Robert Myles shows how historical materialism explains the origins of Christianity
“The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” wrote nineteenth-century historian Thomas Carlyle. Great Men might be out of fashion, but you wouldn’t know it from reading some recent popular studies on the history of Christianity. Jesus and Paul are regularly framed as prime historical movers and innovators of individual and charismatic genius.
It is equally uncontroversial today, however, to claim that so-called Great Men are but the products of their society, and that their individual ideas and actions would be impossible without the social conditions built before and during their lifetimes. The intersecting historical and economic forces in Jesus’ day of the first century sparked a range of different beliefs and responses, many of which are captured within the rich and conflicting accounts of the twenty-seven books that make up the New Testament of the Christian Bible.
The New Testament is not a mirror reflection of specific class interests or political tendencies. Written by various authors with conflicting agendas, these texts were composed in locations that all fell under the purview of the Roman Empire. The Roman world was an agrarian and pre-capitalist one. This meant that land and not capital was the basis of wealth and power.
The Emperor of Rome ruled autocratically along with the help of local rulers in the provinces (like the Herods in Palestine). Most of the land was concentrated among a small, urban-based group of administrators, military leaders, and political and religious officials. In simple Marxist terms, this elite class controlled the means of production.
At the other end of the spectrum was a broad range of peasants, artisans, and slaves who worked the land, produced goods, and performed menial tasks, but did not control the means of production. Peasants comprised most of the population and generated the material wealth which was, in turn, rendered through taxes and rents to sustain the parasitical lifestyle of the elite.
There was nothing equivalent to a “middle-class” in the first century. Nor were there aspiring entrepreneurs seeking to make a profit. As trade in commodities made up only a small part of economic activity, there were few opportunities for peasants to accumulate wealth. In fact, most workers were born, lived, and died in what would today be considered very modest economic circumstances.
In the Gospels, Jesus bands together with rural fishermen, marginal women, displaced villagers, and crowds from the Judean countryside, to announce the inauguration of a new world order, with God as its ultimate ruler.
Jesus delivers parables that not only draw on earthy, agricultural concepts, and relations between landlords and tenants and masters and slaves, but which equally imagine lavish banquets that few of his compatriots would have been able to experience, given their lower-class roots. He is reported to perform miracles demonstrating that the cosmic forces were on his side, and he performs healings and issues epithets that ruffle the feathers of the religious and political establishment. Jesus ends up brutally tortured and crucified by the Romans for his troubles.
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are, however, the literary products of an urban-based, semi-elite scribal class, who, although writing about the lives of ordinary rural peasants, artisans, and fishermen, do so through the eyes of their own bureaucratic and political interests.
These texts do not posit a revolution in the Marxist sense of overthrowing an entire mode of production—i.e. by replacing the agrarian social formation with a new and more equitable economic system. Rather, in the promised new world order, existing economic arrangements remain but are under the control of a different Lord of lords, namely, God and his co-regent Jesus. The New Testament writings frequently mimic the language of Roman imperialism in order to negate it, but curiously end up laying the groundwork for their own brand of imperial rule.
Despite adherence to Christianity declining in the West, popular and academic interest in the origins of Christianity and the New Testament remains steady. Even among a certain sub-culture of internet atheists, a small number of books and articles claiming the non-historical existence of Jesus appears to be gaining traction (although such arguments are universally refuted by professional scholars of the Bible).
Given that most people in antiquity left no sign at all of their existence, and the poor are virtually invisible within the historical record, to deny the existence of non-elite figures such as Jesus on the basis of sparse evidence, could be considered, however unintentionally, as a class bias against the poor in history.
But there are also broader considerations to be taken into account at this point. What about those non-elite women and men of whom we know even less, who were instrumental in the formation of the Jesus movement? An historical account fixated on the biographies of Great Men can only take us so far. Investigating the intersection of their emergence with the material conditions involved in historical change helps us piece together a more robust picture of early Christianity, but it also gives us insight into the world-historical forces which now happen to condition us.
Robert Myles is an expert on the social history of early Christianity and the New Testament. He is the author of The Homeless Jesus and the Gospel of Matthew (2014) and editor of Class Struggle in the New Testament (2019).