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Locke's Biblical Critique

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 March 2012


The essay clarifies the relationship between Locke's political and his religious thought. To the extent that Locke's political thought is an outgrowth of a particular strand of Christianity, its claims to universality would be significantly diminished. Several plausible interpretations of his political thought rely on his religiosity. Others maintain that this religiosity was a façade. Close attention to Locke's analysis of the Hebrew text of Gen. 1:28 unambiguously points to a critique of the Bible on semantic grounds. Locke subtly argues that the wording of the Bible makes the interpretation of scripture by scripture alone impossible. The fact that Locke goes out of his way to critique the Bible refutes interpretations of Locke's thought that rely on his religiosity and reestablishes the universalist claims of his political thought.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 2012

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1 See Dunn, John, The Political Thought of John Locke (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1969)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Forster, Greg, John Locke's Politics of Moral Consensus (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Tuckness, Alex, “The Coherence of a Mind,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 37, no. 1 (1999): 7390CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Waldron, Jeremy, God, Locke, and Equality (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Yolton, John, “Locke on the Law of Nature,” Philosophical Review 67, no. 4 (1958): 477–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 See Coby, Patrick, “The Law of Nature in Locke's Second Treatise,” Review of Politics 49, no. 1 (1987): 328CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Corbett, Ross, The Lockean Commonwealth (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009)Google Scholar; Cox, Richard, Locke on War and Peace (Oxford: Clarendon, 1960)Google Scholar; Faulkner, Robert, “Preface to Liberalism: Locke's First Treatise and the Bible,” Review of Politics 67, no. 3 (2005): 451–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Macpherson, C. B., The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Oxford: Clarendon, 1962)Google Scholar; Mansfield, Harvey, “On the Political Character of Property in Locke,” in Powers, Possessions and Freedom, ed. Kontos, Alkis (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979), 2338Google Scholar; Pangle, Thomas, The Spirit of Modern Republicanism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988)Google Scholar; Strauss, Leo, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953)Google Scholar; Zuckert, Michael, Natural Rights and the New Republicanism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994)Google Scholar; Zuckert, , Launching Liberalism (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002)Google Scholar.

3 West, Thomas, “The Transformation of Protestant Theology as a Condition of the American Revolution,” in Protestantism and the American Founding, ed. Engeman, Thomas S. and Zuckert, Michael P. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004), 187223Google Scholar.

4 Contrast Forster, Locke's Politics of Moral Consensus. Waldron recognizes that his Christianized Locke would no longer speak to as broad an audience; see Waldron, God, Locke, and Equality.

5 Parenthetical references are to treatise and section of the Two Treatises of Government. The edition used here is Locke, John, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Laslett, Peter, student edition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. I have transliterated words that Locke prints in Hebrew characters, vocalizing them to fit best the immediate context.

6 The political implications of Locke's thoughts regarding the permissibility of suicide are discussed in Windstrup, George, “Locke on Suicide,” Political Theory 8, no. 2 (1980): 169–82CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Glenn, Gary, “Inalienable Rights and Locke's Argument for Limited Government,” Journal of Politics 46, no. 1 (1984): 80105CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed. Similarly, the dangers that await those who appeal to heaven too hastily are phrased in religious language at II 176, a passage that bears on the question of when one may rightfully revolt.

7 See Forde, Steve, “The Charitable John Locke,” Review of Politics 71, no. 3 (2009): 428–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar, who argues that there is.

8 The problem of Jephthah is discussed at length in Rehfeld, Andrew, “Jephthah, the Hebrew Bible, and John Locke's ‘Second Treatise of Government,’Hebraic Political Studies 3, no. 1 (2008): 6093Google Scholar; Strauss, Natural Right and History; Zuckert, Launching Liberalism.

9 Even though several competing and incompatible theologies have been attributed to Locke in attempts to make sense of what he says religiously, such that we must speak of the pious-Locke hypotheses, I will refer to them as a group since they share the common characteristic of denying that Locke's piety was as structurally necessary as a coat of paint.

10 David Foster examines these passages in order to bring out the impious implications of Locke's interpretation of the Bible rather than to suggest that there is anything out of the ordinary in that interpretation (Foster, , “The Bible and Natural Freedom in John Locke's Political Thought,” in Piety and Humanity, ed. Kries, Douglas [New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997], 181212Google Scholar). Waldron's treatment of Locke's discussion of Gen. 1:28 focuses on whether the verse was addressed to Adam and Eve together, not what that verse granted in the first place (God, Locke, and Equality, 24–25). Most accounts of the Two Treatises do not address these passages at such length. Dunn notes that Filmer's argument from Gen. 1:28 “is subjected to the most withering (and interminable) criticism in the First Treatise” (Political Thought of John Locke, 68). Faulkner also treats them briefly before concluding that Locke fails to engage the biblical perspective seriously enough for a dialectical refutation (“Preface to Liberalism,” 469–71). Pangle and Zuckert each devote about a page to the opening of chapter 4, but do not make note of its heterodoxy (Pangle, Spirit of Modern Republicanism, 141; Zuckert, Launching Liberalism, 132).

11 The Vulgate has animatibus quae moventur. Locke's suggestion that the words ḥayyâ hārōmeśeṯ translate into Latin as bestiam reptantem reflects other contemporary Latin translations, but this (unlike Locke's English translation of “wild beast and reptile”) can be a noun phrase.

12 The Septuagint does demonstrate some discomfort with the text (or at any rate its Hebrew source text does). Its discomfort, however, is with the difference between Gen. 1:26 and Gen. 1:28. It resolves this simply by repeating the list from Gen. 1:26 in the donation of Gen. 1:28 without regard for the wording of the latter. In both, man is to rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, [all] the cattle, all the earth, and all the creeping things that creep upon the earth (the sole difference being the bracketed “all,” which appears only in Gen. 1:28) (Septuaginta, ed. Alfred Rahlfs [Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1935]). While the Septuagint is generally known for fidelity to its Hebrew source rather than for harmonization, its source does betray a harmonizing tendency in the first eleven books of Genesis; see Hendel, Ronald, The Text of Genesis 1–11 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 1620, 30–31Google Scholar; Tov, Emmanuel, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 134–42, 261Google Scholar.

Now, this calls into question Locke's claim that the Septuagint supports his translation of ayyâ ḥhārōmeśeṯ, since it does not seem to be translating that phrase at all. Moreover, the Greek word that Locke tells us translates ḥayyâ in Gen. 1:24–25, thēria, does not appear in the Septuagint's translation of either Gen. 1:26 or Gen. 1:28. The Septuagint is not in the least concerned to establish that God's donation be in the categories established in Gen. 1:20–25. If it were, it would have introduced the word for wild beasts into these verses. The Septuagint does not even translate the word for “cattle” (bəhēmâ) consistently, rendering it tetrapous in Gen. 1:24 and ktēnos in Gen 1:25, 26, and 28, so different are its concerns from Locke's.

The difference between Gen. 1:26 and Gen. 1:28 apparently did not trouble the copyists of the Masoretic and Samaritan texts sufficiently for them to “emend” the manuscripts in a similar fashion, nor did this concern prompt a similar harmonization in the Greek translations of Aquila of Sinope, Symmachus, or Theodotion; the Syriac Peshitta; or the Aramaic Targum of Onqelos; see Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, ed. Elliger, K. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1990)Google Scholar; Origensis Hexaplorum, ed. Field, Frederick (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1875)Google Scholar, In none of these manuscript traditions or ancient translations, moreover, are the “kinds” enumerated in Gen. 1:20–25 preserved in Gen. 1:26 and 28. Looking to the medieval Jewish commentator Rashi, we cannot say that Locke is struggling with something that had puzzled a tradition that is willing to interpret even spelling irregularities (as Rashi does here over an absent mater lectionis in the word for “and subdue it”). Locke's concerns about the relation of the two verses are peculiar to him.

One commentator who did take these issues seriously is Umberto Cassuto, although it bears mentioning that he wrote several centuries after Locke and in reaction to the Graf-Wellhausen documentary hypothesis (a hypothesis that takes as its starting point the same kind of semantic critique that I attribute to Locke). Cassuto discusses the difference between the two verses in his commentary on Genesis, where he attributes the change in wording to a desire “to avoid the monotony” of listing the categories of created things over and over again (Cassuto, Umberto, Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Part I): From Adam to Noah, trans. Abrahams, Israel [1944; Jerusalem: Magnes, 1989], 57Google Scholar, Cassuto notes, however, that the Bible does mention all the created beings in both verses: in Gen. 1:26, they are covered by the phrase “and over all the earth;” in Gen. 1:28, by “and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth,” the very phrase that Locke seeks to expound. Cassuto's conclusion is based on his judgment, which he glosses as obvious, that hayyâ ḥhārōmeśeṯ cannot plausibly mean “wild beast and reptile.”

13 Things are actually worse for Locke than is easy to convey in English. Objects of the verb translated “have dominion” are marked by a preposition that would still be missing if hārōmeśeṯ were instead wāremeś. If Locke's typological thesis were correct, ayyâ ḥhārōmeśeṯ would instead have to have read ayyaṯ ḥhā’āreṣ ūḇəremeś or ḥayyaṯ hā’āreṣ ûḇəḵāl remeś.

14 Tyrrell, James, Patriarcha non Monarcha (London, 1681), 1415Google Scholar; repr. Online Library of Liberty, EBook PDF v. 5 (2010),

15 Students seeking to become King's Scholars at Westminster School were tested in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic; Locke received his “minor election” in 1650 and his “major election” two years later, meaning he surpassed other students in these subjects (Cranston, Maurice, John Locke [New York: Macmillan, 1957], 2128Google Scholar). Fania Oz-Salzberger suggests that Locke's knowledge of Hebrew was rudimentary, but this conclusion depends on Locke's not relying on that knowledge in his writing (Oz-Salzberger, , “The Political Thought of John Locke and the Significance of Political Hebraism,” Hebraic Political Studies 1, no. 5 [2006]: 571Google Scholar).

16 Peter Laslett, introduction to Two Treatises of Government, 60n.

17 Presumably this concession refers to his identification of bəhēmâ with animals that can be tamed and thus owned, ḥayyâ with wild beasts in particular, and hārōmeśeṯ with reptiles.

18 The verse actually reads “every living thing, that moveth upon the Earth.” It is quoted correctly later in the section.

19 Spinoza, , Hebrew Grammar, in Complete Works, ed. Morgan, Michael L. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002), 599600Google Scholar.

20 Locke declares that 1 Tim. 6:17 is “the Voice of Reason confirmed by Inspiration” (II 31). Some might object that Locke says this only of that one verse, not the Bible more generally. In The Reasonableness of Christianity, however, Locke affirms that the “Rule therefore of Right is the same that ever it was, the Obligation to observe it is also the same,” neither the Gospel nor the law of Moses contravening what the gentiles know about the moral law. Where God adds anything to the law of nature, this forms part of the ceremonial and political law and does not touch the law of nature (Locke, , Writings on Religion, ed. Nuovo, Victor [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002], 99100Google Scholar). See Faulkner, “Preface to Liberalism,” 469.

21 Pangle, Spirit of Modern Republicanism, 143–51.

22 Ibid., 133–38, 143–51.

23 Pangle, Thomas, Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 172–81Google Scholar.

24 Meier, Heinrich, Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem, trans. Brainard, Marcus (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 See Corbett, Lockean Commonwealth, 166–69.

26 The permissibility of revolution could easily have been inserted into the Essay on Toleration and does not explain the entirely new tone of the Letter Concerning Toleration; see Corbett, Lockean Commonwealth, 151–54.

27 On this point, see Cassuto, Commentary on Genesis, 57.