Uses and abuses of Jesus
Even in the 21st century Jesus is still a much prized figure. In this the second chapter of his new book Jack Conrad shows how Jesus has been used and abused by almost every political persuasion
Christianity, the Jesus religion, is a world-historic fact. It is just as real in its own way as the internal combustion engine, Disneyland and the law of value. Almost uninterruptedly, for over one and a half thousand years - in various institutional forms and guises - christianity has been a dominating cultural influence over the minds of Europe's peoples.
Like a language, Jesus has been passed down from generation to generation, affecting them, being changed by them. As a result of this process of Chinese whispers the Jesus of one historical period would be almost unrecognisable in another historical period. The 1st century Jew was in the 13th century pictured as blond and blue-eyed by artists in western Europe. Nevertheless, as William Faulkner (1897-1962) put it in his Requiem for a nun, "The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past". Even in the 21st century, one of the biggest blocs in the European Union's parliament, the European Peoples Party, is christian democratic. It carries a poisonous sting. Rocco Buttiglione, once Silvio Berlusconi's Europe minister, campaigns for a European theoconservative order - in particular he wants to "battle for the freedom of christians" to discriminate against women and homosexuals.
So we communists - whose party, the Communist Party of Great Britain, was only established in 1920 and is now reviving painfully slowly after nearly being completely destroyed from within by Marxism Today, Straight Left and Morning Star traitors - must respect, albeit grudgingly, the longevity of christianity and its continued contemporary authority. There are well over a billion christians. And, whatever the proponents of multiculturalism maintain, Britain is not yet post-christian. The Church of England still constitutes what Walter Bagehot calls one of the "dignified parts", as opposed to the "efficient parts", of the constitution. Indeed the fact of the matter is that Britain has never had a prime minister who did not claim to be a practising christian (Benjamin Disraeli might be thought to be the exception; born a Jew in 1804, he was, though, baptised in 1817).
Yes, over the last 50 years or so, regular church attendance by the mass of the population has plummeted - out of 27 million claimed adherents, only an average of one million attend Sunday services. Nor is the Church of England any longer the Tory Party at prayer. Instead, we find middle-aged Guardian readers preaching to little congregations of the lost and lonely. Churches have become cold, strange, dispiriting places which echo to watered-down liberal concerns and sifted opinions. Services are not only sparsely attended. Ritual is hollow and only relevant when it comes to weddings and funerals - and less and less even then. For warmth, church professionals huddle around the banner of ecumenicalism. But fundamentalist splits, often charged by the sticky heat of sex, keep occurring and, in relative terms, prosper.
A small minority amongst the clergy, lacking any popular base but secure in their Church of England employment, try to find a fulfilling role for themselves through involvement in wider society and politics. They condemn third world poverty, the Iraq occupation and the greed of transnational corporations ... we even know of a few vicars who sermonise in favour of a socialism. Effectively they combine social work with social pacifism. Because of its ultra-flexible and conciliatory nature, Trotsky once humorously dubbed the Church of England the "Menshevik" church.
Not that god is dead - Friedrich Nietzsche was wrong on this, as on so much else. There are those, of course, claiming, no matter how dubiously, to stand in our tradition who argue that with the advance of science and the seemingly frenetic introduction of new technology - an illusion - religious ideas are bound to undergo a remorseless shrinkage to the point of soon winking out altogether - another illusion. Such a fatalistic outlook might provide atheist solace, but it is the atheism of fools, amounting to an idealist worship of the means of production.
The US proves the point. Here is the richest and most capitalistically advanced country on the face of the planet. It is also perhaps the most religious. George W Bush won his second presidential term in November 2004 and a four-million popular majority in no small part because of his pledge to follow a christian agenda when it came to issues such as abortion, stem cell research and homosexual marriage.
People in the US are highly privatised and often sadly rootless, everything is for sale and to buy is everything. Reduced to mere economic objects, they live in constant fear of neighbours, ill-health, joblessness and now terrorism ... and they despair. Allegiance to god, Jesus and the flag substitute for the real community that is so obviously lacking. In the age of computers, bioengineering and Mars explorers, religion draws on a deep well.
What we have seen is the third "great christian awakening" in America (the first occurred in the 1770s; the second was in the mid-19th century). A recent Mori poll shows that over 80% of Americans are regular church attenders. And six out of every 10 actually say they take Bible stories as literally true. Many of the same unfortunate people say that US-UK-imposed regime change in Iraq confirmed various prophetic texts in the Old testament that refer to the final fall of Babylon; that the borders of Israel were decreed by god thousands of years ago; that the UN is a forerunner of a final satanic world order that will produce the antichrist. It is not only the masses. According to another survey, this time sponsored by Nature, even amongst American physicists, biologists and mathematicians 40% of them believe in god as a deity who "takes an active interest in our affairs and heeds our prayers".
This christian mumbo jumbo is buttressed by hundreds of national and local religious TV stations enforcing the message. On American TV you see scores of people miraculously 'cured' every night. And if the odd televangelist turns out to have been spending his congregation's donations on booze and prostitutes, he comes on TV, almost like a Tory MP, with his forgiving wife, and cries his eyes out for sinning and whoring. The donations, a proportion of which find their way into the coffers of the Republican Party, keep flowing in, for god loves a repentant sinner.
In short, there is no automatic correlation between capitalist progress - with its profit- limited (ie, skewed, lopsided, foot-dragging) development of the productive forces - and the diminution of religion. Hence, in Britain, despite dramatically falling Church of England attendances and a shrinking belief in prescribed ecclesiastical doctrine, there is surely no room for smug atheist complacency. A clear majority is still convinced of the existence of some vague divinity or spiritual power. And sadly astrology, healing crystals, tarot-reading, self-development movements and other such witchery fills the vacuum left by the decline of the established church, not socialism. Indeed, amongst academic 'Marxists' there has been a fair crop that has discovered the divine. Eg, in 2000 the 'critical realist', Roy Bhaskar, revealed his 15 former lives - beginning with the prophet Moses - to stunned devotees. He was not being inconsistent. Shorn of nature, history and the class struggle, all that remains of the dialectic is idealism - methodologically more than prone to arrive at religious destinations.
It would therefore surely be foolish in the extreme to insist that Britain is immune from some new religious contagion. Saying this does not rely on some kind of reinvention, or reworking, of David Hume's pendulum theory. Simply that, be they conservative, liberal or radical, people still drag behind them the heavy weight of superstition. Three examples.
- Conservative: Peter Vardy, millionaire used car salesman, opened a string of government-sponsored christian fundamentalist schools as part of the Emanuel Schools Foundation. Under Tony Blair around a third of all schools had a "religious ethos" - mostly christian. He sought to increase that percentage and bring more than 150 muslim private schools into the state sector. Margaret Thatcher actively courted the rightwing christian vote and this resulted in clause 28, a notorious piece of homophobic legislation. There have also been populist christian movements such as the Festival of Light in the 1970s, founded by Mary Whitehouse, Malcolm Muggeridge and Trevor Huddleston. In September 1971 it rallied 60,000 people in London's Hyde Park to demonstrate in favour of family values and against the "pollution of mass pornography". The organisers sent a grovelling message to the queen and the prince of Wales, conveying their "loyalty and humble duty".
Clearly, only the atheism of fools would claim that rightwing religious fundamentalism is the exclusive preserve of muslims, hindus and Americans.
- Liberal: In 1999-2000 there were the official billion-pound celebrations of the christian millennium. They were, of course, half about remaking Britain's battered and attenuated state-national identity. But also half about collectively marking western civilisation's common era, which begins with the birth of their man-god, Jesus. Behind Sir Cliff Richard's number one hit 'Millennium prayer' in December 1999 there lay not bad taste alone, but a commercial echo of Victorian religious revivalism.
- Radical: More recently still there was Make Poverty History. It coincided with a series of Live 8 concerts in London, Paris, Boston, etc, and mobilised over 200,000 onto the streets of Edinburgh in July 2005 ... awash with dog collars, crosses and pious sentiments. Bishops and media saints fronted the march which encircled the Scottish capital. The aptly named Madonna excitedly called it a "revolution". Chris Martin, lead singer of the band Coldplay, called the concerts "the greatest thing that's probably been organised ever since the history of the world". Needless to say, we think that "the greatest thing that's probably been organised ever since the history of the world" was the October 1917 revolution. That was a real revolution!
If the bonds of social solidarity continue to deteriorate or undergo another sudden slippage, there could quite conceivably be a sudden upsurge of those who turn to the certainties of old-time christian religion - not simply due to poor material circumstances, but more because life under capitalism lacks meaning, has become miserably dehumanised. The perceived failure of working class politics and absence of a viable socialist project can only but intensify the attractions of a mental flight into an established and well honed fantasy.
To say the least, all this makes it timely to challenge christianity in the name of human liberation and through a historical materialist theory reveal its revolutionary origins in Palestine, transformation into the main ideological prop of the Roman empire and its subsequent evolution as a tool of the feudal and capitalist ruling classes. Communist politics, let us emphasise once again, is about more than trade union disputes, fighting cuts, student grants and other such bread and butter issues.
Actually our side has an inherent advantage. The cause of the working class needs the unvarnished truth about the past in all its concreteness, with all its different social formations, class antagonisms and contradictory world-historic personalities revealed in all their complexity. In contrast our rulers prefer Karl Popper's intellectually dishonest anti-Marxism. Indeed to maintain and reproduce ideological domination the bourgeoisie and its state purchase, flatter and promote a galaxy of first-rate minds who are willing to sell their souls - writers, theologians, journalists, broadcasters, lawyers, academics. Together they manufacture, or propagate, a history that downplays, or obliterates, the history-making role of those below. They present capitalism as the natural order, or the last word in civilisation. Piecemeal change is their totem. Revolutions might begin with blissful exaltation, but they bring only a harvest of sorrows.
Of course, the dominant culture revolves around where the money is: eg, fat salaries, commissions and career advancements. Not around the truth. Typically, in biographies, films, plays and novels, the past and its class lines and conflicts are blurred through a drip-drip process of cultural dilution, reversal and adoption. Aristocratic cavaliers are portrayed as headstrong but dashing heroes. Roundheads as dour proto-Stalinites and worryingly sincere in their theological beliefs: eg, Frederick Marryat's Children of the New Forest (1847). There are good and bad monarchs. But, whether it be bad king John or good queen Bess, within the institution of royalty lies the source of hope and overcoming old enmities and class divisions (eg, Shakespeare in love 1998).
There are bad capitalists, of course - eg, those, like Elliot Carver in the James Bond film Tomorrow never dies (1997), those who want to rule the world, or those who merely shy away from necessary change. The Boulting brothers' film I'm alright Jack (1959) lambastes, seemingly with an even hand, backward bosses and the backward communist shop steward Fred Kite (Peter Sellers). However, those in the middle - the wives, the sensible shareholders and the ordinary workers - have a mutual interest in ending class conflict and increasing productivity.
Hollywood too pushes reconciliation. The US civil war is gutted of social content and is often seen from the viewpoint of the confederate south: eg, The outlaw Josey Wales (1976). Ridley Scott's Kingdom of heaven (2005) provides another example of this approach applied to the international arena. The islamic leader, Saladin, is the good guy. He drives out the dangerously fanatical crusaders from their kingdom of Jerusalem. There are decent christians, and yet the Frankish leper-king, Baldwin IV, is undoubtedly the villain of the piece. This whole approach of softening, turning around or personalising old class and national antagonisms was first launched by Walter Scott (1771-1832), who sought - or so Georg Lukacs has it - to find a "middle way" between himself and the warring extremes of his particular social location.
What of our dead leaders? Marx and Engels have both been transformed from dedicated revolutionary politicians into mere interpreters of the world by reformists and left-leaning professors alike. They have also been deemed responsible for the gulags and the system of terror instituted by Stalin in the 1930s by rightist academics and their anarchist and social democratic outriders. Such claims are sustainable because not only was Stalin's 'second revolution' - ie, the 1928 counterrevolution within the revolution - carried out under the guise of Marxism, but so too were the Chinese, Korean, Albanian, Kampuchean and other bloody and disastrous experiments in national socialism. 'Official communism' in power created and lived an anti-Marxist Marxism. From the practical theory of universal human liberation what was called Marxism functioned as a creaking idealist doctrine which excused (non-capitalist) statist oppression and exploitation. In the absurd propaganda claims, ideological trappings and actions of Stalin, Mao, Kim Il Sung, Hoxha and their heirs and would-be emulators, the paid persuaders of capitalism found their truth.
Suffice to say, turning the likes of Marx, Engels and Lenin into their opposites - ie, advocates or heralds of national socialism - requires dishonesty on a grand scale. Capitalism ensures the prostituted conformity of the intelligentsia in general through assimilation - generous salaries, research grants and all manner of petty honours and privileges. Bureaucratic socialism in contrast had to resort to blanket censorship, the destruction of genuine political debate and the cult of an all-knowing leader. Supposedly Marx, Engels and Lenin blessed the grey drabness. Lying about such personalities is endlessly difficult, however. Deceased they may be. But their thoughts and aspirations live on in their published and widely disseminated writings (crude doctoring is easily exposed and was therefore in the main never attempted or quickly abandoned).
Communists must, and will, defend their own. We must also, being part of a class movement uniquely interested in the truth, seek to put the personalities of official history back on their feet - not least those who in some way articulate the age-old popular striving for freedom. That includes Jesus of Galilee.
Jesus remains a popular and therefore highly prized figure. In the 1960s John Lennon only half-jokingly boasted that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Not any more. Our Google search gave the fab four 5,710,000 references. However, Jesus does somewhat better. He scored 24,200,000. Even in Britain, it is therefore no surprise that top politicians find it advantageous to parade their religious affiliations or sympathies. Nor is it just for show. Many genuinely seem to believe. Tony Blair is a well publicised Church of England attender (when not receiving communion at his wife's Roman catholic church). In February 2006 Gordon Brown enthusiastically endorsed Jim Wallis's God's politics: why the American right gets it wrong and the left doesn't get it. Wallis, a US liberal christian, has been described as Brown's 'religious guru'. Then there is Ruth Kelly. She is a member of Opus Dei, the secretive, rightwing catholic cult which supported general Franco's regime in Spain.
But it is not only New Labour that does god. David Cameron makes great play about he and his wife being regulars at St Mary Abbots in Kensington, west London. Simon Hughes too is particularly vocal when it comes to his christian credentials. Before them there were Iain Duncan Smith and David Steel and Margaret Thatcher; she, of course, perversely justified her assault on the post-World War II welfare state by quoting Jesus's parable of the good Samaritan. Such charitable work is only possible if people get off their backsides and enrich themselves. Besides that characteristically methodist claim, a similarly cold hearted individualised approach can be heard from the oddball catholic convert, Ann Widdicombe.
An alternative to Marxism
The christian cult has unmistakably shaped the development of our working class movement and national psychology. "There is no country in Europe," remarked Leon Trotsky, "where church influence in political, social and family life is so great as in Great Britain". In a 1926 Pravda article Trotsky described his first visit to Britain a couple of dozen years before. Obviously it left a lasting impression. Along with Lenin and Krupskaya, he attended a 'free church' service in London. "We heard socialist speeches interspersed with psalms. The preacher was a printer who had just returned from Australia. He spoke about the social revolution. The congregation begged god in the psalms that he establish such an order where there would be neither poor nor rich. Such was my first practical acquaintance with the British labour movement ... What role, I asked myself at the time, does a psalm play in connection with a revolutionary speech? That of a safety valve. Concentrated vapours of discontent issued forth beneath the dome of the church and rose to the sky. This is the basic function of the church in class society".
Religious notions, even the most socialistic, thereby helped smother or divert class-consciousness and served as an alternative to Marxism. It is commonplace, though nonetheless historically accurate, to describe the Labour Party as more coloured by methodism than Marxism. In his The making of the English working class Edward Thompson argues that methodism came to the fore during the period 1790-1830, after the revolutionary movement had palpably failed: "religious revivalism took over just at the point where 'political' or temporal aspirations met with defeat".
Following that deflected course of political development, Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden promised voters a new Jerusalem; and to that end they demanded class peace. Socialism must come through parliament and the existing constitution. In 1910 Hardie humbly explained "that the impetus which drove me first into the labour movement, and the inspiration which has carried me on in it, has been derived more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than from all other sources combined". Even Tom Mann - a leader of the 1910-14 syndicalist revolt and chair of the early CPGB - was rumoured to be seriously considering entering the priesthood at about the same time he was secretary of the Independent Labour Party. James Connolly himself bowed a knee before the catholic faith of Ireland - it should take care of belief and other such spiritual matters; meanwhile socialists will concentrate on the struggle to obtain the nationalisation of the means of production and exchange!
Christianity exercised a sort of moral terrorism throughout the British Isles against anyone who might be tempted to openly declare themselves an atheist or a materialist. Britain gave the world Charles Darwin (1809-82), the Marx of biology. However, in 1881 Darwin candidly admitted to a group of visiting freethinkers, including Edward Aveling, that "he had finally given up completely on christianity at 40 years of age". But though an "agnostic" on god, he remained afraid to criticise religion from the standpoint of science. Public opinion would crucify him.
What characterised the past still in some respects characterises more recent times. Leftwingers such as Tony Benn, Jimmy Reid, Arthur Scargill and George Galloway have all pronounced upon their christian ideals and their inspirational value. Communists should expect nothing from such leaders except haughty demands for us to abandon our 'sectarian' principles and, that failing, a bureaucratic stab in the back - doubtless justified with references to Jesus and the need for tolerance!
Jesus is therefore used as a vehicle for just about every contending political viewpoint. We have a Labourite christianity which told voters in May 2005 to trust Tony Blair over Iraq because he could not tell a lie; an army christianity in the form of commander in chief Sir Richard Dannatt, who calls for a return to traditional "Judaeo-christian" values in order to counter "the islamist threat" within British society; a Liberal Democrat christianity politely urging people to accept green taxes because it will help to save their souls; a Cameronite christianity preaching the redemptive power of hugging hoodies; a leftwing christianity taking to the streets demonstrating against global poverty; and a Respect christianity which has Galloway purring about his sexual prowess, his teetotalism, his opposition to abortion and promising all in all to represent muslim interests.
Jesus is also a figure of controversy.
Take Mel Gibson's The passion of the christ - released over Easter 2004. On the one hand his film generated a deal of enthusiastic interest and is widely credited with helping Bush win the November 2004 presidential election (it certainly far outstripped Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 in box office takings). On the other hand, there was a gale of protest - in particular from leftist, liberal and Jewish circles. Basically Gibson - the film's writer, director, producer and main financier - was charged with consciously or unconsciously legitimising anti-semitism by reviving the hoary old idea that the Jews bear collective responsibility for killing the man-god, Jesus.
Eg, in Socialist Worker Mike Davis compared Gibson's film with the anti-semitic Jud Suess (1940), made under the supervision of Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister. The Romans were portrayed as "liberal imperialists", says Davis, while the Jews were the guilty ones. Rabbi Julia Neuberger agreed and added an extra warning: "This movie could lead to people taking on Gibson's simplistic, uneducated, uncritical and anti-semitic message: the Jews are the christ-killers - the baddies; the Romans did not want to do it - they are the goodies". The US-based Anti-Defamation League reasoned along exactly the same lines. Many people will use the film "as the very basis of hatred towards Jews".
Mel Gibson undoubtedly has some very funny ideas. Like his father, Hutton Gibson, he belongs to an obscure sect of catholic dissidents. Traditionalist catholics reject the 'modernisation' brought about under the guidance of John XXIII in the early 1960s. (In 2005 he donated $5 million of his profits from The passion to the cult.) They conduct church services in Latin and adhere to an almost medieval anti-semitism. Vatican II is blamed on a sinister masonic-Jewish conspiracy. Their esoteric doctrines rely in no small part on Anne-Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), an Augustinian nun and mystic whose visions of Jesus's last days were recorded in her The dolorous passion of our lord and saviour Jesus christ which was first published in 1832. She considered that Jesus's self-sacrifice, his willingness to be crucified, was more significant in religious terms than his resurrection. Hence the subject of Gibson's film.
Not that Gibson junior repeats Gibson senior's outright denial of the Nazi ethnocide. A parishioner - there are only 60 of them - at his church, the Holy Family Chapel in Agoura, California, assured journalists that he "doesn't go along with a lot of what his dad says". Furthermore, in response to accusations of anti-semitism, Gibson quietly removed Matthew's infamous line, "His blood be on us and on our children", shouted by the Jewish crowd in front of the hand-washing Pontius Pilate. Apparently they did "not work" in focus screenings and might be "hurtful" and even "misused". Yet, though the English subtitles have been exorcised, the loaded words themselves, albeit in Aramaic, still come forth from their mouths.
Meanwhile, John Paul II 'the great' welcomed the film and aloofly brushed aside critics: "It is as it was," he curtly announced. Protestant evangelists in the US were rather more loquacious. Billy Graham was enthusiastic. The Christian Coalition details why "christians and their families" should see Mel Gibson's film. Whatever the differences when it comes to style, for many years both catholic and protestant fundamentalists have been trying their damnedest to get Hollywood to bankroll Jesus - not as a sexually tortured erotic image or as a backdrop point of reference - but played 'big' and 'straight' as the one true son of god. And after the launch of Gibson's The passion both traditions energetically used it as a god-given recruiting sergeant. Block bookings at cinemas, leaflets for audiences, pamphlets, private showings, internet promotion, etc.
Quite frankly, the critics are mostly well wide of the mark. Gibson's "message" is neither "simplistic" nor "uneducated". They also lack courage. With the minor touches and additions provided courtesy of Emmerich, Gibson's film more or less faithfully reproduces the Jesus story, as told in the New testament. Here, in this account, Jesus was a sacrificial man-god betrayed by the Jewish mob - yes, the "baddies" - who masochistically suffered an agonising execution at the hands of the unknowing Romans - not quite the "goodies", but nearly so - in order to redeem a sinful humanity.
Gibson does seem to be haunted by anti-semitic inner demons (though he happily mixes and socialises with the filmocracy in Hollywood and Malibu beach, which includes many Jews). But if he is judged and found guilty simply on the basis of his film then it is definitely a case of shooting the messenger. Christianity, in terms of its key foundational texts and historical practices, oozes anti-semitism from every pore (indeed, this religious anti-semitism, which was revived in the late 19th century by catholic and orthodox church reactionaries, paved the way and provided fertile ideological conditions for the pseudo-scientific racial anti-semitism of the Nazi kind).
Attacking a film director for anti-semitism is, of course, easy. Attacking a whole religion in such terms is another matter entirely. Incidentally it should be pointed out that islam takes as good coin the accusation that collectively the Jews tried to kill god's "messenger", Jesus - of course, in this tradition Jesus is not killed on the cross, but is raised directly to heaven through divine intervention.
While the dominant bourgeois ideology of multiculturalism allows, even encourages, the witch-hunting of individuals for all manner of thought crimes, it frowns upon anything deemed 'offensive', crucially in the field of religion. Multiculturalism amounts to giving a green light to the promotion of religious separatism and therefore a politically motivated over-sensitivity.
A few examples.
- A christian hue and cry greeted Monty Python's Life of Brian - which actually poked fun at the revolutionary left.
- The same 'community' was outraged by BBC2's transmission of Jerry Springer - the opera in 2005. Christian fundamentalists and the British National Party joined together in an attempt to stop its 2006 national tour. Theatres were picketed.
- Jim Allen's play Perdition was abandoned by the Royal Court in 1987 because of Jewish 'community' protests 48 hours before it was due to open.
- Orchestrated book-burning by the muslim 'community' followed the publication of The Satanic verses. Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding after ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in 1989.
- In February 2006 came the death threats and outraged demonstrations against the 12 cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammed which were first published in September 2005 by the rightwing Danish paper Jyllands-Posten.
- Gurpeet Kaur Bhatti's Behzti was abandoned by Birmingham rep after the local Sikh 'community' laid siege to the building in December 2004. The Muslim Association of Britain and the catholic bishop of Birmingham, Vincent Nichols, also condemned her play, as did a string of Labour politicians: eg, Khalid Mahmood, MP for Birmingham Perry Barr.
New Labour went into the 2005 general election committed to introducing legislation which would make it an offence to incite religious hatred. Despite successful amendments, what is deemed "a legitimate religion", legitimate debate" and "legitimate freedom of expression" will now be decided by the courts. The courts are, to put it mildly, no friend of the left.
As well as being useful, Jesus is an unnatural and elusive figure too. In the New testament, he is, of course, presented as possessing supernatural powers. Christian fundamentalists insist upon the inerrancy (absence of error) of the Bible. For them Jesus would miraculously cure individual, presumably deserving, lepers, but not banish leprosy as a disease. However, even the most 'progressive' Church of England bishop pretends, or might actually believe, that Jesus worked wonders and roused the minds of millions. Suffice to say, in early modern times, leading deists were busily pouring the cold water of doubt upon these claims and thereby laying the foundations for the materialist critique of religion.
Benedict de Spinoza (1632-77) subtly tore to shreds the idea that god acted in a way that "contravened nature's universal laws" in service of religion, as recorded from the time of the patriarchs. Anyone who made such an assertion, reasoned the philosopher, "would [ipso facto] be compelled to assert that god acted against his own nature - an evident absurdity". In their turn Charles Blount (1654-93) and Thomas Chubb (1699-1747) argued that the miracles incorporated into, or claimed by, pagan religions must be given the same status as christian miracles. Henry St John, viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751), also considered that miracles "are incredible because [they are] contrary to all experience, and to the established course of nature". And let us not forget, even during the enlightenment people had to formulate their ideas with some care, if they were to avoid charges of atheism and the possibility of heavy fines, imprisonment or worse.
How risky it was to be accused of being an atheist is shown by the fate of Jean-Francois de la Barre (1745-76). This young French aristocrat publicly displayed his contempt for the catholic church. He refused to lift his hat as a religious procession passed him by. After a wooden crucifix on the bridge in Abbeville was vandalised he got the blame. His atheism was enough. Under torture the poor man confessed. Of course he did. What clinched the matter, at least as far as the authorities were concerned, was the discovery of three prohibited books found at his lodgings. They included Voltaire's Philosophical dictionary. Handed over to the Paris parliament (high court), de la Barre suffered torture once again. Sentenced to death, beheaded, his body was then put to the flames. Voltaire took up his cause - unsuccessfully. The revolutionary National Convention finally exonerated him in 1794.
Others accused of atheism include Denis Diderot, one of the enlightenment's brightest stars. The great man was briefly imprisoned because of his writing, some of which were, like Voltaire's, included on the banned list and ritualistically burnt. The first to openly deny god and declare more or less explicitly for atheism was Paul d'Holbach. A celebrated Parisian socialite, he presided over a glittering salon attended by the likes of Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, Adam Smith and Benjamin Franklin. Published under a pseudonym, d'Holbach's book The system of nature (1770), was banned and given the Fahrenheit 541 treatment by the public executioner.
In more 'tolerant' countries - such as Britain - ecclesiastical courts lost their power to torture, imprison and burn. Despite that, atheists and other heretics still faced charges of blasphemy; a common-law offence since the 17th century. There were also violent attacks by enraged plebeian mobs whipped up into a frenzy by bigoted Anglican clergymen and Tory diehards.
As part of the questioning tradition, Gibbon pointed out in his Decline and fall, surely ironically, that, though god had supposedly allowed Jesus and his disciples to regularly suspend "the laws of nature", the sages and philosophers of Greece and Rome somehow failed to notice. In fact they later "rejected and derided" all such christian claims of miracles. And the simple fact of the matter is that during his own time not one pagan or Jewish observer that we know of devoted even a single word to Jesus, let alone his supernatural cures and magic.
The first non-christian to mention the saviour's name was Flavius Josephus, the pro-Roman eyewitness to the Roman sack of Jerusalem in 73. He expresses indignation at the killing by a sadducee high priest of "a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the christ". Better still, in the chapter devoted to events during the reign of Tiberius, he included a passage which in christian hands has become known as Testimonium Flavianum: "About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was christ. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of god had prophesised these countless other marvellous things about him. And the sect of christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared".
The words of this self-justifying and sometimes highly untrustworthy aristocratic Jew, who was a near contemporary of Jesus, were much valued by christians. From the 2nd century he was translated and widely read by them almost as an additional biblical testament. He splendidly corroborated the gospels. However, even in the 17th century critical voices were being raised. Voltaire, exasperatedly complained in his essay, 'The sermon of the 50', that "the historian Josephus is falsified and made to speak of Jesus, though Josephus is too serious an historian to mention such a man". Voltaire thought that reason alone militated against the fraud. If Josephus had merely written the words, "he was christ", that would have made him a christian. And, needless to say, Josephus was no christian. He was in his own peculiar way loyal to Judaism.
Nowadays, all worthwhile scholars agree that what we are dealing with is christian interpolation, not Josephus himself. Whether this was by accident or design, opinion is divided. Some hold that it was nothing but a clumsy forgery; others maintain that perhaps marginal notes by some pious 4th century monk were later integrated into the text by a copyist. Either way, says Mireille Hadas-Lebel, "No one believes that Josephus' hand wrote the words 'if, indeed, one ought to call him a man' or 'He was the messiah'". Interestingly, but hardly surprisingly, neither of these formulations appears in the recently discovered old Arabic version.
One of two conclusions broadly present themselves from all this. The first is that Jesus simply did not exist. More than a few thinkers have come to this conclusion. In his Critique of the gospels and history of their origin, former left Hegelian and eminent German Bible critic Bruno Bauer (1809-1882) argued that Jesus was "constructed, for the most part, to meet the needs of christian propaganda"; he was not an historical figure. In a famous Secular Society lecture in 1927 Bertrand Russell put forward a similar idea. "Historically, it is quite doubtful whether christ ever existed at all, and if he did we do not know anything about him". John Allegro, a translator of the Dead Sea scrolls, argued that the whole Jesus story was a "fictional" cover for a secret drug-using cult. And Michael Martin, professor of philosophy at Boston university, also says that there is insufficient evidence to conclude that Jesus ever existed. The Italian atheist, Luigi Cascioli, even took his old school friend, Enrico Righi, parish priest in Bagnoregio, to court in January 2006, complaining that for 2,000 years the catholic church had perpetrated the fraud that Jesus was a real person. Father Righi had repeated this in his local parish bulletin. Cascioli filed a criminal lawsuit alleging that: "When somebody states a wrong fact, abusing the ignorance of people, and gains from that, then that is one of the gravest crimes".
We hold to a second conclusion. That there were so many saviours or messiahs (ie, christs, in the Greek tongue) in 1st century Palestine, that, while others were given a passing mention, Jesus did not rate any specific treatment. Josephus rails against the countless "religious frauds and bandit chiefs" who joined forces in an attempt to win Jewish freedom from Rome. He also writes sneeringly of an "Egyptian false prophet" who, posing as a seer, "collected about 30,000 dupes" and after leading them around the desert took them to the Mount of Olives; "and from there was ready to force entry into Jerusalem"so as to seize "supreme power". Roman heavy infantry scattered the "mob" and killed or captured "most of his followers".
Given this combination of the absent messiah and an abundance of messiahs, is there any realistic possibility of knowing anything about the real Jesus and finding out what he really represented? Yes, there is, albeit within definite limits. If we start not with the vacuum of the persona, but, on the contrary, if we work from the outside and investigate indirectly, socially and historically, by applying the method of deduction and inference, eventually a credible outline of Jesus and who he was will come into view, along with what he did during the turbulent final few years of his short life.