the tribes and clans. When the Israelites needed a leader to protect and organise them an external enemy or settle disputes between tribes, they frequently chose humble individuals like Ehud, Barak, or Gideon, or an outsider, such as Jephthah. Their first king, Saul, was a member of one of the smallest clans of Benjamin, the smallest tribe. 9 The Judges ruled only for as long as the crisis that caused their election lasted and they were able to retain their followers.

10 Indeed, there was considerable opposition to the establishment of a monarchy. In Judges 8:23 Gideon refused to be elected a king in place of the direct rule of Israel by the Lord. 11 Deuteronomy 17:15 –20 contains a series of provisions limiting the power of future Israelite monarchs and providing for their observance of the Law. Only an Israelite could be king. He could not breed horses, nor acquire them from Egypt. He was not to have a number of wives, nor amass too much wealth. He was also required to write out for himself a copy of the Law so that he would be guided by it. When the Israelites appealed to the prophet Samuel to appoint a king for them, he initially refused, describing the oppression they would suffer under such a monarchy in 1 Samuel 8: 11-18. 12 Similarly, prophets such as Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah denounced injustices committed by kings and princes, as well as the rest of Israelite society. 1 Kings 25 records how Elijah vehemently denounced king Ahab for his unjust acquisition of Naboth’s vineyard after Naboth’s death, another incident which showed how ordinary people were protected by the prophets against an unjust and oppressive king. 13 The establishment of the priestly state under the Persian Empire has been viewed as a far more democratic form of government than the Israelite monarchy, as the lack of any army and reliance on public taxation required that the authorities co-operate with the people, with the ‘Great Synagogue’ playing an important role in this process of government, rather than enforce their power militarily. When the independent Maccabean state was established, secular rulers were also included in the governing councils of the priests under the authority of the hereditary Maccabean prince, who possessed the title ‘high priest and head of the commonwealth of the Jews’. 14

Ancient Israel Not Democracy, but Recognised Value of the Individual, including Ordinary People and those from the Lower Sections of Society

However, political decline and conflict during the last period of the Hasmonean kingdom, and Israel’s conquest and annexation by Rome prevented the emergence or development of any kind of democratic institutions. Thus, while ancient Israelite society was far more democratic than the other contemporary nations of Egypt, Assyria, and even the Greeks with the exception of the Athenian republic, political democracy as a particular form of government or collection of institutions does not occur in the Bible. 15 The Bible does, however, possess a strong conviction of the value and rights of all individuals, from the king to the poorest peasant, which forms the basis for the idea of each individual possessing equal rights and opportunities that is one of the major foundations of the democratic ideal in society that supports political democracy. 16 Ancient Israelite society certainly was not democratic. The Mosaic Law permitted slavery and provided for the different treatment of slaves according to whether they were Hebrew or foreign. Nevertheless, the period of servitude for Hebrew slaves was limited to six years, after which they were to be freed. The Law stipulated that slaves had to be treated kindly and strictly limited their punishment. 17

Despite these inequalities in wealth and status, the ancient Biblical ideal was for everyone to live secure and free from oppression enjoying their own property. Micah 4:4 predicts that, during the reign of peace and justice established throughout the world by the Lord, every man will sit under his vine fig tree and no-one will make them afraid. 18 Ordinary people, artisans and labourers, enjoyed a respect in ancient Israel that did not occur elsewhere in the ancient world. In the Apocrypha, Ecclesiasticus 38:24-34 describes the work of ploughmen, carpenters, seal-engravers, smiths, and potters, noting that although they don’t have the leisure to acquire the necessary learning in the Law to act as judges and official councillors, nevertheless they were skilled and intelligent in their work. It is through the labour and handiwork of such workers and artisans that cities were made habitable and the whole world supported and maintained. Thus ancient Israel recognised the dignity of manual work, as well as the proper respect due to those who properly studied and applied the Law, and the necessity of such workers to the prosperity, and indeed very existence, of civilised society.

Condemnation of Economic Exploitation as well as Political Oppression in the Bible

The prophets were therefore concerned to preserve justice not just by denouncing political corruption and oppression, but also the exploitation and oppression of the poor by the wealthy. The prophet Amos in the 8th century BC is particularly important for his denunciation of the injustice and exploitation of contemporary Israelite society. He stated very clearly that the worship of God was completely opposed to the exploitation of other people. 19 Amos 2:6 records God’s statement that He will not turn aside from punishing Israel for selling the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes. 20 Isaiah pronounced woe upon those who joined house to house and laid field to field, so that they were alone in the middle of the Earth, thus depriving the poor of their ancestral lands in order to build up vast estates. 21 Nehemiah 5 records how the population of Israel after the Persian invasion had been forced by previous corrupt and oppressive governors to sell their lands, vineyards and house, and their own children into slavery, to buy food during a famine pay their tribute. Nehemiah was so furious that he summoned his nobles and rulers to a public assembly and forced them to restore the property they had unjustly acquired to its proper owners. 22

The Bible also strongly condemns the exploitation of wage labourers. Leviticus 19:13 states that a hired labourer should have his wages paid promptly and not to be delayed overnight. Job 31: 13-15 records Job’s protest that he did not treat his servants and their concerns with contempt, and his recognition that the same God who formed him also created them. Similarly, in Malachi 3:5 God promises to punish those that deprived hired workers of their due wages, and oppressed widow, orphans and sojourners, as well as adulterers, sorcerers and perjurers. 23 The Bible also insists on just treatment and care for resident foreigners, for example as in Deuteronomy 10:19. This provision in the Law commanded the Jews to love the foreigner, because they were foreigners in Egypt. God declares in Isaiah 56:6-7 that the sons of foreigner who have joined Israel and keep the Lord’s Sabbath and Covenant will be considered true servants of the Lord. God will give them joy when they worship in the Temple, which will be a house of prayer for all people. God send Jonah to urge the people of Nineveh to repent and so avoid destruction, despite the fact that they weren’t Jews, while Ruth, one of the ancestors of King David, came from Moab to join Israel. Biblical scholars have thus considered ancient Israel to be remarkable not for the feeling of national superiority and separation from other nations, but for its view of the unity of humanity and concern for the other nations of the world. 24

Recognition of the Role of Women and their Rights in Ancient Israel

Women in ancient Israel were also recognised as possessing rights and a role in society, even though their social position was subordinate to men. Genesis 1: 27 declares that God created humanity, both male and female, in His own image, thus providing a spiritual basis for equality between men and women. 25 Despite their inferior position, women nevertheless were recognised as playing an important economic and charitable role. Proverbs 31:10-31, which, with the rest of the chapter, was a prophecy given to King Lemuel by his mother, praises the model, virtuous woman who buys and plants vineyards, manufactures clothes, provides food for her household and dispense charity to the poor and needy. Women also played a part in religious worship. Exodus 38:8 describes them as assembling outside the Tabernacle, and 1 Samuel 2:22 similarly mentions them assembling outside the shrine at Shechem. Ezra 2:65 notes the presence of 200 male and singers amongst the staff of the priests. Women could also, at times, hold religious and political power. Moses’ elder sister, Miriam, was a prophetess who led the Israelite women in celebratory music and dancing after their successful crossing of the Red Sea and escape from Pharoah in Exodus 15:20-1. Judges 4-5 describes how the prophetess Deborah, the wife of Lapidoth, with Barak as her lieutenant, dispensed justice in Israel and saved them from Sisera, the captain of Jabin, one of the Canaanite kings.

Ancient Israel Not Democracy, but with Strong Sense of Human Value and Equality, and Concern for Democratic Electoral Processes in the Talmud

Thus, although the Old Testament does not command or describe democracy in the modern sense, it does, through its concern for the whole of humanity, such as the poor, women and resident aliens, as well as the rich and powerful, provide a powerful basis for democracy. The Old Testament’s support for democracy is particularly demonstrated in the constitutional limits placed on the power of the monarchy in the Mosaic Law and its denunciation of exploitation, oppression and injustice. This concern for justice and the equality of all humans before the Lord continued into Christianity, while Talmudic Judaism also further commented on and developed these aspects of the Law to provide Judaism with a popular, democratic character as well as an origin in divine revelation.

This concern for justice and equality extended into all areas of Jewish life so that rich and poor alike were to receive equal treatment before the law, and humane legislation and institutions established to protect the welfare of women and slaves, and maintain justice in the conduct of court cases. Tosefta Sanhedrin 8:4 in the Talmud declared that God created all life from a single ancestor to prevent the various families of humanity claiming superiority over each other through descent from a superior ancestor. Everyone, including saints and sinners, were equal members of the human family through their descent from Adam. 26 Berakot 17a states powerfully that everyone is equally a creature of God, regardless of whether they work in the city or the field. Both types of people rise early to do their work, and no-one can excel in somebody’s else’s job. It did not matter how much or how little a person did, as long as they were fulfilling God’s purpose. 27 The Jewish people during the period of the compilation of the Talmud were governed by a system of town councils. Each town council comprised seven members, who were elected into their office by their community. Everyone, who had been resident in the town for a year or more, had the right to vote in these elections. In the case of particularly important issues, a meeting of the whole town would be called so that the issue would be solved by popular decision rather than be decided solely by the councillors. Some important officials, however, were directly appointed by the head of the Jewish people, such as the Patriarch in Palestine or the Exilarch in Babylon. 28 Nevertheless, the Talmud considered that legislation could only be valid if it was accepted by the majority of the community. 29

Concern for Human Equality in Christ, the Poor and those outside Respectable Society in Christianity

This democratic concern for all members of society, regardless of their social status, continued into Christianity. Christ Himself famously condemned the wealthy and powerful for not paying attention to the suffering of the poor, and directed his missions towards those who were outside the boundaries of respectable Jewish society, such as publicans and tax collectors. The universalist aspect of Judaism, in which other nations would join the Jews in worshipping God, was extended so that national distinctions between the Jews and other peoples were abolished. Similarly men and women were both considered equal before God. St. Paul declared in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ there was neither Jew nor Greek, nor male or female, as everyone was one in Christ. Thus Biblical scholars have stated that ‘Nowhere in the Bible is there any basis for social or political discrimination between men on the basis of colour or land of origin.’ 30 St. Paul’s statement that both men and women were equal in Christ is strongly similar to the statement in Genesis that men and women were both made in God’s image. St. Paul also noted and was very appreciative of the women, as well as men, working in the early Christian community, and their considerable efforts to support the community and the message of the Gospel. In Romans 16:1-4 St. Paul specifically recommends Phebe, Priscilla and Aquila to the church in Rome because of the great support Phebe had given him and other early Christians, while Priscilla and Aquila had risked their necks for him. Although slavery was retained, and slaves urged to work hard and honour their masters, their masters were also required to treat their slaves with justice and equality, as they also had a master in heaven, as St. Paul commanded in Colossians 3:22 and Colossians 4:1.

Early Christianity’s View of Itself as International Community

The Early Christian Church also developed a number of constitutional theories analysing and explaining the nature of the state based on the Bible’s view of the nature and proper attitude Christians should have towards both secular and religious authority, Graeco-Roman political philosophy and the Church’s awareness of itself as an international community, which took its morals from the Lord rather than human philosophical speculation and whose ultimate loyalty was not to any earthly kingdom, but to God. The early Christian apologetic work, the Epistle to Diognetus, dated to c. 120-200 AD, states that Christians are an international community who follow the different manners and customs of the various nations whose citizens they are, and whose members have accepted Christianity, while also considering themselves foreigners and outside of such earthly kingdoms in the passage:

‘The difference between Christians and the rest of mankind is not a matter of nationality, or language, or customs. Christians do not live apart in separate cities of their own, speak any special dialect, nor practise any eccentric way of life. The doctrine they profess is not the invention of busy human minds and brains, nor are they, like some adherents of this or that school of human thought. They pass their lives in whatever township – Greek or foreign – each man’s life has determined; and conform to ordinary local usage in their clothing, diet, and other habits. Nevertheless, the organisation of their community does exhibit some features that are remarkable, and even surprising. For instance, though they are residents at home in their own countries, their behaviour is more like transients; they take their full part as citizens, but they also submit to anything an everything as if they were aliens. For them, any foreign country is a motherland, and any motherland is a foreign country.’ 31

View of Early Christian Church that It Was Separate from State, but Accepted Secular Authority

Other early Christian writers and apologists, such as Minucius Felix, Origen and St. Augustine, also shared this view that Christianity formed a separate community, independent of transitory secular states such as the Roman Empire. Minucius Felix in his Octavius of c. 200 AD stressed that Christians were indifferent to the history and state of the Roman Empire as they were the true leaven of human society. 32 Origen himself described Christianity as a type of fatherland independent of the Roman state. 33 They also considered, however, that the secular authorities were also divinely appointed and were loyal citizens of the Roman Empire. 34 St. Paul in Romans 13:1 expressly stated that Christians should obey the secular authorities, as they received their power from the Almighty in the words ‘Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.’ Justin Martyr, following Christ’s command to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, stated that Christians were loyal to the Roman emperors in his apologetic work, The Defence and Explanation of Christian Faith and Practice in the words ‘The Lord said, ‘Pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, to God what belongs to God.’ Therefore we render worship to God alone, but in all other things we gladly obey you, acknowledging you as kings and rulers of earth, and praying that in you the royal power may be found combined with wisdom and prudence.’ 35

View of Early Church that Christian Morality Based on God and so Better and More Complete than Secular Roman Morality

The early Christian Church therefore considered that its morals and rules came directly from God’s will and His rule in the world. 36 Early Christian writers and theologians, such as Tertullian, considered secular Roman ideas of morality to be incomplete through its source in human speculation and unable to inspire the necessary respect that produces real morality. Tertullian in his Apology therefore criticised Roman secular philosophical morality with the statement that

‘Uprightness (innocentiam) we have been taught; we know it perfectly because it has been revealed by a perfect teacher (magistro); faithfully we do the will (mandata) of one who reads the heart and cannot be despised. It was but man’s opinion (aestimatio) that gave you your idea of uprightness and human authority which backs it up. Hence your rule of life is neither complete nor does it inspire the reverence which leads o a life of real virtue.’ 37

Christianity Separate from State, but Christians Serve All Humanity through Church

Pagan opponents of Christianity, such as Celsus, accused Christians of not having any sense of social responsibility, and that they were therefore anarchists. Origen countered this accusation with the statement that Christians are primarily loyal and responsible to another society beyond the Roman Empire, and that it was through the church that they channelled their unreserved and unceasing service to the whole of humanity. 38

Christian Conception of Society Based on the Model of the Family

Thus the early Church viewed itself as based on the transcendental morality revealed by the Lord and so required to implement these values in practice, rather than produce a philosophical experiment in the ‘abundant life’. The early church developed a view of itself as a community based very much on the family. The Lord was humanity’s father, and its members were brothers and sisters. Thus, the church was truly God’s family, composed of people from different nations, but together forming a new people, the true Israel. For Christian philosophers and theologians such as St. Augustine, the good family was the pattern for the construction of a stable society. 39 Indeed, the whole human race was a family due to its descent from Adam and Eve, and the whole of humanity was considered equal in nature. No part of the human race was considered super- or subhuman. 40 Moreover, although humans were God’s creation, they were also intended by the Almighty for communion with Him in His image. 41 Thus, all humans possessed dignity and value as members of the single human race, made in the image of God.

All Humans Equal in Church Despite Differences in Economic Status and Social Rank

The early Church also possessed a notion of human equality based on the corruption of humanity as a whole by sin. St. Paul had stated that ‘all men have sinned, and all have fallen short of God’s glory’. As every member of the human race was sinner, no-one therefore was sufficiently morally good to rule others simply by virtue of their moral character. There were indeed differences between people, with some individuals possessing superior status, spiritual gifts or wealth within the church. Like St. Paul, Clement of Rome similarly likened the body of the church to an army and the human body. Nevertheless the presence of each individual, whatever their position, was equally important to the continued functioning of the Church and its performance of the will of God, and every individual thus deserved to have their welfare and interests protected and supported by the others because of interdependence of all the individual members of the Church as part of it as a whole. Clement of Rome, considering the example of the ranks of the Roman army, declared that ‘Not all of them are marshals, generals, colonels, captains, or the like; nevertheless, each at his own level executes the orders of the emperor and the military chiefs. For the great cannot exist without the small, nor the small without the great.’ 42 In the Church, each member was expected to respect the greater spiritual gifts of others, while supporting the poorer members of the Church. In turn the poorer members of the Church were expected to respect the wealthy people who supported them. Clement stated this moral interdependence of rich and poor with the worlds

‘In Christ Jesus, then, let this corporate body of ours be likewise maintained intact, with each of us giving way to his neighbour in proportion to our spiritual gifts. The strong are not to ignore the weak, and the weak are to respect the strong. Rich men should provide for the poor and the poor should thank God for giving them somebody to supply their wants.’ 43 Irenaeus similarly argued that human equality did not mean that humans were did not differ from each other at all, but that the differences between them were only relative, and so were no basis for tyranny by the few over the many. 44

Thus, although Ancient Israel was not a democratic society, the Bible demands the moral values – rejection of tyranny, and concern for the whole of humanity, who are all regarded as equal before the Lord – that are fundamental to democracy. These democratic values were practised and developed by Talmudic Judaism and Christianity, which created the basis of the modern conception of the democratic state. In the second part of this post, I’ll describe how early Christianity adopted and modified Roman ideas of popular sovereignty, condemned oppression and the abuse of power, and advocated freedom of conscience, and how these ideas, based in Christianity, Judaism and the Bible, continue to support democracy against totalitarianism and oppression.

Notes

  1. Lewis Mumford, The City in History (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1961), p. 29.
  2. Hermann Kinder and Werner Hilgemann, trans. Ernest A. Menze, The Penguin Atlas of World History: Vol 1: From the Beginning to the French Revolution (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1978), pp. 55-9.
  3. Kinder and Hilgemann, trans. Menze, Atlas of World History, pp. 73-77.
  4. Orrin W. Robinson, Old English and its Closest Relatives: A Survey of the Earliest Germanic Languages (London, Routledge 1992), p. 105.
  5. Millar Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition; Old and New Testaments in Lyman Bryson and Louis Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion: Second Symposium (New York, Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life, 1942), p. 399.
  6. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 400.
  7. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 399.
  8. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 401.
  9. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 402.
  10. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 402.
  11. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 402.
  12. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 403.
  13. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 404.
  14. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 404.
  15. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Chrisian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, pp. 402, 406.
  16. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 406.
  17. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, pp. 409-10.
  18. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 409.
  19. ‘Amos’ in ‘Biblical Glossary’, Christopher Cook, ed., Pears Cyclopedia 1986-7: 95th Edition (London, Pelham Books 1986), p. S5.
  20. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’, eds, Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 408.
  21. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’, eds, Science, Philosophy and Religion, pp. 408-9.
  22. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’, eds, Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 409.
  23. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’, eds, Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 410.
  24. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’; eds, Science, Philosophy and Religion, pp. 410-1.
  25. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, pp. 411-2.
  26. Ben Zion Bokser, ‘Democratic Aspirations in Talmudic Judaism’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 382.
  27. Ben Zion Bokser, ‘Democratic Aspirations in Talmudic Judaism’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 382.
  28. Ben Zion Bokser, ‘Democratic Aspirations in Talmudic Judaism’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 388.
  29. 29. Ben Zion Bokser, ‘Democratic Aspirations in Talmudic Judaism’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 387.
  30. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 409.
  31. ‘The Epistle to Diognetus’ in Maxwell Staniforth, ed. Andrew Louth, Early Christian Writings (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1987), pp. 144-5.
  32. Albert C. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’ in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 449.
  33. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’ in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 450.
  34. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’ in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 450.
  35. Justinus (Justin Martyr), Apologia I, xvii, in Henry Bettenson, ed. and trans., The Early Christian Fathers: A Selection from the Writings of the Fathers rom St. Clement of Rome to St. Athanasius (Oxford, OUP 1956), pp. 59-60.
  36. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’ in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 450.
  37. Tertullian, Apology, chapter xlv, in Outler, ‘The Patristic Chistian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 451.
  38. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 451.
  39. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 452.
  40. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 456.
  41. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 456.
  42. Clement of Rome, ‘The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians’, verse 37, in Staniforth and Louth, Early Christian Writings, p. 38.
  43. Clement of Rome, ‘The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians’, verse 38, in Staniforth and Louth, Early Christian Writings, p. 38.
  44. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 457.