WeeklyWorker

15.12.1994
Peter, in the foreground, hacks off Malchus’ ear as Jesus is surrounded by his captors

Apocalyptic revolutionary

Jesus did not sacrifice himself for our sins. He was a daring resistance leader who expected to win

REVOLUTIONARY class politics are about more than strikes, street demonstrations and subversive leaflets. A prerequisite for anything decisive is the fight to secure ideological hegemony. By definition that involves as much the past as the present. History, therefore, is a weapon, either for revolution or reaction.

Where we need the unvarnished truth about history with all its contradictions, popular movements and violent change, our rulers need mystification and seamless apologetics. To maintain domination in the realm of ideas the bourgeoisie employs historians, theologians and political theorists. These dons and doctors of philosophy manufacture and propagate a history which downplays or denies those below. Continuity and the royal line is their narrative totem; progress comes gloved and lordly from high. Revolutions and revolutionaries are with equal disingenuousness demonised or sanitised.

Hence the revolutionary past of their own bourgeois ancestors is insulted. Cavaliers are the dashing heroes of biography, film and novel; Roundheads, dour proto-Stalinites. What of our dead leaders? Where not judged directly responsible for the gulags, they are transformed into safe reformists. Marx, Engels, Lenin and Luxemburg all suffered such treatment.

Of course, taming such intellectual lions as these is difficult. Deceased they may be, but their thoughts live, and not only in Progress Publishers volumes. For millions of working class partisans Marxism is the science of liberation. That material threat explains why the ruling class and their academic servants churn out, each year, hundreds of books which all ‘finally disprove’ Marxism.

We must, and will, defend our own. We must also, being part of a class uniquely interested in the truth, seek to turn the personalities of ‘official’ history back on to their feet. In the great tinselled and commercial, pious and mystical run-up to Christmas that especially applies to Jesus - who was, or so the Latin story goes - born 1,994 years ago on December 25 in the little town of Bethlehem.

Interestingly there are some ‘honest’ Christians who refuse to recognise Christmas. Under the Commonwealth, a god-fearing Oliver Cromwell banned the festival as devil-born heathenism. Today in Scotland, the Free Presbyterians, the ‘wee-frees’, also consider Christmas pagan. Quite right too. Christmas originated as a communistic celebration of the winter solstice (eg, the Roman Saturnalia). Only in the early 4th century did the western church decide that December 25 was the “date for the nativity” (H Chadwick The early church, 1975, p126). Of course, the Christians who condemn Christmas imagine that each and every word of the bible comes from an almighty god.

For us it is a very human document. Each book of the Hebrew canon is a palimpsest. Over many years, successive generations revised and modified the accumulated myths, taboos and many deities of the wandering Hebrew tribes. Like the Zoroastrian Persians and later the Islamic Arabs, the monotheism of the Hebrews was the result, not of philosophical sophistication, but of sudden contact with and adoption of urban culture. The idol which Jacob stole from his brother-in-law Laban became the god of Jerusalem after the Hebrew community took “definite form” in Palestine and left behind the stage of “nomadic instability” (K Kautsky Foundations of Christianity, 1972, p190).

That does not mean the Old Testament was crude falsehood. On the contrary. As Marx succinctly explained in his fourth thesis on Feuerbach, the “secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself in the clouds as an independent realm”, because of “the inner-self and intrinsic contradictions” of the secular base (K Marx CW Vol 5, 1976, p7). Religion is a social product. The evolution of yahweh was bound up with the Hebrew tribes, and in their god we can gain an insight into them and the evolution of their real life process. The same applies to Christianity and Jesus; only with the proviso that besides the New Testament (written between 70 and 100AD), we have relatively abundant literary records, not least those of the Romans.

Jesus, in the New Testament, is credited with supernatural powers. Even the most ‘progressive’ Church of England bishop claims he worked wonders and roused the minds of millions. Nevertheless, even before the end of the 18th century, Edward Gibbon pointed out in his Decline and fall, with what Kautsky called “delicate irony”, that - though the “laws of nature were frequently suspended for the benefit of the church” - the sages of Greece and Rome “appeared un-conscious of any alteration in the moral or physical government of the world” (quoted in K Kautsky Foundations of Christianity, 1972, p23). Indeed no contemporary pagan or Jewish observer devoted even one word to Jesus.

The first non-Christian to mention him was said to have been Josephus Flavius, in the eighteenth and twentieth books of the Jewish antiquities. Though the words of this pro-Roman aristocratic Jew were much valued by Christians, all serious scholars now admit that they were a 3rd century interpolation.

One of two conclusions presents itself. Either Jesus did not exist - John Allegro, fantastically in my opinion, says the whole Jesus story was a “fictional” cover for a secret drug-using cult (see JM Allegro The sacred mushroom and the cross, 1970). Or, as is the case, there were so many messiahs (ie, christs) that, while others were given passing reference, including by Josephus, he did not rate a mention.

Palestine was at the crossroads of Middle Eastern civilisations. That is what made it a land of milk and honey for the Hebrew conquerors. Once settled, they turned from herding and banditry to agriculture and trade. Israel emerged as a powerful kingdom, its merchants spreading across the known world (coherence was maintained by the Jerusalem-centred religious cult and obligatory pilgrimages).

However, from the 9th century BC one wave of new invaders followed another. Assyrians, Medes, Persians, Greeks and finally in the 1st century BC the Romans. During power vacuums there were brief interludes of independence. But the Jews - after the tribe of Judah - became an oppressed nationality, which in turn bred “national fanaticism to the highest degree” (K Kautsky Foundations of Christianity, 1972, p227). This was particularly so as Roman exploitation became absolute. The mass of the population viewed the Romans much as the Czechs and Poles viewed the Nazis.

Naturally dreams of liberation were mediated through the prism of class and religion. Herodians were high class, and almost alone in being pro-Roman; Sadducees, reluctant priestly collaborators; Pharisees, middling types who defended orthodox Judaism; Essenes, apocalyptic revolutionaries; and Zealots, practical revolutionaries. Albeit sketchy, that was the religio-political spectrum.

For 200 years Palestine was the hotbed of revolt within the Roman empire - the Zealot uprisings of 6AD and 66-73AD being outstanding examples. If Palestine was the Romans’ Northern Ireland, Galilee, where Jesus grew from childhood, was its Derry.

The New Testament Jesus is a very strange person. Nowhere does he challenge or even question Roman occupation. Instead he appears to positively love the Roman tyrant. It is the Pharisees who earn his rebukes. Jesus even urges his fellow Jews to dutifully pay their Roman taxes (that would have been akin to preaching to the people of Liverpool the virtue of paying the poll tax under Thatcher). And yet he manages to gain a mass following.

His birth and childhood are even harder to swallow. A Roman census in what is now year zero - there was one in 6AD - unbelievably requires subjects of the empire to travel to the places of their birth! If such a stipulation had been made, the movement of people would surely have caused complete chaos. Anyway, or so the story goes, Joseph, the ‘father’ of Jesus, and his pregnant, but virgin, wife trek all the way from Nazareth to distant Bethlehem in Judaea. There guided by a wondrous star, shepherds and wise men shower the infant with gifts, just before Herod, the pro-Roman king, orders the massacre of the innocents. Joseph and Mary flee towards Egypt. All pure invention, as was the ability of the young Jesus to outwit the temple priests in theology when he visits Jerusalem.

Here, as with much else, we have the heavy hand of later myth-making and later Greek rewriters. In general it has to be said that the four gospels display profound ignorance of the elementary facts of Jewish life and become successively more anti-Jewish; in John, Jesus becomes a pro-Roman Mithras-like god who was put to death by Pontius Pilate, solely due to the collective guilt of the Jewish people.

Yet by drawing on what we know of the Jews at the time and removing obvious fabrication, we can arrive at a much more probable version of events. Charismatic and well educated, Jesus was certainly a rabbi and Pharisee (teacher and preacher). Gospel passages which show enmity to Pharisees, such as over Sabbath-healing, have “clearly been inserted where the original story had ‘Sadducees’” (H Maccoby Revolution in Judaea, 1973, p139).

Like many another he came to believe, during the course of his ministry, that he was not only a prophet but the messiah (christ, or anointed one) who would deliver the Jewish people from Rome (the beast). He therefore called himself ‘Son of David’, not ‘Son of God’ - an incomprehensible concept for the Jews. That is why two of the gospels go to great lengths to show that through Joseph he was related to David - ie, the last great king of Israel. Jesus’ claim to be ‘king of the Jews’ was his claim to be leader of a revolution that would bring forth a communistic ‘kingdom of god’ ... “Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of god! Woe unto ye that are rich! Woe unto ye that are full for ye shall hunger. Woe unto ye that laugh for ye shall mourn and weep!” (Luke). This imminent class vengeance was not to be in heaven but on earth. From Jerusalem a new “world theocracy”, with Jesus at its head, would redeem “all nations” (H Schonfield The passover plot, 1977, p24).

Jesus was no Zealot. Often republican, they were committed to a realistic long term guerrilla war against the Romans. Jesus was an apocalyptic revolutionary who “believed in the miraculous character of the coming salvation, as described in the writings of the scriptural prophets” (H Maccoby Revolution in Judaea, 1973, pp157-8). Nevertheless though Jesus did not train his followers in the use of arms, five of his 12 disciples came from the ranks of the Zealots and retained their guerrilla nicknames (including Judas Iscariot - the ‘knife man’). This is not surprising. Jesus was not a pacifist: “I come not to send peace but a sword” (Matthew).

So how did the revolutionary career of Jesus culminate? After rallying a large following in the Judaean countryside he entered Jerusalem during the autumn festival of the Tabernacles “riding upon an ass” (thus fulfilling the prophesy of Zechariah). He was greeted by a joyous population with symbolic palm branches as messiah, the king. “Hosanna, save us!” they cried. With the help of the masses Jesus and his lightly armed band forced their way to the temple and dispersed the few guards. He rededicated it, drove out the venal Sadducean priesthood and had himself crowned.

In possession of the temple area and protected by popular support, he waited seven days for the apocalyptic coming of god’s kingdom. It was meant to come on the eighth. At the last supper he expectantly says: “I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine until that day I drink it in the new kingdom of god.” Yet though he prayed his heart out in Gethsemane it did not come. A cohort of Roman soldiers (300-600 men), and officers of the Jewish high priest, did.

Jesus was easily captured: his disciples only had two swords. Interrogated by the high priest, Jesus was quickly handed over to Pilate, who without fuss or bother found him guilty of sedition and, certainly with no reference to the mob, sent him, just one more rebel, to an agonising death on the cross. The last words of Jesus are heart-rending: “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?” (My god, my god, why hast thou forsaken me?) Jesus was no sacrificial lamb. He was a brave revolutionary who staked all on divine intervention. Not a mistake our class will make.

Jack Conrad