Karl Kautsky

Foundations of Christianity

Book Four: The Beginnings of Christianity

V. The Development of the Christian Community

Proletarians and Slaves

WE HAVE SEEN that some elements of Christianity, such as monotheism, Messianism, belief in resurrection and Essenian communism arose within Judaism, and that a part of the lower classes of that nation saw their longings and wishes best expressed in the combination of those elements. We saw further that all through the social organism of the Roman world empire conditions prevailed which tended to make it more receptive, particularly in its proletarian parts, to the new trends stemming from Judaism, but that these currents not only broke away from Judaism as soon as they came under the influence of the non-Jewish milieu, but were even directly hostile to it. They now merged with currents in the dying Greco-Roman world which changed the spirit of strong national democracy that prevailed in Judaism up to the destruction of Jerusalem into its complete opposite, replacing it with spineless submission, servility and longing for death.

As the current of thought was thus changing, the organization of the Christian community too was undergoing a deep transformation.

At first the community had been permeated by an energetic though vague communism, an aversion to all private property, a drive toward a new and better social order, in which all class differences should be smoothed out by division of possessions.

The Christian community was indeed originally a fighting organization, if our hypothesis is correct that the various violent passages of the Gospels, which are otherwise inexplicable, are remnants of the original tradition. That would also be in complete accord with the historical situation of the Jewish commonwealth of that time.

It would be quite incredible that a proletarian sect should be unaffected by the general revolutionary state of mind.

Hope for the revolution, for the coming of the Messiah, for social change permeated all the first Christian organizations in Judaism at any rate. Care for the present, that is practical work on a small scale, was far in the background.

This state of affairs changed after the destruction of Jerusalem. The elements that had given the Messianic community a rebellious character had lost, and the Messianic community became more and more an anti-Jewish community within the non-Jewish proletariat, which neither could nor wanted to fight. The longer the community lasted, the clearer it became that they could no longer count on the fulfillment of the prophecy, still to be found in the Gospels, that the contemporaries of Jesus would live to see the revolution. Confidence in the coming of the “Kingdom of God” here below faded; the Kingdom of God, that was to have descended from heaven to earth, was transferred more and more to heaven; the resurrection of the body was transformed into immortality of the soul, for which the bliss of heaven or the tortures of hell were reserved.

The more the Messianic expectation of the future took on these celestial forms, becoming politically conservative or indifferent, the more practical care for the present came to the fore.

And the practice of communism changed in the same degree in which revolutionary enthusiasm waned.

That practice had risen originally from an energetic though vague drive toward the abolition of all private property, a drive to relieve the property of the comrades by making all property common.

However, it has already been pointed out that the Christian communities, unlike Essenianism, were originally urban, in fact chiefly metropolitan, and that this hindered them from making their communism something complete and lasting.

Among Essenes as among Christians communism started as a communism of the means of enjoyment, as consumers’ communism. Now in agriculture even today consumption and production are closely linked; and then even more so. Production was production for one’s own consumption not for the market; planting, cattle-raising and housekeeping were intertwined. Moreover large farms were quite possible, and even at that time superior to small-scale farming to the extent that they could have greater division of labor and make better use of buildings and equipment. It is true that these advantages were more than overbalanced by the drawbacks of slave labor. However, although cultivation by slaves was then by far the most common form of large-scale agriculture, it was not the only one possible. Large farms of extended peasant families already occur at the beginning of agricultural development. And it would seem that the Essenes too instituted large scale agriculture by comradely families in places where they formed great monastery-like settlements in the rural solitude, like the one on the Dead Sea, of which Pliny tells us (Natural History, Book 5) that they “lived in the society of the palm trees”.

However, the mode of production is in the last analysis always the decisive factor in any social formation. Only those formations that are based on the mode of production are strong and endure.

Although social or comradely agriculture was possible at the time of the origin of Christianity, the conditions for comradely city industry were absent. The workers in urban industry were either slaves or free workers at home. Large enterprises with free workers, like the extended peasant family, were virtually unknown in the cities. Slaves, workers at home, porters, and then peddlers, small shopkeepers, lumpenproletarians – such were the lower classes of the urban population of that time that might be the soil in which communistic tendencies might grow. In all these there was no factor at work that was capable of extending community of goods into a community of production. It was limited from the outset to a community of consumption, and essentially only a community of meals. Clothing and shelter did not play a large role in the birthplace of Christianity, or in Southern and Central Italy. Even so far-reaching a communism as that of the Essenes had only hints of a community of clothing; private property can not be eliminated in this domain. Common dwellings were hard to manage in the metropolis, since the workrooms of the individual comrades might be far apart and there was so much speculation in housing, making large sums of money necessary for the purchase of a house in the days of early Christianity. The lack of means of communication forced the inhabitants of large cities together into confined spaces and made the owners of this land absolute masters of the tenants, who were thoroughly fleeced. The houses were built as high as the technology of the time allowed, seven stories high in Rome or even more, and rents were forced up to incredible heights. This made housing usury a favorite form of investment for the capitalists of the time. Crassus, one of the triumvirate that bought up the Roman republic, had become rich primarily through speculation in housing.

The proletarians of the metropolis could not compete in this field. This alone made it impossible for them to institute a dwelling community. In addition, the Christian community could only exist as a secret league under the suspicious imperial government, and common dwellings would have made them easier to discover.

Thus, Christian communism could only appear in the form of common meals, as a lasting general institution for all the comrades.

The Gospels hardly mention anything beyond meals in common in speaking of the “kingdom of God,” that is the future state. It is the only blessedness that is looked forward to; obviously, it was the one closest to the hearts of the early Christians.

This sort of practical communism was important for the free proletarians, but meant little to the slaves who as a rule belonged in the houses of their masters and were fed there, often poorly enough. Few slaves lived outside the master’s household, for example those who kept shops in the city to sell the products of their masters’ estates.

The most attractive feature for the slaves must have been the hope of the Messiah, the prospect of a kingdom of universal happiness, much more so than the practice of a communism that was possible only in forms that had little significance for them so long as they remained slaves.

We do not know what the first Christians thought of slavery. The Essenes condemned it, as we have seen. Philo tells us: “Nobody is a slave among them, but all are free, one working for the other. They hold that owning slaves is not only unjust and impious, but godless as well, a violation of the order of nature, which produced all equal ... as brothers.”

It is likely that the proletarians of the Messiah community in Jerusalem thought likewise.

But with the destruction of Jerusalem the prospects of a social revolution disappeared. The spokesmen for the Christian communities, so anxiously concerned with avoiding any suspicion of opposition to the powers that were, must also have tried to calm down any rebellious slaves there might have been in their ranks.

Thus the author of Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians (as we have it, a “revision” or forgery of the second century) says to the slaves: “Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God” (3, verse 22).

Even stronger language is used by the writer of the first Epistle of Peter (apparently composed in the reign of Trajan): “Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the forward. [15] For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God” (2, verses 18f.).

In fact, the budding Christian opportunism of the second century could reconcile itself to the fact that Christian masters should own brothers of the community as slaves, as Paul’s first letter to Timothy proves: “Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honour, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed. And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren; but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit” [16] (6, verse 1f.).

Nothing is more erroneous than the notion that Christianity did away with slavery; rather, it gave it fresh support. Antiquity kept slaves obedient only through fear. Christianity was the first to raise the spineless obedience of the slave to a moral duty, something to be performed with gladness.

Christianity, at least after it had ceased to be revolutionary, no longer held out the prospect of emancipation to the slave. Moreover, its practical communism seldom offered the slave any real advantages. The only thing that still might attract him was equality “before God,” that is within the community, where every comrade was to be of equal value, where the slave could come to sit at the common love-feast alongside his master, if the latter also belonged to the community.

Callixtus, Christian slave of a Christian freedman, even became bishop of Rome (217-222).

But this kind of equality too no longer had much meaning. We need only recall how close the free proletariat had come to the status of the slaves, from whom it was often recruited; and now on the other hand the slaves of the imperial household could climb to high office in the state and often be fawned on even by aristocrats.

The fact that Christianity, for all its communism and all its proletarian feeling, could not do away with slavery even within its own ranks shows how deep its roots were in “pagan” antiquity, and how much ethics stands under the influence of the mode of production. Just as the human rights of the American Declaration of Independence made their peace with slavery, so did the all embracing brotherhood and love of neighbor, and equality of all before God of the Messianic community. Christianity from the outset was primarily a religion of the free proletariat; and despite all the convergence of the two there always remained in antiquity some difference of interests between them and the slaves.

From the beginning the free proletarians predominated in the Christian community, so that the interests of the slaves were not always fully considered. That in turn must have helped to make the attraction of the community less for slaves than for the free proletariat, and strengthened the relative weight of the latter still more.

Economic developments worked in the same direction. Just at the time that gave the death-blow to the revolutionary tendencies within the Christian community, that is from the fall of Jerusalem on, a new era began for the Roman Empire, an era of universal peace-internal peace, and still more of external peace, for the expansive power of Roman power was gone. But war, civil war as well as wars of conquest, had been the means by which cheap slaves were supplied; that came to an end now. Slaves became rare and expensive; slave economy was no longer profitable, being replaced by the colonate in agriculture and by the labor of free workers in urban industry. The slave became less and less an instrument of the production of necessities and more and more an instrument of luxury. Personal services to the noble and the rich now became the chief function of slaves. The spirit of the slave became more and more identical with the spirit of the lackey. The days of Spartacus were over.

The opposition between slave and free proletarian must have been more acute on this account; and at the same time the number of slaves decreased while the number of free proletarians in the large cities grew. Both trends must have tended to reduce the influence of the slave element in the Christian community still further. No wonder that in the end Christianity had nothing left for the slaves.

This development is thoroughly understandable if we see in Christianity the precipitate of special class interests; it is inexplicable if we see it as a purely ideal formation. For the logical development of its basic ideas would have had to lead to the abolition of slavery; but all through history logic has always been brought up short by class interests.



The Decline of Communism

Acceptance of slavery, along with increasing restriction of the community of property to common meals, were not the only limitations the Christian community encountered in its effort to put its communistic tendencies into effect.

These tendencies required that every member of the community sell all he possessed and put the money at the disposal of the community for distribution to the comrades.

It is clear from the very beginning that any such procedure could not have been carried out on a large scale. It presupposed that at least half of society should remain unbelieving, for otherwise there would have been no one to buy the belongings of the faithful, nor any one from whom to buy the foodstuffs the faithful needed.

If the faithful wished to live by distributing rather than producing, there would always have to be enough unbelievers left to produce for the faithful. But even in this case the glory was in danger of a sorry end as soon as the faithful had sold, distributed and eaten up all their possessions. It is true that by that time the Messiah should have come down from the clouds and helped them over all the difficulties of “the flesh”.

This never came to the test, however.

The number of the comrades that owned anything that would have been worth selling and distributing, was very small at the beginnings of the community. They could not live on that. The only way they could get a steady income was for each member to turn in his daily earnings to the community. Insofar as the comrades were not mere beggars or porters, they needed some property, however, in order to earn anything, property in means of production as weavers or potters or smiths, or in stocks of goods to sell as shopkeepers or peddlers.

Since, under the existing conditions, the community could not do like the Essenes and set up common workshops to produce what they required for themselves, since, that is, they could not emerge from the domain of commodity production and individual production, their communism had to adjust to private property in means of production and trading stocks.

Acceptance of the individual enterprise necessarily entailed acceptance of the separate household connected with it, the separate family and marriage, despite their common meals.

Here we come once more to meals in common as the practical upshot of their communistic tendencies.

It was not the only result. The proletarians had got together to face their poverty with united forces. If difficulties arose that prevented them from realizing complete communism, they felt all the more impelled to build up the mutual aid system to bring help to the individual in cases of unusual necessity.

The Christian communities were connected with each other. If a comrade came in from some other point, the community got him work, if he wanted to stay, or gave him travelling expenses, if he wanted to push on.

If a comrade fell sick, the community took care of him. If he died, they buried him at their expense and looked after his widow and children; if he got into jail, as was often enough the case, it was once more the community that gave him comfort and help.

The Christian proletarian organization thus made a set of functions for itself more or less corresponding to the insurance aspects of a modern trade union. In the Gospels, the practice of this mutual insurance association is what gives one a claim to eternal life. When the Messiah comes, he will divide men up into those that will have a share in the glory of the future state and eternal life, and those that will be condemned to eternal damnation. To the first, the sheep, the King will say:

“Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.”

The righteous will then answer that they had never done any such things for the King. “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25, verses 34f.).

The common meals and mutual aid organization at any rate were the solid bond of the Christian community to hold its masses permanently together.

Yet it was precisely out of the performance of these mutual aids that a motive would arise that weakened and broke up the original communistic drive.

As the expectation of the Messiah lessened, it seemed more and more important to the community to obtain the means to operate the mutual aid machinery, the more the proletarian character of the Christian propaganda was undermined and the more the attempt was made to attract prosperous comrades, whose money could be put to good use.

The more money the community needed, the more strenuously its agitators exerted themselves to show rich sympathizers how vain treasures of gold and silver were, how worthless compared to the bliss of eternal life, which the rich could gain only by disposing of their possessions. And their preaching was not to go without success in that period of general moral depression, especially among the wealthy classes. How many there were who were disgusted with all enjoyment after a dissipated and profligate youth! After they had run through all the sensations that money could buy, there was only sensation left, that of being without money.

Down into the middle ages we keep coming from time to time upon rich people who give all their possessions to the poor and lead the life of a beggar – for the most part, after having tasted lavishly of all the world’s delights.

Nevertheless, the appearance of such people was a stroke of good luck that did not occur as often as the community needed it. As poverty increased in the Empire and the number of lumpenproletarians grew larger, the greater was the need to attract rich people to meet the needs of the community.

It was an easier task to persuade a rich man to leave his whole fortune to the community for charitable purposes after his death, than getting him to give it away during his lifetime. Childlessness was widespread at that time, and family ties very weak; the urge to leave one’s inheritance to relatives was often small indeed. Again, interest in one’s own personality, individualism, had reached a high point; desire for continued life of the personality after death, and happy life at that, was highly developed.

Christian doctrine came more than halfway to meet this desire; a convenient method of assuring eternal blissful life without stinting oneself in the earthly life was open to the rich man, if he gave his property away when he did not need it any more, after his death. With his inheritance, which he did not know what to do with in any case, he could now purchase eternal bliss.

While the Christian agitators impressed the young and passionate rich men through the revulsion they felt for the life they had led, they impressed the old and tired rich through their fear of death and the torments of Hell facing them. From that time down to the present inheritance-hunting has been a favored means of Christian agitators to bring new fodder to the good stomach of the church.

In the first centuries of the community, however, the supply of rich inheritances was meager, and the more so in that the community, being a secret league, was not a juristic person and thus could not inherit directly.

The effort was accordingly made to get the rich to support the community even during their lifetimes, even if they would not consent to carry out strictly the command of the Lord to distribute among the poor everything they possessed. We have seen that at that time generosity was very common among the rich, since accumulation of capital did not yet play any role in the mode of production. The community could profit by the generosity and derive a steady income from it, if it could only succeed in arousing the interest and sympathy of the rich for the community. As the community ceased to be a fighting organization and charities came more and more to the fore within it, the stronger were its tendencies to temper its original proletarian hatred against the rich and to make staying in the community attractive to the rich, even if they stayed rich and held on to their money.

The world view of the community – abandonment of the old gods, monotheism, belief in resurrection, expectation of a savior – these were all things, we have seen, that corresponded to the general desires of the time and must have made the Christian doctrine welcome even in high circles.

Moreover, in view of the growing distress of the masses, the rich looked for ways of checking it, as the foundations of orphanages prove; for this distress menaced all of society. This too must have made them more sympathetic to the Christian organizations.

Finally, popularity-seeking was also an element in getting support for the Christian communities, at least wherever those communities had got influence over an important fraction of the population.

This lent the Christian community an attraction even for those rich people who had not come to escape from the world or from desperation, and were driven to promise their heritages out of fear of death and terror of the torments of Hell.

However, if rich people were to feel at home in the community, it would have to change its character completely, and give up its class hatred against the rich.

How painful this effort to attract the rich and make concessions to them was to proletarian fighters in the community is seen by the previously mentioned letter of James to the twelve tribes in the Diaspora in the middle of the second century. He warns the comrades:

“For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts? ... ye have despised the poor ... if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin” (2, verses 2 to 9).

Then he turns against the tendency to require the rich only to accept the creed in theory and not give up their money:

“What does it profit, my brethren, though a man say he have faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; nowithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone” (2, verses 14 to 17).

The foundation of the organization was to be sure not changed by respect of the rich. It remained the same in theory and in practice. But the duty to contribute everything one owned to the community was replaced by a voluntary contribution, often of only a small part.

The Apologeticus of Tertullian is somewhat later than the Epistle of James; it dates from the end of the second century. In it too the organization of the community is depicted:

“If we too have a sort of fund, it is not built up by any kind of admission fee, which would be a sort of sale of religion, but each makes a reasonable gift on a fixed day of the month or when and as much as he can and will; for nobody is forced, but each man gives willingly. These are also the pence of charity; for none of it goes to feasting and drinking or useless gluttony, but to sup port and bury the poor, to help destitute orphan boys and girls, as well as house-ridden old people and the shipwrecked, or people who are in the mines, the islands or in prison only for belonging to the fellowship of God-these are entitled to be cared for because of their beliefs.”

He continues: “We, knowing ourselves joined together in heart and soul, have no reservations as to community of goods: everything is in common with us, except the women; for community stops with us in the only place that others practice it.” [17]

In theory, therefore, communism was maintained, only seeming to lose some of its rigor in practice. Rut as the wealthy were taken more and more into consideration, the entire nature of the community changed imperceptibly; for formerly it had been based exclusively on proletarian conditions. Not only must those elements that favored winning rich members have worked against class hatred in the community, but the inner procedures of the community must often have taken a different form now.

Despite all the qualifications that communism had undergone, the common meal had remained the firm bond that kept all the fellows together. The arrangements for support applied only to isolated cases of distress, which to be sure might strike anyone. The common meal satisfied the daily need of all. At it the whole community gathered together; it was the center around which the whole community revolved.

The common meal, however, as a meal, had no point for the prosperous comrades. They ate and drank better and more conveniently at home. The simple, often coarse fare must have repelled jaded palates. If they took part in it, they came only to share in the community life, not to eat their fill. What for the others was the satisfaction of a bodily need was for them only the satisfaction of a spiritual need, partaking of bread and wine was a purely symbolic action. The more wealthy people there were in the community, the greater the number of those elements at the common meals who came only for the assembly and its symbols, not for meat and drink. So in the second century the actual common meals for the poorer members were separated from the merely symbolical meals for the whole community, and in the fourth century, after the church had become the dominant power in the state, the first kind of meals were crowded out of the assembly houses of the community, the churches. The common meals decayed further and in the next century were abolished completely. With that the most prominent feature of practical communism disappeared from the Christian community, and was replaced by charity, care for the poor and the sick, which has come down to our time, in a stunted form to be sure.

There was now nothing left in the community that could displease the rich. It was no longer a proletarian institution. The rich, who originally, if they failed to share their property with the poor, had been completely excluded from the “kingdom of God”, were now able to play the same role in that realm as in the “world of the devil,” and they made full use of the possibility.

But not only were the old class oppositions duplicated in the Christian community: a new ruling class grew up in it, a new bureaucracy and a new chief, the bishop, whom we shall soon meet.

It was the Christian community, not Christian communism, to which the Roman emperors finally bowed. The victory of Christianity did not denote the dictatorship of the proletariat, but the dictatorship of the gentlemen who had grown big in their community.

The champions and martyrs of the early communities, who had devoted their possessions, their labor, their lives for the salvation of the poor and miserable, had only laid the groundwork for a new kind of subjection and exploitation.



Apostles, Prophets and Teachers

Originally there were no officers in the community and no distinctions among the comrades. Every man and even every woman could come forward as teacher and agitator upon feeling the capacity to do so. Each one spoke as he thought, from the heart, or as they said then, as the spirit moved him. Most of the members of course continued to practice their trades, but those who won especial prestige gave away what they had and devoted themselves entirely to agitation as apostles or prophets. Out of this arose a new class difference.

Two classes took form now within the Christian community: the ordinary members, whose practical communism extended only to the common meals and charitable institutions that the community carried on: finding jobs, support of widows and orphans and prisoners, sickness insurance, burial fund. But there were also the “saints” or “perfect ones,” who carried communism out radically, renouncing all possessions and individual marriage, and giving all they possessed to the community.

That made a fine impression and, as their mere titles show, these radical elements won a high position in the community. They felt themselves elevated above the ordinary comrades and acted like a select leadership.

Thus it was radical communism itself that give birth to a new aristocracy.

Like any aristocracy it did not limit itself to taking command over the rest of the community; it also tried to exploit it.

After all, what were the “saints” to live on if they had given away all the means of production and stocks of goods they possessed? They had nothing left but occasional employment as porters or messengers and so forth – or begging.

The first thing to come to mind would be to get a living by begging from the comrades and the community itself, who could not let a man or woman of merit go hungry, especially when the meritorious member possessed propagandistic gifts, gifts which at that time to be sure did not require any hard-learned knowledge, but only temperament, ingenuity and combativeness.

Paul was already quarreling with the Corinthians over the duty of the community to relieve him and the other apostles of manual labor and to support him:

“Am I not an apostle? am I not free? have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? are not ye my work in the Lord? ... Have we not power to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles, and as the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas? Or I only and Barnabas, have not we power to forbear working? ... who feedeth a flock, and eateth not of the milk of the flock? ... For it is written in the law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen? Or saith he it altogether for our sakes?”

By the ox that treadeth out the corn God means us, Paul explains. Naturally, it is not a case of oxen that are threshing empty straw. The apostle continues:

“If we have sown unto you spiritual thing, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things? If others be partakers of this power over you, are not we rather?” (I Corinthians 9, verses 1 to 12).

The last sentence, it may be noted in passing, hints at the communistic nature of the first Christian communities.

After this brief for taking good care of the apostles, Paul remarks that he is not speaking for himself, but for others; he asks nothing of the Corinthians. He lets himself be kept by other communities: “I robbed other churches, taking wages of them, to do you service ... that which was lacking to me the brethren which came from Macedonia supplied” (II Corinthians 11, verses 8f.).

This of course does not alter the fact that Paul stressed the obligation of the community to care for its “saints,” who recognized no obligation to work.

The impression this sort of Christian communism made on the unbelievers is shown by the story of Peregrinus Proteus, written by Lucian in 165. The satirist is not an impartial witness, of course; he retails highly improbable malicious gossip, as when he claims that Peregrinus left his native city of Parium on the Hellespont because he had killed his father. Since no prosecution ensued, the event is doubtful to say the least.

But making all necessary reservations, there is still enough left in Lucian’s report to be worth attention, for it not only shows how the Christian community appeared to the Gentiles, but also gives glimpses of their actual life.

After Lucian has said a number of unpleasant things about Peregrinus, he relates how the latter exiled himself after the murder of his father and roamed the world as a vagabond:

“At this time he also became acquainted with the remarkable wisdom of the Christians by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine. Compared to him they soon turned out to be like little children, and he became their prophet, presided at their love-feasts (thasiarches), president of the synagogue [Lucian lumps Jews and Christians together – K.K.], all in one; he explained and commented some writings to them; others he made up; in a word, they considered him a god, made him their lawgiver and named him their president. They still to be sure worship that great man, the one crucified in Palestine, because he introduced this new religion into the world. [18] For this reason Peregrinus was arrested then thrown into prison, which gave him a great reputation for the rest of his life, his cunning and ambition, which were his dominant passions.

“As he lay in jail, the Christians, who thought it a catastrophe, moved heaven and earth to help him escape. When they gave that up as impossible, they showered him with every conceivable attention and care. From early morning on old women, widows and orphans could be seen sitting outside the prison, while their leaders bribed the guards and passed the night with him. All sorts of dishes were brought in to him, they related their holy legends to each other, and Peregrinus the Good, as he was now called, was a new Socrates to them. Delegates even came from Christian communities in the cities of Asia to give him support, stand by him in court and comfort him. In cases such as this, which concerned their community, they show an incredible zeal, sparing nothing. Peregrinus also got much money from them on account of his imprisonment, and profited greatly thereby.

“For the poor fools live in the conviction that they will be quite immortal and live for ever, and on that account despise death and often seek it out of their own will. Moreover, their first legislator convinced them that they would all be brothers, once they had abjured the Greek gods, prayed to that crucified teacher (sophistes) of theirs and lived according to his laws; hence they thought equally little of all things and considered them as held in common, with no good reason for this outlook. Now if a shrewd scoundrel comes to them, one who knows how to take advantage of this situation, in a little while he will become very rich among them, because he will be able to lead the simple folk around by the nose.”

This is of course not to be accepted literally. It is on a level with the myths about the riches that the agitators of social democracy pile up out of the workers’ pennies. The Christian community would have to become richer than it was then for anyone to be able to get rich out of it. But it is quite probable that they looked carefully after their agitators and organizers, and that unscrupulous sharpers could take advantage of the system. A notable feature is the testimony to the communism of the community.

Lucian continues, saying that the governor of Syria releases Peregrinus as insignificant. Peregrinus then went back to his native city, where he found his father’s inheritance well shrunk. There was still a considerable sum left, which seemed enormous to his supporters, and that even Lucian, who wishes him no good, sets at fifteen talents ($18,000). He gave this to the population of his city, Lucian says, to buy his way out of the accusation of parricide.

“He got up to speak in the popular assembly of the Parians. He already had long hair, wore a dirty cloak, had a scrip hanging from his shoulder and a staff in his hand, and in general was theatrically got up. In this costume he appeared before them and said that all the property that his blessed father had left was the property of the people. When the people heard this, poor devils whose mouth was watering for the division, they shouted that he was the only friend of wisdom and his country, the only follower of Diogenes and Crates. His enemies were muzzled, and if anyone had dared to recall the murder, he would have been struck down on the spot.

“He now set out as a vagabond for the second time, abundantly provided with travelling expenses by the Christians, who followed him everywhere and saw to it that he wanted for nothing. In this way he got by for a time.” [19]

Finally however he was expelled from the community, allegedly for having eaten forbidden foods. This deprived him of his livelihood, and he now tried, but in vain, to get his property back. He now went through Egypt, Italy and Greece as an ascetic Cynic philosopher, and finally at the Olympic games put an end to his life in a theatrical manner, before an audience invited to witness the act, by jumping into a funeral pyre at midnight by the light of the moon.

We see that the period in which Christianity arose produced queer creatures. However, it would be unjust to men like Peregrinus to think of them only as swindlers. His voluntary death is against that. To use suicide as a means of advertisement requires infinite vanity and sensation-seeking, and a little contempt for the world and weariness of life, or insanity.

The Peregrinus Proteus that Lucian paints may not have been a genuine portrait but a caricature; still, it is a work of genius.

The essence of caricature is not mere distortion of the subject, but one-sided emphasis and exaggeration of its characteristic and decisive features. The true caricaturist can not be a mere grotesque buffoon; he has to see into things and recognize what is essential and significant about them.

Lucian too has brought out those aspects of Peregrinus that were to be of importance for the whole class of “holy and perfect” men that Peregrinus represented. They may have been impelled by the most diverse motives, partly sublime, partly insane, and may have thought of themselves as extremely unselfish, and yet their relationship to the community contained the germs of the exploitation that Lucian saw. The enrichment of the penniless “saints” by the community communism may still have been an exaggeration in those days, but it soon became a reality, and finally such a reality that it went far beyond the satirist’s crudest exaggerations.

Lucian stresses the “wealth” that the prophets obtained; an. other pagan, a contemporary of Lucian, derided their folly.

Celsus described “how prophecy is done in Phoenicia and Palestine”:

“There are many who, although they are men without name or reputation, act freely and on the slightest provocation as if they had prophetic ecstasies, both in sacred matters and elsewhere; others wander about as beggars in cities and camps, presenting the same spectacle. On the lips of each one of them the words come freely, ‘I am God’, or ‘God’s Son’, or ‘God’s Spirit’. ‘I have come, for the end of the world is in sight, and you men are going to destruction for your injustices. But I will save you, and you will soon see me come again with celestial power! Blessed is he that honors me now! I will give all the rest to the eternal fire, cities as well as countries and men. Those who now refuse to recognize the judgment that awaits them will then be of a different mind, and sigh, but in vain! But those that believed in me, those will I keep forever!’ They intersperse these high-sounding threats with strange, half-crazy and absolutely incomprehensible words, so obscure and meaningless that no one can make sense of them, no matter how ingenious he is; but any fathead or loafer can interpret them as he pleases ... These pretended prophets, whom I have heard with my own ears more than once, I have argued with, and they have confessed their weaknesses and admitted that they invented their unintelligible words themselves.” [20]

Here again we have the agreeable mixture of swindler and prophet; but here too we should be going too far if we saw the whole thing merely as a swindle. All it proves is a general state of mind among the people that gave swindlers a fertile field to operate in, but that must also have aroused genuine enthusiasm and ecstasy in excitable minds.

Apostles and prophets must have been alike in this respect. There was one essential difference between them: the apostles had no fixed residence but moved around constantly (hence their name, apostolos, messenger, traveller, seafarer); the prophets were the local worthies.

The apostolate must have been the first to develop. So long as a community was small, it could not maintain a permanent agitator. As soon as they had exhausted their available resources, he had to go further. And so long as the number of communities was small, the most important objective was to establish new communities in cities that as yet had none. Extending the organization to new areas which it had not yet reached, and maintaining connections between them, were the chief tasks of these wandering agitators, the apostles. It is to them above all that the Christian organization owes its international nature, which contributed so much to keeping it alive. A local organization might be wiped out if it stood by itself; but the government hardly had means at that time to enable it to persecute all the Christian communities front one end of the Empire to the other. There always were some left to give material help to the persecuted and serve as places of refuge for them.

This was the work primarly of the roving apostles, who must have been fairly numerous at times.

Local agitators, devoting themselves exclusively to agitation, could only appear when some communities had become so large that their means allowed them to support such agitators.

As there came to be more and more cities with Christian communities, and the communities grew larger, the prophets flourished and the field of the apostles’ activity dwindled, since they had operated chiefly in cities in which the communities were small or non-existent. The prestige of the apostles had to decline.

There must also have arisen a certain opposition between them and the prophets. For, the communities had limited means. The more the apostles got, the less there was for the prophets. The latter must therefore have tried to lower the already declining prestige of the apostles, to limit the gifts made to them and on the other hand to raise their own prestige and establish fixed claims to the gifts of the believers.

These efforts come to light very well in the Doctrine of the Twelve Apostles (Didache), which we have often cited, a work composed between 135 and 170. It says:

“Every apostle that comes to you shall be received like the Lord. But he will stay no longer than one day, or a second day if necessary. If he stays three days, however, he is a false prophet. When the apostle leaves, he shall receive no more than enough bread to get him to his next sleeping place. If he asks for money, he is a false prophet.

“Every prophet who speaks with the spirit is not to be examined or tested; for any sin can be forgiven, but this sin is not forgiven. But not everyone who speaks with the spirit is a prophet, but only if he acts like the Lord; the prophet and the false prophet can therefore be told apart by their actions. And no prophet who, driven by the Holy Ghost, makes a feast (for the poor. – Harnack) eats of it; such a one is a false prophet. Any prophet who teaches the truth, if he does not do as he teaches, is a false prophet. But every prophet, tried and true, who acts with a view to the earthly secret of the church, yet does not preach that all should do as he does, shall not be judged by you; for he has his judgment in God; just so did the old [Christian] prophets act.”

We have already seen that this passage probably refers to the free love that should be permitted the prophets, if they do not call on the community to imitate their example.

The book goes on:

“But he who says in the name of the spirit: give me money or something else, hear him not; but if he asks gifts for other needy persons, no one shall condemn him.

“Let everyone who comes in the name of the Lord [i.e., every comrade – K.K.] be received; but then you shall test him and distinguish the true from the false, for you must have insight. If the newcomer is a traveler, help him; but he should not stay more than two or three days with you, if it is necessary. If he wants to settle among you, let him work and eat, if he is a craftsman. If he has no trade, see to it with care that no Christian lives among you as an idler. If he will not be governed in that sense, he is one who wants to gain by Christ. Keep far from such a one.”

Thus it already seemed necessary to take precautions against having the community overrun and exploited by itinerant beggars. This was only to apply to ordinary beggars, however:

“But every true prophet that will settle down with you is worth his keep. A true teacher is worth his keep like every worker. Thou shalt take all the first fruit of wine-press and threshing-floor, of cattle and sheep, and give them to the prophets, for they are your high priests. But if you have no prophet, give them to the poor. When you prepare dough, take the first of it and give it to the prophets. Likewise, when you open a cask of oil or wine, give the first of it to the prophets. Take the first fruits of money and clothing and all kinds of belongings according to your measure and give it according to the commandment.”

The apostles come off badly in these regulations. They could not yet be suppressed out of hand. But the community in which they appear is to pack them off as soon as possible. The ordinary roving comrade has a right to be supported for two or three days by the community, but the apostle, poor devil, only for one or two days. And of money he must take none at all.

The prophet however is “worth his keep”! He must be supported from the community purse. In addition the faithful are obliged to give him all the first fruits of wine and bread and meat, of oil and clothing, even of money income.

That fits well with the picture Lucian gives of the comfortable life of Peregrinus, who gave himself out to be a prophet, just at the time the Didache was being written.

While the prophets were thus getting the better of the apostles, new competition for them arose in the form of the teachers, who may not have had any great significance at the time the Didache was written, for they are hardly mentioned in it.

Along with these three there were other elements active in the community who are not named in the Didache. Paul mentions all of them in the first Epistle to the Corinthians (12, verse 28): “And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.”

Among these the gifts of helps and governments became very important, but not those of quackery and charlatanism which did not take on any forms within the community that would have distinguished them from the forms commonly known at that time. The rise of the teachers is connected with the entry of prosperous and educated elements into the community. The apostles and prophets were ignorant men, who spoke out without any previous study. The educated would turn their noses up at them. Soon some of these educated men, impressed by the charitable activities of the community organization or by its might, or perhaps attracted by the general character of the Christian doctrine, tried to raise that doctrine to the level of what counted as science at that time, which was no longer very much. These became the teachers. They first tried to fill Christianity with the spirit of a Seneca or a Philo, something of which there had not been much up to then.

Still they were regarded with mistrust and envy by the mass of the community as well as by the majority of the apostles and prophets; it may have been a relation analogous to that between “the workmen’s horny hands” and the “intellectuals.” Yet as the prosperous and educated elements in the community grew, the teachers gained in prestige and would finally have put an end to prophets and apostles.

But before things went so far, all three categories were absorbed by a power that became stronger than all of them, but is mentioned only incidentally in the Didache, namely the Bishop.




15. The word is skoliois, combining injustice, dishonesty and guile.

16. Actually. “partakers in the common meals” (agapetoi).

17. Cited in Harnack, Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten, 1906. I, p.132. Cf. Pfleiderer, Urchristentum, II, p.672f.

18. This sentence interrupts the thought, and is not free from objections in other respects. In particular the word “to be sure” (goun) arouses suspicion. In addition, Suidas, a tenth century lexicographer, expressly notes that Lucian “slandered Christ himself” in his biography of Peregrinus. No such passage is to be found in extant texts. One is tempted to look for it in the sentence in question, and to assume that here Lucian had mocked Jesus, that pious souls had been scandalized at that and been led to change the text to have an opposite sense when they were copying it. As a matter of fact, various scholars believe the sentence to be a Christian forgery in its present form.

19. Lucian, On the Death of Peregrinus, 11 to 16.

20. Cited in Harnack’s edition of the Lehre der zwölf Apostel, p.130f.


Last updated on 24.12.2003