[Classics] Foundations of Christianity

13. 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.


The beginnings of the Christian communities were like any new establishment of a proletarian society. Its founders, the apostles, had to do all the work in the community, propaganda, organization and administration. But as the community persists and grows, the need for a division of labor is felt, the necessity of assigning particular functions to definite men.

The administration of the income and expenditure of the community was the first definite community office.

Propaganda could be carried on by every member as he pleased. Even those who devoted themselves exclusively to it, were still not charged with it by the community even in the second century, as we have seen. Apostles and prophets named themselves to their calling, or, as it appeared to them, it was only God’s voice that they were following. The prestige of the individual propagandist in the community, whether apostle or prophet, and therefore his income too, depended on the impression he made, on his personality.

In addition, the maintenance of party discipline, if we may use the term, was something the community itself took care of so long as it was small and all the members knew each other well. It decided for itself on the admission of new members; who performed the ceremony of admission, the baptism, was immaterial. They were the tribunal before which all the complaints of comrades against comrades were to be brought. The Christians distrusted the official courts as much as the Social Democrats do today. In addition, their social views were in sharp opposition to those of the official judge. A Christian would have considered it a sin to go before such a man to seek his rights, especially when the dispute was with a fellow Christian. This planted the seed of that special judicial power that the church has always claimed over its believers in the face of the civil courts. Later, of course, the original nature of the decisions here changed into their direct contrary, for at first they meant doing away with any class justice, the judgment of the accused by his fellows.

In Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians (6, verses 1f.), we find:

“Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints? Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? and if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Know ye not that we shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life? If then ye have judgments of things pertaining to this life, set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church.”

Maintenance of discipline and peace in the community was at first just as formless as was propaganda, and bound to no definite office or authority.

The economic factor however early required regulation, especially since the community was not merely a propaganda society, but was a mutual aid society from the very beginning.

According to the Acts of the Apostles the need was early felt in the community of Jerusalem of having special members take care of the collection and distribution of the members’ contributions, especially with serving the food at table. Diakoneo means to serve, and particularly to serve at table. This was obviously the first function of the “deacons”, as the common meal was the most important activity of primitive Christian communism.

Acts relates: “And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Greeks against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration [viz. meals, diakonia]. Then the twelve [apostles; actually there were only eleven, if we take all the Gospel stories at face value] called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over to this business” (6, verses 1 to 3).

That is how it happened according to the account, and that is pretty much as it must have happened, by the nature of the case.

The apostles were therefore relieved from acting as waiters in the people’s house, something they must previously have done along with the propaganda work, and that became onerous as the community grew. But a division of labor must soon have been needed among the newly-introduced waiters, the deacons. Serving at table, cleaning up and other work of that sort was entirely different from the job of collecting and administering the members’ contributions. The latter meant a confidential position of great importance, especially as the community grew and had larger income. This position required considerable eloquence, business experience and kindness combined with firmness. An administrator was therefore set over the deacons.

The appointment of such an official was an obvious necessity. Any society that has property or income must have one. In the societies and unions of Asia Minor their administrative and financial officers bore the title of epimeletes or episcopos (observer, overseer). The same name was also used for certain civil functionaries. Hatch, who has studied this development in detail and described it in a book to which we owe much of our knowledge of the subject [21], cites a Roman jurist, Charisius, who says: Episcopi [bishops] are those who superintend the bread and the other things to be bought, that serve the people of the city as daily food.”

The city bishop was therefore a superintendent who in the main saw to the right feeding of the population It was a natural step to give the same title to the superintendent of the Christian “house of the people.”

We have already read of the common purse of the community, of which Tertullian speaks. We learn from the first apology of Justin Martyr (born about 100 A.D.) that it was in charge of a special trustee: “Those who can and will give something of their property at their discretion, which is collected and presented to the overseer, who with it supports the orphans and widows, those who are in need on account of sickness or some other cause, the prisoners and visitors from foreign parts and in general is concerned with anyone in need.”

Thus much work, much responsibility, and also much power was put into the hands of the bishops.

At the beginning of the community the office of bishop was an honorary post like that of his assistants and all the functionaries of the community, and was carried on gratis along with working for a living.

“The bishops and presbyters of that time ran banks, practiced as physicians, worked as silversmiths, herded sheep and sold their products in the open market. ... The most important decisions of the old provincial synods that have come down to us with relation to them are that the bishops should not peddle their wares from market to market and should not use their position to buy cheaper and sell dearer than others.” [22]

As a community grew, however, it became impossible to look after its many financial functions as a second job. The bishop was made an employee of the community, which paid him for his work.

With this his position became a permanent one. The community of course could discharge him at any time, if he did not suit them, but obviously they would not lightly put a man out on the streets after having taken him away from his occupation. Moreover, taking care of the business of the community required a good deal of ability and acquaintance with conditions in the community that could be obtained only by long service in the job. It was therefore in the interests of the smooth development of the community’s affairs to avoid any unnecessary changing of bishops.

But the longer the bishop stayed in his position, the more his prestige and power must have increased, if he was big enough for the job.

He was not the only permanent employee of the community. The post of the deacons too could not be filled forever as a supplementary employment. Like the bishops they began to be paid out of the community funds, but were his subordinates. The bishop had to deal with them, and so in choosing them he was consulted first. Being able to fill offices in the community raised his influence still further.

As the community expanded, it became impossible for it to take care of its discipline by itself. It was not only that the number of members grew, but they included a greater variety of elements. If at first all formed a single family, in which every one knew all the other comrades, all were completely in accord in feeling and thinking and constituted a chosen band of enthusiasts glad to make sacrifices, this gradually ceased to be the case as the community became larger. All sorts of people came into it, from all sorts of classes and localities, often alien to each other and without mutual understanding, and sometimes even hostile to each other, such as slaves and slave-owners; in addition, there were elements who were not moved by enthusiasm but coolly reckoned on taking advantage of the credulity and self-sacrificing spirit of the comrades. Add to that differences in outlook and philosophy, and all this must have led to all sorts of disputes, often disputes that could not be settled off hand by discussion in the assembly but required long investigations into the facts of the case.

A committee of elders or presbyters was therefore entrusted with keeping the discipline of the community and smoothing out disputes within it, to report to the community on the expulsion of unworthy members and the admission of new ones, whose baptism they performed.

The bishop, who had the most exact knowledge of the relationships within the community, was the natural chairman of this committee. This also gave him influence over the moral supervision and legal functions of the community. As the presbyters (from which the word “priest” is derived) became regular paid officers of the community as a result of its growth, they came, along with the deacons, under the authority of the administrator of the community finances, the bishop.

In a large city the community could easily become so large that a single building would not be enough for their assembly. It was divided into districts. In every district group there was a deacon to serve the comrades and a presbyter was assigned by the bishop to conduct the group and to represent the bishop. Similar measures were taken with respect to the suburbs and villages. Where they were on the edges of a community like that of Rome or Alexandria, the influence of the great city was overwhelming, and the neighboring community came of their own accord under the influence of the city and its bishop, who sent them deacons and presbyters.

In this way there gradually was formed a community bureaucracy headed by the bishop, and it became increasingly independent and powerful. A man had to have the maximum of prestige in the community to be chosen for a post that was so much sought after. Once it was won, it carried with it so much power that given a little shrewdness and courage the will of the bishop, whose tendencies coincided with those of the majority of his community to begin with, would more and more be decisive, particularly in personal questions. As a result, his authority came to extend not only to persons engaged in the administration of the community, but also to those who were engaged with propaganda and theory.

As we have seen, the apostles were pushed into the background by the prophets in the second century. Both however, apostles as well as prophets, could often clash with the bishop, who would not hesitate to make his financial and moral power felt. It would not be hard for him to make life in the community miserable for apostles and prophets, and teachers too, if any of them manifested tendencies he did not care for. And that would happen frequently enough, especially with apostles and prophets.

Bishops, that is men who dealt with money, would not be chosen from among unworldly enthusiasts, but rather sober, business-like practical men. These men knew how to appreciate the value of money and of prosperous moneyed members of the community. It would be they who would represent opportunistic revisionism in the Christian community and work to mitigate hatred against the rich within it, to tone down the doctrines of the community in a way that would make it pleasanter for wealthy people to remain within it.

The rich of that period were also the educated.

Making the community fit the needs of the rich and educated meant weakening the influence of apostles and prophets and reducing their tendencies ad absurdum, as well as the tendencies of those who hated riches out of mere boorishness and of those unselfish elements who combated riches out of their convictions, and the more so if they had once been rich and given their entire fortune to the community to help realize its lofty communistic ideal.

In the struggle between rigorism and opportunism it was the latter that won; that is, the bishops won over the apostles and the prophets, who had fewer and fewer opportunities for action, or even for existence, in the community. Their place was more and more taken by officers of the community. Since every comrade had originally had the right to speak in the assembly and engage in propaganda, officers could do so too, and they must have done so to a great extent. It is clear that comrades that stood out from the anonymous mass as well-known orators would be more likely to be elected to office than unknowns. In addition propaganda activity might be required of the successful candidates over and above their administrative and judicial work. Many administrators laid more stress on propaganda work than on their primary official duties, when the growth of the community created new organs that took some of the load off the others. Often the deacons could devote themselves more to propaganda, since their functions were performed in large communities by special hospitals, orphanages, asylums for the poor and hostels for visiting comrades.

At the same time the growth of the community and its economic functions made it necessary to provide the officers with some training in their duties. It would have been too expensive and dangerous now to let every man gain his skill by experience in practice. The new crop of officers of the community was brought to the house of the bishop and made acquainted there with the obligations of their positions in the church. If they had to carry on propaganda in addition to their official duties, it was natural to train them for that purpose too in the bishop’s house, instructing them in the community’s doctrines.

Thus the bishop became the center both of the economic and propaganda work of the community; in this case too ideology had to give way to economics.

There now grew up an official doctrine, recognized and propagated by the bureaucracy of the community; views that differed from it were put down by all the means at their disposal.

The tendencies the bishops opposed were those of the original proletarian communism with its hostility to state and property. In keeping with the ignorance of the lower strata of the population, their credulity, the incompatability of their hopes with actuality, it was just these tendencies that were linked up with a particular faith in miracles and spiritual exaltations. Although the official church could do very well in this domain, the sects which it persecuted in the first centuries were far ahead of it in weird exaggerations.

Sympathy with the oppressed and aversion to all oppression should not mislead us into regarding any opposition to the official church or every heresy as equivalent to a higher conception.

The formulation of an official church doctrine was aided by other circumstances too.

We do not know very much about the doctrines of the first Christian communities. To judge by various indications, they were not very comprehensive and were very simple. In any case we can not presume that they already contained everything that the Gospels later added as the doctrine of Jesus.

We may grant, if we have to, the probability that Jesus lived and was crucified, probably because of an attempted rebellion; but that is all that can be said of him. What is said about his teaching is so devoid of evidence, so contradictory and so unoriginal, such a collection of general moral commonplaces that were on everyone’s lips at that time, that no part of it can be traced back to any genuine doctrine of Jesus’.

We are justified in imagining the beginnings of the Christian communities as more or less on the pattern of the beginnings of the socialistic societies, with which they have so many other resemblances. If we look at these beginnings, we never find an overpowering personality, whose theory sets the tone for the further course of the movement, but a chaotic fermentation, an uncertain instinctive search and groping by numerous proletarians, none of them standing out much beyond his fellows, all motivated by more or less the same tendencies while often falling into extreme peculiarities. For example, some such picture as this is presented by the beginnings of the proletarian-socialistic movement in the 1830’s and 40’s. The League of the Just, the later Communist League, already had a considerable history behind it before Marx and Engels gave it a definite theoretical basis in the form of the Communist Manifesto. And this league itself was but the continuation of earlier proletarian currents in France and England. Without Marx and Engels its doctrine would still have remained for a long time in the stage of fermentation. Nevertheless, the two fathers of the Communist Manifesto were able to attain their outstanding and decisive position only because they had mastered the science that their time provided.

There is nothing to prove, on the contrary it is quite out of the question, that a personality with a deep scientific training presided over the cradle of Christianity. It is expressly said of Jesus that he was no better educated than his comrades, the simplest of proletarians. Paul does not point to his outstanding knowledge, but to his martyr death and resurrection. It was this death that made the deepest impression on the Christians.

The kind of teaching that was done in the first century of Christianity bears this out.

The apostles and prophets do not reproduce a definite doctrine that they have received from others; they speak as the spirit listeth. The most diverse views were voiced; dispute and conflict filled the first communities.

Paul writes to the Corinthians (I Corinthians 11, verses 17f.):

“Now in this that I declare unto you I praise you not, that ye come together not for the better, but for the worse. For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it. For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.”

The later official church did not at all see this need for different currents within the community, heresies (Paul uses the word haireseis).

In the second century the uncertain seeking and groping comes to an end. The community has a history. In the course of this history fixed articles of faith have won out and been accepted by the large mass of the members. But now educated people enter the community. On the one hand they write down the history of the movement and its articles of faith, as they get them orally, thereby preserving them from further alteration; secondly, they raise the naive doctrine that they find to the rather low level of the knowledge of the time, fill it out with their philosophy, with the purpose of making it attractive to educated people as well and arming it against the objections of pagan critics.

Anyone who now wished to be a teacher in the Christian community would have to possess a certain amount of knowledge. The apostles and prophets could no longer maintain the pace simply by continuing to thunder against the sinfulness of the world and to predict its early end.

The unfortunate apostles and prophets were restricted and harried on all sides. Their small-scale enterprises had in the end to succumb to the enormous apparatus of the Christian bureaucracy. They disappeared. The teachers were deprived of their freedom and subordinated to the bishop. Soon nobody dared to speak in the community assembly, the church [23], without previous permission from the bishop; that is, nobody outside of the community bureaucracy directed by the bishop, the clergy [24], which set itself more and more apart from the mass of the fellows, the laity [25], and above them. The image of shepherd and flock takes root; and by the flock is meant the patient kind of sheep that lets itself be herded and shorn. The chief shepherd is the bishop.

The international nature of the movement contributed still further toward increasing the power of the bishop. Formerly it had been the apostles who, by their constant roving, maintained the international links between the communities. As the apostolate faded, it became necessary to find other means of holding together and coordinating the communities. If disputes arose or a common action or a common rule was needed on any occasion, congresses of delegates of the communities came together, provincial and even imperial congresses, from the second century on.

At first these conventions served merely for discussion and consultation. They could not make binding decisions. Each individual community felt itself to be sovereign. Cyprian, in the first half of the third century, still proclaimed the absolute independence of each community. But it is clear that the majority must have had the moral advantage on its side, This advantage became more and more binding; the decisions of the majority came to be obligatory for all of the communities represented; and the latter fused into a single compact body. The total gained in power what the single community lost in freedom of movement.

Thus the Catholic church was forged. [26] Communities that refused to submit to the decisions of the congresses (synods, councils) had to leave the Catholic union of churches, were excluded from the community. The individual that was expelled from his community was no longer welcomed in other communities; he was excluded from all communities.

And the effects of this exclusion, or excommunication, became much more serious when the church changed into an organization covering the entire state, in fact all European society, of which the states formed only single parts. Exclusion from the church was now equivalent to being excluded from human society, and could amount to a death sentence.

From the democratic standpoint there is no objection to be made against the church’s excommunications, so long as the church forms only one among several parties. Anyone who does not believe the church’s articles of faith or will not obey its regulations does not belong in it. Democracy has no reason to demand tolerance of the church, so long as the church is content to be one party along with others, so long as the state does not act for it or even identify itself with it. This is where a democratic church policy comes into play, not in demanding tolerance for unbelievers in the church, which would be a feeble and shallow policy.

Although the church’s right to excommunicate is unobjectionable in and of itself from the democratic point of view, so long as it was not a state church, there are many objections to be made even at this time with respect to the way in which this right was used. For it was no longer the mass of comrades but the bureaucracy that did the excommunicating. The more harm the individual could suffer in the process, the greater was the power of the clerical bureaucracy and its head, the bishop.

An additional factor was that he was the delegate of his community at the church congresses. The bishops’ power rose along with the councils, which were from the beginning assemblies of bishops.

The bishop had prestige and great power as a result of having in his hands the administration of the community’s property and the appointment and conduct of the entire administrative, judicial and propaganda-scholarly apparatus of the community bureaucracy. Now there was added the superior power of the totality, the Catholic Church, as over against the part, the community. The bishop stood to the community as representative of the entire church. The more rigid the organization of the entire church became, the feebler the community compared to the bishop, at least when he represented the trends of the majority of his colleagues. “This bishops’ cartel stripped the laity of all power.” [27]

The bishops were not entirely wrong in deriving their authority from the apostles, whose successors they held themselves to be. Both formed the international, cohesive element among the communities with relation to each individual community, and that was the source of their immense influence and power.

The community soon lost the last remnant of its original democracy, the right to choose its officials. As the bishop and his men gained independence and greater power in the community, it became easier for him to get the community to choose men acceptable to him. He became the man who in fact filled the offices. In choosing the bishop himself the power of the clergy in the community always insured the election of their own candidates. It finally reached the point where the clergy alone chose the bishop, and the mass of comrades in the community had only the right to confirm or reject the choice; but this too turned into an increasingly empty formality. The community finally sank to the level of an applauding mob to whom the clergy presented the bishop that had been chosen for them, so that they could shout hurrah for him.

This constituted the final annihilation of the democratic organization of the community, and put the final seal on the clergy’s absolutism; the clergy had been transformed from a humble “servant of God’s servants” into their absolute master.

It goes without saying that the property of the community now became in fact the property of their administrators, though not their personal property, but that of the bureaucracy as a corporation. The church property no longer was the common property of the comrades, but the property of the clergy.

This transformation was mightily supported and hastened by the official recognition of Christianity at the beginning of the fourth century. On the other hand, this recognition of the Catholic Church by the emperors was but a consequence of the fact that the bureaucracy and episcopal absolutism had already absolute power.

So long as the church was a democratic organization, it was completely opposed to the essence of the imperial despotism in the Roman Empire; but the episcopal bureaucracy, absolutely ruling and exploiting the people, was quite useful for imperial despotism. It could not be ignored; the emperor had to come to terms with it, because otherwise it threatened to grow too strong for him.

The clergy had become a force which every ruler of the empire had to reckon with. In the civil wars at the beginning of the third century the victor was Constantine, the candidate to the throne who had allied himself with the clergy.

The bishops were now the lords who along with the emperors ruled the Empire. The emperors often presided at the councils of the bishops, but also put the power of the government at the disposal of the bishops to carry out the decisions of the councils and excommunications.

Now too the church achieved the rights of a juridical person capable of acquiring and inheriting property. This increased its excellent appetite, and the property of the church increased enormously, and along with it the exploitation practiced by the church.

The organization of a proletarian, rebellious communism thus became the staunchest support of despotism and exploitation, a source of new despotism and new exploitation.

The victorious Christian community was in every respect the exact opposite of that community that had been founded three centuries before by poor fishermen and peasants of Galilee and proletarians of Jerusalem. The crucified Messiah became the firmest support of that decadent and infamous society which the Messianic community had expected him to destroy down to the ground.


The Catholic Church, especially after it had achieved government recognition, transformed the principles of the original Messianic community into their exact opposite. However, this was by no means a peaceful process without opposition and strife. For the social conditions that had created the original democratic communism of Christianity continued to exist, and even became more aggravated as the Empire decayed.

We have seen how movements of protest against the new trend appeared from the outset. After it had become the dominant and official trend of the church, and no other was permitted within the community, new democratic and communistic sects kept arising alongside of the Catholic Church. In North Africa, for instance, at the time of the Church’s recognition by Constantine, the sect of Circumcelliones was widespread. Fanatical beggars who carried to an extreme the struggle of the Donatist sect against the official church and the state, preached war against all the noble and rich. As in Galilee at the time of Christ, the peasant population of the fourth century in North Africa rose in desperation against their oppressors, and their protest took the form of banditry. As the Zealots had done before them, and probably the first adherents of Jesus as well, the Circumcelliones now gave these bands a goal, emancipation from all subjection. They boldly stood up in battle to the imperial troops who, hand in hand with the Catholic priests, sought to suppress the uprising, which lasted for decades.

This attempt to revive communism within the church failed, and so did every other, whether peaceful or violent. They all failed for the same reasons that had finally changed the first attempt into its opposite, and continued to operate, just as the need for such attempts persisted. This need was reinforced by the increasing distress; but it must not be forgotten that the church also was increasingly able to keep a large part of the proletariat from the worst distress by means of its charitable institutions, and also to make it dependent on the clergy, to corrupt it, to smother all enthusiasm and all higher thoughts in it.

When the Church became the State Church, an instrument of despotism and exploitation, on a scale of wealth and power that history had never yet known, the end of all its communistic tendencies seemed to have arrived. And yet these tendencies were to gain new strength precisely out of the state religion.

Up to the time of its official recognition, the expansion of the Christian community life had been confined essentially to the large cities. That was the only place it could maintain itself during the persecutions. In the country, where the individual is easily observed, secret organizations could exist only if they were supported by the entire population, like the Irish secret societies of the nineteenth century. Any minority movement of social opposition encounters tremendous difficulties in the country; and this was true for Christianity as well during the first three centuries.

There were no obstacles to Christianity’s expansion in rural districts once it had ceased to be an opposition movement and been recognised by the state. For three hundred years Christianity, like Judaism, had been almost exclusively a religion of the cities. Now it began to be a religion of peasants too.

Christianity brought with it to the country its communistic tendencies. Here however these tendencies had much more favorable conditions than in town, as we have seen in discussing the Essenes. Essenianism awoke at once to a new life in Christian form, once it was possible to form open communistic organizations on the land; and this indicates how great the need for it was. Just at the time when Christianity was accepted by the government, at the beginning of the fourth century, the first monasteries came into existence in Egypt, soon to be followed by others in all parts of the Empire.

The clerical and secular powers not only raise no obstacles to this kind of communism, but even favor it, just as the communist experiments in America early in the nineteenth century were not repugnant to the rulers of France and England. It was an advantage for them to have the restless agitators of the large cities leave the world and go out into wildernesses and there quietly raise cabbages.

Unlike the communist experiments of the Owenites, the Fourierists and Cabetists in America, the experiments of the Egyptian peasant Anthony and his disciples succeeded most brilliantly, like the closely-related communist colonies set up in the United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A favorite explanation of this fact is that they were imbued with religious enthusiasm, which is lacking in the adherents of modern utopianism. No religion, no communism. But the same religious enthusiasm that inspired the monks was alive in the Christians of the great cities in the first centuries, and yet their communistic experiments were neither thorough-going nor of long duration.

The cause of the failures on the one hand, and of the successes on the other, is not in religion, but in the material conditions.

Compared to the communistic experiments of primitive Christianity in the great cities, the monasteries or communistic colonies in the wilderness had the great advantage that agriculture requires the combination of the farm and the family, and that agriculture on a large scale, combined with industries, was already a possibility, and in fact had already reached a high point of development in the latifundia of the large landholders The basis of this large-scale production was slavery, which set limits not only to its productivity but to its very existence. When the supply of slaves dwindled, the latifundia had to disappear. The monasteries picked up this large-scale production and developed it further, since free brothers replaced slaves in the work. Because of the general decline of society, the monasteries ended up by being the only places in the Empire where some remnants of ancient technology persisted and were preserved through the tempests of the great migrations, and even perfected in many points.

With the exception of the influence of the Orient, especially the Arabs, it was the monasteries in which the rise of culture in Europe had its source.

The comradely monastic mode of production was eminently suited to rural conditions of production in dying antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Hence their success. In the cities however the conditions of production worked against labor in association; communism could come into being only as mere communism of consumption; but it is the mode of production, not the mode of distribution that in the last analysis determines the nature of social relationships. It was only in the country, in the monasteries, that the community of means of consumption which Christianity had originally aimed at found a permanent basis in community of production. On such a basis the associations of the Essenes had flourished for a century, and had faded not from internal causes but because of the violent destruction of the Jewish commonwealth. On this foundation now arose the mighty structure of Christian monasticism, which has lasted until today.

But why did the colonies of modern utopian communism fail? They were constructed on a basis similar to that of the monasteries, but the mode of production had completely changed in the meantime. Instead of the scattered isolated enterprises of antiquity, which developed individualistic work and hindered the comradely cooperation of the city workers, giving him an anarchistic attitude towards work, today we find great giant factories in city industry, in which each worker is but one cog working together with numberless others.’The habits of working together, discipline at labor, the subordination of the individual to the needs of the community, replace the anarchistic ideas of the individual labor.

But only in production; not in consumption.

Conditions of life were previously so simple and uniform for the mass of the population, that a uniformity of consumption and needs resulted, making a constant community of consumption quite tolerable.

The modern mode of production, which shuffles all classes and nations together and brings the products of the entire world to the centres of commerce, constantly creates new things, constantly produces new methods for satisfying needs as well as producing new needs; this leads, even in the mass of the population, to a diversity of personal inclinations and needs, an “individualism,” such as was formerly to be found only among the rich and noble classes. The coarsest, most material means of consumption – food, drink, clothing – are often uniform in the modern mode of production. But it is in the nature of this mode of production not to restrict the consumption even of the masses to such means, but to evoke, even in the working masses, a growing need for means of culture – scientific, artistic, sporting and so forth; this need be comes diversied and varies from individual to individual. Individualism in consumption, hitherto a privilege of the wealthy and educated, now spreads to the working classes too, first in the large cities and then to the rest of the population. Although the modern worker submits to discipline in working together with his comrades, since he recognizes its necessity, he revolts against any regimentation of his consumption, his enjoyment. In this field he becomes more and more of an individualist, an anarchist if you will.

It can now be seen how the modern city proletarian must feel in a little communistic community in the wilderness, which is basically nothing but a large-scale farm with subsidiary industrial enterprises. As has been said several times, labor and housekeeping had hitherto been very closely linked in this branch of production. That was an advantage for Christian communism, which had community of consumption as its starting point. In the monastic institutions on the land this communism was compelled to tie up with communism of production, which gave it uncommon resistance and capacity for development.

Modern utopian communism started from community in producing and had a very solid foundation there; but the close ties between consumption and production in its small settlements forced it to add communism of consumption to its communism of production, with explosive effects under the existing social influences, inevitably producing endless disputes, and indeed the most disagreeable disputes over trifles.

The only elements of the population that could still successfully found communist colonies in the nineteenth century within modern civilization were elements untouched by modern capitalism, unworldly peasants. The only connection between their religion and their success is that religious enthusiasm as a social phenomenon, rather than as an individual characteristic, is only to be encountered among the most backward portions of the population. For modern industrial segments of the population communism of production can only be put into operation on so high a level that it is compatible with a very far-reaching individualism of enjoyment, taking the word in its broadest sense.

It was not communism of production that was wrecked in the non-religious communistic colonies of the last century. This sort of communism has long been practiced by capital in the most successful manner. What was wrecked was the communism of regimentation of personal consumption, which is so contrary to the nature of modern times.

In antiquity and down through the middle ages there was no trace of individualization of needs among the masses of the people. Accordingly, monastic communism met with no obstacles in that direction, and it prospered, for its methods were superior to the prevailing ones; it was economically superior. Rufinus (345 to 410), who founded a monastery himself on the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem in 877, says that almost as many men in Egypt lived in monasteries in the country as there were in the cities. We may discount this as the exaggeration of a pious imagination, but at any rate it indicates that the number of monks and nuns was extraordinary.

Thus monasticism gave new life to communistic enthusiasm within Christianity in a form that did not have to function as a heretical opposition to the ruling clerical bureaucracy, but got along very well with it.

However, this new form of Christian communism could not become the general form of society either, and remained confined to separate units. The new communism too had constantly to change into its contrary, and the more so, the more it was technically superior, for that enabled it to raise its members into an aristocracy standing out among the rest of the people and finally mastering and exploiting them.

If for no other reason, monastic communism could not become the general form of society because in order to carry out community of housekeeping, on which it was based, it had to exclude marriage, as the Essenes had done before them and the religious communistic colonies in North America in the last century did. It is true that the prosperity of housekeeping in common required no more than exclusion of individual marriage; a sort of marriage in common could have gone very well with it, as was shown by some of the recent colonies just mentioned. But this sort of sex relations was too sharply opposed by the general social mentality of dying antiquity to be accepted and openly practised. In the general moral nausea of the period asceticism, abstinence from enjoyment, was the much more likely attitude, and one which also wove a halo of glory and special holiness about those who practiced it. By celibacy however, monasticism condemned itself in advance to being a minority. This minority might well be a large one at certain times, as the statement of Rufinus above indicates, but even his undoubted exaggeration does not venture to assert that the monasteries contained the majority. And the monastic enthusiasm of the Egyptians at the time of Rufinus soon subsided.

With the consolidation of monastic communism, the wealth of the monastery increased. The monastic latifundia soon furnished the best products at the lowest prices, since their production costs were low, thanks to their common housekeeping. Like the latifundia of the great landowners they produced virtually all the foodstuffs and raw materials they needed. Their workers were more diligent than the landowners’ slaves, for they were comrades who received the entire product of their labor. Moreover, every monastery had so many workers that it could select those who were best suited for various fields of work, introducing an extensive division of labor. Finally the monastery was eternal, compared to the existence of the human individual. Inventions and trade secrets that would have been likely to disappear with the death of the inventor and his family became known to many brothers in a monastery, who handed them down to their successors. As a juridical, and so eternal, person the monastery was free of the dispersive effects of inheritance laws. It could only concentrate wealth, without ever being able to distribute it in inheritances.

Thus the wealth of the single monasteries grew and of the unions of monasteries under uniform direction and regulations, the monastic orders. But as soon as a monastery had become rich and powerful, it went through the same process that has been repeated since by many a communistic association that covers only a small part of society, as we see today in successful productive cooperatives. The owners of the means of production find it more comfortable to have others work for them instead of working themselves, as soon as they find the necessary labor power: propertyless wage-workers, slaves or serfs.

At the outset monasticism had given a new lease on life to Christian communist enthusiasm, but in the end it fell into the same path into which the clergy had led the church previously. It too became an organization of exploitation and mastery.

It is true that it did not always allow itself to be a mere spineless tool of the rulers of the church, the bishops. Being independent of the bishops economically and rivalling them in wealth, organized internationally just as they were, the monasteries were able to stand up to the bishops as no one else dared.

In the process they sometimes helped mitigate episcopal despotism. But this mitigation too finally turned into its contrary.

After the church had split into Oriental and Occidental branches, the emperor became the overlord of the bishops in the East. In the West there was no government powerful enough to extend over the entire area of the church. Hence the bishop of Rome at first had precedence over the other bishops, thanks to the importance of his diocese; over the centuries this precedence became a domination over the other bishops. In this battle against the bishops he found powerful support in the monastic orders. As the modern absolute monarchy grew out of the class warfare between feudal nobility and bourgeoisie, the absolute monarchy of the pope grew out of a class struggle between the episcopal aristocracy and the monks, the proprietors of the monastic latifundia.

The rise of the church ends with the consolidation of the papacy. From that time on any further development in state or society signifies a defeat for it; development becomes its enemy and it the enemy of any development; it becomes a thoroughly reactionary trend, harmful to society. Its usefulness after becoming the state religion had consisted in preserving and developing remnants of ancient culture which it had inherited. But when a new capitalist mode of production, far superior to the ancient form, arose on the basis which the church had saved and developed, and thereby creating the conditions for an all-embracing socialization of production, the Catholic Church could act only as an obstacle to social progress.


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.

21. Edwin Hatch, Die Gesellschaftsverfassung der christlichen Kirchen im Altertum. Translated and with notes by A. Harnack, Giessen, 1883.

22. Hatch, op. cit., p.152f.

23. Ecclesia means originally the assembly of the people.

24. Kleros, the inheritance, the property of God, the people of God, God’s elect.

25. From laos, the people.

26. Catholic from holos (whole, complete), and the preposition kata, meaning down, concerning, belonging to. Katholikos means concerning the whole, and the Catholic Church is the whole church, or universal church.

27. Harnack, Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums, I, 370 Harnack cites Bishop Trophimus as an example of the great power the bishops had over their communities. When the bishop went over to paganism during a persecution, most of his community followed him. “When he returned and did penance, the others followed him again; all would not have come back to the church if Trophimus had not led them.”

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