views updated May 18 2018


THEOCRACY means "rule by God" and refers to a type of government in which God or gods are thought to have sovereignty, or to any state so governed. The concept has been widely applied to such varied cases as pharaonic Egypt, ancient Israel, medieval Christendom, Calvinism, Islam, and Tibetan Buddhism.

The word was first coined in the Greek language (theokratia ) by the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius around 100 ce. Josephus noted that while the nations of the world were variously governed by monarchies, oligarchies, and democracies, the polity of the Jews was theocracy. This, he thought, went back to Moses, who was not attracted by the model of these other polities and therefore "designated his government a theocracyas someone might say, forcing an expressionthus attributing the rule and dominion to God" (Against Apion 2.165).

From Josephus's coinage the term found its way into modern languages, though most early uses were references to the government of ancient Israel, and thus faithful to the original context. The poet John Donne, in a sermon of 1622, stated that the Jews had been under a theocracy, and the Anglican bishop William Warburton, in his Divine Legation of Moses Demonstrated (17371741), engaged in a long discussion of Israelite theocracy.

Impetus for wider use of the word came from G. W. F. Hegel's Philosophy of History, where the term was employed to describe that early phase of ancient oriental civilization in which there was no distinction between religion and the state. In the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the term became what Karl Mannheim called a Kampfbegriff, by which "enlightened" contempt for "priest-ridden" societies could be expressed. It was with something of this force that it was used by W. E. H. Lecky in his History of Rationalism (1865) and by Brooks Adams in The Emancipation of Massachusett s (1887).

Theocracy has not become a rigorously defined concept in either social science or the history of religions, although the term is frequently used in historical writing. This is probably because it does not name a governmental system or structure, parallel to monarchy or democracy, but designates a certain kind of placement of the ultimate source of state authority, regardless of the form of government. In biblical studies, where the notion of theocracy has had its longest currency, it has probably also been used with the greatest consistency and fruitfulness.

This article deals with the various meanings that the term theocracy may be usefully given, with examples relevant to each meaning: hierocracy, or rule by religious functionaries; royal theocracy, or rule by a sacred king; general theocracy, or rule in a more general sense by a divine will or law; and eschatological theocracy, or future rule by the divine.


Theocracy has often been used as a term to describe societies where the clergy or priests rule, but this is not the exact denotation of the word, and another word, hierocracy, is available for such situations. Some have called this "pure" theocracy. Among such theocracies, a distinction can be made between those in which the religious functionaries who exercise rule are priestly in character and those in which they are more prophetic-charismatic.

Theocracies of this type have not been very numerous. Several of the stages in the history of ancient Israel exemplify it: the early period, beginning with the Sinai covenant and continuing with the leadership of Moses and Aaron; the religious confederation of the tribal amphictyony; and the charismatic (though occasional) leadership of the Judges down to the time of Samuel. Thus, Israel had strongly theocratic elements, in the sense of rule by religious functionaries. Centuries later, after the return from exile in the late sixth century bce, a theocracy emerged with the priestly leadership of the generations after Ezra. The priestly theocratic pattern became so important among the Jews at this time that the later Hasmoneans legitimated their rule by claiming the high priesthood. This was the case until the end of the rule of Alexander Yannai over the small Jewish state in 67 bce.

This kind of theocracy has been rare in Christianity, which grew up as a clandestine religion at odds with a hostile state. Nonetheless, a kind of theocracy in the sense of priestly rule appeared in the Papal States of central Italy and lasted for over a millennium (7561870). However, this situation was not usually thought of as a prototype of the ideal but, rather more pragmatically, as a way of securing the independence of church authority, centered in Rome, from interference and control by secular powers. Another Christian example of pure theocracy can be found in the early years of the Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons, in the United States, where the prophetic leaders (first Joseph Smith and then Brigham Young) exercised religious and temporal authority in the life of the community, both in earlier settlements and then in Salt Lake City.

The early years of Islam, under the prophet Muammad and his first successors, the caliphs, were also theocratic in the sense that there was rule by the religious leadership, though it was not a priestly but a prophetic-charismatic leadership. It is, however, difficult to say at exactly what point the caliphate ceased to be a primarily religious institution.

Tibetan Buddhism has often been cited as an example of priestly theocracy. After the thirteenth century, Tibet was ruled by various elements of the Buddhist priesthood; in the seventeenth century, the Dge lugs pa sect gained the temporal rule of the land and governed through the Dalai and Panchen lamas, as successive incarnations of Avalokiteśvara and Amitābha Buddha, respectively, until the Chinese Communist invasion destroyed this pattern in 1959. The Dalai Lama was the principal ruler from his capital at Lhasa, and administration was exercised by him (or by a regent ruling in his name when a new Dalai Lama was being sought) through a cabinet composed partly of monks.

Many short-lived communal and revolutionary movements inspired by religion have functioned as pure theocracies. Examples of this include the Taiping Rebellion in China in 1858; the seizure of Khartoum in the Sudan by a claimant to the role of the Mahdi in 1885; and the People's Temple of Jim Jones, which was established in Guyana in 1977, only to end in mass suicide.

Royal Theocracy

Rule by a king thought to possess divine status or power, or to be entrusted by God with authority over the earth, is a second kind of theocracy. Such sacred kingship has many ramifications beyond what can be considered in relation to the concept of theocracy. Traditional Japan was ruled by such a royal theocracy, the emperors being regarded as descendants of the sun goddess Amaterasu. Some societies of the ancient world were theocratic in this sense: the ancient Mesopotamian kings were regarded as chosen servants and regents of the gods, and the Egyptian pharaohs were thought to be directly descended from the sun god, who had created the earth and had at first ruled it personally, later ruling it through them. In both Egypt and Mesopotamia, as well as among other ancient peoples, kings also fulfilled many important roles in ritual, thus acting as intermediaries between men and the gods. Analogies have frequently been drawn between ancient Near Eastern sacred monarchy and Israelite kingship, but such inferences should be drawn with caution, especially since Israel's monarchy had been established within the time of Israel's historical memory and had been opposed by a school of thought that felt that Yahveh alone should be recognized as king (1 Sm. 8:622, Hos. 8:4, 13:1011). However, Israelite monarchy borrowed some of the theocratic features of its Near Eastern predecessors, especially elements of court ritual. Still, Israel under the monarchy was a royal theocracy, for the kings were considered to be the anointed and chosen servants of Yahveh and the earthly representatives of Yahveh's theocratic authority.

Monarchy as the fulfillment of a sacred role of divine regency also appeared in Christianity. The most obvious examples have been in Eastern Christianity, both Byzantine and Russian, in which the imperial office was regarded as God-given, and the emperor regarded as God's representative on earth in all temporal matters, as well as in the external affairs of the church. In Byzantium, the distinction between the religious and the secular was not as sharply drawn as it usually was in the West, and the Byzantine emperor had certain liturgical prerogatives that were closed to the layperson. Such sacred kingship also appeared in Western Christianity among the early Germanic kings who ruled after the dissolution of the Roman empire, and especially in the rule of Charlemagne. It reappeared with some of the Holy Roman emperors who sought to counter the claims of papal theocracy after the eleventh-century Gregorian reform, and at the courts of Henry VIII and Louis XIV.

General Theocracy

A third type of theocracy, by far the most common, is that more general type wherein ultimate authority is considered to be vested in a divine law or revelation, mediated through a variety of structures or polities. In a sense, both priestly and royal theocracies may be of this sort: for example, in Israelite monarchy the Law stood as an authority beyond that of the king at the time of the Josianic reform; Byzantine emperors in spite of their choice by God were subordinate to the principles of revealed truth; and even the Egyptian god-kings were supposed to rule according to the eternal principles of maat, or justice. Theocracy in this third sense has been quite common as a conception in such universalizing religions as Christianity and Islam, where there has often been a thrust toward bringing the whole human sphere under the aegis of the divine will; but it has also appeared in some ancient and tribal societies where the laws and customs of the people are understood to be revealed by the gods, as in some of the ancient Greek city-states.

Historical conditions have made this type of theocracy less common in Christianity than might otherwise have been the case; in earliest Christianity, theocracy was ruled out by the sharp dichotomy between the church and a hostile world that prevailed in Christian thinking, and in modern times, secularization has rendered otiose any program for the rule of Christian norms over all of society. Furthermore, some kinds of Christian thinking about societyfor example, the two-kingdom theory of Lutheranism; Christian Aristotelianism, which grants to the state a basis in its own right; and the modern acceptance of the separation of church and statehave weakened the theocratic impulse.

In Christianity, the two most commonly cited examples of this kind of theocracy have been medieval Roman Catholicism and some of the Calvinist societies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Earlier medieval thought looked upon the spiritual and the temporal as two coordinate powers under God, with their own separate structures of rule. After the Gregorian reform of the eleventh century, however, papal theorists sought to divest the temporal overlord of his sacred character and promoted the view that the church, through the pope, was sovereign in all temporal affairs, even if this sovereignty were not exercised directly but through secular rulers whom the church had the authority to direct, judge, or remove. This papal theocracy reached its height in the early thirteenth-century pontificate of Innocent III, who made good his claim to have the authority to dispose earthly powers when he disciplined various European monarchs, including King John of England. Defenders of papal theocracy, however, made even more far-reaching claims in the next century, asserting that the popes, as vicars of Christ on earth, exercised all the prerogatives of Christ's heavenly kingship, which was both royal and priestly, and were, theoretically, not only the possessors of all earthly political sovereignty but the ultimate owners of all property. Late medieval developments, including the papal captivity and schism, the rise of conciliarism, and nationalism, led to the decline of effective papal theo-cracy.

Theocracy has often been attributed to the government of certain Reformed or Calvinist states, whether Zurich under Huldrych Zwingli, Geneva under John Calvin, England under Oliver Cromwell, or Puritan Massachusetts. In none of these cases was there a hierocratic theocracy, since in most of them the clergy were less likely to hold public office than they had been previouslyfor example, Cromwellian England abolished church courts and the House of Lords with its bishops, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony forbade the clergy to serve as magistrates. Even in Geneva, the clergy had only an advisory role in checking and balancing the civil government. But all of these societies had an ideal, well expressed by the Strasbourg theologian Martin Bucer in his De regno Christi, of a holy community on earth in which the sovereignty was God's and in which the actual law should reflect the divine will and the government seek to promote the divine glory. In the Puritan examples of Cromwellian England in the 1650s and Massachusetts Bay in the first generations of its settlement, there was both a hearkening after Old Testament theocratic patterns and a sense of the importance of government entrusted to truly regenerate personsor the saintsin an effort to create a holy commonwealth. In fact, however, rule was exercised in both cases more through a godly laity than through the clergy, and in both Cromwellian England and Puritan Massachusetts the state had considerable power in church affairs.

It is also in this general sense of theocracy that Islam ought to be considered theocratic. Islam grew up as a religious community that was its own state, and thus from the beginning there was no distinction of church and state; rather, there was a unitary society under God's revealed rule and law. Islam was much less a church than a theocratic state, but as a theocracy, it was laical and egalitarian, with traditions neither of sacred kings nor of a powerful priesthood. The basis of this divine rule is to be found in sharīʿah, or law, which provides for a pattern of life uniting all the aspects of human existencepolitical, social, religious, domesticinto a grand whole under divine rule. Such rule has been variously exercised in Islamic history, but the ʿulamaʾ as well as the caliphs and, in Shiism, the imams have been important in its application. Many modern Islamic revival movements, reacting against Western aggression and internal decline, have tended toward the repristination of the theocratic elements in Islam; this was true of the Wāhhābīyah in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and has been true of many contemporary movements.

Eschatological Theocracy

A fourth kind of theocracy is eschatological, centering on visions of an ideal future in which God will rule. Restoration eschatology and messianic ideas in ancient Israel were of this type. In Christianity, such eschatological theocracy appeared in the beliefs of the medieval followers of Joachim of Fiore, who anticipated the emergence of a third age in which all would be perfect, and in the beliefs of the sectarians of seventeenth-century England, such as the Seekers, Quakers, or Fifth Monarchists, who dreamed of a coming millennial age when Christ would rule. Such modern offshoots of Christianity as the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon present recent examples of groups anticipating an earthly reign of Christ. Islamic eschatology centering on the figure of the Mahdi has occasionally begotten similar hopes.

See Also

Charlemagne; Constantine; Dalai Lama; Imamate; Israelite Law, article on State and Judiciary Law; Kingdom of God; Kingship; Shiism.


There is no single, synoptic account of the whole range of theocratic phenomena. Among general studies of religion, Gustav Mensching's Soziologie der grossen Religionen (Bonn, 1966) and Soziologie der Religion, 2d ed. (Bonn, 1968), pp. 79f., 112, and 155158, take interest in the notion of theocracy. Among the many studies of sacred kingship in the ancient world, Henri Frankfort's now classic text Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion (1948; reprint, Chicago, 1978) is a good place to begin. Thomas L. Brauch, "The Emperor Julian's Theocratic Vocation," Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers 25 (1986): 291300, examines theocracy in the late Roman pagan revival. For a general account of theocracy and ancient Israel, see John W. Wevers's "Theocracy" in the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 4 (Nashville, 1962), pp. 617619. D. Otto Plöger deals with Daniel, Joel, and other examples of late Israelite eschatology in Theokratie und Eschatologie (Neukirchen, West Germany, 1959). For the concept of theocracy in Philo, Maimonides, traditional Rabbinic thought, and modern Israel, see Gershon Weiler, Jewish Theocracy (Leiden, 1988). For Tibetan theocracy, see Franz Michael and Eugene Knez's Rule by Incarnation: Tibetan Buddhism and Its Role in Society and State (Boulder, Colo., 1982). Dieter Georgi, Theocracy in Paul's Praxis and Theology (Minneapolis, 1991), uses theocracy as a conceptual tool for interpreting the apostle Paul. For royal theocracy in Byzantium, see Deno John Geanakoplos's Byzantine East and Latin West (Oxford, 1966), especially chapter 2. Among many treatments of medieval papal thought, the following deal extensively with the theme of theocracy: La théocratie: L'église et le pouvoir au moyen âge by Marcel Pacaut (Paris, 1957); L'idée de la royauté du Christ au moyen âge by Jean Le Clercq (Paris, 1959), especially chapters 1, 7, and 8; and Church State and Christian Society at the Time of the Investiture Contest by Gerd Tellenbach (1959; reprint, New York, 1979).

A number of authors investigate Reformation and Puritan theo-cracy: Robert C. Walton in Zwingli's Theocracy (Toronto, 1967); E. William Monter in Calvin's Geneva (New York, 1967), especially chapter 6; Harro Höpfl in The Christian Polity of John Calvin (Cambridge, 1982); George L. Hunt in Calvinism and the Political Order (Philadelphia, 1965); Rene Paquin in "Calvin and Theocracy in Geneva," ARC, The Journal of the Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill 28 (2000): 91113; Aaron B. Seidman in "Church and State in the Early Years of the Massachusetts Bay Colony," New England Quarterly 18 (1945): 211233, which seeks to set the record straight on theocracy in the colony; Avihu Zakai, in "Theocracy in New England: The Nature and Meaning of the Holy Experiment in the Wilderness," Journal of Religious History 14 (1986): 131151; and Jerald C. Brauer in "The Rule of the Saints in American Politics," Church History 27 (September 1958): 240255, which also discusses theocratic impulses in later American history. For a study of the Quakers and theocracy, see Thomas G. Sanders's Protestant Concepts of Church and State (New York, 1964), pp. 125178. The theocratic aspects of Islam are variously alluded to in Ruben Levy's The Social Structure of Islam, 2d ed. (Cambridge, 1957), and E. I. J. Rosenthal's Political Thought in Medieval Islam (1958; reprint, Cambridge, 1968); Majid Fakhry deals with some modern revivals of theocratic thinking in "The Theocratic Idea of the Islamic State in Recent Controversies," International Affairs 30 (October 1954): 450462. Modern Iran is examined in Mehran Kamrava, The Political History of Modern Iran: From Tribalism to Theocracy (Westport, 1992). Legal and ethical issues are explored in Lucas A. Swaine, "How Ought Liberal Democracies to Treat Theocratic Communities," Ethics 111 (January 2001): 302343.

Dewey D. Wallace, Jr. (1987 and 2005)


views updated Jun 11 2018



The term theocracy signifies belief in governance by divine guidance, a form of regime in which religion or faith plays the dominant role. It denotes thus a political unit governed by a deity or by officials thought to be divinely guided. The word theocracy originates from the Greek theokratia. The components of the word are theos, god, and kratein, to rule, hence rule by god or government by god.

The concept of theocracy was first coined by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (37 CEc. 100 CE). Attempting to explain to Gentile readers the organization and political system of the Jewish commonwealth of his time, Josephus contrasted theocracy with other forms of government, such as monarchy, oligarchy, and republics: Our legislator [Moses] had no regard to any of these forms, but he ordained our government to be what, by a strained expression, may be termed a theocracy [ theokratia ], by ascribing the authority and power to God, and by persuading all the people to have a regard to him, as the author of all good things (Josephus 1737).

Few concepts have changed more radically over time than the concept of theocracy. According to its oldest meaning, as used by Josephus, the implication is not that ministers assumed political power. However, according to the more modern definition in the The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles, theocracy is a system of government by sacerdotal order, claiming divine commission (The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles, vol. 2, 1939, p. 2166), a state in which priests exercise political power, or, more precisely, a state ruled by ministers. In this entry, both meanings will be used.

Theocratic forms of government have existed throughout history. Theocracies were known among ancient people, as in Egypt and Tibet, where kings represented and even incarnated the deity. (In pharaonic Egypt, the king was considered a divine or semidivine figure who ruled largely through priests.) This was the case also with early American civilizations, such as the Mayas, Toltecs, Aztecs, and Natchez.

In Islam, the community established by the prophet Muhammad (c. 570632) in Medina (622632) was a theocracy in which Muhammad served as both temporal and spiritual leader. The communities established by Muhammads father-in-law and successor, Abu Bakr (c. 573634), the first caliph, were also based on theocratic government. The largest and best-known theocracies in history were the Umayyad caliphate (the first Islamic dynasty, 661750) and the early Abbasid caliphate (the second major Muslim dynasty, 7501258), in which state and religion were closely intertwined; the Byzantine Empire (fourthfifteenth centuries), in which the emperor was the head of the church; and the Papal States (Stati Pontificii) during the Middle Ages, in which the pope was the ruler in a civil as well as a spiritual sense.

In Christianity during the early modern period in Europe, the republic of Florence under the rule (14941497) of Girolamo Savonarola (14521498) became a theocracy in which God was the sole sovereign and the Gospel constituted the law. After the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, there were many attempts to establish theocracy. The most famous is the theocratic regime that John Calvin (15091564) established in Geneva when he was at the height of his power (15551564); Genevas civil life was based upon total obedience to God, whose moral order is declared in the scriptures. According to Calvin, a well-ordered Christian community results from a synthesis of rule, cooperation, and order emanating from the divine laws of God; such a community is unified, organized, and structured upon the idea of advancing the glory of God in the world. The same view is evidenced in the theocratic government that Huldrych Zwingli (14841531) established in Zurich from 1525 to 1531. In Zurich, the city council was the lawful government of a Christian state (both church and canton) and administrated the divine commands from the Bible. For interpretation of these commands the council sought and acted on the advice of Christian ministers.

With the Puritan migration to New England during the 1630s, theocratic governments were established in what became Massachusetts and Connecticut. For the New England Puritans, theocracy was considered the best form of government in a Christian commonwealth because only this type of government acknowledged Christ as a sole ruler over the people. Spiritually saving grace was the prerequisite for admission to freemanship or citizenship in the Puritan theocracy. The Puritans goal was not to invest ministers with political power, but rather to appoint civil magistrates who would govern according to Gods word and will. Only visible saints, or those who were able to prove the power of saving grace in their hearts, were allowed to vote, while the ungodly, or profane people, were excluded from political power. In England too, during the Puritan Revolution (1640 1660), especially after the execution of King Charles I in 1649, many zealous Puritans strove to establish a theocratic government by introducing a Sanhedrin of saints, or a dictatorship of the godly.

In the contemporary world, the regime that Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini (19001989) established in Iran in 1979 is considered a theocracy because political power and authority is held in the hands of the imams or religious leaders. The purpose of such a fundamentalist regime is to organize society exclusively under Islamic religious law, the sharia. The Taliban state in Afghanistan (19962001) was similar. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, various fundamentalist Muslim groups are striving to establish theocratic forms of government in Algeria, Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan, Turkey, and other Islamic countries. There are also various fundamentalist Christian groups in the United States, Canada, and Australia who advocate aspects of theocratic government. In Israel, too, several ultra-Orthodox factions advocate restoring the theocracy of ancient times.

SEE ALSO Government; Religion; Vatican, The


Belfer, Ella. 1986. The Jewish People and the Kingdom of Heaven: A Study of Jewish Theocracy. Ramat-Gan, Israel: Bar-Ilan University.

Clarkson, Frederick. 1997. Eternal Hostility: The Struggle between Theocracy and Democracy. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press.

Josephus, Flavius. 1737. Against Apion, Book II. In The Genuine Works of Flavius Josephus, trans. William Whiston.

Nobbs, Douglas. 1938. Theocracy and Toleration: A Study of the Disputes in Dutch Calvinism from 1600 to 1650. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Runciman, Steven. 1977. The Byzantine Theocracy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles. 1939. 2 vols. Prepared by William H. W. Folwer, et al, rev. and ed. C. T. Onions. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Siddiqi, Mazheruddin. 1953. Islam and Theocracy. Lahore, Pakistan: Institute of Islamic Culture.

Walton, Robert Cutler. 1967. Zwinglis Theocracy. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

Zakai, Avihu. 1993. Theocracy in Massachusetts: Reformation and Separation in Early Puritan New England. Lewiston, NY: Mellen University Press.

Avihu Zakai


views updated May 23 2018


A form of political government in which the deity directly rules the people. Since men are corporeal and need visible signs of God's rule, direct divine governance always has a human representative, usually a priesthood or a divinely chosen king. But theocracy as such is not necessarily opposed to popular rule nor to any other form of government, since the practical political arrangements can usually be presented as manifestations of a divine choice or a divine ratification of a human choice.

The word theocracy was first used by Josephus to describe government under Moses: "Our legislator ordained our government to be what, by a strained expression, may be termed a theocracy, by ascribing the authority and power to God" (C. Ap. 2.16.165). Hebrews believed their government was by divine rule, whether under the original tribal form, the kingly form, or the high priesthood after the Exile until the Maccabees. The actual rulers or ruler, however, were held responsible directly to God; their deeds could not be arbitrary. They could, and at times did, deviate from the divine task as the examples of Saul and David show. The prophets witnessed such lapses in the name of an angry God and sought to correct them.

Theocracy as the rule of a priestly caste is often unsuccessful because of its vulnerability to military power, its lack of popular support, or its often implicit denial of a true human political task. The major historic examples of theocratic rule are ancient israel, tibet, some Buddhist regimes of Japan and China, islam, the Geneva of John calvin, Puritan New England, the papal states, and Mormon Salt Lake City. Most of these quasi-priestly regimes have been quite small and short-lived. Usually, they have not been successful political entities in the eyes of their own and surrounding peoples.

Theocracy, however, has broader implications. All tribal and ancient peoples, including the Greeks and the Romans, believed that their cities and nations were under the protection of and dedicated to the gods. Both Peter and Paul in their letters held that civil authority was from God (1 Pt 2.1314; Rom 13.17; Ti 3.1). Christian tradition, however, has always recognized that the things that were Caesar's were legitimately his and could not be taken from him (Mt 22.2122). The distinction between the spiritual and the temporal received its classic form in the two-power theory of Pope gelasius i. A problem arose immediately, however. Who is to judge in the areas of conflict between the spiritual and the temporal? This became the major political issue of the Middle Ages. The temporal power and spiritual authority as combined in popes like gregory vii, innocent iii, and boniface viii were so great that many writers have called these regimes properly theocratic. Nevertheless, Christian political theory must preserve the autonomy of the temporal order. These popes were no exception to this rule, however far they may have gone in aggrandizing the legitimate rights of the temporal as against the spiritual in areas of conflict.

The further evolution of this problem came with James I of England and the so-called divine right of kings. This theory combined the spiritual and the temporal powers in one person, the temporal ruler. The king's rule comes directly from God, not from the people. Democratic theorists attacked this theocratic view, especially as stated in Robert Filmer's Patriarchia, by maintaining that God's authority came to the rulers because the people needed this authority and designated the rulers they chose. The subsequent history of theocratic ideas must be sought out in the history of absolutism and in the secu larization of all human orders. Here, the absolute rule of social class, race, or nation comes to be the substitute for God's direct rule. This again serves to emphasize the practical importance of recognizing the limited autonomy of the public order.

Bibliography: r. de vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. j. mchugh (New York 1961) 65209. l. geincot, "La théocratie mediévale," Revue Nouvelle 29 (1959) 189195. r. j. s. hoffman, "Theocratic Heresy in Politics," Thought 24 (1949) 389394. m. fakhry, "Theocratic Idea of the Islamic State," International Affairs 30 (1954) 450462. j. c. brauer, "The Rule of the Saints in American Politics," Church History 27 (1958) 240255.

[j. v. schall]


views updated May 18 2018


THEOCRACY , literally the "rule of God," but generally applied to mean a state ruled by religious law. In the first century c.e. Josephus created the term "theocracy" to describe the people of Israel's polity. "Some peoples have entrusted the supreme political power to monarchies, others to oligarchies, yet others to the masses. Our lawgiver, however… gave to his constitution the form of what – if a forced expression be permitted – may be termed a 'theocracy,' placing all sovereignty and authority in the hands of God" (Apion, 2:165). That description is entirely accurate, if taken literally. The Torah repeatedly refers to God as the immediate ruler of the Jewish people and gives only passing attention to human self-rule in the form of a monarchy (Deut. 17:14–20). The Book of Joshua and particularly the Book of Judges depict a pure theocracy.

The period of such direct divine rule was, however, limited. Divine sanction was given to the new monarchy, although the latter was said to imply a rejection of God's direct king-ship (i Sam. 8:7). From that time on, what is in effect Jewish theocracy is understood to be one of various forms of indirect divine rule, which generally acted through the official religious institutions. Thus, in the Second Temple era there were times when the high priesthood united political and religious power, as in the Hasmonean rulers. In such priestly rule, theocracy was transformed into heirocracy, a priestly rule. It may be contrasted with the nomocracy, in this instance rule by sacred law, of the post-Temple period. Josephus seems to have recognized this when he wrote, describing Torah law, "be content with this, having the laws for your masters and governing all your actions by them; for God sufficeth for your ruler" (Ant., 4:223).

In the talmudic period and the Middle Ages the polity of the Jewish community, though built on religious law, was not strictly speaking a theocracy since it was not ruled exclusively by the rabbis. In fact, there was continual tension between the rabbis and the lay leadership.

Contemporary Israel

The question of the character of the Jewish polity, largely theoretical for nearly two millennia, became a matter of practical concern with the establishment of the State of Israel. Secularists and most non-Orthodox theoreticians have maintained that religious institutions in Israel should refrain from exercising a direct role in the government. The overwhelming majority of Orthodox thinkers have been willing to accept the essentially non-religious structure of the Jewish state, provided that Orthodoxy has certain political rights and power. A tiny minority, insisting upon a rigorous interpretation of God as sole ruler, rejects the present State of Israel as blasphemous and insists that a Jewish state can be established only with the coming of the king-messiah.


Baron, Community, 2 (1942), 52–168; E. Borowitz, How Can a Jew Speak of Faith Today? (1969), 90–107; N. Rotenstreich, in: Judaism, 15 (1966), 259–83; A. Lichtenstein, ibid., 15 (1966), 387–411.

[Eugene B. Borowitz]


views updated May 29 2018

the·oc·ra·cy / [unvoicedth]ēˈäkrəsē/ • n. (pl. -cies) a system of government in which priests rule in the name of God or a god. ∎  (the Theocracy) the commonwealth of Israel from the time of Moses until the election of Saul as King.DERIVATIVES: the·o·crat / ˈ[unvoicedth]ēəˌkrat/ n.the·o·crat·ic / [unvoicedth]ēəˈkratik/ adj.the·o·crat·i·cal·ly / [unvoicedth]ēəˈkratik(ə)lē/ adv.


views updated May 23 2018

theocracy Government by religious leaders in accordance with divine law. Theocracies were common in non-literate societies and existed in ancient Egypt and the Orient.