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A form of civil government in which God himself is recognized as the head. The laws of the commonwealth are the commandments of God, and they are promulgated and expounded by the accredited representatives of the invisible Deity, real or supposed—generally a priesthood. Thus in a theocracy civic duties and functions form a part of religion, implying the absorption of the State by the Church or at least the supremacy of the latter over the State.
The earliest recorded use of the term "theocracy" is found in Josephus, who apparently coins it in explaining to Gentile readers the organization of the Jewish commonwealth of his time. Contrasting this with other forms of government—monarchies, oligarchies, and republics—he adds: "Our legislator [Moses] had no regard to any of these forms, but he ordained our government to be what by a strained expression, may be termed a theocracy [theokratian], by ascribing the power and authority to God, and by persuading all the people to have a regard to him as the author of all good things" (Against Apion, book II, 16). In this connection Josephus enters into a long and rather rambling discussion of the topic, but the entire passage is instructive.
The extent to which the ideals of the Mosaic theocracy were realized in the history of the Chosen People is a matter of controversy. Many eminent scholars are inclined to restrict its sway almost exclusively to the post-exilic period, when unquestionably the hierocratic rule and the ordinances of the Priestly Code were more fully carried into effect than in any of the preceding epochs. Be that as it may, and waiving critical discussion of the Old Testament writings with which the solution of the question is intimately connected, attention may be called to the fact that a belief in the theocratic rulership of nations and tribes is, in form more or less crude, characteristic of the common fund of Semitic religious ideas. The various deities were considered as having a territorial jurisdiction, fighting for their respective peoples and defending the lands in which they dwelled. This is amply proved by the extant historic and religious records of the Assyrians and Babylonians, and the same idea finds occasional expression in the Old Testament itself (see, for instance, Judges 11:23 sq.; 1 Samuel 26:19; Ruth 1:15-16, etc.). In a passage of the Book of Judges, Gideon is represented as refusing to accept the kingship offered to him by the people after his victory over the Madianites, in terms implying that the establishment of a permanent monarchy would involve disloyalty to the rule of Yahweh. "I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you, but the Lord shall rule over you" (Judges 8:23). More explicit and stronger expression is given to the same view in the First Book of Kings in connection with the appeal of the people to the aged prophet Samuel to constitute a king over them after the manner of the other nations. The request is displeasing to Samuel and to the Lord Himself, who commands the prophet to accede to the wishes of the people that they may be punished for their rejection of His kingship. "And the Lord said to Samuel: Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to thee. For they have not rejected thee, but me, that I should not reign over them" (1 Samuel 8:7). Again in chap. xii Samuel, in his final discourse to the people, reproaches them in similar words: "you said to me: Nay, but a king shall reign over us: whereas the Lord your God was your king". And at the call of the prophet the Lord sends thunder and rain as a sign of His displeasure, "and you shall know and see that you yourselves have done a great evil in the sight of the Lord, in desiring a king over you".
The bearing of these passages on the historic institution of the theocracy varies in the estimation of different scholars according to the date assigned by them to the sources to which the passages belong. Wellhausen and his school, chiefly on a priori grounds, consider them a retouches of the post-exilic period, but it is far more probable that they form a part of a much older tradition, and indicate that a belief in the Lord's kingship over the Chosen People existed prior to the establishment of the earthly monarchy. At the same time, there is no sufficient warrant for assuming on the authority of these texts that the theocratic rule in Israel came to an end with the inauguration of the monarchy, as is plain from the narration of the Lord's covenant with King David and his descendants (2 Samuel 7:1-17). According to the terms of this covenant the earthly monarch remains under the control of the heavenly King, and is constituted His vicegerent and representative. And this direct dependence of the king on the Lord for wisdom and guidance is assumed throughout the historical records of the Hebrew monarchy. The supreme test of the worthiness of any king to occupy his exalted position is his fidelity to the Lord and His revealed law. The historical books, and still more the writings of the prophets, voice the constant belief that God exercised a special and efficient rule over Israel by blessings, punishments, and deliverances. In the post-exilic period the hierocratic rule became the dominant feature of the Jewish theocracy, and, in spite of its limitations and perversions, it prepared, according to the designs of a wise Providence, the way for the New Dispensation—the Kingdom of Heaven so often mentioned in the Gospels.
VIGOUROUX, Dictionnaire de la Bible, s.v.
APA citation. (1912). Theocracy. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14568a.htm
MLA citation. "Theocracy." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14568a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Herman F. Holbrook. Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. July 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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