Max Beer February 1909

Studies in historic Materialism

Chapter III - The Rise of Christianity

Source: Social Democrat,Vol. XIII, No. 2, February, 1909, pp.61-65;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Cyrus, the founder of the ancient Persian Empire conquered Babylon in 538, and in the same year granted permission to the exiled Jews to return to Palestine. True to their religious conception, the Jews saw in that act of a great statesman the hand of Yahve, and the form in which they expressed it is characteristic of their advanced view of monotheism. We read in EZRA: “Yahve stirred up the spirit of Cyrus, King of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying, 'Thus saith Cyrus, King of Persia, Yahve, God of Heaven, hath given me all the kingdoms of earth, and he has charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah.” In reality, however, the proclamation in favour of the Jews was dictated by those considerations of military geography and of diplomacy which sway all far-seeing empire-builders. In the work of consolidating the newly conquered empire Cyrus could not fail to notice the importance of the geographic position of Palestine and the value of having there loyal and grateful subjects to impede an Egyptian invasion, or to prepare a military position for the conquest of Egypt. Indeed, his successor, Cambyses, actually made war on Egypt and subdued it in 525, only 13 years after the proclamation issued by Cyrus.

To the first batch of families who returned to Palestine fell a long and arduous task. The work of re-organisation met with obstacles from within and without, and no real progress was made until the return, nearly a century later, of Ezra and Nehemiah, who, owing to their learning and executive capacity, succeeded in establishing a certain measure of religious and civil order. Ezra, on his return from Babylonia in 458, brought with him the Pentateuch, which fact may serve as evidence that the Jews in exile formed an active religious community with definite conceptions and ideals differentiating them from the people in the midst of whom they dwelled. Still, it would be erroneous to assume that they were utterly impervious to the influences of the comparatively high civilisation of Babylonia. The story of creation, the building of the tower of Babel, the story of the flood, the angelology, and the calendar of the Pentateuch were of Babylonian origin. But monotheism was a purely Jewish product of pre-exilic life.

No sooner was a certain order evolved out of the chaos of re-settlement than the class struggle began to manifest itself. We read in NEHEMIAH: “And there was a great cry of the people and of their wives against their brethren the Jews. For there were that said, We, our sons, and our daughters, are many: therefore we take up corn for them that we may eat and live. Some also there were that said, We have mortgaged our lands, vineyards, and houses, that we might buy corn, because of the dearth. There were also that said: We have borrowed money for the King's tribute, and that upon our lands and vineyards. Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children: and lo, we bring into bondage our sons and our daughters to be servants, and some of our daughters are brought into bondage already, neither is it in our power to redeem them; for other men have our lands and vineyards.” By the intervention of Nehemiah a crisis was averted; it is, however, safe to conclude that this intervention had but a temporary effect. The division and differentiation of society into rich and poor, into great landowners and impoverished peasants and labourers, into merchants, artisans, and workmen went on, at first at a slow pace, but gained in momentum from the third century B.C. onwards.

The fifth and fourth centuries appear to have been remarkable only for the fervent piety which moved the Jews in consequence of the rebuilding of the Temple. In Ezra and Nehemiah there is ample evidence of a religious revival that absorbed all emotions and thoughts of the Jewry. In this age of monotheistic efflorescence a great number of Psalms were composed. On the other hand, the economic development appears to have been very little marked; only the population must have considerably increased and made emigration a necessity. Even in the pre-exilic times emigration had gone on, and it became a normal feature in the post-exilic centuries. After the overthrow of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great, Palestine fell under the supremacy of the liberal-minded Ptolemaens, and the development of Jewish life began to move at an accelerated pace. Jews settled in Egypt, and formed in Alexandria an increasingly important commercial colony. Also the Seleucidae bestowed upon the Jews the rights of citizenship in Asia Minor, Northern Syria, and Antiochia, where they evidently settled as merchants.

The close connection of Palestine with the Jews of the dispersion, the differentiation of the economic activities of the Palestinians themselves, and the gradual entrance of Palestine into the Hellenic sphere of civilisation, contributed greatly to the development of trade and commerce in Palestine. The third century must have been an age of material prosperity and general well-being, which filled the Jewish mind with an optimistic view of life. In that age were collected the proverbs of Solomon and of Jesus Sirach. The Jews believed then that there prevailed a certain harmony between virtue and happiness, and that a God-fearing life, prudence, industry, thrift, honesty and good government are the surest means to human happiness. This optimistic, middle-class period was put an end to by the wars between Egypt and Syria, by internal struggles, and, finally, by the sanguinary oppression of the Jews at the hands of Antiochus IV. Jewish prosperity withered away, and the reaction from an unbounded optimism was an unbounded pessimism. In the age of this pessimistic reaction were produced such literary monuments as Job and Ecclesiastes, in which the great question of the discrepancy between virtue and happiness and the despair of any intelligent management of the world, find partly sublime, partly cynical expression. This was, however, a passing phase. The Jews shook themselves free from these paralysing sentiments, and following the call of the Maccabeans smote the oppressors hip and thigh. Palestine, after long centuries of vassalage, rose again to the height of an independent kingdom, making treaties, even with the Roman Empire. The national and economic crises had been overcome and the country progressed rapidly. The more important sea and commercial towns in Palestine were occupied and settled. In Joppa, Gaza, Tiberias, Accho, Caesarea, etc., Jews settled in considerable numbers, controlling the import and export of foreign and Palestinian goods.

The following two factors contributed largely to the development of the Palestinian trade, First, the compulsory pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On the great festivals Jews from all parts of the civilised world met at the Temple of Jerusalem: from Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, Italy, Asia Minor, Macedonia, Syria, etc. For the most part they were merchants or manufacturers. On such occasions Jerusalem was turned into an international exchange. Secondly, the overburdening of agriculture with duties and taxes for social and religious purposes, while trade and commerce had hardly any public burden to bear. Consequently, the Jews withdrew from agriculture in favour of commerce, shipping, and manufactures.

However, these factors reacted favourably on agriculture. Bound up as it was with religious life, it was regarded as a most honourable calling. And with the growth of towns and commercial activities, agriculture gained large and profitable markets for its produce, and, therefore, exceedingly great care was bestowed upon the cultivation of the soil. In the second and first centuries B.C., the fields and vineyards of Palestine were worked with a diligence and thoroughness as never before or after. Even the mountain slopes were carefully tilled and turned into terrace-like gardens and fields. The exports of Palestine were: wine, perfumes, olives and olive oil, dates, figs, roses, balm, myrrh, corn, honey and wax, cattle, cheese, wool, flax, textile fabrics, purple, carpets, dye-stuffs, gold and silver goods, iron and copper, nails and pins, leather and parchment, ropes, salt, asphalt, sponges, crockery, weapons, and boats.


(To be continued.)