Karl Kautsky

Foundations of Christianity

Book Four: The Beginnings of Christianity

III. Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians

Agitation among the Pagans

THERE IS NO REASON whatever to doubt the statement in the Acts of the Apostles that the first communistic Messiah community was formed in Jerusalem. However, communities soon came into existence in other cities with a Jewish proletariat. There was heavy travel between Jerusalem and the other parts of the Empire, especially its eastern half, if only because of the many hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of pilgrims that came there year after year. And many penniless vagabonds roamed from place to place, staying in any one locality as long as charity lasted. The rules that Jesus gave to his apostles must be seen in the light of this state of affairs.

“Carry neither purse, nor scrip, nor shoes: and salute no man by the way. And into whatsoever house ye enter, first say, Peace be to this house. And if the son of peace be there, your peace shall rest upon it: if not, it shall turn to you again. And in the same house remain, eating and drinking such things as they give: for the laborer [!] is worthy of his hire. Go not from house to house. And into whatsoever city ye enter, and they receive you, eat such things as are set before you: And heal the sick that are therein, and say unto them, The kingdom of God is come nigh unto you. But into whatsoever city ye enter, and they receive you not, go your ways out into the streets of the same, and say, Even the very dust of your city, which cleaveth on us, we do wipe off against you: notwithstanding be ye sure of this, that the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you. But I say unto you, that it shall be more tolerable in that day for Sodom, than for that city” (Luke 10, verses 4 to 12).

The final threat that the evangelist puts in Jesus’ mouth is typical of the revengefulness of the beggar disappointed in his hopes of alms: he would like to see the whole city go up in flames; but the Messiah will take care of that for him.

All the roving penniless agitators of the new organization ranked as apostles, not merely the twelve whose names were handed down as Jesus’ appointed preachers of his word. The already mentioned Didache (Doctrine of the Twelve Apostles) still speaks, in the middle of the second century, of apostles active in the communities.

It was roving “beggars and conspirators” like these, feeling themselves full of the Holy Ghost, that brought the “good tidings”, the Evangel [11] from Jerusalem first to the neighboring Jewish communities and then further and further until they reached Rome. But as soon as the Evangel left the soil of Palestine, it entered an entirely different social milieu and acquired a different character.

There the apostles found along with the members of the Jewish community and in closest relationship with them the “God-fearing” Gentiles (sebomenoi), who worshipped the Jewish God and went to the synagogue, but could not make up their minds to conform to all the Jewish practices. At most they might undergo baptism; but they would not have anything to do with circumcision nor dietary laws, the Sabbath and other externalities, which would have detached them completely from their “pagan” surroundings.

The social content of the Gospel must have found a willing reception in the proletarian groups of such “God-fearing Gentiles”. They in turn carried it on to other non-Jewish proletarian circles, which were fertile soil for the doctrine of the crucified Messiah in so far as that doctrine looked forward to a social overturn and immediate organization of mutual aid institutions. But as for anything specifically Jewish, these groups had an attitude of complete lack of sympathy, even aversion or mockery.

The further the new doctrine spread in the Jewish communities outside of Palestine, the clearer it must have been that it would gain tremendously in propaganda power if it abandoned its Jewish peculiarities, ceased to be national and became exclusively social.

The name of Saul is given as that of the man who first recognized this and took vigorous measures in that direction. He was a Jew who was not of Palestinian origin, according to tradition, but from the Jewish community of a Greek city, Tarsus in Cilicia. An ardent spirit, he flung himself first wholeheartedly into Phariseeism, and as a Pharisee fought the Christian community, which was so close to Zealotism, until finally, the story runs, a vision undeceived him in a flash and sent him to the opposite extreme. He joined the Christian community, but in it he was a subverter of the traditional conception, by insisting on propagandizing the new doctrine among non-Jews and abandoning their conversion to Judaism.

It is characteristic for his tendency that he changed his Hebraic name Saul to the Latin Paul. Such changes of name were frequent among Jews who wanted to advance in non-Jewish circles. If a Manasseh could call himself Menalaus, why not Saul Paul?

We can hardly say what there is in the tale of Paul that has any historical foundation. Here as in every other case that deals with personal occurrences, the New Testament is an unreliable source, full of contradictions and impossible miracle stories. Rut the personal actions of Paul are a secondary matter. What is decisive is the active opposition to the previous conception of Christianity that he personifies. This contradiction arose from the very nature of the situation; it was unavoidable, and no matter how unreliable the Acts of the Apostles may be as to any single happening, the fact of the struggle between the two tendencies can be seen plainly in it. In fact, it is a book written with a definite purpose in mind, that of making propaganda for the Pauline tendency while still seeking to cover up and palliate the contradiction between the two camps.

At first, no doubt, the new tendency must have been modest, demanding nothing but tolerance in some points, which the mother community might indulgently overlook. So at least it would seem from the account in Acts, which it is true painted in bright colors and under the banner of peace something that actually took place in the course of a bitter struggle. [12]

Thus it relates, of the period of Paul’s agitation in Syria:

“And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question. And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles; and they caused great joy unto all the brethren. And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them. But there rose up certain of the sect of Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15, verses 1 to 5).

Now the apostles and elders come together, the party leaders as it were. Peter and James make conciliatory speeches, and finally it is decided to send Judas Barsabas and Silas, likewise “chief men among the brethren”, to Syria to tell the brethren there: “It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication.” The leaders gave up the circumcision of

Gentile proselytes. Charitable work however must not be neglected: “Only they would that we should remember the poor; the same which I also was forward to do,” is how Paul tells it in his Epistle to the Galatians (2, verse 10).

Charity and mutual aid appealed equally to Jewish and Gentile Christians; that was not a moot point. For that reason it is little mentioned in their literature, which is almost exclusively polemical. It is incorrect to conclude from the rarity of these references that it played no part in primitive Christianity; it simply played no part in Christianity’s internal divisions. These continued despite all attempts at conciliation.

Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, previously cited, accuses the defenders of circumcision of being opportunists:

“As many as desire to make a fair show in the flesh, they constrain you to be circumcised; only lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ” (6, verse 12).

After the congress of Jerusalem which we have just mentioned, the Acts have Paul make a propaganda trip through Greece, still preaching to the Gentiles. On his return to Jerusalem, he reports to his comrades on the success of his agitation.

“And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law: And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs” (Acts 21, verses 20f.).

He is now asked to clear himself of the charge and show that he was still a pious Jew. He is willing to do this, but is prevented by an uprising of the Jews against him; they want to kill him as a traitor to their nation. The Roman government takes him into a sort of protective custody and finally sends him to Rome; there he can carry on his agitation unmolested, not as in Jerusalem: “Preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence. no man forbidding him” (Acts 28, verse 31).



The Opposition between Jews and Christians

It was inevitable that the Gentile Christians upheld their view more strongly as the number increased, and that thus the opposition should increase in intensity.

The longer the opposition lasted and the more points of friction there were, the more hostile the two trends must have been toward each other. This was made still worse by the intensification of the contrast between Judaism and the peoples it lived among during the last decades before the destruction of Jerusalem. The proletarian elements in Judaism, especially those of Jerusalem, had a more and more fanatical hatred for the non-Jewish peoples, above all the Romans. The Roman was the worst enemy, the most cruel oppressor and exploiter. The Hellene was his ally. Everything that distinguished the Jew from them was stressed now more than ever before. Those who laid the main emphasis on propaganda within Judaism would be impelled merely by the needs of their agitation to accent the characteristically Jewish and retain all the Jewish precepts, a course to which they already inclined under the influence of their surroundings.

The growth of the Jews’ fanatical hatred for the nations of their oppressors was matched by the growth of aversion and contempt for the Jews among the masses of those nations. This in turn led the Gentile Christians and those who were carrying on agitation among them not merely to demand freedom from the Jewish law for themselves, but to criticize these precepts more and more sharply. The opposition between Jewish and Gentile Christians became, among the latter, more and more an opposition to Judaism itself. However the belief in the Messiah, including the belief in the crucified Messiah, was too organically linked to Judaism for the Gentile Christians simply to reject it out of hand. They took over from the Jews all the Messianic predictions and other supports of the hope for the Messiah, and at the same time became more and more hostile to that very Judaism, adding one more contradiction to the many we have already seen in Christianity.

We have seen the value that the Gospels set on Jesus’ descent from David and what fantastic assumptions they introduced in order to have the Galilean born in Bethlehem. They keep citing passages from the holy books of the Jews to attest the Messianic mission of Jesus. On the other hand they have Jesus protest that he has no intention of doing away with the Jewish law:

“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matthew 5, verses 17f. Cf. Luke 16, verse 16).

Jesus bids his disciples: “Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10, verses 5f.).

Here is a direct prohibition against propaganda outside of Judaism. Jesus expresses himself similarly, in Matthew, although somewhat more mildly, to a Phoenician woman (in Mark a Greek woman, a Syro-Phoenician by birth). She cried to him:

“Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour” (Matthew 15, 22f. cf. Mark 7, 25 ff.).

Here Jesus lets himself be persuaded; but at first he is most ungracious toward the Greek woman, merely because she is not a Jew, even though she calls on him as the son of David, in the sense of the Jewish Messiah cult.

Finally, it is a thoroughly Jewish way of thinking when Jesus promises his apostles that in his future state they shall sit on twelve thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel. This prospect would not seem over-attractive to anyone but a Jew, and indeed a Jew in Judea; it would be worthless for propaganda among the Gentiles.

Although the Gospels preserved such strong remnants of the Jewish Messiah cult, they simultaneously show outcroppings of the aversion to Judaism that inspired their authors and revisers. Jesus is continually warring against all the things that are dear to the pious Jew: the fasts, the dietary laws, the Sabbath. He exalts the Gentiles above the Jews:

“Therefore say I unto you, The Kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof” (Matthew 21, verse 42).

Jesus even goes so far as to curse the Jews:

“Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not: Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shall be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say unto you, that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee” (Matthew 15, verses 20f.).

These words show direct hatred of the Jews. It is no longer a sect within Judaism speaking against other sects of the same nation. Here the Jewish nation as such is branded as morally inferior, as particularly perverse and obdurate.

This appears too in the prophecies as to the destruction of Jerusalem which are put into the mouth of Jesus, but which of course were fabricated after the event.

The Jewish War showed the enemies of Judaism how strong and dangerous it was. This outbreak of fierce desperation brought the opposition between Judaism and the Gentiles to its height; it had something of the effect of the June massacres of 1848 and the Paris Commune on the class hatred between proletariat and bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century. It also deepened the rift between Jewish Christianity and Gentile Christianity, but always tended to cut the ground away from under the feet of the former. The destruction of Jerusalem meant that there was no longer any basis for an independent class movement of the Jewish proletariat. Any such movement presupposes the independence of the nation. After the destruction of Jerusalem Jews existed only in foreign countries, among enemies who hated and persecuted them all, rich and poor alike, and against whom all the Jews had to stand fast together. The charity of the wealthy toward his poor countrymen therefore reached a high point in Judaism; the feeling of national solidarity far outweighed class opposition. Thus Jewish Christianity gradually lost its propaganda power. Afterwards, Christianity became more and more exclusively Gentile Christianity, changing from a party in Judaism to a party outside of Judaism, indeed in opposition to Judaism. More and more, Christian feeling and anti-Jewish feeling tended to become identical concepts.

With the fall of the Jewish commonwealth, the Jewish-national hopes for the Messiah lost their basis. They could still persist a few decades, still produce some death-twitches, but as an effective factor in the political and social development, the annihilation of the Jewish capital had been their death-blow.

This was not the case for the Messianic hopes of the Gentile Christians. The idea of the Messiah kept its vitality only in the form of the crucified Messiah, only in the form of the extra-Jewish Messiah, the Messiah translated into Greek, the Christ.

In fact the Christians were able to transform the gruesome event that signified the utter destruction of the Jewish expectation of the Messiah into a triumph of their Christ. Jerusalem now appeared as the enemy of Christ, and Jerusalem’s destruction as Christ’s vengeance on Judaism, as a fearful proof of his victorious might.

Luke says of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem:

“And when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it, Saying, if thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things that belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes. For the days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and keep thee in on every side, And shall lay thee even with the ground, and thy children within thee; and they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another; because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation” (Luke 19, 41f.).

Thereafter Jesus declares that the days of the crushing of Jerusalem, that will bring destruction even to “them that are with child, and to them that give suck,” are “days of vengeance” (Luke 21, 22).

The September slaughters of the French Revolution, which were not revenge on suckling babies, but protection against a cruel enemy, are pleasant things compared to this verdict of the good shepherd.

The destruction of Jerusalem had still other consequences for Christian thought. We have already pointed out how Christianity, which had hitherto been violent, now took on a peaceful character. The only place where there had been a strong democracy at the beginning of the Empire had been among the Jews. The other nations of the Empire no longer had any fight left in them, and even their proletarians were cowardly. The destruction of Jerusalem stifled the last popular force in the Empire; any rebellion was hopeless from that point on. Christianity became more and more exclusively Gentile Christianity, becoming subservient and even servile in the process.

The Romans ruled in the Empire, and the primary task was to show oneself obsequious to them. The first Christians had been Jewish patriots and enemies of all alien rule and exploitation; the Gentile Christians added to their anti-Semitism devotion to Rome and the imperial throne. This can be seen in the Gospels as well. There is the well-known story of the agents provocateurs sent to Christ by the “chief priests and the scribes,” to trick him into a treasonable utterance:

“And they watched him, and sent forth spies, which should feign themselves just men [that is, comrades of Jesus], that they might take hold of his words, that so they might deliver him unto the power and authority of the governor. And they asked him, saying, Master, we know that thou sayest and teachest rightly, neither acceptest thou the person of any, but teachest the way of God truly: Is it lawful for us to give tribute unto Caesar, or no? But he perceived their craftiness, and said unto them, Why tempt ye me? Show me a penny. Whose image and superscription hath it? They answered and said, Caesar’s. And he said unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s” (Luke 20, verses 20f.).

Jesus here elaborates a splendid theory of money and taxes. The coin belongs to the man whose image and superscription it bears. Paying taxes is only giving the emperor his own money back.

The same spirit pervades the writings of the champions of the Gentile Christian propaganda, as in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (13. verse 1f.):

“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation ... for he [the ruler] beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.”

How far this is already from that Jesus who bids his disciples buy swords, and preached the hatred of the rich and powerful; how far from that Christianity that in the Revelation of John bitterly curses Rome and the kings bound up with it: “Babylon the great is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird. For all nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth are waxed rich through the abundance of her delicacies....And the kings of the earth, who have committed fornication and lived deliciously with her, shall bewail her, and lament for her, when they shall see the smoke of her burning” (18, verses 2f.).

The basic theme of Acts is emphasis on the hostility of Judaism to the doctrine of the crucified Messiah, and on an alleged receptiveness to this doctrine on the part of the Romans. Something that Christianity either desired or imagined after the fail of Jerusalem is represented as a fact in Acts. According to this book, Christian propaganda in Jerusalem was more and more suppressed by the Jews; the Jews persecute and stone the Christians wherever they can, while the Roman authorities protect them. We have seen Paul telling that he was gravely menaced in Jerusalem, but could speak freely in Rome without hindrance. Freedom in Rome, forcible suppression in Jerusalem!

Anti-Semitism and flattery of the Romans are most apparent in the story of the Passion, the story of the suffering and death of Christ. In it we can clearly trace how the original content of the tale was changed into its contrary under the influence of the new tendencies.

Since the story of the Passion is the most important part of the Gospel story, the only part with respect to which we can pretend to speak in historical terms, and since it is such a clear embodiment of the way in which the first Christians wrote history, we shall now go into it intensively.



11. From eu, well, bringing good luck, and angello, announce, report.

12. Cf. Bruno Bauer, Die Apostelgeschichte, eine Ausgleichung des Paulinismus und des Judentums innerhalb der christlicher Kirche, 1850.


Last updated on 24.12.2003