A Political History of the Bible in America

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Paul D. Hanson
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , August
     2015.
     694 pages.
     $50.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780664260392.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Paul Hanson’s extensive investigation of the political history of the Bible in America is as timely and relevant today as it was when this large volume was first published in 2015. Indeed, it may well be even more important today, given the very close connection between Evangelicals and the Republican Party, and their ties to Donald Trump. Of course, in 2014 and 2015, Hanson could not have foreseen the events of 2016, but his prescience is nevertheless evident on every page.

The volume falls into two major parts. In part 1, “A Historical Retrospective on the Relation Between the Bible and Politics in the United States,” Hanson offers eight chapters. He analyzes the theocratic model of the Puritans, the challenge of the Prophetic-Dialectical model, the Revolutionary Period and the lure of the apocalyptic model, Church and State in the founding documents, the Church-State partnership in the antebellum years, the Gospel of wealth and the Social Gospel, 20th century challenges, and finally, the 21st century’s perilous debut.

From this foundation, Hanson then spends the remainder of the book—in part 2,“Politics in the Bible”—describing his historical method, and extracting examples from the biblical texts of political ideologies. For instance, he discusses Israel’s charismatic rulers, monarchy, and prophetic politics (in, for example, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Deutero-Isaiah, and Haggai and Zechariah), before moving on to engage readers concerning with politics in the Wisdom literature. Apocalyptic politics, as found in Daniel and the Dead Sea Scrolls, too, comes in for examination. All of this in chapters 9 through 23.

In chapter 24 Hanson turns to the era of the New Testament and commences with a description of the Roman occupation of Palestine, and the response of the Jewish leadership. The politics of the New Testament, of Jesus, and of Paul are next for explication (chapters 25-27). Chapter 28 looks at a Church which has concluded that the world is not, in fact, about to end and it must adapt to a world it had expected to leave. The politics of Revelation and of the Four Gospels and Acts are the final two chapters (chapters 29-30).

Hanson then concludes his impressive work with a question: [w]hat is the Bible’s message for today? Naturally, what Hanson has in mind is the question of the Bible’s political message, in light of the vast range of political messages it has been harvested to support. There is also an index of scripture and other ancient sources as well as an index of subjects.

Hanson describes the purpose of his work as follows:

“Given the all too frequent instances of glaring contradictions between the constitutional ideal and the persistence of discrimination against religious minorities, it is important to cultivate public awareness of our First Amendment tradition and its strengths and vulnerabilities, a goal greatly enriched by a historical perspective. In the following eight chapters, therefore, our objective is to examine the relationship between religion and politics in US history and to identify the theo-political models that were adopted and developed to shape that relationship” (29).

Hanson wishes to educate Americans about the varieties of political systems and ideologies which have been operative in their nation’s history, and then to describe the roots of those various ideologies in the book so many Americans claim as their own, the Bible.

The author’s hope is that as Americans see the many varieties of political ideologies that have been operative both in their own history, and in the Bible, they will come to understand themselves in a new way. They will see themselves as “mariners” on the same ship who need to calibrate their various compasses—“comparing charts, trimming rudders, and peering together through clouded lenses in the hope of finally brining our convoy into the safety of home port” (643).

A Political History of the Bible in America is a book whose message needs a fresh hearing today. Desperately. Our fractured and fragmented historical moment in the United States needs a fresh injection of a willingness to allow differences to exist without hostility or acrimony. Hanson’s work, in sum, is more than simply relevant, it is critically important.

 

 

 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jim West is Lecturer in Church History and Biblical Studies at Ming Hua Theological College.

 

Date of Review: 
September 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul D. Hanson is the Florence Corliss Lamont Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School where he has been teaching the Old Testament since 1971. His books include Isaiah 40–66 in the esteemed Interpretation series and The People Called: The Growth of Community in the Bible.

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