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Modern Uses of an Ancient Bible

Sun, December 16, 10:00 to 11:30am, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Beacon Hill 1 Complex

Session Submission Type: Panel Session


Our panel explores how Americans—both Jewish and Gentile—applied the ancient text of the Hebrew Bible to modern questions in the United States. From the founding of the nation through the twentieth century, the Bible was a powerful tool in the hands of civic and educational reformers. After all, the Bible was the most widely read text in America; no other book had such broad purchase. Yet much of the writing of American history presents a far more secular narrative than the historical record would suggest. All three papers on this panel seek to recover the importance of the ancient in navigating the modern.

Andrew Porwancher’s paper—“Alexander Hamilton and the Hebrew Republic”—looks at the role of the Hebrew Bible in shaping Hamilton’s approach in building a modern state. Porwancher makes the case that Hamilton is part of a strand of Enlightment thought in which Christian Hebraists looked to the Ancient Israelite polity as a model for modern governance. Some of Hamilton’s contemporaries even condemned his approach to jurisprudence as “a Jewish plan.”

Alan Levenson’s “Towards a Comparison of ‘Biblical’ Nations” expands on the role of the Bible in the American founding by using the Israeli founding as a point of comparison. Although the US and Israel differed in the relationship between government and religion, Levenson illustrates that George Washington and Ben Gurion alike saw in the Bible an allegory for the respective foundings of the countries they led. Each founder was symptomatic of a culture that sought to harmonize the heritage of an ancient religion with the imperatives of modern nation-building.

Finally, Laura Yares investigates changes in Biblical pedagogy at the dawn of the twentieth century in “Creating American Jewish Religion.” Her study of the Jewish Chautauqua movement demonstrates that Jewish educators abandoned the use of the Bible as a history book in response to historical-critical research on the Bible. Instead, they found new ways of using the Bible as a religious instrument in a modern climate that raised doubts about its inerrancy.

Jonathan Karp will serve as chair/respondent.

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