On Kautsky’s Foundations of Christianity – Part One of the Introduction to the new German edition

Religion is not the motor-force of history but great social changes are expressed in changes in religion. In his book Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy Engels explained that great historical turning-points have been accompanied by religious changes in the case of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. The mass movements that were aroused by these beliefs in the early period of both Islam and Christianity shook the world.

See part two.

Early Christianity arose at a time of upheaval and change associated with the crisis of slave society. The rise of Christianity is one of the most extraordinary phenomena in history. Despite the most ferocious persecution, the Christians won mass support until the new religion was eventually recognised by the Emperor Constantine. From being a revolutionary movement of the poor and oppressed, the Church was absorbed into the state to become a formidable weapon in the hands of the rich and powerful.

This subject is of great interest to those who are fighting for socialism today. And the republication of The Foundations of Christianity in German is a most timely decision. This work deserves a far wider audience than it has had. It is quite astonishing that it has been out of print in German for decades and has been only intermittently available in English and other languages, especially as the main conclusions of Kautsky have been strikingly confirmed by the latest discoveries of archaeology and in particular the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Kautsky’s book is a masterpiece of the method of historical materialism. That said, it must be admitted that Kautsky was not the first person to attempt a scientific (non-religious) analysis of the gospels and Christianity. The Left Hegelian Bruno Bauer was the first to prove the chronological order of the Gospels and their mutual interdependence. Even before Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto, he proved that many themes of the New Testament are derived from the Greco-Roman literature of the first century.

As early as the 1850's Bauer traced the origins of Christianity in the second century CE and concluded that the first gospel was written under Hadrian (117-138 CE), that is, over a century after the death of Christ. He demonstrated striking parallels between the New Testament and first century writers like the Stoic Seneca. This had been noticed even in ancient times, but the ancient commentators concluded that Seneca must have been a closet Christian! Bauer, on the contrary, concluded that Christianity was essentially "Stoicism triumphant in a Jewish garb."

Some modern writers have attempted to contradict Bauer’s theory and prove that Christianity had a mainly Jewish origin. But the correct position was established by Marx, Engels and Kautsky who explained that although the New Testament originated as a Jewish tradition, it was later taken over, adapted and purged to suit the outlook of the middle class Romans who joined the movement when it had already become an established force in society. In his last works, Bauer stressed the revolutionary aspects of the early Christian religion, as a powerful motor-force of the fight for liberation of the excluded and oppressed classes of the Roman Empire. He also underlined the communist elements in early Christianity and Engels wrote a very positive obituary of Bauer in Sozialdemokrat in 1882.

Others were drawing similar conclusions. Ernest Renan wrote: “When you want to get a distinct idea of what the first Christian communities were, do not compare them to the parish congregations of our day; they were rather like local sections of the International Working Men’s Association.”

Engels commented on this:

“And this is correct. Christianity got hold of the masses, exactly as modern socialism does, under the shape of a variety of sects, and still more of conflicting individual views clearer, some more confused, these latter the great majority — but all opposed to the ruling system, to ‘the powers that be’.” (Marx and Engels On Religion, Progress Publishers, 1957)

The problem of sources

Karl KautskyKarl KautskyFew people realize that the actual historical evidence for the life of Jesus Christ is extremely sparse. As Kautsky points out, the only real historical sources for the Christ legend is the New Testament: the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Most people (even non-believers) assume that these are more or less historical accounts, even if we exclude the miracles. It is assumed that the gospels were written by four of the disciples of Jesus Christ and are therefore eyewitness accounts of real events. This, however, is not the case.

Most of the Gospels appear to have been written at least a hundred years after Jesus was supposed to have lived, and were certainly not written by his disciples. The letters of Paul are probably the oldest part of the New Testament, yet there is nothing in the writings of Paul about the life of Jesus. Nor do they contain anything about the Twelve Disciples, Galilee, etc. The legend of Jesus took shape only gradually, over a long period, and was accompanied by the struggle between Christians of Jewish and of pagan elements.

Following in the footsteps of Bauer, Kautsky pointed out that there is not a word of independent (non-Christian) proof of the existence of Jesus Christ. In fact, there is not a shred of evidence for the existence of Jesus outside the four Gospels, and these cover only a fraction of his life. It has long been known that they are full of the most glaring contradictions, historical inaccuracies and inconsistencies.

It is generally agreed among contemporary scholars that the Gospel of Mark was the first of the Canonical Gospels to be written. Most scholars believe that it was written around or shortly after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple in year 70. Unlike both Matthew and Luke, Mark does not offer any information about the life of Jesus before his baptism. Neither the nativity nor a genealogy of Jesus will be found in it. We find nothing in the writings of Paul about the life of Jesus, Galilee, or the twelve disciples. Likewise, in other early writings, such as Revelations we find no mention of a historic Jesus.

Jesus was supposed to be a native of Nazareth, but no such town is mentioned in the Old Testament and there is doubt as to whether it existed at all in ancient times, although a town of that name was established later on. A very remarkable fact is that Josephus, a very acute observer, also does not mention its existence. This is strange since, as a military commander, he knew virtually every town and village in Judea. As a matter of fact, the word “Nazarene” meant something like “sectarian”, and so Jesus the Nazarene, meaning “Jesus the sectarian” was probably misunderstood (as were so many other words and phrases) to signify his place of origin.

Kautsky points out that the story of the Passion has no base in what we know of either Roman or Jewish law. Today we know that the entire passion narrative in the Gospels has been created from motifs taken from Psalms 22, 23, 38 and 39 and from the depiction of the "suffering servant" in The Book of Isaiah (See E. Doherty, The Gospels as Midrash and Symbolism, 1999, 225 ff.).

The Gospel of Mark contains mistakes concerning Galilean geography and customs,which proves the author was not native to the Holy Land, as Peter was supposed to be. Significantly, Mark (16:8) stops at the empty tomb without further explanation. The Gospel of Mark may have originally ended abruptly at this point. It seems that the longer ending was composed early in the second century and incorporated into the gospel around the middle of the second century. The last twelve verses are missing from the oldest manuscripts of Mark's Gospel. Also it has been pointed out that the style of these verses differs from the rest of Mark, suggesting they were a later addition. As long ago as the 19th century, textual critics have asserted that Mark 16:9–20, describing some disciples' encounters with the resurrected Jesus, was a later addition to the gospel.

These obscure texts were later reinterpreted by Romans who thought that "the Christ" was a "literal" incarnation of God within a human body. This idea, profoundly alien to the Jewish mind, was quite familiar to the Romans who thought of their Roman Emperors as personified Deities. The old Jewish tradition had to be made to fit this foreign scheme. This was achieved through a re-writing and outright forgery of the First New Testament and invention of other documents that distort the original understanding of "the Christ" beyond all recognition. The teachings of the earliest Gentile and Jewish Gnostic Christians was gradually purged out of existence, a process aided by the simple device of burning of the world's libraries over the next two or more centuries. In the end, the censorship completely obliterated the original message. It was lost until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library some fifty years ago.

Marx and Engels on early Christianity

The new religion was the product of the turbulent period that can be dated from the Maccabean revolt to the destruction of the Temple under Vespasian. This was a period of intense class struggle, national revolts and civil wars. Jewish society was split from top to bottom. Out of this explosive ferment arose different movements of a revolutionary and Messanistic character, led by charismatic personalities some of whose names have come down to us. There was Bar Kochbar, Judas of Galilee and many others. But the name Jesus Christ tells us nothing at all.

In the absence of any reliable written sources about the real biography of Jesus, we are obliged to seek clarification elsewhere: by analysing the evidence concerning the social, economic and political life of those times. Kautsky based himself on the writings of Marx and Engels who had already analyzed early Christianity in some detail. Engels stressed the Jewish nature of early Christianity: “As a matter of course, Christianity presents itself as a mere sect of Judaism.” This statement has been verified, in a way that could not have been anticipated by either Engels or Kautsky, by the remarkable discoveries from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Engels wrote:

“What kind of people were the first Christians recruited from? Mainly from the ‘labouring and burdened,’ the members of the lowest strata of the people, as becomes a revolutionary element. And what did they consist of? In the towns of impoverished free men, all sorts of people, like the ‘mean whites’ of the southern slave states and the European beachcombers and adventurers in colonial and Chinese seaports, then of emancipated slaves and, above all, actual slaves; on the large estates in Italy, Sicily, and Africa of slaves, and in the rural districts of the provinces of small peasants who had fallen more and more into bondage through debt. There was absolutely no common road to emancipation for all these elements. For all of them paradise lay lost behind them; for the ruined free men it was the former polis, the town and the state at the same time, of which their forefathers had been free citizens; for the war-captive slaves the time of freedom before their subjugation and captivity; for the small peasants the abolished gentile social system and communal landownership. All that had been smitten down by the levelling iron fist, of conquering Rome.”

Destruction of Jerusalem, 70 AD as conceived by David Roberts (1850)Destruction of Jerusalem, 70 AD as conceived by David Roberts (1850)Imposed by military might, Roman rule, accompanied by the monstrous tax-collecting machine completely dissolved the traditional Jewish society. The civil authorities seized the treasures of the subjugated away from them and then lent them back at usurious rates in order to squeeze them still more. The pressure of taxation plunged the peasants into ever deeper bondage to the usurers, making the rich richer and reducing the poor to complete destitution.

The Jews resisted, but such resistance to the gigantic Roman world power was doomed from the outset. The defeat of the great Jewish revolt of 66-70 CE led to the search for salvation, not in an uprising but by turning inwards. When Christ says “my Kingdom is not of this world”, that expresses the psychology of the mass of oppressed and downtrodden people who were looking for a way out.

“But not in this world. In the state in which things were it could only be a religious way out. Then a new world was disclosed. The continued life of the soul after the death of the body had gradually become a recognized article of faith throughout the Roman world. A kind of recompense or punishment of the deceased souls for their actions while on earth also received more and more general recognition.” (Engels, ibid)

For the poor and oppressed this life was a vale of tears in which every spark of hope was extinguished. The sole remaining hope was for a better life beyond the grave. For the old pagan religion the afterlife was a cheerless, grey affair. But Christianity offered the masses a reward in heaven, where finally justice might be obtained, with punishment for the wicked and powerful, and eternal life in paradise for the true believers.

“And in fact only with the prospect of a reward in the world beyond could the stoico-philonic renunciation of the world and ascetics be exalted to the basic moral principle of a new universal religion which would inspire the oppressed masses with enthusiasm.” (Ibid.)

The early Christians looked forward to the end of the world and the Second Coming with eager expectation from day to day. They fervently believed that the kingdom of God, the capital of which is the New Jerusalem, can only be conquered and opened after arduous struggles with the powers of hell.

The Jews and the Roman Empire

It is essential to bear in mind the purely Jewish character of the very early Christians. This is not easy after a thousand years of Christian propaganda that has emphasized the non-Jewish nature of this religion, an emphasis that frequently has overtly anti-Semitic overtones. In religious paintings Jesus the Jew is routinely depicted as a white Anglo-Saxon type with blond hair and blue eyes.

Detail from the Arc of Triumph in Rome, depecting the sacking of Jerusalem. Photo: בית השלום (Peace House)Detail from the Arc of Triumph in Rome, depecting the sacking of Jerusalem. Photo: בית השלום (Peace House)However, the kind of Judaism that produced early Christianity was not the same as the Judaism of today. It was not even the same as that of the Old Testament. In the Old Testament there is scarcely any mention of resurrection of the dead. Similarly, the coming of the Christ, although foreshadowed in the Old Testament, was given an absolutely central place that it had not enjoyed before. These were new ideas that corresponded to a definite period in Jewish history and definite social conditions. It is the study of these material conditions that enable us to fill in the many gaps left by the written record.

In The Foundations of Christianity Karl Kautsky discards the myths and proceeds to analyze the social and economic conditions in Palestine in the first century of our era. At that time, as we have pointed out, Palestine was afflicted by bitter conflicts, with a religious, class and national content. There was a whole series of upheavals and revolts, which ultimately ended in the destruction of the Temple and the complete crushing of the Jews.

Through a process of conquest Rome subjugated the whole known world economically, politically and socially. After the defeat of Carthage the Mediterranean (which means the centre of the world) Sea became a Roman Lake. Judea was a peripheral state on the margins of the Roman world. It was a remote and impoverished corner of the Roman Empire at a time when the economic system of slavery was beginning to enter into a terminal crisis.

The Roman Empire was a highly organized structure that was sanctified by an official state religion. This culminated in the practice of Emperor-worship. Loyal citizens were expected to sacrifice to the Emperor. The Romans regarded the Jews as atheists because they refused to recognize the Gods of Rome. Their obstinacy in this respect obliged the Roman authorities to grant them exemption from public duties. But the relationship was an uneasy one.

Rome was a parasitical state that lived off the labour of the slaves and the tribute extracted from the conquered peoples. The Roman state became a bureaucratic monster dedicated to the systematic plunder of the provinces to satisfy the demands of the state and the governors' thirst for wealth. Taxation, which was in the hands of private tax farmers, became ever more effective and oppressive. The effect was utterly destructive. It is no accident that the tax farmer (“publican”) in the New Testament is a universally detested figure.

Roman law was administered by Roman judges, who generally had no concern for local laws, religious traditions or customs. Every attempt at revolt was brutally suppressed. Whole populations were massacred or taken away into slavery. The population became more and more sharply divided into classes. Roman society was dominated by the rich slaveholders, big landowners or usurers (though some were emancipated slaves).

Classes in Judean society

The beginnings of Christianity are indissolubly mixed up with Judaism, and the early Christians were only one of a myriad sects all struggling to make their mark in the revolutionary ferment gripped Judea in that first century CE. The most important event of those times was the uprising of 66 CE, which led to the destruction of the Second Temple.

Christianity was an offshoot of Judaism and is rooted in an ancient Jewish tradition. But when we speak of this, we must bear in mind that the Judaism from which Christianity sprang was not that of the Old Testament, and still less the Judaism of today. A whole series of Christian traditions and beliefs come from far older Jewish cultic practices, which were preserved by a long oral tradition, such as the resurrection of the dead, angels and demons, ritual meals (the “Messanistic banquet” of the Essenes), baptism and the Messiah sent by God to lead His people out of bondage, etc. All these elements were mixed up in a seething brew of beliefs in the Judea of the first century BCE. In turn they were determined by the actual experience of the Jews, in particular the nationalist uprising of the Maccabees.

Palestine was full of different radical movements and religious sects, of which the main currents in the last analysis reflected the interests of different classes and sub-classes, and played a role roughly analogous to that of political parties today. The different schools and movements argued with each other about the interpretation of religious texts and doctrines. In the last analysis, these conflicts represented the conflicting interests and outlooks of antagonistic classes and groups in society. Out of this furious strife in first century Judean society and religion arose two of the three main world religions: Christianity and modern Judaism.

The Roman occupation was brutal, with the full weight falling on the shoulders of the mass of poor peasants. From the point of view of the Romans, the Jews were a strange people with an alien psychology and an incomprehensible monotheistic religion to which they clung with a fanatical stubbornness. Apart from the ruling class, which assumed the role of collaborators, the masses were totally immune to all attempts at Romanization.

The splits in society found their expression in splits in Judaism itself. The foreign occupiers were hated by the people but they had points of support in the upper ranks of Jewish society: the Jewish nobility and the Priesthood. These lived like kings on the backs of the impoverished peasants, who were crushed by the weight of taxes. The Temple of Jerusalem was not a Church in the modern sense of the word, but a vast complex full of priests, bureaucrats, officials and moneylenders. The top layers collaborated with the Romans and enjoyed a monopoly of power over the Temple and its wealth. These were the Sadducees. Between these wealthy parasites and the poor peasants there was an abyss.

Just below this layer was the class of the prosperous middle class. While the High Priests collaborated with the Romans and even adopted foreign (Greek) names, the lower orders of Priesthood stood closer to the people and were permeable to their feelings and aspirations. Politically, they resembled the modern national bourgeoisie of colonial countries, who stand between the workers and peasants on the one hand and the upper classes on the other. At the decisive moment they were inclined to go over to the side of the people. However, just like the modern colonial bourgeoisie, they had an ambiguous position, constantly vacillating between the two poles. Although they opposed the Sadducees, the Pharisees are repeatedly denounced by Christ (“whitened sepulchres”, “generation of vipers”, etc.) A typical specimen of this class was Flavius Josephus, the celebrated author of the Jewish Antiquities.

Roman denarius depicting Titus, c. 79. The reverse commemorates his triumph in the Judaean wars, representing a Jewish captive kneeling in front of a trophy of arms. Photo: Classical Numismatic GroupRoman denarius depicting Titus, c. 79. The reverse commemorates his triumph in the Judaean wars, representing a Jewish captive kneeling in front of a trophy of arms. Photo: Classical Numismatic GroupOriginally a Jewish general who fought against the Romans during the big uprising of 66 CE, he later changed sides and became a Roman stooge, earning the undying hatred of his countrymen. His writings constitute the only written historical source apart from the gospels themselves. The few sparse references in Roman authors like Tacitus and Pliny are so general that they cannot be counted as of any real value. Moreover they refer not specifically to Christ but to the Christian movement, which certainly did exist.

Beyond these mainstream groups there was a myriad of movements, groups and sub-groups of an extremist character, representing the majority of the poor and dispossessed population of Palestine. Chief of these were the Zealots, the party of the streets, who repeatedly organized riots in the streets and uprisings. Simon, the eleventh apostle, was known as “the Zealot”. Before joining the ranks of the apostles, this former merchant in Capernaum had been a member of the Zealots, as his nickname suggest.

The Zealots were based on the urban poor, the unemployed lumpenproletarians of Jerusalem, always in a state of revolutionary ferment, always ready to participate in riots and insurrections. There were other radical elements outside the City, a host of religious sects and movements, some of them involved in guerrilla movements, others with communist tendencies. Among the latter we find a Jewish sect known as the Essenes. Kautsky thought that the early Christians were probably part of this movement, although in 1908 there was no documentary evidence for this assertion. Josephus, Philo Judaeus and Pliny the Elder all wrote about the Essenes.

Pliny tells us briefly that the Essenes do not marry, possess no money, and had existed for thousands of generations. And there is another, shorter description in Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94 CE) and in his autobiographical The Life of Flavius Josephus (c. 97 CE). From these accounts it is to be assumed that he had firsthand knowledge of the Essenoi, which he lists as one of the three sects of Jewish philosophy alongside the Pharisees and the Sadducees. A later account by Josephus in The Jewish War (c. 75 CE) is far more detailed.

Josephus records that the Essenes existed in large numbers and thousands lived throughout Judæa. Interestingly, he specifically locates them in Ein Gedi, next to the Dead Sea – the area in which the Scrolls were discovered. He refers favourably to their piety, celibacy, the absence of personal property and of money, their belief in communality and their commitment to strict observance of the Sabbath. He adds that the Essenes ritually immersed in water every morning, ate together after prayer, devoted themselves to charity and benevolence, forbade the expression of anger, studied the books of the elders, preserved secrets, and were very mindful of the names of the angels kept in their sacred writings.

Many of these features remind us of the practices of the early Christians as described in the Acts of the Apostles. It is therefore highly likely that either the Christians were part of the Essene movement or the two tendencies somehow derived from a common ancestor. And although some scholars have attempted to deny it, the coincidences are too great to leave much doubt that the Qumran sect, which wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, was part of the same movement.

See part two.