In order to understand early Christianity it is necessary to place it in its historical context. In the second half of the second century BCE the Syrian Greek Seleucid Empire was being displaced by the rising imperial power of Rome. As a result, when Seleucus IV Pilopater ascended to the throne of the Seleucids, he not only had a much reduced empire, but was obliged to pay a heavy Roman tribute. The disasters of the Seleucid Empire had dire consequences for the Jewish people, leading to a chain of events that was later called the Abomination of Desolation.
The Maccabean revolt
This was the fertile ground for the appearance of Messianistic ideas, which included the image of a future Davidian Prince, known as Yehoshua HaNotzri (Jesus the Nazarene) who would save the Jewish people at some time in the future.
The Syrian overlords attempted to squeeze their Jewish subjects, provoking a ferment of rebellion. To make matters worse, under Antiochus IV there was a tendency to impose Hellenization on the citizens of the Seleucid Empire, including the lavish adoration of the Grecian gods of his forefathers. This was pure poison to the Jews, who resented the foreign impositions. Only the privileged Priest Caste fell into line, slavishly adopting Greek names and styles of dress.
The last straw was the infamous day known to Jewish history as the “abomination of desolation”. Greedy power-seeking priests, collaborators with foreign rulers ruled in Jerusalem and provoked the people continuously.
In 167 BCE, Antiochus IV arrived in Jerusalem returning from his Egyptian campaign. He took advantage of his stay to plunder the city and desecrate the temple, erecting an altar to his patron god, Zeus in the temple as well as an altar of sacrifice to the gods of the Greeks. Any Jews who offered resistance were executed. The worship of the Seventh-day Shabbat (Sabbath) was prohibited, the Jewish ritual of circumcision was forbidden on pain of death, and all services in the temple ceased.
Judas, nicknamed “Maccabeus” or “The Hammer”, led the Jewish revolt and the Maccabees became the de facto rulers of the Jews, replacing the House of David as the Nasi, Patriarchs, and rulers of the Jews and the House of Zadok, the high priest of King David, as the ruling High Priests of Israel. For 135 years they ruled as Kings over the Jewish people, and for 113 years they served as the High Priests of Israel.
This was the turbulent background for the Jewish revolt under the Jewish priest, Judah Maccabeus. The rising began in 167 BCE, when, together with his sons, he started a revolt against the infamous Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 B.C.), whose name means "God made manifest" and who claimed to be the embodiment of Zeus on earth. He prohibited some of the central elements of the Jewish religion, including the destruction of copies of the Torah and demanded offerings to Zeus, to whom he erected a statue in the Temple. His sacrifice of a pig there was the spark that ignited the Maccabean revolt.
The rebels displayed extraordinary courage, fighting off far superior forces for two years of the revolt. By the skilful use of guerrilla tactics, the Jews won a series of victories. After a battle in which he defeated a Syrian army under Apollonius, governor of Samaria, recruits flocked to the rebel cause. After years of war he succeeded in taking Jerusalem. Only the garrison in the citadel of Acra held out against him. He purified the defiled Temple of Jerusalem and on December 14, 164 BCE, restored the service in the Temple.
But the Empire counterattacked, launching a campaign against Judas Maccabaeus (1 Mac 6:28-54, 2 Mac 13:1-2) and destroyed the walls of the Temple.
The rising of 66-70
Later Judea became a Roman Province. The century or so before Christ was thus characterised by violent uprisings, bloodshed and civil war between the Jewish masses and the Hellenized ruling class. Class hatred was mingled with religious fanaticism to produce a volatile and explosive mixture. The whole Province of Judea was seething with a spirit of revolt. Judea was in a permanent state of revolutionary ferment. The entire period presents us with a picture of continuous upheavals and bloody class struggle.
There were many revolts led by “false messiahs”, which were all put down with ferocious savagery. What made them particularly violent was the volatile mix of class and religion. In the writings of Josephus there are many references to these wars, revolts and uprisings, and from these accounts written by a participant and eyewitness, we learn the names of many rebels. But the name of one Jesus of Nazareth is not among them.
It is therefore no surprise to learn that this period culminated in the violent national uprising that began in 66 CE. This marked a decisive turning point in Jewish history. After a series of initial victories, the rising was put down in blood. The Jews fought with the courage of desperation. Initially they won victories. The masses stormed the Temple and burned all documents relating to the debts and taxes of the peasantry. The aristocracy and the high priests fled to the safety of the Roman lines. The Pharisee Josephus writes in detail about this.
At one stage there were no fewer than four revolutionary armies and it took the Roman army four years to stamp out the flames of revolt. But stamp it out they did. The Roman army, led by the future Emperor Titus, with Tiberius Julius Alexander as his second-in-command, besieged and conquered the city of Jerusalem, which had been occupied by its Jewish defenders in the uprising. During the siege of Jerusalem, the Jewish defenders fought with fanatical bravery.
Titus cut off all supplies of food and water supplies, and increased the pressure by cynically allowing pilgrims to enter the city to celebrate Passover, and then refusing to allow them to leave. When Jewish sallies killed a number of Roman soldiers, Titus sent Josephus, the Jewish historian, to negotiate with the defenders. The Jews responded by wounding the negotiator with an arrow, and then launching another sally. Titus was almost captured during this sudden attack, but escaped.
The Romans were drawn into street fighting with the Zealots, who were then ordered to retreat to the temple to avoid heavy losses. Josephus failed in another attempt at negotiations, and Jewish attacks prevented the construction of siege towers at the Fortress of Antonia. Food, water, and other provisions were dwindling inside the city, but small foraging parties managed to get supplies into the city, harrying Roman forces in the process. To put an end to the foragers, orders were issued to build a new wall, and siege tower construction was restarted as well.
In the end the Romans managed to launch a surprise attack, overwhelming sleeping Zealot guards and taking the Fortress. Most likely, Titus had wanted to seize the Temple, not destroy it, and transform it into a temple dedicated to the Roman Emperor. But a fire started by his soldiers spread quickly and was soon out of control. The Temple was destroyed and the flames spread into the residential sections of the city.
The Roman legions swiftly crushed the remnants of Jewish resistance. Some of the defenders escaped through hidden underground tunnels, while others made a last stand in the Upper City. The Roman had to construct siege towers to assail the remaining Jews. Not until September 7 was the city completely under the Romans, who now continued to hunt down the Jews that had fled the city.
Josephus tells us that 1,100,000 people were killed during the siege, of which a majority were Jewish, and that 97,000 were captured and enslaved. This catastrophe was followed two years later by the fall of Masada. Tens of thousands of Jews fled to escape being sold into slavery. They were to be found in large numbers in Rome, Alexandria and all the cities of the Empire, especially in the East. It was a traumatic experience for the Jewish people, and it left them demoralised and dejected.
The Jewish historian Josephus, who was an eyewitness to these events, expressed the feelings of his Nation in the following passage:
“And truly, the very view itself was a melancholy thing; for those places which were adorned with trees and pleasant gardens, were now become desolate country every way, and its trees were all cut down. Nor could any foreigner that had formerly seen Judaea and the most beautiful suburbs of the city, and now saw it as a desert, but lament and mourn sadly at so great a change. For the war had laid all signs of beauty quite waste. Nor had anyone who had known the place before, had come on a sudden to it now, would he have known it again. But though he [a foreigner] were at the city itself, yet would he have inquired for it.” (The War of the Jews, Book IV)
The Book of Revelation
The early Christians were convinced that the profound crisis of society heralded the imminent end of the world, the second coming of Christ and the emergence of the New Jerusalem. This was not a kingdom in the clouds but a very real kingdom of God on earth. They were definitely a revolutionary movement based on the poor and oppressed layers of society. The class nature of early Christianity is faithfully reflected in the Gospels.
One can get an idea of what Christianity looked like in its early form by reading the so-called Book of Revelation of John, “the oldest, and the only, book of the New Testament, the authenticity of which cannot be disputed,” as Engels wrote. All we know about it is that it was written in the reign of Galba (in around 68 or 69 AD) and the author calls himself John. “No other is written in such barbaric language, so full of Hebraisms, impossible constructions and mistakes in grammar.” wrote Engels. (See Engels, The Book of Revelations, 1883)
The main seat of Christianity in the First Century was Asia Minor. But there was no trace of any Trinity but only the old God of the Jews, the one and indivisible Jehovah. Later this deity was exalted from the national god of the Jews to the universal God of heaven and earth, who will rule over all nations, promising mercy to those who are converted and mercilessly smiting down those who stubbornly resist, on the principle parcere subjectis uc debellare superbos ("Pardon the humble and make war on the proud.")
The fiery nature of this creed was expressed in the Book of Revelations. Babylon the Great Whore is depicted sitting arrayed in scarlet over the waters, drunk with the blood of the saints and the martyrs of Jesus, the great city of the seven hills that rules over all the kings of the earth. She is sitting on a beast with seven heads and ten horns. The seven heads represent the seven hills, and also seven "kings." This clearly refers to Rome itself with its seven hills.
The beast referred to in Revelations is Roman world domination, represented by seven Caesars in succession, one of them having been mortally wounded and no longer reigning, but he will be healed and will return. It will be given unto him as the eighth to establish the kingdom of blasphemy and defiance of God.
It is this God, not Christ, who will judge at the last judgment. In the early texts there is hardly any reference to the events of the life of Christ, which only appear in the later accounts of the Gospels and the Epistles. The author is not yet aware that he is anything else but a Jew. There is no mention of baptism in the whole book, which indicates that baptism was instituted in a later period of Christianity. There is no mention of original sin or justification by faith. The faith of these early Christian communities is quite different from that of the later church that became part of the state. They were revolutionaries and stood in absolute antithesis to the state and the existing order of society.
The apocalyptic language of the end of the world and the Day of Judgment is only the expression of a confused feeling that the existing order was on the point of collapse. The feeling that the end of the world is nigh is common to every historical period when a particular socio-economic system had entered into irreversible decline. It was a period when the decline of feudal society and the rise of capitalism produced a ferment of ideas and a crisis of belief that manifested itself in the rise of oppositional currents like the Lollards and John Wycliffe in England and the Hussites in Bohemia.
In the tortured language of the Book of Revelations (The Apocalypse) we find a fantastic reflection of the terminal crisis of Roman slave society, expressed as the great final fight between God and the “Antichrist,” as he has been named. The overthrow of the “Whore of Babylon” ( Rome) is eagerly awaited: “And the woman which thou sawest is the great city which reigneth over the kings of the earth.” This is a world on the brink of a social and religious revolution. The old world is shown as rotten and corrupt to the marrow. It is tottering, waiting for its overthrow. It does not deserve to survive – just like our own world today.
The early Christians impatiently awaited the imminent return of Christ and the thousand-year kingdom which was shortly to dawn. They were committed to an unrelenting struggle against the internal and external enemy. They adopted a proud and obstinate revolutionary standpoint. They remained stubbornly steadfast before the heathen judges, refusing to renounce their faith and willingly embracing martyrdom, confident in the final victory.
The Apocalypse of St. John is presented as the revelation of "things which must shortly come to pass; and immediately afterwards, in I, 3, it declares “Blessed is he that readeth and they that hear the words of this prophecy ... for the time is at hand.” To the church in Philadelphia Christ sends the message: “Behold, I come quickly.” And in the last chapter the angel says he has shown John “things which must shortly be done” and gives him the order: “Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand.” And Christ himself says twice (XXII, 12, 20) “I come quickly.” The sequel will show us how soon this coming was expected.
“So here it is not yet a question of a ‘religion of love,’ of ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you,’ etc. Here undiluted revenge is preached, sound, honest revenge on the persecutors of the Christians. So it is in the whole of the book. The nearer the crisis comes, the heavier the plagues and punishments rain from the heavens and with all the more satisfaction John announces that the mass of humanity will not atone for their sins, that new scourges of God must lash them, that Christ must rule them with a rod of iron and tread the wine-press of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God, but that the impious still remain obdurate in their hearts. It is the natural feeling, free of all hypocrisy, that a fight is going on and that — A la guerre comme à la guerre.” (Engels, The Book of Revelation, 1883)
This wild Oriental fanaticism was later refined and transformed by an admixture of pagan philosophy. For example, the so-called Epistles of the Apostles were based on the philosophy of the Stoics, of Seneca in particular whose writings, as Bauer proved, were copied word-for-word in parts of the Epistles.
The Joshua myth and Jesus
The context of the spread of early Christianity is the aftermath of the bloody Jewish War of 66–70 and the destruction of the Temple. In the dark period that followed, the lack of written sources means that we lack any serious record of the early Christians, but it is known that they existed in many different groups, sects and tendencies, which were frequently torn by internal disputes and splits. It was at that time (approximately 100-300 CE) that Christianity emerged.
After the bloody suppression of the uprising, the movement began to take a different direction. The long-awaited Messiah had not appeared to save the Jews from destruction. Instead of waiting for a Messiah who would be a military-political leader, some sects began to seek salvation in another world (“my kingdom is not of this world” Christ was supposed to have said). These ideas had their base in the material conditions of society. Having suffered a terrible defeat in war, the Jews were forced to look inwards, seeking salvation in mystical and Messianic dreams.
A fatalistic mood gripped the minds of the people. Inevitably, they looked for consolation and inspiration to the past, to the old stories of great national leaders like Moses and above all Joshua, who would lead the people out of foreign bondage. It was in these conditions that the Jesus (more correctly, Joshua) myths arose. They were constructed out of various elements, beginning, as the original Christians undoubtedly did, with the myth of Exodus.
This famous Jewish myth relates the story of Moses leading his people out of captivity in Egypt by miraculously parting the Red Sea. This was followed by forty years of wandering in the wilderness in search of the Promised Land. When Moses died, his successor, Joshua ben Nun, is said to have once again miraculously parted the river Jordan to lead the Jews to their promised homeland.
"Joshua" (and/or "Jesus") mean "Saviour of the Lord", while "Christ" means "Anointed One" (a Greek rendering of the Hebrew word "Messiah", which was an epithet for a leader, used of Jewish kings). Therefore, the name itself tells us nothing at all about a particular individual who was supposed to have lived in the first century. Jesus Christ means only “the Saviour King”.
There were many Joshua sects around at the time Jesus was supposed to have lived, and it seems very likely that the early Christians were one of them. The name "Jesus" itself comes from Exodus as it is only the Hebrew name Joshua translated into Greek. This fact is not generally known today, but it would have been obvious to the early Christians, who, we must remember, were Jews and steeped in Jewish traditions. A Gnostic Jew, writing for a Gentile audience, would have written "Jesus" and not "Joshua" long before the time of the supposed historical Jesus.
In Exodus we read that having crossed the river Jordan, Joshua selects 12 men to represent the 12 tribes of Israel. After his baptism in the river Jordan, Jesus similarly selects 12 men as his immediate followers (John 3:13). After the crossing of the Jordan Joshua orders that 12 stones be set up, one for each of the 12 tribes, at a place called Gilgal. These references to the number 12 refer to the 12 astrological signs of the zodiac, which the Jews had taken over from the Babylonians during the Babylonian exile.
At the birth of Moses, the evil Pharaoh, fearful of a prophesy that Moses would be the cause of his downfall, orders the killing of the firstborn of Israel in an attempt to kill him. In the myth of Jesus, King Herod (the “evil Pharaoh”) fearful of a prophesy that the true King of the Jews has been born, orders the "slaughter of the innocents" in an attempt to kill the baby Jesus (Matt. 2:2-16). Like the Jews in Exodus, Jesus is called out of Egypt, where he has been in hiding. The parallel is made explicit in The Gospel of Matthew, which explains that this is to fulfil the prophesy "Out of Egypt I have called my Son" (Matt. 2:15).
It is very likely that all these references have an allegorical and mystical character, probably conveying the idea that the soul, imprisoned in the physical body, is striving to free itself from “Egyptian captivity”. If we follow this argument, the crossing of the Red Sea is a symbol of baptism etc. Jesus is made to fulfil the old Jewish prophesies because he has been constructed out of them.
It was Marcion, who put together the first “orthodox” version of the New Testament, and thus established a tradition that led to censorship, persecution and the suppression of a mass of proto-Christian texts that could have shed light on the true nature of early Christianity. For the first time, the old “Joshua/Jesus” sayings were given a fake covering in the form of the life of a man called Jesus, complete with genealogies, a virgin birth, tales of a miraculous infancy and so on and so forth.
The “Christ" referred to by Paul in his earliest (and authentic) epistles was not a human figure at all, but the embodiment of the Divine Spirit within humankind. The “Christ" (the Word or Logos) was a non-human intermediary that was believed to connect humankind to God. The link was to be achieved through the self-knowledge that God dwelt within, and this was explained to initiates in the form of an allegory based upon the Exodus story.
This was the central message of Christianity before and after the first century. By coming to this knowledge ("Gnosis"), the man of the flesh “died” and was resurrected as a "new man" with a new spiritual revelation of God.
What was meant as an allegory has been taken literally by modern Christians, who have no idea about the original meaning of the Gospels that have come down in translation, after innumerable alterations, deletions and censorship. The result is a strange mixture of Jewish traditions, allegory and admixtures of pagan myths and philosophy.
Through baptism the early Christians were “born again”, through repentance they achieved the “death” of the flesh and resurrection by surrendering to the will of the Christ. By these means one found the road to salvation. In this way the earlier Jewish tradition of revolt was gradually replaced by an entirely different spirit – an inward-looking mysticism that patiently awaited salvation in the form of the Day of Judgement.
On that day, all the wrongs suffered by God’s chosen people would be avenged and the True Believers would live in Bliss, while the wicked of the earth would suffer the torments of eternal damnation. This is the world of the Apocalypse, one of the earliest and most faithful reflections of the psychological condition of the Christians of the first and second centuries.