Leviathan and the Swallowing of Scripture: The Politics Behind Thomas Hobbes' Early Modern Biblical Criticism

By Morrow, Jeffrey L. | Christianity and Literature, Autumn 2011 | Go to article overview

Leviathan and the Swallowing of Scripture: The Politics Behind Thomas Hobbes' Early Modern Biblical Criticism


Morrow, Jeffrey L., Christianity and Literature


Abstract: The early modern political philosopher Thomas Hobbes played a foundational role in the emergence of modern biblical criticism. An examination of his work on the Bible in his Leviathan shows how his exegesis supported his political agenda. The political context to Hobbes' biblical criticism shaped the way in which he read the Bible, and the method he espoused was an attempt to politicize the modern biblical critical project. Specifically, Hobbes wished to take the Bible out of the hands of the theologians, and place it in the hands of state-appointed officials. Following Hobbes, early modern politics continued to shape modern biblical criticism in later centuries.

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That great Leviathan called a Common-wealth, or State ... which is but an Artificial Man; though of greater stature and strength than the Naturall, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which the Soveraignty is an Artificiall Soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body; The Magistrates, and other Officers of Judicature and Execution, artificiall Joynts; Reward and Punishment ... are the Nerves.... Lastly, the Pacts and Covenants, by which the parts of this Body Politique were at first made, set together, and united, resemble that Fiat, or the Let us make man, pronounced by God in the Creation. (Hobbes XXXVII-XXXVIII)

During the oral defense of one of my doctoral exams in 2003, I discussed John Milbank's explanation of "modern politics as biblical hermeneutics" (17-20). I mentioned that there may be a link between modern politics and modern biblical criticism. One puzzled committee member asked why such a connection would be important, and I responded by noting that biblical criticism is typically seen as a scientific method for studying the Bible. Biblical criticism, and science in general, are often thought to be free from ideological influences. Joseph Fitzmyer, for example, comments that biblical criticism as a method is "neutral" and that it can "yield objective results" (439). Hobbes, the subject of this article, took a similar perspective and was one of the earliest modern biblical critics to argue that his method was scientific and that it follows the dictates of reason (24-30, 90-91, 288, 329, 522-23).

After my answer another professor asked whether I was engaging in a genetic fallacy, for, could not errant sources and methods produce correct results? Wishing to avoid any fallacies, I conceded the point, but remained adamant that these political origins to biblical criticism set some potentially infelicitous parameters which continue to plague contemporary biblical criticism. Chief among these guidelines is the separation of the Bible from the Church. My entire discussion, however, remained in the abstract and so my committee asked a more concrete question: "How does this relate to how I read the Bible?" This article is a partial response to that final question, and as such can be seen as part of a much larger work dealing with the founding figures of modern biblical criticism like Spinoza and Richard Simon--both of whom were influenced by Hobbes. I want to suggest to theologians and biblical critics alike that the origins of the historical critical method ought to make us cautious about uncritically accepting its claim to neutrality.

Thomas Hobbes is universally recognized as a political theorist. In addition to his role as a political theorist, however, Hobbes was also an early modern biblical critic. A number of scholars have noted Hobbes' foundational role in the rise of modern biblical criticism (Hoffmeier 9; Preus 22; Curley 70; Levenson 95, 117; Barr 322; Blenkinsopp 2; Hayes 45; Popkin, "Bible" 339; Harrison 9-10; Sandmel 328). In this article, I will consider the manner in which modern politics informed and shaped Hobbes' criticism. First, I will briefly discuss the significance of the political nature of nascent seventeenth-century biblical criticism for the contemporary Bible scholar.

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