Modern Principles of Democracy Emanate from Ancient Jews, Chicago Professor Says
Menu JTA Search

Modern Principles of Democracy Emanate from Ancient Jews, Chicago Professor Says

Download PDF for this date

Modern principles of democracy stem from the political ideals of ancient Israel rather than from Greece and Rome, which are usually given credit for the earliest formulation of democratic theories: William A. Irwin, professor of Old Testament Languages and Literatures at the University of Chicago, said last night in a public lecture at the University.

Dr. Irwin’s talk on “Israel Among the Cultures of the Ancient Near East” was sponsored by the University’s Oriental Institute. “The culture of ancient Israel has been greatly underestimated by the Western world,” Dr. Irwin said. “Its great contribution to modern society has been almost completely obscured by Greece and Rome. As a matter of fact, Israel’s democratic political ideals were unique in the Near East. We find there the age-long rivalry between human freedom and social regimentation.

“The ideals of the Oriental courts, with their notions of absolutism and the divine rights of kings were constantly opposed by the stubborn realism of the peasants of Israel and fiery idealism of the prophets, who would not submit to enslavement. These ideals of the common people and the freedom-loving prophets animated the struggle for freedom in Anglo-Saxon England, where western democracy has its roots,” Dr. Irwin pointed out.

“England was heavily Bible-centered in the days of Alfred the Great and even earlier. It was the prophets’ advocacy of freedom for all men which found expression in the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, and in Free National Assemblies, all of which served as patterns for the free institutions of America. In the course of centuries, Biblical principles have permeated the structure of society to a much greater extent than many people realize,” Dr. Irwin stated. ” At this very moment it is not the grandeur of Egypt or Plato’s ideal city-state or Roman legalism that is shaping our course, but the dreams of some unknown Jews who hoped for a day when nations would beat their swords to plow-shares and their spears to pruning hooks.”

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund