Gaudenzio Ferrari ‘Stories of the Life and Passion of Christ’ (1513): fresco at the Church of Santa Maria, Varallo Sesia, Italy

An international socialist?

Daniel Lazare has Jesus reaching out to the Roman oppressors, disowning his siblings and mother and affronting popular morality, to promote what was a cause parallel to modern socialism. There is always the danger, when we look back at the past, of finding a reflection of ourselves - but Jesus was undoubtedly a revolutionary

Socialists have long celebrated Jesus as a class warrior - understandably so, since his words fairly resonate with the anger of the poor against the rich.

But another aspect is less understood: his internationalism. The prevailing tendency of his day was to see politics, history and theology through an ethnic lens. It was a question of good people versus bad, which in the case of Palestine in the early 1st century meant the Jews versus everyone else. This is not to say that class was absent. On the contrary, the Hebrew Bible is unusual in terms of its sympathy for the poor. Deuteronomy 24 is typical:

Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to Yahweh against you, and you will be guilty of sin (14-15).

There is nothing remotely like this in Homer, Deuteronomy’s rough contemporary. But the Old Testament (as Christians would later call it) still sees the poor as people whom the literate classes are obliged to help. “Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits,” says Exodus 23:6. “Your” is the key word here, since it implies that responsibility for the proper administration of justice lies with the upper rungs in charge of the courts. The idea of the poor meting out justice on their own is entirely absent. The idea of them meting out justice on the rich is even more alien. The idea of them joining with the poor of other nations in order to do so is downright incomprehensible.

It is this subordination of class to nation, to put it in modern terms, that Jesus set out to challenge. He did so in a way that would strike today’s ‘unity at all costs’ leftists as sectarian in the extreme. Instead of calling for a popular front of Judea (to quote Monty Python), he is the kind of ideological troublemaker who first wants to know what terms like ‘Judea’ and ‘popular front’ even mean.

Consider the kingdom of God that the day of judgment will supposedly usher in. A centuries-old Jewish tradition described the end-times as a series of earth-shaking events, in which God scatters his enemies to the winds in order to establish his direct reign on earth. The Book of Micah, which dates from the 8th century BCE, says that “mountains [will] melt ... and the valleys split apart, like wax before the fire, like water rushing down a slope” (1:4). The Book of Isaiah promises the Israelites that “strangers will shepherd your flocks; foreigners will work your fields and vineyards ... You will feed on the wealth of nations and in their riches you will boast” (61:5-6). The Book of Daniel, written in the 2nd century BCE, says that God “will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever” (2:44).

‘Liberation’ means smashing your enemies to smithereens, so that you can revel in booty and slaves. It means joy over other people’s suffering. Revenge fantasies like these were obviously appealing to a small nation struggling to hold itself together after repeated kicks and blows. But it is a moral and political dead-end, as Jesus was beginning to realise.

Hence, his description of the heavenly kingdom is strikingly different. The key passage is in Luke 13, which Matthew 8 repeats nearly word for word. In it, Jesus tells members of the upper-class Pharisaic party:

There will be weeping there and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed, there are those who are last who will be first and first who will be last (28-30).

Instead of armies scattered to the four winds, there is merely a feast. Rather than kingdoms, it is class relations that are trampled, so that those on top are now below and vice versa. Instead of Israel robbing and enslaving others, foreigners from “east and west and north and south” - which is to say all nations on earth - are invited to dine together in peace.

Moreover, they are invited do so in contravention of the Jewish dietary laws, which were of growing importance in Jesus’s day and which, under ordinary circumstances, would have made any such gathering impossible. Jesus thus conceives of God’s reign as less a kingdom than a village - a peasant international in which ethno-religious divisions fall by the wayside and half-starved countryfolk sit down at the same table and at last eat their fill.


A bit of historical context is necessary in order to understand what made such words so powerful. Jesus’s “mission”, as far as scholars have been able to determine, extended from the late 20s to his crucifixion in or about the year 33. Several things about this period stand out. One is that Judaism was still a loose and baggy collection of national traditions that the rabbis (literally, ‘masters’ or ‘teachers’) were struggling to iron out, but which were still in relative flux. As a result, there was plenty of room for a renegade thinker to engage self-proclaimed experts in intellectual debate.

A second is that Jews were still living in the shadow of a mini-empire that the Hasmoneans - a Jewish landowning family also known as the Maccabees - had carved out beginning in 167 BCE. The kingdom, which extended from the Sinai to modern-day Lebanon and Syria and across to Jordan in the east, was novel. Where most conquerors were religiously tolerant, not caring what deity people worshipped, as long as they paid their taxes, the Hasmoneans were aggressive Judaisers, who demanded that subjects conform to Jewish law, pay religious taxes and sacrifice to Yahweh in his temple in Jerusalem. “Such a policy of conquest was not unusual; but it was quite unusual for such a policy to develop into one of religious expansion,” observed Karl Kautsky in his classic 1908 study, Foundations of Christianity.1 But the Maccabees went at it regardless: “You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” God says in Exodus 19 - and that is what the Hasmoneans set out to establish by imposing an unprecedented degree of religious uniformity, including in the newly Judaised frontier province of Galilee.

But then the Hasmoneans collapsed after extensive religious and political infighting, allowing the Romans to take over in 37 BCE. It was left to various thinkers and schools, the Jesus movement among them, to try to figure out what had gone wrong.

Finally, there is a third factor. Although the empire was relatively peaceful under Tiberius, who ruled from CE 14 to 37, social tensions were rising, as a new crop of Greco-Roman cities sucked more and more wealth out of the impoverished countryside. One result was growing ethnic tensions with Hellenes and Samaritans - the latter a semi-Jewish people who revered Moses and the Torah, but refused to worship in Jerusalem, preferring their own cultic centre on Mount Gerizim some 30 miles to the north. (A tiny Samaritan community still survives in Israel and the West Bank.)

But ethnic tensions were not the only thing on the upswing - class tensions were as well. Faced with two such countervailing tendencies, Jesus’s great decision was to firmly side with one against the other, in the process forging a striking new ideological critique.

A number of examples stand out. One is the story of the Roman centurion in the Galilean town of Capernaum, who has heard that Jesus is a powerful healer and begs him to cure a servant who has fallen ill. “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof,” the centurion says. He continues:

That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.

With this, Jesus turns to the crowd and says, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel” (Luke 7:1-9).

The comment must have taken Jesus’s Jewish followers aback. After all, they were the chosen people, they had a special relationship with the divine, so how could a Greek-speaking foreigner even come close? If Jesus had been a conservative nationalist, he might have haughtily dismissed the centurion’s faith as far below Jewish standards. If he had been a nationalist of a somewhat more liberal bent, he might have acknowledged that it was nearly on a par with that of the Jews, but not quite the same. But declaring that it exceeded that of the Jews was altogether different.

Since the story also appears in Matthew 8:5-13, it apparently comes from a book of sayings that a New Testament analysts call ‘Q’, from the German Quelle (‘source’), that both authors drew upon in composing their gospels. Since scholars believe that Jesus’s followers may have begun compiling such sayings as early as the 40s, it brings us to within just a few years of Jesus himself and is therefore as accurate a rendition of his words as we are ever likely to get. If so, then it seems that the historical Jesus was setting out to challenge the concept of a divinely chosen ethnos head on.

Another example is even more radical. This is the story of the good Samaritan, which appears in Luke 10:25-37. It begins with an expert in Jewish religious law posing a trick question:

Lawyer: Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

Jesus: What is written in the law? How do you read it?

L: Love Yahweh your god with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind. And love your neighbour as yourself.

J: You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.

L: And who is my neighbour?

This is the nub of the question. Rather than answering directly, Jesus launches into one of his famous parables:

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road and, when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and, when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarius and gave them to the innkeeper. “Look after him,” he said, “and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.”

Then Jesus poses a question of his own: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

“The one who had mercy on him,” the lawyer replies.

Says Jesus: “Go and do likewise.”


Since the priest, the Levite and the injured traveller are all clearly Jewish, the lesson is the same as in the story of the Roman centurion - only a good deal sharper. Jews and Samaritans were not on friendly terms. The Hasmoneans had attacked the Samaritan temple in 128 BCE while, somewhere around CE 9, according to the Roman-Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, Samaritans had desecrated the Jerusalem temple in return by scattering human bones in its interior. Indeed, a mini-war between the two neighbours would erupt some 20 years after Jesus’s execution.

So it is rather as if, at the height of the US civil rights movement, Martin Luther King had told a story about a white man stopping to help a wounded black traveller after two eminent black clergymen pass him by - something that not even King would have dared do. Or the equivalent could be an Israeli telling of a Palestinian who stops to help a wounded Jew or a Palestinian telling of a Jew stopping to help a wounded Muslim. The bottom line is that Jews, blacks, Palestinians, etc should not think so highly of themselves, since it turns out that a despised foreigner is more generous and upright than they are.

Since the parable appears nowhere else in the Gospels, it is evidently not part of Q. Nonetheless, members of the Jesus Seminar - an effort by 50 or so biblical scholars, beginning in the mid-1980s, to distil the essence of the real historical Jesus - argued that it is authentic regardless on the grounds of “dissimilarity”: ie, the notion that the parable is so strange, unusual and at odds with Jewish orthodoxy that none of his followers would have dared make it up.2 It is rather like the story of the early Christian, who falls asleep during one of Saint Paul’s lectures and tumbles out of a window (Acts 20:9). That story is not only odd, but embarrassing, since the implication is that the apostle was not the liveliest of speakers. Hence, it is not the sort of thing that followers would make up either. Its oddness speaks to its truthfulness.

If so, then Jesus was a combative intellectual of a particularly cantankerous sort. A German New Testament analyst named Gerd Theissen argues that defining ‘neighbour’ in moral terms enabled Jesus to make a number of conceptual leaps. Not only was the moral community different from the ethno-religious community: apparently, it was fundamentally at odds. If Jewish superiority was suspect, then so was ethnic enmity. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy’,” Jesus declares in the Sermon on the Mount. “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-44; see also Luke 6:27-31). Jesus goes even further by questioning family ties as well.

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters - yes, even their own life - such a person cannot be my disciple,” he declares in Luke 14:26. In Mark 3:33-35, he makes a point of keeping his mother and brothers waiting when they come to visit. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asks. Then, looking at his followers sitting around him, he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” When a woman calls out from a crowd, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you,” he answers: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:27-28). Most startling of all is his advice to a follower who begs leave to bury his father. “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God,” he says (Luke 9:60, Matthew 8:22). In an age in which filial piety was the closest thing to a universal principle, it was the ultimate affront. Today’s Christian evangelists may think Jesus was a champion of “family values” as currently understood, but he was in fact the opposite.

“The primitive Christian ethic of love of neighbour is a radicalisation of the Jewish ethic,” Theissen writes - one that Jesus takes to greater and greater heights. “First, love of neighbour becomes love of enemy,” he says. “... Secondly, love of neighbour is extended to become love of the stranger.” Ultimately, it even “becomes love of the sinner.”

“Whereas normally those who are closest of all are preferred and loved,” Theissen adds, “... here the situation is reversed. Disciples may risk conflict with the family, but they are to practise love towards outsiders!”3 As Jesus put it in the Sermon on the Mount,

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them ... But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the most high, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:32-35; see also Matthew 5:43-48).

Jesus’s forte was turning everything upside-down and-inside out - neighbour, family, sinner, whatnot. Religious assumptions, ethnic pride and even ordinary business practices were all weighed in the balance and found wanting. Obviously, lending without expecting to be paid in return is impractical in real life. So is turning the other cheek. But ‘impossibilist’ ethics like these were meant to point to a heavenly future, in which they become practical after all, because everybody would be a member of the same moral and spiritual family. As they used to say in Paris in 1968, “Be practical - demand the impossible.”


The parallels with socialism are clear. Marxism also takes common bourgeois assumptions and stands them on their head. By urging the working class to demand what capitalism is incapable of producing, it tries to point the way to a revolutionary social order capable of providing what humanity needs so urgently. Where Jesus looked to God to establish a heavenly reign on earth, socialism looks to the international proletariat to create a new kind of society based on solidarity, cooperation and new heights of democracy.

As is often noted, early church fathers sought to tone down class conflict in the wake of the great Jerusalem revolt of CE 66-70 in the hope of making the new movement more palatable to the Roman authorities. “The destruction of Jerusalem destroyed the last reservoir of popular energy in the empire,” Kautsky observes. “All rebellion now became hopeless. Christianity now became pagan Christianity only; this made it submissive, even servile.”4 The charge is undeniable, as a glance at Luke and Matthew - both of which date from the mid-80s - shows. In Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, we read:

But woe to you who are rich,

For you have already received your comfort.

Woe to you who are well fed now,

For you will go hungry.

Woe to you who laugh now,

For you will mourn and weep (6:24-25).

But Matthew, whoever he might have been, leaves such words out, presumably on the grounds that they were unnecessarily provocative. Instead, he has Jesus say:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,

For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn,

For they will be comforted (5:3-4).

What counts now is not so much the poor as those who are merely “poor in spirit”. Instead of angry and vengeful, the lower classes are now gentle and submissive. But perhaps by way of compensation, Matthew emphasises internationalism even more. It is he, not Luke, who comes up with the famous line, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (5:5). The poor will become masters of the globe - and, even if events did not quite work out that way, the movement that Jesus founded did go on to conquer Rome some three centuries later. It is an open question as to whether Christianity rendered the empire any better or not. But there is no doubt that it transformed it.

Just as the parallels with socialism are clear, so are the parallels with today’s Middle East. Instead of a mini-war between Jews and Samaritans, we now have a major war between Israelis and Gazans. As bad as communal hatreds were in the early first century, they are now a thousand times worse. Hamas’s terrorist assault on October 7 has opened up the floodgates of sectarianism on both sides of the divide and, the more the war spreads, the more all-consuming they become.

But it is the job of socialists to oppose such currents and point the way to a solution. However impossibilist, the call for a Israeli-Palestinian workers’ state in a socialist Middle East grows more practical by the day, simply because there is no other way out of the abyss. Like the internationalist Jesus, we must point to a proletarian solution, in which workers unite not only in order to lose their chains, but their guns and RPGs. ‘What would Jesus do’ should be our slogan - not in a direct sense, needless to say, but dialectically, so that his yearning for international moral solidarity becomes our own.

The goal is a world in which bombs do not fall, children are not buried in rubble, and neighbours do not seek to tear one another apart limb from limb - a world, in other words, in which it is possible to wish one another ‘Merry Christmas’ after all.

And so ends our sermon for the week!

  1. K Kautsky Foundations of Christianity: a study in Christian origins New York 1925, p259.↩︎

  2. P Rhea Jones Studying the parables of Jesus Macon Ga 1999, p15.↩︎

  3. G Theissen The religion of the earliest churches Minneapolis 1999, pp66-67.↩︎

  4. K Kautsky Foundations of Christianity New York 1925, p392.↩︎