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

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in eleven caves near Qumran on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. In 1947 a Bedouin goat herder threw a stone through a cave opening and heard something shatter. Inside the cave were seven scrolls, inscribed in Hebrew, wrapped in linen and stored in clay jars. Over the next decade 900 documents were found.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

A quarter of the manuscripts are biblical texts, fragments from the Old Testament. Others contain biblical commentaries and religious books not later accepted into the Hebrew Bible canon. Some manuscripts are manuals of the beliefs and practices of the Qumran religious community, which was located near the cave site. Other finds followed in 1952 and in 1954.

From the beginning the Dead Sea Scrolls have been the object of a furious controversy. About 20% of the scrolls were soon published, but the remainder were not made available for 35 years. The Vatican kept them under lock and key for decades, denying access not only to the general public but to Christian and Jewish scholars who repeatedly requested the right to inspect them and were turned away. This censorship was only broken when some photos came into the hands of Robert Eisenman of the Department of Religious Studies at the State University of California at Long Beach in 1989. As a result in 1990 virtually all were released. Two years later, in 1991 the Biblical Archaeology Review published a two volume Facsimile Edition of all the scrolls.

The question has to be asked: if there was no concern, why did the Vatican have to sequester these valuable historical documents for decades? Why the secrecy? And why all the controversy that has raged between experts ever since? For controversy there is aplenty. A quick glance at the Internet entries of the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal the sense of profound unease with titles such as The Dead Sea Scrolls and the End of Christianity, Do the Scrolls disprove Christianity? and Dead Sea Scrolls a Threat to Christianity.

These people were not Christians, but may well be considered proto-Christians. Certainly, the parallels with Christianity are self-evident, and have been drawn by several experts: Most experts believe the Qumran settlement was started by a splinter group of Essenes who moved to the wilderness to “prepare the way of the Lord.” This is strikingly similar to John the Baptist in the New Testament. John the Baptist was supposed to have lived in the desert for many years (Luke 1:80). This would mean that, if he existed, he was in close proximity to the Qumranians and may have lived among them.

There are some striking similarities between the Qumran community and the early Christians. The Scrolls describe rituals for washing and sacred meals. Like the latter, they wanted to make themselves ready for the Messiah through a life of radical righteousness and holiness. They use messianic terms such as Son of Man and Son of God, which enable us to see how a Jewish group contemporaneous with early Christianity understood those terms. From this it is clear that early Christianity as an outgrowth of Judaism.

The controversy over the Scrolls

Whereas initially, the theologians made a big song and dance about the Scrolls they now hastily changed their tune. Now the line was that there was nothing interesting in the Scrolls and above all there was nothing to show that links existed between early Christianity and Qumran. Others, however, thought differently.

It is interesting that one of the earliest of the Dead Sea Scroll scholars, John Allegro, discounted the idea of Jesus Christ as an historical figure altogether, seeking an alternative explanation in his book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross. Undoubtedly, his theories have an outlandish and bizarre character and we do not accept his explanation. But it is nonetheless significant that he felt the need to find such an explanation at all.

In order to explain the non-existence of Jesus, Allegro invented a very strange theory. He believed that the name “Jesus” is a cryptic reference to “Sacred Mushroom”, a hallucinogenic drug supposedly used by the early Christians. This exotic theory was based on a misunderstanding. The text that Allegro thought was a drug prescription used by the Essenes turned out to be a writing exercise of random words in alphabetical order.

Allegro believed that Jesus Christ was the Teacher of Righteousness, therefore Jesus must have lived in the mid-second century B.C. This interpretation would obviously entail some rather awkward questions for those who believe in the historical reality of Jesus! The scrolls were published by the expert John Allegro, who worked first hand with these documents, as early as 1968. Very early in the editing, John Allegro warned that the religious Establishment was obstructing serious investigation of the Scrolls. In August 1966 he wrote in Harper’s Magazine:

“[T]he very scholars who should be most capable of working on the documents and interpreting them have displayed a not altogether surprising, but nonetheless curious, reluctance to go to the heart of the matter. The scholars appeared to have held back from making discoveries which, there is evidence to believe, may upset a great many basic teaching of the Christian church.” (See John Allegro, The Untold Story of the Dead Sea Scrolls)

As a result, Allegro immediately became the target for a campaign of vilification.It was said that his edition was so flawed that it could not be used without the corrections made in 1971 by the later director of the international team for the edition of the texts, John Strugnell, of the University of Harvard. Under a barrage of public criticism, Allegro was forced to retreat, admitting that it was a question of his own interpretation of the texts.

One can accept that Allegro's theory is speculative and extravagant. The content of the Scrolls is very obscure and therefore open to different interpretations. But it is very clear that the concerted attacks on him are motivated not by a concern for scientific rigor but by fear that these discoveries could undermine cherished beliefs of Christians. It is not necessary to accept Allegro’s explanation in order to see that the whole thing casts serious doubt on the historical existence of Jesus. The real explanation was provided by Kautsky, who pointed out that this was a compound figure based on a generalization of different personages who really did exist and left a deep impression on the collective consciousness of the Jewish people in the first century CE.

The Scrolls and Christianity

Experts like Professor Michael Wise, James Tabor and other scholars who have studied the Scrolls in great depth, have all pointed out the close parallels between certain Qumran texts and early Christian doctrine. Some have gone further and tried to establish a more direct link between the Qumran community and Christianity.

Andre Dupont-Sommer, who broke from Catholicism, is an expert in Hebrew and Aramaic, and subsequently held the Professorial chair at the College de France. He believes that the Qumranians were Essenes. Like Renan, he believes that Christianity is actually "Essenism that succeeded," and sought to prove that the Qumranians were Essenes who later became the Christians.

Dupont-Sommer identifies the Teacher of Righteousness to Jesus:

“The Galilean Master, as He is presented to us in the writings of the New Testament, appears in many respects as an astonishing reincarnation of the [Teacher]. Like the latter He preached penitence, poverty, humility, love of one's neighbour, chastity. Like him, He prescribed the observance of the Law of Moses, the whole Law, but the Law finished and perfected, thanks to His own revelations. Like him He was the Elect and the Messiah of God, the Messiah redeemer of the world. Like him He was the object of the hostility of the priests... judgment on Jerusalem.... Like him, at the end of time, He will be the supreme judge. Like him He founded a Church whose adherents fervently awaited His glorious return.” (Dupont-Sommer, The Dead Sea Scrolls, A Preliminary Survey, Oxford, Blackwell, 1952, p. 99)

Robert Eisenman believes that the Qumran writings are the work of Christian Jews. He identifies James the Just, the brother of Jesus, as the Teacher of Righteousness, the Man of Lie as Paul and the Wicked High Priest as Ananus, who executed James in A.D. 62. According to Eisenman, John the Baptist began a message of Messianic expectation after the death of Herod, and Jesus continued in that tradition and was finally executed as a Zealot.

Later, he claims, James the Just took over the movement and expelled Paul from the group for propagating false ideas about the person of Jesus. He believes that the early Christian movement belonged to the followers of Paul. Judea was temporarily without a Roman governor when Ananus became high priest. When James tried to take over the temple and celebrate the rituals, Ananus “assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.” (Josephus, Antiquities XX ix 2).

Eisenman believes that the Qumran texts and the New Testament, which he dates to the second century A.D., are two sides of the same coin. The parallels between the Essenes and the early Christians are very clear. We know from the Acts of the Apostles that they held all property in common and held meals in common (the “Messanistic banquet”), which combined a necessary function with the mystic idea of the New Jerusalem.

The most striking image of the Messiah of the Scrolls is that it is a warlike figure, a conqueror. This fits in very well with everything we know about the beliefs of the Jews at that time. The oppressed people of Judea looked forward to salvation from their enemies: the Romans and their local agents in the Temple. As Kautsky pointed out, there was no tradition of pacifism among the Jews at this time. Their God was an avenging Deity.

Scroll 4Q521, is surprisingly close to the Christian concept of the messiah. Of course, there are also differences. The New Testament portrayal of Jesus is not a direct fulfilment of Qumran expectations since they expected three different figures, while the Bible combines all into the central figure of Jesus the Messiah, who is king, priest and prophet. Nevertheless, the parallels are striking. The apocalyptic language of the Scrolls has clear echoes of the Book of Revelations where the same fiery vision is to be found. Traces of it are also to be found in the New Testament where Jesus says:

“Do not think that I come to bring the peace upon earth: I came not to send peace but the sword. For I come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and the man’s enemies shall be they of his own household. He, who loves father or mother more than Me, is not worthy of Me; and he, who loves son or daughter more than Me, is not worthy of Me. And he, who does not take up his cross and follow Me, is not worthy of Me.” (Matthew: 10: 34-38).

The violent tone of the Scrolls is quite clear. This is the language of class war and revolution! One of the Scrolls appears to be a kind of primitive “military manual” (the War Scroll). There has been controversy over the use in the text of the phrase “Son of God”. But James D.G. Dunn has pointed out that “there is nothing particularly unique about calling someone 'son of God' at the time of Jesus.” (James D.G. Dunn, The Evidence for Jesus, 1985, p. 49)

Here it is clear that the "Son of God" does not bring peace or redemption. Instead, he is preceded by tribulation and followed by war and violence. Like the early Christians, the men of Qumran combined religious fanaticism with a militant revolutionary ideology that expressed the hatred of the Jewish people towards the Roman occupiers and the collaborators of the Priest Caste (the Sadducees).

Socialism and religion

The discussions about the Dead Sea Scrolls, despite their heated character, are extremely obscure, being frequently reduced to squabbles about the interpretation of Hebrew verbs. The religious Establishment tries to reduce everything to an endless wrangle about language and the minutiae of translating ancient texts. We have such arcane discussions as to whether the text refers to "a Pierced Messiah” or “a Piercing Messiah." The answer to this interesting question apparently is related to whether a particular Hebrew verb is singular or plural – and so on and so forth.

This kind of Talmudic hair-splitting solves nothing. In the first place, palaeography (the study of old handwriting) is not a science, although it is often presented as such by the Dead Sea scholars. There is a vast scope for falsification and subjective interpretations. In any case, these texts are so fragmentary that we may never know what they really were about. In reality, what is being objected to is not this or that textual inaccuracy or mistranslation, but the fear that a close examination of documents like the Dead Sea Scrolls will demolish the very fabric of what we understand by Christianity.

All this academic hair-splitting does not remove the central issues raised by Kautsky about the historical reality of Jesus. Even if we accept the argument that there is no link between the Qumran sect and Christianity, the problems for Christianity will not go away. On the contrary, if we accept that the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are at least in part contemporary with early Christianity, have nothing to say about Jesus, his life, works or beliefs, the problem for those who maintain his historical existence is even greater. This deafening silence, alongside the similar omissions in Josephus, argues very strongly in favour of Kautsky’s thesis.

When Kautsky wrote Foundations of Christianity, he did not have access to any documentary evidence other than the four Gospels and the writings of Flavius Josephus. But over the last sixty years the study of early Christianity has been revolutionised by the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls and other ancient manuscripts the significance of which is only gradually being understood. Today with the aid of archaeology, the figure of Christ and the nature of early Christianity can be understood in a different light and Kautsky’s theories have become extremely necessary to explain it.

Despite the striking parallels between Christianity and the Qumran community, nowhere do the Scrolls mention Jesus, John the Baptist or any other New Testament person. What the Scrolls do is to shed light on the world in which Jesus was supposed to have lived and provides powerful backing to Kautsky’s thesis that the figure of Jesus in the Gospels does not represent a historical personage but a composite picture of several different people.

In the second decade of the 21st century, capitalism finds itself in a deep crisis that has many similarities to the crisis of slave society in the period of the terminal decline of the Roman Empire. The voice of the oppressed masses who were inspired by the revolutionary, egalitarian and communist message of early Christianity reaches us as a faint echo, but it can be a source of inspiration still if we learn to listen to it carefully.

For centuries, organised religion has been used by the exploiters to deceive and enslave the masses. Periodically, there have been revolts against this situation. From the Middle Ages to the present day, voices have been raised in protest against the subordination of the Church to the rich and powerful. We see this also at the present time. The suffering of the workers and peasants, the martyrdom of the human race under the infamous despotism of Capital, is arousing the indignation of wide layers of people, many of whom are not acquainted with the philosophy of Marxism, but who are willing to fight against injustice and exploitation. Among these are many honest Christians and even the lower orders of the clergy, who daily bear witness to the sufferings of the masses.

The aim of Marxists is to fight for the socialist transformation of society on a national and international scale. We believe that the capitalist system has long ago outlived its historical usefulness and has converted itself into a monstrously oppressive, unjust and inhuman system. The ending of exploitation and the creation of a harmonious socialist world order, based on a rational and democratically run plan of production, will be the first step in the creation of a new and higher form of society in which men and women will relate to each other as human beings.

Socialism is the only way to overcome humanity’s alienation, its estrangement from itself. This is the only way that religious prejudices can finally be liquidated. When human beings become truly human they will no longer require the crutches of a superhuman, supernatural being, god, heaven etc. When men and women can perform miracles in real life, they no longer need the spiritual (i.e. ghostly) miracles. The blind can see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, even the dead can sometimes be raised – by medical science. When we can perform miracles in real life, we do not need imaginary miracles. When we have created a paradise in this world we will not need to dream about a paradise in the next one.


Cover of the new German edition "Der Ursprung des Christentums"

Details of the book

Karl Kautsky
Der Ursprung des Christentums
Eine historische Untersuchung

Verlag AdV
436 pages
ISBN 978-3-9502191-6-6
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