Karl Kautsky

Foundations of Christianity

Book Four: The Beginnings of Christianity

II. The Christian Idea of the Messiah

The Coming of the Kingdom of God

THE TITLE OF this chapter is redundant. We know that Christus is nothing more than the Greek word for Messiah. From the point of view of philology the Christian Idea of the Messiah is nothing but the messianic idea of the Messiah.

Considered historically, however, Christianity does not embrace all the believers in a Messiah, but only one variety among them, whose messianic expectations were at the beginning not very different from those of the rest of Judaism.

Above all, the community of Christians in Jerusalem, like the rest of the Jews, expected the coming of the Messiah in a foreseeable, though not precisely predictable, time. Although the gospels that have come down to us date from a period in which the majority of Christians were no longer so sanguine, when it was clear in fact that the expectation of Christ’s contemporaries had gone completely astray, they still conserve some remnants of this expectation which they had taken over from the oral or written sources on which they drew. According to Mark (1, verse 14) “Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.”

The disciples ask Jesus for the signs that will show that the Messiah is coming. He cites them all, earthquakes, pestilence, the evils of war, eclipses of the sun, and so forth, and tells how the Son of man will come with power and great glory to save his faithful, and adds: “Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all shall be fulfilled” (Luke 21, verse 32).

Mark says the same (13, Verse 30). In the ninth chapter of the same gospel Jesus is made to say: “But I tell you of a truth, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the kingdom of God.”

Finally, in Matthew Jesus promises his disciples: “He that endureth to the end shall be saved. But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come” (10, verses 22f.).

Paul speaks similarly in his first Epistle to the Thessalonians (4, verses l3f.): “But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from Heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”

Thus it was not at all necessary to have died in order to enter into the kingdom of God. The living could count on seeing its coming. And it was thought of as a kingdom in which both those who lived through it and those who arose from the dead would rejoice in full-bodied existence. There are still traces of it in the gospels, although the later conception of the church dropped the earthly state of the future and replaced it by a heavenly one. So Jesus says in Matthew (19, verses 28f.):

“Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.”

And so they are to be richly rewarded with earthly pleasures in the future state for having broken up their families and given up their property. These pleasures are thought of especially as those of the table.

Jesus threatens those that will not follow him with exclusion from the society on the day after the great catastrophe: “There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out. And they shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down [at table] in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13, verses 28f.; cf. also Matthew 8, verses 11f.).

But he promises the apostles: “And I appoint unto you a kingdom, as my Father hath appointed unto me; That ye may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Luke 22, verses 29f.).

There are even disputes among the apostles over the order of precedence in the future state. James and John claim the places at the right and left of the master, and the others are displeased (Mark 10, verses 35f.).

Jesus tells a Pharisee in whose house he is eating that he should not invite his friends nor kinsmen to table, but the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind: “And thou shalt be blessed: for they cannot recompense thee: for thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just.” We find out at once what this blessedness is: “And when one of them that sat at meat with him heard these things, he said unto him, Blessed is he that shall eat bread in the kingdom of God” (Luke 14, verse 15).

Drinking is done there too. At the Last Supper Jesus announces: “But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26, verse 29).

The resurrection of Jesus is the model for the resurrection of his disciples. The gospels expressly stress Jesus’ corporeality after the resurrection.

He meets two of his disciples then near the village of Emmaus. He sups with them and vanishes. “And they rose up the same hour, and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven gathered together, and them that were with them, Saying, The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon. And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of them in breaking of bread. And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones; as ye see me have. And when he had thus spoken, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here any meat? And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them” (Luke 24, verses 33f.).

In the Gospel according to St. John too Jesus shows not only corporeality after his resurrection, but a healthy appetite as well. John describes how Jesus appeared to the disciples, the doors being shut, and is touched by doubting Thomas, and then goes on:

“After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias; and on this wise showed he himself. There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathaniel of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two other of his disciples. Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing. They say unto him, We also go with thee. They went forth, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing. But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore: but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus. Then Jesus saith unto them, Children, have ye any meat? They answered him, No. And he said unto them, Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find. They cast therefore, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes. Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter, it is the Lord ... As soon then as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread ... Jesus saith unto them, Come and dine ... This is now the third time that Jesus showed himself to his disciples, after that he was risen from the dead” (John 21).

The third and last time. Perhaps it was after the refreshment of the fish breakfast that Jesus went to heaven in the fancy of the evangelist, thence to return as the Messiah.

Although the Christians held that the resurrected would arise in the flesh, they must have said to themselves those bodies must be of a different nature than the former ones, if only for the sake of the eternity of life. In an era that was as ignorant and credulous as that of the early Christians, it is no wonder that the most fantastic ideas came into Christian heads, just as they did into those of Jews.

Thus the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians develops the idea that those of his fellows who live until the future state, together with those who will be waked from the dead, will have a new and higher form of body:

“Behold, I show you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (15, verses 51f.).

The Revelation of John even has two resurrections. The first takes place after the overthrow of Rome:

“And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, ... and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years” (chap. 20).

Then however there is a rebellion of the peoples of the earth against these saints. The rebels are cast into a lake of fire and brimstone, and the dead, who now all arise, are judged; the unjust are cast into the lake of fire, the just will not know death any more but rejoice in their life in the new Jerusalem, to which the nations of the earth shall bring their glory and honor.

Here Jewish nationalism appears in a most naive form. As a matter of fact, as we have pointed out, the picture of John’s Christian revelation is of Jewish origin, and arose at the time of the siege of Jerusalem.

After the fall of Jerusalem there were Jewish apocalypses with similar Messianic expectations, for example Baruch and the fourth book of Ezra.

Baruch announces that the Messiah will assemble the peoples and confer life on those that submit to the descendants of Jacob, and wipe out the others, who have oppressed Israel. Then he will ascend the throne, and eternal joy will reign, and nature will offer everything in profusion, especially wine. The dead will arise, and men will be differently organized. The just will no longer grow weary when they labor, their bodies will be changed into gleams of light, while the unjust will be even uglier than before, and given over to be tortured.

The author of the fourth book of Ezra expands on similar themes. The Messiah will come and live four hundred years, and then die with all of mankind. Then follows a general resurrection and judgment, the just shall have rest and sevenfold joy.

We see how little the Messianic expectations of the first Christians differed from the general Jewish hopes. The fourth book of Ezra also gained prestige in the Christian church, after numerous additions, and was included in many a Protestant translation of the Bible.



The Lineage of Jesus

The original Christian idea of the Messiah is so completely in accord with the Judaism of its time that the Gospels attach the greatest value to showing Jesus as a descendant of David. For, according to the Jewish notion, the Messiah should be of royal lineage. Over and over again he is spoken of as the “Son of David” or “Son of God”, which in the Jewish system amounted to the same thing. Thus the second book of Samuel represents God as saying to David: “I will be his [your descendants’] father, and he shall be my son” (II Samuel 7, verse 14).

And in the second Psalm the king says: “The Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son: this day have I begotten thee.”

This is why it was necessary to show that Jesus’ father, Joseph, had a long pedigree going back to David, and to have Jesus the Nazarene born in Bethlehem, the city of David. The strangest statements are introduced to make this plausible. Early in the book we referred to the story in Luke (2, verse 1f.):

“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.”

The author or authors of Luke had heard an echo of some thing, and in their ignorance made complete nonsense of it.

Augustus never ordered a general census of the empire. What is referred to is obviously the census that Quirinius had taken in Judaea in the year 7 A.D., Judaea being then a Roman province. This was the first census of the sort there.

But this confusion is the least of it. What are we to say of the idea that in a general imperial census, or even in a provincial census everyone must go to his birthplace to be recorded. Even today, in the age of railroads, such a decree would lead to the most frightful confusion, only to be surpassed by its uselessness. As a matter of fact every one registered in his dwelling-place in a Roman census also, and only men had to do so in person.

But it would not have suited the pious purpose, if the worthy Joseph had gone by himself to the city of David. And so, after inventing the census, they have to invent the regulation that every head of a household must go to his native place with his whole tribe, so that Joseph would be forced to drag his wife along despite her advanced state of pregnancy.

The whole labor of love was in vain, however, and actually caused serious embarrassment for Christian thought as the community outgrew the Jewish framework. For the pagan world David was a matter of complete indifference, and it was no particular recommendation to be a descendant of David. Hellenistic and Roman thinking however was quite inclined to take seriously the fatherhood of God, which to the Jews was merely a symbol of royal descent. As we have seen, it was nothing unusual for Greeks and Romans to regard a great man as the son of Apollo or some other god.

Yet Christian thought encountered a slight difficulty in its effort thus to raise the Messiah in the eyes of the heathen, namely, the monotheism it had taken over from Judaism. The fact that a god begets a son presents no difficulty to polytheism: there is just one more god. But that God begets a god and there is still but one God, that is something not easy to conceive. The question is not made simpler by going on to separate the generating power that emanated from the Deity as a separate Holy Ghost. All that was needed was to get three persons under one hat. On this task the most sweeping fantasy and acute hair-splitting were wrecked. The Trinity became one of those mysteries that can be only believed, not understood; one that had to be believed precisely because it was absurd.

There is no religion without contradictions. None of them arose in a single mind by a purely logical process; each one is the product of manifold social influences, often going back centuries and reflecting very diverse historical situations. But there is hardly another religion so rich in contradictions and absurdities as the Christian religion, since there was hardly another that grew out of such harsh contradictions: Christianity evolved from Judaism to Romanism, from proletarianism to world domination, from the organization of communism to organizing the exploitation of all classes.

Meanwhile the union of Father and Son in a single person was not the only difficulty for Christian thinking that arose out of the picture of the Messiah as soon as it came under the influence of the non-Jewish environment.

What was to be done about Joseph’s fatherhood? Mary could now no longer have conceived Jesus by her husband. And since God had mated with her not as a man but as spirit, she must have remained a virgin. That was the end of Jesus’ descent from David. Yet so great is the power of tradition in religion that despite everything the beautifully constructed pedigree of Joseph and Jesus’ designation as Son of David continued to be handed down faithfully. Poor Joseph now had the thankless role of living with the Virgin without touching that virginity, and without being in the least disturbed by her pregnancy.



Jesus as a Rebel

If the Christians in later times could not resign themselves to abandoning the royal descent of their Messiah, despite his divine origin, they were all the more eager to erase another mark of his Jewish birth: his rebelliousness.

From the second century on Christianity was more and more dominated by patient obedience. The Judaism of the previous century had been something quite different. We have seen how rebellious those strata of Jews were who were expecting the Messiah at that time, especially the proletarians of Jerusalem and the bands of Galilee, the same elements from which Christianity arose. The obvious assumption is that Christianity was violent in its beginnings. This assumption becomes a certainty when we see that the gospels still have traces of it despite the fact that their later revisers tried most desperately to eliminate everything from them that might give offense to the powerful.

Although Jesus usually appears as gentle and submissive, occasionally he says something of a quite different nature which suggests that whether he really existed or is only an imaginary, ideal figure, he lived as a rebel in the original tradition, one who was crucified for his unsuccessful uprising.

He occasionally speaks of legality in a striking manner: “I came not to call the righteous, but the sinners” (Mark 2, verse 17). The Authorized Version translates: “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance,” and their manuscripts may have read so. The Christians early felt how dangerous it was for them to concede that Jesus called to himself just those groups that were against legality. Luke therefore added to the word “call” the phrase “to repentance” (eis metanoian), an addition which is also found in many manuscripts of Mark as well. But this addition leaves the sentence without any meaning. Who would ever think of calling the “just” (dikaious) to repentance? Moreover this contradicts the context, for Jesus uses the expression because he is reproached for eating and associating with men who were despised; he is not pictured as exhorting them to change their way of life. No one would have held “calling sinners to repentance” against him.

Bruno Bauer is correct in his interpretation of this passage:

“The saying in its original form simply ignores the question of whether the sinners actually do penance, hear the call and merit Heaven by obeying the preacher of repentance – instead, as sinners they are privileged as against legality – as sinners they are called to holiness, absolutely favored – the kingdom of Heaven is made for sinners, and the call that goes out to them merely puts them in possession of the rights they have as sinners.” [7]

This passage signifies contempt of traditional law; but the words in which Jesus announces the coming of the Messiah point to violence: The existing Roman Empire will go down in fearful slaughter; and the saints should by no means play a passive role in it.

Jesus declares:

“I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled? But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished! Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three” (Luke 12, verses 49f.).

In Matthew it runs directly:

“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword” (10, verse 34).

Arriving in Jerusalem at Eastertide, he drives the moneychangers out of the temple, something that is inconceivable without the forcible action of a large mob excited by him.

Shortly thereafter, at the Last Supper, just before the catastrophe, Jesus says to his disciples:

“But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip; and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one. For I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, And he was reckoned among the transgressors (anomon): for the things concerning me have an end. And they said, Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, It is enough” (Luke 22, verses 35f.).

Immediately after this, they come up against the armed power of the state on the Mount of Olives. Jesus is about to be arrested.

“When they which were about him saw what would follow, they said unto him, Lord, shall we smite with the sword? And one of them smote the servant of the high priest, and cut off his right ear” (Luke 22, verses 49f.).

However, Jesus, according to the Gospel story, is against all bloodshed, lets himself be fettered and executed without resistance, while his comrades are not molested at all.

In the form just given this is a very strange story, full of contradictions, and originally it must have run quite differently.

Jesus calls for swords, as though the hour of action had come; his faithful followers go out armed with swords – and when they meet the enemy and draw their swords, Jesus suddenly declares that he is against any use of force, on principle – naturally, most sharply in Matthew:

“Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled ...?” (26, verses 52f.)

Now if Jesus had been against all violence altogether, why should he have called for swords? Why did he direct his friends to go along with him carrying arms?

This contradiction becomes intelligible only if we assume that the Christian tradition originally told of a planned coup de main in the course of which Jesus was taken prisoner, a bold stroke for which the time seemed to be ripe after the driving of the moneychangers from the temple had been successful. The later editors did not dare simply to do away with this story, whose roots went deep; instead, they blunted its point, reducing the use of force to an act attempted by the apostles against Jesus’ will.

It may not be without significance that the clash took place on the Mount of Olives. That was the best place from which to make an attempt on Jerusalem.

We may remember the account of Josephus about the plot of an Egyptian Jew under the procurator Felix (52 to 60 A.D.).

This man came out of the desert with a force of 30,000 and went up the Mount of Olives in order to fall on the city of Jerusalem, expel the Roman garrison and become ruler. Felix engaged the Egyptian in battle and dispersed his followers. The leader himself succeeded in escaping.

The history of Josephus is full of similar occurrences. They show the state of mind of the Jewish population at the time of Christ. An attempted putsch by the Galilean prophet Jesus would be fully in accord with it.

If we think of his undertaking as such an attempt, the treason of Judas becomes understandable as well, intertwined as it is with this questionable account.

In the version that has come down to us, Judas betrays Jesus by his kiss, which points him out to the police as the man to arrest. Now that is a senseless way to act. According to the Gospels, Jesus was well known in Jerusalem; he preached in public day in and day out, and was received by the masses with jubilation; and now he is to have been so unknown that he had to be pointed out by Judas to be distinguished from the crowd of his supporters! That would be a good deal like having the Berlin police pay an informer to indicate the person called Bebel. [8]

It would be an entirely different matter if it was a question of a plotted coup d’etat. In that case there would be something to betray, a secret worth paying for. If the plot and the coup d’etat were eliminated from the story, the account of Judas’ treason would be to no purpose. Since the betrayal was obviously too well known among the comrades and the bitterness against the traitor too strong, it would not do for the evangelist to pass over this circumstance. He had to construct a new betrayal out of his imagination, however, and did not succeed very well.

The capture of Jesus is just as unhappy an invention as the present version of the betrayal by Judas. The man who is arrested is precisely the one who preaches the peaceful way, while the apostles, who drew their swords and smote, are not molested in the least. Indeed Peter, who cut off the ear of Malchus, follows the constables and calmly sits down among them in the courtyard of the high priest and chats with them. Imagine a man who resists the arrest of a comrade with force, fires a revolver and wounds a policeman and then peacefully accompanies the forces of the law to the station-house to get warm and drink a glass of beer with them!

It would be hard to invent anything more absurd. But it is this absurdity that shows there was something here to be covered up at any cost, and so a likely and easily understandable action, an encounter that ended in defeat and the capture of its leader, through the treason of Judas, became an incomprehensible and senseless event that takes place only in order that “the scriptures be fulfilled.”

The execution of Jesus, which is easy to understand if he was a rebel, is an unintelligible act of sheer malice, which gets its way even against the will of the Roman governor, who wants to release Jesus. That is an accumulation of inconsistencies that can only be explained by the need of the later revisers not to let the actual events be known.

That was a period in which even the peaceful Essenes, who were against any struggle, were carried away by the general patriotism. We find Essenes among the Jewish generals in the last great war against the Romans. Thus for example Josephus tells of the beginning of the war:

“The Jews had chosen three mighty generals, who were not only gifted with bodily strength and courage, but also endowed with understanding and wisdom, Niger from Peraea, Sylas from Babylon and John the Essene.” [9]

The conjecture that the execution of Jesus was brought about by his rebellion is therefore not merely the only assumption that makes the allusions in the Gospels intelligible, but it is also completely in accordance with the nature of the time and the place. From the time in which the death of Jesus is set down to the destruction of Jerusalem, disorders never ceased there. Street fighting was something quite usual, and so was the execution of individual insurgents. Such a street fight on the part of a small group of proletarians, and the consequent crucifixion of their ringleader, who came from eternally rebellious Galilee, could very well have made a deep impression on the survivors who had taken part in it, without obliging historians to take notice of such an everyday occurrence.

Given the mutinous excitement that was sweeping throughout all Jewry in that era, the sect that arose out of this attempted revolt would gain a propaganda advantage by emphasizing it, so that it would become fixed in tradition and in the process particularly exaggerate and ornament the person of Jesus, its hero.

The situation changed however once Jerusalem was destroyed. With the Jewish community the last trace of democratic opposition disappeared in the Roman Empire. At about the same time the civil wars among the Romans ended as well.

In the two centuries from the Maccabees to the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus the Eastern Mediterranean basin had been in a state of constant unrest. One regime after another fell; one nation after another lost its independence or its dominant position. The power that directly or indirectly brought about all these revolutions, the Roman commonwealth, was torn by the stormiest inner disorders during this period, from the Gracchi to Vespasian, disorders which more and more emanated from the armies and their generals.

This was a period in which the expectation of a Messiah developed and solidified; during it no political organization seemed permanent; all of them seemed merely provisional, while political revolution was the inevitable, always to be expected. All that ended with Vespasian. Under him the military monarchy finally got the financial system the Emperor needed in order to make any competition impossible, that is, any purchase of the soldiers’ favor by a competitor; and with this the source of the military rebellions was dried up for a long time.

Thus began the “golden age” of the Empire, a general state of internal peace that lasted over a hundred years, from Vespasian (69) to Commodus (180). Unrest had been the rule for the previous two hundred years; in this century quiet was the rule. Political changes, which had been the normal thing, now became abnormal. Submission to the imperial power, patient obedience, now seemed not merely a counsel of prudence for cowards, but struck deep root as a moral obligation.

This naturally had its effect on the Christian community. They could have no more use for the Messiah of rebellion, since he had suited Jewish thinking. Their very moral thinking rose up against that. Yet since they had become accustomed to worship Jesus as their God, the epitome of all the virtues, the change did not take place by dropping the person of the rebellious Jesus and replacing it by the ideal picture of a different personality better suited to the new condition; instead, the Christian community kept removing everything rebellious from the picture of the god Jesus and changed the rebellious Jesus into a suffering one who was put to death not because of an uprising but only because of his infinite goodness and holiness, by means of the wickedness of the insidious and invidious.

Fortunately this retouching was done so clumsily that traces of the original colors can still be seen, and from them the whole picture can be inferred. It is because these remains do not fit in with the later revisions that it is safe to assume that they are part of an earlier, genuine account.

In this connection, as in others we have so far studied, the picture of the Messiah in the early Christian community was in full conformity with the original Jewish idea. It was only the later Christian community that began to depart from it. There are however two points in which the Messiah picture of the Christian community diverged sharply from the Jewish Messiah from the very beginning.



The Resurrection of the Crucified

There was no shortage of Messiahs at the time of Christ, especially not in Galilee, where prophets and leaders of bands were constantly springing up, proclaiming themselves to be saviors and anointed of the Lord. But if one of them was defeated by the power of the Romans, was taken, crucified or slain, that put an end to his role as the Messiah, for in that case he was regarded as a false prophet and false Messiah. The real one was still to come.

The Christian community clung to its champion. For it too, it is true, the Messiah was still to come in his glory, but the Messiah to come was no other than the one who had come, the crucified one who had arisen three days after his death and ascended into Heaven after revealing himself to his following.

This conception was peculiar to the Christian community. Whence had it come?

In the primitive Christian view it was the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection on the third day after his crucifixion that proved his divine nature and justified the expectation of his return from Heaven. That is as far as the theologians have got even today. Of course the “freethinkers” among them no longer take the resurrection literally. According to them, Jesus did not actually arise, but his disciples believed they had seen him in ecstatic raptures after his death, and inferred from that his divine nature:

“Just as Paul saw the heavenly vision of Christ on the road to Damascus in a momentary ecstatic vision, we must think of the appearance of Christ, first revealed to Peter, in the same light – a spiritual experience that is not to be thought of as an unintelligible miracle, but as something that is to be explained psychologically in accordance with many analogies from all eras ... But from various analogies we find it quite understandable that this experience of inspired intuition did not remain confined to Peter alone, but was soon repeated in other disciples, and even in whole assemblies of the faithful ... Thus we find the historical basis of the disciples’ belief in the resurrection in the ecstatic and visionary experiences undergone by individuals at first and then gaining conviction among all, experiences in which they believed they saw their crucified master living and elevated in heavenly majesty. Fancy, at home in the world of wonders, wove the fabric and the soul filled it out and moved it. The motive force of this resurrection of Jesus in their faith was at bottom nothing but the ineradicable impression his personality had made on them: their love and confidence in him was stronger than death. This miracle of love, and not a miracle of omnipotence, was the basis of the faith in resurrection of the primitive community’s faith in resurrection. However, it went beyond passing feelings of excitement, and the newly-awakened inspired faith went on to action; the disciples saw it as their calling to bring the tidings to their countrymen that the Jesus of Nazareth whom they had delivered into the hands of the enemy had been the Messiah, now first made so by God through his resurrection and ascension to Heaven, from whence he would soon return to inaugurate his Messianic glory on earth.” [10]

According to this, we should attribute the spread of the Messiah belief of the primitive Christian community, and hence all the enormous historical phenomenon of Christianity to the accidental hallucination of a single little man.

It is by no means impossible that one of the apostles had a vision of the crucified one. It is possible too that this vision found believers, since the period was an exceptionally credulous one and Judaism was deeply permeated by the belief in resurrection. Wakings from the dead were not considered as something incomprehensible; we may add examples to those we have previously given.

In Matthew, Jesus prescribes activities for the apostles: “Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils” (10, verse 8). Raising the dead is quite prosaically presented as the daily occupation of the apostles, along with healing the sick. The warning is added that they should not take money for their services. Jesus, or rather the author of the gospel, therefore considers it possible to engage in raising the dead for pay, as an occupation.

The description of the resurrection is characteristic. The grave of Jesus is guarded by soldiers so that the disciples should not steal the corpse and spread the tale that he had risen again. But in the midst of lightnings and earthquakes the stone is rolled from the grave and Jesus arises.

“Some of the watch came into the city, and showed unto the chief priests all the things that were done. And when they were assembled with the elders, and had taken counsel, they gave large money unto the soldiers, Saying, Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept. And if this come to the governor’s ears, we will persuade him, and secure you. So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day” (28, verses 11f.)

These Christians thus had the idea that the resurrection of a man who had been dead and buried for three days could make so slight an impression on the eyewitnesses that a good gratuity would be enough, not merely to keep their mouths closed forever, but to get them to spread the opposite of the truth. It may be taken for granted that the authors of such views as are expressed in the Gospels believed in the tale of the resurrection without questioning it.

But that is not the end of the story. This credulousness and confidence in the possibility of resurrection was not peculiar to the Christian communities. It was something they had in common with all the Jewry of the time, to the extent that Judaism expected the Messiah. Why was it the Christians alone who had the vision of the resurrection of their Messiah? Why did it not come to any supporter of one of the other Messiahs that suffered the death of the martyr in that period?

Our theologians will rejoin that the fact is to be attributed to the especially deep impression made by the personality of Jesus, an impression produced by none of the other Messiahs. Against this there is the circumstance that Jesus’ activity, which by all accounts lasted only a short time, passed unnoticed by the masses, so that no contemporary took note of it. Other Messiahs, on the contrary, fought the Romans a long time and occasionally won great victories against them, which were recorded in history. Would these Messiahs have made less of an impression? But let us assume that Jesus could not attract the masses, but that the force of his personality left ineradicable memories among his few adherents. That would explain at most why the belief in Jesus lived on in his personal friends, but not why it had propaganda power among people who had not known him and on whom his personality could not have any effect. If it had been only the personal impression made by Jesus that produced the faith in his resurrection and his divine mission, this faith would have had to grow weaker as personal memories of him faded and the ranks of those who had known him personally became thinner.

Posterity, we know, weaves no garlands for the mime; but in this as in other points the player and the parson have much in common. What is true for the actor can be said of the preacher as well, if he limits himself to preaching and works only through his personality and leaves no works behind him which outlast his person. No matter how moving or elevating his sermons may be, they cannot have the same effect on people that do not hear them and know of them only by hearsay. His person will leave them cold; it will not touch their fancy.

No one leaves the memory of his personality beyond the circle of those who knew him personally, unless he leaves some creation that is impressive apart from his personality, an art work like a building, a picture, a piece of music, or a poem; or a scientific achievement, an ordered collection of materials, a theory, an invention or discovery; or a political or social institution or organization of some kind that he called into being or in whose creation and erection he had a prominent part.

So long as such a work lasts and operates, interest in the personality of its creator will last. Indeed, if such a creation goes unnoticed in his lifetime, and grows in significance after his death, as is often the case for discoveries, inventions and organizations, it is possible for the interest in the creator of the work to begin only after his death and keep growing. The less attention was paid to him during his life, the less that is known of his personality, the more the imagination is aroused; and if his work is a powerful one, the greater the crown of anecdotes and legends that will be spun around it. Man’s need for causes, which seeks in every social event – and originally in every natural event – for an active person who brought it about, is so great that it tends to make men invent an originator for any production of great importance, or to connect it with some traditional name if the real originator is forgotten or if, as often happens, the discovery is the product of the united powers of so many men, no one standing out beyond the others, that it would have been utterly impossible to name one definite orginator.

The reason why the Messianic career of Jesus did not end in the same way as those of the Judases and Theudases and other Messiahs of the period is not his personality, but in the handiwork that is linked with his name. Fanatical confidence in the personality of the prophet, thirst for miracles, ecstasy, belief in the resurrection – all these are to be found among the adherents of the other Messiahs as well as among those of Jesus. The reason for singling out one of them can not lie in what they all have in common. Theologians, even the most freethinking of them, are never very far from the assumption that even if we have to give up all the miracles that are related of Jesus, he himself still remains a miracle, a superman whose like the world has not seen; but we cannot accept this miracle. In that case however the only difference that remains between Jesus and the other Messiahs is that the others did not leave anything behind in which their personalities lived on, while Jesus bequeathed an organisation with institutions excellently adapted to holding his adherents together and attracting new ones.

The other Messiahs merely gathered bands together for an uprising; if defeated the bands scattered. If Jesus had not done anything more than that, his name would have disappeared without leaving a trace after he had been nailed to the cross. But Jesus was not merely a rebel; he was also the representative and champion, and perhaps the founder, of an organization that survived him and kept growing stronger and more powerful.

The traditional assumption has been that the community of Christ was not organized by the apostles until after his death. But nothing compels us to make this improbable assumption, no less an assumption than that immediately after the death of Jesus his adherents introduced something entirely new into his doctrine, something he had not considered and willed; and that people who had hitherto been unorganized entered into an organization he had never intended, and that right at the moment of a defeat that was capable of breaking up a solid organization. Judging by the analogy of similar organizations whose beginnings are better known, it would be closer to the truth to assume that communistic mutual aid societies of the proletarians of Jerusalem with Messianic overtones had existed before Jesus, and that a bold agitator and rebel of this name from Galilee was only their most outstanding champion and martyr.

According to John the twelve apostles had a common purse even in Jesus’ lifetime. But Jesus requires that every other disciple as well contribute all his property.

The Acts of the Apostles nowhere states that the apostles first organized the community after the death of Jesus; we find it already organized at that time, holding meetings of its members and performing its functions. The first mention of communism in the Acts of the Apostles runs as follows: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (2, verse 42). That is, they continued their previous common meals and other communistic practices. If this had been newly introduced after the death of Jesus, the version would have to be quite different.

The communal organization was the link that kept Jesus’ following together even after his death and preserved the memory of their crucified champion, who had proclaimed himself to be the Messiah, according to the tradition. The more the organization grew, and the more powerful it became, the more its martyrs must have occupied the imagination of the members, and the more they must have revolted at considering the crucified Messiah as false; the more too must they have felt themselves impelled to regard him as the genuine one, despite his death, as the Messiah that would come again in all his glory; the more they inclined to believe in his resurrection, and the more did faith in the Messianic nature of the crucified one and in his resurrection become the mark of the organization, setting it apart from the believers in other Messiahs. If the belief in the resurrection of the crucified Messiah had grown out of personal impression, it must have grown weaker and weaker with the passing of time, and tended to be replaced by other impressions, and finally disappeared with those who had known Jesus personally. But if the belief in the resurrection of him who was crucified stemmed from the effect that his organization produced, that belief would become stronger and more luxuriant as the organization grew; and the less positive information there was about the person of Jesus, the less the imagination of his worshippers would be hampered by definite facts.

It was not belief in the resurrection of him who was crucified that created the Christian community and lent it strength, but the converse: the vitality of the community created the belief in the continued life of their Messiah.

The doctrine of the crucified and resurrected Messiah did not contain anything that was irreconcilable with Jewish thought. We have seen how it was full of resurrectionary beliefs at that time; but in addition the notion that future glory was to be purchased only by the suffering and death of the just ran all through Jewish Messianic literature, and was a natural consequence of the sorry plight of the Jews.

Belief in the crucified Messiah thus need have been only one more variation of the manifold Messianic expectations of the Judaism of that period, if the basis on which it was erected had not been one which had to develop a contradiction to Judaism. This basis, the vitality of the communistic organization of the proletariat, was closely linked with the special form of the Messianic expectations of the communistic proletarians in Jerusalem.



The International Savior

The Messianic hopes of the rest of Jewry were exclusively national, including those of the Zealots. Subjection of the rest of the nations under Jewish world domination, which was to replace that of the Romans; revenge on the nations that were oppressing and mistreating Jewry: this was the content of these hopes. The Messianic expectations of the Christian community were different. They too were Jewish patriots and enemies of the Romans, and throwing off the alien domination was the precondition of any liberation, but the adherents of the Christian community wanted more than that. It was not only the yoke of the foreign rulers but the yoke of all rulers, including the native ones, that was to be thrown off. They called only the weary and heavily-laden to them; the day of judgment would be a day of vengeance on all the rich and powerful.

Their most inflamed passion was not race hatred but class hatred. This contained the seeds of severance from the rest of Judaism with its national unity.

At the same time it held the seeds of a rapprochement with the non-Jewish world, which naturally rejected the Jewish idea of the Messiah with its implied subjection of themselves. Class hatred against the rich, and proletarian solidarity, were ideas that were acceptable to other than only Jewish proletarians. A Messianic hope that extended to the salvation of the poor must have been listened to eagerly by the poor of all nations. The social Messiah could go beyond the limits of Judaism, where a national Messiah could not; only he could come victoriously through the fearful catastrophe of the Jewish commonwealth that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem.

On the other hand, the only place in the Roman Empire in which a communist organization could maintain itself would be where it was reinforced by faith in the Messiah to come and his deliverance of all the oppressed and mistreated. In practice, these communistic organizations, as we shall see, did not come to more than mutual aid societies. There had been a general need for such societies in the Roman Empire since the first century of our era, a need felt more intensely as the general poverty increased and the last remnants of traditional primitive communism disappeared. But the suspicious despotism put an end to all societies; we have seen how Trajan was afraid even of volunteer fire companies. Caesar had spared the Jewish organizations, but later these too lost their privileged position.

The only way in which the mutual aid societies could continue to exist was as secret leagues. But who would risk his life for the chance of getting mere subsistence, or from a feeling of solidarity in a period when public spirit had all but died out? What public spirit and devotion to the common weal was left did not meet with a large and lofty idea except in that of the renovation of the world, that is of society, by a Messiah. Meanwhile, the more self-seeking among the proletarians, who looked to the mutual aid societies for the sake of their personal gain, were reassured as to the danger to their persons by the idea of personal resurrection accompanied by ample rewards. This was an idea that would not have been needed to encourage the persecuted in periods when conditions powerfully stimulated the social instincts and feelings, so that the individual felt himself irresistibly impelled to follow them, even at the risk of harm, or even death. The idea of a personal resurrection became indispensable for the conduct of a dangerous struggle against powerful governments in an age in which all the social instincts and feelings had been attenuated to the utmost by the galloping social decomposition, and not merely in the ruling classes but in the oppressed and exploited as well.

The notion of the Messiah could take root outside of Judaism only in the communistic form of the Christian community, of the crucified Messiah. It was only by faith in the Messiah and the resurrection that the communistic organization could establish itself and grow as a secret league in the Roman Empire. United, these two ideas – communism and belief in a Messiah – became irresistible. What Judaism had vainly hoped for from its Messiah of royal lineage was achieved by the crucified Messiah from the proletariat: he subjugated Rome, made the Caesars kneel and conquered the world. But he did not conquer it for the proletariat. In the course of its victorious campaign the proletarian, communistic mutual aid organisation was transformed into the world’s most powerful machine for mastery and exploitation. This dialectical process is not unprecedented. The crucified Messiah was neither the first nor the last conqueror who ended by turning the armies, with which he had conquered, against his own people, subjugating and enslaving them.

Caesar and Napoleon also emerged from democratic victories.



7. Kritik der Evangelien und Geschichte ihres Ursprungs, 1851. p. 248.

8. Note: this is a reference to August Bebel, a leading socialist in Germany during the period in which this book was written.

9. Jewish War, III, 2, 1.

10. O. Pfleiderer, Die Entstehung des Christentums, 1907. p. 112f.


Last updated on 5 April 2021