Max Beer May 1909

Studies in historic Materialism

Chapter III - The rise of Christianity (concluded.)

Source: Social Democrat,Vol. XIII, No. 5, May, 1909, pp.218-223;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Evidence of a more conclusive nature of the prevalence of communistic views and tendencies in the last century B.C. is furnished by Josephus, Philo and Pliny in their accounts of the Essenes. Unlike the Sadducees and Pharisees, who were active national parties with special political and religious doctrines based on social classes, the Essenes were a sect strictly organised in communistic colonies. Their chief occupation was agriculture. The soil, the tools, the cattle were common property, likewise the buildings and houses, even their clothing belonged to the community as a whole, so that their production, distribution and consumption were put on a communistic basis. Their purely religious conceptions were Pharisaic; they submitted scrupulously to the yoke of the Law of Moses, with all its interpretations of the scribes and Pharisees. Only in one or two points they differed from their religious teachers; they rejected animal sacrifices, and they did not marry but lived in celibacy. All killing and fighting was repugnant to their views and sentiments. A spirit of peace, brotherhood, and piety pervaded the Essenic communities.

There exists a large literature on the Essenes, written by Christian and Jewish theologians who attempted to explain the origin and rise of this peculiar sect. All those attempts have so far failed. Communism among the Jewry of Palestine appeared to them as a strange phenomenon and as an alien element.

Yet it was a rational experiment of a section of Jews to find an exit from the maze of contradictions in which the nation found itself in the age of Christ.

Among the masses of post-exilic Jewry. the middle and lower classes, we have found two broad currents of thought, and sentiment - Pharisaic law and prophetic morality. Owing to the political and economic conditions of Palestine of those times, neither of those currents could find its realisation. Even the Pharisees themselves felt that law by itself was not a satisfactory solution of the religious problems confronting them, or as the “Sayings of the Fathers” have it, “Law without moral action is like to a tree rich in foliage, but without roots,” and the economic conditions did not permit the tree of life to strike roots. And the lower classes, to whom legalism did not appeal, were deprived of the means of production, and, therefore, of all possibilities of arranging life according to their sentiments.

Only a comparatively small number of people could hope to escape from the contradictions of Jewish society in the last century B.C., and arrange their lives according to the highest ideals that prevailed in that period. And these were the Essenes. In their organisations they combined all that was best in the Pharisaic and proletarian thought and sentiment - Law and Communism, piety and goodness, service of God and of Man. But it was not life; it was an escape from life. The Essenes had no influence on the course of history, for sects never have. It is only large mental movements, based on social classes, that shape the development of mankind. Also the Sadducees dwindled to a sect in the same measure as the Jewish aristocracy was destroyed in the civil and Roman wars. Only the Pharisees and the lower classes remained.

Still, the Essenic experiment, related by contemporary writers, is pregnant with meaning. It bears evidence of the deep moral fermentation that stirred the Jewry in the age of Christ. Communistic experiments and the writing of Utopias are always symptoms of an age of revolution, of the breaking up of the old and the germination of the new. And the age of the rise and spread of Christianity was in Palestine a period of revolution and insurrection. New prophets, miracle-workers, insurrectionary leaders appeared who led or misled the masses into new theories and new hopes, or to heroic fights against the Roman Empire. The pages in Josephus dealing with that period, though written in sober prose, are full of appalling tragedy and dissolution. It was the end of a numerically small, but mentally great nation.

The component elements of the Jewry, the Pharisees and the proletariat, separated and formed two schools of thought. The first laid the foundation of Judaism with its rabbis and Talmudic literature. The proletarians and the dissatisfied Pharisees laid the foundation of Christianity with its Gospel and patristic literature.

The messages of both classes were borne by men of great intellect and character. They gave coherent expression and palpable reality to the floating sentiments and views of their respective classes as they had developed in the long centuries of struggle, suffering, and thinking of the Jewry.

And the role of the great personality in history consists not in creating new ideas and making new periods, but in expressing, co-ordinating, and realising the longings and tendencies of its time. The great man is an elemental force, directed by the conditions and equipped with the instruments of his time. He is the mouthpiece of the more or less inarticulate desires of his people. The conditions and exigencies in the midst of which he lives furnish him the material to work upon.

It has taken humanity a long time to grasp the nature of the hero in history. And even to-day his role is not everywhere understood. Its understanding depends on the view we take of history. From an individualistic, aristocratic, and artistic point of view the hero is regarded as the creator of history. From a collectivist, democratic, and scientific point of view the hero is but an instrument of history, conditioned by environment and time, and standing on the accumulated labours of past generations.

An Alexander the Great born in our time would have been a great Macedonian brigand or comitaji. Without the French Revolution, Napoleon and Wellington would have remained simply generals. Territorial nations could not have a Nelson. Agricultural nations produce no inventors. Every healthy nation with a healthy development begets, from time to time, men of great abilities and energies. With what ideas and motives those men are filled, and on what material they work, depends upon the conditions in which they are brought up and live.

The Pharisees produced a Hillel, a Johanan ben Zakkai, an Akiba  - men of great intellectual and moral abilities, but still Pharisees, with conservative religious conceptions, attached to the law and clinging to the hope of divine interference through a saviour or messiah to redeem His chosen people. The Jewish proletarians produced a Jesus and a James, men of high moral courage and clearness of vision, full of prophetic teaching, opposed to the rich and the legalists, and therefore revolutionary in their activities. Jesus took up the thread of ethical teaching where Isaiah the Second had left it. All the reports of the miracles performed by him need not detain us for a single moment. Similar miracles are reported of every great rabbi, and the longer those rabbis have been dead the greater the number of the miracles performed by them. Jews, with all their shrewdness, are curiously credulous in matters of religion. And the people to whom Jesus preached were illiterate, uncritical, and with a strong will to believe. The hope for a messiah was universal in Palestine, and a messiah sent by God, must needs have been a miracle worker. Besides, there is probably not a single great man in history whose life has been handed down to us in an exact manner. The art of seeing things and persons as they are, the search for exact truth, are quite modern acquisitions. We owe them to inductive logic and applied science. The ancient and mediaeval historians, with very rare exceptions, did not see reality; still less the masses of people. Lack of understanding, the legendary and romantic bent, admiration and hatred, have woven round all the heroes of history a whole wreath of fantastic details; they were transfigured by popular imagination, desires and ideals. An historic hero is more characteristic of the thoughts and sentiments of the people among whom he lived than of real history. From the picture handed down of him we can judge what views and longings stirred his age. And as those views and longings were the products of social conditions, the task of the modern historian who desires to understand the past is to study the basis of history and to reconstruct the personal forces through which history has worked.

In that light we see Jesus as a man who expressed in word and deed in the most adequate manner the proletarian feeling of his generation as based on the prophetic and communistic tendencies. But Jesus was not the only founder of Christianity. St. Paul was its co-founder. He came from another stratum of Jewish society; he was a Pharisee. From his letters we may see how the psychology of a dissatisfied Pharisee worked. He did not abandon Judaism from the same motives as Jesus, and did not follow him from the same motives as James. In Jesus and James we see the proletarian opposition to the Pharisaic class. With St. Paul it was different. He felt no class antagonism. As the son of middle-class people he had no proletarian feeling which made rich and wicked convertible terms. He came to Jesus because of spiritual anguish. Idealistic, fiery, longing for salvation, he strove with might and main to fulfil the law. Man was naturally bad and wicked; therefore God gave him the law as a guide. This was good Pharisaic teaching. But the Jewish law, with its multitudinous and minute interpretations, proved not a guide, but a tyrannical taskmaster, bent on making man sinful. Paul was not the first or the last Jew who went through the same mental experience and agonies. He finally despaired of the ability of man to enter into communication with God through the gate of legalism. And yet what is man without the help of God? What is man to do to be saved? It is psychologically quite probable that in the first stages of his inner crisis he persecuted the first Christians with all the greater zeal. But he felt heartbroken. It was no use kicking against the pricks. Man could not rely for salvation on his own doings. However, if the law was impossible there was faith by which “the righteous shall live,” and there was grace. In this mental crisis he found his Damascus. He definitely rejected the law and took refuge in faith. He became the apostle of the heathen, but he impressed the Christian doctrine with Pharisaic mentality.

The great opposition between works and faith, of which we read in James, is the opposition between the proletarian and Pharisaic elements, which went to form the Christian Church.

In concluding my sketches on certain phases of Jewish history I venture to recommend Kautsky's “Ursprung des Christentums” (Stuttgart, 1908) to all readers who desire to follow up this subject, and to enter more fully into the question of the rise and organisation of primitive Christianity, as well as into the economics and philosophy of the age of Christ in the Roman Empire.