Quandt 2020

Title: "Moses, a true prophet: Thomas Hobbes and the authority of scripture"

Ryan Quandt


Moses was a man who spoke to God "face to face, like a friend." For this reason, Hobbes accepts the prophetic status of Moses (or so he says). But, at the same time, he delimits or nuances the moral exigency of the Pentateuch - that is, the obligations imparted by, and the authority of, Moses' prophetic word. Though Moses does posses divinely sanctioned authority, he cannot rival a civil sovereign. If he could, and his word stood as an independent authority, someone may oppose the sovereign by appeal to scripture, inviting social instability and, maybe, civil war. Hobbes argues throughout Part III of Leviathan that how the Bible should be interpreted depends on the sovereign's will. Yet Moses, as both prophet and God's lieutenant, does not occupy a clear role on Hobbes' account. To my knowledge, there has not been a systematic analysis of Moses' status, and in this presentation I undertake that task.

Scripture is quoted throughout Leviathan; however, most of Hobbes' contemporaries did not take his use of scripture as a mark of piety. Hobbes' exegesis, they believed, was evidence of atheism and destructive to the Christian religion. This is also the case with Hobbes' treatment of prophecy. In his 1676 reply, the Earl of Clarendon writes, "If those marks, and conditions which he makes necessary to a true prophet and without which he ought not to be beleeved, were necessary, Moses was not true prophet, nor had the Children of Israel any reason to believe, and follow him." Despite Hobbes' avowals, Moses was not a true prophet. But Clarendon goes further, noting that the Jews had no reason to accept Moses' authority: his divine sanction is problematic, too. There are reasons to believe Hobbes intentionally undermines Moses' status through rhetorical and argumentative strategies. My reading supports an ironical reading of Hobbes' treatment of scripture that Clarendon (among others) was privy to.

My analysis raises a second concern as well. If Moses' authority is tenuous, the stability and safety he ought to provide as sovereign is at risk from the beginning. Divine theatrics on Mount Sinai are required to prompt the Jews' pledge of obedience, which foreshadow a poor trust of their leader. But is any sovereign in a better position than Moses? Can a sovereign be established with a divine mark? Hobbes' criticisms of the status of Moses threaten to return to his own depiction of sovereign power. To conclude, I examine this risk.

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