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Samuel and Saul in Medieval Political Thought

Samuel and Saul in Medieval Political Thought


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Samuel and Saul in Medieval Political Thought

By Josef Funkenstein

Hebriac Political Studies, Vol. 2, No. 2 (2007)

Abstract: The Old Testament narrative of Samuel and Saul has been interpreted by Jewish and Christian thinkers in many ways. Some find there a justification of kingship and even a divine right of kings, while others consider the Israelites’ request for a king sinful, emphasizing God’s reluctance to grant their request and the inherent primacy of spiritual over temporal rule. This article traces the history of a medieval struggle for supremacy between spiritual and temporal authority, between pope or church and monarch, following the employment of the aforementioned Old Testament narrative—alone or in dialogue with Roman sources—in political thought and action. Ultimately, we find argued here, the struggle between king and priest would be replaced by a struggle between king and people, which may have departed from Samuel and Saul but did not depart altogether from biblical parallels and divine foundations.

Introduction: The Old Testament had a significant influence on medieval Christian political thought. Particularly in the struggle for authority in which the empire and the papacy were engaged, the two competing camps were anxious to find support for their opinions in a legal authority that was beyond censure or doubt. The Bible was such an authority and served as the court of highest appeal. At the same time, however, each party to the conflict chose only those proof-texts that confirmed its own arguments.

It was most appropriate, and even natural, that the relationship between the kings and priests of the Old Testament served as the tertium comparationis (arena for comparison). The struggle that broke out between Samuel and Saul had been particularly tempestuous, with Samuel first anointing Saul as king and later denying him his sovereign authority. did this not imply that the highest political authority rested with the priests and that the kings served only as their representatives? Another interpretation, pointed out by the royalist party, was that Samuel had acted only on the express instructions of god, and no conclusions of general import can be drawn from his acts: rulers and priests are both organs of the Church. Anointment transforms a prince into a king, with authority both in the Church and over the Church. He is the highest priest, within whose power it lies to appoint other priests and to dismiss them.


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