The Politics Behind Thomas Hobbes’s Early Modern Biblical Criticism

The early modern political theorist Thomas Hobbes is one of the founders of the modern historical critical study of the Bible. Although his work was not as sophisticated as later nineteenth century historical critics, Hobbes laid the foundation upon which later historical criticism would build. This paper examines the political background of Hobbes’s biblical interpretation and criticism, thereby placing Hobbes’s work in its socio-historical context. Hobbes’s politics had a direct affect upon his biblical interpretation, and the socio-historical context in which he lived gave rise to his political theory. The Thirty Years’ War and the English Civil War provide the proximate backdrop for Hobbes’s political theory, and upon his biblical interpretation. Hobbes’s contemporaries, Baruch Spinoza and Richard Simon, would engage with his biblical interpretation, and thereby extend his insights in directions that would allow the historical critical project to thrive into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This paper examines Hobbes’s biblical interpretation in his political/theological work, Leviathan, against the socio-historical context within which he wrote it. Contemporary Bible scholars have by and large neglected to examine this connection between the advent of early modern politics and the origin of the historical critical method, and particularly Hobbes’s role in modern biblical interpretation. This paper seeks to contribute to contemporary discussions of biblical interpretation by examining the history of historical critical interpretation in its formative socio-historical context.