Max Beer April 1909

Studies in historic Materialism

Chapter III - The rise of Christianity (continued.)

Source: Social Democrat,Vol. XIII, No. 4, April 15, 1909, pp.156-161;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

From the sources available it is not easy to give an exact picture of the economic divisions and social classes of Palestine during the last century B.C. and the first century of our era, that is, in the two centuries of the birth and rise of Christianity. The Jewish writers and historians of those times attached little importance to things economic; they wrote chiefly from a religious, political, and legal point of view. Economic phenomena were alluded to only incidentally, some of those allusions being however pregnant with historic significance. According to JOSEPHUS, whose writings form the chief source of history of those times, the Sadducees consisted of nobles and rich. The TALMUD (Gittin, 56A), in dealing from a purely religious point of view with the incidents during the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, relates that there were then three rich men in Jerusalem whose stores of provisions were so considerable that they could supply the city and its surroundings for a period of 21 years. That means, obviously, that those three men controlled the whole provision market of Judaea. The bitter internecine struggles during the Jewish wars against the Romans, which are mentioned in Josephus as well as in the Talmud, and which undoubtedly bear all indications of a relentless class war of the lower classes against the rich, reveal the existence of a large revolutionary proletariat as a natural corollary of the existence of a small class of monopolists. Unhappily, the leaders of that proletariat left no trace in Jewish literature. What we know of them we owe to Pharisaic writers who were out of sympathy with them, and who regarded them as murderers, incendiaries, and desperate fighters. We can no more expect from Pharisees a just appreciation of those revolutionary elements than from French bourgeois writers a dispassionate opinion of the Jacobins, Hebertists, and Babouvists of the French Revolution or of the men of the Paris Commune of 1871. They simply branded them as zealots and murderers. Only modern Socialists, with their insight into historic crises, are able to throw some light on the civil wars of the Jewry in the age of Christ. It would, however, be a mistake to speak of the Jewish proletariat of those times in a modern sense. The revolutionary class consisted then of journeymen, labourers, small craftsmen and peasants, and disappointed Pharisees. There was no clear-cut line between the lower classes and the Pharisees. Indeed, it is one of the most difficult problems in Jewish history to define, from an economic point of view, the party of the Pharisees. On the whole, we may say that that party consisted of the, middle-class - shopkeepers, small traders, and independent artisans.

But, while the economic conditions formed the basis of Jewish social life, they are not sufficient to explain the rise and development of the Jewish crisis. Religion played a very prominent part in it; also politics, especially the rise of the Roman Empire, affected it deeply. It is, therefore, necessary to deal with the religious and political factors.

The result of the pre-exilic life of the Jews was, as it was shown in previous articles, monotheism. The disintegration of primitive communism gave rise to a long struggle between the possessors and the dispossessed, which expressed itself mentally in the opposition between polytheistic modes of worship and moral action, or between priesthood and prophecy. The most sublime expression of the work of the prophets is to be found in Isaiah the Second, while Ezekiel combined both elements, the prophetic and the priestly. And it was Ezekiel, and not Isaiah, who became the teacher of the post-exilic period. His real successor was Ezra, who codified the law, and who by his great organising capacity made the law the predominant mental factor in Jewish life. The pre-exilic period knew little of law; it was custom, tradition, individual interest, and the interpretation of the priest that regulated Jewish life. Ezra gave to his people the five books of Moses as a guide, and put legality in the place of traditional uncertainties. The return of the exiles from Babylonia, the restoration of the old temple, were moments which deeply affected Jewish mentality, and Ezra made use of those moments of religious exaltation to make the law prevail. And the law of the Pentateuch is a compromise between priestly regulations and prophetic morality. The post-exilic society being once more firmly placed on the basis of private property, the priestly law became a fact while prophetic morality and humanity remained an aspiration.

Just as pre-exilic life produced monotheism. so post-exilic life produced religious legality; a code of laws as a guide in the worship of the monotheistic Yahve.

According to the law the Jews separated from the Gentiles; they became a distinct religious community a State, the members of which aspired to the priesthood of Yahve. The priests and scribes were the leading men of the nation, and the vision of the prophets ceased. Sacrifices, temple service, and psalm singing took the place of the free speech and ethical remonstrances of the prophet. In the first three centuries after the return from the exile the economic development was slow, the divisions and inequalities in society were less marked, and, therefore, the difference between priestly law and prophetic ideals was less noticeable. The law became the centre of Jewish life. The Jews elaborated the conception of being a chosen people, a nation of priests, holy in their relation to Yahve, righteous in their relations to their brethren. Their foreign rulers, the Persians, the Ptolemaeans, the Seleucid, left them alone in the exercise of their religious ceremonies. The first change occurred in the third century, when Hellenism and economic intercourse with the Hellenic world encroached upon Jewish exclusiveness. Economic and religious disintegration set in, which, in the second century, led to the formation of antagonistic parties within Jewish society. There arose the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Already in the rising of the Maccabaeans against the violent Hellenising of the Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes we discern the two parties which, despite the Maccabaean victories, remained and developed.

The Sadducees, the party of the nobles and rich, desired a Hellenised but politically independent Jewry, with its own King and Government. Apparently they were the national party, in reality they were not national. The real national party were the Pharisees, the middle-classes, whose political ideal was a Theocracy; they cared nothing for worldly politics; they looked to a holy priesthood as their guides; in their eyes the Jews had for their mission to worship Yahve according to the law. Still, the notion of a Theocracy, and the fact of vassalage to a Gentile Power, were bound earlier or later to come into collision with each other. As long as the foreign overlord did not interfere with their religious worship they gave little thought to politics. But as soon as the foreign yoke became oppressive two things happened: either the Jews fought the oppressor with all the death-defying courage that religious fanaticism inspires, or they regarded the oppression as a punishment by Yahve in consequence of the neglect of his commandments, and they therefore tried to elaborate the law more minutely and to conform to it more strictly. The first case happened in the second quarter of the second century B.C., when the violent attempts of Antiochus Epiphanes to Hellenise the Jews met with a stubborn resistance which led, in 142 B.C., to the independence of Palestine; the second case happened after loss of Jewish independence in 63 B.C., when Palestine came under Roman sway. In the last century B.C. and the first century of our era Roman interference with Jewish life became more and more oppressive. Rome was a standing defiance of Pharisaic belief in a Theocracy. The law was therefore incessantly elaborated and constantly multiplied. It was as if the Pharisees and scribes were obsessed with the notion that the whole misfortune of the Jewry was due to the fact that Yahve demanded a most elaborate code of ceremonies to be observed by all those who desired to approach him. In the last century B.C. the middle classes had already lost all fighting capacity and relied solely for their defence on God. Or as it is said in the PSALMS: ” There is no King saved by the multitude of an host; a mighty man is not delivered by much strength. .... Our soul waiteth for Yahve: he is our help and our shield."

While the ceremonial law was growing to immense proportions on account of Roman oppression, the observance of the ethical laws became more and more impossible on account of the same cause. The direct and indirect oppression of the Jews by the Romans and their appointed Jewish Kings and High Priests, the heavy impositions and taxes inflicted upon the Jews, bore heavily upon the lower middle classes, which belonged to the Pharisaic party. The pious, puritanic and ceremonial Pharisee was of necessity a bad employer. He simply could not pay good wages and treat his workpeople as the law prescribed. He was impoverished by bad government, by corrupt officials, and the plunderings of the. Roman Consuls. Oppressed and outraged in his religious conscience by the Roman sway, robbed by the corrupt representatives of Rome, dependent in his economic life on the rich or noble Sadducee, taunted and fought by the workman, the Pharisee was indeed a pathetic figure. From this world of wickedness, so full of disharmonies and contradictions, he took refuge in the law, which he further elaborated until it became an unbearable yoke. But the law was not the only refuge. If man was unable to find a way out of the harrowing contradiction between religious superiority and foreign servitude, Yahve will send his Messiah to save the Jews from Rome as he once saved them, through Moses, from Egyptian servitude. And not only from Rome, but from sin, and then the Kingdom of God will reign for ever and ever. The belief in God sending a saviour to Israel was an old one and became intense in periods of oppression: Yahve could not forsake his chosen people. Law and Messianism thus became the haven of refuge of the Pharisees.

The development of legalism had for its effect an estrangement between the Pharisees and the working population in town and country. The self-consciousness, the pride of learning, and the puritanism of the Pharisees gave them a certain refinement and sense of superiority which kept them aloof from the common illiterate people. We have in the Talmud ample evidence of the hatred that existed between the legalists (Pharisees) and the Ameh-ha-Arets, [1] as they contemptuously called the common people. To this mental antagonism was added the economic one, as the middle-classes were by their economic position compelled to exploit and sweat the working people. The latter never accepted legalism as the rule of life. The common illiterate people kept in an inchoate manner the old spirit of prophecy, the ethical view of religion, alive, and there is handed down a saying of the early rabbis from which it may be concluded that the common people adhered to the old communistic traditions. In a famous tract, “The Saying of the Fathers,” it is said: “With regard to property there are three ways: The upper-class says, What is mine is mine, and what is thine is also mine; the middle-class says, What is mine is mine, what is thine is thine; the lower-class says, What is mine is thine, what is thine is mine."


(To be concluded.)

1. Ameh-ha-Arets means folk of the land or pagans.