EVERYONE hates the question: was Jesus a Marxist?
Christians don’t want to believe their founder was a pinko. Marxist would rather not entertain the thought that the founder of something they’ve traditionally rallied against might’ve agreed with them.
But more importantly, the answer is obvious: No. Marx showed up 1800 years after Christ. Jesus couldn’t have possibly been a Marxist.
But is that the question?
I’ve been obsessing over this problem for the last week. It caught my attention when I noticed that there were many MANY people in my DSA that are Christian. Additionally, atheism is growing among conservatives. The religious/political dynamic has flipped in the US. Leftist/Liberals are increasingly becoming religious, while conservatives are growing away from it. It’s either that, or religion is becoming less homogenized to one side. So this question was proposed.
Naturally, everybody wants to dismiss it for the very obvious answer that I previously stated. But this led me to ask a whole host of questions: is Marx necessary for Marxism? Did Karl Marx ‘invent’ it or ‘discover’ it? Do we say that Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz “invented” calculus? Were the processes of capitalism already beginning during the time of Jesus Christ, and was he and his followers in some ways (albeit unknowingly) responding to these processes? If it wasn’t Karl Marx, would it have been someone else that would have conceptualized “Marxism”…therefore making it a natural reaction to the forces of capital? So once when the question was dismissed, it left me with more questions.
I shouldn’t have to tell you that I’m not an expert in ANYTHING, so feel free to call me out. But in short, I felt that the question “was Jesus a Marxist?” to have a degree of merit. ESPECIALLY since certain Marxist circles embrace Spartacus, who led a slave revolt against the Romans about 100 years before Christ’s death and ministry, as an icon. Sure, Spartacus’s existence is far more easily verifiable that Jesus’s, but Jesus’s ideals were far more revolutionary. (The ideals and motivations of Spartacus aren’t well known. His revolt put a good scare into Roman society, but it didn’t appear to be “revolutionary” in any way. Although, as a former slave/gladiator, Spartacus’s intentions likely aren’t hard to figure out.) But if Spartacus can be deemed a Leftist/Marxist hero, perhaps Jesus of Nazareth isn’t getting his due.
(Additionally, it should be noted, that Jesus and Spartacus’s followers faced the same fate.)
Jesus of Nazareth: All Too Human
Of course, Jesus wasn’t a political ideologue insofar as we can tell….at least not political in any sense that we recognize today. He was a religious figure addressing (again, insofar as we can tell) religious issues. Christ wasn’t an economist. So the question “was Jesus a Marxist?” might be misleading. Perhaps a better question might be “was Jesus an egalitarian undermining certain class structures of his time?” therefore making him a proto-Marxist. When refining those search terms, I mostly found that scholars were projecting onto Jesus their current biases. So of course Jesus wasn’t an “egalitarian”, his views mostly aligned with mainstream religious thought at the time, the only thing revolutionary about him was his theology. Whatever. My search could have stopped there. But a common problem that most scholars and researchers were making, in my view (at least to the sources that I found, both academic and religious), were that they were failing to asses Jesus Christ as a product of his era.
What do I mean by that?
Of course, any scholar worth their salt should be able to assess the life of Christ in an impartial way. Unfortunately, there’s SO much working against that. We divide history by birth of Christ. It’s 2018 because, in theory, it’s 2,018 years after the birth of Jesus. When some evaluate Jesus as an historical figure, they still portray him as someone that fell out of the sky. In the West, we’ve heard stories of this guy since childhood. Christianity has so dominated western culture that it’s impossible to be altogether impartial towards the study of its history (that is, if you’re a scholar raised in the West). Whatever philosophies inspired by Christian thought likely, directly or indirectly, influenced Karl Marx (of course, defer to the experts on that one). So it’s necessary to look at Jesus of Nazareth as a product of his time.
In our atheist and conspiracy-laden internet landscape, it’s popular to dismiss Jesus as a myth, a fabricated character. If true, that would raise more questions than it answers, namely why would followers choose to create a regular person that was killed rather than say…a king or a warrior? Other than the miracles, there’s nothing particularly interesting about the life of Jesus in the surviving accounts. If we take away the supernatural aspects to the Gospels, what we find is a regular guy, a carpenter, that goes from town to town preaching and gains a few followers until he shows up in Jerusalem, angers the authorities, and is crucified. Cool story, right? Since there’s nothing particularly too outrageous (other than the miracles) in these accounts….in fact, this could be considered downright embarrassing to the followers since he was crucified and killed….in all likelihood, Jesus was a REAL person.
Historians generally agree that these two things happened: Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and, as we all know, he was crucified. Other than general historical consensus, I am basing my opinions mostly on the Gospel of Mark. This Gospel is almost certainly the oldest surviving account, written roughly 30 years after the death of Jesus (I personally think it was written later, but that’s a different story). The game of “telephone” explains why I dismiss the later accounts of Matthew, Luke, and John. Early in the Book of Mark, Jesus is baptized and then disappears into the wilderness. John the Baptist is imprisoned not long after. It is not clear if John is taken captive DURING Jesus’s adventures in the wilderness or right AFTER his return. Nevertheless, I’ve always found it strange that these two events occurred at roughly the same time. Like Jesus, John the Baptist probably existed and probably had a significant following. Unlike Josephus’s 1st Century account of Jesus, the account of John the Baptist is largely undisputed….meaning there’s more independent, scholarly consensus of John the Baptist’s existence than Jesus’s. So, John likely created as big of a ruckus as Jesus would later do. There is much debate over whether or not Jesus was a follower of the Baptist. Clearly he was baptized, but was he a disciple? If we assume that Jesus was NOT born under any special circumstance, as in no one claimed that he was the “Son of God” during his lifetime or before the death of John, then the question has an obvious answer: yes. Jesus, in all likelihood, was a disciple of John the Baptist. Even Herod, upon learning of Jesus, thought that he was John the Baptist resurrected. Therefore, Jesus didn’t go into the wilderness to be “tempted”…he was in hiding after John’s imprisonment and subsequent execution. True, this is based on an account written over 30 years after the death of Jesus….BUT the death of John the Baptist at least provides a degree of motivation for Jesus’s ideals and motivations (likely conceived during his hiding in the wilderness).
John the Baptist
I’d argue that we can’t understand Jesus without understanding John the Baptist. Unfortunately, there’s not much to go one here either. It is highly speculated that he was an Essene. The Essenes were a Jewish sect that, supposedly, lived semi-ascetic lives and embraced communal living. There’s plenty of scholarly work regarding the existence of the Essenes, but almost no evidence regarding their connection to John the Baptist. Again, this is all speculation. But I point this out to illustrate the possible influences on Jesus. Jesus was a Jew, and he must be understood in that light. He most certainly did not predict the rise of a new religion centered around him and he absolutely did not receive his theology from any sort of “divine intervention”. Jesus was influenced by someone and John the Baptist (and by extension, the Essenes) are a strong candidate…especially since many scholars believe Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher.
As for the Essenes, to an extent, it’s easy to see their “proto-Marxist” or “communist” views with their anti-materialist and communal living. From here, I can only speculate. It’s impossible to determine where their views were coming from (but honestly, I didn’t do much research on these guys. So maybe it isn’t impossible). Judaism at this time was heavily influenced by Hellenism, so it isn’t unreasonable to assume that certain Greek schools of philosophy were bleeding into Jewish practice. It’s entirely possible that Jesus wasn’t ideologically influenced by John the Baptist or the Essenes at all, but by the Greeks directly (it’s unlikely). We’ll never know. But information is scarce regarding the roots of “egalitarian” thought…a term that I’m using very broadly here, but what I mean is “equality of all peoples”. “Liberal theory” is of course traceable back to the Ancient Greeks. But in western thought at the time, egalitarian beliefs weren’t so prevalent. The East, particularly in India…namely Jainism….such ideas were common place. Although we make a distinction between East and West, it is very likely that ideas were flowing back and forth between India and the Greco/Roman world. To what extent they would have influenced Jesus and/or Judaism is unknown, but the image that we have of Jesus being an egalitarian “revolutionary” would not have been new…these were ideas that were flowing around long before him.
Was Jesus a class warrior? Well….let’s look at the only other piece of evidence regarding the life of Jesus: the crucifixion. The Romans used crucifixion as a means of punishment for enemies of the state. This means the powers that be would have had to of seen Jesus as a genuine threat. It’s highly unlikely that the Gospels, including Mark, were accurate in their recreation of this event. Pontius Pilate was probably all too happy to send Jesus to his death. The Romans crucified Jesus, even the Gospels agree, yet strangely the Jews get blamed. It’s unknown what role the Jewish authorities had in regards to the apprehension of Jesus (a story for another day), but what we can say with absolute authority is that the Romans signed, sealed, and fostered Jesus’s crucifixion. Whatever story the Gospels try to sell in this regard is nonsense. So it’s interesting to ponder the effect that Roman intrusion had on Jewish society (Again, defer to the experts). It’s safe to assume that it caused deep rifts within its cultural hierarchy. And understandably so. Some, particularly those at the top, might’ve benefited from Roman presence while others, like those at the bottom in Jesus’s class, might’ve resented this. Was there a feeling among the poorer Jews that the authorities “sold them out?” (feel free to chime in) Were there feelings of disillusionment or a loss of Jewish identity during this time? If so, then it’s no wonder why there were so many apocalyptic preachers appearing….Jewish culture was in the midst of a socio-economic crisis. We can say with relative certainty that Jesus was not of nobility. He was an average joe. Had he been of any higher order, it’s possible that his actions would have been better documented. But because he was a nobody, the educated, or those that knew how to read and write, took no notice of his actions. Nevertheless, despite his nobody status, Jesus mobilized a group of fellow nobodies which Roman authorities perceived to be a genuine threat. It’s either that or because these insurrectionaries were so commonplace, the Romans simply crucified individuals for the most minor offenses as a means of deterring others. Whatever the case, because he was crucified, it’s entirely possible that Jesus’s intentions were to disrupt the established order….and he (likely) wanted to use the poor to do so.
But Jesus as an “apocalyptic preacher” would mean that he wasn’t a class revolutionary of any sort. It would have meant that he was more of a proto-David Koresh than Vladimir Lenin. If so, then he was just a lunatic on the fringes of Jewish society whose message would take off decades later. That is, unless we want to consider the possibility of the mysterious Q source.
What was the Q Source?
As stated earlier, the Gospel of Mark is the oldest of the canonical gospels. It was written some 30-40 years after the death of Jesus. The epistles of Paul actually predate the gospels (I Thessalonians is, I believe, the oldest surviving New Testament work). In fact, it’s not certain that Paul knew anything about the life of Jesus. Paul’s interpretation of Christianity might’ve, to a certain degree, influenced the theology and Christology presented in the gospels. Therefore, Christianity as a religion today is largely the creation of the Apostle Paul and NOT Jesus of Nazareth. However, early Christians right after the crucifixion almost certainly used particular documents or oral traditions to recall the message of Jesus. Unfortunately, NONE of these sources survive. Moreover, nothing is ever mentioned about them in any other source. Therefore we can only provide speculation on their existence. But there is one source, the Q Source, that scholars almost universally agree upon. Better yet, we know what was contained in the source (if it in fact existed). Scholars know this by comparing the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and discovering that they shared Mark as a source, but there’s another source that Matthew and Luke used that Mark did not. From this, Q was hypothesized. (There’s a lot more to this that I won’t go into here. But it’s a fascinating theory, and I highly recommend you research this.)
Scholars generally believe that Q was not a narrative, but was instead a collection of sayings from Jesus. Which sayings would they have contained? Well…The Beatitudes (Blessed are the poor….), The Golden Rule, Parable of the Leaven, the Lost Sheep, etc, to name a few. It’s uncertain when this source was written. All we can say was that it was composed before the writing of Matthew and Luke (roughly 80-90 CE). Some believe that it might’ve existed in it’s earliest form right after the crucifixion in the 30s and completed during the 50s. If true, then the earliest (conceptualized) depictions of Jesus was not so much as an apocalyptic preacher, but as a sage teacher with a religious bent. He wasn’t as radical as say David Koresh, but not quite a revolutionary either. This would have placed Jesus down the line of a Buddha or Socrates.
So the obvious question is why didn’t this text survive, and why didn’t anybody else mention it? Defenders of this theory explain that once when it was incorporated with context into the gospels, it wasn’t necessary to preserve it especially since it was likely copied verbatim. As to why it was never mentioned, I don’t have a good enough answer. My expertise and desire to research is limited. But I can say that early Christianity was quite fragmented. The leading New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman states that it wasn’t so much “early Christianity” but “early Christianities”. Which would be odd considering the seeds of this Christian movement would have come from a relatively small group of followers. What happened to Jesus’s followers immediately after the crucifixion is a great mystery. Did the surviving “11 Apostles” (or Jesus’s inner circle. I say 11 because Judas would have been dead by this time) ever reconvene to hash out the theological details of Jesus’s ministry and decide to spread the word? Evidence would suggest a hard ‘no’. Since early Christianity was so fragmented, this would suggest that there was chaos immediately after the crucifixion. There were probably power struggles over command of the movement. This would account for the wide ranging interpretations and probable conflicts. The Q source might not have been available to, or fully accepted by, the various schools of thought that were blossoming in early Christendom. It wouldn’t have been until the arrival of Paul, or even the Gospel of Mark, that Christianity began to coalesce around a “proto-Orthodox” movement…which would have later provided the illusion theological consistency within Christ’s teachings (there are infamously many contradictions and variations within the canonical New Testament, even in the writings of Paul).
Granted, the Q Source might not have existed or have been a single source. However, it would be difficult to accept that the first written sources of Jesus didn’t appear until 20 years after the crucifixion, as in the writings of Paul, and 30-40 years as in the Gospel of Mark. There were absolutely other (likely written) sources floating around very early, none of which survive today, that would have had to of existed. And analytical research of these sources suggests that Jesus wasn’t all gloom and doom. (These apocalyptic interpretations were applied to Jesus around the build-up to and during the Jewish Revolt of 66-73CE which involved the destruction of the Second Temple. Correct me if I’m wrong though).
So was Jesus a “proto-Marxist”? There’s no hard evidence to support that. The conceptual evidence would suggest that Jesus wasn’t as apocalyptic as previously hypothesized and he likely had egalitarian leanings with his views on poverty (and presumed disdain for the rich). But I’m having to stretch the interpretation of “Marxism” and the conceptual evidence to agree with one another. We can view Jesus as a “sage teacher”, but in my view he was a religious leader addressing religious needs first and foremost.
But perhaps I’m missing the point.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be assessing the historical Jesus of Nazareth as a Marxist hero, but should be appreciating him for what he ushered in. Or rather what his early followers ushered in. It’s amazing that the beliefs of small group of poor people, living in the armpit of the Roman Empire, managed to shape Western Civilization. Despite some of the heartache that Christianity would bring about in subsequent centuries, I suppose we can consider the religion a “proletarian triumph” of sorts. “Salvation for All”, regardless of race, seems like a pretty revolutionary (though not new) idea. It’s pretty cool that it was all brought about by some inconsequential dude (or people) in some inconsequential part of the world….and we are still talking about it.
So no, I don’t think that Jesus of Nazareth was Marxist, but I do think the question holds a degree of merit. And a Marxist interpretation of Jesus’s life and times, along with early Christianity, is certainly valid.