Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Origins of Christianity (1925)

Book Review from the July 1925 issue of the Socialist Standard

Foundations of Christianity, by Karl Kautsky. (Alien & Unwin)

Social movements and organisations are often claimed to be due to the power or personality of some individual or "great" man. In religious circles, due to the fear or ignorance of those following these movements, this view of a "great" or "good" man is carried to the point where the supposed founder is claimed as a saint or even a God. Buddhism and Mohammedanism are examples of the "saint" view, while Christianity is the great example where the supposed founder is claimed by large numbers of his followers as being God.

Since the days when Marx and Engels established their joint discovery - later independently formulated by L. H. Morgan - that the methods of wealth production formed the bases of human societies, while the development of the tools and technical processes furnished the source of the changes in those Societies, the "great man" theory has been steadily losing ground. Even in Psychology orthodox Professors, like McDougal, following in the footsteps of Maudsley and Spencer (though in a manner far inferior to these writers) now include social forces as important factors in the building up of the Mind.

Kautsky's volume is an examination of conditions that gave rise to the birth and early development of Christianity, using the Marxian discovery, generally known as Materialist Conception of History, as a tool in his researches and studies. Kautsky does not set out to condemn Christianity but to explain it, and the result is a brilliant piece of work, calm, dignified and full of information. He accepts the case presented by Bruno Bauer to show that the Christ of Christianity never existed. But, more startling still, Kautsky claims that there is no need for Christ to have existed in order to explain the birth and rise of Christianity! Christianity without Christ will seem either rank blasphemy, or at least a contradiction in terms to the orthodox. Undeterred by such seemings, Kautsky patiently builds up a powerful case in support of his proposition. His presentation is so compact that it is difficult to make a summary of it. We will therefore content ourselves with giving one or two of the main points and refer our readers to the book itself for the arguments and evidence in support of Kautsky's case.

In the period immediately preceding the rise of Christianity degeneration had already begun in the Western world. The peasant producer - the backbone of the early Roman power - had been steadily crushed out by the growth of large estates worked by slave labour - the latifundia. Contrary to the view of some historians, the latifundia was not a progressive but a retrograde movement. It marks not an advance, but a decline in the career of a society. The peasant has a personal interest in his land, crops, tools, etc., and, within the narrow limits in which he moved, would use any technical improvement that came his way. The slave not only has no interest in these things but, on the contrary, develops an antagonism that results in his doing all the injury he can to the master he hates. The slave would take "revenge" for the whippings he received by ill-treating the animals in his charge, breaking the tools and instruments he used, and neglecting to take simple precautions in the crops, etc. The only thing that made the slave worth while was his cheapness. Hence the constant wars of Rome in the search for new sources of cheap slaves as the old sources were exhausted.

Along with this growth of the latifundia there developed the concentration of power into the hands of an individual - the Caesar - which not only killed political life and thought for the mass of the people, but led to decay of the social sentiment and turned people's thoughts to individual matters. These facts prepared the soil that, later on, was to accept the Christian notion of the individual being solely concerned with his own "salvation" and intent on making his peace with God.

Christianity arose among the Jews. Kautsky traces the history of this famous race in the period preceding Christianity and shows how the defeat and Exile of the Jews developed both their religion and Monotheism. The religion formed a common bond between the various tribes, while the fact that the various tribal Gods had been unable to avert defeat and disgrace led to the idea, already vaguely existing in Egypt, Babylonia and Persia, of a single all-powerful God who allowed this disgrace to fall upon his chosen people because they offended against his laws. When - the legend ran - they had passed through a sufficient period of repentance God would lead them to victory over all other nations.

When the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem the class divisions already existing became accentuated. The wealthy class wished for peace to allow of them enriching themselves further, while the exploited class looked to the fulfilment of God's promise (to set the chosen people over other nations) for the release from their miseries. Both classes realised that they were too weak numerically to conquer such a power, for example, as Rome. But God would send a Messiah to lead them to victory. Hence the continual revolts in Jerusalem and the religious character of the rebels. The rich people were denounced as traitors for not supporting these revolts. Each rising brought forth its "Messiah," who was the true elect of God - till he was defeated, when he was condemned as an imposter. In course of time these "Messiahs" became numerous and if Christ ever lived at all, it must have been as a rebel at the head of one of these conspiracies. His execution, if it took place, is only explainable on this ground.

The word "Christus" is the Greek for "Messiah." Hence, in translation into Greek, all those who had proclaimed themselves Messiahs were called "Christs." The rebel and, of course, religious organisation that was formed shortly before the fall of Jerusalem would, because of the conditions mentioned above, be proletarian in character, and portions of the early Gospels reflect this position. Originally the Jews had been an agricultural race but on the return from Exile their lack of land and other factors left them with trade as their chief occupation. But the old land routes for commerce had been superseded, to a great extent, by the development of sea travel through the Greeks and Phoenicians, and this was a basic factor in the dispersal of the Jews. When Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jews dispersed, the above-mentioned religious organisation became a congregation that started making converts outside the Jews. At first it retained its proletarian character, but as the priesthood developed and became established, it began to angle for the favour, and funds, of rich people. To entice rich people into such a congregation, however, it was necessary to modify its rebellious teachings. So first the various legends and later the Gospel writings were "edited" both for the purpose of cutting out objectionable statements and interpolating ones flattering to the rich. According to the legend, Christ had promised to return to earth to lead his Apostles to Heaven, during their own lives. His failure to keep his promise enabled the editors to vary phrases and sentences to suit themselves. Moreover, the civil wars in Rome had died down and the ruling power was not only more free to deal with rebellious bodies, but to show, by the huge forces at their disposal, the utter hopelessness of any revolt. Thus, due to the changed conditions, the teachings of Christianity turned from that of a rebellious character into one that was servile and cringing.

These developments, as well as several later ones, are worked out with a wealth of evidence by Kautsky and the book can be strongly recommended to every serious student as a sound and scientific explanation of the rise of a social phenomenon that is usually hidden under a heap of religious rubbish.
Jack Fitzgerald

A Jack Fitzgerald page has just been opened on the Marxists Internet Archive. The above article, plus others articles and reviews from the pages of the Socialist Standard by Fitzgerald , will appear on the page in due course.