Why the Bible has No Place in Politics, or Vice Versa

By David BialeFebruary 6, 2013

In God’s Shadow by Michael Walzer
Revelations by Elaine Pagels

IT IS ALMOST AXIOMATIC in modern culture that the Bible can serve political ends. Fundamentalists see it as the warrant for anti-abortion and anti-gay policies, among other things. Some secularists also invoke it: political Zionists like Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, grounded the new State of Israel in a secular reading of the Bible, and the American civil rights movement, at least in the rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr., kept it at the center of its appeals. Other secularists, appalled by what they see as the equivalent of superstition masquerading as reason, nonetheless cannot deny the power the book carries in political discourse.

This tradition of mining the Bible for political lessons goes back at least to the 17th century when philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) grounded their theories, at least in part, on critical readings of the Bible. Spinoza, for example, held that the Jews were preeminently a political people and that the Bible’s only worth was as a political document. Once the Jews lost their state, Spinoza suggested, the Bible ceased to have any immediate political relevance. In Hobbes’s political philosophy, the sovereign becomes the hermeneut-in-chief, since only the sovereign can determine what in the Bible is true.           

What kind of politics does the Bible teach? The answer, says Michael Walzer in his elegant little book, In God’s Shadow, is: “not very much.” Walzer, a distinguished political theorist, has been exploring biblical and postbiblical Jewish sources for some decades. His book, Exodus and Revolution, was justly hailed as a study both of how the Bible’s exodus tradition has resonated in Western culture and of what it meant in its original setting. He has also been the lead editor of a terrific, multivolume collection of Jewish sources on politics, The Jewish Political Tradition. His latest book is the capstone of these explorations, but its counterintuitive argument may surprise many readers. Against Spinoza, but with no less of a secular orientation, Walzer holds that the Hebrew Bible speaks from a moral or religious point of view, but not from the standpoint of politics. In stark contrast to the central role of politics in Greek philosophy, God as the author of Israel’s history leaves very little room for independent political decisions.

This argument is grounded in certain assumptions about what constitutes politics. Walzer assumes that politics are waged in the realm of the secular. In what is a modern move, he argues that politics ought to involve the mobilization of people to defend their interests or reform society. No such movements can be found in the Bible, nor do any biblical actors try to agitate for them. To be sure, the Israelite kings represent human interests and may therefore be said to defend secular politics against divine law (in fact, Walzer strikingly claims that this Machiavellian principle was first stated in the Bible!), but the Bible is not written from the kings’ point of view, and the so-called Deuteronomic histories (the books of Samuel and Kings) criticize the kings only for religious or moral failings, not for political actions. While much of this seems convincing, it appears to me that at times Walzer allows the Greek definition of politics to dominate perhaps too greatly what politics meant in the very different culture of ancient Israel. So, for example, one would not expect mass politics — itself anachronistic for premodern times — in a monarchic system like the Bible. There is no real biblical analogy to the demos of the Greek polis since the children of Israel never function like a body of citizens.

Much of Walzer’s argument centers on the prophets, who are often taken by modern-day progressives to authorize a politics of social justice. But Walzer points out that the prophets never call on people to act politically in the service of reform; their radicalism is profoundly apolitical in that they never try to mobilize the people against injustice. In fact, the first real political mobilization in Jewish history was not from the time of the Bible, but much later, in the Second Temple period when the Hasmonean family of priests sparked a military uprising against the Jerusalem priesthood and the Seleucid Empire.

The curious apolitical quality of the prophets owes something of its origins to the revelation at Sinai. The law codes said to have been revealed there make the Israelites responsible for their most vulnerable neighbors: the widow, the orphan and the foreigner. Yet, they are never made politically responsible for the social order as such. Israelite law is given by God, rather than legislated by human beings, and this belief system creates a built-in tension between divine and human interests. The human is represented in biblical history by the kings, the divine by the prophets.

In international politics, says Walzer, the prophets’ message is as apolitical as it is in domestic politics. They have given up the idea of Israel as a political agent, viewing the nation rather as the victim of other nations’ agency. In fact, the prophets hold that the nations that oppress Israel — Assyrians, Babylonians — also lack agency, since their actions are dictated by God. In this innovative theology, God now acts through other nations in order to punish Israel rather than acting through Israel itself. The prophets, therefore, demanded an entirely passive foreign policy, because nothing Israel might do could affect its fate once it sinned against God.

The late wisdom literature in the Bible moves even further away from the political. Here, the focus is on the individual who must turn away from evil rather than confront it politically. While Job protests his fate, he does not protest the death of his children, a symbol, Walzer seems to say, of the Book of Job’s profoundly apolitical character. Indeed, Job may not even be an Israelite, so that there is no communal context for political action.

Many have argued that biblical messianism lays the groundwork for social revolution, but Walzer claims that prophetic messianism does not presume mobilization of the masses: the Bible contains nothing like the Italian socialist hymn Avanti popolo. The Bible entertains two views of the messianic age: it will either be a restoration of the kingdom of David or of God’s kingdom. In neither case will this transformation come about because of political action: the prophets condemn things as they are, but they do not tell us to change them, much less how to change them.

As a political activist as well as a theorist, Walzer leaves little to recuperate from the Bible. In an intriguing penultimate chapter, he notes that the “elders” who are mentioned sporadically throughout the text might well have been the vehicles of secular politics, but almost no coherent trace has been left of their activity. Walzer understands that his sober reading of the Bible’s politics goes against the grain of how generations have understood its import. Something in the prophetic teachings has surely spoken to political visionaries of differing stripes, even if he is right that such readings do not pay heed to the literal meaning of the text.      

This is the subject of Elaine Pagels’s Revelations, a discussion of the powerful influence of biblical messianism and prophecy on the literature of apocalypse, a literature that originated in the 2nd century BCE and culminated in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation. Pagels’s book is both a history of how the Book of Revelation was received and understood in the early Church and a discussion of the other, noncanonical works of Christian “revelation” found in 1945, in the Nag Hammadi treasure-trove in Egypt. Pagels demonstrates convincingly that the Book of Revelation, in its images and symbols, was grounded in the end-time visions of the biblical prophets and Second-Temple apocalyptic literature. She argues that its author, John of Patmos, was a Jewish Christian who responded to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE with a message of divine vengeance against Rome, in the image of the Beast. But John was equally exercised by what he thought to be the desecration of Judaism by the Gentile Christians who followed the teachings of Paul. He opposed the mixed marriages and consumption of sacrificial meat that Paul allowed. When he spoke of the “synagogue of Satan,” he meant not Jews, but rather Gentiles who violate Jewish law while claiming to be Jews. 

John wrote from within Judaism, but in the next two and half centuries, leaders of the nascent Church increasingly deployed the book as a weapon against internal enemies within Christianity. Iraenus, the 2nd-century heresiologist, was the first to identify the Beast as the Antichrist (a figure Pagels mistakenly thinks to have originally been of Jewish origin), but he also identified this enemy as Christian heretics, rather than an external figure. The 4th-century Church Father Athanasius embraced this idea in his quest to define Christian orthodoxy against heretical movements. For Athanasius, Christian doctrine evolved from condemnation of bad action, as the Book of Revelation would have it, to condemnation of bad belief. Athanasius established the canon of the New Testament and included Revelation, in part because it was useful in combating heresies, but also because Revelation concludes with a warning not to add to or subtract from its text, a principle that Athanasius wished to apply to the New Testament as a whole.

Pagels’s career was initially devoted to the study of the heretical library of Nag Hammadi, and she achieved great renown for her earlier book, The Gnostic Gospels. In an abbreviated conclusion to the present book, she contrasts the Book of Revelation with the secret teachings of the Nag Hammadi monks. Where Revelation spoke of the binary opposition of the saved and the damned, the other “revelations,” censored by Athanasius, embraced a more universalist vision. Perhaps anachronistically, Pagels sees these early Christian heresies as more relevant to our contemporary “interconnected world” than is the Book of Revelation. From the perspective of this conclusion, it would appear that Pagels would prefer a Christianity based on its ancient heresies rather than on what became its orthodoxy.

Yet, it is Revelation that persists in dominating evangelical Christian politics today, just as it played a powerful role throughout the Middle Ages. The long history of this New Testament book lies beyond Pagels’ purview (Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium remains the indispensable text for this purpose), but even in antiquity, Revelation shaped the way Christians thought of politics. Although it might appear to be an entirely apolitical book — much in the way that Walzer writes of the Hebrew Bible, it recommends no political platform and seems content to let the divine plan work itself out through plagues, wars and the other horsemen of the apocalypse — it is in fact hyperattuned to politics: it sees in historical events the very signs of the coming eschaton. This is a point that Pagels misses by adopting an overly constrained definition of apocalyptic literature as only revealing secret divine mysteries through dreams and other visions. Such visions — including the psychedelic fantasies of the author of Revelation — are of course primarily directed at such mysteries, but they are also linked to specific events and persons. For example, as Pagels points out, the Beast in Revelation probably refers to the Emperor Nero. Because apocalyptic texts speak in coded symbols, whose decoding is itself the sign that the end-times have come, these symbols can be made to refer to any contemporary context. It is for this reason that Revelation could be resurrected in virtually every generation of Christian history and could even be secularized in the form of the Nazi 1000-year Reich.

Thus, paradoxically, the literature that stems from groups who consciously exile themselves from politics is often the most acutely political. If this argument is true, then the arc that Walzer has drawn from early to late biblical writings, which he describes as increasingly personal and apolitical, is reversed with the emergence of apocalypticism. And since the granddaddy of apocalyptic literature is the biblical book of Daniel (which Walzer does not discuss), then the Hebrew Bible itself ends up in a kind of eschatological politics.

Both of these studies under review offer us perceptive readings of ancient books in their original contexts. Yet, these fine scholars also hint how reading them historically might challenge the uses to which they are put today. Walzer implicitly warns against harnessing the Bible to contemporary political programs, because to do so would do violence to the apolitical nature of the text itself. And Pagels suggests that using Revelation as the warrant for dividing the world into saints and sinners is as dangerous today as it was 2000 years ago. Such are the cautionary tales the historical study of scripture may furnish for the world of politics.


LARB Contributor

David Biale is the Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis. His most recent book is Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought.


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