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“We the People of Israel”: Covenant, Constitution, and the Supposed Biblical Origins of Modern Democratic Political Thought

  • Sophia R. C. Johnson EMAIL logo


As an originally political term, study of the concept of “covenant” has long demonstrated the intersection of biblical studies and political theory. In recent decades, the association between covenant and constitution has come to the forefront of modern political thought in attempts to find the origins of certain democratic ideals in the descriptions of biblical Israel, in order to garner either religious or cultural authority. This is exemplified in the claims of Daniel J. Elazar that the first conceptual seeds of American federalism are found in the covenants of the Hebrew Bible. Taking Elazar’s work as a starting and end point, this paper applies contemporary biblical scholarship to his definition of biblical covenant in order to reveal the influences of his own American political environment and that of the interpreters he is dependent upon. The notion that biblical covenant or its interpretation remains a monolithic or static concept is overturned by a survey of the diverse receptions of covenant in the history of biblical scholarship from the late 19th to the late 20th centuries, contrasting American and German interpretive trends. As such, I aim to highlight the reciprocal relationship between religion and politics, and the academic study of both, in order to challenge the claim that modern political thought can be traced back to biblical conceptions.

Corresponding author: Sophia R. C. Johnson, Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge, Christ’s College, Cambridge, CB2 3BU, UK, E-mail:
As with the other articles in this special issue, this article first took shape at the DAAD-funded workshop “Old Testament Imaginaries of the Nation in German, Dutch, and Anglo-American Christian Political Thought” on April 14–15, 2020, as part of the Protestant Political Thought conference hosted (virtually) at the University of Cambridge. I could not have asked for a better interdisciplinary group of scholars to learn from and have enthusiastically followed their suggestions. I am deeply grateful to Marietta van der Tol and Paul Michael Kurtz, both of whom dialogued with me at length on the concepts presented in this article, as well as Nathan MacDonald, Derek Oejo, and Nick Posegay who gave feedback on various drafts. I am also indebted to the detailed and meticulous comments of my reviewers, which greatly improved the articulation of my ideas.


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Published Online: 2021-10-13
Published in Print: 2021-10-26

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