Political theory of the Bible

Political theory of the Bible.

I taught both ancient and modern political theory for forty years, and it is widely held among experts in my field that the Bible contains no political theory.  Political theory is a Greek invention.  Only when God withdraws from this world is there room for human politics (Walzer, p 202).  I disagree.  There’s a lot of politics in the Bible, and while politics in the Old Testament differs from the New, the difference is one of degree. 

Covenant and righteousness

The idea of covenant is the central political concept in the Old Testament.  “God was thought to be a covenant-making, covenant-restoring, and covenant-fulfilling being.” (Ramsey, p 258)  Conversely, human righteousness means sticking to the covenant.  Period. 

Though covenant plays a more central role in the Old Testament, both Old and New Testaments teach the same lesson about righteousness. 

Biased in favor of the helpless, “justice” means care for the poor, the orphans, the widows, and aliens resident in the land. Why? Because the Bible measures what is required of man against the perfect righteousness of an utterly faithful, savior-God. (Ramsey, p 278)

Unlike ancient Greek thought, which so influences our own, justice or righteousness (both translations of the same Greek term, dikaiosynē) is neither corrective nor distributive.  Justice neither punishes the thief nor restores what has been taken.  Justice is redemptive, with a special bias in favor of the poor.  This is as true of the Old Testament as the New. 

When Jesus said ‘Give to him who begs of thee, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from thee’ (Matthew 5:42), it is … but an exact summary of what [the Jews] laid down as prescribed by divine law. To lend to a would-be borrower is not optional but obligatory, and no less obligatory to give to the poor.  (Moore, p 279)

From a covenantal point of view, the content of Old Testament obligation and Christ’s salvation ethic are almost identical.  “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least among us, you did not do it to me.” (Matthew 25: 41-46)  When it comes time to separate the sheep from the goats, salvation will be measured in terms of how much one has helped the dispossessed.  Religious practice, memorization of the scriptures, or regular church attendance are relatively unimportant.  Important is whether we have tried to relieve the plight of the sick, the homeless, the poor, and the downtrodden (Hendricks, p 9).

A utopian political ethic     

The political theory of the Bible is utopian.  But that is only good.  It is by its distance from the ideal that we evaluate the real.  The ideal is to put “love thy neighbor” into political practice.  What would this look like?  I’m not certain.  I am pretty sure that it comes closer to the social welfare state than any other, at least on the national level.  But perhaps there is much to be said for the argument of Hauerwas criticized in an earlier post. 

Hauerwas argues that Christians should see themselves as resident aliens in a foreign land.  Instead of attempting to influence government and society, Christians should live lives that exemplify the love of Christ.  The first social task of the church is to be the church, a task that is becoming harder and harder. 

How could this be, the reader might ask?  An aggressive Christianity is everywhere, from abortion protests to people knocking on your door asking if you’ve been saved.  But this isn’t what Hauerwas is worried about.  He worries that Christianity has been colonized and tamed by American society, so that it no longer stands for much of anything different or separate from the culture at large.

Nothing brings this point home more clearly than Hauerwas’ suggestion of what the church he belongs to should say to prospective members.

When you join our church, you don’t get to decide by yourself when and where you will move.  If your company wants to send you to a new town, you first need to ask the church whether it’s a good idea. 

New members, all members, should disclose how much money they make. (Hauerwas)

Behind this startling idea, at least to this individualistic American, is Hauerwas’ claim that the most important thing the Christian church did was to “create a community whose like had never been seen before.” (Hauerwas Reader, loc 1563)  Gary Wills made a similar comment, and it is good reason to take Paul, who more than any other established the  church, so seriously. 

A history of resistance to the state

We know little about the early years of Jesus.  What we do know is the world into which he was born, a world of harsh colonial domination and impoverishing taxation.  This influences how we interpret Christ’s politics.

Therefore, more than any other factor, it was the Roman colonial occupation of Israel that created the setting for the formative years of Jesus. The suffering that the Romans visited on the Jewish people was so pervasive and so brutal that its influence on the political consciousness and social witness of Jesus was inescapable. For this reason it must not be forgotten that even while he is worshiped as the Son of God, until his last earthly breath Jesus was also an oppressed Roman colonial subject with all that meant. (Hendricks, p 62)

Christ was teaching people who were constantly on the edge of starvation, most consuming no more than 1,400 calories a day, most barely making a living off the land (Schottroff and Stegemann, p 41).  And yet I wonder, given the vastly greater resources available today, whether the gap between rich and poor isn’t even greater. 

Political Docetism

Docetism is the heresy that Christ was not fully human, but only apparently so.  As a semblance or apparition, he suffered no pain on the cross.  Political Docetism refers to an interpretation of Christianity that says that not just Christ’s body, but all human bodies, are unimportant because matters of the flesh are not truly real.    Political Docetism is political quietism.  The mainstream Christian church practices political Docetism when it ignores the needs of every body for food, shelter, and all the rest, as if physical needs were unimportant compared to salvation (Hendricks, p 77).


The Bible, Old Testament and New, is not primarily a political document.  It is about covenant, righteousness, and salvation.  But the Bible is also a political document, which means that it is concerned with the corporeal as well as spiritual lives of men and women.  From Exodus through Revelation, the Bible is concerned with the political oppression of Jews and Christians.  It is concerned with access to real bread and wine, not just the symbolic body and blood of Christ.  The Bible is concerned with access to real water, not just the living water of everlasting life.  The Bible is down to earth as well as up in the heavens, and one cannot understand Christ’s life and teaching without understanding that he was speaking from and for a colonized and oppressed people.     


Stanley Hauerwas, The Hauerwas Reader, edited by John Berkman and Michael Cartwright.  Duke University Press, 2001.

Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony.  Abingdon Press, 2014.

Obery Hendricks, The Politics of Jesus.  Doubleday, 2006.

G. F. Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era. Harvard, 1932.

Paul Ramsey, “Elements of Biblical Political Theory,” in The Journal of Religion, vol. 19, no. 4 (1949), 258-283.

Luise Schottroff and Wolfgang Stegemann, Jesus and the Hope of the Poor.  Maryknoll, 1986.

Michael Walzer, In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible. Yale University Press, 2012.

2 thoughts on “Political theory of the Bible”

  1. One problem I find is imagining that for me to know what is right is sufficient.As if reading a book about vitamins obviates the need to eat the foods which are nourishing [ if you can afford to]
    The move from theory to action is hard for someone who spent their life studying abstract concepts like numbers.Noting the example of others is one way to learn.My mother used to make a canister of tea for the men who emptied our dustbins.She used to wash their ash coated mugs.She said they were never washed otherwise.She had top go to work too so she was busy.That helped me learn a little

  2. When I re-read your posts,I find so much I didn’t notice when I first read them.I especially liked your explanation of bread being real bread and not just a symbol of Jesus’s body. which is used in the Mass

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