Many of us know that the origins of Christianity have nothing to do with silent nights or wise men. So what are its true origins? John Pickard looks at the reality of how this religion came about - from the standpoint of class forces and the material developments of society, rather than by the pious fictions fed from church pulpits.
My late father had a very wry sense of humour. At Christmas, whenever there was a reference to church services on the television, he would tut and shake his head. “Look at that”, he would say, “They try to bring religion into everything!”
I imagine much the same complaint may have been made by ancient celts, annoyed that the Christian priests were taking over their traditional Yule festival, celebrating the winter solstice. Or perhaps by Roman citizens, peeved at the Christians taking over their annual ‘Saturnalia’ festival in the last weeks of December.
Those complaining would have been right, because in the absence of an identifying date anywhere in the canonical gospels, Christians grafted their celebration of the birth of Jesus onto the existing pagan festivals. In one stroke they absorbed the pagan rites into the Christian tradition and softened opposition to the new creed.
Many practising Christians today are completely unaware of the pagan and sometimes arbitrary origins of important elements of their religious beliefs and practices. Many seriously believe the origin of Christianity lies in a ‘silent night’ in a barn visited by quiet shepherds and several awe-struck ‘wise’ men. But nothing could be further from the truth.
For Marxists, who base themselves on the real, material world, there was a completely different reality. Last year marked the centenary of the publication of ‘The Foundations of Christianity’ by the German Marxist theoritician, Karl Kautsky. This was the first attempt to describe the rise of that major western religion from the standpoint of class forces and the material developments of society, rather than by the pious fictions fed from church pulpits.
Karl Kautsky’s book was deficient in many respects, but the main lines of his argument still stand the test today. What was especially significant about Kautsky’s book was that it was the first comprehensive attempt to describe the foundation and rise of Christianity using the method of historical materialism.
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels used the method of historical materialism and applied it to social and historical developments. In his book ‘Anti-Duhring’, Engels summarised what this meant:
“The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or estates is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men's brains, not in man's better insight into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange. They are to be sought, not in the philosophy, but in the economics of each particular epoch.”
Karl Kautsky, therefore, rejected the metaphysical myths behind Christianity - the miracles, supernatural events, and so on - and attempted to describe its origins and rise through the social conditions that existed in the Roman Empire.
The classical description of the origins of Christianity is as outlined in the New Testament. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are taken as historical accounts of real events in the first thirty five years of the first millennium: how Jesus was born miraculously, how he performed miracles and preached alongside his twelve disciples, how he was crucified for his preaching and how he arose from the dead. The gospels are taken to be eye-witness accounts by four of the disciples.
Despite harassment, persecution and innumerable martyrs, the superior ideas of the Christians – and particularly the offer of life after death and the redemption of human sins by the crucifixion of Jesus – led to an increase of support for Christianity until it became an unstoppable force eventually recognised by the Roman Emperor Constantine. The rest, as they say, is history.
This is the ‘official’ history of the Church…and most of it is a fairy-tale. For Marxists the question has to be asked, what were the conditions in Palestine in the first century? Karl Kautsky alludes to the fact that the Roman Empire was a slave-based system in which the vast majority of the population were impoverished and lived from hand to mouth for most of their lives.
And it is true that Palestine was a society riven with bitter class conflicts and contradictions. The characteristics of the entire period were turmoil, upheaval and revolt. Overlying the class struggle was the additional factor of the national oppression of the majority Semitic population by the Romans. Within Jewish society, the priestly caste and the nobility were propped up by the Roman regime for the greater exploitation of the mass of the population.
“The fundamental conflict was between Roman, Herodian, and high priestly rulers, on the one hand, and the Judean and Galilean villagers, whose produce supplied tribute for Caesar, taxes for King Herod, and tithes and offerings for the priests and temple apparatus on the other.” (Horsley, ‘Bandits, Prophets and Messiahs’ )
The Temple priests who were paid tithes (church taxes) by the local peasantry were not a small group – some scholars number them in the thousands. The Jewish King Herod ‘the Great’, who died in 4 BCE [Before the Common Era], left a country economically exhausted from the earlier Roman conquest and subsequent taxation.
“The Jewish agricultural producers were now subject to a double taxation, probably amounting to well over 40 per cent of their production. There were other Roman taxes as well, which further added to the burden of the people, but the tribute was the major drain.
“Coming, as it did, immediately after a period of ostensible national independence under the Hasmonians (Jewish kings), Roman domination was regarded as wholly illegitimate. The tribute was seen as robbery. Indeed it was called outright slavery by militant teachers such as Judas of Galilee, who organised active resistance to the census (record of people for tax purposes) when the Romans took over direct administration of Judea in 6 CE.” [in the Common Era] (‘Bandits, Prophets and Messiahs’)
The only contemporary account there is of this history is that of Josephus, a Jewish general who fought against the Romans during the revolt of 66 CE and who subsequently changed sides. It is clear from his histories that this whole period was one of great upheaval. There were many occasions when revolts of peasants were led by popular anointed kings (or ‘messiahs’), all of which were viciously repressed. It was not uncommon for whole towns to be razed and their inhabitants sold into slavery.
These revolts reflected the material conditions and class conflicts of the time, but they were invariably dressed up in terms of messianic revivalism and religious aspirations. Given the tradition and scripture of the Jews, these movements inevitably adopted the mantles of scriptural leaders, including, notably, Joshua. There were, in fact, many ‘Joshua’ sects at the time. (‘Jesus’ is a Romanised name which wouldn’t have been recognised in Palestine at the time). Many of these cults had a ‘communist’ outlook with property shared in common within the community.
The writings of Josephus are the only genuine surviving works written by a participant of the events. He describes what he sees as the evil influence of seers and prophets on more than one occasion, such as: “…Imposters and demagogues, under the disguise of divine inspiration, provoked revolutionary actions and impelled the masses to act like madmen. They led them out into the wilderness…” Josephus (‘Jewish Wars’) mentions by name several of the seers, ‘prophets’ and revolutionaries who stirred up the Jews, but the Joshua described in the New Testament does not appear at any point in the voluminous work of his supposed contemporary, Josephus.
The revolutionary-minded force in this period was the peasantry, which strove time and again to throw off the national and class oppression under which they laboured.
A small selection of commentaries from Josephus illustrates the turmoil of the period:
“Many [Jewish peasants] turned to banditry out of recklessness, and throughout the whole country there were raids, and among the more daring, revolts…”
“…the whole of Judea was infested with brigands…” (‘Jewish Wars’)
“Felix [Roman governor, 52-58 CE] captured [revolutionary leader] Eleazar, who for twenty years had plundered the country, as well as many of his associates, and sent them to Rome for trial. The number of brigands that he crucified…was enormous.” (Josephus , ‘Antiquities’)
Nothing could be further removed from ‘silent night’! The revolutionary upheaval spilled over into a generalised uprising in 66 CE, against the Romans and their collaborators, the Jewish ruling class the high priests of the Temple. “…hostility and violent factionalism flared between the high priests on the one side and the priests and leaders of the Jerusalem masses on the other.” (‘Antiquities’)
Siege of Jerusalem
For the next four years there was a bloody and protracted guerrilla war followed by a prolonged siege of Jerusalem, during which the masses, fearing betrayal by the Jewish aristocracy and high priests effectively took power into their own hands in Jerusalem. One of their first acts in the revolt was the storming of the Temple and the burning of the deeds and documents relating to the debts and taxes of the peasantry. It was not surprising that the aristocracy and the high priests fled the city to the safety of the Roman lines – including Josephus himself.
Even before this revolution, Palestine had been a whirlpool of different cults and religious sects, most based loosely on traditional Jewish scripture, but often coloured by the widespread discontent with the collaboration of the priesthood and the parasitism of the Temple culture. Among these would have been the ‘Joshua’ and other messianic sects organised by a variety of charismatic leaders.
Following the bloody suppression of the revolution and the capture of Jerusalem (during which the Temple was destroyed) in 70 CE, tens of thousands of Jews fled the region and many thousands more were enslaved. Such an enormous disaster could not fail to affect the huge Jewish Diaspora, who fled from their homeland, spread round every major city in the whole Roman Empire, including the larger cities like Rome, Alexandria and the big cities in the East.
Long before the revolutionary events, all manner of sects had taken root in the Jewish Diaspora communities in parallel to those in Palestine itself. Within this lively sectarian milieu was a Joshua cult developed by Paul, with a policy of converting non-Jews as well as Jews. This sect, in effect, became the mainspring of modern Christianity by, among other things, simplifying Jewish ‘Law’ to remove the need for circumcision and strict dietary taboos.
All of the early Christian works, which were circulating from the middle towards the end of the first century – including the letters of Paul - were significantly missing any historical narrative connecting Joshua to a real-life biography. It was only later that the gospel of Mark (on which Matthew and Luke were based) was written as an allegorical description of a life, composed to match the Joshua doctrine that was becoming established. It was an expression of the growing confidence and numerical strength of this particular sect. But it was also an expression of the growing class division within the Christian community itself as it accommodated to Roman society. Of the original communistic ideas of the Joshua cults, there remain only a few hints and suggestions in the New Testament today.
It was largely in polemics with their former co-religionists, the Jews, and against the plethora of rival proto-Christian sects that the early Church elaborated its doctrine in the first decades of the second century. In parallel with the elaboration of doctrine, the Church established an apparatus to maintain itself. The evidence of the existence of a huge variety of early Christian sects has only come to light recently precisely because this apparatus, once having established itself, did its best to eliminate all others as ‘heresies,’ in the process removing most of the evidence that other strands of the Joshua cult even existed.
The question has to be asked as to why Christianity grew over the next two centuries. It was not an anti-slavery movement: slavery was ubiquitous throughout the Roman Empire and Christians possessed slaves like anyone else. There is evidence that even bishops just like well-to-do Romans owned slaves throughout this whole period.
Theological considerations were secondary. The rigid and self-perpetuating bureaucracy which had grown within the Church reflected the class divisions in society and had become an important bulwark of the class system.
“In time the discourse and sermons of the Christian leaders came to incorporate not only the formal aspects of aristocratic status concerns but also the values and ideology of the late Roman upper class.” (Salzman, ‘The Making of a Christian Aristocracy’)
This comment refers to the period following the so-called conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century, but long before this the Church was playing a key social and economic role on behalf of the ruling class. Many officials of state were Christian bishops or leaders. More importantly, they play a key role in the management and organisation of local government.
In so far as it meant anything in a Roman Empire facing terminal decline, they were the local government. Bishops and Church officials collected tax, distributed alms (church-based charity) and supervised local legal and land disputes. They were an unofficial ‘civil service’ on behalf of the Roman bureaucracy long before Emperor Constantine gave them imperial sanction. The Church fulfilled a social and economic function, in managing and containing an increasing proportion of the poor and dispossessed and for that reason, not because of a ‘spiritual awakening’ within the ruling class, it was allowed to grow and develop.
The Church was able to fulfil this role because it offered a safety valve for the aspirations of the masses. It gave the peasantry their only opportunity to sit in the same building with landlords and bishops (if not the same pews) and even if there was limited hope in this world, they were at least offered the promise of equality with the rich in the next. The Christians offered a messiah and ‘life after death’, in contrast to the aloof and indifferent gods of Greece and Rome.
The Church bureaucracy consciously developed policy (and theology) in its own interests, increasingly identified with the interests of the ruling class. But in its structure and outlook, it also anticipated the development of feudal society better than the decaying slave-owning state. The Church didn’t campaign for emancipation, but offered a new arrangement for exploitation.
As for the peasantry and city poor: as long as they knew and accepted ‘their place’ in the rigid class structure, for the poorest it offered a structure of alms, and support which provided respite to the worst of their poverty and insecurity. Even if watered down, it offered a sense of community. Almost uniquely in the Roman Empire, it had a limited welfare structure, moreover one that offered belonging to a national and even international church. For these reasons it had disproportionate appeal to the poor and the oppressed; indeed it was ridiculed for being a movement “of slaves and women.”
Once it was backed by the power of the state the Church destroyed its opponents. Roman persecution of the Church in the first three centuries is greatly exaggerated, but it pales against the terrible persecution that the Church visited on all the unorthodox sects once it was backed by imperial power. Books and heretics were burnt. Theological history was re-written. Myths were piled upon myths, century after century. So much so that today even so-called ‘scholars’ treat the New Testament like a true historical narrative and not as they should as a story, no more true than ‘The Iliad’ or ‘Beowulf’.
Within a few hundred years any evidence of the existence of other Christian sects, including their pre-history in Palestine, was all but eliminated. The Church became – and remains to this day – a powerful conservative force, politically, financially and diplomatically (and at one time, militarily).
In his introduction to ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’, Marx referred to religion as “the sigh of the oppressed”. He explained that it is not spirituality, or the lack of it, which breeds support for religion. It is the alienation of the mass of the population from the class society in which they find themselves.
The crisis of capitalism is at root the crisis of a rotten economic system, but it manifests itself also as a crisis of ideas. For millions of people their hopes and aspirations are so stunted by the limits of the capitalist world that they project their hopes on to a life after death. And just as in the first decades of the first millennium, so also in the age of capitalism, new religious and messianic movements reflect the intellectual and moral impasse of a failed and failing society. Marx continued:
“…To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.”
Thus he made it clear that it is not a question of religion being “abolished”. The idea is absurd. To combat superstition and ignorance, the task for socialists is to struggle against the material conditions upon which these things grow – and that means above all, a struggle against capitalism.