Ernest Belfort Bax

Kautsky’s Origins of Christianity


Belfort Bax, Review of Kautsky’s Origins of Christianity, Social Democrat, Vol.13 no.10, October 1909, pp.439-449.
Transcribed Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The interest attaching to the task of attempting; the historico-critical reconstruction of that great episode in universal history which, through a combination of circumstances, became the landmark of the turning point in the evolution of the civilised world, namely, the origin of Christianity, never seems to lose its fascination. Among the immense number of scholars and thinkers who, for a century past, have set their intellects and their pens to the task there is no risk in affirming that few have produced more remarkable results than Karl Kautsky in the volume now before us. On a basis of fact well known to scholars and historical students but by no means familiar to the average man of intelligence and culture – whose culture is, by the way, generally confined for the most part to literature and literary criticism and recks little of history – Kautsky has succeeded in producing a volume of absorbing interest. In fact, as a purely literary production we would unhesitatingly pronounce Der Ursprung des Christentums to be the masterpiece of the great literary protagonist of Socialism in Germany. This, notwithstanding that the arrangement of the work we hold to be faulty. The book is divided into four sections, the first a short one on the sources of Pagan and Christian tradition for the personality of Jesus. This is followed by a long section containing a brilliant and graphic summary of the social conditions of the early Empire. The author then returns chronologically in the third section to an equally brilliant survey of Jewish history from its origin. The latter part of this deals, it is true, with post-exilian Judaism and the Jewish sects of the Christian era, thereby leading on to the fourth and longest section which is concerned with the beginning of Christianity itself. The arrangement strikes us as clumsy. The portion of the fourth section dealing with the early history of Israel ought surely to have come before the discussion on the sources of the Jesus-figure and the description and analysis of the society of the Augustan period.

Apart from the vigour and interest of its literary presentation and marshalling of historical facts, Kautsky’s book is remarkable, as those who know anything of the other works of the author will scarcely need to be told, for its thorough-going and consistent attempt to reduce Christian origins and the phenomena connected with them to economic causes. The book represents, indeed, an endeavour to apply practically the materialistic doctrine of history of Marx. But, in addition to this, many interesting points are brought out in the course of the discussions of various historical problems. What Kautsky has to say on the traditional Jesus-figure is practically summed up on page 19, where the author insists that the historical kernel of the Jesus legend amounts to no more than Tacitus reports, to the effect that during the reign of Tiberius a Jewish prophet was executed, from whom the Christian sect took its origin. “What this prophet did and thought,” observes Kautsky, “we have not the slightest means of ascertaining with any certainty. In no case could he have aroused the attention alleged by the early Christian writers, otherwise assuredly Josephus, who relates many unimportant matters, would have had something to say about him. The agitation and execution of Jesus unquestionably excited not the least interest among his contemporaries.” The legendary figure which has come down to us formed itself gradually, as the originally small and obscure sect grew out of the aspirations and ideas of the various successive layers of its increasing adherents. How the sect came to grow in numbers and importance, ultimately occupying the place it did in the Roman world, is the task Kautsky has set himself to solve by aid of the Marxian key, as we shall see later on. Meanwhile, we may linger a moment over the Kautskian view of the titular founder of Christianity and the nature of his personality. For Kautsky, Jesus was simply one of the numerous agitators and Messiahs which the two last generations of the Jewish State brought forth. On the absurdities and contradictions of the Gospel version of the events preceding the execution of Jesus our author has much to say. He points out the clumsiness with which probably authentic scraps of tradition concerning the character of the historical rebel-zealot, opposed alike to the Roman power and to the respectable Jewish parties of the time, who were prepared to compromise with the former, were allowed to remain in the Gospel narrative side by side with the later conception of Jesus as the meek and lowly apostle of non-resistance and passive obedience, which it was one of the new gospel’s main objects to embody.

The unhistorical absurdity of the whole Gospel narrative of the trial and crucifixion is well brought out. Kautsky’s view of the story of the arrest is that it took place during, and was in consequence of, a conspiracy started by Jesus and his band against the authorities of Jerusalem – the rendezvous of the conspirators being the Mount of Olives – and which seems to have been planned to follow on the disturbance in the court of the Temple which resulted in the driving out of the bankers and salesmen who were installed there. On an impartial survey of the evidence, which will be found well-marshalled in the work under review, no fair-minded reader, we think, will be able to avoid the conclusion arrived at by Kautsky, to wit, that the historical Jesus was simply the leader of a not very important local attempt at insurrection, and that his seizure, trial, and execution followed immediately on the suppression of the revolt. The unimportance is attested by the fact that, while other Messiahs acquired sufficient influence to have left a name in contemporary historical testimony, Jesus of Nazareth did not do so. How then, it may be asked, was it that if the original movement of Jesus was of a local and temporary character that the Christianity of history eventually arose out of it? This is the problem for which Kautsky has his own solution to offer, and in respect to this solution some of us may be inclined to part company with our distinguished author.

As already said, the idea of Kautsky in writing Der Ursprung des Christentums was, in the first instance, to furnish a practical application of the materialist doctrine of history. Now in the present case, Kautsky’s trump card is to be found in the alleged communistic tendencies of the early Christian communities. The far-reaching influence acquired by the tradition of these communities, as well as the growth and diffusion of the communities themselves in spite of their insignificant origin, Kautsky attributes mainly, if not entirely, to their association with the principle of communistic property-holding. As against this, however, two important considerations may be urged: (1) Is the assumed communism of the early Christians demonstrable as an historical fact? and (2) Even conceding this fact, is it possible to regard it as even a remotely adequate cause of the very far-reaching effects ascribed to it? For my own part I am constrained to answer both questions by a decided negative. The so-called communism of the primitive Christian community at Jerusalem, when closely viewed, amounted to no more than an exaggerated alms-giving called forth by special circumstances. The principle and probably only original source we have for in existence at all, seems specially to emphasise its voluntary, and hence so far as the principles of the community were concerned, its non-essential, character. Evidence we have none of any organisation in the early Church embodying real communism in contradistinction to the charity of the richer members towards the poorer brethren of the community or certain forms of ceremonial observance in common. Kautsky is, of course, anxious to “rope in” every statement or tradition he can to prove his thesis, to wit, that the Christian Church was originally a communistic organisation; the dogmas that it embraced, or that grew up around it being, in the first instance, little more than “ideological” decorations and emblems of this central economic fact. The circumstance recorded of the Apostles that when on a journey they had a common purse or “bag” is noted by our author as evidence of the communistic doctrine and tendencies of primitive Christianity. At this rate there should be a lot of communism going about in Western Europe every autumn holiday season (especially in connection with Cook’s tours), considering the number of tourist parties whose members find it convenient to have a common account during their trip. I give this as an instance of how perfectly commonplace historical statements can be coloured by a pre-conceived theory.

But if, even, in spite of the lack of evidence, we concede the communistic character of the early Christian Churches, what necessary or probable reason have we, I ask, for assuming this character to have been, not merely the central element in them, but the distinguishing feature in Christianity, that which differentiated it from amid the welter of religio-mystical cults, sects and brotherhoods with which it was surrounded in the world of the contemporary Roman Empire? Was the admittedly crude and imperfect communism of consumption (as opposed to that of production), alleged to have been practised by the early Christians, a sufficiently distinctive and important phenomenon in that age to have by itself attracted the numbers it did and to have achieved for Christianity the influence it did? Kautsky, himself, indirectly answers this question against his own thesis. A certain theologian, anxious to rescue primitive Christianity from the charge of communism, urged against Kautsky that, although a variety of ugly accusations were brought by the contemporary Pagan world against the Christian sect, nowhere do we find any indications that the early Christians were ever charged with practising communism. The fact of its not being mentioned by contemporary critics of Christianity might indeed militate against the theory that it formed a very prominent side of the new sect, but the argument from the silence of these opponents is, we must agree with Kautsky, certainly not any proof of its not having existed. For, as Kautsky very pertinently points out, communism, as it was understood in the ancient world, did not, either in theory or practice, imply any reproach. It was not viewed as having any special connection with revolutionary tendencies. On the contrary, it was associated, more or less, with many forms of religious, social, and even political organisation that were in high esteem and was traditionally connected with the honoured names of Pythagoras and Plato. So it will he seen that Kautsky himself in this passage argues against it being a distinguishing feature of Christianity. What may possibly be regarded as ceremonial survivals of the traditions of communism in the early forms of human society obtained in well nigh all the fraternities, guilds and corporations of the ancient world, so that, for that matter, it is quite likely, notwithstanding the absence of affirmative evidence, that the early Christians had certain tendencies pointing to communism in the life of their organisation. As for the periodical social feastings, these they undoubtedly had, though probably no one but Kautsky would regard them as any evidence of actual communism. Be this as it may, and allowing the utmost latitude to the alleged communistic tendencies of early Christianity, we are still a long way from the assumption that communism was an essential part of Christian doctrine, or even practice, still less that it was the ground of its success over similar sects and doctrines. Even if communism, in the sense of the dividing-up of consumable wealth, obtained in the early Christian Churches, this was quite certainly a purely side-issue. It was not this which led Christianity to victory over the Roman world. It was not mere exaggerated aims-giving, such as that described in the Acts, which effected this result. Admittedly the first great successes of the new sect began after the supposed communistic practices were becoming obsolete in the Church.

What, then, was the distinctive feature in early Christianity which gave it “the pull” over Judaism and the various Pagan cults and mysteries professing; the same general intellectual and moral outlook as Christianity? The answer, I take it, is in the main obvious. During the second century, how and why we cannot at present trace, the Christian Church discovered, and made its own, the formula or formulae best adapted to stress a strong intellectual and moral current already existing for some generations throughout the East and the Mediterranean lands, while at the same time it absorbed from the various Pagan cults around it the ceremonies and ritual best adapted to body it forth. How and why it managed to effect this by a process of selection, conscious or unconscious, as just said, it is impossible at this distance of time to find out. That the purely materialistic side of the organisation of the early Christian communities, together with the general conditions of life in the great cities of the Empire, powerfully contributed to the general result is undeniable. But neither the economic conditions of the society out of which it grew nor those which it shaped for itself within its churches, can, having regard to the historical evidence, be located as the central or determining factor in the evolution of the Christian Church. What then was this central factor? Undoubtedly the doctrine of the relation of the individual human soul to the central power of the universe. This was the problem round which the thought of the then civilised world had been circling for generations. This was the theme of the Mysteries, of the new cults introduced from the East, and the new interpretation of the old myths and ceremonies of earlier Paganism. It was the ideal content of the dominant thought of the age which crystallised in the Christian sect and around its central figure, which came to serve, so to say, as the tailor’s block to set forth these tendencies. That every doctrine and practice belonging to the Christian religion is traceable in the contemporary and pre-existing Paganism and Judaism of the time is a fact no longer disputed by any serious student of history, and to enlarge upon it here would be superfluous.

Why these ideas, common as they were to the serious-minded men of the age and expressed in a detached form in the various cults and mysteries, should have concentrated themselves, as in a focus, precisely in the Christian sect rather than in any other of the various cults then prevalent, I again repeat, is, to a large extent, one of the secrets of history to which our imperfect materials for a knowledge of the time furnish us with no adequate key. We can only explain it in general terns acs due to the fact that the Christian religion, succeeded in finding the formula most suitable for the growing monotheism and ever intensifying introspective spiritual and ethical tendencies of the age, together with the form of organisation best adapted to maintain material continuity and independence for the Christian sect as a sect. That the alleged element of communistic practice in the Christian Church, if it ever existed, had nothing to do with historical Christianity can hardly be doubted when we reflect that the Essenes, the Therapeutae, the votaries of Serapis, not to speak of other lesser communistic brotherhoods and religious bodies existing at the time – whose communism is not a matter of doubt, and was developed, it will not be denied, to a much greater degree than could have been the case with the early Christian Churches – nevertheless did not maintain their independence in the face of the new sect. It may, perhaps, be conjectured that the elaborate system of intercommunication by wandering preachers and by letters in which intercourse was kept up, and a uniformity of doctrine and practice promoted among the Christian communities of the Empire, and under the influence of which gradually the imperium in imperio of the Catholico-Christian Church was developed, was the most powerful factor on the material side in the success of the new religion. As regards the ideal side of the latter, the essential element in Christianity, so far from its being communistic, was the very antithesis of communism. The Christianity of history represents, primarily, the quintessence of the individualism of a decadent civilisation as far as possible removed from the communism of primitive times, which held its symbolical expression rather in those primitive local Pagan practices with which Christianity waged so deadly a war. The central point of Christianity was the relationship of the individual soul to God as the creative principle of the universe. It was this mystical relation of the individual soul to God who, in popular thought, came to be regarded as a praeternatural superman, on which the whole Christian theory turns. This it was, and not any exaggerated alms-giving, in which Kautsky discovers communistic tendencies, that really gained over the Roman world of the first three centuries. Kautsky, in his sacramental devotion to the historical materialism of Marx, fails altogether to recognise the importance of this introspective individualism and mysticism as a salient phase of human evolution. The latter, of course, got overshadowed among) the great mass of nominal Christians as soon as large populations became converted, and the Church waxed rich, even within the confines of the Empire – by interested motives; while, with the acceptance of the Christian creed by the barbarians, and, still more, with the: establishment of their kingdoms, it became entirely overgrown with the crude animistic beliefs of an earlier phase of social life and thought. But, though this continued substantially throughout the Middle Ages, the mystic-individual idea remained always, nevertheless, the motive power of the saint and the higher intellects of the Church.

The above criticism must on no account be taken to imply that the present writer underrates the value of Kautsky’s investigations. His work contains much historical criticism of a very high order. He may not have succeeded in proving the existence of communistic tendencies in any legitimate sense of the word, in the early Church – not even in the primitive Church of Jerusalem – and assuredly not in the Christian communities which spread over the Mediterranean countries after the fall of Jerusalem but he has succeeded, nevertheless, in establishing an important fact in connection with primitive Christianity. Kautsky has shown, beyond all probable doubt, that the little-noticed sect of rebel-zealots at Jerusalem who claimed Jesus of Nazareth as their founder, was predominately of a proletarian-anarchist character – understanding the word proletarian in the classical sense of the word, as denoting a rabble of indigent or destitute freemen. That its objects were substantially the same as that of the other insurrectionary cliques then common throughout Palestine is highly probable, to wit, the freeing of the country from the Roman yoke and the re-establishment of the Jewish religion on a democratic and popular basis with the control of the Temple and its vast treasures by their own leaders. The above revolutionary society succeeded in holding together after the death of its leader, owing, it may be, to the memory left by the latter’s personality or to other causes. This community at Jerusalem it was to which all the proletarian associations of Christianity were attached, and it came to an end soon after the year 70.

From this date Christianity assumes quite another character; it ceases to be rebellious, and becomes a religion of non-resistance to evil, and it is from this time forward that it begins to absorb the mystical tendencies of the age. The old Messianic and rebellious doctrines of the original Jerusalem community became soon a heresy, the so-called “Ebionite” heresy. “True Christianity,” if by this be meant the Christianity of history, began its career. It cannot be too much insisted upon that wellnigh all the doctrines and most of the ceremonies which constitute Christianity at the present time in all its various forms, and which have constituted it throughout its historical career, date from the first half of the second century. This, the only Christianity with which for practical purposes we are concerned to-day, is, in essence, neither communistic nor proletarian, but, on the contrary, mystical, introspective and individualistic.

E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 29.2.2004