The Hebrew Bible in America

Pascal Fischer, Lehrveranstaltung, Sommersemester 2021

Most students of American history and culture are aware of the significance that some narratives of the Hebrew Bible / the Old Testament had for seventeenth-century Puritan settlers in New England. The story of Exodus, the idea of America as a Promised Land and its inhabitants as a chosen nation were indeed central to early colonial America. What is less known is that the Hebrew Bible continued to exert a profound influence on the collective imagination and the political culture of the New World well into the second half of the nineteenth century. Recent scholarship has shown to what extent American clergymen, political thinkers and, indeed, the general public conceptualized their identity in relation to the ancient Israelites. After Eric Nelson (e.g. The Hebrew Republic, 2010) had drawn attention to the importance of Hebrew sources for early-modern philosophical and political ideas in Europe, Eran Shalev (e.g. American Zion, 2013) examined the American predilection for the Old Testament between the Revolution and the Civil War. The seminar will profit from Shalev’s insights in its pursuit to understand the role of “Hebraism” in America, but it will also look at some uses of the Hebrew Bible in the twentieth century, for instance in the Civil Rights Movement or in Christian Zionism. While most of the authors we study were Christians, we will also look at some Jewish interpretations of America in biblical terms. Mordecai Manuel Noah’s attempt to found a biblical republic in upstate New York will serve as a fascinating, albeit quixotic, example. Remarkably, some deists and religious skeptics, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine among them, also occasionally relied upon Scripture to present their political ideas.

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