James Crossley

James Crossley

James Crossley is Professor of Bible, Society and Politics at MF Oslo, and the Academic Director of the Centre for the Critical Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements. He writes mainly on religion in English political history and on the historical Jesus.

The Powerful and the Powerless
Thursday, 21 December 2023 11:43

The Quest for the Materialist Jesus: Part 2

Published in Religion

In Part 1, I argued that a historical materialist understanding of Jesus in a world of competing class interests needs to be revitalised, updated, and developed further by a new generation of historians. Before we turn to these issues, it might be helpful for readers unfamiliar with how we go about reconstructing the life of Jesus to have an outline of how we might go about this task.


The best sources we have for Jesus are probably all from the first century in the decades after his death (c. 30 CE). While there is some potentially useful material in the letters of Paul (e.g., 1 Corinthians 7.10–12), the payoff is limited as Paul’s concerns (as far as we know) were elsewhere. The best materials available are the New Testament Gospels, or rather the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. The Gospel of John presents Jesus as an elevated figure to the extent that he was in some ways equal with God (e.g., John 5.18; 10.30–33) and who was executed after he raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11.38–57).

While the other Gospels have their own theological agendas, they do not reflect these ideas which were part of theological speculation at the end of the first century onward rather than from closer to the time of Jesus. Moreover, John’s explanation for the death of Jesus obviously did not happen. Whatever the historical accuracy of the other Gospel accounts, the claim (for instance) that Jesus was put to death for turning the tables of dove-sellers and moneychangers at a tense, busy festival in Jerusalem (Mark 11.15–18) is at least a more plausible explanation than a story about raising someone from the dead. 

That leaves the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. The Gospel of Mark is widely accepted as the first Gospel and a source for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Matthew and Luke also share very similar material that is not found in Mark which has led to the hypothesis of a shared (but now lost) source which scholars have labelled “Q” (from the German “Quelle,” meaning “source”). It has also long been argued that Matthew and Luke additionally had independent sources. This is the standard explanation for understanding the Gospel sources, although there have been regular challenges to the consensus, such as (among others) the claim that there was no lost source and that the similarities between Matthew and Luke can be explained by the argument that Luke copied Matthew.

This is a huge area of scholarly debate and I simply note that my own preference is something like the conventional model, while being open to the idea that Luke may have also known Matthew. Sometimes, additional sources from the second century (e.g., non-canonical Gospel of Thomas) are invoked, but it is not clear that they add much more to the understanding of the historical Jesus.

From this, scholars have tried to develop a set of criteria (the so-called “criteria of authenticity”) designed to take us back to the historical Jesus. For instance, the “criterion of multiple attestation” usually involves the argument that if an idea or theme is found in independent sources which do not involve copying one another (e.g., Mark and Q) and in independent forms contained within (e.g., parables, sayings, conflict stories) then we are close to the historical Jesus.

These criteria have come under heavy criticism over the past decade and rightly so. At most they can tell us which themes might have been popular and which might have predated the Gospels. But they cannot tell us if we have got back to the words and deeds of the historical Jesus because we do not have enough independent, early data.

Jesus book

Instead, it is better to think in general terms about establishing early themes and ideas that were most likely associated with Galilee and Judea around the time of the historical Jesus while accepting that we cannot know whether Jesus said or did what was attributed to him. For instance, the claim that Jesus predicted an imminent transformation of the world is most likely early. Already in the mid-first century, there were concerns that millenarian predictions were not being fulfilled (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 4–5) and by the second century there were explanations given to why earlier predictions had not happened and reinterpretations of these predictions were provided (e.g., John 3.3–8; 21.20–23; 2 Peter 3.3–10). It seems likely, therefore, that early on there were authoritative predictions of imminent transformation of the world (e.g., Mark 1.15; 9.1) which generated such eschatological enthusiasm.

An emphasis on broader, early themes also forces us to think less about Jesus the Great Man and more about the broader social context of the movement associated with Jesus. It is for these reasons that I regularly use the term “Jesus movement” to describe the people responsible for the earliest traditions about Jesus, a framework which has the added benefit of highlighting the collective nature of, or support for, these ideas.

So, grounded in the approaches briefly outlined above, I want to give an outline of what we can say about the earliest ideas associated with Jesus, why this movement and these ideas emerged when and where they did, and how class interests are crucial for understanding the rise and continuation of this movement. I have, along with Robert Myles, provided a fuller argument in our recent book, Jesus: A Life in Class Conflict.

Jesus in Galilee and Judea

Jesus was from a small village in Galilee called Nazareth and likely a labourer of some kind. As he was growing up, there were urbanisation projects in Galilee which brought about some important changes to the life of Galileans. For instance, the nearby town of Sepphoris was rebuilt following an uprising and Tiberias was a newly built town named in honour of the Roman emperor, Tiberius. The urban elites extracted resources and surplus from the surrounding countryside and, in the case of Sepphoris, this included the village of Nazareth. The innovations in Galilee put greater demands on the peasantry and redirected key resources towards places like Sepphoris.

There has been an often-misguided discussion about the standard of living in Galilee at this time with scholars debating whether these changes provided lucrative employment opportunities for Galileans or impoverished them. The reality was more complex, however, and traditional ways of life were clearly changed. For a start, the first-century Jewish historian, Josephus, noted that in Tiberias there were people removed from their land while gifts of land given to others (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.36–38).    

There is discussion in the Gospels of the breakdown of households which likely comes from what was happening in Galilee (e.g., Mark 3.31–35; Matthew 10.34–36 paralleled in Luke 12.51–53 and Gospel of Thomas 16.1–4; Matthew 10.37, paralleled in Luke 14.26). It is striking that this tradition includes the idea of Jesus’ movement forming an alternative household. This was not to critique the ideas of the traditional family—this would not have worked well in an ancient agrarian setting—but instead familial language was the obvious communal language to mimic and address the breakdown of households.  

There were established, if limited, vehicles for discontent and agitation in Galilee, as in so many pre-capitalist agrarian settings: banditry and millenarianism. Banditry ranged from targeting those thought to be responsible for exploitation through insurrectionism to basic gangsterism. Millenarianism offered a fantastical vision of transformed world to come and a promise of punishment for unjust rulers, elites, and their supporters.

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist Caravaggio 1610

Salome with the head of John the Baptist, by Caravaggio

Banditry and millenarianism were not mutually exclusive categories, not least from the perspective of the ruling class. Jesus’ likely mentor, John the Baptist, was a millenarian prophet, but the local ruler Herod Antipas took no risks when a large crowd of followers amassed in the wilderness and simply had John the Baptist killed as a violent insurrectionist.

Jesus’ fate would be similar as his movement likewise took the millenarian option, most famously expressed in predictions of the coming “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven.” This phrase could equally be translated “empire of God” as it was the same language used of the Roman Empire. This was not an egalitarian vision of the future, as is sometimes romantically presented, not least on parts of the left. It was a hope of a supernatural intervention understood in the light of traditional peasant values and the Jewish scriptures—a widespread view which is also found in Josephus’ explanations of first-century popular millenarianism (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.118).

The conceptualisation of a new world reflected peasant understandings of hierarchy, with a just king and a core group of elevated members who would have pride of place in a restored Israel, judging who was saved and who was damned. This expected Golden Age was conceptualised as a theocracy which would replace the Roman Empire and their puppet rulers, dispense justice, and ensure a bountiful existence for those saved.

With tongue only partly in cheek, we might demystify the phrase “kingdom/empire of God” further and think in terms of the “dictatorship of the peasantry,” that is an expectation of a transformed world that would be run in the interests of the peasantry—again a view which would have chimed with what we know about first-century popular millenarianism from (for instance) Josephus.        

Jesus took on the role comparable to the more rebellious lower clergy of medieval Europe, namely mediating between the people and divine with his authority owing more to popular support than endorsement from the official religious channels. This direct access to divine authority allowed Jesus (and comparable figures like John the Baptist, to name the most famous) to challenge the current state of class relations.

The Jesus movement may not have been egalitarian in the strict sense, then, but it still envisaged a world turned upside-down. There is an early tradition of role reversals in the world to come (e.g., Mark 10.17–31; Luke 16.19–31) which stressed that poorer and non-elite sections of Jewish society at least were going to be among the beneficiaries and that those deemed rich would have to give up their property and wealth if they were to be saved.

In this respect, it is striking that Jesus was remembered as being criticised for associating with tax collectors and “sinners.” Beyond the Gospels, tax collectors had a reputation for being greedy and exploitative (e.g., Cicero, De Officiis 1.150; Josephus, Jewish War 2.287, 292; Mishnah Nedarim 3.4). “Sinners” likewise. Again, the popular (and even scholarly) myth that “sinners” was a derogatory term for the poor, marginalised, and downtrodden, and that nasty Pharisees criticised Jesus for associating with supposed undesirables, does not hold up.

Sinners are exploitative rich people

I have collected (and summarised in Jesus: A Life in Class Conflict) the common words for “sinners” in the relevant languages over a period of several centuries before and after the time of Jesus, and this research shows consistent and clear patterns. “Sinners” were deemed to be acting beyond Jewish law (or interpretations of Jewish law) and whenever socio-economic status is mentioned, it is always in relation to them being exploitative, rich people. The reason Jesus was criticised (or at least presented as such) was because these people were regularly understood to be cruel, lawless exploiters beyond redemption.

Ignacia Ruiz

The rich and the powerful, by Ignacia Ruiz

Whether the Jesus movement’s mission to the rich was successful is moot, but it was part of extended social network allowing the movement to survive and spread. For a start, connections with elite women, or women with resources, seems to have been important for funding this sometime itinerant movement (see, e.g., Mark 15.40–41; Luke 8.1–3). Tax collectors and fishermen are noted occupations in the Gospels, and this is no surprise—as John Kloppenborg points out, tax collectors also interacted with fishing networks on the “Sea” of Galilee through taxation on catches and on boats which doubled up as transportation services outside busy periods.

Fishermen, we might add, were also a culturally credible, and economically crucial, group closely associated with the Jesus movement. These networks provided scope for the message to spread beyond the even more localised networks in Galilee.

The Jesus movement maintained its social credibility by emphasising the importance of traditional peasant values, strict morality, group discipline, criticism of elite values, and respectable interpretation of Jewish scriptures. It is telling that debates over the interpretation of Sabbath and purity laws tally with rural and non-elite interests. This included acceptance of plucking grain on the edges of fields on the Sabbath for sustenance (Mark 2.23–28) and downplaying the maintenance of ritual purity laws in all areas of everyday life (Mark 7.1–23; Matthew 23.23, paralleled in Luke 11.42; Matthew 23.25–28, paralleled in Luke 11.39–44; Luke 10.29-37)—a position that was associated with (among others) rural workers, some of whom were liable to become regularly impure through their work. Collectively, such interpretations of Jewish scriptures were an attempt to provide a dignified alternative amidst the upheavals in Galilee.

With John the Baptist executed, it is likely that the Jesus movement knew the risks of collective organising. They drew on Jewish traditions of martyrdom, some recounted annually at the festival of Hanukkah, which were understood as sign of strength rather than weakness and believed to play a role in the expected transformation of the world (e.g., Mark 10.35–45; Luke 13.31–35, paralleled in Matthew 23.37–39; compare: Daniel 11.35; 2 Maccabees 7; 4 Maccabees 7.20–22; Josephus, Jewish War 1.650; Lives of the Prophets; Ascension of Isaiah 1–5).

This all came to a head in a final visit to Jerusalem at Passover. Passover was always tense, not least because it was a festival commemorating and anticipating freedom from subjugation. Indeed, it is possible that Jesus interpretated the Passover meal in terms of his expected execution and the imminent defeat of the Roman Empire through supernatural intervention (e.g., Mark 14.22–25).

 Giovanni Paolo Pannini 001

Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, by El Greco

In a packed Jerusalem, the authorities were wary of a riot and the potentially volatile crowds (some of whom appear to have had sympathies with the Jesus movement) were aware of the fate of rioters. At the Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus appears to have overturned the money changers and dove-sellers in what was likely an attack on a religious-economic system some Jews thought to be corrupt (Mark 11.15–18). The Temple was a prominent part of the tributary system in Judea which meant attacking it publicly was a dangerous enough act, but at Passover, even more so.

This act led to the inevitable arrest of Jesus. The only real difficulty from the perspective of the authorities was how to deal with the problem without causing a riot. Jesus was eventually arrested and executed on a Roman cross as a bandit or violent insurrectionist—effectively for the same reason other Jewish millenarians like John the Baptist and others were. 

The typical fate of a victim of crucifixion was to be hung out as a warning and then slung in a pit. Some scholars have argued that this was the fate of Jesus. This is certainly possible, but it is also possible that there is some truth behind the story that Jesus was buried in the family tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph was known to be wealthy and this burial, coupled with Jesus’ known reputation as an interpreter of Jewish scriptures and a respected millenarian prophet, may have been a result of the mission to the rich.

What Happened Next

Reconstructing Jesus’ burial is speculative but, curiously, one area which is less so is that of sightings of the resurrected Jesus. From the mid-first century, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15.3–8) recalls how Jesus appeared to his followers or would-be followers, including Paul himself. This is an unambiguously early tradition associated with people Paul knew and part of a common enough cross-cultural phenomenon of people claiming to have experienced visions of some sort. The basic point is that some people believed that Jesus-the-martyr had been vindicated and accordingly elevated into some sort of post-mortem existence.

Certainly, claims to resurrection were important for the earliest followers of Jesus after his death and for the development of Christian theology. Nevertheless, such beliefs were not unusual for the time and are not enough to explain why the movement survived and spread. It is a common feature of emerging religious (and political) movements to grow through social networks (e.g., family, friends, workplace, etc.) and this applies to the emergence of Christianity. We have already seen how the movement began to grow beyond the Galilean peasantry through fishing communities and tax collectors, as well as through women with some resources and status.

This process continued on a wider scale across the Mediterranean world. Households, associations, and workplaces continued to be important points of contact for the spread into urban centres with adherents from a range of backgrounds. Again, women as heads of household played an important role (see, e.g., Romans 16.1–2; 1 Corinthians 1.11; Colossians 4.15; Acts 12.12–17; 16.14–15). Women or girls would typically marry older men in the ancient world and when the husband died the wife might run the household. We also know that some women had the time and means to develop an interest in philosophical ideas and there is evidence of non-Jewish women in the eastern Mediterranean interested in Judaism (e.g., Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.81–84; 20.35; Jewish War 2.560–61). This context provides some insight into the networks that were suitable for the spread of the Jesus movement in the years after Jesus’ death.


Ruins of the Ancient Synagogue at Bar'am

Non-Jews interested in Judaism were important for the movement to attract more non-Jewish adherents. Jewish gatherings or synagogues were found throughout the Roman Empire and were unsurprisingly important points of contact for emergent Christianity. But synagogues also attracted non-Jews interested (in varying degrees) to Judaism. The Jesus movement already provided an ideological justification for incorporation of such people: the inclusion of “sinners.” The term “sinners” was also a common shorthand for “non-Jews” and was so because non-Jews in some sources were stereotypically associated with the conquering nations who might plunder Israel and were, by default, beyond Jewish law (see, e.g., among many references: Psalm 9.17; Tobit 13.6; 1 Maccabees 1.10; 2.45–48; Wisdom of Solomon 19.13; Psalms of Solomon 1.1; 2.11; 1 Enoch 99.6–7; 104.7–9; Galatians 2.15). 

With these connections in place, we can understand why the movement rapidly had to deal with questions about its own identity: was this still a Jewish movement or something else? There were plenty of competing influences on new adherents. If they were in a synagogue, we can reasonably expect that they would have behaved in a way that did not offend their Jewish hosts. If they were in a trade association, in a workplace, in the army, or with extended family, they might behave quite differently where there were different social expectations, such as eating pork, eating food sacrificed to other gods, or working on the Sabbath.

In the case of men, there was the problem of circumcision and there were debates as to whether it was required for a male convert to become a Jew (see, e.g., Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.34–48; Pirqe de Rabbi Eliezer 10; compare also Jewish Antiquities 13.257–58, 318, and 15.253–54). In the case of families with competing external loyalties, this led to divisions within families (e.g., 1 Corinthians 7.12–16). In the case of enslaved household members, this would have involved compulsory conversion irrespective of personal beliefs (see, e.g., Exodus 12.48; Digesta 48.8.11).

Gatherings of the emerging Christian movement were a mix of people from not just different classes but from different ethnic backgrounds. Against this backdrop, figures like Paul emerged to provide theological solutions for pre-existing social and material problems involved in integration. For Paul (e.g., Romans 1–4; Galatians), circumcision and observance of Jewish law were no longer required (for non-Jews at least) and, for all the controversies Paul faced, this turned out to be a decisive move in the long-term development of Christianity as a non-Jewish religion.

Scribal or administrative roles were also necessary in the mediation (and thus spread) of the movement beyond its localised and parochial Galilean peasant setting. This process likely involved village scribes and, as the movement spread, the ongoing writing and dissemination of texts almost certainly involved slave labour. At this point, slavery was an assumed mode of production for the emergent Christian movement and was unlikely to be challenged in the present because the inherited millenarianism was both a fantastical resolution to social injustices and based on existing hierarchical models of social stratification.

When Paul claimed, “There is no longer Jew or Greek [i.e., non-Jew/gentile], there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.28), he did not mean the end of slavery or class exploitation, any more than he meant the end of male and female roles in everyday life. Rather, this was a justification of the reality of the social mix of people now involved in the movement.

From about the end of the first century, the Gospel of John represented an important development in Christianizing the movement. As noted above, John’s Gospel argued that Jesus claimed to be equal with God. However, the Gospel tellingly presents Jesus in opposition to “the Jews” who tried to kill Jesus for making such claims (John 5.18; 10.30–33). Whatever the nuances in the original context of the dispute between the writers of John’s Gospel and their Jewish opponents, these stories were easily adapted into negative statements about Jews collectively and their alleged violent opposition to Christianity. This represented a step toward identifying Christian understandings of God as distinctly different from Jewish ones, as well as laying the foundation for later anti-Judaism and antisemitism.

Within three centuries, Christianity was sufficiently embedded in the Roman Empire to become its official religion. The longer-term developments in empire building, roads, transportation, and communication that had taken place in the ancient world over centuries were conducive to the spread of ideas of an overarching God covering—and justifying rule over—a range of peoples from different social and ethnic backgrounds. The Christian version of this understanding was, in a less dramatic way, the expected realisation of the millennial and imperial dreams of Jesus and now intensified by Paul:

‘at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2.10–11).

It was not difficult for the Roman Empire to co-opt such ideas for its imperial ideology.

Marxism, Jesus, and Christian Origins

A trajectory can be traced from the theocratic millenarianism of the Jesus movement in rural Galilee to the religion of the Roman Empire, and then onto Christianity as the ideological justification for feudal relations in Europe followed by bourgeois power. But the movement associated with the historical Jesus had obvious differences from what followed. It was the product of shifting patterns of exploitation and land displacement in Galilee, acting in the interests of the peasantry and damning the rich who did not give up their wealth.

What Marx famously said of religion in the introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right applies here: this was “the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.” These ideas did not disappear from Christianity. As it became the official religion of the Roman Empire and then feudal Christendom, so it also provided the main language of resistance, with some of this later absorbed into socialist thinking.

Historical materialist accounts relating to Christianity are prominent enough in scholarship. But the further back we go, and the closer to the historical Jesus we get, Marxist understandings become less prominent. What is now needed is a new generation of critical Marxist historians to develop a thoroughgoing account of the emergence, development, and influence of the Jesus movement and earliest Christianity, and locate their place in a historical materialist account of the past and lingering influences in the present, whether reactionary or progressive.

To paraphrase Marx, this must be a ruthless criticism of Christian origins, unafraid of both the results it reaches and the conflict it provokes. It will involve dismantling some of the romantic, anachronistic but ongoing myths about Jesus the hippy, Jesus the liberal, Jesus the entrepreneur, Jesus the conservative—but also Jesus the socialist and feminist somehow ahead of his time, if only to understand what kinds of class relations exist in different times and places.

This historical endeavour will understand the emergence of a movement in Jesus’ name as one which takes seriously ancient modes of production, material conditions and changes of his time, and the accompanying class struggles, no matter how alien they may seem today.

The Quest for the Materialist Jesus: Part 1
Thursday, 21 December 2023 10:40

The Quest for the Materialist Jesus: Part 1

Published in Religion

Who or what is “the historical Jesus”? Put crudely, the historical Jesus is the figure historians reconstruct from behind the embellishments, mythmaking, and ideas attributed to him, that took place after his death. From the best sources we have, a full biography remains impossible. What historians have instead attempted to do is assess the extent to which it is possible to reconstruct the words and deeds of the figure who was active in Galilee and Judea sometime around the year 30 CE.

While there has been a steady, if underappreciated, tradition of western Marxist scholarly analyses of Christian origins, there has been very little on the reconstruction of the life of Jesus. This is remarkable given how significant the quest for the historical Jesus has been in western thought since the end of the eighteenth century. Before we turn to why western Marxist analyses are relatively absent and what a Marxist analysis might look like, a brief overview of the early days of this quest and its ongoing influence can be provided.

The Quest for the Historical Jesus

The most influential challenges to the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts came from Germanic scholarship. The conventional starting point has traditionally been the work of Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694–1768), an Enlightenment thinker born in Hamburg. Reimarus’ fame in historical Jesus studies is due to extracts (Wolfenbüttel Fragments; hereafter, the Fragments) posthumously published by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Reimarus had kept his more provocative views quiet during his lifetime and Lessing likewise kept the authorship of the Fragments anonymous, such was the explosive nature of their content. The two most relevant Fragments concerned the purpose of Jesus and the disciples (published 1778) and the resurrection narratives (published 1777), both of which made sharp distinctions between Jesus and Christianity and critiqued inconsistencies in the New Testament texts.

For Reimarus, Jesus was a reformist figure at home in the Judaism of his day who preached repentance before the imminent coming of the kingdom of heaven, in much the same way as John the Baptist had before him. Jesus’ recognisably Jewish teaching involved, Reimarus argued, simple, humble, trustworthy, peaceable, merciful, ethical, and inward-looking pious behaviours, and the prioritisation of loving God and neighbour. On Reimarus’ reading, Jesus did not seek to start a new religion and did not look to introduce any new articles of faith. Reimarus’ Jesus did not want to do away with Jewish religion or practices such as sacrifice, circumcision, purity, or Sabbath. Rather, it was the emerging church after Jesus’ death which distanced itself from these practices.

Similarly, Reimarus claimed that Jesus took on various messianic titles but that these should not be confused with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity which was a later development. When Jesus used the term “Son of God,” he was doing so it in a way recognisable to Jews of his day, namely that it was a term employed paternalistically to refer to a person or people beloved of God, including a prophetic or kingly figure.

Entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem

For Reimarus, when Jesus referred to the kingdom of God or heaven this too was a recognisably Jewish concept which involved the expectation of a kingdom established among Jews and expressed through their laws and with an understanding of God as their king. It was a concept that anticipated a future glorious kingdom in Jerusalem brought about through the Messiah when the Jews would be freed from the Roman yoke. And so, when Jesus entered into Jerusalem with his followers at the festival of Passover (Mark 11; Matthew 21; Luke 19), Reimarus suggested that this was seen as stirring up rebellion against the rulers and led to his death at the hand of the authorities.

This expectation of political redemption led to disappointment after Jesus was killed. The apostles then moved away from this hope for a powerful redeemer of Israel and developed a doctrine of humanity’s suffering saviour. Reimarus’ critique of the historical validity of resurrection accounts were part of his explanation that they too were a response to the unanticipated problem of Jesus premature death.

The publication of Reimarus’ Fragments effectively inaugurated the quest for the historical Jesus, at least as a sustained and serious intellectual enterprise. The historical Jesus was now to be viewed firmly in his original historical context. The extent to which he was different from (or similar to) the church that emerged in his name became a standard feature of theological scholarship by the end of the nineteenth century. But this was still controversial throughout the nineteenth century, especially through the work of the Protestant theologian, David Friedrich Strauss (1808–1874). In 1835–1836 Strauss published The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined in German (Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet) which became most (in)famous for the argument that the miracles were a part of Christian mythmaking, later additions to the Gospels which should be removed from a critical understanding of the life of Jesus. Such was still the scandalous nature of this argument that it cost him his position at the University of Zürich.

Today, the ideas of Reimarus, Strauss, and others are not controversial, even if we might dispute the details and even if their approaches look dated in light of advancements made in the analysis of the Gospels. Disputes now typically vary over what type of figure Jesus was (social critic? end-times prophet? wisdom teacher? progressive liberal?) but are built on the foundations of late eighteenth and nineteenth century scholarship. We should see figures like Reimarus and Strauss as representing significant advancements in the study of history and human society, not least because they helped open up areas of study once off limits.

We should also see the controversies their theological and historical works provoked as part of a wider struggle of their time. We should understand these scholarly advancements as part of the consolidation of bourgeois power of the late eighteenth century and nineteenth century, gathering momentum in the build up to, and in the aftermath of, the American and French revolutions and their consequences. As has been argued in detail by Dieter Georgi and Halvor Moxnes, for instance, the most famous European biographies of the “earthly,” “human” Jesus the “great man” were a product of bourgeois nationalism, which challenged the presentation of the aristocratic, divine Christ of the old feudal order. Two centuries later, this bourgeois legacy is continued in liberal scholarship which has come to dominate the quest for the historical Jesus, particularly in North America. For all the differences of scholarly opinion, the emphasis is overwhelmingly on Jesus the great individual who acted with supreme agency.

A Different Tradition

While the Germanic bourgeois publications of the nineteenth century and their successors in liberal scholarship up to the present receive most attention, there were significant developments taking place elsewhere, including in emerging working-class and dissident circles. These reconstructions of Jesus were likewise critical of the presentations of an aristocratic, divine Christ of the feudal order but there was another tendency which turned this “human” Jesus against bourgeois dominance. In Britain, this understanding owes much to Thomas Paine who, in The Age of Reason (Part I published in 1794; Part II in 1795), controversially argued that the Gospels were written many years after the purported events and not by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and not by eyewitnesses.

In addition to criticising the historical plausibility of miracle stories, he argued that the Gospels are contradictory, distorted, and anachronistic accounts. About as much as we can know of the historical figure of Jesus, Paine suggested, was that he was a preacher of the “equality of man,” opposed to priestly corruption, and likely advocated the freeing the Jewish people from Roman rule. After Jesus’ execution on the grounds of sedition and conspiracy, later (non-Jewish) Christians created a mythological system whereby this Jesus was elevated and deified.


Age of Reason was cheap and found a sympathetic audience among labourers, artisans, and radicals (see, e.g., here and here). The influential Paine-style understanding of Jesus was then taken up in reaction to the economic hardships following the Napoleonic Wars, such as by Thomas Evans, a follower of the revolutionary Thomas Spence. Paine’s Jesus was also a major reference point for Chartists in the mid-nineteenth century. But Paine was not the only writer on the historical Jesus that the working class were reading. In 1845, Engels wrote that socialists were active in the education of the working class in England, including in the supply of cheap translations of French and German literature.

One such publication was Strauss’s Life of Jesus, first published a decade earlier (and which Engels had read). The cheap, serialised translation was circulated in the early 1840s and associated with the journalist and radical dissenting Christian, Henry Hetherington. This translation has been largely ignored in the historical of scholarship and overshadowed by the English translation of the fourth edition by the novelist George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) in 1846. Whereas Eliot’s translation was for a dissenting middle-class audience, the Hetherington version was squarely aimed at a working-class audience, which goes some way to explaining why one has since been remembered over the other. 

Jesus the revolutionary

This working-class audience for and interest in historical Jesus studies has been overlooked, despite plenty of material being available in the Chartist press and its precursors in the 1830s. Of course, some Chartists were more theologically radical than others, but there is a consistent picture of Jesus that emerges from the newspapers, often at odds with the politics of the more conservative liberal Strauss. This Jesus of working-class interpretation was from a labouring or poor background who identified with his own kind. He was critical of exploitation, hypocrisy, tyranny, and the rich. Jesus’ opponents were typically understood in class terms too. Opposition from priests and other groups were categorised in near timeless class-based terms (middle class, upper class) as first-century equivalent of politicians, aristocrats, and church authorities (of varying denominations) in the nineteenth century.

Against such class-based opposition, Jesus the Chartist-style martyr was said to have put up a dignified front, emphasising egalitarianism, virtue, morality, humility, discipline, and neighbourliness. It was believed that Jesus met the typical fate of the benevolent reformer—persecution and execution—but not everyone thought that he passively accepted his fate. Sometimes Jesus was in line with those Chartists who emphasised “moral force”, but at other times Jesus was more menacing and in line with those Chartists who emphasised “physical force.” Here I summarise articles from, e.g., Poor Man's Guardian, Northern Star, Northern Liberator, The Charter, dating from 1831 to 1852.


Whether right, wrong, or somewhere in between, we should see such late-eighteenth and nineteenth-century reconstructions as a significant development in what has become a recurring popular understanding of the historical Jesus as a radical, oppositional, even revolutionary figure. Yet the relative absence of prominent scholarship on Jesus in the western Marxist tradition over the twentieth century is even more striking against this backdrop. There nothing like the equivalent of, for instance, the influence the British Marxist historians had in university-based history departments. This dearth of comparable scholarship is likely due to the serious study of the foundational figure of Christianity having been located in university theology departments and theological seminaries where, particularly during the Cold War, the hostility towards Marxism (assumed to be atheistic and reductionist) has been most acutely felt.  

Consequently, for all the disagreements among scholars, the resulting portraits of Jesus have typically been idealistic to an extreme degree. There is a dominant tendency portraying Jesus as a great man of history who simply turned up and shaped the world around him, and whose ideas and actions had little connection to socio-economic changes happening at the time. Even when there have been attempts to locate Jesus in a world of economics and social structures, these are usually carried out to highlight his supposed theological distinctiveness or to engage in debates about whether the Galileans were especially oppressed thereby setting the scene for Jesus to provide a radical theological alternative.

This needs to be countered. The once thriving class-based analysis of the historical Jesus of the late-eighteenth and nineteenth century needs to be revitalised, updated, and developed further by historians with historical materialist interests. A historical materialist understanding of Jesus in a world of competing class interests obviously turns such idealistic, liberal, or neoliberal readings of Jesus the great man on their head.

Apocalypticism Now
Thursday, 28 May 2020 13:11

Apocalypticism Now

Published in Religion

James Crossley reflects on the dangers and possibilities of the Covid-19 crisis. Image: Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Albrecht Durer, 1497-8

Towards the end of March, it was reported that an English hiker returned from a five-day trek in the New Zealand wilds and was surprised to see “three hooded figures, wearing masks and hi-vis jackets.”

His journey coincided with the coronavirus lockdown and his response was that the three figures were like a “post-apocalyptic survivor squad.” Despite his atypical situation, he was not alone in framing these unusual times in such language.

With the rapid public awareness of coronavirus came the ubiquitous language of apocalypticism and End Times, even in an increasingly irreligious Britain. Such language is used ironically, as few really believe that the End Times are upon us or that an era of Walking Dead survivalism is at hand—this is not the US, after all. But hopes of a transformation in the way we live after the crisis are taken more seriously. It seems people overwhelmingly do not want to go back to the way things were before the lockdown. It seems they do prefer cleaner air, a feeling of community and keeping in touch with family members.

There is good reason why people have framed the pandemic in terms of apocalypticism because such language and concepts run deep in our culture. In the US, such ideas are associated with the Christian right. In this country, however, they are much more closely aligned with the left and have a long history. John Ball, the great priest of the 1381 English uprising, employed end-times language from the Bible to understand the predicament of peasants in particular and how a dramatic, violent transformation would be needed before all things would be held in common.

Apocalypticism was an important way for people like Ball to express their discontents in a pre-capitalist society. Socialist and communist movements later provided a different type of opposition to capitalism and absorbed and transformed such language and ideas.

Like other socialists of his time, William Morris worked with the idea of a “religion of socialism.” God may be out of the equation but socialism needed to retain what was important in religion and this included ideas about changing the current social order while being prepared to face defeats and sacrifices. Morris’s reading of Marx also meant he could take seriously the idea that John Ball was a prophet before his time. In A Dream of John Ball, Morris showed that there will always be failures but the message of past struggles must not be lost in new situations. Ball’s vision of a transformed world, Morris argued, was more likely with the rise of socialism but it now needed the example of determined people like Ball to help bring it about.

The darker side of apocalypticism became prominent in the 20th century, with two world wars and the threat of nuclear and then environmental annihilation. But the left did not lose sight of the possibilities for a better world. After VE Day and the rubble of World War II, socialists looked to build a New Jerusalem as the Labour Party created the NHS and developed a welfare state as part of their “new war on hunger, ignorance and want,” as the 1945 manifesto put it.

These ideas have persisted. After decades of leftist defeatism, Rojava showed the possibilities for transformation again. Volunteers could talk about inheriting the earth and bringing about a new world after the ruins. From socialists and communists in the region, as well as the brutal realities of war, volunteers knew the cost of fighting for revolutionary change and the importance of memorialising martyrs. The death of volunteers like Anna Campbell brought this home to a country not used to thinking much beyond the romance of revolution.

It is for good reason that liberals get queasy about the language of dramatic change. Maintaining, or gently tweaking, the status quo is in their interests. But their interests are not workers’ interests. The Financial Times last month gave the game away with an analogy from the 14th century. Its editorial noted that the Black Death has been credited with “transforming labour relations in Europe” as peasants “could bargain for better terms and conditions.” However, it added, “a thankfully much lower mortality rate means such a transformation is unlikely to follow coronavirus.”

Unfortunate wording? Perhaps. The main concern in the FT editorial may have been about high unemployment but clearly the transformation of labour relations after the lockdown is not what the bosses want. Our interests are the opposite and popular. Workers once taken for granted are now widely appreciated during this pandemic, as they clear away our rubbish, make sure we have food and treat patients in testing circumstances—even to the point of putting their lives on the line.

Their importance and the contrasting uselessness of the likes of Richard Branson have been exposed for us all to see. To paraphrase the popular piece of graffiti, the next battleground will involve making the rich pay for Covid-19. If the aftermath of 2008 and the Corbyn project taught us anything, this is not going to be easy. The government has made noises about paying back what’s owed and we know who will and who won’t bear the brunt of this and who will and won’t be made redundant.

The odds aren’t favourable, with a long-weakened union movement and a Starmer-led Labour Party. But this is not the time for technocratic politics or a gentle tweaking of the system which will only further line the pockets of corporations at the expense of workers. The demands for a new world are getting ever more urgent in the face of climate change. Serious, sustained change will only come through the power of mass collective action with workers’ interests at heart and a vision of what kind of world we want.

Are we up for it? Bob Crow famously said: “If you fight you won't always win. But if you don't fight you will always lose.” That saying turned up in Rojava and it is just as relevant in northern Syria as it will be once this so-called apocalypse ends and the next one hits us hard.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Good Samaritan
Monday, 24 December 2018 16:41

Jeremy Corbyn’s Good Samaritan

Published in Religion

James Crossley writes about Jeremy Corbyn's Christmas message.

Christmas is a rare time when politicians can, without too much embarrassment, openly talk about issues relating to popular understandings of religion. As I’ve argued in detail elsewhere, Christmas functions as a soft authority for various political ideologies and a particularly good indicator of the kinds of acceptable—or competing—ideas about politics and religion.

Since he became leader of the Labour Party in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn’s Christmas messages have been an indicator that socialism has returned to mainstream political discourse. In his first Christmas message as leader, Corbyn spoke openly (and, then, strikingly) about his socialism and presented it through the prism of English or British radicalism which has often referenced the Bible to make socialism palatable. As Corbyn put it, ‘the Christmas story holds up a mirror to us all. “Do unto others as you would have done to you”—that is the essence of my socialism, summed up in the word— “solidarity”.’ Indeed, Corbyn referenced a famous socialist saying that could, depending on tastes, be attributed to Marx or the Bible (or both) but here was carefully presented as a ‘maxim that inspired our party’: ‘From each according to their means, to each according to their needs’ (Acts of the Apostles 4.32-35).

Corbyn’s 2018 Christmas message is striking because he explicitly referred to the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.29-37). This parable, said Corbyn, was one that particularly moved him and which he liked to think about at Christmas. Corbyn even narrated the contents, something not so typical in English political discourse where anything smacking of too much religion is usually deemed problematic (by voters and politicians alike).

In the past, Corbyn has typically alluded to the parable (rather than naming it, or indeed mentioning that it comes from the Bible) with reference to not ‘walking by on the other side’. He has done so regularly and consistently to promote welfare and social housing and to criticise the rise in homelessness. His comments made during his first speech as Labour leader are typical: ‘we want to live in a society where we don’t pass by on the other side of those people rejected by an unfair welfare system. Instead we reach out to end the scourge of homelessness and desperation that so many people face in our society.’

In the case of his Christmas message this year, there was a slight shift in focus. Certainly, the themes are typical of Corbyn’s Christmas messages and biblical allusions: homeless shelters, foodbanks, and refugees. However, the focus is now on people and communities providing support where the state has failed, hence people helping in homeless shelters, those supplying foodbanks, and volunteers aiding refugees. As Corbyn put it: ‘These are people who will not “walk by on the other side”. They do what’s become so necessary in a system that’s failing to provide people’s basic needs. They embody what’s best and most compassionate in all of us.’

This use of the Good Samaritan should be seen as part of a wider debate about the role of the state in the provision of welfare. Corbyn has re-popularised the role of the state against a dominant neoliberal position which became increasingly popular among political leaders since Thatcher. Where, for Corbyn, the role of heroic individuals and communities is a good thing because of the failings of the neoliberal state, for Thatcher and her followers, outsourcing the state was a sign of success, that welfare was not so important for national wellbeing. Thatcher famously claimed that charitable giving was crucial and that ‘no-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well’. By the time David Cameron was leader, this sort of thinking was deeply embedded in mainstream political discourse. Cameron too thought related sentiments like ‘love thy neighbour’ (also used in the relation to the parable of the Good Samaritan—Luke 10.27-29, 36) involved helping in homeless shelters and in soup kitchens, as he claimed in his 2014 Easter message. But whereas Corbyn’s emphasis was on general societal support, Cameron focused more on churches, including his praise of vicars canoeing to help victims of the 2014 storms. This was because Cameron wanted to promote his own particular take on outsourcing the state—Big Society (remember that?). Indeed, Cameron even claimed the highest authority for his brand of neoliberalism: ‘Jesus invented the Big Society 2000 years ago, I just want to see more of it and encourage as much of it as possible.’

For Corbyn, and some in the contemporary labour movement, building a kind of cultural socialism to prepare the way for support for socialism in power underpins the counterargument to Thatcherite neoliberalism. As Corbyn put it in his latest message, such people ‘make me certain that we can build a fairer society which works for everyone.’ This is also a sentiment tied up with the history of the English left. In his 2014 memoirs Sailing Close to the Wind, Corbyn’s close ally, Dennis Skinner, argued that the parable of the Good Samaritan was not about individualist improvement (‘a load of crap’) but rather collective good of the sort he saw in pit communities (‘solidarity and struggle’) and in trade unionism. This parable, Skinner claimed, was about helping ‘someone in need’ and was an example of ‘a socialist story’. A little blunter than Corbyn perhaps, but Skinner likewise developed these sorts of ideas in order to confront capitalism for the ‘transformation of Britain’ in the interests of working people and their families, and for public ownership of electricity companies, rail, and the whole of the National Health Service.

However, there is also a third reading of the Good Samaritan at play. Corbyn’s reference to ‘raising money for refugees who’ve been forced to flee war, oppression and devastation’ continues his stress on tackling the material causes of migration but also an implicit counter to the uses of the Good Samaritan to support military intervention and North Africa. Cameron tried to justify his own take on military intervention by focusing on ISIS as a deviation from a purer, democratic Islam (a typical construction of Islam in English political discourse) and thus in need of the assistance of benign violence. And he did so with reference to a more physical Good Samaritan: ‘we cannot just walk on by if we are to keep this country safe…we have to confront this menace…we will do so in a calm, deliberate way but with an iron determination’.

Back in December 2015, Hilary Benn was a high-profile Labour frontbencher who was hostile to Corbyn’s agenda and he too used the parable in a similar way to Cameron, albeit with the twist reminiscent of the right of the Labour party. As Tony Blair took and changed the language of radical societal transformation (as used, for instance, in the founding of the NHS) to justify the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, Hilary Benn appropriated the leftist mythology of the International Brigades to justify military intervention in Syria and to essentially make the same point as Cameron. To this we might add that Hilary Benn was (consciously or not) also trying to fight Corbyn for the legacy of the Good Samaritan and the Labour Party. ‘As a party we have always been defined by our internationalism,’ claimed Benn, and ‘We believe we have a responsibility one to another. We never have, and we never should, walk by on the other side of the road.’

The British media did their duty and sentimentally promoted this pro-war speech and the militarized Good Samaritan. But seemingly against the odds and working with relentless hostility from the British media, Corbyn’s reading of the Good Samaritan is one that presently dominates on the Left. And that is no less than a little Christmas miracle.

Christopher Hill, Marxism and the Revolutionary Bible after 1968
Tuesday, 19 June 2018 19:56

Christopher Hill, Marxism and the Revolutionary Bible after 1968

Published in Religion

James Crossley traces the links between Christopher Hill's Marxist analysis of the English Revolution, the importance of the Bible in promoting revolutionary thought, and the student revolts of 1968.

We should not underestimate the importance of the Bible in the work of the Marxist historian Christopher Hill (1912–2003). Yet this is what has happened, and it is telling that a standout exception is a historian who knew Hill better than most: his niece, Penelope Corfield. The most obvious example of what had long been central for Hill’s analysis of the English Revolution is The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution (1993). By this time, Hill had become increasingly convinced of the importance of Numbers 35.33 in the regicide:

So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.

Using an argument developed by Patricia Crawford, Hill stressed that puzzlement over Charles I launching a second civil war was dealt with by identifying Charles as the Man of Blood who had to be killed.

But the Bible was already central to his most celebrated work, The World Turned Upside Down (1972). The phrase ‘world turned upside down’ is biblical and Hill made this explicit by quoting the relevant passages from the King James Version in the epigraph (Psalm 146.9; Isaiah 24.1-2, 20-21; Acts 17.1-6). As Corfield showed, Hill was fascinated by Acts 17.6 and the idea of the world turned upside down, because it suggested the subversion of received ideas of the truth and that egalitarianism could be made available to the lowliest.

Not only did such ideas about the Bible frame The World Turned Upside Down but throughout the book Hill would typically introduce an issue relating to the Bible, before moving on to a conclusion (usually at the end of a paragraph) about how revolutionary such interpretations were. The following conclusion to a paragraph on page 144 highlights the point well: ‘The Bible should be used to illustrate truths of which one was already convinced: Winstanley was prepared to use Acts 4.32 to justify community of property.’ Running throughout the book is the theme of popularist, millenarian interpreters versus the elites and intellectuals.

Even when a biblical verse or the Bible itself were thought to be undermined, we still find the importance of the ‘inner light’ and Jesus in promoting revolutionary thought. Nevertheless, Hill emphasized the historical significance of the Bible. By the seventeenth century, the Bible had become popularly available and, Hill stressed, was popular for lower class resistance in an era when no-one could turn to Rousseau or Marx. But he also argued that this politically revolutionary understanding of the Bible contributed to the Bible as being central to a broader cultural and literary revolution from the 1580s to the 1680s, and the development of the Protestant English nation.

In this sense, the Bible mirrored Hill’s understanding of the English Revolution. Hill argued that there were effectively two revolutions taking place in the mid-seventeenth century. The successful Puritan revolution was bourgeois, where Parliament tamed the power of the Crown and the Church and created a state ready for capitalist development and imperialist expansion. The unsuccessful revolution made radical democratic claims which went hand-in-hand with revolutionary ideas such as proto-communism, free love, and questioning the notion of a creator God and the existence of Hell. This revolution from below was important, Hill claimed, because it gave the bourgeois Puritan revolution momentum. But once regicide was committed bourgeois power was then consolidated and the revolution from below, and its revolutionary Bible, had to be suppressed.

But we should also read Hill’s interest in the Bible and the seventeenth century on another level: a means to understand the changes taking place in the twentieth century. It is often remarked that The World Turned Upside Down is as much an embrace of the student-led uprisings of 1968 as it is an analysis of seventeenth-century radicalism. But Hill’s take on 1968 was fraught with ambiguities, as it was for the Marxist establishment of the time: was this a serious challenge to capitalism, hopelessly romantic, or anti-Marxist? Theodor Adorno even called the police on protesters while students denounced him as a ‘classicist’. Before his death, he wrote that this counterculture was the return of a ‘ghost’—anarchism. Hill’s close colleague, Eric Hobsbawm, had more interest in the legacy of the 1960s but likewise saw a resurgent anarchism as little more than ‘admirable but hopeless’.

Hill embodied the tensions perhaps more than any of the old Marxist establishment. Hill and Bridget Sutton (his second wife) were fascinated by notions of free love and free thought and the echoes of the mid-seventeenth century. Yet there was no romantic notion that the new counterculture was going to overthrow capitalism anytime soon. Hill’s Communist and Nonconformist background (sometimes understood as near synonymous among the British Marxist historians) might have been one of dissent but it was also at odds with the radicalism of 1968 because these were backgrounds which stressed civility, seriousness, sobriety, restraint, respectability, decency, and discipline. Hill was also the only one of his generation of Communist historians to gain an Oxbridge position, including his appointment as Master of Balliol College from 1965 until his retirement in 1978, which put him in a particularly difficult position in negotiating student radicalism and the demands of a governing body.

These tensions come through in The World Turned Upside Down. Hill pointed out that the Bible (the Geneva Bible, to be precise, which included incendiary notes justifying the end to the divine right of monarchs) was now in pocketable editions and could be used for personal study yet he ensured that individualist-capitalist interpretations were reined in. The Quakers, for instance, were understood to have used the Bible to provide a ‘radical reply’ to ‘priests and scholars’ who wanted to monopolize the Bible for the educated elite. Hill was careful to make it clear that ‘mere absolute individualism’ was not occurring among his seventeenth-century radicals. Instead, he stressed that the congregation was the place where interpretations were ‘tested and approved’. In The World Turned Upside Down, Hill also gave some thinly-veiled critiques of anarchism in his own time which included critiques of appeals to individual conscience, the concept of the isolated artist, and the illusion of a withdrawal from society. The ghost of anarchism was also lurking behind the back of the Balliol Marxist.

Such concerns give further insight into Hill’s stress on the seventeenth-century Bible. His favoured interpreters, such as Winstanley, were presented as serious scholars of a book of cultural importance who effectively belong alongside more obvious interpreters in the English literary canon, such as John Milton or Andrew Marvell. Shocking though they may have been to the university elites, interpreters such as the Quaker Samuel Fisher were presented as serious scholars and precursors of the critical, academic approaches to the Bible that would take off in the English Enlightenment. As with his understanding of historical development, bourgeois biblical interpretation may have won in the long run but not without the mark of popular radical interpretation.

This understanding of the Bible and biblical interpretations as a site of serious culture gave some protection to Hill’s radicals against allegations of them as being the ‘lunatic fringe’. But it also functioned as Hill’s own re-reading of 1968 and an attempt to protect the legacy of sixties counterculture from anything too anarchistic or too playful and to present as it really should have been: revolutionary, serious and scholarly.

Hill’s later work would likewise foreground the Bible as he tried to explain the failure of the seventeenth-century revolution, though with one eye on the failures of 1968, the decline of a revolutionary left, and emerging Thatcherism. Milton and the English Revolution (1978) and The Experience of Defeat (1984) looked at how people coped with the idea of God allowing revolutionary failure after such spectacular successes against a backdrop of the Restoration and the rise of capitalism and bourgeois Protestant work ethic. As he concluded The Experience of Defeat, ‘In 1644 Milton saw England as “a nation of prophets”. Where are they now?’ Defeat really was defeat and there was no shying away from the transformation of universalistic tendencies in the revolutionary impulses and millenarianism of the 1640s and 1650s into English imperialism with a combination of revolution and restoration paving the way for eighteenth-century Whiggery.

But for all the pessimism, Hill did not give up hope entirely. He may have turned to ideas about exile, apostasy, and illegitimate church leaders but he also noted ideas about vigilance and patiently waiting with the true Gospel for the true church to emerge. Hill’s understanding of Milton was that experience of defeat meant that Milton took his role as poet and prophet even more seriously and that Milton used biblical characters as examples of heroic failure coupled with the hope of divine intervention in the future. Hill had long noted the importance of a radical English history which had survived against the odds and would continue to do so after the seventeenth century. Though he died in 2003, his own logic would suggest that there would be hope for progressive resurgence even after the Blair years. And, once again, there is—despite the odds.

Why Christianity matters to socialism
Tuesday, 27 March 2018 08:20

Why Christianity matters to socialism

Published in Religion

James Crossley argues for the importance of the radical Christian tradition as an important resource for the revolutionary transformation of the world. 

On becoming leader of the Labour Party in September 2015, Jeremy Corbyn envisaged living a society “where we don’t pass by on the other side of those people rejected by an unfair welfare system. Instead we reach out to end the scourge of homelessness and desperation that so many people face in our society.”

Every since that historic victory, Corbyn has repeatedly used the language of “not passing by on the other side.” It is an allusion to the Parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke’s Gospel and one popular among politicians. While David Cameron, Hilary Benn and others have used the parable to promote military intervention in North Africa and the Middle East (think the Good Samaritan violently beating the robbers), Corbyn, unusually for a contemporary politician, has used the parable to attack the scandal of increased homelessness, rough sleeping and the housing crisis.

JC Helping the homeless

These contradictory interpretations of a parable attributed to a figure like Jesus are not unusual: revolutionary and reactionary tendencies have always been part of Christianity, perhaps even present in the message of Jesus. The earliest traditions about Jesus have him predicting an imminent theocracy, not all of which would necessarily look progressive to us. It was likely to have been understood as a violent intervention in history, with new hierarchies established and subservient nations put in their place.

Christianity itself would later become integral to the Roman Empire. Some of this was due to changing religious affiliations in the Empire and Christianity adapting itself to Roman power. But it was not entirely alien to a theocratic message present from the beginning.

However, Jesus and his earliest followers’ hope for a new divine empire was tied in with stark attacks on the inequality and wealth, some of which were brought into sharper focus by the major building projects and land displacements in Galilee as Jesus was growing up. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus gives us some indication as to what this would have looked like in the case of one such building project, the town of Tiberias:

The new settlers were a promiscuous rabble, no small contingent being Galilean, with such as were drafted from territory subject to him [Herod Antipas] and brought forcibly to the new foundation. Some of these were magistrates. Herod accepted as participants even poor men who were brought in to join the others from any and all places of origin. It was in question whether some were even free beyond cavil. These latter he often and in large bodies liberated and benefited imposing the condition that they should not quit the city, by equipping houses at his own expense and adding new gifts of land. For he knew that this settlement was contrary to the law and tradition of the Jews because Tiberias was built on the site of tombs that had been obliterated, of which there were many there. And our law declares that such settlers are unclean for seven days. - Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.36-38

Jesus seems to have formed an alternative community to one where traditional households had been uprooted by aristocratic demand for greater surplus with a message revealing some awareness of the structural nature of poverty and wealth. The Acts of the Apostles suggests that these revolutionary impulses were kept alive in a community of shared goods that would later inspire Tony Benn in his defence of public ownership against the attacks from New Labour.

We should understand Jesus’ teachings in terms of Marx’s famous understanding of religion as “an expression of and protest against real wretchedness.” In a world where wealth was concentrated among a small aristocratic elite, Jesus was remembered as saying the rich would burn or be excluded from the coming kingdom while the poor would be blessed.

Parables like the Rich Man and Lazarus (where the rich man burns for being rich and the poor man Lazarus is rewarded because he was poor) and sayings such as “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” are in line with other expectations that the wealthy will eventually be overthrown and punished, at least if they did not give up their extreme wealth to those in need.

JC Anonymous Rich man and Lazarus ca. 1610

Pieter Cornelisz van Rijck, Kitchen Interior with the Parable of the Rich Man and the Poor Lazarus, 1610

This was to be, as the Acts of the Apostles note in a different context, turning the world upside down. But warning signs of this future were enacted in the present. People overcharging for sacrificial animals were the focus of Jesus’ ire as he was remembered for overturning the tables of the moneychangers and dove-sellers which would lead to his execution as a seditious threat.

The tension between reaction and revolution has continued throughout the history of Christianity. Clashes between elite power and the desire for radical democratic transformation or wealth redistribution simmered and occasionally boiled over in the history of English Christianity, leaving us with a long radical history, from the Peasants’ Revolt through the seventeenth-century radicals to the growth of the Labour movement and Keir Hardie’s desire to “stir up a divine discontent with wrong,” a saying referenced by Corbyn at the Labour Party conference in 2015. The language of this tradition was employed in the founding of the NHS and the successful Labour manifesto of 1945.

Thanks to countless dedicated socialists from the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp to revolutionaries travelling to Rojava, this was a tradition whose language would remain alive on the English left. The story of Jesus and the moneychangers was a prominent one in challenging “the one percent” at Occupy London Stock Exchange where St Paul’s Cathedral itself epitomised the tension: church leaders were uncomfortable with protesters while the grounds were simultaneously a readily available space for a sustained protest.

JC jesus and moneychangers

We now find ourselves in the position unusual for the Left: close to power. There have been encouraging discussions among Momentum and union activists about growing a working-class socialist culture “from below,” where social events, sports clubs, foodbanks, etc. become part of building a mass movement, see http://colouringinculture.org/cultural-democracy-home.

Historically, this socialism from below has had strong overlaps with Christian traditions. The impulses of Christianity which tackle poverty continue today, as in work of the Trussell Trust, whose role in foodbanks has made sure that Iain Duncan Smith does not forget Jesus’ words about poverty.

Yet, as I have discussed in a forthcoming book (Cults, Martyrs, and Good Samaritans: Religion in Contemporary English Political Discourse [Pluto, 2018]) there is evidence that much of the public does not like politicians explicitly invoking religion, Christianity and the Bible, particularly for grandiose claims about Christianity being the source of parliamentary democracy or free markets, as David Cameron claimed.

However, there does not appear to be widespread hatred of Christianity per se, not even beyond the pockets where church attendance remains relatively high. There is some indication that there is support for the Bible as a general moral code for helping others. This is something that should not be ignored by socialists. And Corbyn’s allusion to the Good Samaritan is precisely what is palatable for much of the British public: pithy, vague, but full of basic human decency.  

But there is also evidence that Christianity can be associated with national identity. One recent study found that nearly a quarter of people viewed being Christian in ethnic terms, i.e. a signifier of being English or British despite the sharp decrease in church attendance in recent decades and the accompanying rise in those identifying with non-belief.

This can, of course, be dangerous for the left and fertile ground for the right. Theresa May and Nigel Farage have both tried to capitalise on this ethnonationalist understanding of Christianity. For example, when asked in Parliament about the respecting between Christmas of “mainstream Britain” and “minority traditions” of Diwali, Vaisakhi and Eid, May responded, “We want minority communities to be able to recognise and stand up for their traditions, but we also want to be able to stand up for our traditions generally, and that includes Christmas.”

May, like Farage, was attempting to appeal partly to a certain kind of working-class voter in the light of the EU Referendum. Uncomfortable though it may be, these issues should not be ignored by the English left where the struggle over national identity has been a difficult one. Here we can turn to the radical English tradition which has informed the contemporary left, including Corbyn and his mentor Tony Benn.

In fact, Labour have recognised this potential in the fight against UKIP and the Tories. Sam Tarry, co-director of Corbyn’s re-election campaign, talked about the importance of an English Labour movement promoting “the Peasants’ Revolt, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists, and the suffragettes and others” as a “socialist vision” which is also a “patriotic one, because nothing is more patriotic than building a society for the many; not the few.”

There is, of course, no doubt that religion can be a divisive issue on the left because of its well-known reactionary traditions. But Christianity (or any other religion) does not always have to be reactionary and socialist Christians won’t cease to be socialists because some of their co-travellers are not.

Left-wing Christianity has been central to English and British socialism and its legacy remains important to this day, whether in fighting poverty, keeping radicalism alive, providing ready-made community networks, or influencing the general language we use. None of this means, of course, that we all convert to Christianity or attend church on a Sunday morning. But if we want to transform this world, this radical tradition will prove to be an important resource.


Once Upon a Time this West was full of Radicals: Sergio Leone, Revolution and Religion
Sunday, 19 June 2016 17:36

Once Upon a Time this West was full of Radicals: Sergio Leone, Revolution and Religion

Published in Films

James Crossley analyses Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns, unearthing their twin discourses of a materialist explanation of American capitalism and an expression of a revolutionary Christianity.

Even if someone has somehow not seen Sergio Leone’s Westerns, the poncho-wearing, cigar-smoking, gun-toting, stubble-growing image of its breakout star, Clint Eastwood, as well as the distinctive Ennio Morricone soundtracks, may still provoke some kind of recognition. For those unfamiliar with Leone’s Westerns, the films include the Dollars Trilogy—A Fistful of Dollars (1964; US release: 1967), For a Few Dollars More (1965; US release: 1967) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966; US release: 1967)—and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968; US release: 1969).

 The Dollars Trilogy

 The Dollars Trilogy involves quests for money and focuses mainly on Clint Eastwood’s bounty killer character, often referred to as The Man with No Name, though in each film he is in fact named (Joe, Manco and Blondie). Once Upon a Time in the West shifts the focus to another dangerous figure, Harmonica (Charles Bronson), but he gives way to Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), a non-violent former prostitute, effectively the ‘mother’ of the new town of Sweetwater. These kinds of Westerns gained the label ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ because of their origins in Cinecittà Studios, Rome, and for having an Italian director. However, as Christopher Frayling (probably the most influential analyst of Leone) would detail, Leone’s Westerns were also a critical commentary on the American Western, transforming the optimistic view of the frontier into a world of death and corruption. Once Upon Time in the West, however, would be a deliberate attempt by Leone to replace the Dollars Trilogy with a story of, as Leone himself put it, ‘a birth and a death…a cinematic fresco on the birth of America…the end of the Western’s golden age and the demise of the Western as a fable’.

One of the oldest questions (and once among the most popular) in the critical study of Leone’s westerns is, as Frayling put it, ‘why did the “moment” of the Italian Westerns appeal so much to children of Marx and Coca Cola in Europe, especially the generation of May 1968?’, to which we should extend the geography to include North America and widen the timeframe to include its ongoing reception. It has long been noted that Leone’s Westerns can be read as simultaneously celebrating and critiquing capitalism and Hollywood Westerns and that such tensions have always surrounded their various receptions (including Leone’s own understandings).

Eastwood’s anti-authority character and distinctive style in the Leone Westerns, it is often pointed out, resonated with the social changes of the 1960s and stylistic statements of associated Vietnam protests. Yet this individualistic gunslinger with little time for bureaucracy is not too far removed from figures in other films which pick up on various western themes and which represent the next stage in the development of the Eastwood and Bronson personas. Harry in Dirty Harry (1971) and the vigilante Paul Kersey in Michael Winner’s Death Wish films both represent a firm shift to the Right and a reaction against perceived progressive politics of the 1960s.

There are many ways we can try to understand the popularity and survival of Leone’s Westerns. One (and only one) is to look at their ideological fit with changes happening in Europe and North America since the 1960s. The timing of the marketable and pop art image of the recognisable Eastwood persona that emerged from the Dollars Trilogy (and which Eastwood was keen to protect) is crucial because the instant image and PR have become a defining feature of neoliberal or postmodern capitalism emerging from the 1960s onward. More broadly, leftist criticisms of traditional forms of authority, alongside a sustained critique of the dominance of Marxist metanarratives, are also significant for understanding the emergence of neoliberalism. In a prime example of the Law of Unintended Consequences, the rhetoric of freedom, liberty, individuality, and challenges to the role of the state which came out of the 1960s would be appropriated by the Right (albeit in economic terms) and adapted in many parts of popular culture and in the Reaganization or Thatcherization of the media, journalism, universities, economics, and politics. The values associated with Leone’s protagonists are sometimes compatible with, though sometimes critical of, dominant values that have since become associated with neoliberalism. Leone’s amoral, and seemingly unconstrained, entrepreneurial bounty killers are, after all, obsessed with accumulating a personal fortune.

But, as Austin Fisher in particular has shown, the Italian Westerns of the 1960s were engaged in radical left-wing political debates and this includes Leone’s Westerns. Basic influences can be seen, for instance, in the form of corporate greed (e.g. the railroad boss, Morton [Gabriele Ferzetti], in Once Upon a Time in the West) and relatively sympathetic treatments of bandits as symptoms of socio-economic circumstances (e.g. Tuco [Eli Wallach] in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) who can gain popular support in small rural towns (e.g. Agua Caliente in For a Few Dollars More). But Leone’s Westerns were not radical enough for some. The Italian actor, Gian Maria Volonté, who played the roles of Ramón and Indio in Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More respectively, was a Communist Party member who, despite his prominence in Leone’s westerns and growing fame, turned down the role of Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in favour of what he saw as more significant political roles.

Volonté may have had a point as the political critique is largely muted in Leone’s amoral universe. And when Leone gets to the more cynical Duck, You Sucker! (aka A Fistful of Dynamite) in 1971, the political critique is levelled more at the ‘intellectual’ concept of revolution, post-’68 disillusionment, and the Italian Westerns of the Zapata variety, though the film is hardly unsympathetic, puts class distinction in sharp focus and adds degrees of chaos to understanding revolutionary commitments and attitudes.

The First Transformative Stage of Capitalism

The political mark of the Italian Western still runs deep in Leone’s Westerns. Taken collectively, they provide a materialist explanation of the origins of American capitalism which further helps us understand their political ambiguities. There are effectively two transformative stages of capitalism in Leone’s Westerns which resonated with the tensions leading to the emergence of neoliberalism. The Dollars Trilogy represents the first transformative stage of capitalism where death and chaos rule. In this stage, the deceitful, untrustworthy, morbidly entrepreneurial masters of the new technologies thrive, latching onto death as a commodity, and wiping out the lingering feudalism of the Rojos and Baxters in A Fistful of Dollars or the outdated peasantry and peasant technology at the beginning of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (recall the boy endlessly circling a well on a mule) overpowered by the solitary killer and his gun.

Unlike the two opposing families in A Fistful of Dollars, Joe can move freely across the boundaries and sell his services to both sides. As Timothy Campbell argues concerning such issues, Joe ‘comes to stand in for a technological form linked to that mode of postmodern capitalism in which circulation of bodies, objects, and labor power is key’. Once the macabre market has dried up, Joe moves on to make more money from death elsewhere in a world increasingly suited to his particular talents. And so the beginning of For a Few Dollars More explains to the audience the reason for the bounty killers: life may not have value but death did sometimes have a price.



The seemingly appealing disregard for traditional authority by the main characters is a marked feature of Leone’s first transformative stage of capitalism, represented by the Dollars Trilogy. Paralleling the overturning of the lingering feudalism, state, government, and local authority are not only corrupt or outdated but are constantly undermined, used, or humiliated by a form of individualism represented by Leone’s main characters. In this stage, the corrupt sheriff is no longer loyal, courageous and especially honest, as Manco points out in For a Few Dollars More. With no other authority than his own, Manco can remove the sheriff’s badge and toss it away with impunity. But traditional authorities are not simply involved in petty corruption. The Northern prison camp can be used by Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) to carry out torture in his pursuit of Carson’s gold. Indeed, we might say that the bigger the authority, the more destructive and the more indifferent to suffering it can be. As we see in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, both sides in the Civil War are presented as wasting life on such a mass scale that it even provokes a response of near disgust from a seasoned killer like Blondie.

Alongside the money and the pervasiveness of death (a theme typical of the Italian Western generally), Christianity is one of the most prominent discourses in Leone's films which illuminate this first transformative stage of capitalism. In striking contrast to American Westerns is Leone’s representation of Christianity, which is almost always Catholic and Latin rather than Protestant and white. As has long been noted, however, this representation is typically a profaned version of Christianity in the period of Leone’s historical schema, where death knows no boundaries. The normative family structure for Leone is presented in terms of the Holy Family (particularly in A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More) and is either uprooted or its members murdered. Throughout the films, de-sacralised Christian imagery is clear enough in rowdy Last Supper scenes, broken statues, disused and ramshackle crosses, crumbling churches, churches as bandit hideouts, and ominous church bells.

Main characters are presented in similarly ironic ways. Indio provides a parable from the pulpit explaining how the bank of El Paso might not be impenetrable after all, the bounty killer Mortimer is first introduced dressed as a priest reading the Bible, Blondie is labelled (by the vicious Angel Eyes) a golden-haired angel just before he dupes Tuco, and Blondie and Harmonica both take on the role of ‘Judas’, which is as much a compliment as insult in a world where betrayal and trickery in pursuit of money are the closest things to virtues. In this profaned world, resurrection plays a transformative role for at least three of Leone’s main characters (Joe, Blondie, Harmonica) which leads to the ultimate deaths and to the ultimate prize.

In A Fistful of Dollars, for instance, Joe escapes in the coffin, complete with a shut lid and a few seconds of black screen, followed by his ‘resurrection’ in (of course) a cave. The new Joe dramatically returns, seemingly immortal thanks to the trickery of his protective metal vest. But this profanation of Christianity as grotesque, macabre, macho, and something integral to the pursuit of money and transformation of the world of the American Western, is part of a world that also gets transformed in Leone’s schema in order to hasten the development of modern American capitalism.

The Second Transformative Stage of Capitalism

Whilst Once Upon a Time in the West continues Leone’s critical engagement with the American Western, he would now incorporate his Dollars Trilogy as part of his critique in what is the second transformative stage of capitalism in Leone’s schema. At this point in Leone’s story, the age of the gunslinger is coming to an end, as Leone pointed out and as Frayling has documented in detail, as they die off or, in the case of Harmonica, leave the boomtown. By the end, it is Jill McBain, the mother of Sweetwater, who now represents the American future. The gunslingers had their uses in protecting Jill McBain from the remaining ravages of the first transformative stage of capitalism but it is the investment in building materials for a strategically-located town that guarantees its long-term future.

This second transformative stage of capitalism in Once Upon a Time in the West involves the shift to a different form of capitalism. In sharp contrast to the Dollars Trilogy, financial gain is not a primary motivation for the gunslingers in Once Upon a Time in the West. By the end of the film, the successful use of money is now associated with investment and the emerging business class. Death is also controlled and regulated once the wiping out of the old world and its values is complete. Harmonica and Cheyenne (Jason Robards) defend and aid Jill McBain in her development of Sweetwater before their departure from the historical stage. The development of the railroad (a staple of the American Western) picks up on conventional Western themes but with a Leone spin. This new technological advance brings death, whether troops and criminals in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, bounty killers in For a Few Dollars More, or Frank (Henry Fonda) and his gang of killers in Once Upon a Time in the West.


 Once Upon a Time in the West: Final Scene

 Once the railroad is in place, however, and the McBains have taken control of water and labour, the development of the railroad becomes domesticated in the next stage of capitalism as the old killers are all removed. Already in Once Upon a Time in the West, the trains bring or will bring commerce, Jill McBain, and different ethnic groups, including Native Americans who are conspicuous by their absence in Leone’s previous westerns. As Leone himself implied, this harnessing of a more ethnically diverse community—and labour force—is part of the construction of new boundaries and new towns in this stage of capitalist development.

A re-sacralised Christianity is also found in Once Upon a Time in the West, especially in the plans of Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) for a church within the town. The profaned Christian imagery of the era of the bounty killer and gunslinger accompanies Harmonica, Cheyenne, and Frank, but by the time Jill McBain secures the train station and guarantees the future of Sweetwater at the end of the film, the murdering angels, resurrected killers, and trickster Judases are dead, long gone, or in the process of leaving town. Gone too are the decaying statues and crooked crosses. The construction of a de-sacralised religion is associated closely with bygone eras, either in its decline or as a time when, as Tuco pointed out to his brother amidst the crumbling statues in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, you either become a bandit or a priest (the latter being the easy option).

But in Once Upon a Time in the West, religion is controlled and put in its place, though not obviously Catholic. At a push, it might be argued that Jill McBain picks up on the holy mother and whore tropes which have been associated with the two most famous Marys of the New Testament and in some aspects of Catholic traditions, and Leone clearly had interest in Holy Family imagery. Yet from what we see of Sweetwater at the end it could be a town from the Hollywood mainstream rather than a distinctly Leone one. But whatever we make of it denominationally, the church is now domesticated and, as Harmonica and Cheyenne discovered, put in its place alongside the post office, corral and water tank in Brett McBain’s plans for the building of the town.

A Different Kind of Revolution

Culmination of a Marxian reading of history though it may be, Once Upon a Time in the West still ends optimistically and is hardly an overt condemnation of American capitalism found in other Italian Westerns. The Dollars Trilogy may well have turned the world of the American Western upside down, they may have linked capital with the forces of death, and they may have challenged traditional forms of authority and community in a way that would be appealing to 1960s counterculture, but Leone’s second transformative stage of capitalism showcases the values of amoral capitalism, untrustworthiness and a certain form of individualism which are hardly alien to emerging neoliberalism.

It is also perhaps significant that the optimistic and initially heavily-edited Once Upon a Time in the West was not the immediate success that the Dollars Trilogy was, and it was not until Vietnam was comfortably in the past and Reaganism was firmly in the ascendency that its reputation as a cinematic classic began to develop with an extended version released in 1984. And by the time the Westerns of Leone and Italian cinema were being showcased through relentless borrowing (just as Leone himself had done) from the 1990s onward, the radical leftist element of the violence was largely drained (as Austin Fisher discusses), though Tarantino’s Django Unchained arguably intensifies critique of a racist heritage. 


 A Bullet for the General

 Nevertheless, we might contrast two of the most obviously political Italian Westerns of the time: A Bullet for the General (1966; dir. Damiano Damiani) and Requiescant (1967; dir. Carlo Lizzani). Both films cover similar themes of death, revenge, money, and religion, and have considerably more prominent female roles among the fighters than would ever be found in a Leone film. Both films deal with the development of a country but this time Mexico and the ways the American involvement and capitalism, as well as the Mexican government and landowners, play their part, as the films side firmly with peons and peasants. Against Leone (and certain treatments of Mexico in American Westerns), these films use death to further the revolutionary cause, money is more closely associated with corrupt capitalists and imperialists rather than any virtue.

In both films there is an element of Christianity profaned through violence (e.g. the crucifixion on the railway line in A Bullet for the General or Ferguson [Mark Damon] effectively identifying himself with the God of the Bible in Requiescant) but Christianity can use the violence for revolutionary good. At the idealistic heart of both films are revolutionary priests, Santo (Klaus Kinski) and Don Juan (Pier Paolo Pasolini). In A Bullet for the General, Santo is the most hardened of revolutionaries, almost blindly loyal to the cause, and who believes that stolen weapons are being used for God’s work. He tells another priest that Christ sided with the poor and downtrodden and died between two bandits and so a good priest should be a violent revolutionary. He grenades the military in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit (ending with an ‘Amen’) and, in place of poor prisoners, he puts their captors in a prison cell telling them that they will die slowly and can take the time to think about forgiveness of their sins. He too asks for forgiveness for shedding blood but accepts its necessity in the interim.


Requiescant (Lou Castell), in the film of the same name, follows a familiar path of developing political awareness but the Bible itself is on this path. Brought up by a non-violent preacher, Requiescant embarks on a mission to find his half-sister Princy (Barbara Frey) and the Bible (both physical and in quotation) justifies his actions, accompanies him in his fights, and even protects him from a bullet. But it takes the commentary of Don Juan, beginning when Requiescant’s Bible lands at his feet, to reveal its full revolutionary potential. As Don Juan claims, this is The Book that will bring the people freedom. And in sharp contrast to Leone’s characters, Don Juan denounces individualist revenge and enjoyment of violence. Instead, he claims that violence is an unfortunate necessity in order to fight the Fergusons of this world who will steal their land, and for justice and liberty. The endings of both films make for a sharp contrast with Once Upon a Time in the West: rather than the backdrop of the boomtown of Sweetwater, we get peasants tilling the land as the backdrop of the freedom fighters riding off to fight for the cause (Requiescant) and Bill Tate (Lou Castell)—the gringo assassin of the revolutionary leader, Elias (Jaime Fernández)—is shot dead and sent packing on a train back to the land deemed to put a price on everything: America.

By the time of Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone had become enamoured with the romance of the American West, before moving on to a jaded view of revolution in Duck, You Sucker! Nevertheless, revolutionary Christianity is not entirely overturned in Leone’s deconstruction of the Zapata Western in Duck, You Sucker!, and John/Sean (James Coburn) returns to Juan (Rod Steiger) the cross that he previously ripped from his neck as his new life as a revolutionary general-in-the-making (albeit an accidental and reluctant one) is confirmed, in place of his previous worship of (robbing) the bank at Mesa Verde. Once upon a time this West was full of radicals but like (partly because of?) Leone’s overarching narrative, they have become a thing of the distant past.

But if ever there were a time in recent decades for a return of a more radical past, one that goes beyond contemporary Hollywood in its criticism of bad capitalists in the name of good capitalism, is it not now, as the validity of the assumptions of neoliberalism is being challenged like never before?
Splitters! The death and resurrection of the Radical Jesus, from the Life of Brian to Jeremy Corbyn
Friday, 25 March 2016 10:33

Splitters! The death and resurrection of the Radical Jesus, from the Life of Brian to Jeremy Corbyn

Published in Religion

Anarchist, conservative, liberal or revolutionary? Professor James Crossley discusses the various interpretations of the Easter story of the life of Jesus, the Monty Python film Life of Brian, and in the political life of Britain.

Jesus has long been present as a political figure in English and British culture. Two of the more prominent and sometimes overlapping assumptions about Jesus have been Jesus the Liberal and Jesus the Radical. Jesus the Liberal is no doubt familiar to us all. He is (crudely put) someone who is tolerant, kind and loving. This Jesus has had a notable reception among those who have more openly identified as atheist (and, at times, Liberal Democrat), such as Douglas Adams, Philip Pullman, and Richard Dawkins. Dawkins even claimed that the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount was one of the great ethical innovators in history.

Jesus the Radical is (crudely put) someone who shared such views but goes a socialist step further in promoting things like land and wealth redistribution, confronting power and wealth, egalitarianism, anti-clericalism and direct access to God, the importance of conscience, prophetic critique, and even ‘apocalyptic’ language, particularly with reference to a radical transformation of the social, economic and political order. To rephrase Morgan Phillips, the Radical Jesus owes as much to Marx as it does to Methodism.

This Jesus has had a sustained, if not always prominent, reception among, for instance, anarchists, Marxists, Nonconformist churches, and the left of the Labour Party. George Orwell was neither the first nor the last to compare Jesus with Marx when he claimed that the core of Marx’s thinking might be found in Jesus’ saying, ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’, in that laws, religions and moral codes are deemed to be a superstructure built over existing property relations.
What unites both the Jesus the Liberal and Jesus the Radical is a common assumption that his views were suppressed by an authoritarian church or reactionary followers. In this sense, Monty Python’s Life of Brian (released 1979) is certainly connected with such traditions. Clearly the film attacks the delusion of religious followers and interpreters and they relentlessly misunderstand Brian. Of course, on one level Brian is not Jesus. Jesus, after all, appears briefly in the film and in a thoroughly unconventional manner: he was born in manger, he did deliver the Sermon on the Mount, he did heal lepers, and he certainly looks like (the cinematic) Jesus.

This could have given the film some protection against its religious critics but its religious critics also had a point. Brian really is Jesus, or rather the historical Jesus as reconstructed by the scholarship Monty Python read or about which they were broadly aware. This Brian is not the Messiah, he is not a martyr, he is not resurrected, and the crucifixion is not significant, yet all of which were attributed to Brian by his deluded followers. This Brian/Jesus is someone who is

  • born out of wedlock, with a Roman soldier as a father who raped Mandy (read: Mary) ‘at first’, and with high Mariology attributed to her by deluded followers
  • emphatically not the Messiah with Messiahship attributed to him by deluded and stupid followers, including one who knows because he’s followed a few
  • a Jew loyal to Jews and Judaism with no intention of starting any new movement in his name (quite the opposite)
  • an anti-Roman insurrectionist
  • happy to enjoying non-marital sex with Judith (read: Mary Magdalene)
  • going to die with death being the end and with no resurrection
  • keen to suggest that we are all individuals who should not let anyone tell us what to do and that we should think for ourselves

And who, after all, are supposed to have misleadingly attributed martyrdom, messiahship, resurrection, and so on, to Jesus/Brian? His earliest followers, obviously. This follows, then, the standard pattern of singling out Jesus as someone decent, a cipher for our values, whether liberal or radical, which have unfortunately since been hijacked. But is this the Liberal Jesus (/Brian) or the Radical Jesus (/Brian) who emerges from beneath the rubble of bad interpretation? If the film has one serious message it is that we are all individuals who should not take orders blindly. That looks somewhat anarchistic, does it not? But, in another light, could it not look somewhat liberal?

Precisely what ‘our values’ are can, of course, be quite complicated, not least due to the amount of unconscious and cultural baggage we carry. With this in mind, we should remember that Brian and Life of Brian were not the only ones in 1979 proclaiming the importance of individuals while lampooning the collectivist bureaucracy. Life of Brian enters the scene at a notable point in the recent history of Jesus, as it was released as Thatcherism was starting to take hold, and in the aftermath of 1960s radicalism, at a time when the British Left eas still relatively strong. On the one hand, we have Thatcher who, from the 1970s onwards, was explicitly using Jesus and the Bible as a key source for her emerging neoliberalism, as well as representing the core values of England, Britain and the West.

This Bible was, of course, was constructed in sharp contrast to Marxism and Soviet Communism. Thatcher’s Bible and Thatcher’s Jesus was about — and was the authority for — individualism, freedom, tolerance, rule of law, and English or British heritage. It also had a particularly influential (and then distinctive) emphasis on individual wealth creation and charitable giving as a partial alternative to state provision of welfare. As she famously claimed of Jesus’ parable, ‘no-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well’.

On the other hand, we have Tony Benn, whose popular 1979 book, Arguments for Socialism, foregrounded Jesus and the Bible, as part of a continuous and specifically British socialist tradition which also included the Peasants’ Revolt, the Levellers, Tom Paine, William Blake, the Chartists, and so on. This was a theme that would continue throughout Benn’s later career. It is clear from Christopher Rowland's 'Building Jerusalem' article elsewhere on the site that William Blake believed in a radical, anti-authoritarian Christianity and an empowering Bible. Benn’s Jesus and Benn’s Bible were also hostile to kingly and priestly authority and mediation, supportive of freedom of conscience and could be used to support a number of radical causes, from opposing the Iraq war to critiquing globalisation and wealth inequality.

As with Orwell, Marx was part of this tradition and understood as a latter-day biblical prophet. This was significant for Benn because he sought to protect socialism from totalitarianism, Stalinist interpretations and atheistic dominance of socialism which had affected the Left outside the UK. Jesus and the Bible provided such immunization, as well as giving English or British socialism a distinctive flavour.

To complicate matters further, there was no absolute ideological consistency among the Pythons either. Michael Palin, for instance, would identify as a traditional Labour supporter while John Cleese was a prominent supporter of the SDP-Liberal Alliance in the 1980s and the Liberal Democrats in the 1990s, and was open to certain Conservative views on entrepreneurship and defence. But what we can say is that whatever the individual motivations of the Pythons, and whatever kind of radicalism we might read into Brian’s advocacy of individualism, Life of Brian does not make the same radical moves as Benn’s Jesus.

In fact, the film has moments which are clearly compatible with the way Thatcher contrasted individualism with socialism. As Cleese himself would do on behalf of the SDP-Liberal Alliance, the film clearly satirises trade union and revolutionary leftist/Marxist groups in its portrayal of the ineffective and overly-bureaucratic People’s Front of Judea ('Splitters!') et al, even if (unlike Thatcher) there was some lament over misguided focus and a loss of ideals. The British establishment and class system are implicitly satirised, whether through the strict Latin teacher, market traders, the tortured liberal crucifixion official, or the incompetent ruling classes and imperial administrators.

But the anti-establishment satire has its limits, particularly in the case of imperialism, most famously when the revolutionary Reg unintentionally listed its (not entirely historically accurate) benefits in his ‘What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?’ speech. As the great Brianologist Philip Davies pointed out years ago, this is also a gentle poking fun at the imperialism of the public school class without condemnation of the system. In other words, for a nostalgic view of the Roman Empire, read a nostalgic view of the British Empire. The alternative presented to the relentless criticism of religious interpretation in Life of Brian is the one serious message in the film: Brian’s call for individualism and self-help over the collectivism of the crowd. This message might ten years earlier have been more naturally associated with anarchist and student radicalism of 1968, but by 1979 the context was somewhat different.

Life of Brian carries a number of ideological tensions in the aftermath of the 1960s which Thatcher and Thatcherism would, in different ways, attempt to harness, hold together, reconfigure, or transform. As David Harvey has argued, the cultural shift towards neoliberalism in the 1960s and 1970s involved the rhetoric of freedom, liberty and individualism which could be constructed in opposition to traditional upper-class authorities as well as trade union power, and eventually paved the way for a new dominant class of sometimes provocative entrepreneurs. Freedom from the state could be taken up in terms of economic freedom as much as, or as well as, social freedom. Youth movements, pop culture, and political satirists would play a significant role in such cultural developments, including the so-called ‘Satire Boom’ of the early 1960s which would produce some of the most significant examples of twentieth-century English anti-establishment comedy. Including, of course, arguably the most influential of all, Monty Python.

So, like Thatcher herself, Life of Brian was a popular cultural critique of post-war consensuses and a credible carrier of cultural change. Life of Brian, like the roughly contemporaneous punk movement, was hardly ideologically pure Thatcherism and its cultural provocations were clearly out-of-step with Thatcher’s morally upright, good Christian housewife image of the 1970s. Individual Pythons may well be horrified — and rightly horrified — with the idea that the central message of individualism, a kind of secular humanism, and a punk-like think-for-yourself attitude could be deemed compatible with Thatcherism.

But at the same time, all those who voted for Thatcher were not necessarily in agreement with everything Thatcher believed and promoted. And nor was there a precise ideological match between Thatcher and Thatcherite symbols such as champagne-guzzling yuppies, celebrity entrepreneurs, or Duran Duran. These phenomena were obviously part of the Thatcherite phenomenon, irrespective of whether Thatcher would have personally approved of the uncensored video for ‘Girls on Film’. Perhaps we might re-imagine Brian’s words on the cross being levelled at Monty Python for unintentionally giving Thatcherism an assist: ‘You stupid bastards!’

And in the long run, in parliamentary political discourse from 1979 onwards, Jesus the Radical was likewise being pushed out as Thatcher’s template for understanding the Bible was becoming increasingly accepted. Blairism was a key moment in this respect. In addition to accepting the basic tenets of Thatcher’s Bible, Blair rethought Labour’s Radical Bible tradition, which previously had a notable presence in the founding of the NHS and the development of the Welfare State. Instead of ridding Britain of the ‘evil giants’ of ‘want’, ‘squalor’, ‘disease’, and ‘ignorance’, as Labour (following the Beveridge Report) had promised in 1945, Blair sought to reapply this ‘apocalyptic’ thinking ‘from the deserts of Northern Africa to the slums of Gaza, to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan’, in a post-September 11 Labour Party conference speech, presumably a dog whistle to a nervous Labour Party familiar with such language. The other significant qualification made by Blair was a socially liberal spin (especially on issues relating to gender and sexuality) to Thatcher’s economically liberal Bible. This legacy was apparent in the parliamentary debates over same-sex marriage in 2013 where Jesus the Liberal was invoked only as a supporter of same-sex marriage. A notable shift in contemporary political attitudes certainly; Peter Tatchell’s potentially free-loving, erotic Jesus of ’68, indifferent to constructs and constraints of conventional sexuality, this was not.
Cameron, as we might expect, has only intensified the Jesus of Thatcher and Blair. It was Cameron’s Jesus, after all, who founded the concept of the Big Society. But is it not merely the logic of parliamentary democracy to domesticate or deal with elements deemed politically radical? Perhaps. But at present, the surprising emergence of Corbyn has resurrected Jesus the Radical in parliament. Corbyn’s close ally, Cat Smith, has openly claimed that ‘Jesus was a radical socialist’, as well as picking up on probably the most prominent image from the Bible in the Occupy movement: Jesus ‘turning over the tables in the temple’.

Corbyn has also been making regular references to the parable of the Good Samaritan, including in his victory speech, his first major interview with Andrew Marr, and at the Labour Party conference. He has used it to promote his stance on welfare (e.g. ‘we don’t pass by on the other side of those people rejected by an unfair welfare system’; ‘we don’t pass by on the other side while the poor lie in the gutter’). But the Good Samaritan is probably also tying Corbyn in with a specifically British or English socialism. It was notable that the conference speech came shortly after the faux outrage levelled at Corbyn for not singing the national anthem at a Battle of Britain memorial service (and perhaps picking up on the Radical English Bible of his mentor, Tony Benn): ‘Solidarity and not walking by on the other side of the street when people are in trouble..…these shared majority British values that are the fundamental reason why I love this country and its people.’

What is also significant about this is that it tells us what Corbyn does not represent. The Good Samaritan is probably the most common biblical allusion in party politics today and, for those with ears to hear, it is a parable present in the battle for the soul of the Labour Party and cross-party views on militarism. In addition to Thatcher’s example, Cameron, for instance, has alluded to the example of the Good Samaritan to justify any future military intervention against ISIS and, in his pro-bombing Syria speech, Hilary Benn justified it with the claim that ‘we never have, and we never should, walk by on the other side of the road’.

In other words, Jesus and the Bible continue to function as an implicit authority in English political discourse. This authority has never been the sole preserve of the Right, and access to such authority has long been tapped into by agitators from seventeenth-century radicals to Linton Kwesi Johnson. The dominant Thatcher-Blair template of how Jesus should be understood is now being challenged from inside (and, of course, from outside) Parliament. For now, Jesus the Radical has come in from the cold of Occupy London Stock Exchange, bypassed the decaying remains of the Miliband experiment, and returned to Parliament triumphant..…for now. His future depends in no small part on the success of those like Jeremy Corbyn and Cat Smith and the movement which propelled them to power, because it looks as if they will continue to draw on this source of authority in their challenge to neoliberal dominance.