2012. Vol.2, No.1, 1-11
Published Online January 2012 in SciRes (http://www.SciRP.org/journal/sm) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/sm.2012.21001
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1
Questioning the Weber Thesis: Capitalist Ethics and
the Hebrew Bible?
Sigmund Wa gner-Tsukamoto
University of Leicester, Leicester, UK
Received Septem ber 2nd, 2011; revised October 16th, 2011; accepted November 22nd, 2011
Weber’s thesis proposed that it was ascetic Protestantism which supported the emergence of modern
capitalism in 17th and 18th century Europe, and that this was a completely new and unique phenomenon
in the history of mankind up to that point in time. This paper casts doubt on the Weber thesis by examin-
ing findings from an economic reconstruction of the Hebrew Bible, and proposing that modern capitalism
the way Weber understood it is already visible in the ancient religious text of the “Hebrew Bible”. By
means of institutional economic reconstruction, I show that the Hebrew Bible and particularly the stories
involving Jacob and Joseph reveal a conceptual structure that can be compared with ideas of modern con-
stitutional and institutional economics. Through this reconstruction, I find myself in agreement with one
of Weber’s early but largely forgotten adversaries, Werner Sombart, who suggested, in a behavioral tradi-
tion, that other religions, and more specifically Jewish thought, contributed to the emergence of modern
capitalism long before the advent of Protestantism.
Keywords: Weber Thesis; Sombart Thesis; Capitalist Ethics of the Hebrew Bible; Capitalist Ethics of
Max Weber had his critics early on when he proposed the
thesis that it was primarily ascetic Protestantism which sup-
ported the emergence of capitalism in the Western World in the
17th and 18th century, because, so Weber claimed, Protestant-
ism gave rise to a new spiritual attitude towards the making of
profit. Werner Sombart was critical of Weber’s position, and
claimed that there were other historic developments which had
seen religion contribute to a capitalist ethos and a “calling for
making money”, as Weber put it. Sombart (1911, 1913) here
especially focused on the entrepreneurial success of Jewish
businesses and their role in the economy. However, mainstream
theology, sociology, or economic sociology have largely for-
gotten and ignored Sombart’s critique of Weber, as Grundmann
and Stehr (2001), for example, noted with regard to classical
In the present paper, I question Weber’s thesis through an in-
stitutional economic reconstruction of some of the key stories
of the Hebrew Bible, such as the Genesis stories involving
Jacob and Joseph. Basic concepts of institutional economic
reconstruction of texts of the Hebrew Bible have been set out in
detail elsewhere (Wagner-Tsukamoto, 2009a, 2009b, 2010,
2011, 2012; see also Wagner-Tsukamoto, 2007). These stories
belong to the earliest, best-known and most fundamental parts
of the Hebrew Bible and are some 4000 - 5000 years old. My
critique proceeded in two steps.
First, by means of textual, economic analysis—this meth-
odological approach was outlined in detail by Wagner-Tsuka-
moto (2009a, 2009b), I argue that the Hebrew Bible reflects a
deeply economic and capitalist ethos the way Weber under-
stood it. Capitalist ethics can in this respect be attributed to
some of the key stories of the Hebrew Bible. In this way, I
closed a gap in Sombart’s critique of Weber: Sombart (1911: pp.
293-294) specifically asked whether it could be shown that
Judaism had influenced ascetic Protestantism. However, he
intentionally left such clarifications to experts in Church history
—who never really picked up this research question (Lehmann,
1993: p. 200). My economic reconstruction of stories of the
Hebrew Bible addressed this forgotten question. I conceptually
drew on ideas of constitutional and institutional economics and
the discussion of private contracting and societal contracting.
Subsequently I explained these ideas when undertaking my
economic reconstruction of the Hebrew Bible. As noted above,
these ideas were originally introduced by Wagner-Tsukamoto
(2001, 2007, 2008a, 2009a, 2009b, 2010, 2011, 2012).
Thus, by means of institutional economic reconstruction I
radicalized the Weber/Sombart dispute, siding with Sombart. I
did so by showing that key concepts of modern capitalism the
way Weber understood them are already clearly visible in the
Hebrew Bible hence implying that modern capitalism, as sus-
pected by Sombart, already existed in ancient times. A key
discovery is that as Weber suggested, capitalist institutions as
we know them do have religious roots, but are—contrary to
Weber—not Protestant but in fact Jewish and date much further
back than Weber anticipated, at least to biblical times, as the
present paper reveals.
The key point I am making in challenging the Weber thesis is
that modern capitalism predates Weber’s suggestions. I propose
that Judaism gave rise to modern capitalism in ancient times, i.e.
when the Hebrew Bible was written. I basically agree with
Sombart on this issue, showing that it was essential features
from Judaism, which deeply reflect on the Hebrew Bible, which
in my reading, gave rise to modern capitalism (“modern” as
Weber understood it) already in ancien t t i me s .
In a second step, I extend my textual critique of Weber’s the-
sis in actual, historical perspective. This gives new and addi-
tional substance and relevance to Sombart’s criticism of Weber.
Sombart (1913) clarified early on how Judaism contributed to a
capitalist ethos and how the geographic shift in Jewish eco-
nomic involvement across Europe in the 17th and 18th century
could account for the changing economic success of various
countries. I make the historical point that whenever institutional
barriers were lowered or removed in any country that restricted
Jews from engaging in economic activity, Jews subsequently
contributed over-proportionally to the economic development
and economic performance of that country.
Weber’s Thesis and Sombart’s Thesis
Weber’s and Sombart’s works on modern capitalism share
much common ground between them. Sombart (1902) first
published ideas on how he thought modern capitalism had been
shaped, amongst other factors by Jewish involvement. Weber’s
treatise on the Protestant ethics and modern capitalism then
seemed to be, at least in part, a counter-point to Sombart, ad-
vancing as an alternative thesis the idea that it was ascetic
Protestants who developed modern capitalism in Europe rather
than the Jews. This debate took a step further when Sombart
subsequently published his specialized study on the Jews and
modern capitalism (1911, 1913), criticizing Weber (e.g. Som-
bart, 1913: pp. 191-192, 248), to which Weber replied in later
editions of his study (Lehmann, 1993: pp. 196-198).
The Weber thesis states that ascetic Protestantism, as it de-
veloped in 17th and 18th century-Europe, supported the emer-
gence of modern capitalism as an economic system because
ascetic Protestantism was accompanied by a new spiritual atti-
tude towards profit-making (see Lehmann, 1993; MacKinnon,
1993; Nipperdey, 1993). In this respect, Weber made out a new
worldview (Weltanschauung) for Protestantism—a deep-rooted
devotion to the calling of making money (Weber, 2001: p. 51,
72). He claimed such an economic devotion and conduct of life
(Lebensführung) was absent from earlier economic activity in
the history of mankind, even amongst Jewish civilizations.
Weber characterized modern capitalism alongside four crite-
ria (Weber, 1976: pp. 21-22, 51-52, 72; Weber, 2001: pp. 29-31,
111; see also Wagner-Tsukamoto, 2009a, Section 7.6): (a) the
rational, industrial organization of free labor; (b) a rational
book-keeping system; (c) the separation of corporate activity
and corporate property from the household and private property;
and (d) economic activity that reflected the spirit of capitalism.
Weber endorsed in this respect the strong claim that businesses
that showed these four features were a peculiar modern capital-
ist phenomenon, which had only arisen with the coming of
ascetic Protestantism. Regarding the spirit of capitalism, Weber
drew on one concrete example of historic economic activity of
the Huguenots, to illustrate in more detail what the meaning of
the spirit of modern capitalism was, by expanding further crite-
“The [Huguenot] entrepreneur [in 17th and 18th century Eu-
rope] emerged with an utterly clear conscience, filled with the
consciousness 1) that Providence was showing him the path to
profit, so that he might tread it to God’s glory; 2) that God was
visibly blessing him in the increase of his profit and posses-
sions; 3) that he could measure his worth, not only before men,
but before God, above all the success in his calling, provided
this was achieved by legal means; and 4) that God had a pur-
pose in selecting precisely him for economic advancement and
had equipped him with means to achieve it (Weber, 2002: p.
312; see also Lehmann, 2005: p. 19).”
I will refer to these four criteria subsequently as the Hugue-
not criteria, in order to differentiate them from Weber’s other
four criteria for the demarcation of modern capitalism.
Weber was certainly aware that Jewish involvement in eco-
nomic activity had played a key role in the evolution of modern
capitalism from the 17th and 18th century onwards but he ques-
tioned whether this reflected involvement in rational industrial
organization, especially in factory-type organization (Weber,
1965: p. 249; see also Grundmann & Stehr, 2001: pp. 266-267).
He characterized Jews as adventurer capitalists but not modern
capitalists and he characterized their religious belief system as
traditionalist and pre-modern (We ber, 1924: p. 307 , 1965: p. 246,
2001: p. 130, 244-245). My analysis later challenges, through
institutional economic reconstruction, this thesis by unearthing
within the text of the “Hebrew Bible” a very modern, economic
ethos which to a considerable degree lives up to all four of
Weber’s criteria, including the Huguenot criteria. I therefore
argue that modern capitalism the way Weber understood it is
already visible in the Hebrew Bible—and that this had a deep,
real-world impact on the Jewish businessperson by being
rooted in the Jewish religion, culture, and history. Implications
of this finding could then be explored further regarding the
actual emergence of “modern” capitalism as far back as in an-
cient times (this, however, is beyond the scope of the present
Sombart’s key criticism of Weber was that other religions
and here especially Judaism contributed to the emergence of
capitalism much earlier than Weber envisaged (Sombart thesis).
Sombart (1913: p. 21) specifically put forward the two theses
(1) influenced the outward form of modern capitalism in (1a)
giving economic relations the international aspect they bear
today; (1b) in helping the modern state, that framework of
capitalism, to become what it is; and (1c) in giving the capitalist
organization its peculiar features; and (2) gave expression to the
inward spirit of modern capitalism, seizing upon the essential
idea of capitalism and carrying it to its fullest development
(quotations abridged, numbers added).
There are considerable similarities but also significant dif-
ferences between Weber’s and Sombart’s criteria for outlining
modern capitalism. Weber’s criteria (a), (b) an d (c) ex pl a i ned i n
detail what Sombart, at least at this point, had only summarized
through the more general statement of (1c). Weber’s criteria (d)
and Sombart’s criteria (2) seem to largely overlap. For instance,
Sombart suggested that the spirit of capitalism is a peculiar
spirit of enterprise, namely “… the making of profit as an end
which dominates the whole [economic] system … Economic
activity, which is originally purely a means to an end, becomes
an absolute end in itself, the expression of a religion” (Parsons,
1928-1929: pp. 649-650). But Weber seemed to specify in more
detail, for instance through the Huguenot criteria, what his idea
of the spirit of capitalism was. Both Weber and Sombart agreed
that this spirit is enforced on the modern entrepreneur by the
capitalist system (Parsons, 1928-1929: p. 35; see also Wag-
ner-Tsukamoto, 2005: p. 79).
However, Sombart went further and included some interest-
ing features in his outline of modern capitalism which Weber
seemingly omitted. Sombart’s criterion (1a) touches on issues
2 Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
of globalizing business, and (1b) on the institutional and con-
stitutional enactment of capitalism through certain rule struc-
tures. In these latter respects Sombart’s outline is more sophis-
ticated, and future research could make projections between
Sombart’s early outline of modern capitalism and more recent
contemporary developments in our understanding of the global
and institutional/constitutional nature of capitalism. For the
purposes of this paper, my focus was on Weber’s criteria for
analyzing modern capitalism in order to make my point that
Jews and Judaism played a more significant and earlier role in
driving modern capitalism (“modern” in Weber’s reading) than
Weber had envisaged.
Sombart’s studies may be biased in certain respects, possibly
even reflecting anti-Semitic attitudes since he made some
points by attributing certain psychological and sociological
features to the Jewish mind (Sombart, 1911; see also Grund-
mann & Stehr, 2001: pp. 269-270). Sombart had his critics in
this respect (e.g. Landheer, 1951; Swatos & Kivisto, 2005: p.
115). For instance, he proposed that the Jews “… share in the
genesis of capitalism ... follows from, among other things, their
racial disposition” (Sombart, 1902: p. 390). In this respect, I
cannot agree with Sombart. Rather, I suggest that Judaism
could anticipate and perpetrate a capitalist ethos as Weber iden-
tified it later for ascetic Protestantism because of learned, reli-
gious, cultural and historical experience in relation to the text
“Hebrew Bible”. Interestingly, Sombart (1913: chap. 11, 1915:
pp. 232-235) also touched on thi s i s su e t o a c o ns i de r a b le de g r ee ,
but he focused mainly on Talmudic texts, as did Mosse (1987:
p. 28), to outline a modern spirit of Judaism. Weber (1965: p.
246, 2001) generally discounted Judaism in this respect as tra-
ditionalistic and pre-modern (focusing, like Sombart and Mosse,
on post-exilic literature, such as the Mosaic laws and the Tal-
mud). I argue, by focusing on Genesis, which is one of the ear-
liest, most fundamental and pre-exodus parts1 of the Hebrew
Bible, that Judaism very significantly contributed to the devel-
opment of modern capitalism.
In my view, Sombart could have considerably strengthened
his case by actually examining the oldest, pre-exodus parts of
the Hebrew Bible for a capitalist ethos. These parts reflect the
religious, cultural backbone of Judaism, especially its patriar-
chal textual history, and hence are likely to have had a deep
impact on actual learned religious and culturally influenced
behavior, as it is grounded in Judaism. The present paper de-
parts in this respect from Sombart. Also, unlike Sombart, I
examined the Hebrew Bible for Weber’s criteria and thus con-
tested Weber on his own ground (whereas Sombart had his
“own” criteria, and therefore one could argue these were in-
compatible, at least to some degree, with those of Weber). In
this way, the present paper provides novel and different support
to Sombart’s early critique of Weber. I outline that stories of
the Hebrew Bible in themselves reflect a deeply capitalist ethos
and modern, capitalist ethics (“modern” the way Weber under-
stood it) and that this subsequently contributed, largely in a
religious- and cultural-pedagogic manner, to the emergence of
the successful modern business from “earliest times” onwards,
and with it the businessperson who culturally embraced Juda-
ism (see also Sombart, 1913: p. 193, 197). Other religious
businesspersons should not be overlooked either who took in-
spiration from the Hebrew Bible, such as Muslims and Chris-
tians, and possibly more so Protestants rather than non-Protes-
tants. The latter issue gives rise to another interesting thesis,
also touched upon by Sombart (see above) and discussed in
more detail below.
Implications of an Institutional Economic
Reconstruction of the Hebrew Bible for the
In the following, I looked at some of the key stories of the
Hebrew Bible which in my view portray a deeply modern,
economic ethos. The analysis is textual at this point, meaning I
only looked at an economic reconstruction of stories and the
storyline as it is laid out in the text “Hebrew Bible”. However, I
have cut short this analysis in the present paper since this has
already been extensively done elsewhere (see Wagner-Tsu-
kamoto, 2001, 2008a, 2009a, 2009b, 2010, 2011, 2012). Instead,
the key purpose of this paper is to project an economic recon-
struction of stories of the Hebrew Bible to a critique of the
Weber thesis. The stories I subsequently focused on were the
Genesis stories involving Jacob and Joseph. A key thesis here is
that these figures reflect modern capitalists and the spirit of
capitalism as Weber had attributed it only to “capitalists” of
17th and 18th century-Europe who followed ascetic Protestant-
ism. Then I traced into the story of Jacob and the story of Jo-
seph ideas of modern capitalism as reflected by the aforemen-
tioned four criteria of Weber, and also projected Weber’s Hu-
guenot criteria to the story of Jacob and the story of Joseph.
Weber’s Criteria for Modern Capitalism and the
Story of Jacob
In the story of Jacob there are various sub-stories which re-
flect economic capital exchange: Jacob’s extortion of Esau’s
birthright for a little bit of food; Jacob’s deceit of his father
Isaac regarding the right to be blessed as first-born—a right
which the Hebrew Bible largely economically interpreted
(Armstrong, 1996: p. 78; Wagner-Tsukamoto, 2008: Section
3.2); Jacob’s various questionable marriage and farming inter-
actions with his employer Laban; and ultimately Jacob’s fight
with God which Jacob won and in which Jacob “extorted” a
blessing from God (Genesis, 32: verses 24-28;2 Wagner-Tsuka-
moto, 2009a, Section 3.2). The important question is whether
we can identify Weber’s four criteria for demarcating modern
capitalism in these stories.
1I justify my focus on pre-exodus rather than post-exilic and post-exodus
texts of the Hebrew Bible, which allows for such a fundamental questioning
of the Weber thesis, through a climax thesis and a hero thesis which I asso-
ciate with the story of Joseph of Genesis and the way storytelling is set out
in Genesis (Wagner-Tsukamoto, 2009a). In contrast, I relate, for various
reasons, a decline thesis to storytelling after the book of Genesis and a non-
hero thesis to Moses’ involvement in leading Israel out of Egypt. In this
respect, I disassociate from possi
ly legalistic traditionalism, which Judaism
may have leaned on aft er t he ex ile, al tho ugh ev en for some o f th e pos t-ex ili c
stories traditionalism can be questioned, e.g. for the Solomon story. These
climax thesis and decline thesis resolve through economic reconstruction at
least some of the “idiosyncrasies” to which Weber (1965: p. 250) refers and
which, if unreso lved, can expl ain th e mislead ing ch aracter izatio n of Ju dais m
as traditionalistic and pre-modern, as done by Weber in considerable de-
For all sub-stories herein described we do not find a free or-
ganization of labor or the entering of market tran sactions with out
2All Scripture references relate to the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNA-
TIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International
Bible So ciety©. All rights reserved worldwide. Used by permission of Hod-
der & Stoughton Publishers, a member of the Hachette Livre UK Group. All
rights reserved. “ NIV” is a reg istered t rademark of Intern ational Bib le Soci-
ety. UK trademark num ber 1448790.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 3
forced exploitation. Even for the Jacob-Laban interactions force
played a considerable role since Jacob was made to work for
Laban by Isaac. And yet another aspect of the rational organiza-
tion of labor can be observed for the Jacob-Laban interactions,
namely the emergence of delegation in a hierarchical system of
labor and the type of control problems this yielded (see below).
However, in the final outcome of the stories of Jacob we can
observe free market transactions, namely when Jacob buys land
to set up his nation (Genesis, 33: v e rs e s 19-20). This was in stark
contrast to the way his forefathers Noah, Abraham, or Isaac had
acquired land for their nations in a non- econo mic manner, being
given land by God as a reward for their faithfulness.
Regarding Weber’s second criteria, a rational bookkeeping
system cannot be observed for the interactions involving Jacob
with Esau, Isaac, God or the purchase of his land. This is due to
the singular nature of these interactions being one-off transac-
tions. Compare this with the Jacob-Laban interactions where
the existence of some kind of monitoring system of farming
capital is apparent since Laban over time noticed a decrease in
his livestock and an increase in Jacob’s livestock. As part of
Jacob’s remuneration by Laban, Jacob was allowed to keep all
newly born speckled goats and sheep. However, since Jacob
was the shepherd of Laban’s herds he could influence through
clever breeding tactics the number of speckled goats and sheep
that were born. A problem of unregulated delegation and in-
complete contracting in a hierarchical relationship existed here.
The existence of some kind of bookkeeping system becomes
apparent as Laban was able to analyze and uncover this breed-
ing problem. Also, when looking at Jacob’s interactions in sum
and the way he accumulated wealth from his interactions with
Esau, Isaac, Laban and ultimately God allows for the conclu-
sion that Jacob had sufficient skills to save and build up capital,
which he finally used to buy land for his nation. Entrepreneurial
bookkeeping regarding wealth accumulation on one’s own
behalf is implied.
Weber’s third criteria, the separation of corporate property and
activity from the household and private property, can again largely
be detected within the Jacob-Laban interactions, which revealed an
employment relationship and hereto related delegation and cont rol
problems. Wh en La ban e mp loy ed Ja co b to l oo k after hi s he r ds, t he
problem of how to successfully control delegation in the context of
separated “corporate” and “private” property develops, especially
since Jacob’s remuneration plan involved the property he was
meant to take c are of. At le a st t o some degree we can observe here
a feature of modern capitalism at work.
Weber emphasized that modern capitalism was characterized
by a true spirit, devotion or calling to making money rather than
irrational speculation or forced exploitation by a third party
(Kaelber, 2005: pp. 143-144). Unquestionably Jacob was de-
voted to “making money” but did this reflect godly inspiration
and a true spirit? At first glance, Jacob does not seem to live up
to this criterion. Many analysts of the stories of Jacob have
variously described him as antagonistic, cheating, deceitful and
extortive (e.g. Rad, 1963: p. 273, 276, 304; Graves & Patai,
1964: p. 198, 200; Davidson, 1979: p. 140; Plaut, 1981: p. 190;
Westermann, 1986: pp. 431-444; see also Weber, 1952). An
institutional economics would in this respect characterize Jacob
as opportunistic and predatory in the way Buchanan (1975),
North and Thomas (1973) or Williamson (1985) introduced
these terms into economic analysis for examining economic
man-behavior (Wagner-Tsukamoto, 2009a: Sections 3.2 & 3.3).
Still, this is not the end of the story, as Weber (1952: p. 50) im-
plies when reviewing the story of Jacob.
Ultimately, Jacob was tame d through a rather complex web of
tit-for-tat interactions wherein he pays back his counterparts,
whom he previously had unfairly negotiated wit h. For instance, a
peace treaty was negotiated with Esau and a monetary payment
was then made to him (Genesis, 32: verses 13-15, 33: verses
10-11); or a new herding arrangement was set up with Laban
once loopholes of incomplete contracting of the previous ar-
rangement had become apparent. Axelrod (1984) may speak of
the evolution of cooperation by means of an evolutionary , tit-for-
tat economics. I would further add that tit-for-tat came with a
larger purpose, namely to ultimately negotiate fairer contracts
among involved parties. The emergence of a constitutional con-
tract is visible in the tradition of Buchanan’s (1975) constitutional
economics, specifically one that sees agents bound by more bal-
anced and more freely negotiated social order.
Weber’s distinction of booty/robber capitalism from rational
capitalism (Kaelber, 2005: pp. 141-142) is very interesting in
this connection. Booty capitalism he explained as being profit-
making that draws on unequal or forced capital exchange be-
tween agents; rational capitalism, on the other hand, refers to
the free engagement of agents into market transactions that aim
at profit-making through entrepreneurship and innovation (and
Weber equated rational capitalism with modern capitalism, as
he saw it emerge in 17th and 18th century Europe; see Kaelber
2005: p. 143). Such a shift from booty/robber capitalism to
modern capitalism can be observed in the story of Jacob when
Jacob was finally tamed through various tit-for-tat interactions
and new contractual arrangements were set up that ensured
fairer market transactions. The spirit of modern capitalism is
thus visible in the story of Jacob once conflicts were renegoti-
ated in economic terms and this seems to be in line with expec-
tations on “Jewish ethos”.
Weber’s Huguenot criteria were listed above. When viewed
as a process with a goal and when looking at the outcomes of
the stories of Jacob, the Huguenot criteria appear to be fulfilled.
Only when looking at individual sub-stories in isolation can the
criteria be questioned. Regarding criteria (1), in the end Jacob
traded wealth to God’s glory when he finally set up an altar to
honor God on the land he had acquired for his nation. At least
then, Jacob respected ethical limitations—a phenomenon which
Weber (2001: p. 22) associated with modern capitalists. Re-
garding criteria (2), God actually blessed Jacob as a result of
their nightly fight (and as noted above, the blessing is inter-
preted by the Hebrew Bible in a rather economic manner). Re-
garding criteria (3), Jacob strived to be blessed by God which
implies that he wanted to measure his worth before God; I dis-
cussed the issue of “legal” means above when outlining that
Jacob’s at times rather dubious interactions were ultimately
corrected through various repayment schemes, which finally
ensured legality and morality. Regarding criteria (4), God se-
lected Jacob by making him a biblical patriarch—through
blessing him—and by re-naming him as “Israel”. The latter
reflects a very special reward and elevation which was not
granted to any of the other patriarchs. So, an examination of the
Huguenot criteria also underlines that a devotion and calling to
making money in relation to godly involvement is apparent in
the stories of Jacob—but in a Jewish understanding and not
necessarily ascetic one, as Weber may expect.
Weber’s Criteria for Modern Capitalism and the
Story of Joseph
The story of Joseph is one of the longest integrated narratives
4 Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
in the Hebrew Bible. Again there are various sub-stories but the
key story I focused on in the following was Joseph’s involve-
ment in the running of Egypt’s industrial hierarchies. Ulti-
mately, Joseph occupied a senior position in Egypt, reporting
only to the pharaoh as his superior.
Weber’s first criterion for the demarcation of modern capi-
talism refers to the rational industrial organization of free labor.
This criterion is very much apparent in the story of Joseph.
Although Joseph entered Egypt’s industrial hierarchies as a
slave (having been sold by his brothers to slave traders), he was
quickly able to relinquish this role because of his managerial
and economic wits. His career path in Egypt amply reflects this.
He started as a household slave, but then was promoted to
household administrator, then administrator of farming projects,
then head of the security department of Egypt, then head of the
prison department to finally become the “lord and ruler of all
Egypt” who only answered to the pharaoh (Genesis, 41: verses
40-45, 42: verse 8, 45: verses 8-9, 26; see also Gordon, 1989: p.
The rational, industrial organization of labor in managerial
hierarchies is visible. Also, other members in this industrial
hierarchy were free to enter or leave; a key example here being
the voluntary relocation of the Israelites to Egypt once their
homeland encountered famines and draughts. Thus, the idea of
slavery has to be discounted for the story of Joseph despite the
fact that Greek and Latin translations of the Hebrew Bible con-
tain the phrase that Joseph made “slaves of the people”. Weber
(1952: p. 50) wrongly states this issue, too. In the older and
original text of the Hebrew Bible, the Masoretic text, this
phrase reads differently, namely as Joseph “moving the people
to the city” (Rad, 1963: p. 405; Davidson, 1979: pp. 287-288;
Schmidt, 1984: p. 36). As discussed below, the concept of pri-
vate property was very much upheld in the story of Joseph.
Regarding criterion two, the existence of a rational book-
keeping system, this is most apparent in the story of Joseph
when it comes to the administration of Joseph’s barter tax sys-
tem for crop. Joseph introduced a 20 per cent barter tax on crop
production in order to buffer Egypt against cycles of economic
downturn. The administration of this tax, the related storage of
crop and the redistribution of tax into the economy in a down-
turn cycle clearly required a sophisticated bookkeeping system.
We can even suggest that Joseph acted here as a “private busi-
nessman” in the sense that Weber would have recognized when
introducing this tax, namely as the senior manager in charge of
running a state enterprise (large parts of the Egyptian econ-
Criterion three relates to the separation of corporate activity
and corporate property from the household and private property.
It is convincingly fulfilled in the story of Joseph. For example,
the 20 percent barter tax already reflects this (80 percent of
crop yield remaining private property while 20 percent was to
be handed to the state). More directly it is visible when Joseph
transfers private production property into the hands of the en-
trepreneur “state”. This property transfer was economically
organized: All those working in Egypt, both Egyptians and
Egypt’s expatriate workforce, were compensated for this prop-
erty transfer, which compares very favorably to the historic
example of late 19th and early 20th century USA, when loosely
integrat ed contractors had their pro duction capital t ra ns fe rr ed i nt o
the hierarchical entity “firm” (Wagner-Tsukamoto, 2003: pp.
168-177, 185-186; 2007; 2008b).
Also, the concept of private property regarding fruits from
production (crop yields) was upheld in the story of Joseph after
the transfer of production capital to the state had occurred. As a
result, all parties involved in economic exchange seemed to
prosper, realizing mutual gains and high economic performance
for the Egyptian state and its workforce, which included Egyp-
tian workers and expatriate workers (amongst others, the Israel-
ites). Slavery was no issue here (Wagner-Tsukamoto, 2009a).
From the perspective of North and Thomas (1973), the state
was in this respect strong enough to guarantee property rights
but did not exploit property rights, e.g. through over-taxation or
slavery. Both “private predation” and “public predation” re-
garding property rights were under control when Joseph reigned.
This interpretation is contrary to the confiscation and slavery
theses which are frequently associated with the story of Joseph,
even by Weber (1952: p. 50).
Weber’s fourth criterion referred to the spirit of capitalism, in
particular, a godly inspired devotion to making money. More so
than in the story of Jacob, this is clearly apparent in the Joseph
story, wherein God revealed through dreams how Joseph could
buffer industrial Egypt against downturns in the economic cycle.
God here provided inspirational spiritual human capital to Jo-
seph and then left it to Joseph’s entrepreneurial skills to imple-
ment this economic policy. A devotion to making money is also
reflected by Joseph’s career path when he quickly progressed
from the very bottom of Egypt’s hierarchies to the top. Joseph
showed admirable economic wits and skills which fostered the
wealth not only of Egypt’s elite but also of those who worked
at lower levels in Egypt’s industrial hierarchies. The economic
ideal of mutual gains as interaction outcome, which is of such a
high importance in institutional and constitutional economic
analysis and the moral justification of economic activity and
“capitalism” (Buchanan, 1975; Williamson, 1985), is more than
apparent (Wagner-Tsukamoto, 2009a). Indeed, Joseph was the
“fruitful vine” of Israel (Genesis, 49: verse 22), as the dying
Jacob praised Joseph. He saved the Israelites from starvation in
their homeland by bringing them to Egypt and by ensuring that
they prospered alongsid e t h e E gyptians.
The identification of a true spirit for making money within
the story of Joseph is further supported when examining the
Huguenot criteria. Regarding criterion (1), God showed Joseph
the “path to profit”, through the godly inspired dreams on how
to buffer Egypt against economic reversals; and Joseph traded
profit making to “God’s glory”, especially when he saved
God’s people the Israelites, from starvation in their homeland.
As noted, the dying Jacob had clearly realized this.
Regarding the Huguenot criterion (2), God indirectly blessed
Joseph by supporting his advance to the top of Egypt’s indus-
trial hierarchies; Joseph was clearly elevated in this respect by
God. And this was followed by an increase in his profit and
possessions; for instance, he received jewelry, a mansion, a
chariot, a wife of high social standing, the best land and other
riches (Genesis, 41: verses 41-51, 47: verse 6). But as previ-
ously noted, mutual gains were ensured too, not only Joseph
benefited but also those who were at lower levels of Egypt’s
Regarding criterion (3), Joseph could measure his worth be-
fore God since he saved the Israelites and also he resisted im-
moral behavior, such as the seduction attempt of Potiphar’s
wife. Theological interpreters have even suggested that Jo-
seph’s rise to power came as a godly reward for this virtue
(Kugel, 1997: p. 252). Also, Joseph’s economic success was
achieved by legal means from the outset, which is in complete
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 5
contrast to the story of Jacob, where only in its final outcome
can “legality” be diagnosed.
Criterion (4) relates to a special, godly purpose for selecting
Joseph for economic advancement. Such a purpose is apparent
with respect to the achievements of Joseph’s economic policies,
especially the saving of the Israelites from starvation. It is also
apparent regarding the mutual prosperity he generated for both
Egypt and Israel and the multicultural, pluralistic social envi-
ronment that emerged as a result of Joseph’s policies. God also
had clearly endowed Joseph with the means to achieve godly
purposes, enabling him to receive God’s word through the
aforementioned dr ea ms.
To summarize, whereas for the story of Jacob I could estab-
lish the emergence of modern capitalism, especially when
looking at its final outcomes, for the story of Joseph, modern
capitalism in the way Weber understood it is seemingly in full
bloom from the very outset. Looking at the storyline of the
Hebrew Bible and here in particular the book of Genesis and
the way the story of Jacob was sequenced before the story of
Joseph, a larger, economic logic manifests itself with respect to
the emergence of modern capitalism (in Weber’s reading) but
also with respect to the economic constitutionalism and institu-
tionalism that is here visible in the Hebrew Bible.
Discussion of a Textual Analysis of the Hebrew
Bible and Its Projection to Actual, Historical
On the grounds of the previous textual analysis of the He-
brew Bible, the Weber thesis can already be questioned. The
paper has identified ideas of modern capitalism the way Weber
understood it for the oldest, earliest, pre-exodus parts of the
Hebrew Bible—the Genesis stories that involved Jacob and
Joseph. This adds new impetus to Sombart’s critique of Weber,
which Sombart had largely based on the Talmud (Sombart,
1913: chap. 11). In general, an institutional economic recon-
struction of the oldest and best-known books of the Hebrew
Bible up to the book of Kings (Wagner-Tsukamoto, 2009a) can
add new relevance and substance to Sombart’s critique. Both
the story of Jacob and the story of Joseph here reveal a deeply
capitalist ethos when examined using Weber’s criteria (includ-
ing the Huguenot criteria). This fundamentally points to a cri-
tique of Weber’s thesis that capitalism prior to Protestantism
lacked the “spirit of capitalism” (Weber, 2001: p. 17).
As a key feature of modern capitalism, both Sombart and
Weber agreed that the spirit of capitalism is increasingly ra-
tionalized (Parsons, 1928-1929: pp. 650-651, 42-43; Sombart,
1913: pp. 206-207, 226, 234). I identified such a rational but
still quasi-religious spirit of capitalism in the story of Jacob and
the story of Joseph and I did so in line with Weber’s criteria for
demarcating the spirit of capitalism. Weber went on to assert
that “capitalistic adventurers” (entrepreneurs, we may call them
today) which reflected the spirit of capitalism existed at all
times, but stated that this was not the case for modern capital-
ists which reflected “the pursuit of renewed profit by means of
continuous, rational, capitalistic enterprise” (Weber, 2001: p.
17; see also Giddens, 1976: p. 3). Weber argued that “adven-
turer capitalists” were “… opposed to the systematic and ra-
tional spirit of modern capitalism” (Parsons, 1928-1929: p. 36).
Sombart, on the other hand, included such entrepreneurs in his
analysis of the coming of modern capitalism.
Two comments can be made here. For one thing, an eco-
nomic reconstruction (possibly not of the story of Jacob) but at
least of the story of Joseph lives up to Weber’s claim to “con-
tinuous, rationally conducted capitalist enterprise”. But for
another thing do we have to accept Weber’s suggestion that
“capitalist adventurers” who did not exhibit all four of Weber’s
criteria of modern capitalists should be excluded from “modern
capitalism”? Even today, such entrepreneurs are numerous.
Without them, any economy in basically any country around
the world would collapse. They are an integral input to and
foundation of capitalism. Indeed, such entrepreneurs are mostly
small firms, which often pioneer goods and which make up the
bulk of firms in any contemporary economy around the globe
(Carr, 2003: p. 8). If we question Weber in this way, the story
of Jacob can also be read as a parable on modern capitalism,
maybe not one reflecting the large modern firm (or “bureauc-
racy” as Weber may call it ) bu t at least the small firm .
A critical question now is whether we can extend and project
textual analysis of the Hebrew Bible to actual, historical analy-
sis. This latter type of analysis is the main route through which
scholars in the field of Weber studies have tried to confirm or
reject the Weber thesis. Specifically with respect to Judaism,
Weber claimed that both older Judaism and medieval/modern
Judaism were far removed from Protestantism, the former being
naïve and the latter being close to adventure capitalism and
“pariah-capitalism” (Weber, 2001: p. 111). Sombart had al-
ready questioned the assertion that both ancient and modern
capitalism were devoid of capitalist spirit, e.g. Sombart (1915:
p. 233): “In every course of conduct the Jew asked himself
whether it would tend to the glory of God”. This interpretation
is close to Weber’s idea of the calling.
A key difference between Weber and Sombart relates to their
fundamental disagreement regarding the historic emergence of
a modern spirit of capitalism, Weber arguing for Protestantism
in 17th and 18th century Europe, Sombart for Judaism. On the
one hand, Weber’s thesis can be discounted if historic evidence
of “modern” Jewish capitalists can be found for 17th, 18th and
19th century Europe when modern capitalism emerged. On the
other hand, Weber’s thesis could even be much more strongly
discounted if modern Jewish capitalists could be found predat-
ing 17th century Europe (the latter may already be implied, at
least to some degree, by the above textual analysis of the He-
In the following, I indicate that Jewish entrepreneurs and
even “modern” Jewish capitalists existed since ancient times.
However, it is beyond the scope and purpose of this paper to
comprehensively review historic evidence on the economic
success of Jewish businesses. Still, I want to relate selected
historic evidence to the very idea of “being Jewish” in a reli-
gious or cultural sense and that this is embodied in the text
Throughout the centuries, as far back as many centuries be-
fore Christ, Jewish involvement in the economy seems to have
been rewarded with special success. Block (2004: p. 306, 318)
identifies this in general terms. More specifically, for 17th cen-
tury England, Pollins (1982: pp. 35-36) confirmed that Jews
were re-admitted into the country in order to foster economic
development. Sombart (1911, 1913) himself provided an early,
detailed historic account of Jewish involvement in the economy
in Europe, America and Asia since the outgoing Middle Age
that challenged the Weber thesis.
Also, research in economic history seems to unequivocally
agree that throughout time and basically in any country in
6 Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
which Jewish businesses were active they rapidly achieved a
prominent if not dominating role in the economy, despite being
only a small minority (a “pariah community” in Weber’s terms).
Even one of Weber’s (2001: p. 133) own examples seems to
underline this point for German Jews. Exemplary also is a
statement by Beller (1995: p. 715), reviewing Silber (1992):
“Jews, never more than 5 per cent of the population, …
achieved … a spectacular—not to say dominant—position in
the Hungarian economy”. Especially interesting in this regard is
Don (1992) who suggested that the success of Jewish busi-
nesses was due to learned experience and their cultural tradi-
tions. As Don (1992) and Beller (1995) agree, “Jewishness”
seems to play in this respect an independent role in making
Jewish businesses successful in the modern Hungarian econ-
omy; or as Ashtor (1984: p. 234) put it, “faithfulness to the
ancestral religion” explains the—successful—economic role of
Once such an independent role is attributed to the variable
“Jewishness”, it can be economically reconstructed. I did this in
this paper when reviewing the stories of Jacob and the stories of
Joseph through economic concepts and by linking this review
to the Weber criteria. This link between Jewishness as a learned,
religious and cultural experience, its economic reconstruction in
relation to the Hebrew Bible (here: also in relation to Weber’s
criteria on modern capitalism), and the actual success of the
Jewish business in the economy is all I need to fundamentally
question the Weber thesis. As a by-product, I would reject any
attempt to explain Jewishness and its relationship to successful
Jewish business in a biological, “innate” manner, as Sombart
attempted, or some essays by Silber (1992).
Similarly as for Hungary, Mosse (1987: p. 383, 3 86, 393-395)
attributed the extraordinary success of German Jews in the
banking sector, in trade and in industries such as textiles, the
heavy industries and the electrical industry in the 19th and early
20th century to their history, culture, minority status and eth-
nicity, which I interpret as evidence, at least in parts, of their
religion and culture and especially the economic fabric of their
religion. This view is further endorsed since Mosse (1987: p.
405) in his final analysis explicitly draws on Sombart to under-
line the important role Jews played in German economic de-
velopment. Brenner (1997: p. 302) also talked about a special
enterprising mentality of Jews in this connection. Brenner
(1997: pp. 301-308) made another very significant point: He
confirmed that German Jews in the 19th century achieved a
rapid rise in various industries once Germany liberalized, de-
regulated and institutionally lowered barriers that previously
had prohibited Jews from entering certain industries.
Barbalet (2006: pp. 57-59) had analyzed this institutional in-
fluence on German Jews as far back as in the 11th and 12th
century, as did Ashtor (1983: chap. II/149-150, chap. VIII/ 85-
86) with his review of comparable barriers for the Mediterra-
nean economy from the 10th century onwards (see also Baron
1975b: p. 39; 1975c: p. 58). Fuks-Mansfeld (2002a: pp. 173-
174) looked at such institutional barriers for 18th century Neth-
erlands, which prevented Jews from entering certain economic
activities, and Fuks-Mansfeld (2002b: p. 213) noted that Jews
became “pioneers in mechanization” of cotton mills by the
mid-1850s (once institutional barriers were removed). Blom
and Cahen (2002: p. 241) found for the Netherlands that in the
following decades (after the 1850s) Jews spread to all occupa-
tions from which they previously had been excluded. Fishman
(1989: p. 287) similarly commented that Jews managed to re-
linquish their status of “pariah capitalism”, to which Weber
tried to restrain them, once institutional barriers came down so
dramatically in the 19th century. Hanak (1992: p. 36) looked at
such barriers for 19th century Hungary as did Kahan (1986: p. 2,
34-35, 38) for 19th century Russia.
As a result of institutional liberalization and deregulation in
18th and 19th century Europe, Jews gained fuller access to the
economic system and this enabled them to “emancipate” the
economic system (see also Bloom, 1959: pp. 112-121; Kahan,
1986: p. 87, 90, 97; Hanak, 1992: pp. 26-27, 33, 38; Fuks-
Mansfeld, 2002a: pp. 178-179). As a consequence, they par-
ticipated in the re-birth of modern capitalism in Europe (at least
from the mid-19th century onwards)—“re”-birth as compared
to biblical examples, especially the story of Joseph, but also
“real world” examples, such as the sugar refinery example of
Ashtor for 13th and 14th century Egypt (see below).
The real significance of institutional, commercial-legal bar-
riers seems to have been overlooked by Weber (1965: pp.
248-250) when he argued that Jews refrained from building up
factory-like, industrial organizations as ascetic Protestants had
done. Weber (1924: p. 307) was certainly aware that institu-
tional barriers for 16th and 17th century Germany prevented
Jews from becoming modern capitalists, but such awareness did
not prompt him to more critically examine his thesis on the
birth of capitalism. The implication of acknowledging institu-
tional barriers is that once they were removed it enabled Jews
to quickly take on the role of “modern” capitalists. Key exam-
ples were listed in this respect above.
It is one thing to say that Jews lacked a capitalist spirit and
quite another that it was institutional barriers that prevented
them from exercising and expressing this spirit—as they did
indeed do once preventive institutional barriers came down, and
as they had done before the industrial revolution of modern
times (as long as institutional barriers had not been in place).
The latter is substantiated by various historic examples: Prior to
the 17th century, Ashtor (1983) confirmed that Jews occupied
very prominent economic positions in many countries around
the Mediterranean economies, especially when no discrimina-
tory occupational barriers were erected against them; for in-
stance, Jews were heavily involved in the tanning and dyeing
industries of Egypt, Syria and Babylonia around the 10th cen-
tury (Baron, 1975a: p. 32), in the silk industry of Italy in the
12th century (Baron, 1975b: p. 38), in the sugar refining indus-
try of Egypt in the 13th and 14th centuries (Ashtor, 1983: chap.
VIII/85-86; see also Pohl, 1975: pp. 189-190), in the mining
and armament industries of Central and Eastern Europe in the
16th and 17th centuries (Baron, 1975c: pp. 62-64, 71), and in
the mining industries of a number of countries in the 18th and
19th centuries (Kaplan, 1975: pp. 174-177).
These examples serve to directly contest Weber’s (1924: pp.
306-307) claim that the Jews played no part in the birth of
modern capitalism, especially its rational, industrial set-up.
Another example comes from Johanek (1999: pp. 70-71, 81-82)
who found that Jews were “long-distance traders par excel-
lence”, dominating, despite being only a small minority, the
trade routes between Europe and the Islamic world in the 10th
and 11th century (see also Baron, 1975a: pp. 28-29). Such
trading empires were at least to some degree, supported by
institutional measures, e.g. the granting of royal trade charters
and other privileges to Jews. This again hints at the importance
of institutional influences for understanding the birth of capi-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 7
Some of Weber’s other claims can be discounted in relation
to the above examples, too, especially the Hungarian one. In
Hungary, and contrary to Weber’s expectations (1924, p. 307),
Jews successfully organized other Jews into industrial organi-
zations in the 19th century (Hanak, 1992: pp. 27-28), and these
Hungarian Jews were highly successful in innovating and
branching out into new industries (Hanak, 1992: pp. 32-33, 36,
39). With regard to the latter industries Jews clearly did not
show a traditionalistic shyness which made them averse to in-
novation, which Weber (1924: p. 307) claimed existed in Juda-
ism and its grounding in the Talmud. Also, even in Poland, and
in direct opposition to Weber’s claims, Jewish industrialists had
employed in certain sectors predominantly Jewish workers in
their factories (Baron, 1975d: p. 88).
This short review has to suffice at this point to indicate that
historically Jews have been highly successful as capitalist
businesses and that their behavior is likely to live up in virtually
every way to being “modern” in Weber’s own reading. It has
also become apparent that Jewish economic success throughout
time seemed not to be related to special periods of time or to
special countries. This absence of any specific causative rela-
tionships gives rise to the question as to how could the promi-
nent success of Jewish capitalists be explained: The institu-
tional/constitutional (de-)regulation of their economic activities
was an important intervening variable. This is contrary to mo-
no-causal explanations which Weber generally favored regard-
ing the emergence of modern capitalism and religious belief
(Barbalet, 2006: p. 55).
As already noted, I do not want to enter any race-related
biological analysis but rather a cultural pedagogic one that fo-
cuses on the central religious embodiment of Judaism, the text
“Hebrew Bible”—and its economic, capitalist fabric and ethos.
Sombart (1913: p. 274) seemingly implied this when referring
to the “parallelism between the Jewish character, the Jewish
religion and capitalism”. (See also Sombart, 1915: p. 233, 265)
Judaism, as embodied in the Hebrew Bible, thus functions as an
independent variable to explain the success of the Jewish busi-
ness. The key thesis here is that by being culturally exposed to
the Hebrew Bible from earliest childhood and throughout life,
Jews received an excellent schooling not only in religious be-
havior and cultural traditions but also in economic behavior. As
noted, Sombart (1913: p. 193), and Marx (1967) too, had hinted
at this early on.
In the first part of this paper, I analyzed the story of Jacob
and the story of Joseph on textual grounds. I developed the
thesis that Weber’s criteria for setting out modern capitalism
and here especially the spirit of capitalism can be identified
through institutional economic reconstruction for these stories.
An ancient text li ke the Hebrew Bible, and here particularly the
pre-exodus book of Genesis, already clearly reflects what We-
ber later unearthed through actual historical analysis as being a
particularly modern, capitalist phenomenon. My analysis could
easily be extended to other stories of the Hebrew Bible, e.g. the
paradise story (Wagner-Tsukamoto, 2009a, 2009b, forthcom-
ing), which in many ways compares well to the story of Jacob,
or the Solomon story and the bureaucratic, institutional struc-
tures it portrays, which can be linked to institutional economics,
e.g. Williamson (1985) or North and Weingast (1989). Future
research could address these topics. The pre-exodus focus of
my economic reconstruction particularly questions one of We-
ber’s central claims, namely that ascetic Protestantism was
inspired not by “… Judaism at the time of the writing of the
Scriptures, but by Judaism as it became under the [post-exilic]
influence of many centuries of formalistic, legalistic, and Tal-
mudic education. [However] even then … the general tendency
of the older Judaism toward a naïve acceptance of life as such
was far removed from the special characteristics of Puritanism”
(Weber, 1976: p. 165; see also Barbalet, 2006: p. 52).
Contrary to Weber, my economic reconstruction of the story
of Jacob and the story of Joseph demonstrated that the “older”
type of Judaism, which was supposedly “naïve” in Weber’s
reading, already exhibited the key features of modern capital-
ism (as Weber conceptualized them).
Weber also claimed that only ascetic Protestantism helped to
cultivate and promulgate modern capitalism in the 17th and
18th centuries in the western world. I can revise and extend this
thesis to religions in general that are grounded in the Hebrew
Bible, and here especially Judaism and the economic success
and high economic performance Jewish businesses enjoyed
throughout time. Unfortunately, one simple type of historical
economic analysis related to the economic performance of a
country or state throughout time is not possible since Jewish
businesses have been dispersed across many countries. In this
respect, a micro focus on Jewish business communities within a
country appears advisable. Such studies exist at least to some
extent, and they underline that the purely textual revision of the
Weber thesis I suggested above in relation to the Hebrew Bible
(and in relation to “older” Judaism) can also be projected in
actual, historic perspective, to highlight both medieval and
modern Judaism. Weber claimed regarding medieval and mod-
ern Judaism that it reflected only “adventure capitalism” which
was grounded in the “ethos … of pariah capitalism. Puritanism
carried the ethos of rational organization of capital and labor. It
took over from the Jewish ethic only what was adapted to this
purpose” (Weber, 1976: pp. 165-166; see also Barbalet, 2006: p.
53) As noted, Weber did not acknowledge the real significance
of institutional barriers as he chose to overlook historic—both
medieval and modern—examples of Jewish participation in the
(re-)birth of modern capitalism and its rational, industrial set-
Thus, the key theses developed in the present paper are two-
fold: First, I suggested that an ancient text like the Hebrew
Bible, and here already the pre-exodus Scriptures, reflect what
Weber called a capitalist ethos, even a capitalist ethics. And
second, I argued that the economic message that emerged from
the Hebrew Bible had a deep, this-worldly, behavioral, peda-
gogic impact on those for whom the Hebrew Bible provided
moral and cultural guidance (once institutional, commercial-
legal barriers were removed). Both theses challenge Weber’s
thesis. I formulated as counter-thesis to Weber the suggestion
that an ancient religion like Judaism, as embodied in the He-
brew Bible, was already grounded in a deeply capitalist, eco-
nomic ethics for the purpose of resolving worldly problems of
private contracting and societal contracting in comparatively
rational, secular and modern terms.
An institutional economic reconstruction of the Hebrew Bi-
ble implies that religious ethics in itself is fundamentally based
on capitalist ideas, even a capitalist ethics (reflecting economic
institutions, e.g. property rights; capital exchange; mutual gains
as interaction outcome; the model of economic man, and an
economic conflict model, the latter were not fully explored in
8 Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
this paper; see Wagner-Tsukamoto, 2009a, 2009b, 2010). Juda-
ism can in this respect be characterized as inherently “modern”,
“secular” and “rational” (at least more so than traditional Chris-
tian belief, e.g. Catholicism) because of its affinity to economic
From here it is only a small step to suggest the more general
thesis that a modern religion is grounded in economic ethics
and that this accounts for the economic success of Jewish busi-
nesses as far back as many centuries before Christ—but also of
Protestant religions, as Weber unearthed for 17th and 18th cen-
tury Europe. Weber’s thesis is in this respect only a special case
of this more general thesis. This thesis accommodates Weber’s
suggestions on the role of Protestantism in economic develop-
ment in 17th and 18th century Europe but also of Judaism as far
back as in ancient times, both reflecting “modern”, economized
On the other hand, the thesis also suggests the analysis of
whether the economic underperformance of certain traditional-
ist and comparatively “non-economic”, “non-modern” theolo-
gies, especially in contemporary society, for instance Confu-
cianism or Quakerism (Cheung & King, 2004; Childs, 1964;
Wagner-Tsukamoto, 2008c), can be related to their lacking
affinity to economic ethos and capitalist ethics. More gene rally,
it has to be examined in this regard what role, if any, religion
plays in contemporary societies of the 21st century, especially
so in morally inspiring businesses and their scope for economic
As noted, this thesis that modern religion is grounded in
economic ethics (in the sense I outlined it above) can to some
extent explain the economic success of Jewish businesses but
also of Protestant ones the way Weber identified it for 17th and
18th century Europe. For Jewish businesses, I explained that
their religious belief system, as embodied by the Hebrew Bible,
was deeply grounded in “modern” capitalist ideas. Wagner-
Tsukamoto (2009a) advanced this argument in general terms
for Judaism through institutional and constitutional economic
reconstruction, which is different from and goes much further
than Marx’s (1967) or Sombart’s (1911, 1913) attempts to at-
tribute certain economic (character) traits, such as self-interest,
to Judaism (see also Fishman, 1989: pp. 282-283). I fundamen-
tally disagree in this respect with Weber who claimed that Ju-
daism remained traditionalistic and pre-modern and anchored in
“pariah capitalism” (critically also discounted by Barbalet,
2006: p. 56; see also above). Sombart similarly stated in this
connection, as Parsons (1928-1929: p. 649) reviewed, that a
peculiar capitalist spirit helped the evolution of modern “new”
religion. Sombart followed this up for Judaism in modern times
(but otherwise he specifically questioned this for Protestantism,
and in this respect I disagree with Sombart; e.g. Sombart, 1915:
pp. 251-253, 261-262).
For Protestant businesses, I suggested a similar economizing
—“modernization”, “secularization” and “rationalization”—of
Christian belief in the wake of Reformation movements. I pro-
posed that Protestant and Calvinist movements led to an infil-
tration of economic ideas into the New Testament-based Chris-
tian belief system, in particular in comparison to the non-re-
formed Churches and especially Catholicism (as Weber stressed;
see Parsons, 1928-1929: p. 42). This analysis can be extended
to the historical analysis of the economic performance of those
countries in which the Reformation and an apparent “econo-
mizing” of religious thought took place in 17th and 18th cen-
tury Europe (North and Weingast (1989) could be projected in
This thesis on the economizing of Christianity in the wake of
the Reformation can even be linked to Judaism, as hinted at by
Sombart: The Reformation seemed to bring the reformed
Churches closer to the rational economic character of Judaism,
at least so in generic perspective. Mosse (1987: p. 29), for in-
stance, talked of a rationalistic, “Puritan ethic” of Judaism.
Regarding the Weber thesis, I therefore feel justified in deep-
ening my criticism by showing that “modern” Protestants drew
on the text “Hebrew Bible”. I argue that a Reformist leaning on
the Hebrew Bible caused a rationalization, secularization and
modernization—“economizing”—of traditional Christian belief
and subsequently contributed, inspired by Judaism, to the re-
birth of modern capitalism along Protestant lines. This hap-
pened to a far greater degree than envisaged by Weber.
Textually, I confirmed this point through re-interpreting the
Genesis stories involving Joseph and Jacob. Historically, Pol-
lins (1982: pp. 29-30) hinted at this for 17th century England,
although without referring to Weber. Sombart (1913: p. 222)
implied this, too, when stating: “Religion of the [traditional,
non-Protestant] Christians stood in the way of their economic
activities … Jews were never faced with this hindrance” (also
Sombart, 1913: p. 244). Sombart (1913: pp. 249-251) even
went on to suggest that the “Puritans”, such as Calvinists,
achieved a “rationalization” and increasing economic aptitude
of their religion by stronger drawing on the Hebrew Bible—as
compared with traditional Christians who remained much more
focused on the New Testament and its comparatively mystic,
other-worldly interpretation (also hinted at by Sombart, 1913: p.
226; 1915: pp. 264-265; see also Fishman, 1989: pp. 285-286;
Lehmann, 2005: p. 22).
To a certain degree Weber appeared to agree with Sombart
on this point but then argued that the “pariah status” of the Jews
had prevented them from relating to t h e ex ternal world and wit h
that the involvement and generation of modern capitalism as an
economic system (Fishman, 1989: pp. 286-287; Weber, 1968:
pp. 615-623). However, as indicated above, this “pariah status”
was largely externally imposed on the Jews through various
institutional barriers—and these barriers dramatically crumbled
away in 18th and 19th century Europe (and they did not always
exist in earlier periods in other countries where Jewish in-
volvement in the economy then blossomed). Once existing
institutional barriers collapsed Jewish businesses could more
fully participate in the re-birth of modern capitalism on their
own (in addition to “inspiring” the Reformation movements, at
least much more so than Weber thought).
Questions of effective state formation arise as a result of the
present paper. Gorski (2005: pp. 184-185) discussed in this
respect patrimonial absolutism for Catholic Europe in the 17th
and 18th century, and suggested that this type of state structure
undermined economic performance whereas countries with
strong Reformist movements enjoyed a much higher economic
performance because of the constitutional structures they set up
—in largely economic terms, I would add here (see also North
& Weingast, 1989). As I suggested above, I would link these
suggestions made by Gorski to the economic purification and
economic strengthening of religious belief in the wake of Ref-
ormation movements, which at least saw a secularization, mod-
ernization and rationalization of religion in comparison to tradi-
tional Christian belief, such as Catholicism. This leads to the
broader thesis that high economic performance of both busi-
nesses and states was supported by “modern”, “rational”,
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 9
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