Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

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 xxyyyk.htm">Providence, the way for the New Dispensation—the Kingdom of Heaven so often mentioned in the Gospels.


More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Second Corinthians 4:7-15
7 But we hold this treasure in pots of earthenware, ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6
1 [Song of Ascents] When Yahweh brought back Zion's ... Read More

Gospel, Matthew 20:20-28
20 Then the mother of Zebedee's sons came with her ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for July 25th, 2014 Image

St. James the Greater
July 25: For James there was no indication that this was the day that his ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter