Michael Brenner explains why a Jewish State is “not like any other state”

BrennerIs Israel a state like any other or is it unique? As Michael Brenner argues in In Search of Israel, the Zionists attempted to put an end to the millennia-old history of the Jews as the archetypical “other” by creating a Jewish state that would be just like any other state, but today, Israel is regarded as anything but a “normal” state. Instead of overcoming the Jewish fate of otherness, Israel has in fact become the “Jew among the nations.” Israel ranks as 148th of the 196 independent states in terms of geographical area, and as 97th in terms of population, which is somewhere between Belize and Djibouti. However, the international attention it attracts is exponentially greater than that of either. Considering only the volume of media attention it attracts, one might reasonably assume that the Jewish state is in the same league as the United States, Russia, and China. In the United States, Israel has figured more prominently over the last three decades than almost any other country in foreign policy debates; in polls across Europe, Israel is considered to be the greatest danger to world peace; and in Islamic societies it has become routine to burn Israeli flags and argue for Israel’s demise. No other country has been the target of as many UN resolutions as Israel. At the same time, many people around the world credit Israel with a unique role in the future course of world history. Evangelical Christians regard the Jewish state as a major player in their eschatological model of the world. Their convictions have influenced US policies in the Middle East and the opinions of some political leaders in other parts of the world.

Why does Israel attract so much attention?

The answer lies in history. Many people call Israel “the holy land” for a reason: it is here where the origins of their religions were shaped. The Jewish people too are regarded as special: they played a crucial role in the theological framework of the world’s dominant religions. In Christianity and in Islam, Jews were both seen as a people especially close to God and at the same time uniquely rejected by God. While over the last two hundred years these ideas have become secularized, many stereotypes have remained. That the Jews became victims of the most systematic genocide in modern history lent them yet another mark of uniqueness. After two thousand years in exile, the fact that Jews returned to their ancient homeland to build a sovereign state again surrounded the people and place with additional mystique.

Did the Zionists view themselves as unique?

The irony is that the Zionist movement was established at the end of the 19th century precisely in order to overcome this mark of difference and uniqueness. Many Zionists claimed that they just wanted to be like anyone else. Chaim Weizmann, longtime leader of the Zionist movement and Israel’s first president, was quoted with saying: “We just want to be another Albania,” meaning a small state that nobody really cares about. Even Israel’s founding document, the declaration of independence, says that Israel has the right to be “like all other nations.” But at the same time the notion of being different, perhaps being special, was internalized by Zionists as well. Many of its leaders argued that a Jewish state has a special responsibility. Even the most secular among them regarded Israel’s serving as “a light unto the nations” as a crucial part of a prophetic tradition.

Does this mean that Zionism was a religious movement?

Not at all. Most of its early leaders were strictly secular. Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, knew no Hebrew and in fact very little about Jewish traditions. But he wanted to establish a model state for humanity, and saw the formation of Israel as an example for the liberation of African-Americans. Long before any other state granted voting rights for women, he let women be active participants in the Zionist congresses. He drew a flag for the future Jewish state that had seven stars, symbolizing a seven-hour-workday for everyone. David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, was a Socialist and rejected organized religion. But just like Herzl, he believed in the mission of a model state that could spread the prophetic ideals of universal peace and equality among the nations.

Why then is Israel seen by many today not as a model state but as a pariah state?

Herzl discussed other potential destinations, such as Argentina and British East Africa, as refuge for the persecuted European Jews. But the only place Jews had an emotional connection with was the territory they had originated from. Over centuries, Jews prayed for their return to the land of Israel. But it was not an empty land. The Arab Palestinians soon developed their own ideas of nationhood and rejected the growing Jewish immigration. In the meantime, antisemitism increased in Europe and other countries closed their doors to Jewish refugees. The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 came too late to save the lives of millions of Jews who perished in the Holocaust. But by then, most of the world recognized the Jews’ right to their own state in their ancient homeland, as reflected in the 1947 UN partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. Yet the Arab world did not see why they should pay the price for the sins of the Europeans. The situation reflected the parable of a person (the Jews) jumping out of the window of a burning house (Europe) and hitting another person (the Palestinians) on the street in order to save his own life. The ongoing conflict of two peoples over the same land, combined with the special significance of this land in the eyes of the world, led to a situation where even outsiders have strong opinions. For Evangelical Christians, Israel fulfills a divine mission, while for others, especially in the Arab world, Israel is regarded as a foreign intruder in the tradition of the medieval Crusaders and modern Imperialists.

So, can Israel one day become just a “normal state?”

To begin with, let me qualify this question. The idea of a “normal state” is a fiction altogether. Every state sees itself as special. But it is true that some states receive more attention from the rest of the world than others. Can Israel just be another Albania in the eyes of the world, or relegated in our attention to its place among the nations between Djibouti and Belize? I do not believe so. The history of Jerusalem is different from that of Tirana (Albania’s capital), and the Jews have attracted so much more attention than nations of comparable size. Thus, Israel will most likely always remain in the limelight of media attention. However, let us not forget: The people in Israel live their everyday lives just like everywhere else. They worry about their jobs and about their sports teams, they want their children to be safe and successful in school, and they dream of a peaceful future. In this deeply personal sense, Israel has become a state just like any other.

Michael Brenner is the Seymour and Lilian Abensohn Chair in Israel Studies and director of the Center for Israel Studies at American University and Professor of Jewish History and Culture at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. His many books include A Short History of the Jews.

Robert Irwin on Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography

IrwinIbn Khaldun (1332–1406) is generally regarded as the greatest intellectual ever to have appeared in the Arab world—a genius who ranks as one of the world’s great minds. Yet the author of the Muqaddima, the most important study of history ever produced in the Islamic world, is not as well known as he should be, and his ideas are widely misunderstood. In this groundbreaking intellectual biography, Robert Irwin provides an engaging and authoritative account of Ibn Khaldun’s extraordinary life, times, writings, and ideas.

Who was Ibn Khaldun?
Wali al-Din Ibn Khaldun was born in 1332 in Tunis. In his youth he was tutored by some of finest scholars of the age before going on to occupy high offices at various North African courts and at the court of Granada in Muslim Spain. He became, among other things, a diplomat and a specialist in negotiating with the Arab and Berber tribesmen of the North African interior and on occasion he led the tribesmen in battle. Later he moved to Cairo where he was to occupy various senior judicial and teaching posts under the Mamluk Sultans. In 1401 he had a famous meeting with the Turco-Mongol would-be world conqueror Timur (also known as Tamerlane), outside the walls of Damascus which was under siege by Timur. Having escaped becoming Timur’s honored captive, he returned to Egypt. In 1406 he died and was buried in a Sufi cemetery in Cairo. Despite his active career in politics, law, diplomacy, and teaching, he is chiefly famous for his great book, the Muqaddima, (the translation of which is currently published in three volumes by Princeton University Press, as well in a single-volume abridgment).

Why is Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddima so important?
This big book asked big questions. The Muqaddima started out as a study of the laws of history and it has gone on to win great praise from modern historians. Arnold Toynbee described it as ‘undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place.’ Hugh Trevor-Roper agreed; ‘It is a wonderful experience to read those great volumes, as rich and various, as subtle, deep and formless as the Ocean, and to fish up from them ideas old and new.’ The Muqaddima has attracted similar praise from philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, economists and Islamicists.

Ibn Khaldun began by asking how do historians make mistakes in their interpretation of events and what kinds of information should be recognized by historians as good evidence or bad evidence. Then he set out to understand the origins of civilization and the causes of the rise and fall of dynasties. As he continued his investigations, his book broadened out to become what was effectively an encyclopedia of Muslim society and culture.

Given his importance, there are already quite a few books on Ibn Khaldun. What is new about yours?
There are indeed so many translations of Ibn Khaldun and books about him that something like half the history of Orientalism can be deduced from the contrasting readings of the Muqaddima produced by such scholars as Silvestre de Sacy, Quatremère, Von Kremer, Monteil, Gibb, Hodgson, Hourani and Gellner. Some of the books by my predecessors are pretty good and I owe debts to those who have gone before me. Nevertheless many of their readings of the Muqaddima have been selective and have stressed and, I think, overstressed the logicality of Ibn Khaldun’s admittedly powerful mind and in doing so they have neglected the inconsistencies, ambiguities, and eccentricities that make the Muqaddima such a fascinating text. Mine is the first book to focus closely on the importance of the occult in Ibn Khaldun’s thought and his intense interest in methods of predicting the future. It is also the first to bring out the importance of North African ruins and the moralizing messages that he took from them. Although he was an outstanding thinker, he was also a man of his time and there has been a tendency to underplay the North African and strictly Muslim context of the Muqaddima. I have also sought to bring out the distinctive quality of Ibn Khaldun’s writing by contrasting it with famous texts by Froissart, Machiavelli, Vico, Montesquieu, Spengler, and others.

His ideas have been described as anticipating those of Montesquieu, Comte, Darwin, Marx, and Toynbee, among others. So was he a ‘modern’ thinker?
As new disciplines evolved in the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, their leading scholars frequently sought to create intellectual lineages for their chosen subjects and so Ibn Khaldun came to be hailed as ‘the world’s first anthropologist’ or ‘the first ever cultural historian’ or as a ‘proto-Marxist.’ Though there is some justice in such tributes, the quest for relevance can be a dangerous thing, as an overemphasis on similarities may conceal or distort past ways of thinking and living. As the novelist L.P. Hartley observed, ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ Ibn Khaldun’s remarkable ability to formulate general laws based on the close observation of discrete phenomena gives his thinking the delusive appearance of modernity, but he wrote in the service of fourteenth-century Islam. Moreover there is no evidence that he influenced Montesquieu, there is no continuity between Ibn Khaldun’s sociological formulations and those of Comte and there is no indication that Ibn Khaldun had anticipated Darwin’s ideas about the survival of the fittest.

Why did you write this book?
It feels as though I have been living with Ibn Khaldun since I first read the Muqaddima as a student in the 1960s. So it was high time that I took a close look at the assumptions and vocabulary that underpinned his thinking. To spend so much time with a polymathic genius has been both demanding and exhilarating. But there is also something else. As already noted, his Muqaddima is encyclopedic in scope. It not only covers history and philosophy, but also religion, social studies, administrative structures and title-holding, geography, economics, literature, pedagogy, jurisprudence, magic, treasure hunting, diet, dream interpretation, and much else. So a study of his masterpiece can serve as a panoptic guide to Muslim thought and life in the Middle Ages. There is nothing to match it either in the Islamic world or in medieval Christendom.

Robert Irwin is senior research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and a former lecturer at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. His many books include Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents and Memoirs of a Dervish: Sufis, Mystics, and the Sixties, as well as seven novels. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Omnia El Shakry: Genealogies of Female Writing


Throughout Women’s History Month, join Princeton University Press as we celebrate scholarship by and about women.

by Omnia El Shakry

In the wake of the tumultuous year for women that was 2017, many female scholars have been reflecting upon their experiences in the academy, ranging from sexual harassment to the everyday experiences of listening to colleagues mansplain or even intellectually demean women’s work. Indeed, I can vividly recall, as a young assistant professor, hearing a senior male colleague brush off what has now become a canonical text in the field of Middle East studies as “merely” an example of gender history, with no wider relevance to the region. Gender history rolled off his tongue with disdain and there was an assumption that it was distinct from real history.

Few now, however, would deign to publicly discount the role that female authors have played in the vitality of the field of Middle East studies. In recognition of this, the Middle East Studies Association of North America has inaugurated new book awards honoring the pioneering efforts of two women in the field, Nikkie Keddie and Fatima Mernissi. I can still remember the first time I read Mernissi’s work while an undergraduate at the American University in Cairo. Ever since my freshman year, I had enrolled in Cultural Anthropology courses with Soraya Altorki—a pioneering anthropologist who had written about Arab Women in the Field and the challenges of studying one’s own society. In her courses, and elsewhere, I was introduced to Lila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments, an ethnography of poetry and everyday discourse in a Bedouin community in Egypt’s Western desert. Abu-Lughod’s narrative was sensitive to questions of positionality, a lesson she both drew from and imbued with feminism. A second piece of writing, this time an article by Stefania Pandolfo on “Detours of Life” that interpreted the internal logic of imagining space and bodies in a Moroccan village gave me a breathtaking view of ethnography, the heterogeneity of lifeworlds, and the work of symbolic interpretation. 

In hindsight I can see that these early undergraduate experiences of reading, and studying with, female anthropologists profoundly impacted my own writing. Although I would eventually become a historian, I remained interested in the ethnographic question of encounters, and specifically of how knowledge is produced through encounters­—whether the encounter between the colonizer and the colonized or between psychoanalysis and Islam. In my most recent book, The Arabic Freud: Psychoanalysis and Islam in Modern Egypt, I ask what it might mean to think of psychoanalysis and Islam together, not as a “problem” but as a creative encounter of ethical engagement. Rather than conceptualizing modern intellectual thought as something developed in Europe, merely to be diffused at its point of application elsewhere, I imagine psychoanalytic knowledge as something elaborated across the space of human difference.

There is yet another female figure who stands at the door of my entry into writing about the Middle East. My grandmother was a strong presence in my early college years. Every Friday afternoon I would head over to her apartment, just a quick walk away from my dorm in downtown Cairo. We would eat lunch, laugh and talk, and watch the subtitled American soap operas that were so popular back then. Since she could not read or write, we would engage in a collective work of translation while watching and I often found her retelling of the series to be far more imaginative than anything network television writers could ever have produced.

Writing for me is about the creative worlds of possibility and of human difference that exist both within, but also outside, of the written word. As historians when we write we are translating between the living and the dead, as much as between different life worlds, and we are often propelled by intergenerational and transgenerational bonds that include the written word, but also exceed it.

Omnia El Shakry is professor of history at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of The Arabic Freud: Psychoanalysis and Islam in Modern Egypt.

A History of Judaism: Nineteen Jewish Groups You’ve Never Heard Of

This month, PUP is publishing the U.S. edition of Martin Goodman’s new History of Judaism. Goodman sifts through thousands of years of historical evidence, archaeological records, and theological debates to present a history of Judaism as a multifaceted and ever-changing belief system.

It comes as no surprise that throughout millennia and across continents, Judaism’s adherents have interpreted the religion’s teachings in myriad ways, living out their faith and articulating their religious identity accordingly. But have you heard of these 19 groups?


1. The Therapeutae, a contemplative sect of the late Second Temple Period, were said to live in isolation six days a week and to eat and drink only after sunset.

2. The Ebionites were an ascetic group who lived east of the River Jordan in the second to fourth centuries CE and believed in elements of both Judaism and Christianity.

3. The Nazoraeans lived in Syria in the 400s CE and used an Aramaic gospel. While following much of the Torah, they also practiced elements of orthodox Christianity.

4. The ruling dynasty of the Khazars, a Turkish kingdom in the Lower Volga region, adopted Judaism in the eighth century, probably for geopolitical reasons. It is not known to what extent the general Khazar population did as well.

5. The Romaniot Jews in Greece and the eastern Mediterranean are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardic, but took their liturgical rites from the Byzantine Empire. They used Judaeo-Greek (Greek written in the Hebrew alphabet) for religious purposes through the Middle Ages.

6. Nazirites took a temporary or permanent vow (described in the Septuagint as “the great vow”) to avoid wine and grapes, let their hair grow long, and avoid contact with corpse impurity.

7. Beginning around the eighth century, the Karaites denied the authority of the Talmud and rejected rabbinic interpretation of biblical law. For example, they fixed their calendar by celestial observation rather than mathematical calculation, did not observe Hanukkah, and discarded rules about menstrual impurity.

8. The Yudghanites were Karaites who believed that Abu ‘Isa, an eighth-century figure, was the Messiah. They did not drink alcohol, eat meat, or observe the Sabbath.

9. The Szombatos in 17th-century Transylvania were a breakaway Christian group who insisted that all Christians should observe the Old Testament laws literally.

10. The Jedid al-Islam, or “New Muslims,” were Persian Jews who were forced to convert to Islam in 1656, but secretly maintained Jewish practices.

11. Sabbatians were various groups of Jews who believed that 17th-century kabbalist Sabbetai Zevi was the messiah. Zevi lived in Turkey, but Sabbatians as far away as Germany heeded his call and sold all their possessions to prepare to join him in Jerusalem.

12. The Dönmeh were Sabbatians from Salonica who converted to Islam but secretly practiced Judaism. One sect of the Dönmeh believed that messianic Torah required all sexual prohibitions to be reversed and treated as positive commands.

13. The Frankists believed that 18th-century leader Jacob Frank was the reincarnation of Sabbetai Zevi. Some Frankists also believed that Frank’s daughter was a Romanov princess. The Frankists were baptized as Christians in Poland.

14. The Subbotniki, a breakaway Christian group in late 18th-century Russia, advocated adherence to certain Jewish laws and rituals and were exiled to Siberia.

15. The Bratslav Hasidim still make regular pilgrimages to the grave of their 18th-century leader, Rebbe Nahman, in Ukraine, chanting the syllables of his name, “Na Nah Nahma Nahman.”

16. The Status Quo Ante were communities of traditionalist Jews in mid-19th-century Hungary who chose to align themselves neither with orthodox groups nor with reformists.

17. The Bund, a Jewish socialist party founded in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, was devoted to a secular, Yiddish-speaking eastern European Jewish nationalism.

18. The Kach was an Israeli political party, formed in 1971, that advocated the mass expulsion of Arabs from Israel and the occupied territories.

19. The Neturei Karta, or Guardians of the City, are Orthodox Jews who refuse on religious grounds to recognize the existence of the secular State of Israel.


Exploring the Black Experience

In honor of Black History Month, PUP is running a special blog series aimed at Exploring the Black Experience. Each week, we’ll highlight titles from PUP’s catalog to highlight a different facet of Black Americans’ experiences and histories. There are as many understandings—not to mention experiences or mobilizations—of identity as there are individuals. Today we look at the role of Black identity in local neighborhood history, nonviolent religious activism, global liberation movements, and American historical memorialization.

These four books explore Black identities both local and transnational, through movements both religious and political, and conversations both current and historical.

American Prophets sheds critical new light on the lives and thought of seven major prophetic figures in twentieth-century America whose social activism was motivated by a deeply felt compassion for those suffering injustice. In this compelling and provocative book, acclaimed religious scholar Albert Raboteau tells the remarkable stories of Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, and four other inspired individuals who succeeded in conveying their vision to the broader public through writing, speaking, demonstrating, and organizing.

Raboteau examines the influences that shaped their ideas, discusses their theological and ethical positions, and traces how their lives intertwined—creating a network of committed activists who significantly changed attitudes about contentious political issues such as war, racism, and poverty. A momentous scholarly achievement as well as a moving testimony to the human spirit, American Prophets represents a major contribution to the history of religion in American politics.

I Hear My People Singing shines a light on a small but historic black neighborhood at the heart of one of the most elite and world-renowned Ivy-League towns—Princeton, New Jersey. The vivid first-person accounts of more than fifty black residents detail aspects of their lives throughout the twentieth century. Their stories show that the roots of Princeton’s African American community are as deeply intertwined with the town and university as they are with the history of the United States, the legacies of slavery, and the nation’s current conversations on race.

An intimate testament of the black community’s resilience and ingenuity, I Hear My People Singing adds a never-before-compiled account of poignant black experience to an American narrative that needs to be heard now more than ever.

Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) organized the Universal Negro Improvement Association in Harlem in 1917. By the early 1920s, his program of African liberation and racial uplift had attracted millions of supporters, both in the United States and abroad. The Age of Garvey presents an expansive global history of the movement that came to be known as Garveyism. Offering a groundbreaking new interpretation of global black politics between the First and Second World Wars, Adam Ewing charts Garveyism’s emergence, its remarkable global transmission, and its influence in the responses among African descendants to white supremacy and colonial rule in Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States.

The United States of America originated as a slave society, holding millions of Africans and their descendants in bondage, and remained so until a civil war took the lives of a half million soldiers, some once slaves themselves. Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves explores how that history of slavery and its violent end was told in public space—specifically in the sculptural monuments that increasingly came to dominate streets, parks, and town squares in nineteenth-century America. Here Kirk Savage shows how the greatest era of monument building in American history arose amidst struggles over race, gender, and collective memory. As men and women North and South fought to define the war’s legacy in monumental art, they reshaped the cultural landscape of American nationalism.

Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves, the first sustained investigation of monument building as a process of national and racial definition, probes a host of fascinating questions: How was slavery to be explained without exploding the myth of a “united” people? How did notions of heroism become racialized? And more generally, who is represented in and by monumental space? How are particular visions of history constructed by public monuments? As debates rage around the status of Civil War monuments in public spaces around the country, these questions have never been more relevant. An updated edition, forthcoming in fall 2018, will feature a new introduction from the author addressing these debates.

Jörg Rüpke on Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion

In this ambitious and authoritative book, Jörg Rüpke provides a comprehensive and strikingly original narrative history of ancient Roman and Mediterranean religion over more than a millennium—from the late Bronze Age through the Roman imperial period and up to full-fledged Christianization. While focused primarily on the city of Rome, Pantheon fully integrates the many religious traditions found in the Mediterranean world, including Judaism and Christianity. This generously illustrated book is also distinguished by its unique emphasis on “lived religion,” a perspective that stresses how individuals’ experiences and practices transform religion into something different from its official form. The result is a radically new picture of both Roman religion and a crucial period in Western religion—one that influenced Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and even the modern idea of “religion” itself. With its unprecedented scope and innovative approach, Pantheon is anunparalleled account of ancient Roman and Mediterranean religion.

In a world where religion is changing its face in rapid and unexpected ways, how is Roman religion, two millennia older, similar?
Rome was perhaps the largest city of the world before the modern period. The religious practices and beliefs of a million people from all over Europe, West Asia, North Africa and occasionally beyond were as varied as religion is in today’s megacities. It is interesting to see how Roman lawmakers and judges dealt with such a situation. And it is even more interesting to see how ‘normal’ citizens understood and used such a religious pluralism. Different gods at every corner, shrines on walls, polemical graffiti, people earning their living by selling religious goods and services, shaven heads or loud music—there is more to discover and learn than the solemnity of the emperor having a bull killed on the Capitoline hill.

Why did you invent a fictitious figure at the start of your history?
Religion is about people claiming to have religious experiences and valuing religious knowledge. There is no religion if everybody thinks that their neighbors addressing a divine being is just ridiculous. But religious experiences or knowledge cannot be simply decreed. To understand the unbelievable dynamics of ancient religion—the invention of statues and monumental temples, to think that gods would enjoy horse races or self-mutilation, etc.—a historian needs to get an idea of what went on in people’s head. We will never know, but we can imagine. Rhea is an avatar to tell us what a woman at the beginning of the Iron Age might have thought. As the basis for these thoughts are archaeological traces of deposits, meals, tombs, hearths, etc. I thought it would be more honest to invent such a speaker and her reflections instead of crediting an attested person without evidence that can be firmly ascribed to them.

How do Judaism and Christianity figure in your book?
I tell the story of nearly a millennium, from the 8th and 7th centuries BCE to the middle of the fourth century CE. From the Roman point of view, Jews show up in the second half of that period only, people calling themselves “Christians” even later, and Muslims are beyond the horizon. Apart from occasional troubleshooting in Judaea or Alexandria, it was only at the very end of antiquity that Jews and in particular Christians are important on a large scale. Before that they were simply a small minority. I tried to balance this. In terms of pages they are overrepresented. In terms of their significance they are massively underrepresented.

What is your favorite god from this large ancient pantheon?
I write about ancient religion, I don’t participate in it! But this was fascinating: ancient polytheism is not about large number of gods or a clear division of labor. It was about empowering (nearly) everybody to arrange and sometimes create their own divine helpers and addressees. If I pray at the end of an interview to Mercury with his quick tongue, to violent Mars and to Silvanus, lord of the endless woods, the interviewer should be careful…

PantheonJörg Rüpke is vice-director and permanent fellow in religious studies at the Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultural and Sociological Studies at the University of Erfurt, Germany, and has been a visiting professor at the Collège de France, Princeton University, and the University of Chicago. His many books include On Roman Religion and From Jupiter to Christ.

Alexander Thurston on Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement

ThurstonBoko Haram is one of the world’s deadliest jihadist groups. It has killed more than twenty thousand people and displaced more than two million in a campaign of terror that began in Nigeria but has since spread to Chad, Niger, and Cameroon as well. This is the first book to tell the full story of this West African affiliate of the Islamic State, from its beginnings in the early 2000s to its most infamous violence, including the 2014 kidnapping of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls. In an in-depth account of a group that is menacing Africa’s most populous and richest country, Alexander Thurston also illuminates the dynamics of civil war in Africa and jihadist movements in other parts of the world. Read on to learn more about this deadly terrorist group and what is being done to stop them.

What is Boko Haram?

Boko Haram is a jihadist group, or rather cluster of groups, that emerged in northeastern Nigeria in the early 2000s. The group has called itself by various names, and “Boko Haram” is a nickname given by outsiders—it means “Western education is forbidden by Islam.” The nickname refers to a central theme that its founder Muhammad Yusuf used in his preaching, namely the idea that Western-style education (and democracy) were anti-Islamic. Boko Haram was involved sporadically in violence before 2009, but its transformation into a sustained insurgency occurred that year, when Yusuf and his followers clashed with authorities. Yusuf was killed during the initial uprising, but his followers regrouped under Abubakar Shekau and began to commit regular assassinations and attacks the next year. Boko Haram began to hold significant amounts of territory in northeastern Nigeria in 2014, which prompted Nigeria’s neighbors to intervene more strongly. In 2015, back on the defensive, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL). Boko Haram continues to stage attacks in Nigeria, as well as in the neighboring countries, especially Niger. In summer 2016, a public schism emerged in the group, with one faction remaining loyal to Shekau and another following Abu Mus‘ab al-Barnawi, who has pledged to reduce civilian casualties and refocus Boko Haram’s efforts on fighting states and militaries. Boko Haram is most infamous for its mass kidnapping of 276 teenage schoolgirls in the town of Chibok, Nigeria in April 2014.

How has the Nigerian government responded to Boko Haram?

The Nigerian government has used a heavy-handed, military-focused approach to Boko Haram. The approach involves serious and systematic human rights violations—extrajudicial killings, collective arrests, detentions without trial, and torture. This approach has itself become a driver of the crisis, antagonizing civilians and reducing their willingness to work with authorities. In some cases, a desire for revenge has even pushed some civilians into joining or working with Boko Haram. Nigerian politicians repeatedly debated and haltingly pursued the idea of dialogue with Boko Haram starting around 2012, but it was not until 2016 that negotiations bore some fruit, resulting in two waves of releases/prisoner swaps of some of the “Chibok girls.” The current president, Muhammadu Buhari (elected 2015), has been quite eager to declare Boko Haram defeated, but its attacks continue to trouble the northeastern part of Nigeria.

What are the biggest misperceptions about Boko Haram?

One key misperception is the idea that Boko Haram is a direct consequence of demography, poverty, and underdevelopment in northern Nigeria. That thesis does not explain why Boko Haram emerged in the northeast, rather than elsewhere in the north, nor does it explain why there are not many more movements like Boko Haram in Nigeria’s neighbors, which suffer from many of the same problems. In a related way, many observers continue to believe that Boko Haram’s founder Muhammad Yusuf was a nonviolent critic of Nigerian government corruption; in truth, he rejected the entire premise of Nigeria’s secular state, and he flirted with violent jihadism from an early point in his career. By the time Yusuf’s message was fully developed, he was not calling for reform in the existing order, but for a complete overhaul of the system.

Another key misconception, however, is the claim that Boko Haram is merely an extension of the global jihadist movement—that it was created and managed by al-Qaeda, or that it now is merely a branch of the Islamic State. The reality is more complicated; Boko Haram’s early contacts with al-Qaeda were patchy, and al-Qaeda had trouble getting Yusuf and Shekau to follow their advice, so much so that al-Qaeda seems to have broken off contact with Yusuf well before the 2009 uprising, which was a disaster for Boko Haram. Given the flaws in these simplistic hypotheses—the poverty hypothesis or the global jihadism hypothesis—there is a need to develop more complicated understandings of Boko Haram. That’s what my book tries to do.

What are the key arguments of your book?

The main argument is that Boko Haram reflects a complicated intersection of politics and religion in northeastern Nigeria, and that this intersection can only be understood by examining developments at the local level, especially in the city of Maiduguri and the surrounding state of Borno. Political developments that contributed to Boko Haram’s rise included the implementation of “full shari‘a” in northern Nigerian states in the early 2000s, a highly competitive gubernatorial election in Borno in 2003, and bitter memories among northern Muslims regarding intercommunal violence dating back to the 1980s. Religious developments involved a rapidly shifting “religious field” in northeastern Nigeria. Yusuf’s rise coincided with new opportunities for young preachers to gain prominence as key scholars in Maiduguri were either aging and passing away, or were absent because they were studying in the Arab world.

Another, related argument is that although Boko Haram horrified and antagonized almost all Muslims in northern Nigeria, it did not come out of nowhere. Boko Haram and Yusuf picked up on ideas that had been circulating for several decades, particularly the idea that Nigeria needed to become an Islamic state, and the idea that Western-style education was undermining the moral fabric of northern Nigerian society.

In what way does religion matter for Boko Haram?

When the relationship between religion and jihadism gets discussed in the media and popular outlets, analysts often focus on the question of whether individuals really believe in what they’re saying—whether jihadists are pious and well-informed about religion, and whether recruits join jihadist groups out of conviction or opportunism. To me, those debates are of limited interest because it’s difficult to get inside the minds and hearts of individuals, and to know what they really believe. So for me, the most important way to think about religion’s role in jihadism is in terms of the “religious field”—the totality of actors and institutions vying to define and shape a religious tradition in a particular setting. Whether or not Boko Haram’s leaders and followers are truly religious and pious, they certainly see themselves as operating in a religious field. Their vocabulary, their propaganda, the leaders’ interactions with followers, and often the targets of their violence all reflect a self-conscious invocation of religion and Islam, or at least Islam as Boko Haram tries to define it. A big part of the book is an effort to show how Boko Haram found a niche in northern Nigeria’s religious field, and how it has tried to reshape the field around it.

ThurstonAlexander Thurston is visiting assistant professor of African studies at Georgetown University and the author of Salafism in Nigeria: Islam, Preaching, and Politics.

Browse Our Religion 2018 Catalog

The offerings in our new Religion catalog include an in-depth investigation of the philanthropic projects of the billionaire evangelical owners of the craft chain Hobby Lobby and their plans to make America a “Bible Nation” once again, a new historically-grounded critique of the religious nationalism and radical secularism found on both sides of America’s culture war, and an examination of the key cognitive process that makes religion possible.

If you’ll be at the joint Annual Meetings of AAR-SBL in Boston this weekend, please join us at Booth 2627 in the Exhibit Hall. Stop by any time to see our full range of religion titles.


Like many evangelical Christians, the Green family of Oklahoma City believes that America was founded as a Christian nation, based on a “biblical worldview.” But the Greens are far from typical evangelicals. As America’s biggest financial supporters of Christian causes they are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in an ambitious effort to increase the Bible’s influence on American society. The crown jewel of their efforts, the lavishly-appointed Museum of the Bible, is opening this weekend in Washington DC around the corner from the National Mall. In Bible Nation, Candida Moss and Joel Baden provide the first in-depth investigative account of the Greens’ sweeping Bible projects and the many questions they raise.

Was the United States founded as a Christian nation or a secular democracy? Neither,argues Philip Gorski in his new history of “civil religion” in the United States, American Covenant. What the founders actually envisioned was a prophetic republic that would weave together the ethical vision of the Hebrew prophets and the Western political heritage of civic republicanism. In this ambitious book, Gorski shows why this civil religious tradition is now in peril—and with it the American experiment.

Religion remains a crucial influence in the world today, yet as sociologist of religion Christian Smith argues, the social sciences are still not adequately equipped to understand and explain it. Building on recent developments in social science theory and philosophy, this book advances an innovative theory of religion that addresses key questions about the nature, powers, workings, appeal, and future of religion.


Candida Moss & Joel Baden on Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby

Like many evangelical Christians, the Green family of Oklahoma City believes that America was founded on a “biblical worldview as a Christian nation.” But the Greens are far from typical evangelicals in other ways. The billionaire owners of Hobby Lobby, a huge nationwide chain of craft stores, the Greens came to national attention in 2014 after successfully suing the federal government over their religious objections to provisions of the Affordable Care Act. What is less widely known is that the Greens are now America’s biggest financial supporters of Christian causes—and they are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in an ambitious effort to increase the Bible’s influence on American society. In Bible Nation, Candida Moss and Joel Baden provide the first in-depth investigative account of the Greens’ sweeping Bible projects and the many questions they raise. Read on to learn more about the Greens, Hobby Lobby, and their forthcoming Museum of the Bible.

What does the crafting store Hobby Lobby have to do with the Bible?
For those who know Hobby Lobby simply from its hundreds of stores, the connection with the Bible may not be immediately apparent. But the owners of Hobby Lobby, the Green family, have been major players in the world of evangelical Christianity for many years. In the last decade or so, they have been working toward the opening of a new Museum of the Bible, scheduled to open in November 2017 in Washington D.C., just a few blocks from the National Mall. To this end, they have been collecting biblical artifacts at an astonishing rate: around 40,000 items in total. A group of scholars has been recruited to study and publish much of this material. The Greens have also created a Bible curriculum, originally intended for public schools, and now marketed to home-schoolers. The question we try to address in the book is how the evangelical beliefs of the Green family have influenced these various Bible-oriented ventures, and what it means for the kinds of products, including the museum, that they are producing.

Forty thousand items— that sounds like a lot!
Indeed. Most collections of that size take generations to build, but the Greens acquired the bulk of their collection in just a few years. The speed with which they went about this came with some complications, though, as was featured in the news earlier this summer: thousands of cuneiform texts from Iraq had been illegally imported to the U.S. and were seized by customs officials, with the result that Hobby Lobby had to forfeit them. In the early years of their buying spree, they seem not to have been especially careful to observe the proper cultural heritage laws.

What about their Bible curriculum?
Originally, the curriculum they developed was going to be used in American public schools, as part of an elective course. When the ACLU got their hands on the draft of the curriculum, however, it quickly became apparent that this was not a purely secular view of the Bible that was being presented. It was basically an evangelical Protestant curriculum, and it was eventually withdrawn and retooled. Now it is available for homeschool communities. But it still suffers from some of the faith-based biases of its creators, subtly offering a Christian understanding of the Bible and challenging many of the commonly accepted scholarly claims about the Bible—maintaining, for instance, that Moses may have written some parts of the Torah.

Why are they putting their Bible museum in Washington, D.C.?
There is a good reason that so many museums are in the capital: it’s a major tourist destination, especially for museum-goers. More people will experience the museum in D.C. than they would almost anywhere else. At the same time, though, the Greens believe that the United States is a deeply Christian nation, and that the Bible played a major part in its formation, going back to the Founding Fathers. The placement of the museum just a few steps from the Capitol building is meaningful for them: they want to make sure that members of the government know how important the Bible has been, and take the Bible more into consideration as they lead the country.

What’s wrong with evangelicals wanting to bring public attention to the Bible?
Nothing at all—they are private citizens, and they have the right to spend their money as they like, and the right to attempt to educate and influence however they see fit. Where they run into problems, at least in our view, is in the way that they describe their project. They don’t see themselves as putting forward an evangelical Christian view of the Bible—they’re different from, say, the fundamentalist Creation Museum in Kentucky. They strenuously claim that everything they do is “non-sectarian,” and is simply trying to tell the story of the Bible in an objective manner. But the story they are telling is, in fact, a very Protestant one. Our concern is that they are misleading the public, presenting a particular faith’s version of the Bible as if it were the truth, full stop. In their defense, it’s not clear that they’re even entirely aware that this is what they are doing. They are so steeped in their faith tradition that they seem at times simply ignorant that what they are saying might not be accepted by everyone outside it.

How did you become interested in Hobby Lobby and the Museum of the Bible in the first place?
It began with an innocent conversation at a professional conference. A friend of ours mentioned that he had been trying to track down a particular papyrus to study, but learned that it had been purchased by Hobby Lobby. This was before most of their plans, including the museum, were widely known, and we were mystified: what would a crafting chain want with biblical artifacts? As we learned more about their collection—which was already massive—we thought it was a story worth telling, and we began writing a piece on it for The Atlantic. The more we researched, the deeper we got, and the more we learned about not only the collection but the curriculum, the scholarly initiatives, and the planned museum. We quickly realized that there was more than just an article here—that this was a book, and one that would hopefully open a window onto a much wider set of issues, such as the intersection of private faith and the public sphere. And though the book is finished, the story is still ongoing.

Moss&BadenCandida R. Moss is the Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham and the author of, among other books, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Dangerous Legacy (HarperOne). Joel S. Baden is professor of Hebrew Bible at the Yale Divinity School. His books include The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero (HarperOne).

Museums & Theme Parks in Bible Nation

Like many evangelical Christians, the Green family value their faith above all else, and enjoy sharing their beliefs with others. But the Green family is also a family of extraordinary wealth, thanks to the Hobby Lobby, their successful chain of craft stores with locations nationwide. And it’s because of their wealth that they can share their faith with others on a massive scale. The family has funded the construction of the Museum of the Bible, set to open in November 17 near the National Mall in Washington, D.C. This attraction will be more than just an informative collection of artifacts, however, as the Green’s $500 million investment will blur the line between theme park and museum. In their new book, Bible Nation, Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden detail the creation of this museum, and how it is different from any other Christian attraction in the United States.

According to Moss and Baden, the Bible Museum was never intended to be a simple, traditional tribute to the Christian faith. The museum was the brainchild of Donald Jonathan Shipman (1964-2013), a Christian who felt a call from God to found a Bible museum to share his own collection of ancient Bibles and manuscripts. As described in Bible Nation, “His plan was to build a collection of biblical manuscripts and house it in a museum in Dallas … with an aura of Indiana Jones flashiness to it.” So, right from its inception, the Museum of the Bible was envisioned as something big, flashy, and extravagant – something which Shipman was familiar with, based on his history working in movie production. With the financial and spiritual support of the Greens, Shipman could realize his lavish vision, as the 430,000-square-foot museum boasts a replica of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, a rooftop garden, and a biblically themed restaurant in addition to its many exhibits. This museum is clearly meant to entertain guests just as much, if not more, than it seeks to inspire them.

Moss and Baden also point out, however, that Shipman and the Green’s creation is not the first of its kind, as a museum or as an amusement park. In Orlando, the Holy Land Experience attempts to compete with its secular neighbors, Disney World and Universal Studios, for tourists by offering a recreation of first-century Jerusalem. The attraction, like the Museum of the Bible, houses a collection of biblical manuscripts, but is still marketed as a theme park as opposed to a place for visitors to learn about their faith. More traditional faith-based museums exist, however, that more closely resemble the Museum of the Bible. In fact, Moss and Baden mentions two Kentucky-based museums that, like the Green’s museum, highlight key aspects of the Christian faith and provide a sense of spectacle for victors, including a life-sized replica of Noah’s ark.

But what makes The Museum of the Bible different and, possibly, more appealing than its peers is the exclusivity of its exhibitions. Moss and Baden describe two showings, Verbum Domini and Verbum Domini II, which were organized by the Vatican and marks the first time that they allowed a double page of Codex Vaticanus, one of the oldest copies of the New Testament, to be included in an independent exhibition. Additionally, Moss and Baden describe a partnership between the Museum of the Bible and the Israel Antiquities Authority as the first time the IAA has had a semi-permanent outpost in a foreign country.

Throughout Bible Nation, Moss and Baden provide an in-depth portrait of the Green family and their place in America’s political and religious spheres. And with the Museum of the Bible, the Greens will continue their reign as the most influential forces in the Christian faith, not just by giving more money to Christian outreach than anyone else in America, but by sharing their beliefs on a grand scale in the same place where America’s politicians make key decisions regarding our nation’s future. Over the course of the book, Moss and Baden reveal that, while there have been other attractions like the Museum of the Bible in the United States, there has never been an attraction as prolific.

Richard Rex: 95 Theses on Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation

RexLegend has it that on October 31, 1517, German professor of theology Martin Luther nailed Ninety-Five Theses to the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, sparking the Protestant Reformation in a single, rebellious act. In The Making of Martin Luther, professor of Reformation history at the University of Cambridge Richard Rex shows that this momentous event never occurred. In this major new account of the most intensely creative years of Luther’s career, Rex takes a provocative look at the intellectual emergence of one of the most original and influential minds of the sixteenth century. Lucidly argued and elegantly written, The Making of Martin Luther is a splendid work of intellectual history that renders Luther’s earthshaking yet sometimes challenging ideas accessible to a new generation of readers. To learn more about the ideas in his book, read on for Richard Rex’s Ninety-Five Theses on Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. 

I                          Martin Luther did not nail the Ninety-Five Theses to the doors of the Castle Church in     Wittenberg on 31 October 1517.

II                        That was a myth created by Philip Melanchthon through the conflation of hazy reports and recollections nearly thirty years later.

III                       The Ninety-Five Theses were posted that day – by mail, to the Archbishop of Mainz, Albrecht von Hohenzollern.

IV                       The Ninety-Five Theses did not cross all Germany within four weeks. It was not until January 1518 that they spread like wildfire.

V                        The Ninety-Five Theses neither expressed nor reflected Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone, which he had not yet formulated.

VI                       The key to justification by faith alone was the sense of certainty of divine grace which it conferred upon believers.

VII                     Such certainty is not only absent from the Ninety-Five Theses, but is explicitly denied in Luther’s covering letter to the archbishop.

VIII                    Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone is a simple doctrine which many people, even some Protestants, find hard to understand.

IX                       Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone was unthinkable without the prior development of the theology of indulgences.

X                        Justification by faith alone represented not so much the abolition of indulgences as their ultimate extension and elaboration.

XI                       Indulgences were not selling salvation or forgiveness. They were remittances of punishment in reward for charitable acts or gifts.

XII                     It was not the unpopularity of indulgences that drove Luther to protest in 1517, but their popularity.

XIII                    Luther did not proclaim what many had long thought but never dared to say. He said what had never before been thought.

XIV                    The Protestant Reformers came not from the margins of the late medieval church, but from its intellectual and moral elite.

XV                     Although there were many Protestant Reformers, Luther was neither one among many nor even first among equals.

XVI                    Luther was the one: they were the many. No Luther, no Reformation.

XVII                  The personality cult of Martin Luther in his lifetime saw the structure of a saint’s cult applied to a living person.

XVIII                 No other Protestant Reformer was the object of such a cult in their lifetime.

XIX                    Luther alone of the Protestant Reformers saw the impossibility of reconciling justification by faith alone with the Epistle of James.

XX                     All the early Protestant Reformers took their lead from Luther and found their inspiration in him.

XXI                    Ulrich Zwingli alone claimed that his path to Reformation was entirely independent of Luther’s.

XXII                  That Zwingli was entirely independent of Luther’s influence is mere flummery, dependent on Zwingli’s unsupported word.

XXIII                 Zwingli made this claim only after he had fallen out with Luther. It was not true.

XXIV                 Andreas Carlstadt was unwilling to play second fiddle to Luther, but was unable to snatch the lead from him.

XXV                  Philip Melanchthon was a derivative thinker who always bore the impression of the last person to sit upon him – usually Luther.

XXVI                 Martin Bucer was one of the most original Protestant Reformers, but lacked the charisma to win a significant following for himself.

XXVII               John Calvin’s most distinctive religious ideas were derived entirely from others, most notably from Martin Bucer.

XXVIII              John Knox was a prophet of the Old Testament disguised as an apostle of the New.

XXIX                 Ulrich von Hutten adopted Luther’s cause solely for the impetus it might give to the concept of the German Nation.

XXX                  Ulrich von Hutten had no grasp of Luther’s religious teaching as such.

XXXI                 The idea that Luther himself was only following the teaching of Augustine of Hippo is a radical misunderstanding of both men.

XXXII               For Luther, Augustine only ever said two things of real value – and he invariably misquoted one of them.

XXXIII              Luther’s doctrine of original sin was not Augustine’s, but one that Augustine repudiated when it was imputed to him by his opponents.

XXXIV              Luther’s misreading of Augustine on original sin was rich in consequences for his theology.

XXXV               Despite the early influence of Augustine upon him, Luther shed Augustinian habits of thought as completely as the Augustinian habit.

XXXVI              Renaissance humanism was not in any significant sense a ‘cause’ of the Protestant Reformation.

XXXVII            Luther always knew that he disagreed with Erasmus. Erasmus only slowly came to realise that he disagreed with Luther.

XXXVIII           By the time Erasmus saw Luther as a threat to the unity of Christendom, it was too late for his weight to turn the scales.

XXXIX              Erasmus failed to grasp the revolutionary significance of Luther’s teachings.

XL                      Luther perfectly appreciated the essentially conservative character of Erasmus’s religious teachings.

XLI                    Luther’s theology was formulated not in the language of Renaissance humanist scholarship but in that of the Vulgate Latin Bible.

XLII                   Luther’s theology depended not on the Greek or Hebrew scriptures, but on the Vulgate Bible and on the Latin theological tradition.

XLIII                  Luther’s appeal to the Bible alone was plausible and popular, but was soon shown by events to be fatally flawed.

XLIV                 This ‘scripture principle’ resulted in so many rival versions of Christianity that it showed itself to be no practical use at all.

XLV                   Luther never fully thought through the Biblical tag he loved to quote against his opponents: ‘All men are liars’.

XLVI                 For Luther, the plain sense of scripture meant taking Christ literally when he said, ‘This is my body’.

XLVII                For Zwingli, the plain sense of scripture meant not taking Christ literally when he said, ‘This is my body’.

XLVIII               Luther thought Zwingli a Nestorian. Zwingli thought Luther a Eutychian. Each knew the Bible was on his side.

XLIX                 Neither Luther nor any other Reformer advocated the right of the individual to make up their own minds about what the Bible taught.

L                         ‘Anticlericalism’ was not a ‘cause’ of the Reformation, though criticism of and violence against the clergy played their part.

LI                       Anticlericalism was not a growing problem that was bound to culminate in catastrophe for the late medieval Church.

LII                      If the friars had been widely resented and hated around 1500, Luther would hardly have joined an order of friars.

LIII                     Criticism of priests in the later Middle Ages was nowhere near as pervasive and corrosive as that of politicians in our own times.

LIV                    Medieval anticlericalism no more necessitated a Reformation than modern ‘antipoliticianism’ necessitates a revolution.

LV                      Just as we have no word for the denunciation of politicians, so too medieval Europe had no word for the denunciation of priests.

LVI                    The printing press was neither intrinsically nor necessarily more favourable to Protestantism than to Catholicism.

LVII                   The printing press might be considered the creation of the late medieval Church. The earliest printed item may have been an indulgence.

LVIII                  The classic printed text of the Reformation was not the popular pamphlet but the official catechism.

LIX                    The idea that preaching was in decline on the eve of the Reformation is a comical misapprehension.

LX                      The rapidly growing provision for preaching in the late medieval Church was a springboard for the Reformation.

LXI                    Luther and the Reformers were not the first to preach in the vernacular: preaching to the laity was always in the vernacular.

LXII                   Luther’s was not the first German translation of the Bible, though it was the most widely read and the most influential.

LXIII                  It is a misleading simplification to suggest that Luther invented congregational singing.

LXIV                 Lay participation in church music was an increasing feature of late medieval Christianity: Luther himself had been a choirboy.

LXV                   Far from being in terminal decline, late medieval Christianity was flourishing as never before.

LXVI                 The devotion of late medieval Christians to the upkeep and embellishment of their parish churches is one of the wonders of history.

LXVII                The Reformation was, from one perspective, the excommunication of the dead.

LXVIII               The elimination of the cult of the saints is one of the most striking achievements of the Protestant Reformation.

LXIX                 There is a deep affinity between the rejection of images from churches and the denial of the real presence of Jesus in the eucharist.

LXX                   The Reformation was a bourgeois phenomenon, but not a bourgeois revolution.

LXXI                 Yet Protestant beliefs and practices were no better suited to life in early modern cities than were those of Catholicism.

LXXII                The Reformation can to some extent be viewed as a rebellion of the rich against the poor.

LXXIII               Yet far from favouring capitalism, the early Reformers were even more firmly opposed to ‘usury’ than were their Catholic opponents.

LXXIV              The connection between Protestantism and the rise of capitalism was essentially fortuitous. There were plenty of Catholic capitalists.

LXXV                The connection between the Reformation and the enrichment of specific individuals was direct and unmistakable.

LXXVI              Luther was appalled when German peasants inferred from his doctrine of ‘Christian Liberty’ that Christians ought to be free.

LXXVII             It was the decisions of a generation of princes of the Holy Roman Empire that determined the fate of the Protestant Reformation.

LXXVIII            Princes were as likely as anyone else to be caught up in the fervid popular enthusiasm for Luther and his teachings.

LXXIX              Nowhere did the Catholic Mass cease to be celebrated until and unless it was forbidden by public law.

LXXX                Nowhere did Protestantism, once introduced, disappear except as a result of strenuous persecution.

LXXXI              The offer of the eucharistic chalice to the laity was one of the most potent and appealing symbols of the Protestant Reformation.

LXXXII             In almost all its forms, precisely because of its biblical focus, Protestantism did not weaken, but strengthened, patriarchal ties.

LXXXIII            Protestant polemic against Catholicism routinely deployed the stereotypes of misogyny along with accusations of effeminacy.

LXXXIV           The beards sported by so many Protestant Reformers consciously embodied and eloquently expressed their patriarchal proclivities.

LXXXV             Luther did not think Roman Catholicism made forgiveness too easy: he thought it made forgiveness too difficult.

LXXXVI           Luther did not think Roman Catholicism gave people a false sense of security: he felt it gave them no security at all.

LXXXVII          Luther remained a loyal Catholic until he could no longer believe that the religion of the Pope was the true Catholic faith.

LXXXVIII         The one thing on which almost all Protestants agreed during the Reformation was that the Pope was Antichrist.

LXXXIX           Luther invented the concept of the ‘invisible church’.

XC                     Luther’s belief in the existence and activity of Satan was almost as lively and compelling as his belief in Christ.

XCI                    Protestants and Catholics alike accused each of ‘judaizing’, deploying against each other the stereotypes of antisemitism.

XCII                   The ferocity of Luther’s antisemitism was extreme but not unique.

XCIII                 For example, Luther’s Catholic opponent, Johann Eck, published an encyclopaedic reiteration of the infamous ‘blood libel’.

XCIV                 Luther’s virulence in all controversy shocked not only his opponents but even his friends and followers.

XCV                  In 1500, western Christendom was a seamless robe. By 1600, it was a patchwork quilt. That was the Reformation.

Richard Rex on The Making of Martin Luther


The Making of Martin Luther takes a provocative look at the intellectual emergence of one of the most original and influential minds of the sixteenth century. Richard Rex traces how, in a concentrated burst of creative energy in the few years surrounding his excommunication by Pope Leo X in 1521, this lecturer at an obscure German university developed a startling new interpretation of the Christian faith that brought to an end the dominance of the Catholic Church in Europe. Luther’s personal psychology and cultural context played their parts in the whirlwind of change he unleashed. But for the man himself, it was always about the ideas, the truth, and the Gospel. Lucidly argued and elegantly written, The Making of Martin Luther is a splendid work of intellectual history that renders Luther’s earthshaking yet sometimes challenging ideas accessible to a new generation of readers. Read on to learn more about this key figure of the Protestant Reformation.

Why The Making of Martin Luther?
Martin Luther was very much a self-made man, though he would not have appreciated the compliment. From his point of view, he was made by God—not only in the basic sense soon to be inculcated by the catechism, but in the special sense that God had raised him up as an apostolic and almost apocalyptic figure to renew the preaching of the Gospel on earth. My book sets out the process by which Luther came to a new understanding of the relationship between the individual Christian and God, a process which integrally involved coming to a new understanding of himself.

A vital word. Luther’s professional focus on the epistles of Paul—generally known at that time simply as ‘the Apostle’—in the 1510s was the crucible in which both his new account of the Christian faith and his new understanding of himself were forged. Luther modeled himself increasingly on Paul and came to see himself in apostolic guise.

Definitely. Luther cannot be properly understood if due account is not taken of his sense of the imminence of the end times. Like most of his Christian contemporaries, he did not expect the world to last that much longer, but his own sense of the end of days was much more urgent, largely because of his conviction that the Papacy, which was swift to condemn him and his teachings, must be the Antichrist. The medieval myth of the Antichrist, which Luther adopted and adapted, saw this terrible figure as the herald of the final act of human history. If the Antichrist was in action, then the end really could not be far off.

Is your book a full biography?
The Making of Martin Luther is biographical, but not a biography, still less a full biography. Its unrelenting focus is on the development of Luther’s thinking, of his theology. If it was not for Luther’s ideas, we would never have heard of him. Chronologically, it is concerned with the first half of his career, the period of radical innovation, rather than with his last twenty years, the years of consolidation. It’s about how Luther brought down one establishment, not how he built up another.

One of your chapters is entitled ‘The Catholic Luther.’ Why?
Luther, like all the first generation Protestant Reformers, started out as a Catholic, and neither he nor the others can be understood without reference to their shared Catholic background. Luther only developed his ideas because he was a theologian. And he was only a theologian because of a very ‘Catholic’ event in his life: his ‘conversion’ to the professional religious life in fulfillment of a vow made to a saint in a thunderstorm. And Luther’s new ideas, though radical, reflected central concerns of late medieval Catholic theology, such as sin and grace, and the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ. For example, Luther’s consuming sense of the superabundant sufficiency of Christ’s Passion for the redemption of sin was, paradoxically, a version of the same idea that lay beneath the Catholic doctrine and practice of indulgences, against which he notoriously protested.

There are lots of books about Luther, even lots of new books. Why read this one?
The story of Luther is still bedeviled by misunderstandings—about what his key ideas were and when they emerged, about what was really different in his ideas, and about the Catholic ideas from which he increasingly stood apart. Some misunderstandings can be traced back to Luther himself, whose vast and diverse output requires very careful and contextual interpretation. Others are canonized in the long tradition of Luther studies, passing like viruses from one biography to another. Historians can struggle with the theology, and theologians can stumble over the history and chronology. I’m not the best historian, and I’m not the best theologian. But few historians of this period can match my grasp of the theological issues, and few theologians can match my capacity to interrogate sources historically. This book has sought to put the story together again from square one, on the basis of a critical and unsentimental engagement with the sources. It strips away the rust of tradition to reveal an entirely fresh image of Luther in the crucial phase of his life.

Richard Rex is professor of Reformation history at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Queens’ College. His books include Tudors: The Illustrated History and Henry VIII and the English Reformation. He lives in Cambridge.