Biblical nationalism and the sixteenth-century states

Biblical nationalism and the sixteenth-century states

By Diana Muir Appelbaum

National Identities, Vol.15 – forthcoming (2013)

Gutenburg Bible - photo by UB Kassel /Wikimedia Commons

Abstract: The emergence of Protestant nations in sixteenth-century Europe was driven by the sudden rediscovery of biblical nationalism, a political model that did not separate the religious from the political. Biblical nationalism was new because pre-Reformation Europeans encountered the Hebrew Bible through paraphrases and abridgments. Full-text Bibles revealed a programmatic nationalism backed by unmatched authority as the word of God to readers primed by Reformation theology to seek models in the Bible for the reform of their own societies. Sixteenth-century biblical nationalism was the unintended side effect of a Reformation intended to save souls.

Introduction: Scholars who have considered the origins of nationalism generally concur that it is a product of modernity that cannot have arisen before a nationalist discourse was elaborated and made available to a mass public, or before such key enabling conditions as the modern state, secularization, industrialization, and print capitalism. In recent decades, however, a series of studies of particular peoples and territories have described the existence of biblical nationalism during the Reformation in the Netherlands, England, Scandinavia, and Hungary, and during the proto-Reformation in Hussite Bohemia. One scholar has tied together these developments in Britain, Sweden, and the Netherlands. The result is a literature largely divided between systemic explanations and theories of the rise of nationalism in the modern period, and a mounting body of evidence describing phenomena that appear similar to modern nationalism centuries before these theories allow for its existence.


This paper offers a preliminary attempt to answer Breuilly’s call for ‘a search for specific explanations for this cluster of cases,’ consolidating the growing body of work on sixteenth-century nationalism by proposing a causal mechanism and offering a novel account of why this mechanism had a powerful and near simultaneous impact across such a large area. It argues that the key to understanding the emergence of biblical nationalism in the sixteenth-century Europe was the rediscovery of the Bible by a Latin Christian culture in which, prior to 1517, almost no one read the Bible. Before Luther, Roman Catholics rarely read complete Bibles; they preferred Bible substitutes: paraphrases, epitomes, and commentaries edited to emphasize Christological interpretations of the Hebrew Bible. The discourse of biblical nationhood visible in the suddenly popular full-text Bibles therefore came as new revelation to a Western European public who had not encountered it before.

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See also Diana Muir Appelbaum’s website

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