Religion is not the motor-force of history but great social changes are expressed in changes in religion. In his book Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy Engels explained that great historical turning-points have been accompanied by religious changes in the case of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. The mass movements that were aroused by these beliefs in the early period of both Islam and Christianity shook the world.
Early Christianity arose at a time of upheaval and change associated with the crisis of slave society. The rise of Christianity is one of the most extraordinary phenomena in history. Despite the most ferocious persecution, the Christians won mass support until the new religion was eventually recognised by the Emperor Constantine. From being a revolutionary movement of the poor and oppressed, the Church was absorbed into the state to become a formidable weapon in the hands of the rich and powerful.
This subject is of great interest to those who are fighting for socialism today. And the republication of The Foundations of Christianity in German is a most timely decision. This work deserves a far wider audience than it has had. It is quite astonishing that it has been out of print in German for decades and has been only intermittently available in English and other languages, especially as the main conclusions of Kautsky have been strikingly confirmed by the latest discoveries of archaeology and in particular the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Kautsky’s book is a masterpiece of the method of historical materialism. That said, it must be admitted that Kautsky was not the first person to attempt a scientific (non-religious) analysis of the gospels and Christianity. The Left Hegelian Bruno Bauer was the first to prove the chronological order of the Gospels and their mutual interdependence. Even before Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto, he proved that many themes of the New Testament are derived from the Greco-Roman literature of the first century.
As early as the 1850's Bauer traced the origins of Christianity in the second century CE and concluded that the first gospel was written under Hadrian (117-138 CE), that is, over a century after the death of Christ. He demonstrated striking parallels between the New Testament and first century writers like the Stoic Seneca. This had been noticed even in ancient times, but the ancient commentators concluded that Seneca must have been a closet Christian! Bauer, on the contrary, concluded that Christianity was essentially "Stoicism triumphant in a Jewish garb."
Some modern writers have attempted to contradict Bauer’s theory and prove that Christianity had a mainly Jewish origin. But the correct position was established by Marx, Engels and Kautsky who explained that although the New Testament originated as a Jewish tradition, it was later taken over, adapted and purged to suit the outlook of the middle class Romans who joined the movement when it had already become an established force in society. In his last works, Bauer stressed the revolutionary aspects of the early Christian religion, as a powerful motor-force of the fight for liberation of the excluded and oppressed classes of the Roman Empire. He also underlined the communist elements in early Christianity and Engels wrote a very positive obituary of Bauer in Sozialdemokrat in 1882.
Others were drawing similar conclusions. Ernest Renan wrote: “When you want to get a distinct idea of what the first Christian communities were, do not compare them to the parish congregations of our day; they were rather like local sections of the International Working Men’s Association.”
Engels commented on this:
“And this is correct. Christianity got hold of the masses, exactly as modern socialism does, under the shape of a variety of sects, and still more of conflicting individual views clearer, some more confused, these latter the great majority — but all opposed to the ruling system, to ‘the powers that be’.” (Marx and Engels On Religion, Progress Publishers, 1957)
The problem of sources
Few people realize that the actual historical evidence for the life of Jesus Christ is extremely sparse. As Kautsky points out, the only real historical sources for the Christ legend is the New Testament: the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Most people (even non-believers) assume that these are more or less historical accounts, even if we exclude the miracles. It is assumed that the gospels were written by four of the disciples of Jesus Christ and are therefore eyewitness accounts of real events. This, however, is not the case.
Most of the Gospels appear to have been written at least a hundred years after Jesus was supposed to have lived, and were certainly not written by his disciples. The letters of Paul are probably the oldest part of the New Testament, yet there is nothing in the writings of Paul about the life of Jesus. Nor do they contain anything about the Twelve Disciples, Galilee, etc. The legend of Jesus took shape only gradually, over a long period, and was accompanied by the struggle between Christians of Jewish and of pagan elements.
Following in the footsteps of Bauer, Kautsky pointed out that there is not a word of independent (non-Christian) proof of the existence of Jesus Christ. In fact, there is not a shred of evidence for the existence of Jesus outside the four Gospels, and these cover only a fraction of his life. It has long been known that they are full of the most glaring contradictions, historical inaccuracies and inconsistencies.
It is generally agreed among contemporary scholars that the Gospel of Mark was the first of the Canonical Gospels to be written. Most scholars believe that it was written around or shortly after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple in year 70. Unlike both Matthew and Luke, Mark does not offer any information about the life of Jesus before his baptism. Neither the nativity nor a genealogy of Jesus will be found in it. We find nothing in the writings of Paul about the life of Jesus, Galilee, or the twelve disciples. Likewise, in other early writings, such as Revelations we find no mention of a historic Jesus.
Jesus was supposed to be a native of Nazareth, but no such town is mentioned in the Old Testament and there is doubt as to whether it existed at all in ancient times, although a town of that name was established later on. A very remarkable fact is that Josephus, a very acute observer, also does not mention its existence. This is strange since, as a military commander, he knew virtually every town and village in Judea. As a matter of fact, the word “Nazarene” meant something like “sectarian”, and so Jesus the Nazarene, meaning “Jesus the sectarian” was probably misunderstood (as were so many other words and phrases) to signify his place of origin.
Kautsky points out that the story of the Passion has no base in what we know of either Roman or Jewish law. Today we know that the entire passion narrative in the Gospels has been created from motifs taken from Psalms 22, 23, 38 and 39 and from the depiction of the "suffering servant" in The Book of Isaiah (See E. Doherty, The Gospels as Midrash and Symbolism, 1999, 225 ff.).
The Gospel of Mark contains mistakes concerning Galilean geography and customs,which proves the author was not native to the Holy Land, as Peter was supposed to be. Significantly, Mark (16:8) stops at the empty tomb without further explanation. The Gospel of Mark may have originally ended abruptly at this point. It seems that the longer ending was composed early in the second century and incorporated into the gospel around the middle of the second century. The last twelve verses are missing from the oldest manuscripts of Mark's Gospel. Also it has been pointed out that the style of these verses differs from the rest of Mark, suggesting they were a later addition. As long ago as the 19th century, textual critics have asserted that Mark 16:9–20, describing some disciples' encounters with the resurrected Jesus, was a later addition to the gospel.
These obscure texts were later reinterpreted by Romans who thought that "the Christ" was a "literal" incarnation of God within a human body. This idea, profoundly alien to the Jewish mind, was quite familiar to the Romans who thought of their Roman Emperors as personified Deities. The old Jewish tradition had to be made to fit this foreign scheme. This was achieved through a re-writing and outright forgery of the First New Testament and invention of other documents that distort the original understanding of "the Christ" beyond all recognition. The teachings of the earliest Gentile and Jewish Gnostic Christians was gradually purged out of existence, a process aided by the simple device of burning of the world's libraries over the next two or more centuries. In the end, the censorship completely obliterated the original message. It was lost until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library some fifty years ago.
Marx and Engels on early Christianity
The new religion was the product of the turbulent period that can be dated from the Maccabean revolt to the destruction of the Temple under Vespasian. This was a period of intense class struggle, national revolts and civil wars. Jewish society was split from top to bottom. Out of this explosive ferment arose different movements of a revolutionary and Messanistic character, led by charismatic personalities some of whose names have come down to us. There was Bar Kochbar, Judas of Galilee and many others. But the name Jesus Christ tells us nothing at all.
In the absence of any reliable written sources about the real biography of Jesus, we are obliged to seek clarification elsewhere: by analysing the evidence concerning the social, economic and political life of those times. Kautsky based himself on the writings of Marx and Engels who had already analyzed early Christianity in some detail. Engels stressed the Jewish nature of early Christianity: “As a matter of course, Christianity presents itself as a mere sect of Judaism.” This statement has been verified, in a way that could not have been anticipated by either Engels or Kautsky, by the remarkable discoveries from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Engels wrote:
“What kind of people were the first Christians recruited from? Mainly from the ‘labouring and burdened,’ the members of the lowest strata of the people, as becomes a revolutionary element. And what did they consist of? In the towns of impoverished free men, all sorts of people, like the ‘mean whites’ of the southern slave states and the European beachcombers and adventurers in colonial and Chinese seaports, then of emancipated slaves and, above all, actual slaves; on the large estates in Italy, Sicily, and Africa of slaves, and in the rural districts of the provinces of small peasants who had fallen more and more into bondage through debt. There was absolutely no common road to emancipation for all these elements. For all of them paradise lay lost behind them; for the ruined free men it was the former polis, the town and the state at the same time, of which their forefathers had been free citizens; for the war-captive slaves the time of freedom before their subjugation and captivity; for the small peasants the abolished gentile social system and communal landownership. All that had been smitten down by the levelling iron fist, of conquering Rome.”
Imposed by military might, Roman rule, accompanied by the monstrous tax-collecting machine completely dissolved the traditional Jewish society. The civil authorities seized the treasures of the subjugated away from them and then lent them back at usurious rates in order to squeeze them still more. The pressure of taxation plunged the peasants into ever deeper bondage to the usurers, making the rich richer and reducing the poor to complete destitution.
The Jews resisted, but such resistance to the gigantic Roman world power was doomed from the outset. The defeat of the great Jewish revolt of 66-70 CE led to the search for salvation, not in an uprising but by turning inwards. When Christ says “my Kingdom is not of this world”, that expresses the psychology of the mass of oppressed and downtrodden people who were looking for a way out.
“But not in this world. In the state in which things were it could only be a religious way out. Then a new world was disclosed. The continued life of the soul after the death of the body had gradually become a recognized article of faith throughout the Roman world. A kind of recompense or punishment of the deceased souls for their actions while on earth also received more and more general recognition.” (Engels, ibid)
For the poor and oppressed this life was a vale of tears in which every spark of hope was extinguished. The sole remaining hope was for a better life beyond the grave. For the old pagan religion the afterlife was a cheerless, grey affair. But Christianity offered the masses a reward in heaven, where finally justice might be obtained, with punishment for the wicked and powerful, and eternal life in paradise for the true believers.
“And in fact only with the prospect of a reward in the world beyond could the stoico-philonic renunciation of the world and ascetics be exalted to the basic moral principle of a new universal religion which would inspire the oppressed masses with enthusiasm.” (Ibid.)
The early Christians looked forward to the end of the world and the Second Coming with eager expectation from day to day. They fervently believed that the kingdom of God, the capital of which is the New Jerusalem, can only be conquered and opened after arduous struggles with the powers of hell.
The Jews and the Roman Empire
It is essential to bear in mind the purely Jewish character of the very early Christians. This is not easy after a thousand years of Christian propaganda that has emphasized the non-Jewish nature of this religion, an emphasis that frequently has overtly anti-Semitic overtones. In religious paintings Jesus the Jew is routinely depicted as a white Anglo-Saxon type with blond hair and blue eyes.
However, the kind of Judaism that produced early Christianity was not the same as the Judaism of today. It was not even the same as that of the Old Testament. In the Old Testament there is scarcely any mention of resurrection of the dead. Similarly, the coming of the Christ, although foreshadowed in the Old Testament, was given an absolutely central place that it had not enjoyed before. These were new ideas that corresponded to a definite period in Jewish history and definite social conditions. It is the study of these material conditions that enable us to fill in the many gaps left by the written record.
In The Foundations of Christianity Karl Kautsky discards the myths and proceeds to analyze the social and economic conditions in Palestine in the first century of our era. At that time, as we have pointed out, Palestine was afflicted by bitter conflicts, with a religious, class and national content. There was a whole series of upheavals and revolts, which ultimately ended in the destruction of the Temple and the complete crushing of the Jews.
Through a process of conquest Rome subjugated the whole known world economically, politically and socially. After the defeat of Carthage the Mediterranean (which means the centre of the world) Sea became a Roman Lake. Judea was a peripheral state on the margins of the Roman world. It was a remote and impoverished corner of the Roman Empire at a time when the economic system of slavery was beginning to enter into a terminal crisis.
The Roman Empire was a highly organized structure that was sanctified by an official state religion. This culminated in the practice of Emperor-worship. Loyal citizens were expected to sacrifice to the Emperor. The Romans regarded the Jews as atheists because they refused to recognize the Gods of Rome. Their obstinacy in this respect obliged the Roman authorities to grant them exemption from public duties. But the relationship was an uneasy one.
Rome was a parasitical state that lived off the labour of the slaves and the tribute extracted from the conquered peoples. The Roman state became a bureaucratic monster dedicated to the systematic plunder of the provinces to satisfy the demands of the state and the governors' thirst for wealth. Taxation, which was in the hands of private tax farmers, became ever more effective and oppressive. The effect was utterly destructive. It is no accident that the tax farmer (“publican”) in the New Testament is a universally detested figure.
Roman law was administered by Roman judges, who generally had no concern for local laws, religious traditions or customs. Every attempt at revolt was brutally suppressed. Whole populations were massacred or taken away into slavery. The population became more and more sharply divided into classes. Roman society was dominated by the rich slaveholders, big landowners or usurers (though some were emancipated slaves).
Classes in Judean society
The beginnings of Christianity are indissolubly mixed up with Judaism, and the early Christians were only one of a myriad sects all struggling to make their mark in the revolutionary ferment gripped Judea in that first century CE. The most important event of those times was the uprising of 66 CE, which led to the destruction of the Second Temple.
Christianity was an offshoot of Judaism and is rooted in an ancient Jewish tradition. But when we speak of this, we must bear in mind that the Judaism from which Christianity sprang was not that of the Old Testament, and still less the Judaism of today. A whole series of Christian traditions and beliefs come from far older Jewish cultic practices, which were preserved by a long oral tradition, such as the resurrection of the dead, angels and demons, ritual meals (the “Messanistic banquet” of the Essenes), baptism and the Messiah sent by God to lead His people out of bondage, etc. All these elements were mixed up in a seething brew of beliefs in the Judea of the first century BCE. In turn they were determined by the actual experience of the Jews, in particular the nationalist uprising of the Maccabees.
Palestine was full of different radical movements and religious sects, of which the main currents in the last analysis reflected the interests of different classes and sub-classes, and played a role roughly analogous to that of political parties today. The different schools and movements argued with each other about the interpretation of religious texts and doctrines. In the last analysis, these conflicts represented the conflicting interests and outlooks of antagonistic classes and groups in society. Out of this furious strife in first century Judean society and religion arose two of the three main world religions: Christianity and modern Judaism.
The Roman occupation was brutal, with the full weight falling on the shoulders of the mass of poor peasants. From the point of view of the Romans, the Jews were a strange people with an alien psychology and an incomprehensible monotheistic religion to which they clung with a fanatical stubbornness. Apart from the ruling class, which assumed the role of collaborators, the masses were totally immune to all attempts at Romanization.
The splits in society found their expression in splits in Judaism itself. The foreign occupiers were hated by the people but they had points of support in the upper ranks of Jewish society: the Jewish nobility and the Priesthood. These lived like kings on the backs of the impoverished peasants, who were crushed by the weight of taxes. The Temple of Jerusalem was not a Church in the modern sense of the word, but a vast complex full of priests, bureaucrats, officials and moneylenders. The top layers collaborated with the Romans and enjoyed a monopoly of power over the Temple and its wealth. These were the Sadducees. Between these wealthy parasites and the poor peasants there was an abyss.
Just below this layer was the class of the prosperous middle class. While the High Priests collaborated with the Romans and even adopted foreign (Greek) names, the lower orders of Priesthood stood closer to the people and were permeable to their feelings and aspirations. Politically, they resembled the modern national bourgeoisie of colonial countries, who stand between the workers and peasants on the one hand and the upper classes on the other. At the decisive moment they were inclined to go over to the side of the people. However, just like the modern colonial bourgeoisie, they had an ambiguous position, constantly vacillating between the two poles. Although they opposed the Sadducees, the Pharisees are repeatedly denounced by Christ (“whitened sepulchres”, “generation of vipers”, etc.) A typical specimen of this class was Flavius Josephus, the celebrated author of the Jewish Antiquities.
Originally a Jewish general who fought against the Romans during the big uprising of 66 CE, he later changed sides and became a Roman stooge, earning the undying hatred of his countrymen. His writings constitute the only written historical source apart from the gospels themselves. The few sparse references in Roman authors like Tacitus and Pliny are so general that they cannot be counted as of any real value. Moreover they refer not specifically to Christ but to the Christian movement, which certainly did exist.
Beyond these mainstream groups there was a myriad of movements, groups and sub-groups of an extremist character, representing the majority of the poor and dispossessed population of Palestine. Chief of these were the Zealots, the party of the streets, who repeatedly organized riots in the streets and uprisings. Simon, the eleventh apostle, was known as “the Zealot”. Before joining the ranks of the apostles, this former merchant in Capernaum had been a member of the Zealots, as his nickname suggest.
The Zealots were based on the urban poor, the unemployed lumpenproletarians of Jerusalem, always in a state of revolutionary ferment, always ready to participate in riots and insurrections. There were other radical elements outside the City, a host of religious sects and movements, some of them involved in guerrilla movements, others with communist tendencies. Among the latter we find a Jewish sect known as the Essenes. Kautsky thought that the early Christians were probably part of this movement, although in 1908 there was no documentary evidence for this assertion. Josephus, Philo Judaeus and Pliny the Elder all wrote about the Essenes.
Pliny tells us briefly that the Essenes do not marry, possess no money, and had existed for thousands of generations. And there is another, shorter description in Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94 CE) and in his autobiographical The Life of Flavius Josephus (c. 97 CE). From these accounts it is to be assumed that he had firsthand knowledge of the Essenoi, which he lists as one of the three sects of Jewish philosophy alongside the Pharisees and the Sadducees. A later account by Josephus in The Jewish War (c. 75 CE) is far more detailed.
Josephus records that the Essenes existed in large numbers and thousands lived throughout Judæa. Interestingly, he specifically locates them in Ein Gedi, next to the Dead Sea – the area in which the Scrolls were discovered. He refers favourably to their piety, celibacy, the absence of personal property and of money, their belief in communality and their commitment to strict observance of the Sabbath. He adds that the Essenes ritually immersed in water every morning, ate together after prayer, devoted themselves to charity and benevolence, forbade the expression of anger, studied the books of the elders, preserved secrets, and were very mindful of the names of the angels kept in their sacred writings.
Many of these features remind us of the practices of the early Christians as described in the Acts of the Apostles. It is therefore highly likely that either the Christians were part of the Essene movement or the two tendencies somehow derived from a common ancestor. And although some scholars have attempted to deny it, the coincidences are too great to leave much doubt that the Qumran sect, which wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, was part of the same movement.
The Maccabean revolt
This was the fertile ground for the appearance of Messianistic ideas, which included the image of a future Davidian Prince, known as Yehoshua HaNotzri (Jesus the Nazarene) who would save the Jewish people at some time in the future.
The Syrian overlords attempted to squeeze their Jewish subjects, provoking a ferment of rebellion. To make matters worse, under Antiochus IV there was a tendency to impose Hellenization on the citizens of the Seleucid Empire, including the lavish adoration of the Grecian gods of his forefathers. This was pure poison to the Jews, who resented the foreign impositions. Only the privileged Priest Caste fell into line, slavishly adopting Greek names and styles of dress.
The last straw was the infamous day known to Jewish history as the “abomination of desolation”. Greedy power-seeking priests, collaborators with foreign rulers ruled in Jerusalem and provoked the people continuously.
In 167 BCE, Antiochus IV arrived in Jerusalem returning from his Egyptian campaign. He took advantage of his stay to plunder the city and desecrate the temple, erecting an altar to his patron god, Zeus in the temple as well as an altar of sacrifice to the gods of the Greeks. Any Jews who offered resistance were executed. The worship of the Seventh-day Shabbat (Sabbath) was prohibited, the Jewish ritual of circumcision was forbidden on pain of death, and all services in the temple ceased.
Judas, nicknamed “Maccabeus” or “The Hammer”, led the Jewish revolt and the Maccabees became the de facto rulers of the Jews, replacing the House of David as the Nasi, Patriarchs, and rulers of the Jews and the House of Zadok, the high priest of King David, as the ruling High Priests of Israel. For 135 years they ruled as Kings over the Jewish people, and for 113 years they served as the High Priests of Israel.
This was the turbulent background for the Jewish revolt under the Jewish priest, Judah Maccabeus. The rising began in 167 BCE, when, together with his sons, he started a revolt against the infamous Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 B.C.), whose name means "God made manifest" and who claimed to be the embodiment of Zeus on earth. He prohibited some of the central elements of the Jewish religion, including the destruction of copies of the Torah and demanded offerings to Zeus, to whom he erected a statue in the Temple. His sacrifice of a pig there was the spark that ignited the Maccabean revolt.
The rebels displayed extraordinary courage, fighting off far superior forces for two years of the revolt. By the skilful use of guerrilla tactics, the Jews won a series of victories. After a battle in which he defeated a Syrian army under Apollonius, governor of Samaria, recruits flocked to the rebel cause. After years of war he succeeded in taking Jerusalem. Only the garrison in the citadel of Acra held out against him. He purified the defiled Temple of Jerusalem and on December 14, 164 BCE, restored the service in the Temple.
But the Empire counterattacked, launching a campaign against Judas Maccabaeus (1 Mac 6:28-54, 2 Mac 13:1-2) and destroyed the walls of the Temple.
The rising of 66-70
Later Judea became a Roman Province. The century or so before Christ was thus characterised by violent uprisings, bloodshed and civil war between the Jewish masses and the Hellenized ruling class. Class hatred was mingled with religious fanaticism to produce a volatile and explosive mixture. The whole Province of Judea was seething with a spirit of revolt. Judea was in a permanent state of revolutionary ferment. The entire period presents us with a picture of continuous upheavals and bloody class struggle.
There were many revolts led by “false messiahs”, which were all put down with ferocious savagery. What made them particularly violent was the volatile mix of class and religion. In the writings of Josephus there are many references to these wars, revolts and uprisings, and from these accounts written by a participant and eyewitness, we learn the names of many rebels. But the name of one Jesus of Nazareth is not among them.
It is therefore no surprise to learn that this period culminated in the violent national uprising that began in 66 CE. This marked a decisive turning point in Jewish history. After a series of initial victories, the rising was put down in blood. The Jews fought with the courage of desperation. Initially they won victories. The masses stormed the Temple and burned all documents relating to the debts and taxes of the peasantry. The aristocracy and the high priests fled to the safety of the Roman lines. The Pharisee Josephus writes in detail about this.
At one stage there were no fewer than four revolutionary armies and it took the Roman army four years to stamp out the flames of revolt. But stamp it out they did. The Roman army, led by the future Emperor Titus, with Tiberius Julius Alexander as his second-in-command, besieged and conquered the city of Jerusalem, which had been occupied by its Jewish defenders in the uprising. During the siege of Jerusalem, the Jewish defenders fought with fanatical bravery.
Titus cut off all supplies of food and water supplies, and increased the pressure by cynically allowing pilgrims to enter the city to celebrate Passover, and then refusing to allow them to leave. When Jewish sallies killed a number of Roman soldiers, Titus sent Josephus, the Jewish historian, to negotiate with the defenders. The Jews responded by wounding the negotiator with an arrow, and then launching another sally. Titus was almost captured during this sudden attack, but escaped.
The Romans were drawn into street fighting with the Zealots, who were then ordered to retreat to the temple to avoid heavy losses. Josephus failed in another attempt at negotiations, and Jewish attacks prevented the construction of siege towers at the Fortress of Antonia. Food, water, and other provisions were dwindling inside the city, but small foraging parties managed to get supplies into the city, harrying Roman forces in the process. To put an end to the foragers, orders were issued to build a new wall, and siege tower construction was restarted as well.
In the end the Romans managed to launch a surprise attack, overwhelming sleeping Zealot guards and taking the Fortress. Most likely, Titus had wanted to seize the Temple, not destroy it, and transform it into a temple dedicated to the Roman Emperor. But a fire started by his soldiers spread quickly and was soon out of control. The Temple was destroyed and the flames spread into the residential sections of the city.
The Roman legions swiftly crushed the remnants of Jewish resistance. Some of the defenders escaped through hidden underground tunnels, while others made a last stand in the Upper City. The Roman had to construct siege towers to assail the remaining Jews. Not until September 7 was the city completely under the Romans, who now continued to hunt down the Jews that had fled the city.
Josephus tells us that 1,100,000 people were killed during the siege, of which a majority were Jewish, and that 97,000 were captured and enslaved. This catastrophe was followed two years later by the fall of Masada. Tens of thousands of Jews fled to escape being sold into slavery. They were to be found in large numbers in Rome, Alexandria and all the cities of the Empire, especially in the East. It was a traumatic experience for the Jewish people, and it left them demoralised and dejected.
The Jewish historian Josephus, who was an eyewitness to these events, expressed the feelings of his Nation in the following passage:
“And truly, the very view itself was a melancholy thing; for those places which were adorned with trees and pleasant gardens, were now become desolate country every way, and its trees were all cut down. Nor could any foreigner that had formerly seen Judaea and the most beautiful suburbs of the city, and now saw it as a desert, but lament and mourn sadly at so great a change. For the war had laid all signs of beauty quite waste. Nor had anyone who had known the place before, had come on a sudden to it now, would he have known it again. But though he [a foreigner] were at the city itself, yet would he have inquired for it.” (The War of the Jews, Book IV)
The Book of Revelation
The early Christians were convinced that the profound crisis of society heralded the imminent end of the world, the second coming of Christ and the emergence of the New Jerusalem. This was not a kingdom in the clouds but a very real kingdom of God on earth. They were definitely a revolutionary movement based on the poor and oppressed layers of society. The class nature of early Christianity is faithfully reflected in the Gospels.
One can get an idea of what Christianity looked like in its early form by reading the so-called Book of Revelation of John, “the oldest, and the only, book of the New Testament, the authenticity of which cannot be disputed,” as Engels wrote. All we know about it is that it was written in the reign of Galba (in around 68 or 69 AD) and the author calls himself John. “No other is written in such barbaric language, so full of Hebraisms, impossible constructions and mistakes in grammar.” wrote Engels. (See Engels, The Book of Revelations, 1883)
The main seat of Christianity in the First Century was Asia Minor. But there was no trace of any Trinity but only the old God of the Jews, the one and indivisible Jehovah. Later this deity was exalted from the national god of the Jews to the universal God of heaven and earth, who will rule over all nations, promising mercy to those who are converted and mercilessly smiting down those who stubbornly resist, on the principle parcere subjectis uc debellare superbos ("Pardon the humble and make war on the proud.")
The fiery nature of this creed was expressed in the Book of Revelations. Babylon the Great Whore is depicted sitting arrayed in scarlet over the waters, drunk with the blood of the saints and the martyrs of Jesus, the great city of the seven hills that rules over all the kings of the earth. She is sitting on a beast with seven heads and ten horns. The seven heads represent the seven hills, and also seven "kings." This clearly refers to Rome itself with its seven hills.
The beast referred to in Revelations is Roman world domination, represented by seven Caesars in succession, one of them having been mortally wounded and no longer reigning, but he will be healed and will return. It will be given unto him as the eighth to establish the kingdom of blasphemy and defiance of God.
It is this God, not Christ, who will judge at the last judgment. In the early texts there is hardly any reference to the events of the life of Christ, which only appear in the later accounts of the Gospels and the Epistles. The author is not yet aware that he is anything else but a Jew. There is no mention of baptism in the whole book, which indicates that baptism was instituted in a later period of Christianity. There is no mention of original sin or justification by faith. The faith of these early Christian communities is quite different from that of the later church that became part of the state. They were revolutionaries and stood in absolute antithesis to the state and the existing order of society.
The apocalyptic language of the end of the world and the Day of Judgment is only the expression of a confused feeling that the existing order was on the point of collapse. The feeling that the end of the world is nigh is common to every historical period when a particular socio-economic system had entered into irreversible decline. It was a period when the decline of feudal society and the rise of capitalism produced a ferment of ideas and a crisis of belief that manifested itself in the rise of oppositional currents like the Lollards and John Wycliffe in England and the Hussites in Bohemia.
In the tortured language of the Book of Revelations (The Apocalypse) we find a fantastic reflection of the terminal crisis of Roman slave society, expressed as the great final fight between God and the “Antichrist,” as he has been named. The overthrow of the “Whore of Babylon” ( Rome) is eagerly awaited: “And the woman which thou sawest is the great city which reigneth over the kings of the earth.” This is a world on the brink of a social and religious revolution. The old world is shown as rotten and corrupt to the marrow. It is tottering, waiting for its overthrow. It does not deserve to survive – just like our own world today.
The early Christians impatiently awaited the imminent return of Christ and the thousand-year kingdom which was shortly to dawn. They were committed to an unrelenting struggle against the internal and external enemy. They adopted a proud and obstinate revolutionary standpoint. They remained stubbornly steadfast before the heathen judges, refusing to renounce their faith and willingly embracing martyrdom, confident in the final victory.
The Apocalypse of St. John is presented as the revelation of "things which must shortly come to pass; and immediately afterwards, in I, 3, it declares “Blessed is he that readeth and they that hear the words of this prophecy ... for the time is at hand.” To the church in Philadelphia Christ sends the message: “Behold, I come quickly.” And in the last chapter the angel says he has shown John “things which must shortly be done” and gives him the order: “Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand.” And Christ himself says twice (XXII, 12, 20) “I come quickly.” The sequel will show us how soon this coming was expected.
“So here it is not yet a question of a ‘religion of love,’ of ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you,’ etc. Here undiluted revenge is preached, sound, honest revenge on the persecutors of the Christians. So it is in the whole of the book. The nearer the crisis comes, the heavier the plagues and punishments rain from the heavens and with all the more satisfaction John announces that the mass of humanity will not atone for their sins, that new scourges of God must lash them, that Christ must rule them with a rod of iron and tread the wine-press of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God, but that the impious still remain obdurate in their hearts. It is the natural feeling, free of all hypocrisy, that a fight is going on and that — A la guerre comme à la guerre.” (Engels, The Book of Revelation, 1883)
This wild Oriental fanaticism was later refined and transformed by an admixture of pagan philosophy. For example, the so-called Epistles of the Apostles were based on the philosophy of the Stoics, of Seneca in particular whose writings, as Bauer proved, were copied word-for-word in parts of the Epistles.
The Joshua myth and Jesus
The context of the spread of early Christianity is the aftermath of the bloody Jewish War of 66–70 and the destruction of the Temple. In the dark period that followed, the lack of written sources means that we lack any serious record of the early Christians, but it is known that they existed in many different groups, sects and tendencies, which were frequently torn by internal disputes and splits. It was at that time (approximately 100-300 CE) that Christianity emerged.
After the bloody suppression of the uprising, the movement began to take a different direction. The long-awaited Messiah had not appeared to save the Jews from destruction. Instead of waiting for a Messiah who would be a military-political leader, some sects began to seek salvation in another world (“my kingdom is not of this world” Christ was supposed to have said). These ideas had their base in the material conditions of society. Having suffered a terrible defeat in war, the Jews were forced to look inwards, seeking salvation in mystical and Messianic dreams.
A fatalistic mood gripped the minds of the people. Inevitably, they looked for consolation and inspiration to the past, to the old stories of great national leaders like Moses and above all Joshua, who would lead the people out of foreign bondage. It was in these conditions that the Jesus (more correctly, Joshua) myths arose. They were constructed out of various elements, beginning, as the original Christians undoubtedly did, with the myth of Exodus.
This famous Jewish myth relates the story of Moses leading his people out of captivity in Egypt by miraculously parting the Red Sea. This was followed by forty years of wandering in the wilderness in search of the Promised Land. When Moses died, his successor, Joshua ben Nun, is said to have once again miraculously parted the river Jordan to lead the Jews to their promised homeland.
"Joshua" (and/or "Jesus") mean "Saviour of the Lord", while "Christ" means "Anointed One" (a Greek rendering of the Hebrew word "Messiah", which was an epithet for a leader, used of Jewish kings). Therefore, the name itself tells us nothing at all about a particular individual who was supposed to have lived in the first century. Jesus Christ means only “the Saviour King”.
There were many Joshua sects around at the time Jesus was supposed to have lived, and it seems very likely that the early Christians were one of them. The name "Jesus" itself comes from Exodus as it is only the Hebrew name Joshua translated into Greek. This fact is not generally known today, but it would have been obvious to the early Christians, who, we must remember, were Jews and steeped in Jewish traditions. A Gnostic Jew, writing for a Gentile audience, would have written "Jesus" and not "Joshua" long before the time of the supposed historical Jesus.
In Exodus we read that having crossed the river Jordan, Joshua selects 12 men to represent the 12 tribes of Israel. After his baptism in the river Jordan, Jesus similarly selects 12 men as his immediate followers (John 3:13). After the crossing of the Jordan Joshua orders that 12 stones be set up, one for each of the 12 tribes, at a place called Gilgal. These references to the number 12 refer to the 12 astrological signs of the zodiac, which the Jews had taken over from the Babylonians during the Babylonian exile.
At the birth of Moses, the evil Pharaoh, fearful of a prophesy that Moses would be the cause of his downfall, orders the killing of the firstborn of Israel in an attempt to kill him. In the myth of Jesus, King Herod (the “evil Pharaoh”) fearful of a prophesy that the true King of the Jews has been born, orders the "slaughter of the innocents" in an attempt to kill the baby Jesus (Matt. 2:2-16). Like the Jews in Exodus, Jesus is called out of Egypt, where he has been in hiding. The parallel is made explicit in The Gospel of Matthew, which explains that this is to fulfil the prophesy "Out of Egypt I have called my Son" (Matt. 2:15).
It is very likely that all these references have an allegorical and mystical character, probably conveying the idea that the soul, imprisoned in the physical body, is striving to free itself from “Egyptian captivity”. If we follow this argument, the crossing of the Red Sea is a symbol of baptism etc. Jesus is made to fulfil the old Jewish prophesies because he has been constructed out of them.
It was Marcion, who put together the first “orthodox” version of the New Testament, and thus established a tradition that led to censorship, persecution and the suppression of a mass of proto-Christian texts that could have shed light on the true nature of early Christianity. For the first time, the old “Joshua/Jesus” sayings were given a fake covering in the form of the life of a man called Jesus, complete with genealogies, a virgin birth, tales of a miraculous infancy and so on and so forth.
The “Christ" referred to by Paul in his earliest (and authentic) epistles was not a human figure at all, but the embodiment of the Divine Spirit within humankind. The “Christ" (the Word or Logos) was a non-human intermediary that was believed to connect humankind to God. The link was to be achieved through the self-knowledge that God dwelt within, and this was explained to initiates in the form of an allegory based upon the Exodus story.
This was the central message of Christianity before and after the first century. By coming to this knowledge ("Gnosis"), the man of the flesh “died” and was resurrected as a "new man" with a new spiritual revelation of God.
What was meant as an allegory has been taken literally by modern Christians, who have no idea about the original meaning of the Gospels that have come down in translation, after innumerable alterations, deletions and censorship. The result is a strange mixture of Jewish traditions, allegory and admixtures of pagan myths and philosophy.
Through baptism the early Christians were “born again”, through repentance they achieved the “death” of the flesh and resurrection by surrendering to the will of the Christ. By these means one found the road to salvation. In this way the earlier Jewish tradition of revolt was gradually replaced by an entirely different spirit – an inward-looking mysticism that patiently awaited salvation in the form of the Day of Judgement.
On that day, all the wrongs suffered by God’s chosen people would be avenged and the True Believers would live in Bliss, while the wicked of the earth would suffer the torments of eternal damnation. This is the world of the Apocalypse, one of the earliest and most faithful reflections of the psychological condition of the Christians of the first and second centuries.
Christianity and communism
The crisis of slave society in the Roman Empire found its reflection in a crisis of the old morality, philosophy and religion. They represented a world that had outlived its usefulness and had already passed into history. The temples stood empty and people sought a religion that would offer them some consolation for their endless sufferings and some prospect of salvation. In this context the idea of a Saviour, a Redeemer, had an obvious attraction.
The only hope for a revolutionary overthrow of slavery would have been to unite the slaves with the Roman proletariat – the mass of propertyless free citizens in Rome. But the Roman proletariat, unlike the modern working class, was a non-productive, parasitic class that lived off the state. The real productive class was the slaves on whose backs the whole oppressive and parasitic edifice rested. In The Eighteenth Brumaire Karl Marx quoted Sismondi’s statement: “The Roman proletariat lived at the expense of society whereas modern society lives at the expense of the proletariat.”
Just as the defeat of the great revolt of 66-70 CE produced a mood of helplessness and despair among the mass of propertyless Jews, so the defeat of Spartacus and the numerous other slave revolts in the later Roman Republic eventually convinced the slaves of the impossibility of defeating the Roman state. These defeats paved the way for the rise of the Emperors, under whose despotic rule, every class was ground underfoot.
What was the secret of the success of the early Christians, and how did they come to dominate the world? The Roman ruling class looked on Christianity contemptuously as a movement “of slaves and women.” That was just a way of saying that it was a movement that reflected the aspirations of the most downtrodden and oppressed layers of society. That was the main source of its strength. The popular masses in the Roman Empire embraced a religion that was preached by slaves and oppressed to the point where the ambitious and opportunist Constantine finally saw conversion to this religion as the best means of consolidating his hold on power.
The Acts of the Apostles show that the early Christians believed in equality. The communion of believers was expressed in the form of primitive communism. All who joined this communion had first to relinquish all their worldly goods. Tertullian (c. 160-230 CE) wrote: “We are brethren in our property, which with you mostly dissolves brotherhood. We therefore, who are united in mind and soul, doubt not about having possessions in common. With us all things are shared promiscuously, except the wives. In that alone do we part fellowship, in which alone others (Greeks and Roman pagans) exercise it.” (See Acts 1:39)
John Allegro notes: “The early Church also observed a form of communism, was at loggerheads with established Jewry as represented by the Jerusalem cultus, practiced a ritual meal of some kind, baptised its initiates, and paid special regard to the teachings of the biblical prophets, whose every word was thought to offer insight into the future of mankind.” (JM Allegro, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth, p. 4)
This communism was already practiced by a Jewish sect that was active at the time when Christ was supposed to have lived: the Essenes. Kautsky drew the conclusion that the early Christians were just another branch of the Essenes. But when he wrote The Foundations of Christianity, Kautsky did not have any idea that in the future archaeology would be able to cast a striking light on this obscure movement.
All the attempts to crush the Christian movement by state repression failed. Therefore, the ruling class did what they always do in such circumstances. If they cannot defeat a movement by force, the oppressed classes resort to cunning. They corrupt the leaders and absorb them into the state itself.
The story goes that while riding towards Rome for the final battle with his rival Maxentius, accompanied by Eusebius, his faithful bishop, he saw the cross in the setting sun and heard the words “in this sign conquer.” The battle of the Milvian Bridge, which took place on October 28th 312 CE, was a bloodbath in which Maxentius and his army of some 25,000 were slaughtered.
It is said that during his triumphant march on Rome, Constantine had crosses erected in the streets to celebrate his victory. However, this story of the cross was not made public until after Constantine's death, when he was obviously not in a position to deny it. Since the only source of this story is Eusebius, it can safely be assumed that it was a deliberate invention on his part. It was Eusebius who played a key role in the “conversion” of Constantine a few years later, so it would have been very much in his interest to embellish it with a miracle or two.
This legend was seized upon by later Christian historians as proof that the Emperor was now a disciple of Christ. In fact, Constantine remained a pagan to the end. He was an ambitious and unprincipled careerist, who was determined to become the sole head of the Roman Empire and made use of Christianity to achieve this end. The history of his reign is the history of bloodthirsty campaigns through which he took the lives of hundreds of thousands of his enemies. In fact, the more blood he spilled the greater he became.
By 320 CE the only rival who still stood in his way was the Emperor Valerius who ruled the east. In a bloody battle fought at sea, Valerius was outflanked and defeated. Not satisfied with the death of over 25,000 men Constantine murdered the entire family of Valerius, including the children, cousins and anyone else who might have some claim to the throne. He later showed particular ingenuity in disposing of his own wife, Fausta, who was locked in the bath, which was then heated to the point where she was slowly roasted. She was the mother of Crispus who had been also murdered by Constantine on the grounds that he had had sex with his mother-in-law. Now sole emperor, Constantine was able to marry a new wife, Constantia.
Constantine was now the sole ruler of a vast Empire that stretched from Britain to the far eastern regions of Persia, and from Germany to North Africa. In order to hold all this together he needed not only a rod of iron but some basis of support in the population. Constantine’s connection with Christianity played an important role in consolidating his power. The sycophant Eusebius called Constantine “the most pious son of a most pious and prudent father” and even goes so far as to claim that his father Constantius was, “at heart”, a Christian. But that has not the slightest basis in fact. Constantine himself remained a pagan all his life, and this is well attested to by the historical record.
In order to conceal Constantine’s paganism the cunning Eusebius invented the story that the Emperor was converted on his death bed. But on the one hand, it has been shown that documents credited to Eusebius are forgeries. On the other hand, the so-called Christian symbols on coins minted under Constantine are, in reality, pagan symbols. It is well known that the Christians took over many pagan symbols so that they could claim an ancient origin for the Church.
Let us cite just one example. Ever since Alexander the Great it was common for Emperor’s to associate themselves with the Sun, a custom which Alexander himself had copied from the monarchs of the East. The Christian halo is in fact copied from traditional depictions of Alexander, who was shown with the sun’s rays surrounding his head. When Constantine identified himself with the Sun God Apollo, he was merely following the same tradition.
Eumerius, writing in 310, informs us that Constantine had statues of the sun gods carried before him to emphasize his devotion to the sun god Apollo. He also notes that Constantine Clorus's name is to be found on edicts of persecution. It is a matter of historical record that this “most pious son of a most pious and prudent father” had many Christians tortured, exiled and jailed. According to those who knew him he sacrificed to Apollo right up to his death. He proclaimed himself the Son of Apollo and gave gifts to the temple of the Sun God.
Pagan elements in Christianity
Despite his pagan beliefs, Constantine was sufficiently astute to realize that all the attempts to suppress the Christian religion had failed. The Christians seemed to thrive on persecution and martyrdom. Even before he first seized absolute power, he was already considering whether it would not be better to incorporate the Christians into the state and use them to police and control the masses.
The Roman Empire in the phase of its decline was a fertile ground for the spread of mystical ideas. This partly explains the rapid spread of new religions from the East. This was a superstitious time, when people believed it possible to conjure up supernatural powers by the use of magic signs, formulas and rites. They believed in miracles. To win popularity the Church had to provide these things. Eusebius presented the cross as a magic sign, the effectiveness of which was said to be proved by Constantine’s victory. Early Christianity was thoroughly impregnated with superstition.
Originally, Christianity had been a Jewish sect. It was Paul who developed the idea of converting non-Jews, eliminating circumcision and the dietary prohibitions that were serious obstacles to winning over the latter. Over a period the early Church changed and regulated its doctrines to suit its new position in society. But when the new religion broke out of its original Jewish context it was mangled, changed beyond recognition and turned into something quite different. This led to new contradictions.
By the second century Christianity was no longer a purely Jewish affair. The message of the Christians was gradually watered down to make it more acceptable to the Roman middle class. (“Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”). Interestingly, the Christians were not opposed to slavery, though they were for the poor. The new religion began to acquire an increasing number of alien elements taken over from paganism and “baptized” with a little Holy water. Pagan tradition held that all gods were of a virgin birth, and this was transmitted into Christian myth, although it formed no part of the Jewish tradition. The first Vatican was built on the site of the temple to Jupiter.
The coming of Easter was celebrated with orgies and ritual sacrifices in many parts of the Roman Empire, including cakes distributed to the public in the name of Anna, another term for sun, from which the word “honour” was derived as well as “annual”, “annum” and “anus”, the shape of which resembles a star. The town of Bethlehem was in ancient times a cult centre of the Mother Goddess, whose star was the planet Venus. It is therefore not too difficult to discover the origins of the Star of Bethlehem that is said to have guided the Three Wise men of the East to the stable where the infant Christ is said to have been born.
Even the word Sunday has a pagan origin. Either it is derived from the name of the Scandinavian sun Goddess Sunna (a.k.a. Sunne, Frau Sonne), or it is derived from “Sol”, the Roman God of the Sun. Their phrase “Dies Solis” means “day of the Sun.” The Christian Saint Jerome (d. 420) commented, “If it is called the day of the sun by the pagans, we willingly accept this name, for on this day the Light of the world arose, on this day the Sun of Justice shone forth.”
The same is true of the cult of the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception. There is no tradition of virgin births in Jewish religion, but it is common in paganism. All over the Middle East the worship of the Mother, the Goddess who represented the earth, fertility, love, life and death, was widespread. In Egypt she was called Isis and in Persia Astar (“I-star” means “mighty star”) or “Ashtarith”. When she disappeared in winter the life of the planet disappeared with her, and the earth was dead and barren. When she returned in the spring all life returned with her.
This rotation of the seasons naturally suggested to the minds of people closely connected with the agricultural cycle the idea of a dying and resurrected Deity. This is the pagan origin of Easter (which in the English language comes from Eostre, a.k.a. Eastre), the Great Mother Goddess of the Saxons and other Germanic peoples of Northern Europe. The Teutonic dawn goddess of fertility was also known variously as Ostare, Ostara, Ostern, Eostra, Eostre, Eostur, Eastra, Eastur, Austron and Ausos.
These innumerable pagan admixtures have aroused tremendous indignation among the Christian fundamentalists like the Jehovah’s witnesses, who have assiduously attempted to purge them. The problem is that if all the pagan myths are eliminated from the New Testament, there would be very little left.
Although the new religion found its first and most enthusiastic adepts in the most oppressed and marginalized elements of society (slaves and women) it gradually attracted the attention of a layer of the educated and privileged classes, who were increasingly alienated by the spiritual emptiness of a decadent society. The Church offered every individual the hope of salvation and the promise of life after death. By contrast the old gods seemed cold and aloof.
The pragmatic Constantine calculated cynically that any disadvantages that might flow from the abandonment of the old religion would be outweighed by the advantages of having the Church, with its powerful apparatus and control over the masses, as an ally. He achieved his aim by the simple expedient of co-opting the leaders of the Church (the bishops) into the state.
In the period of approximately 100-300 CE we see a gradual consolidation of the power of the bishops, the crystallization of a privileged bureaucratic stratum. Gradually, the Christian Church acquired a bureaucratic apparatus, which fused with the state. The bishops were originally the treasurers. They began to concentrate in their hands considerable wealth and authority. In an ironical footnote Gibbon writes:
“I somewhere heard or read the frank confession of a Benedictine abbot: My vowof poverty has given me an hundred thousand crowns a year; my vow of obediencehas raised me to the rank of a sovereign prince.” (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter XXXVII, Monks and Arians). And Gibbon wonders to what excesses the abbot’s vows of chastity had led him.
This cynical opportunist used religion to strengthen his grip on power. Andreas Alföldi (The conversion of Constantine and pagan Rome, 1948) reports that what Constantine did was considered by his contemporaries as “an ingenious trick to cheat the masses.” To do this, he had to establish doctrinal orthodoxy and stamp out any other doctrines. At that time there were a huge number of competing versions of Christianity, each with its own Gospels and rites. In the first decades of the second century there were a large number of rival Christian sects that were in bitter conflict.
In order to consolidate his power, Constantine had to eliminate all competing versions and introduce orthodoxy. It took a series of bloody wars to extirpate these “heresies”. Constantine imposed order by state violence, backed up by the even greater threat of eternal punishment wielded by the authorities of a Church that had become merely an arm of the state power. The bishop of Rome, who originally had no special status (and would have been subordinate to the bishop of Jerusalem), was now elevated to the Supreme Head of the Church – the Pope.
It was Constantine who built the church of the Holy Sepulchre and other “Holy Places” in Jerusalem, although there was absolutely no basis for claiming that these places were what they were supposed to be. Constantine’s mother, Helena, who is said to have been the daughter of a fishmonger, went to Jerusalem to obtain the nails that were supposed to have been used in the crucifixion of Christ, together with pieces of wood from the original cross and even some milk from his mother's breasts! The Catholic Church still has possession of these “Holy Places”, which every year bring in a handsome profit.
The Council of Nicaea
Over a period, from being a revolutionary movement of the poor and dispossessed, the Church became a bulwark of the state and a firm defender of the rule of the wealthy and privileged few. The introduction of the rule of celibacy was actually a measure to protect Church property and prevent it being lost to children through inheritance.
The Scriptures were repeatedly purged to wipe out all traces of the original revolutionary and communist message of early Christianity. But it was impossible to remove it completely. The Church got round this difficulty very simply. The Bible was only made available in Latin, which the overwhelming majority did not understand. The only ones allowed to interpret the Scriptures were the priests, who were gradually separated from society as a special privileged caste. The original communistic ideas of the early Christians were thoroughly purged, so that only a few remnants remain in the version of the New Testament available today.
From the very beginning the authority of the Gospels was gradually acquired by tradition. The Gospels do not even claim to have been written by the Disciples of Christ, but gradually, people have accepted that they were – from force of tradition, and nothing else. By the end of the Third Century there were at least 20 Gospels in circulation, as well as numerous letters, lives and sayings of Jesus Christ etc., amounting to more than eighty in total.
It was the Council of Nicaea (325 CE) that formally defined the divinity of Jesus. For many days the Council pondered the problematic question of the nature of Christ and the Trinity. How could the Son be also the father, and what about God the Holy Ghost? These questions were not satisfactorily resolved even when the Council ended. There was still no agreed text, which probably did not matter to most of them, since they could not read.
Very little is known about this celebrated meeting because it has been erased from the historical record by the Church who wished to hide the truth about what went on. However, scholars have established that the Council was packed by Constantine's men, who were willing to carry out the will of the Emperor. The bishops were a motley crew: some were ex-slaves or ex-convicts from as far afield as the border with India, Egypt, the Sahara Desert, Persia, England, Africa, Greece and other exotic places. Many were supporters of an array of heretical sects: Arians, Donatists, Gnostics, etc
Such men were in no position to compete in debate with the educated intriguers who supported Constantine. There were a number of problems that irked the emperor such as the refusal of Christians to serve in the army or worship the Emperor. But these could be managed with intelligent tactics. And in any case, all attempts to destroy the Church through repression had failed. The presence of the emperor was in itself enough to make them shake in their shoes. Many probably had never seen him before, and certainly not this close. And if psychological intimidation was not enough, other more direct methods were available.
Some of those present had already suffered torture at his command. These tortures included having an eye extracted with a hot iron, or having one’s leg ligaments cut, and other pleasant methods of persuasion that left one blind or crippled. These men would not be eager to repeat the experience. Just to make sure of the vote, before the meeting ended some delegates had been murdered for having expressed their thought with excessive frankness. One of these was Arias, the founder of the Arian heresy, who had the temerity to advocate his ideas at the Council. Others disappeared and were never seen again.
In the end there remained a small handful of accepted works that have come down to us as the Bible. What people could or could not read was decided by an endless series of bloody religious wars, purges, persecution and martyrdom. It was far more vicious than any of the persecutions launched by the pagans against Christianity. The struggle to suppress heresy was long, bitter and bloody, and it lasted for hundreds of years.
The banned books
Marcion (ca. 85-160), was the first to work out an “accepted canon”. In order to impose his criteria, he summoned the first ever Church Council. But things did not work out as he had anticipated. The bishops promptly excommunicated him. After which, he returned to Asia Minor where he continued to promulgate Marcionism, and became one of the most notorious heretics of the age. Similar ideas later reappeared among the Bulgarian Bogomils of the 10th century and the Cathars of southern France in the 13th century.
By a supreme irony, the arch-heretic Marcion had established a precedent for banning unacceptable works. He helped create the notion that certain theologies should be sanctioned as orthodox, while others should be condemned as heresy – a term hitherto unknown in the Church. Orthodoxy was closely linked to power. Following in the footsteps of Marcion, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria was the first to introduce an index of permitted books. Anything else should not be read.
This was the first time anyone had suggested that only some books should be accepted as part of the Christian canon. It opened the way for the later censorship, lists of prohibited books, excommunications, anathemas and persecutions of heresy. Prior to this there were no fixed ideas and no authorised texts but rather a confused and volatile mixture of many contending tendencies and sects, with a bewildering array of divisions and sub-divisions. But all that changed when Christianity became fused with the state, and set about destroying all rival movements.
Thus, by a single stroke, a large quantity of books that were hitherto regarded as acceptable was excluded from the Christian canon. Books such as the Gospel of Mary Madeleine, and Philip were rejected. The first two letters of Paul to the Corinthians were accepted but the third one was left out. The Book of Revelations only narrowly scraped in, on the dubious grounds that it was the work of St. John (though this was only a tradition with no proven base).
At least fifty early texts are known to us, though there must have been many more. Epiphanius attacked no fewer than eighty heresies. They all disappeared without trace, and all we know about them is contained in the polemics against them written by their orthodox Christian enemies. That remained the case until 1945, when the Gospel of Thomas was discovered in Egypt. This manuscript dated from the fourth century, but the work itself is undoubtedly older. Some scholars believe it dates from the First century. If this is the case, it is older than most of the “official” Gospels.
The text is, miraculously, intact. Most significant, it contains no Life of Jesus, but is only a list of sayings of Jesus, some of which are identical to those contained in the New Testament, but others completely different. A total of 114 sayings are ascribed to Jesus, and are prefaced with “Jesus said”. But the style and content are strikingly different to that of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The “Jesus” of this Gospel is a very different character to what is depicted in the New Testament. He does not die, kisses Mary Magdalene on the mouth and takes revenge on his enemies.
For hundreds of years scholars have assumed that the “sayings of Jesus” are the earliest Christian texts. The Gospel of Thomas fits in well with this description. It begins: “These are the hidden sayings of the living Jesus that Didimus Thomas wrote down.” It appears to be the work of a Gnostic sect, which believed that Christianity contained a hidden meaning, accessible only to those “in the know”. The same kind of belief was shared by the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Gospel of Thomas was condemned as a heretical forgery. The question is why? There is no death, and therefore no Resurrection, which takes away a fundamental element of Christian doctrine. This is already a severe blow to the accepted teachings of the Church. Death and Resurrection, Easter etc., are all ruled out.
In relation to Peter, it is very strange that there are Letters attributed to him, but no Gospel. Eusebius mentions a Gospel of Peter – but he mentions it as yet another heretical forgery. In it, as in the Gospel of Thomas, Christ does not die on the cross. According to this version, Jesus was entirely divine, and therefore could not die, but only appeared to do so, because he only appeared to be human. The supporters of this heresy (Doceticism) were known as the Docetae (“illusionists”) for obvious reasons.
This idea fell into disfavour as Christianity left its Jewish roots and Gentile Christianity became dominant. Finally it was declared heresy at the end of the second century, and was rejected by the Emperor Constantine at the First Council of Nicaea, which wrote the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. The Creed of Nicaea states that Jesus was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. This idea, completely alien to the Jewish tradition, has its roots in paganism, where Zeus was in the habit of coming down to earth in different disguises to impregnate young virgins.
The early Jewish-Christian Gospels make no mention of a supernatural birth. Rather, they state that Jesus was begotten at his baptism. Mark’s Gospel contains no mention of the Virgin Birth of Jesus. The Church Fathers believed that the first gospel was written by the Apostle Matthew, and his account was called the Gospel of the Hebrews or the Gospel of the Apostles. This, the first written account of the life of Jesus, also contains no mention of the Virgin Birth.
When Jesus is baptized Matthew states: “Jesus came up from the water, Heaven was opened, and He saw the Holy Spirit descend in the form of a dove and enter into Him. And a voice from Heaven said, ‘You are my beloved Son; with You I am well pleased’.” And again, “Today I have begotten You. Immediately a great light shone around the place.” This clearly conveys the idea that Christ was “begotten” at the moment of baptism, not before.
Others held precisely the opposite view, that Christ was entirely human, and not divine. He was an ordinary man who, for some reason or other, was chosen by God. The Holy Spirit entered his body, not at birth but in the moment of his baptism. He thus became the Chosen of God. This naturally did away with the virgin birth presented by Matthew. The Ebionites still believe that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and that he was just the eldest son of Mary and Joseph. Interestingly, the word comes from the Hebrew word ebyon, meaning “poor”.
The Early Church regarded these texts as false gospels. The early church was extremely sensitive about such works, and the reason for this sensitivity is obvious. A series of bloody wars were fought to extirpate as heretics all those who refused to conform to the official Church doctrine.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
A quarter of the manuscripts are biblical texts, fragments from the Old Testament. Others contain biblical commentaries and religious books not later accepted into the Hebrew Bible canon. Some manuscripts are manuals of the beliefs and practices of the Qumran religious community, which was located near the cave site. Other finds followed in 1952 and in 1954.
From the beginning the Dead Sea Scrolls have been the object of a furious controversy. About 20% of the scrolls were soon published, but the remainder were not made available for 35 years. The Vatican kept them under lock and key for decades, denying access not only to the general public but to Christian and Jewish scholars who repeatedly requested the right to inspect them and were turned away. This censorship was only broken when some photos came into the hands of Robert Eisenman of the Department of Religious Studies at the State University of California at Long Beach in 1989. As a result in 1990 virtually all were released. Two years later, in 1991 the Biblical Archaeology Review published a two volume Facsimile Edition of all the scrolls.
The question has to be asked: if there was no concern, why did the Vatican have to sequester these valuable historical documents for decades? Why the secrecy? And why all the controversy that has raged between experts ever since? For controversy there is aplenty. A quick glance at the Internet entries of the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal the sense of profound unease with titles such as The Dead Sea Scrolls and the End of Christianity, Do the Scrolls disprove Christianity? and Dead Sea Scrolls a Threat to Christianity.
These people were not Christians, but may well be considered proto-Christians. Certainly, the parallels with Christianity are self-evident, and have been drawn by several experts: Most experts believe the Qumran settlement was started by a splinter group of Essenes who moved to the wilderness to “prepare the way of the Lord.” This is strikingly similar to John the Baptist in the New Testament. John the Baptist was supposed to have lived in the desert for many years (Luke 1:80). This would mean that, if he existed, he was in close proximity to the Qumranians and may have lived among them.
There are some striking similarities between the Qumran community and the early Christians. The Scrolls describe rituals for washing and sacred meals. Like the latter, they wanted to make themselves ready for the Messiah through a life of radical righteousness and holiness. They use messianic terms such as Son of Man and Son of God, which enable us to see how a Jewish group contemporaneous with early Christianity understood those terms. From this it is clear that early Christianity as an outgrowth of Judaism.
The controversy over the Scrolls
Whereas initially, the theologians made a big song and dance about the Scrolls they now hastily changed their tune. Now the line was that there was nothing interesting in the Scrolls and above all there was nothing to show that links existed between early Christianity and Qumran. Others, however, thought differently.
It is interesting that one of the earliest of the Dead Sea Scroll scholars, John Allegro, discounted the idea of Jesus Christ as an historical figure altogether, seeking an alternative explanation in his book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross. Undoubtedly, his theories have an outlandish and bizarre character and we do not accept his explanation. But it is nonetheless significant that he felt the need to find such an explanation at all.
In order to explain the non-existence of Jesus, Allegro invented a very strange theory. He believed that the name “Jesus” is a cryptic reference to “Sacred Mushroom”, a hallucinogenic drug supposedly used by the early Christians. This exotic theory was based on a misunderstanding. The text that Allegro thought was a drug prescription used by the Essenes turned out to be a writing exercise of random words in alphabetical order.
Allegro believed that Jesus Christ was the Teacher of Righteousness, therefore Jesus must have lived in the mid-second century B.C. This interpretation would obviously entail some rather awkward questions for those who believe in the historical reality of Jesus! The scrolls were published by the expert John Allegro, who worked first hand with these documents, as early as 1968. Very early in the editing, John Allegro warned that the religious Establishment was obstructing serious investigation of the Scrolls. In August 1966 he wrote in Harper’s Magazine:
“[T]he very scholars who should be most capable of working on the documents and interpreting them have displayed a not altogether surprising, but nonetheless curious, reluctance to go to the heart of the matter. The scholars appeared to have held back from making discoveries which, there is evidence to believe, may upset a great many basic teaching of the Christian church.” (See John Allegro, The Untold Story of the Dead Sea Scrolls)
As a result, Allegro immediately became the target for a campaign of vilification.It was said that his edition was so flawed that it could not be used without the corrections made in 1971 by the later director of the international team for the edition of the texts, John Strugnell, of the University of Harvard. Under a barrage of public criticism, Allegro was forced to retreat, admitting that it was a question of his own interpretation of the texts.
One can accept that Allegro's theory is speculative and extravagant. The content of the Scrolls is very obscure and therefore open to different interpretations. But it is very clear that the concerted attacks on him are motivated not by a concern for scientific rigor but by fear that these discoveries could undermine cherished beliefs of Christians. It is not necessary to accept Allegro’s explanation in order to see that the whole thing casts serious doubt on the historical existence of Jesus. The real explanation was provided by Kautsky, who pointed out that this was a compound figure based on a generalization of different personages who really did exist and left a deep impression on the collective consciousness of the Jewish people in the first century CE.
The Scrolls and Christianity
Experts like Professor Michael Wise, James Tabor and other scholars who have studied the Scrolls in great depth, have all pointed out the close parallels between certain Qumran texts and early Christian doctrine. Some have gone further and tried to establish a more direct link between the Qumran community and Christianity.
Andre Dupont-Sommer, who broke from Catholicism, is an expert in Hebrew and Aramaic, and subsequently held the Professorial chair at the College de France. He believes that the Qumranians were Essenes. Like Renan, he believes that Christianity is actually "Essenism that succeeded," and sought to prove that the Qumranians were Essenes who later became the Christians.
Dupont-Sommer identifies the Teacher of Righteousness to Jesus:
“The Galilean Master, as He is presented to us in the writings of the New Testament, appears in many respects as an astonishing reincarnation of the [Teacher]. Like the latter He preached penitence, poverty, humility, love of one's neighbour, chastity. Like him, He prescribed the observance of the Law of Moses, the whole Law, but the Law finished and perfected, thanks to His own revelations. Like him He was the Elect and the Messiah of God, the Messiah redeemer of the world. Like him He was the object of the hostility of the priests... judgment on Jerusalem.... Like him, at the end of time, He will be the supreme judge. Like him He founded a Church whose adherents fervently awaited His glorious return.” (Dupont-Sommer, The Dead Sea Scrolls, A Preliminary Survey, Oxford, Blackwell, 1952, p. 99)
Robert Eisenman believes that the Qumran writings are the work of Christian Jews. He identifies James the Just, the brother of Jesus, as the Teacher of Righteousness, the Man of Lie as Paul and the Wicked High Priest as Ananus, who executed James in A.D. 62. According to Eisenman, John the Baptist began a message of Messianic expectation after the death of Herod, and Jesus continued in that tradition and was finally executed as a Zealot.
Later, he claims, James the Just took over the movement and expelled Paul from the group for propagating false ideas about the person of Jesus. He believes that the early Christian movement belonged to the followers of Paul. Judea was temporarily without a Roman governor when Ananus became high priest. When James tried to take over the temple and celebrate the rituals, Ananus “assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.” (Josephus, Antiquities XX ix 2).
Eisenman believes that the Qumran texts and the New Testament, which he dates to the second century A.D., are two sides of the same coin. The parallels between the Essenes and the early Christians are very clear. We know from the Acts of the Apostles that they held all property in common and held meals in common (the “Messanistic banquet”), which combined a necessary function with the mystic idea of the New Jerusalem.
The most striking image of the Messiah of the Scrolls is that it is a warlike figure, a conqueror. This fits in very well with everything we know about the beliefs of the Jews at that time. The oppressed people of Judea looked forward to salvation from their enemies: the Romans and their local agents in the Temple. As Kautsky pointed out, there was no tradition of pacifism among the Jews at this time. Their God was an avenging Deity.
Scroll 4Q521, is surprisingly close to the Christian concept of the messiah. Of course, there are also differences. The New Testament portrayal of Jesus is not a direct fulfilment of Qumran expectations since they expected three different figures, while the Bible combines all into the central figure of Jesus the Messiah, who is king, priest and prophet. Nevertheless, the parallels are striking. The apocalyptic language of the Scrolls has clear echoes of the Book of Revelations where the same fiery vision is to be found. Traces of it are also to be found in the New Testament where Jesus says:
“Do not think that I come to bring the peace upon earth: I came not to send peace but the sword. For I come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and the man’s enemies shall be they of his own household. He, who loves father or mother more than Me, is not worthy of Me; and he, who loves son or daughter more than Me, is not worthy of Me. And he, who does not take up his cross and follow Me, is not worthy of Me.” (Matthew: 10: 34-38).
The violent tone of the Scrolls is quite clear. This is the language of class war and revolution! One of the Scrolls appears to be a kind of primitive “military manual” (the War Scroll). There has been controversy over the use in the text of the phrase “Son of God”. But James D.G. Dunn has pointed out that “there is nothing particularly unique about calling someone 'son of God' at the time of Jesus.” (James D.G. Dunn, The Evidence for Jesus, 1985, p. 49)
Here it is clear that the "Son of God" does not bring peace or redemption. Instead, he is preceded by tribulation and followed by war and violence. Like the early Christians, the men of Qumran combined religious fanaticism with a militant revolutionary ideology that expressed the hatred of the Jewish people towards the Roman occupiers and the collaborators of the Priest Caste (the Sadducees).
Socialism and religion
The discussions about the Dead Sea Scrolls, despite their heated character, are extremely obscure, being frequently reduced to squabbles about the interpretation of Hebrew verbs. The religious Establishment tries to reduce everything to an endless wrangle about language and the minutiae of translating ancient texts. We have such arcane discussions as to whether the text refers to "a Pierced Messiah” or “a Piercing Messiah." The answer to this interesting question apparently is related to whether a particular Hebrew verb is singular or plural – and so on and so forth.
This kind of Talmudic hair-splitting solves nothing. In the first place, palaeography (the study of old handwriting) is not a science, although it is often presented as such by the Dead Sea scholars. There is a vast scope for falsification and subjective interpretations. In any case, these texts are so fragmentary that we may never know what they really were about. In reality, what is being objected to is not this or that textual inaccuracy or mistranslation, but the fear that a close examination of documents like the Dead Sea Scrolls will demolish the very fabric of what we understand by Christianity.
All this academic hair-splitting does not remove the central issues raised by Kautsky about the historical reality of Jesus. Even if we accept the argument that there is no link between the Qumran sect and Christianity, the problems for Christianity will not go away. On the contrary, if we accept that the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are at least in part contemporary with early Christianity, have nothing to say about Jesus, his life, works or beliefs, the problem for those who maintain his historical existence is even greater. This deafening silence, alongside the similar omissions in Josephus, argues very strongly in favour of Kautsky’s thesis.
When Kautsky wrote Foundations of Christianity, he did not have access to any documentary evidence other than the four Gospels and the writings of Flavius Josephus. But over the last sixty years the study of early Christianity has been revolutionised by the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls and other ancient manuscripts the significance of which is only gradually being understood. Today with the aid of archaeology, the figure of Christ and the nature of early Christianity can be understood in a different light and Kautsky’s theories have become extremely necessary to explain it.
Despite the striking parallels between Christianity and the Qumran community, nowhere do the Scrolls mention Jesus, John the Baptist or any other New Testament person. What the Scrolls do is to shed light on the world in which Jesus was supposed to have lived and provides powerful backing to Kautsky’s thesis that the figure of Jesus in the Gospels does not represent a historical personage but a composite picture of several different people.
In the second decade of the 21st century, capitalism finds itself in a deep crisis that has many similarities to the crisis of slave society in the period of the terminal decline of the Roman Empire. The voice of the oppressed masses who were inspired by the revolutionary, egalitarian and communist message of early Christianity reaches us as a faint echo, but it can be a source of inspiration still if we learn to listen to it carefully.
For centuries, organised religion has been used by the exploiters to deceive and enslave the masses. Periodically, there have been revolts against this situation. From the Middle Ages to the present day, voices have been raised in protest against the subordination of the Church to the rich and powerful. We see this also at the present time. The suffering of the workers and peasants, the martyrdom of the human race under the infamous despotism of Capital, is arousing the indignation of wide layers of people, many of whom are not acquainted with the philosophy of Marxism, but who are willing to fight against injustice and exploitation. Among these are many honest Christians and even the lower orders of the clergy, who daily bear witness to the sufferings of the masses.
The aim of Marxists is to fight for the socialist transformation of society on a national and international scale. We believe that the capitalist system has long ago outlived its historical usefulness and has converted itself into a monstrously oppressive, unjust and inhuman system. The ending of exploitation and the creation of a harmonious socialist world order, based on a rational and democratically run plan of production, will be the first step in the creation of a new and higher form of society in which men and women will relate to each other as human beings.
Socialism is the only way to overcome humanity’s alienation, its estrangement from itself. This is the only way that religious prejudices can finally be liquidated. When human beings become truly human they will no longer require the crutches of a superhuman, supernatural being, god, heaven etc. When men and women can perform miracles in real life, they no longer need the spiritual (i.e. ghostly) miracles. The blind can see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, even the dead can sometimes be raised – by medical science. When we can perform miracles in real life, we do not need imaginary miracles. When we have created a paradise in this world we will not need to dream about a paradise in the next one.