Top of page

John Selden As An Early Modern Maccabee

Share this post:

The eastern face of the Jerusalem Temple as seen from within the courtyard on the Temple Mount

We are in the midst of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah. Often known as “the Festival of Lights” in reference to the basic feature of its observance – the lighting of the eight-branched candelabra – Hanukkah commemorates the events surrounding the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem after a period of political oppression and forced Hellenization at the hands of the Seleucid monarch of Syro-Palestine, Antiochus Epiphanes IV between the year 167 and 165 BC. While it is remote from the concerns of modern Judaism, the Temple of Jerusalem was for centuries the most important symbol of the religious life and national identity of the Jewish people. Probably built by the Israelite King Solomon in the 10th Century BC, the Temple was destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed again over a period of a thousand years, but it always exercised a hold over the religious imagination of the Jews. Throughout its existence and even long afterward, it was the subject of arcane theology, fantasy and prophetic vision. One persistent vision, first articulated by the prophet Isaiah in the sixth century BC (Isaiah 56:7), describes a time when the Temple of Jerusalem will be a place of worship for all nations. This idea found its way into a unique treatise by the seventeenth century English jurist John Selden, De Jure Naturali et Gentium Juxta Disciplinam Ebreorum (1640). This work can be found in several editions in the rare book collection of the Law Library of Congress.

The northern face of the structure containing the sanctuary

John Selden (1584-1654) was, among the men of Renaissance England, the most educated expositor of rabbinic literature. At a time and in a country in which the average man believed Jews to be misanthropic, usurious and dishonorable, John Selden set out to research the sacred texts of rabbinic Judaism with sympathy and interest. He wrote no less than six full-length treatises on rabbinic law. The third of these works, De Jure Naturali et Gentium Juxta Disciplinam Ebreorum (1640), was an examination of the concepts of natural law and the ius gentium as they were taught in the rabbinic tradition.

The eastern face of the Temple Mount as seen from the Kidron Valley

At the heart of Selden’s presentation is an analysis of the rabbinic concept of the Noahide laws, a code of seven laws which God purportedly gave to mankind at creation. Legend has it that these laws were transmitted to posterity by Noah and his sons after the flood and that they have served ever since as the fundamental moral code that governs all humanity. The laws include six prohibitions and a duty. They are a ban on idolatry, blasphemy, murder, theft, sexual immorality, and a specific form of animal cruelty – the eating of a limb of an animal that is still alive. The one duty included in the list is the injunction that every community should establish a court of law. Selden extrapolates much from these laws and in the course of a digressive work of research into rabbinic lore generates a template for ethics, family law, government, international law and religion (for a rabbinic source on this material see Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkot melakim u-milhamot 8:9-10:12)

The floor plan of the Temple complex

This last point – that the Noahide law provided for the religious life of non-Jews – leads to one of the most interesting discussions in the work. Selden believed that the Temple of Jerusalem was designed to permit the children of Noah, that is, the mass of mankind who observe the Noahide commandments, to participate in Temple worship alongside the children of Israel. The engravings that adorn this blog post were created for a 1665 Strasburg edition of De Jure Naturali et Gentium to illustrate this point; they are part of a passage (book III, chapter 6) in which Selden presents a detailed analysis of the Temple plans and a glimpse into the way the Temple served as an inclusive and welcoming place of worship for all nations.

In the background of Selden’s project lurked a question that was posed by Hugo Grotius’ theory of natural law in the groundbreaking De Jure Belli ac Pacis (1625) – a work that preoccupied Selden and that only a few years earlier had opened up a new era of natural law theorizing in Western Europe: can law be obligatory when it is not commanded by a superior? Grotius answered the question in the affirmative, arguing that the natural law must be constructed in a way that appeals to reason, but that it remains valid etiamsi daremus non esse deum (even if we grant that God does not exist).

A look into the Holy of Holies

Selden, on the other hand, believed that law can only be binding if it is commanded by a superior – by God, for instance. Even the law of reason, even the universal laws of nature, need in the final analysis to be commanded in order to be binding; otherwise the law has no authority. This explains why it is so important for Selden’s theory that the source of the law should be located in a purported revelation from God. It also explains the necessity for Selden to stipulate a universally valid form of worship. A center of worship focuses and promotes a reverend attitude toward the divine and therefore a reverend attitude toward the law. A universal center of worship transcends national boundaries and the divisions of the churches, thereby opening up a possibility for a divinely sanctioned international law that ostensibly escapes Grotius’ secular turn.

The result is an interesting inversion for a Hanukkah blog post: Selden takes the great goal of Hellenistic civilization – universalism and the suppression of anything parochial – and reinvents universal natural law in the idiom of history’s stubbornest parochial identity. So there, Antiochus.


  1. Nice!

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.