Issue 85 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Winter 1999 Copyright © International Socialism

Jesus: history's most famous missing person


Just to set the right blasphemous tone, even if it's a little intellectually vulgar to do so, let's begin with Elvis rather than Jesus. A significant minority of Americans think it is possible that Elvis is still alive. And if you ever see those pictures from Gracelands, Elvis's former mansion, it's quite clear that many in the crowds that throng there have turned Gracelands into a sort of shrine. It is easy to mock those ageing rockers--'sad' is the word that comes to mind. Yet isn't what we are seeing mainly quite normal working class older men and women mourning the broken dreams of their youth?

Actually we have an example of this phenomenon much nearer to home, following the death of Princess Diana. Socialist Worker rightly dismissed the furore as mass hysteria but the paper also commented that the hysteria was rooted in what Marx once called alienation. Class society crushes most people's ability to discover in themselves genuine creative expression, so they find substitutes of all kinds, including turning the dead into icons of hero worship and symbols for their dreams and ideals for living. In any case, don't we have examples on the left? Che Guevara achieved a mythical status after his death, out of all proportion to his real contribution to world revolution. And, worse, much worse, there was once an extremely unpleasant orthodox Trotskyist group which became obsessed with something called Trotsky's death mask, many years after Trotsky's assassination. And all of this in the 20th century, in the age of humanism, science and rationality. Little wonder that 2,000 years ago it was a commonplace sort of thing.

When we try and enter that world of 2,000 years ago we need to remember that gods and god were taken for granted. Gods and god intervened daily in people's lives in all sorts of ways, or so people thought. A dream, a thunderstorm, an unexpected event, a sudden death, were immediately accorded religious and fatalistic significance. Also people became gods--especially Roman emperors.1

I use the phrase 'gods and god' deliberately. I want to avoid making the one-god belief necessarily more 'progressive' than the 'many-gods' belief. After all, think of world civilisation today. There is no question that the contribution of one-god Judaism and one-god Christianity and one-god Islam is enormous, but who can say that their contribution is greater than that from the multiple-god worlds of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, or for that matter the other religious cultures of Asia and Africa? However, the one-god idea is important. And I would like to refer in passing to the brilliant 20th century archaeologist and writer Gordon C Childe. Unusually for a man in his profession he was a Marxist, and his book What Happened in History rightly remains a classic. He made a fascinating observation about the Iron Age, the period approximately 2,500 years ago. He noted a common thread in the proliferation of new, more rational religions, including variations on one-god ideas, across the known world: Judaism, the Zoroastrianism of the Persians, and the rise of Buddha and Confucius in the Far East. At roughly the same time classical Athens had reached even beyond that to the beginnings of science.

Childe argues that the beginning of an idea of a common humanity was emerging and he linked it to the sudden relatively easy availability of cheap agricultural iron tools to till the land. Land productivity boomed. Goods traded as never before. Ideas exchanged and fused. New ideas, new ways of thinking and doing things, emerged. Societies began to develop from what Childe calls 'tribal barbarism'.2 If Childe is right, then surely this is the turning point we should be celebrating at the end of the year--what happened 2,500 years ago, not the birth of a non-person 2,000 years ago. But more of that in a moment.

Actually the one-god idea is almost certainly even older. The British Museum houses, amongst the many wonderful artefacts it has stolen from other civilisations, some of the Armana letters. These are clay tablets, letters sent by the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten, some of which were sent to a Habiru people. There is a long debate as to whether these are Hebrew people. But the point here is that Akhnaten's sun-god worship anticipated one-god worship. (By the way, isn't sun worship eminently sensible?) Recent archaeological discoveries in Galilee in Israel from about 1,800 years ago have uncovered sun-god images on mosaic synagogue floors. Sun-god images on synagogue floors are almost unbelievable. After all, the Jewish religion specifically forbids idol worship. Sun worship falls into this category. There is a huge argument about the significance of these images--perhaps they are decoration. Nevertheless, what the debate tells us is something about being Jewish 2,000 years ago: that there were many different ways of being Jewish and worshipping one god.

For example, the Jews of Judaea, a small Roman province with the city of Jerusalem at its heart, worshipped their god in a way that was different to the Jews of Samaria, the province next door. The Jews of Samaria didn't even recognise the Jerusalem temple. They worshipped on a mountain. Again the Jews of Galilee had a tradition of fierce independence and rebelliousness. It was from Galilee, of course, that Jesus allegedly hailed. Additionally, there was a large Jewish diaspora throughout much of the Roman Empire--Jews mainly concentrated in urban centres, most famously in Alexandria and, of course, Rome itself. Finally, as the Jewish war against Rome developed, many quasi-Jewish religious-political parties developed, each with its own rules of being Jewish.

Two thousand years ago Rome was still struggling to assert its authority over Judaea. Its mechanism of rule through local ruling classes was proving to be exceptionally difficult because both the urban poor in Jerusalem and the peasantry in the outlying areas held Jerusalem's ruling class in utter contempt. Rome never really succeeded in subduing the region. Rebellion rumbled just beneath the surface for more than 50 years, occasionally breaking out into open revolt, and finally the full scale war of resistance both to Roman rule and its client Jewish ruling class, from between AD 66 and 70. It is not without significance that the first gospel, that of Mark, the first famous story of Jesus's life, was completed almost certainly in AD 70, the year the Romans crushed the resistance and destroyed the Jerusalem temple. Remarkably for this period, we have a detailed historical record by the Romanised Jewish historian Josephus. It is the only record of its kind. Any discussion of the period, including all serious academic discussion, is inevitably dominated by Josephus. Who was this extraordinary and obnoxious man?

First, he was a traitor. He was part of that corrupt Jerusalem ruling class that lacked authority amongst the Jewish poor. At first, and only because he had to, he supported the war of resistance. Indeed he was one of its leaders. But then he changed sides in a particularly obnoxious way. It seems he reneged on a suicide pact after an important military defeat: he literally walked into the arms of welcoming Roman generals! He was feted in Rome and even joined in the Roman celebrations after the final defeat of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. He writes approvingly of 'war trophies' displayed in Rome, including the sacred Menorah, the seven branch candleholder, stolen from the Jerusalem temple.3

Rome would sanction his new role as semi-official historian. His Greek language history of the Jewish revolt was written for the literati of the Roman Empire. Should we trust a word he writes? There are two points here. Firstly, his history tries to satisfy both a Roman audience and a Jewish one. Though this leads to fantastic distortions, the balancing act does impose a limited discipline. Secondly, there was a tradition of Greek and Roman history writing, which, whilst it had all kinds of propagandist and mystical flaws, nevertheless understood the significance of verifiable empirical evidence. Josephus certainly wanted to locate himself in this tradition.

But there is another reason why we need to take Josephus very seriously. A recent biographer, Tessa Rajak, has noted that Josephus's description of the Jewish revolt against Rome exposes a process familiar to modern historians. This is such an important point that it is worth quoting what she writes:

She goes on to make a fascinating comparison with the different stages of the French Revolution, and the point is this: Josephus is spontaneously describing the dynamics of a real revolution. It is this that gives his account special authority.

But there is something else. How did his manuscript survive at all? It must have been copied dozens of times and kept and cherished by the earliest Christian monks who recognised it as a very important historical document, referring as it did to the times of Jesus. In fact they regarded the document as so important that they could not understand why there was no mention of the person of Jesus. Believing that Josephus had made a mistake, one of their number thoughtfully added in a brief reference! Not surprisingly this reference is the source of heated debate, but nearly all modern Christian historians and theologians now recognise it as a forgery. But let us praise the forger! He guaranteed the survival of the Josephus testimony to the Jewish revolution.

In truth Josephus did not notice this Jesus for a very good reason: because he almost certainly wasn't there. But Josephus did notice other Jewish rebels, some of them actually called Jesus--it was a very common name--and I will discuss some of them below. But first I want to look briefly at how modern scholarship is searching for the so called historical or 'real' Jesus. Geza Vermes is one of the Dead Sea Scroll scholars. He is part of a modern tradition that is reclaiming Jesus as a Jew. At the beginning of his book Jesus the Jew he argues that we should look for the man 'so distorted by Christian and Jewish myth alike...[who] was neither the Christ of the church, nor the apostate and bogeyman of Jewish popular tradition'.5 Intriguingly modern Christianity is following the same path. The pope is stressing the Jewish roots of Jesus and the 'organic' bond linking Judaism to Christianity.6 It's a bit late, given the nearly 2,000 year old Christian emphasis on the Jews killing Jesus. But this is not all. The Vatican is also distinguishing, and I quote from an official Vatican document, between the way 'Jesus presented himself to his contemporaries' and 'the way those who came to believe in Jesus...after the manifestation of him as one raised from the dead'.7 But can this enlightened proposal to distinguish the life of Jesus from those who wrote about him after his death be sustained? Not really, for there is not a scrap of historically reliable evidence which is contemporary with his life. All the descriptions that matter come after his death, most famously in the gospels. An article, advising Christian educators on how to present the gospels in line with the kind of 'progressive' thinking just described, itself stresses the huge impact made on the gospel writers by the historical context in which they were writing.

The difficulty of liberating the 'real' Jesus from the context of the gospel writer draws the reader's attention because each gospel has a different 'real' Jesus. This requires a much more sophisticated analysis than is possible here, but here are a few examples. Mark's gospel 'seems very concerned with suffering and forcefully asserts that true insight into the person of Jesus is possible only by reckoning with his suffering and death'.8 The author argues that it seems likely that this gospel was written during the immediate aftermath of the Jewish defeat and the destruction of the temple in AD 70. Thousands of Jewish rebels had just been crucified. Apocalyptic despair was the dominant mood. A good time to accept a messiah... The author makes the following point. In Mark's gospel, 'at the instant of Jesus's death, the curtain of the temple is torn asunder. This suggests...the eventual fate of the sacrificial cult'.9 It is not difficult to see Christ on the cross as an alternative focus to the temple.

Matthew's gospel was probably written some 15 years later. Matthew's Jesus pays much greater respect to Jewish customs, food laws, sabbath as a day of rest, than did Mark's Jesus. So much is this the case that the author even argues that Matthew's Jesus 'embodies the entire history of Israel', likening Jesus delivering his Sermon on the Mount to the scene of Moses on Mount Sinai. Why is this Jesus so Jewish? Because 'Matthew's community is a minority sub-group among various competing Jewish movements which are seeking to fill the vacuum created by the destruction of the temple'.10

Luke's gospel, probably written at a similar time to Mark's, has yet another Jesus. The author writes that Luke wants:

Before we leave the gospels, I want briefly to acknowledge Karl Kautsky's The Foundations of Christianity. Written at the beginning of the century, Kautsky's book became the standard Marxist authority on Christianity for several generations of socialists and communists. However, whether it stands up to contemporary standards of historical analysis of the ancient world, and in particular modern biblical criticism, is open to doubt, but in any case a judgement here is way beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, even the most superficial comparison of Kautsky's book with The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World by the Oxford Marxist scholar G E M de Ste Croix, published in the 1980s, illustrates the difficulty. De Ste Croix is obsessively scrupulous about sources, a research methodology requirement really quite absent in Kautsky's book. Anyway, Kautsky almost certainly exaggerated the 'communism' of the early Jewish Christians. But one thing he did quite brilliantly was to capture the way the gospels were forced at least partially to reflect the struggle between rich and poor.

Famously, only Luke's gospel mentions Lazarus, the poor man blessed by the Old Testament prophet Abraham, who in contrast damns the rich man. Again Luke's gospel has Jesus say in the Sermon on the Mount, 'Blessed be ye poor; for yours is the kingdom of god.' This is the same gospel where Jesus says it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of god. In Matthew there is no Lazarus, and Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount blesses the poor only in spirit. 'All traces of class hatred are washed away with this adroit revisionism,' writes Kautsky,12 as the early Jewish Christian groups began to adapt to the pacific norms of Roman society.

Finally, and again this brief comment cannot do it justice, mention must be made of the 'Gnostic gospels'. These gospels provide a very different version of the Jesus story. Unlike orthodox Judaism and Christianity, the 'chasm [which] separates humanity from the creator' is denied. 'Self knowledge is knowledge of god: the self and divine are identical'.13 It may be that the early Christian leadership suppressed these gospels because of possible Hindu and Buddhist influence. As important, the doctrine of literal bodily resurrection is denied. According to one author, the doctrine may have come to 'serve a political function...legitimising the authority...of the [established] churches'.14

Let us turn now to what might be called the socio-economic, cultural, political and religious atmosphere of Judaea and Galilee in the 70 years from Jesus's alleged birth, roughly 2,000 years ago, to the fall of the Jerusalem temple. How did the gospel writers and others construct the Jesus personality out of this atmosphere? What is presented here is not at all systematic. All the sources are propagandist and anyway there are not many of them. Josephus dominates and then there are scraps from Roman, Jewish and Christian religious sources. So what we have is a sort of patchwork of characters and events in no particular order. Remember that we are in a pre-revolutionary and then a revolutionary situation. Religious ideas dominate and Jews expected the messiah.15

There were rebels and prophets, and Rome didn't particularly distinguish between the two. Both groups were regularly crucified as agitators. Josephus writes about false prophets and condemns them. But a prophet who is false for Josephus may be real enough for others. He describes that, at the moment the temple was about to fall to Rome, some 6,000 ordinary people (almost certainly he exaggerates the number) had been led there by a false prophet who had told them that god would make manifest the 'proofs of salvation'.16 It was a suicide mission and they were all burnt to death.17 But Josephus himself is ready to listen to prophets, false or otherwise. He goes on at length about all the signs that had been pointing to the fall of the temple: a star, a comet, a sacrificial cow giving birth, a chariot fight in the sky, and four years before the war a peasant called Jesus who prophesised day after day and night after night and loudly at festivals. He was regularly flogged for his prophesies but it didn't shut him up.18 Josephus is also quite ready to see the Romans as god's agents punishing his people for polluting the temple.19

Again, earlier, as a younger man, Josephus reports that he had been ready to follow a hermit--he calls him Bannus--into the desert for three years.20 Josephus's descriptions here have led to heated speculation amongst scholars about these stays in the desert. The Romans beheaded or crucified desert prophets. The famous Qumran Dead Sea Sect built a community in the desert to escape the moral pollution, and real corruption, of Jerusalem. Political rebels regrouped in the desert. Josephus describes an Egyptian (a 'most plausible candidate for would-be messiah'21) who led his followers out of the desert to march on Jerusalem and trusted divine aid sufficiently to face Roman heavy infantry. But to go from the sublime to the ridiculous, Josephus's biographer also notes that you could escape the Roman tax collector by going to the desert!22

A constant source of agitation for both the Romans and the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem was Galilee. This is now the 'hot' subject for those in search of Jesus's historical roots. There is dispute about the Jews of Galilee 2,000 years ago. Were they recent converts? Had Jews emigrated there recently? There is agreement, though, that in Galilee being Jewish was different. The Jerusalem temple often seemed remote. Also we are talking about a mountain and peasant people with fertile lands and a fierce tradition of self sufficiency. There was real hostility to outside rulers, especially those who would tax them heavily.

As a doubtful leader of the Jewish revolt, Josephus was sent by Jerusalem to place himself at the head of the rebellion in Galilee. He seems enormously knowledgeable about its recent history. Josephus describes several generations of the same family all linked to the agitation. At the time of Jesus's alleged birth, there was Judas the Galilean who led the refusal to co-operate with the Roman census and hence avoid taxes. Forty years later two of his sons, Jacob and Simon, were crucified for revolutionary agitation. A surviving son, Menahem, later became one of the revolutionary leaders in Jerusalem. A nephew of Menahem, Eleazar, was the legendary captain at Masada, where a few hundred Zealots held out against the Romans after the fall of Jerusalem, which ended in mass suicide. (Incidentally, another name for Eleazar, like Jesus a very common name, may well be Lazarus.)

Was Judas a Zealot23 or, as Josephus claims about him, a proponent of something called the 'fourth philosophy'? There is a scholarly argument about this which need not concern us here. That a revolutionary political-religious trend existed, there is no doubt. To quote from one of the most interesting books on the subject, the Oxford professor Martin Goodman's The Ruling Class of Judaea: The Origins of the Jewish Revolt Against Rome AD 66-70:

Josephus cites the belief in the messiah 'as a main cause of revolt'.26

De Ste Croix has emphasised the hatreds between city and countryside 2,000 years ago. He notes that the Jesus of the gospels is first and foremost a peasant preacher in country villages in Galilee.27 The city would take as much food as it could from the countryside. In turn the peasants would secretly store as much as they could. For the peasants of Galilee purity, religious and moral, lay in the countryside. Vermes has also analysed the Jewish religious literature of the time and has provided examples of peasants from Galilee trying to sell their goods in the Jerusalem marketplace and merchants making fun of their Galilean accents!28 Even the very word for peasant carries an added insulting twist. Vermes quotes Talmudic sources where the word for peasant implies an unclean animal.29 And again he quotes the gospel of John where someone expresses amazement that the messiah could come from Galilee.30

The search for the Galilean roots of Jesus may not have found him, but has at least uncovered a tradition of unorthodox Jewish charismatic healers. Hanina ben Dosa is one of them. His name first appears in the Mishnah (a collection of legal teachings).31 The religious texts report that his power in prayer was so great that he could withstand a deadly snake bite. He was renowned as a healer. Though distrusted at the Jerusalem temple, he was sent for when the son of a leading Jerusalem religious leader was struck by a mortal fever. Hanina ben Dosa prayed and the boy was cured.32 His healing gifts were linked to his piety and hatred of money. Sin and sickness were thought to be linked.33 In this tradition, poverty is almost holy and a healer who chooses it enhances his gifts. This is a tradition linked with the Old Testament prophet Isaiah.34 A contemporary of ben Dosa is reported as saying that men like him are 'men of truth hating evil gain'--'they hate their own money and all the more the money of other people'.35

We turn now to the revolt in Jerusalem itself. First the background. The temple building was magnificent and drew pilgrims from all over the Jewish diaspora--which was already well developed throughout the towns and cities of the Roman Empire. Jerusalem was a very affluent city-building work, handicrafts and trade provided employment for empoverished peasants from the countryside. Unique to the Jewish religion was a tradition of charity which Christianity borrowed wholesale. Though, unlike the ben Dosa version of Judaism, it is the rich giver of money to the poor who was made to feel sacred, even though he still remained very rich.36 However, the charity was important. It kept far more people alive than would otherwise have been the case. There was then a large urban poor population mixing with a large pilgrim population. Its discontent remained a perpetual threat to rulers, Jewish and Roman. The Jewish ruling class notoriously could not keep order. Furthermore, the rich were getting richer and the poor poorer. Recent archaeological digs have revealed just how enormous were the houses of the Jerusalem rich 2,000 years ago.37 Josephus explicitly identifies class hatred as a cause of the revolt.38 Indeed he is shocked by the eagerness of the poor to kill the rich and take their property. There are then two struggles: Jews against Roman rulers and poor Jews against rich Jews.

The Greek word 'stasis' figures prominently: it means 'internal strife'. In part this reflects the faction fighting amongst the leaders of the revolt; but it also reflects the poor Jews' persistent mistrust of the richer leaders of the revolt. The Roman historian Tacitus was astonished at how bitter was the stasis even as the Roman army closed in on Jerusalem in AD 70.39 In the pre-revolutionary period sometimes the strife was used to pressurise the Jewish leadership to stand up to Rome. Thus Josephus tells us that when Pontius Pilate--yes, it is he, the most senior Roman official involved in the Jesus crucifixion myth--ordered shields bearing the emperor's image into Jerusalem, mass action forced their removal.40 Again, when the particularly obnoxious emperor Caligula ordered his statue to be placed in the Jerusalem temple, Josephus reports that a strike, a full scale withdrawal of labour, stopped it.41

One of the first acts of the revolt was the burning of the debt archives in the temple. A peasant would borrow money from a rich Jerusalem based landowner. Then he would find he couldn't afford the interest on the debt.42 Thus the landlord would eventually acquire the peasant's plot of land, turning the peasant into a landless labourer--and quite possibly into a bandit, joining bandit gangs of ex-peasants who couldn't afford to pay taxes.43 The challenge to money-power at the heart of temple life is surely symbolised in the Jesus myth, when he challenges the money changers in the temple. A landless labourer could also end up as a debt-bond slave. Matthew's gospel has a parable about a debt-bond slave sold with his wife and children.44

The most famous bandit leader is Barabbas-in jail with Jesus. The Jewish scholar Hyam Maccoby wrote a very exciting book about Jesus and the Jewish revolt, in the aftermath of 1968, where he identifies Jesus as Barabbas.45 Unfortunately, this book is not taken seriously. Josephus describes several other bandit chiefs, Robin Hood figures, including a Jesus of Galilee.46 Some of them are given confirmation in the Rabbinical literature. Archaeological evidence supports the possibility of bandit caves linked to particular impoverished villages47--providing a sort of 'United Nations' style humanitarian food aid service with supplies robbed from the rich! The Zealots recruited some these bandits to help strengthen their power base in Jerusalem;48 some of them may have been the sicarri, the dagger men, who would merge with crowds, with daggers concealed, and then assassinate enemies of the revolution.

What are we to make of the Zealots? The word has carried into modern times as a term of abuse meaning 'fanatic'. The French Revolutionary Jacobins and of course the Bolsheviks suffered this abuse, but we should ignore it. It is tempting to see the Zealots as the best organised revolutionary party in the city. It seems they were the best organised defenders of the city and they minted some of the best coins of the revolt49 with their 'Freedom' slogan which remains subject to intense speculation as to its religious or secular meaning.50 Intriguingly, when they seized the temple they selected a new high priest by lottery, deliberately avoiding candidates from the traditional ruling class families. The high priest chosen was a village stonemason, probably the first ever high priest from such lowly origins--dismissed by Josephus as a boor and ignoramus!51

Tessa Rajak, in her biography of Josephus, adds that his assessment here has been too easily accepted by scholars, despite a more favourable Talmudic interpretation.52 The trouble is that our dependence on Josephus makes any definitive judgement about the Zealots really difficult. There is a sensational example of why this is so. Josephus provides a brilliant description of the last stand against the Romans at Masada which ends in mass suicide. He puts a long speech advocating suicide into the mouth of the Zealot leader Eleazar. The speech is a hugely powerful defence of freedom. Yet there is a very plausible view that Josephus invented or at least magnified the whole thing, to make up for his own appalling behaviour in the Jewish revolt!53

I want to conclude by drawing one possible hypothesis from the events described: that the Jesus myth only takes root, and is connected to, the fall of the temple. In describing the New Testament Chris Harman, in his A People's History of the World, puts it like this:

It was diluted to appeal across social class boundaries in the Jewish diaspora throughout the Roman Empire. How this may have occurred is the subject of a key chapter in Chris Harman's book.

A key figure, perhaps the key figure, almost certainly a real historical character, who promotes the Jesus myth and helps build the early Christian communities in the Jewish diaspora, is Paul, formerly Saul, who saw the blinding light55 and converted on the road to Damascus. Paul began preaching long before the fall of the temple, assuming the dating of his letters is accurate. He is fixated on the crucifixion and the resurrection, though he never describes Jesus's life.56 It's possible, of course, that he anticipates the fall of the temple--according to Josephus others had made such a prophecy. Anyway, this Greek speaking diaspora Jewish artisan, possibly a tentmaker, was impressed by the relatively large numbers of Gentiles, disaffected urban middling groups, traders, artisans and beggars who were attracted to the Jewish religion throughout the Roman Empire. They were the 'god fearers', non-Jews who were not prepared to undergo circumcision and abide by the food laws and other Old Testament injunctions. By helping to abolish what appeared to be exclusive restrictions in Judaism, Paul made conversion easier, but in the process helped to invent a different religion. Also, some of the cults of local religions--so called pagan religions--were incorporated. According to Chris Harman the early (Jewish) Christians were driven 'by greater than usual sensitivity to the insecurities and oppression of life in the empire's cities... The New Testament credits the apostle with "speaking in tongues"--with ecstatic speeches which give expression to their innermost feelings. It was in such a state that they were likely to synthesise a new religious vision out of elements from older ones'.57 But this was also an appeal to all social classes. As Paul put it, a slave could stay with his master even if they were brothers in Christ. And, arguably, this set the seal on the way Christianity would evolve.


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