Jesus the revolutionary?

Phil Gasper tells the history of #jesus, a Jewish revolutionary opposed to Roman tyranny

But how close are the views of contemporary right-wing politicians–who want to slash spending that benefits the poor and cut taxes on the rich–to those of the historical Jesus Christ? The answer to this question will be obvious if we examine the origins of Christianity.

We have evidence that Jesus was a real historical figure not only from Christian writings such as the four gospels of the New Testament, but also from the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus and the early 2nd century Roman historian Tacitus.

He was probably born in Nazareth (not Bethlehem) around 4 BCE and was crucified by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea (one of the provinces of Palestine) sometime between 26 and 33 CE. During his life, he was a religious leader with a group of devoted followers.

Beyond that, however, we can say very little about Jesus’ life with much certainty. The gospels are unreliable as detailed records of events. The early Christians were mostly illiterate, and stories about Jesus were passed on orally–thereby growing in the telling. They weren’t written down until at least 40 years after Jesus’ death, and often much later. Moreover, in subsequent decades, the gospels were repeatedly edited–“three times, four times and many times” according to the 2nd century Greek philosopher Celsus.

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THE GOSPELS offer two different pictures of Jesus. On the one hand, there is the divine being who preaches salvation in another world. On the other hand, there is a Jesus in the tradition of Jewish popular revolution–a figure of this world who opposes kings and oppressors, and who promises his followers real material benefits in this life.

There is plenty of evidence that the first of these pictures was a later elaboration. For example, the earliest of the New Testament gospels, Mark, does not describe Jesus’ birth or infancy. The story of the virgin birth is found first in Matthew and Luke, who were attempting to show that Jesus’ birth fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, and thus that he was the messiah–the promised leader who would free Jews from the Romans. (The title “Christ” means “the anointed one.”)

Luke repeatedly identifies Joseph as Jesus’ father, evidence that the story of the virgin birth was inserted into the gospel later. Luke also says Joseph was descended from King David, from whose line the messiah was supposed to come, and includes an elaborate story of a Roman census so he can claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, David’s birthplace.

We know the story was an invention because there is no record of a census at that time, and the idea that the Romans would require people to return to their place of family origin to be counted is absurd.

In any case, the first three gospels never claim that Jesus is divine. It is only in the Gospel of John, written last and rejected by some Christians as late as the 3rd century, that Jesus is represented as a deity.

Meanwhile, the second picture of Jesus fits with the social and political circumstances in which he lived.

Palestine was a colony of Rome from 63 BCE, ruled either indirectly by local kings under Roman control, or directly by Roman governors. A priestly aristocracy and the very rich, the Sadducees, collaborated with the Romans. They were opposed by the Pharisees, the mass of the population, led by rabbis. The most radical patriots were the Zealots–the poorest of poor, who had the strongest desire for a messiah.

Josephus says that Zealots continually “persuaded the Jews to revolt…inflicting death on those who continued in obedience to the Roman government…and plundered the houses of the great men.” These revolts, often led by self-proclaimed messiahs, were all defeated by the Romans. Josephus refers to “deceivers and impostors, [who] under the pretense of divine inspiration fostering revolutionary changes…persuaded the multitude to act like madmen.”

One of these agitators was Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. Josephus explains what happened to him:

When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition….

Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to await for an upheaval…John, because of Herod’s suspicions, was brought in chains to Machaerus…and there put to death.

All the evidence points to Jesus as one of the self-proclaimed messiahs fighting to end Roman occupation, and for an egalitarian society in which the division between rich and poor has been erased.

According to Celsus, Jesus was a “ringleader of sedition.” The Sadducees and Pharisees are repeatedly criticized in the gospels, but the Zealots are not. One of Jesus’ followers, Simon, is identified as a Zealot.

And despite all the later editing, many radical statements by Jesus survive. For example: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the world. No, I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” The Kingdom of God is repeatedly said to be at hand. According to the historian Archibald Robertson:

The earliest strata of the Gospels…point back to a revolutionary movement led first by John the Baptist and then by Jesus…aimed at the overthrow of Roman and Herodian rule in Palestine and the establishment of an earthly “kingdom of God” in which the first would be last and the last first, the rich sent empty away and the poor filled with good things and given houses and land.

If this is what Jesus was fighting for, it is little wonder that the Romans crucified him, and that his followers were persecuted. And, of course, it is the polar opposite of what today’s Republican Party stands for. Many of the early Christians practiced a form of communism. Acts of the Apostles tells us, “The believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.”

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THE ROMAN destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE did away with the base of Jewish revolt. With the defeat of the national hopes of Jews, Christianity became more and more a religion not of a revolutionary Jewish messiah, but of a universal messiah whose kingdom was not of this earth.

Paul, the author of many of the books of the New Testament, speaks of personal salvation, not of bringing down kings from their thrones or taking from the rich and giving to the poor. But Clement of Alexandria, a leading Christian theologian living at the end of the second century CE (c150-c220), attacked the division between heaven and earth, and freeman and slave, denouncing ancient society and the ideology that justified it.

At the end of the 1st century, Rome was defeated by Germanic tribes, preventing further imperial expansion. With the supply of slaves cut off, the empire went into slow decline. By the end of the 3rd century, it was descending into chaos. The emperors Diocletian (from 284 to 305) and Constantine (from 306 to 337) were forced to completely reorganize the empire into a society based on impoverished serfs, bound to the land, producing food for powerful landlords.

Christianity represented one of the few challenges to the status quo–it had to be crushed or co-opted. Diocletian tried repression. When this failed, Constantine tried the other tack, converting to Christianity and subordinating the Church to imperial rule.

Some Christians revolted against ideas of alliance with empire, but many saw advantages to the Church in the new situation. Most prominent of these was Augustine (354-430), the Bishop of Hippo, a city in North Africa.

Augustine formulated the ideology of a new alliance between Church and state that shaped the next thousand years of Western history. The cosmology he developed, of an eternal, infinite, perfect God, separated from a finite, degenerate earth, reflected the social realities of the late empire–an Emperor with godlike powers and subjects with no autonomy.

Augustine believed that God has subjected humanity to an ever-increasing burden of evil and misery as punishment for Adam’s original sin. He held that God’s justice is shown “in the agonies of tiny babies.” The bottom line was that the evils of this world had to be simply endured, an idea he borrowed from the Greek and Roman Stoic philosophers. The only hope lay in faith in salvation in the next world.

But there was also opposition to Augustine’s views, and the arguments were not mere theological debating points. In Egypt and North Africa, the Donatist movement among Christians led opposition to the empire and the alliance of Church and state.

Donatist peasants and agricultural workers attacked landlords, tax collectors and creditors, freed slaves, and destroyed rent rolls and land titles. The Donatists controlled many churches in North Africa, and Rome’s imperial legions were unable to defeat them on their own.

Augustine–“the hammer of the Donatists”–played a crucial role in crushing the revolt. He used the Church’s resources to attack the leaders of the Donatist “heresy.” The Donatists were eventually defeated by a combination of the first Catholic inquisition and imperial troops.

But the Roman victory was to be short-lived. After sacking Rome, the Vandals conquered North Africa in 430, the year of Augustine’s death. They took over the vast landed estates and forced much of the empire’s population into serfdom. According to one historian:

With the collapse of the empire in the west, Augustine’s cosmology was adopted by Christians in the following millennium. This view of a world created out of nothing, steeped in sin and misery, and rightly ruled by the harsh authority of Church and State, was perfectly fitted to the petrified society of the self-sufficient landholders, who needed neither merchants nor philosophers nor scientists. They required only a religion that would encourage serfs to accept their lot.

Augustine’s world, like that of the paganism the peasant previously knew, was a world with a yawning gap between heaven and earth, an earth peopled by demons and spirits, witches and devils. As Roman society retreated toward the level of primitive and impoverished agrarianism, so Augustine’s cosmology retreated toward the magical, irrational world of myth.

As the Church grew in wealth and influence, it ceased to be democratic in its internal structure. Power of bishops increased, and the Bishop of Rome became dominant over the other bishops. Church property was no longer the common property of the Christian community, but belonged to priesthood. The Church even opposed abolition of slavery–every parish priest had the right to have one male and one female slave. Monasteries also had great numbers of slaves, and the Church continued to own slaves into the Middle Ages.

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ALL THIS was a far cry from the description of Jesus in the gospels: “He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away with empty hands.” But the radical strand in Christianity has been revived many times in history, when social movements fighting against oppression have tried to find an ideology to justify their aims.

These movements range from the peasant rebellion in Germany in the early 16th century, led by Thomas Munzer; to the radical sects of the English Revolution in the following century; to the role of Black churches in the civil rights movement and liberation theology in the recent past.

Socialists identify with all these radical movements, but we do not do so uncritically. The history of Christianity, including the periodic revival of radical currents within it, actually illustrates very well what Marx argued about religion. Here are Marx’s famous words from his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right:

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of the spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about its condition is the demand to give up the condition which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of woe, the halo of which is religion.

Religious beliefs have social causes. Their appeal lies partly in the fact that they offer a solution–albeit an imaginary one–to the suffering and exploitation of class society. It follows that religious beliefs will likely exist as long as class society exists and will only disappear if class society–“the condition which needs illusions”–is abolished by socialist revolution.

But the elimination of religion certainly does not mean its suppression by the state. Engels argued vigorously against those who argued for the suppression of religion during the Paris Commune of 1871, pointing out that the result would merely strengthen religion.

Rather, as the inequalities characteristic of class societies are progressively removed, the need for religion will gradually diminish. Religion, like the state, will wither away. But both now, and under workers’ power, socialists have to defend the freedom to practice religion as a fundamental right.

Religion is at the same time “the expression of real distress and a protest against real distress.” Typically, religions both project a solution to social contradictions in heaven or the afterlife, and at the same time, offer within existing society a tiny realm in which those contradictions can be briefly evaded.

As we have also seen, in some contexts, religion can also become the vehicle of political and social struggles whose ideological justification is the attempt to build heaven on earth. But ultimately, even radical religious movements are utopian. They provide no satisfactory strategy for achieving their long-term goals, and the only strategy that can deliver is based on a class analysis of society which taken to its logical conclusion undermines the basis for religious belief.

That said, however, any genuinely revolutionary socialist party welcomes both believers and non-believers into its ranks if they genuinely want to fight against capitalism. As Lenin argued, atheism should have no place in the political program of a socialist organization. Unity in the fight against capitalism is more important than agreement on theological questions. The theological issues will be resolved not so much by theoretical argument as by revolutionary practice.

In the face of the rampant commercialism that engulfs us at this time of year, it’s common to hear religious figures telling us that it’s time to revive the “real spirit of Christmas.” If that means reviving the radical egalitarianism of the early Christians, whom Frederick Engels called “a dangerous party of revolt,” then socialists are in favor of it.

But we need not just the spirit of the early Christians, but a revolutionary strategy based on class politics that can actually build the kind of society that they wanted.

First published in Socialist Worker


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Phil Gasper Written by:

Phil Gasper, a philosophy professor in Madison, Wisconsin, is editor of The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History’s Most Important Political Document (Haymarket Books), and writes a regular feature in the ISR, "Critical Thinking."

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