Research Handbook on Law and Religion
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Research Handbook on Law and Religion

Edited by Rex Ahdar

Offering an interdisciplinary, international and philosophical perspective, this comprehensive Research Handbook explores both perennial and recent legal issues that concern the modern state and its interaction with religious communities and individuals.
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Chapter 4: Jeremy Bentham and the problem of the authority of biblical law

Jonathan Burnside


Jeremy Bentham’s thinking on biblical law is powerful and significant because it encapsulates an entire way of thinking about and practising law – even to the extent that it shapes modern assumptions about how we ought to read biblical law. Despite this, Bentham’s handling of biblical law has not been subject to critical analysis. This chapter turns Bentham’s critique upon itself and challenges his reading of biblical law. It argues that Bentham’s treatment of biblical law is flawed throughout because it is derived from Bentham’s own self-constructed standards of reference. He consistently misreads and misrepresents the biblical texts, both on their own terms and in regard to innate modes of Jewish and Christian reception and appropriation. The chapter also shows that although Bentham seeks to overturn the authority of biblical law because it threatens his own ideals of modernity, secularity and utility, he cannot help but ape its language and aspirations. The chapter sets out an alternative understanding of biblical law that goes well beyond classical legal positivism and which is shaped, instead, at point after point, by the covenant narrative of Israel. Only when we deconstruct the influence of Benthamite jurisprudence on the Bible, and pursue a revitalized understanding, can we recover a way of thinking about biblical law that not only does justice to the biblical texts but also their foundational place in Western civilisation.

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