Karl Kautsky

Foundations of Christianity

Book Three: The Jews

II. The Jews after the Exile

The Sadducees

In the eighth chapter of the second book of his history of the Jewish war, Josephus reported that there were three trends of thought among the Jews: the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes. Of the first two he says:

“As for the other two sects, the Pharisees are thought to construe the Law most strictly. They were the first to form a sect. They believe that everything is determined by fate and God. In their opinion it does depend on man whether he does good or evil, but fate has an influence on it too. As to the human soul they believe it to be immortal, the souls of the good entering into new bodies while those of the wicked are tortured with eternal torments.

“The other sect is the Sadducees. These deny any efficacy to fate and say that God is not responsible for anyone’s doing good or evil; that is entirely up to man, who can in accordance with his free will do the one and refrain from the other. They deny also that souls are immortal and that there is punishment or reward after death.

“The Pharisees are helpful and try to live in unison with the mass of the people. The Sadducees are severe even to each other, and hard toward their countrymen as well as toward foreigners.”

In this passage the sects appear as representatives of different religious views. But although up to now Jewish history has been studied almost exclusively by theologians, for whom religion is everything and class antagonisms nothing, even they have found that the contradiction between Sadducees and Pharisees was basically not a religious one, but a class contradiction, one that may be compared with the contradiction between the nobility and the Third Estate before the French Revolution.

The Sadducees represented the priestly nobility that had got hold of the power in the Jewish state and exercise it first under Persian domination and then under the successors of Alexander the Great. This group had unrestricted sway in the Temple and hence in Jerusalem and over all of Judaism. They received all the taxes that came to the Temple, which were not small. Up to the Exile the revenues of the priesthood were modest and irregular; after it, they grew mightily. We have mentioned the tax of the double drachma (or half-shekel, about 40 cents) that every male Jew, rich or poor, over the age of two had to send to the Temple. Then there were the presents coming in. How much money came to them can be seen from the fact that Mithridates once confiscated on the island of Cos 800 talents destined for the Temple. [41]

Cicero says in the speech (59 B.C.) in defence of Flaccus, who had been governor of the province of Asia two years previously: “Since the money of the Jews is exported year after year from Italy and all the provinces to Jerusalem, Flaccus decreed that no money might be exported [to Jerusalem] from the province of Asia [Western Asia Minor].” Cicero goes on to relate how Flaccus confiscated money collected for the temple in various places in Asia Minor, a hundred pounds of gold in Apamea alone.

In addition there were the sacrifices. Formerly those who offered up victims had eaten them themselves in a joyous feast, and the priests were merely partakers. After the Exile the share of those making the offerings became smaller and smaller, and the share of the priests larger and larger. What had been a gift to a festival of joy, which the giver himself consumed in merry company, pleasing not only God but himself as well, now became a tax in kind, which God claimed for himself, that is, his priests.

These taxes yielded more and more. In addition to the sacrifices in beasts and other edibles, which came more and more to be the sole appanage of the priests, there were the tithes, the tax of a tenth part of all crops as well as every first-born animal. The first-born of “clean” animals, cattle, sheep, goats, that is, those that were eaten, were delivered in natura in the house of God. “Unclean” animals, horses, asses, camels, were to be redeemed for money. So were the first male birth of human beings; these cost five shekels.

We find a clear summary of what the Jewish priesthood took from the people – and this increased later on; thus the third part of a shekel was soon raised to half a shekel-in the book of Nehemiah to, verse 32f.:

“Also we made ordinances for us, to charge ourselves yearly with the third part of a shekel for the service of the house of our God.... And we cast the lots among the priests, the Levites, and the people, for the wood offering, to bring it into the house of our God, after the houses of our fathers, at times appointed year by year, to burn upon the altar of the Lord our God, as it is written in the law; and to bring the first fruits of our ground, and the first fruits of all fruit of all trees, year by year, unto the house of the Lord; Also the firstborn of our sons, and of our cattle, as it is written in the law, and the firstlings of our herds and of our flocks, to bring to the house of our God, unto the priests that minister in the house of our God; And that we should bring the first fruits of our dough, and our offerings, and the fruit of all manner of trees, of wine and of oil, unto the priests, to the chambers of the house of our God; and the tithes of our ground unto the Levites, that the same Levites might have the tithes in all the cities of our tillage. And the priest the son of Aaron shall be with the Levites, when the Levites take tithes: and the Levites shall bring up the tithe of the tithes unto the house of our God, to the chambers, into the treasure house. For the children of Israel and the children of Levi shall bring the offering of the corn, of the new wine, and the oil, unto the chambers, where are the vessels of the sanctuary, and the priests that minister, and the porters, and the singers: and we will not forsake the house of our God.”

We see that this temple was not the same sort of thing as a church, let us say. It had huge warehouses in which huge quantities of goods in bulk were stored up, as well as gold and silver. Accordingly it was strongly fortified and well guarded. Like the pagan temples it was a place where money and property were especially safe; and like them it was used by the public as a place to deposit valuables. This function of a safe-deposit vault, we may be sure, was not performed gratis by Jahveh.

It is certain that the wealth of the priesthood of Jerusalem grew enormously.

Marcus Crassus, the fellow-conspirator of Caesar, took advantage of this fact when he went on his robber expedition against the Parthians. On the way he took with him the treasures of the Jewish Temple.

“When Crassus was preparing to move against the Parthians, he came to Judea and took all the money from the Temple that Pompey had left, 2,000 talents, together with all the uncoined gold, to the amount of 8,000 talents. Finally he stole a bar of gold weighing three hundred minae; among us a mina weighs two and a half pounds.” [42]

All that amounts to something like twelve million dollars. Nevertheless, the Temple was soon full of gold once more.

The priesthood was determined by birth; it constituted a hereditary aristocracy. According to Josephus (Against Apion, I, 22), who bases himself on Hecataeus, there were “1500 Jewish priests, who received the tithes and governed the community.”

Even among them there grew up a division into a lower and a higher aristocracy. Certain families succeeded in getting the entire power of government permanently into their own hands, in order to increase their wealth, and that in turn increased their influence. They formed a closely-knit clique which always named the high priests from among its ranks. They reinforced their rule by using mercenary soldiers and defended it against the other priests, whom they managed to dominate.

Thus Josephus tells us: “about this time King Agrippa gave the high priesthood to Ismael, who was a son of Phadi. However, the high priests came into conflict with the priests and leaders of the people in Jerusalem. Each of them got together a crowd of the most desperate and turbulent people, and was their leader. Occasionally they would come to words, revile each other and throw stones. Nobody restrained them; violence was committed as if there were no laws in the city. Finally the high priests became so insolent that they even ventured to send servants into the granaries and have the tithes due the priests removed, so that some priests even died of starvation.” [43]

To be sure, things reached this stage only when the Jewish community was already approaching its end. From the very beginning, however, the priestly aristocracy set itself above the mass of the people, and adopted views and tendencies that were opposed to those of the people, especially to those of the Jewish population of Palestine. That is particularly clear in the field of foreign policy.

We have seen that Palestine, because of its geographical position, was always under foreign rule or at least under the menace of it. There were two ways to ward it off or mitigate it: diplomacy or armed rebellion.

So long as the Persian empire lasted, neither of these alternatives was very promising, but the situation changed after Alexander had destroyed that empire. The new state which he set up in its place fell apart after his death, and a Syrian-Babylonian kingdom fought as before against an Egyptian kingdom for the mastery of Israel. Now both were ruled by Greek dynasties, the Seleucids and the Ptolemies, and both increasingly Greek in spirit.

It was not possible to defeat either of these powers by military means. But there was the possibility of winning by shrewd diplomacy, by joining the stronger and getting a privileged position as part of its empire. That however could not be achieved by xenophobia and aversion to the superior Hellenic civilization and its ways. On the contrary, it was imperative to adopt this civilization. The aristocracy of Jerusalem was led to this step by its greater knowledge of external affairs, an advantage it had over the rest of the population by virtue of its social position and official functions. The plastic arts and the arts of the enjoyment of life were not advanced in Palestine, while the Greeks had brought them to a level which no other people at that time or for many centuries thereafter could equal. The rulers of all nations, even those of victorious Rome, borrowed the forms of splendor and pleasure from Greece; the Greek way became the way of life of all exploiters, as the French way was to do in the eighteenth century in Europe. The more intense the exploitation of Jewry by its aristocracy became and the more wealth the aristocrats obtained, the more eager they were for Hellenic culture.

The first book of the Maccabees complains with respect to the period of Antiochus Epiphanes (175-164 B.C.): “In those days there arose worthless men in Israel; they convinced many, saying: let us then unite like brothers with the nations about us! For since we have separated from them much woe has come upon us! Such talk pleased them, and some of the people said they would go to the king; he gave them permission to introduce the ways of the heathen. So they built a Gymnasium in Jerusalem – (a school for athletics, where the athletes exercised naked), after the fashion of the Gentiles, replaced the foreskin and were unfaithful to the holy covenant, but rather allied themselves with the heathen and sold themselves to them, to do evil.”

So mad were these evil men, that put on artificial foreskins, that they also renounced their Jewish names and replaced them by Greek ones. A high priest Jesus called himself Jason, another high priest Jakim became Alcimos, a Manesseh became Menelaus.

The masses of the people of Judah resented this encouragement of Hellenic ways. We have several times pointed out how undeveloped industry and art were in Judea. The penetration of the Hellenic influence meant that foreign products drove out the native. The Hellene too always came as oppressor and exploiter, even if he now came as Syrian or Egyptian king. Judah, already pumped dry by its own aristocracy, was bitter about the tribute it had to pay to the alien monarchs and their officials. The aristocrats managed now and then to get out of it themselves by having themselves appointed as representatives and tax-collectors for the foreign masters. Usury at the expense of those oppressed by taxes would add to their own riches. The people had to bear the entire weight of foreign rule.

Even under the Persians similar things had occurred, as is shown by a vivid description made by the Jew Nehemiah, whom the King Artaxerxes appointed his governor in Judea (445 B.C.). He reports his own activity in glowing terms, “in relieving the distress caused among the poor by exactions of the aristocracy and on his own unselfishness as governor.”

Self-praise of this sort is not uncommon in ancient documents, especially of the Orient. We can not take it for granted that the official in question really rendered such services to the people as he boasts of. One thing however is proved by such statements: the way in which governors and nobles as a rule bled and oppressed the people. Nehemiah would not have boasted of his actions if they had not been an exception. Nobody will go about proclaiming he has not stolen any silver spoons except in a society in which such thefts were the rule.

Under the Syrian and Egyptian kings the taxes of Palestine were farmed. As a rule the high priest was the tax farmer, but now and then he had rivals among his colleagues, causing discord among the estimable body of priests.

The mass of the people in Judea thus had much better reason to oppose alien domination than the aristocracy, which profited by it. Their rage against the foreigners was intensified by their ignorance as to the power relationships that existed. The mass of the Jews in Palestine was not aware of the overwhelming might of their opponents. For all these reasons they held diplomacy in contempt and called for forcible action to gain freedom from the foreign yoke. But only this, not the yoke of the aristocracy as well. The aristocracy lay just as heavy on the people; but did not the people get their whole livelihood in Jerusalem and its surroundings from the Temple, from the importance of its cultus and its priesthood? Therefore, their indignation over their poverty had to concentrate entirely on the foreign oppressors. Democracy turned into chauvinism.

A fortunate combination of circumstances made it possible that for once an uprising of the little nation against its powerful masters was crowned with success. This occurred at a time, as we have shown, when the kingdom of the Seleucids was shaken to its foundations by civil wars and was in complete decline, as was that of the Ptolemies, and both of them at continual odds with each other, with the subjection of both to the Romans, the new masters of East and West, close at hand.

Like every declining regime, that of the Seleucids increased its pressure, which naturally produced counter-pressure. Jewish patriotism became more and more rebellious, finding its nucleus and leadership in the organization of the Assideans.

This group also produced the book of Daniel (between 167 and 164 B.C.), an agitational work which predicted to the oppressed that Israel would soon rise and free itself. It would be its own savior, its own Messiah. This was the first of a series of Messianic propaganda works announcing the defeat of the alien domination and the victory of Judaism, its salvation and its rule over the nations of the earth.

In the book of Daniel this thought still finds democratic expression. The Messiah in it is still the people itself. The Messiah is “the people of the saints of the most High”. “And the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the most High, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him.”

This Messianic prophecy soon seemed to be brilliantly fulfilled. The guerrilla warfare against the oppressor kept increasing in scale, until successful partisan leaders of the house of the Asmoneans, with Judas Maccabaeus the first among them, were able to stand up successfully in the opean field to Syrian troops, and finally to win Jerusalem which was under Syrian occupation. Judea became free and even extended its frontiers. After Judas Maccabaeus had fallen (160 B.C.), his brother Simon did what many generals of the democracy have done before and since after winning freedom for their people in war: he made use of the victory to put the crown on his own head. Or rather, he allowed the people to put it on his head. A great assembly of priests and people decided he should be high priest, commander-in-chief and prince (archierus, strategos, and ethnarchos) (141 B.C.). Thus Simon became the founder of the Asmonean dynasty.

He knew how insecure the newly-won independence was, for he hurried to look for external support. In the year 189 we see an embassy from him at Rome to ask the Romans to guarantee the territory of the Jews. This was the embassy of which we recounted that several members were expelled from Rome for making proselytes.

The embassy however achieved its purpose. Simon did not suspect that it would not be long before Judea’s new friends would be their most dangerous enemies, and put an end to the Jewish state for good. As long as the civil wars raged among the rulers of Rome, the fate of Judea fluctuated up and down. Pompey conquered Jerusalem in 63 B.C., took many prisoners of war, whom he sent to Rome as slaves, restricted the Jewish domain to Judea, Galilee and Peraea, and imposed a tax on the Jews. Crassus looted the Temple in 54. After his defeat the Jews rose against the Romans in Galilee and were put down, many of the prisoners being sold as slaves. Caesar treated the Jews better, and was even friendly with them. The civil wars after his death laid Judea waste along with other regions and put heavy burdens on it. When Augustus finally emerged victorious, he was as favorable to the Jews as Caesar had been, but Judea remained subject to the Romans, occupied by Roman troops; it was under the supervision and finally under the direct administration of Roman officials; and we have seen how these rascals acted in the provinces and bled them white. Hatred for the Romans grew fiercer and fiercer, especially in the mass of the population. The puppet kings and priestly aristocracy tried to ingratiate themselves with the new Roman masters as they had with the Greeks before the Maccabean uprising, no matter how bitterly many of them may have hated the aliens in their hearts. But their party, the Sadducees, had less and less power compared to the democratic party of the patriots, the Pharisees.

As early as the year too B.C. Josephus writes in his Antiquities: “The rich were on the side of the Sadducees, the mass of the people supported the Pharisees” (XIII, 10, 6).

And of the time of Herod (also the time of Christ) he reports:

“The sect of the Sadducees was supported by only a few, although they are the noblest in the land. However, the affairs of the state are not conducted as they wish. As soon as they come to public office, they must, willy-nilly, act according to the views of the Pharisees, otherwise the common people would not tolerate them” (Ibid., XVIII, 1, 4).

The Pharisees became more and more the spiritual rulers of the Jewish people, in the place of the clerical aristocracy.



The Pharisees

We learned above, during the Maccabean wars, of the “pious”, the Assideans. Some decades later, under John Hyrcanus (135 to 104 B.C.), this doctrine is represented by the Pharisees, and the opposing doctrine by the Sadducees.

It is not certain where the latter got their name; perhaps from the Priest Zadok, after whom the priesthood was called the clan of Zadokites. The Pharisees (Perushim), that is, those set apart, called themselves “comrades” (khaberim) or colleagues.

On one occasion Josephus specifies that they were six thousand strong, a considerable political organization for so small a country. He reports, dealing with the time of Herod (37 to 4 B.C.):

“At that time there were men among the Jews who were proud that they strictly observed the law of their fathers, and believed that God loved them especially. The women in particular supported this group. These people were called Pharisees. They were very powerful and were the first to oppose the king, but were shrewd and cautious and bided their time, when they wanted to make an insurrection. When the whole Jewish people promised under oath to be loyal to the emperor [Augustus] and obey the king [Herod], these men refused to take the oath, and they were more than six thousand.” [44]

Herod, the cruel tyrant, who ordinarily was very free with executions did not dare to punish this refusal of the oath of allegiance severely; a sign of how powerful he thought the influence of the Pharisees on the masses of the people.

The Pharisees became the spiritual directors of the masses; and among them the dominant group was the “scribes”, or men learned in the scriptures, who are always coupled with them in the New Testament, the rabbis (rabbi – my lord, monsieur).

Originally the class of intellectuals was among the Jews, as everywhere in the Orient, the caste of priests. But the story of the Jewish aristocracy was the same as that of any aristocracy: the richer they became, the more they neglected the functions that were the basis of their privileged position. They barely went through the most obvious external rites to which they were obligated. They neglected scientific, literary, legislative and judicial labor more and more, with the result that these functions were almost entirely performed by educated elements from the people.

The law-giving and judicial activity was especially important. The states of the ancient Orient had no legislative assemblies. All law was customary law, primordial law. It is true that social evolution continues, bringing with it new relationships and new problems which require new legal norms; but the feeling that the law is eternally the same, stemming from God, is so deeply rooted in the minds of the people that the new law gains recognition more quickly if it takes the form of customary law, traditional law, which has existed from times immemorial and is only reappearing, because it had been forgotten and neglected.

The simplest way for the ruling classes to make new law count as old law in this manner is to forge documents.

The priesthood of Judah made copious use of this expedient, as we have seen. That was fairly easy to do so long as the masses of the people were confronted with a single ruling class as experts and guardians of the religious heritage, something which in the Orient embraced all knowledge beyond the rudimentary. However, when a new class with literary education arose alongside the old priesthood, both of them found it more difficult to present an innovation as something that Moses or some other ancient authority had created. The rival class now was keeping close watch.

In the last two centuries before the destruction of Jerusalem there is a continuous series of attempts by the rabbis to break the rigid canon of the holy scriptures set up by the priesthood and to enlarge it by new literary productions which would count as ancient and be as highly considered as the former ones. They did not succeed, however.

Josephus examines the credibility of the Jewish scriptures in his book against Apion (I, 7 and 8): “For it is not everybody that has the right to write as he pleases, but that belongs to the prophets alone, who have reliably set down the things of the past, by God’s inspiration, as well as a true account of the circumstances of their times. Hence we do not have thousands of books, which contradict and conflict with each other, but only twenty-two books, which recount what has taken place since the beginning of the world, and are justly held to be divine”; namely, the five books of Moses, thirteen books of the prophets, who cover the time from the death of Moses to Artaxerxes, and four books of Psalms and sayings.

“From Artaxerxes down to our time everything has been described and set down, but it is not so trustworthy ... How highly we value our scriptures can be seen from the fact that over so long a period no one ventured to add or take away anything, or make any changes.”

In Josephus’ time this was undoubtedly true. The more difficult it became to alter the existing law, which was fixed in this body of literature, the more the innovators were compelled to make the law fit the new needs by the process of exegesis. The holy scriptures of the Jews were especially suited to this treatment, since they were not all of a piece, but literary precipitates from the most diverse epochs and social conditions. They contained legends of the earliest Bedouin era together with the highly cultivated urban sagacity of Babylon, all put together in a post-Babylonian priestly version, often a very clumsy and obtuse one in which the crudest contradictions lie side by side. Anything could be proved from a “law” of this sort if a man had a keen enough mind and a good enough memory to learn all the passages of the law by heart and have them at his fingertips. This was precisely the extent of rabbinical wisdom. They did not undertake to study life, but to drive into their students’ heads an exact knowledge of the sacred writings and to bring their disputatiousness and subtlety in exegesis to its highest point. Without being aware of it, they were of course influenced by the life around them, but the longer the rabbinical wisdom of the schools developed the more it ceased to be a means of understanding life and hence mastering it, and became on the one hand the art of outwitting everybody, even the Lord God himself, by amazing legalistic pettifogging and chicanery, and on the other of consoling and edifying oneself in any situation by a pious quotation. This learning contributed nothing to knowledge of the world, and became more and more ignorant of the world. This became obvious in the wars that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem.

The shrewd, worldly-wise Sadducees were perfectly well aware of the power relationships of their time. They knew it was impossible to ward off the Romans. The Pharisees however strove all the harder to shake the Roman yoke off by force as it lay heavier on Judea and was driving the people to desperation. The Maccabean insurrection had furnished a brilliant example of how a people can and should defend its freedom against a tyrant.

The expectation of the Messiah had been a strong support for that insurrection, and the success of the insurrection had reinforced the expectation, which grew with the intensity of the desire to shake off the Roman yoke. The Romans were, it is true, more dangerous opponents than the decadent kingdom of the Syrians, and confidence in the self-activity of the peoples had lost ground all over the ancient world since the time of the Maccabees. What were called the Roman civil wars were actually nothing but the competition of individual successful generals for world domination. Likewise, the concept of the Messiah was no longer identified with the Jewish people in its struggle for self-liberation; it now took the form of a mighty war hero, sent by God to save and deliver the tormented people of the chosen saints from trial and tribulation.

Without such a miraculous leader even the most fanatical Pharisees considered it impossible to get rid of the oppressors. But they did not count on him alone. They proudly calculated how the number of their supporters was growing in the Empire, especially among the neighboring nations, and how strong they were in Alexandria, in Babylon, Damascus, Antioch. Would not they come to the aid of the hard-pressed homeland when it rose? And if a single city like Rome could succeed in winning world mastery, why should it necessarily be impossible for the great and proud Jerusalem?

The basis of the Revelation of John is a Jewish agitational pamphlet in the manner of the book of Daniel. It was probably composed during the period when Vespasian and then Titus were besieging Jerusalem. It prophesies a duel between Rome and Jerusalem. Rome is the woman that sitteth on seven mountains, “Babylon, the mother of harlots and abominations,” with whom “the kings of the earth have committed fornication,” and through the abundance of whose delicacies “the merchants of the earth are waxed rich” (chapters 17 and 18). This city will fall, judgment will be passed on her, “the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her: for no man buyeth their merchandise any more;” the holy city of Jerusalem will take her place, “and the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honor to it” (chap. 21, verse 24).

To naive minds, ignorant of the power of Rome, Jerusalem might well have seemed to be a dangerous rival.

Josephus reports that under Nero the priests once counted the throng of people in Jerusalem at the Passover feast. “The priests counted 256,500 Passover paschal lambs. Now at least ten sat at a table per lamb. Sometimes those at table came to twenty per lamb. If only ten persons are counted to each lamb we come to about 2,700,000 persons,” not counting the impure and the unbelievers, who were not allowed to partake of the Passover feast. [45]

Although Josephus refers to an enumeration here, the figure he gives seems incredible, even if we assume that among the two and a half million men there were many countrymen from around Jerusalem who did not require food or lodging in Jerusalem. Transport of foodstuffs in bulk from any considerable distance was possible only by water in those days. The large cities were all on navigable rivers or by the sea. In the case of Jerusalem there could be no question of water transport. The sea and the Jordan were far distant, and the Jordan is not navigable. Such a mass of humanity could not even have found enough water to drink in Jerusalem. The city depended partly on rain water that was caught in cisterns.

What Josephus says in the same place to the effect that 1,100,000 Jews died in Jerusalem during the siege leading up to its destruction, is equally incredible.

The figure Tacitus gives is considerably smaller. [46] The besieged, of all ages and sexes, are said to have amounted to 600,000. Since many were shut up in the city who did not usually live there, half this number may be taken perhaps as the average population in the last decades before its destruction; even if we took only a third, that was quite a respectable population for a city of those times. Josephus’ figures show, however, how this throng was magnified in the imagination of the Jewish people.

At any rate, no matter how large and strong Jerusalem may have been, it had no chance of victory without outside help. The Jews counted on such help. But they forgot that the Jewish population outside of Palestine was purely urban, in fact metropolitan, and everywhere a minority. At that time, however, even more than later, it was only the peasant who was capable of prolonged military service. The urban masses of shopkeepers, home craftsmen and proletarians could not make up any army that could stand up to trained troops in the open field. There were indeed cases of Jewish unrest outside of Palestine during the last great insurrection in Palestine, but they never amounted to an action in aid of Jerusalem.

Unless a Messiah worked wonders, any Jewish uprising was hopeless. The more rebellious the situation became in Judea, the more ardently the expectation of the Messiah was cultivated among the Pharisees. The Sadducees took quite a skeptical attitude toward the expectation of the Messiah, and toward the doctrine of the resurrection that was closely linked with it.

As with the rest of their mythology, the ideas of the Israelites as to the condition of man after death contained nothing that distinguished them from other peoples on the same level of civilization. The fact that the dead appear in dreams led to the assumption that the dead person still leads a personal existence, though one which is shadowy and without a body. And it must have been the placing of the deceased in a dark grave that gave the idea that his shadowy existence was connected with a dark subterranean place. The joy and pleasure of life could not conceive that the end of life could mean anything but the end of all pleasure and joy, or that the shadow life of the dead could be anything but joyless and gloomy.

We find these conceptions originally among the Israelites as among the ancient Greeks. The Greek Hades corresponded to the Israelite Sheol, a place deep in the earth, of blackest night, well-guarded to keep the deceased who have descended there from ever returning. The shade of Achilles in Homer complains that a living laborer is better off than a dead prince, and the preacher Solomon in Ecclesiastes (a book written during the time of the Maccabees) continues: “A living dog is better than a dead lion,” “The dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion in anything that is done under the sun.”

So the dead have no reward. Whether they were godless or just, the same fate comes to them all in the lower world. Joy and pleasure are only to be had during life.

“Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works. Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment. Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labor which thou takest under the sun. Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.” (Ecclesiastes 9, verses 7 to 10.)

In this there speaks a quite “Hellenic” joy in life, but also a quite “pagan” view of death. These were the old Jewish conceptions, preserved by the Sadducees. However, conceptions of an opposite sort were already arising at the time of Ecclesiastes the Preacher.

The love of life corresponded to popular feeling in a period when the peasantry was healthy and flourishing. After the decline of the peasantry, the aristocracy could still feel joy in reality, in life, and even intensify them into a quest for pleasure; but such feelings were lost to the lower classes in their tortured existence. Still, they had not yet reached the point of despairing of the possibility of improving their conditions. The more wretched these became, the more desperately they clung to the hope of the revolution that would bring them a better life and with it joy in life. The Messiah was that revolution, which increasingly had to rely on superhuman forces and miracles as the relations of real forces turned against the exploited and tormented masses.

The growth of the belief in miracles and confidence in the miraculous power of the coming Messiah was paralleled by a similar increase in the mass of sufferings and sacrifices, of the martyrs who succumbed in the struggle. Were they all to have hoped and persevered in vain? Were the most devoted and boldest champions of the Messiah to be excluded from the splendid life that his victory would bring to the chosen? Were those who, for the sake of the saints and the chosen, had given up all enjoyment of life, and even life itself, to have no reward? Were they to lead a shadowy existence of sorrow in Sheol while their victorious comrades in Jerusalem ruled the world and enjoyed its pleasures?

If the Messiah was credited with the power to conquer Rome, he could be trusted to dispose of death too. For the dead to arise was not then looked upon as something impossible.

The idea thus arose that the champions of Judaism who had fallen in the struggle would arise from their graves in the fullness of the flesh after the victory, and begin a new life of joy and pleasure. It was not a question of the immortality of the soul, but a resuscitation of the body to very real delights in triumphant Jerusalem. Abundant wine-drinking figured largely in these expectations; and the joys of love were not forgotten. Josephus tells of a eunuch of Herod who was won over by the Pharisees because they promised that the Messiah would give him the power of copulating and begetting children. [47]

If the Messiah was credited with such powers to reward his faithful, he would naturally be given the power of punishment as well. The thought that the martyrs should go unrewarded must have been intolerable; and equally so the notion that all their persecutors, dying happily, should escape their vengence and lead the same unfeeling existence in the lower world as the shades of the just. Their bodies too had to be resurrected by the Messiah and given over to horrible tortures.

This did not originally imply by any means the resuscitation of all the dead. The resurrection would signify the close of the struggle for Jerusalem’s independence and world dominion. It would only involve those of the dead who had fought on one side or the other. Thus the book of Daniel says about the victory of Judaism: “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (12, verse 2).

The so-called Revelation of St. John comes from the same intellectual milieu, as we have seen. In the Christian revision that has come down to us there are two resurrections. The first is not at all that of all men, but only of the martyrs (the Christian martyrs, of course, in the traditional version), who are awaked to a life of a thousand years on this earth: “... the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished” (20, verses 4 and 5).

The belief in resurrection was a battle slogan. Born of the fanaticism of a long and furious struggle with an enemy of superior power, and only to be explained in this way, it had the power of sustaining and reinforcing that fanaticism.

The counterpart of this belief in the non-Jewish world was a desire for immortality on the part of men, a desire that had nothing in common with the needs of the struggle, but came instead from tired resignation. This was the source of the wide propagation of the philosophical ideas of immortality in Platonism and Pythagoreanism. But a much more concrete and vital effect was produced by the Pharisees’ hope of resurrection on the credulous masses of that era, untrained as they were in abstract thinking. They gladly shared in a hope which they translated from the Jewish terms into terms which suited their own particular conditions.

The doctrine of resurrection was one of the chief sources of the propaganda successes of Judaism up to the destruction of Jerusalem. That destruction however killed off the majority of those who had confidently expected the Messiah to arrive soon, and it shook the belief in his speedy coming among the other Jews. Messianic expectation was no longer a factor in practical politics in Judaism; it became a pious wish, a doleful longing. Simultaneously the Pharisees’ belief in resurrection lost its roots in Jewish thought. It was preserved, along with the belief in the Messiah, only in the Christian community, which thus took over from the Pharisees a part of their best propaganda.

However, the Christian community won even more strength from the proletarian elements in Jewry than from the bourgeois democrats, if we may use the term.



The Zealots

The Pharisees represented the mass of the people as opposed to the clerical aristocracy. But this mass, more or less like the Third Estate in France before the great revolution, was made up of very disparate elements with very different interests, different degrees of willingness and ability to fight.

That was true also for the Jews outside of Palestine. They were an exclusively urban population, that got its living principally from trade and banking operations, tax-farming and so forth; but it would be a great mistake to think it consisted exclusively of rich merchants and bankers. We have already pointed out how much more capricious trade is than farming or craftsmanship. That was even more applicable then than now; navigation was more primitive and piracy rife. And how many livelihoods were ruined by the civil wars!

But although there must have been many Jews who had been rich and became poor, there must have been many more who never managed to get rich. Trade may have been the field in which they had the best opportunities, under the given circumstances; that did not mean that everybody had the capital for large-scale commerce. The trade of most of them must have been small shopkeeping or peddling.

They could also engage in such crafts as did not require great artistic ability or taste. Where Jews congregated in numbers, the special nature of their manners and customs must have created the need for many craftsmen of their own faith. When we read that a million out of the eight million inhabitants of Egypt were Jews, they could not all have made a living in trade. Actually, Jewish industries in Alexandria are mentioned as well. Jewish artisans are reported in other cities too.

In many cities, especially in Rome, there must have been a good number of Jewish slaves and hence freedmen. Their continual unsuccessful wars and insurrection kept furnishing new prisoners, who were sold into slavery. Out of these groups grew a layer of lumpenproletarians who must have been very numerous in some regions. For example the Jewish beggars were a notable part of the proletarians of Rome. At one point Martial describes the street life of the capital. Among the artisans working out in the street, the procession of priests, the jugglers and peddlers, he mentions also the Jewish boy sent out to beg by his mother. Juvenal speaks in his third satire of the grove of Egeria, which “is leased to the Jews now, whose entire household effects consist of a basket and a bundle of hay; for every tree must bring us profit now. The beggars have the woods, the Muses are driven out.” [48]

This is testimony stemming from the era after the destruction of Jerusalem, from the reign of Domitian, who had driven the Jews out of Rome and allowed them to stay in the grove on payment of a poll tax. It proves at least the presence of a great number of Jewish beggars in Rome.

The principal goal of the wandering of the Jewish beggars must certainly have been Jerusalem. There they felt at home and need not fear being ridiculed or mistreated by a hostile or uncomprehending populace. There too were assembled prosperous pilgrims from all the corners of the earth, in great numbers and with their religious feelings and charitableness at their height.

There was no great city in Christ’s time that did not have a numerous lumpenproletariat. After Rome, Jerusalem must have had the largest number of such proletarians, at least relatively; for both these cities drew on the whole Empire. The artisans were very close to this proletariat, as we have seen; they were as a rule nothing more than home workers, and these people even today count as proletarians. They easily came to make common cause with beggars and porters.

Where such propertyless strata of the people come together in large numbers, they turn out to be especially combative. They have nothing to lose; their social position is unendurable and they have nothing to gain by being patient. Awareness of their great numbers makes them bold. In addition, it was hard for the army to make its superiority count in the narrow, tortuous streets of that time. The city proletarians were not worth much in military service in open battle, but were excellent in street-fighting. This was shown by events in Alexandria and in Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem this proletariat had a lust for battle that was lacking in the propertied people and intellectuals who went to make up the ranks of the Pharisees. In normal times, it is true, the proletarians let themselves be led by the Pharisees; but as the opposition between Jerusalem and Rome came to a head and the time of decision came closer, the Pharisees became increasingly cautious and timid, and increasingly in conflict with the proletariat which was pushing forward.

The latter got powerful support from the peasant population of Galilee, where the peasants with their tiny holdings and the herdsmen had been bled white by taxes and usury, and driven into debt slavery or expropriated, as throughout the Roman Empire. Some of them must have come to Jerusalem, increasing the city’s proletariat. But the most energetic of the desperate expropriated peasants must have taken to insurrection and banditry, as elsewhere in the empire. The proximity of the deserts, that kept Bedouin habits alive, made their fight easier, furnishing many hiding places that nobody but a native would know. Galilee, with its broken terrain, full of caves, was itself an aid in the trade of banditry. The flag under which the bandits fought was the expectation of the Messiah. Robber chiefs declared themselves to be the Messiah, or at least his forerunners, and fanatics who felt themselves called to be prophets or the Messiah became robber chiefs.

The robbers of Galilee and the proletarians of Jerusalem were in close contact and gave each other mutual support, and finally formed a party in common against the Pharisees, the party of the Zealots. The opposition between the two groups resembles in many ways the contrast between Girondins and Jacobins.

The link between the proletarians of Jerusalem and the armed bands of Galilee comes to the fore in the days of Christ.

During Herod’s last illness (4 B.C.) the people of Jerusalem rose in revolt against his innovations; above all the indignation was directed against a golden eagle that Herod had had put up over the Temple. The riot was put down by arms. But after Herod’s death the people rose again, at Passover, so violently that the troops of Archelaus, Herod’s son, had to spill much blood before the insurrection was quelled. Three thousand Jews were slain. Even that did not quiet the belligerency of the people of Jerusalem. When Archelaus went to Rome to be confirmed there as King, the people rose again. Now the Romans intervened. Varus, the same man who later fell fighting against the Cherusci in Germany, was governor of Syria at the time. He hurried to Jerusalem, suppressed the insurrection, and then returned to Antioch leaving a legion in Jerusalem under the procurator Sabinus. Sabinus had such full confidence in his military power that he pushed the Jews to the wall, plundering and robbing at will. That put the fat in the fire. At Pentecost many people assembled in Jerusalem, especially Galileans. They were strong enough to encircle and besiege the Roman legion together with the mercenaries that Herod had recruited and left as a heritage to his son. The Romans vainly made sorties in which they killed many Jews; the besiegers did not weaken. They succeeded in getting a part of Herod’s troops over to their side.

At the same time the insurrection spread to the country. The brigands of Galilee now got strong detachments of recruits, and made up whole armies. Their leaders had themselves called Kings of the Jews, that is Messiah. Especially prominent among them was Judas, whose father Hezekiah had been a famous bandit and executed as such (47 B.C.). In Peraea Simon, a former slave of Herod, got together a band; a third force was commanded by the shepherd Athronges.

The Romans suppressed the revolt with great difficulty, after Varus had come to the relief of the legion besieged in Jerusalem with two legions and many auxiliaries. There was an unspeakable slaughter and pillage; two thousand of the prisoners were crucified and many others sold into slavery.

This was about the time in which the birth of Christ is set.

There was quiet for several years, but not for long. In the year 6 A.D. Judea came under direct Roman rule. The first measure taken by the Romans was a census for tax-collecting purposes. In answer, there was a new attempt at insurrection by Judas the Galilean, the same who had been so prominent in the uprising ten years earlier. He got together with the Pharisee Sadduk, who was to incite the people of Jerusalem. The attempt failed, but it led to the break between masses of the common people and the rebellious Galileans on the one hand, and the Pharisees on the other. They had been together in the rebellion of 4 B.C. Now the Pharisees had had enough, and the party of the Zealots arose in opposition to them. From that time to the destruction of Jerusalem, the fires of insurrection were never completely extinguished in Galilee and Judea.

Josephus, from his Pharisaical standpoint, reports on this: “Thereafter Judas, a Gaulanite from the city of Gamala, with the aid of Sadduk, a Pharisee, incited the people to rebellion. They convinced the people they would be slaves if they submitted to having their property appraised, and they should protect their freedom. They pointed out that in this way they not only would keep their property, but achieve still greater happiness, for they would win great honor and fame by their boldness. God would not help them unless they took vigorous decisions and spared no pains to carry them into execution. The people willingly listened to this and were all heartened to bold deeds.

“One can hardly express how much evil these two men did among the people. There was no wickedness they did not cause. They aroused one war after another. Constant violence ruled among them; anyone who spoke up against them paid for it with his life. Bandits ran riot in the land. The noblest people were done away with on the pretext of saving freedom; actually the motive was greed and the desire to appropriate their property. There followed repeated disorders and general bloodshed; in part the people of the country raged against each other, and one party tried to put the other down; in part external enemies slaughtered them. Finally famine was added to everything else, breaking all bonds and driving the cities to the extreme of ruin, until finally the Temple of God was reduced to ashes by enemies. So the innovations and changes of old customs brought the mutineers themselves to ruin. In this way Judas and Sadduk, who introduced a fourth doctrine and won many supporters for themselves, not only disturbed the state in their own time, but also left the way open for all the subsequent evil by means of this new doctrine, which had been unknown up to that time.... The younger people who supported them brought us to destruction” (Antiquities, XVIII, 1,1).

At the end of the same chapter, however, Josephus speaks with far more respect of the same Zealots whom he despises so at its beginning: “The fourth of these doctrines [along with those of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes] was introduced by Judas the Galilean. His supporters were with the Pharisees in everything except that they showed a stubborn love of liberty and declared that God alone should be recognized as lord and prince. They will much rather suffer the greatest tortures and let their friends and relations be tortured than call a man their lord. I will not go into details on this subject, since it is sufficiently well known how stubborn they have proved to be in these matters. I am not afraid that I will not be believed, but rather that I will not be able to find words enough to describe with what heroism and what firmness they suffer the greatest tortures. This madness attacked the whole people like an epidemic when the procurator Gessius Florus (64 to 66 A.D.) abused his power so against them that he drove them to desperation and revolt against the Romans.”

As the Roman yoke became more oppressive and the desperation of the Jewish masses more intense, the more they abandoned the Pharisees and took to Zealotism. At the same time the latter manifested strange by-products.

One of these was ecstatic enthusiasm. Knowledge was not a characteristic of the ancient proletariat, nor was the thirst for knowledge. Subject, more than any other class of people, to social forces they did not understand and which appeared to them as sinister; more than any other class desperate, in a situation in which men grasp at any straw; they were especially given to belief in miracles. Deeply affected by Messianic prophecies, they were more inclined than any other groups to complete misunderstanding of real conditions and to the expectation of the impossible.

Every fanatic who proclaimed himself a Messiah and promised to free the people by his miracles found supporters. One such was the prophet Theudas under the procurator Fadus (from 44 A.D. on), who led a throng of people to the River Jordan, where they were dispersed by the cavalry of Fadus. Theudas was captured and beheaded.

Under the procurator Felix (52 to 60 A.D.) fanaticism went still further:

“There was a band of rascals who did not indeed murder people but had godless ideas and kept the city [Jerusalem] restless and unsafe. For they were seductive deceivers who preached all sorts of innovations as divine revelations and moved the people to riot. They led the people out into the desert and pretended that God would let them see a sign of freedom. Since Felix assumed that this was the beginning of the uprising, he sent soldiers against them, cavalry as well as infantry, and a great number were killed.

“Still greater misfortune was brought upon the Jews by a false prophet from Egypt [that means an Egyptian Jew – K.K.]. He was a sorcerer and by his magic managed to get himself considered a prophet. He led astray some 30,000 people who supported him. He led them out of the desert to the so-called Mount of Olives in order to break into Jerusalem from there, overcome the Roman garrison and establish dominion over the people. As soon as Felix got wind of his project, he went against him with the Roman soldiers and all of the people who were willing to take steps for the common good, and gave battle to him. The Egyptian escaped with only a few of his mob. Most were taken, the rest hiding in the country.

“Hardly had this unrest been stilled than a new plague broke out, just as in a sick and infected body. Some sorcerers and murderers got together and won a great following. They called on everyone to demand freedom and threatened those with death who would be obedient subjects to the Roman authority from that time on, saying: Those must be freed against their will who voluntarily bow under the yoke of slavery.

“They went all through the Jewish land, plundered the houses of the rich, burned the villages, and behaved so abominably that because of them the whole Jewish people was oppressed. And from day to day this ruinous disease spread.” [49]

Within Jerusalem itself open rebellion against the Roman army was not easy, and the most embittered enemies of the established order took to assassination. Under the procurator Felix, under whom the bandits and fanatics teemed, there also was organised a sect of terrorists. Explosives were unknown, and the favorite weapon of the terrorists was a curved dagger hidden under the cloak; they were called sicarii after this dagger (sica).

The desperate frenzy of all these champions of the popular cause was only the inevitable answer to the shameless brutality of the oppressors of the people. This is how Josephus, who witnessed all these events, describes the actions of the last two procurators who ruled Judea before the destruction of Jerusalem:

“Festus obtained the office of procurator (60 to 62 A.D.). He seriously combated the bandits who infested the Jewish land, and captured and killed many of them. His successor Albinus (62 to 64 A.D.) did not follow his example, unfortunately. There was no crime and no sin too great for him not to have done and practiced it. He not only embezzled public monies in the administration, but laid hold of the private property of the subjects and took it by force for himself. He loaded the people with huge and unjust taxes. For money he set free the robbers that the city authorities or his own predecessors in office had put in prison, and only those remained prisoners who could not pay. This increased the boldness of the revolutionaries in Jerusalem. The rich got so far with presents and gifts to Albinus that he winked at their having a suite following them. The masses, however, who do not love quiet, began to attach themselves to such people, because Albinus favored them. Accordingly every rascal surrounded himself with a band and let his mercenaries plunder and rob all the good citizens. Those who were robbed kept quiet, and those who had not been robbed yet flattered the rowdies for fear the like would happen to them. No one could complain, for the pressure was too great. Thus the seed of the destruction of our city was planted.

“Although Albinus acted so disgracefully and wickedly, his successor Gessius Florus (64-66) went far beyond him, so that in a comparison of the two Albinus would still seem the better. For Albinus committed his misdeeds in secret and was able to put a good face on everything. The other one did everything openly, as if he sought his glory in mistreating our people. He robbed, he plundered, he punished and conducted himself as if he had not been sent as procurator but as executioner, to torture the Jews. Where he should have used mercy, he used terror. He was shameless and false into the bargain, and there was nobody who could have found more ruses for deceiving people than he did. He was not satisfied with bleeding private individuals white and profiting by their ruin. He plundered whole cities and ruined the entire people. All that was lacking was for him to proclaim publicly: robbery and theft are allowed at will, so long as he gets his share. Thus it came about that the whole land was devastated, and many left their fatherland and went abroad.” [50]

Under Florus the situation finally led to the great uprising in which the whole people rose with all its might against its tormentors. When Florus went so far as to try to rob the Temple, in May 66, Jerusalem went wild, or rather, the lower classes in Jerusalem went wild. The majority of those who owned property, Pharisees as well as Sadducees, feared the uprising and desired peace. With the rebellion against the Romans civil war began as well. The war party won. The peace party was defeated in streetfighting, but the Roman garrison in Jerusalem was forced to withdraw and was cut down on the way.

The combat morale of the insurgents was so great that they succeeded in routing a relief column of 30,000 men led by the Syrian legate Cestius Gallus.

The Jews all over Palestine rose in insurrection, and those outside of Palestine as well. The mutiny of the Jews in Alexandria required the dispatch of all the military forces of the Romans in Egypt.

There was of course no possibility that Rome could be overthrown by the Jews whose forces were too weak and too exclusively urban. It might however have compelled Rome to spare Judea a little longer, if the rebels had gone at once vigorously on the offensive, following up the successes they had won. Circumstances soon came to their aid. In the second year of the Jewish War the soldiers in the Western part of the Empirerose against Nero, and the battles of the legions against each other continued after his death (June 9, 68 A.D.); Vespasian, commander-in-chief of the army that was engaged in subduing Judea, gave more attention to the events in the West, where the throne was at stake, than to the little local war.

The one small chance the rebels had was passed by. It was to be sure the lower classes that had declared war on the Romans and put down the Jewish peace party, but the wealthy and educated still had enough influence to get the conduct of the war against the Romans into their hands. That meant that it was waged only with a faint heart, not with the purpose of wiping out the enemy but only to stand up to him. The rebels finally saw how lukewarm their leaders were in the fight, and the Zealots were then able to get the leadership into their own hands.

“In the fanatical popular party the unsuccessful course of events was ascribed – not without reason – to the lack of energy in the conduct of the war thus far. The men of the people bent all their efforts to getting control of the situation themselves and supplanting the previous leaders. Since the latter did not give up their control willingly, a fearfully bloody civil war resulted in Jerusalem in the winter of 67/68 A.D., with scenes of horror that are to be seen nowhere else except in the first French Revolution.” [51]

The comparison with the French Revolution will strike every observer of these events. However, for France the Reign of Terror was a means of saving the revolution and making it capable of advancing victoriously against all of Europe; for Jerusalem any such outcome was impossible in the very nature of the situation. The reign of terror of the lower classes came too late in fact even to win a short reprieve for the Jewish state, whose days were numbered; it would only prolong the battle, increase the suffering, make the rage of the eventual victor more atrocious. But it could also give the world a monument of fortitude, heroism and devotion that stands out all the more impressively against the filth of the general cowardice and self-seeking of that era.

It was not all the Jews of Jerusalem who continued the hopeless struggle against the overpowering enemy for another three years, until September 70 A.D. in the stoutest, most resolute and resourceful of defenses, covering every inch of ground with corpses before giving up, and finally, weakened by hunger and disease, finding their graves in the burning ruins. The priests, the scribes, the merchant princes had for the most part fled to places of safety at the beginning of the siege. It was the small artisans and shopkeepers and proletarians of Jerusalem that became the heroes of their nation, in conjunction with the proletarianized peasants of Galilee who had forced their way into Jerusalem.

Such was the atmosphere in which the Christian community came into being. It does not by any means offer the smiling picture of Christ’s surroundings drawn by Renan in his Life of Jesus; Renan based his conception, not on the social conditions of the time, but on the picturesque impressions the modern tourist in Galilee receives. Hence Renan is able to assure us in his romance about Jesus that in Jesus’ time this fair land “abounded in plenty, joy and well-being,” so that “every history of the origin of Christianity becomes a charming idyll.”

As charming as the lovely month of May 1871 in Paris.



The Essenes

It must however be conceded that in the midst of the spectacle of woe and blood that constitutes the history of Judea in the epoch of Christ, there is one phenomenon which gives the impression of a peaceful idyll. This is the order of the Essenes or Essaeans, which arose about the year 150 B.C., according to Josephus and lasted until the destruction of Jerusalem. [52] From that point on the order disappears from history.

Like the Zealots, it was obviously of proletarian origin; but its nature was quite different. The Zealots did not develop any social structure of their own. They differed from the Pharisees not in the goal, but in the means, the harshness and violence with which they sought to reach it. If the goal had been attained and Jerusalem enthroned as mistress of the world in the place of Rome, with all the riches of the Roman people going to the Jews, then there would be an end to all sorts of hardship for all classes. In this way nationalism seemed to make socialism unnecessary, even for the proletarians. What was characteristically proletarian in the Zealots was the energy and fanaticism of their patriotism.

But not all the proletarians were willing to wait until the Messiah should inaugurate the new, world-ruling Jerusalem. Many sought to improve their position at once, and since politics did not seem to promise any speedy assistance, they took to economic organization.

This must have been the sort of thinking that led to the foundation of Essenianism. We have no evidence on the point.

The nature of the organisation clearly indicates that it was an outspoken communism. They lived in common dwellings, 4000 strong in the time of Josephus, in various villages and rural cities of Judea.

“They live there together,” Philo says of them, “organized by corporations and clubs for friendship and dining (kata thasous, hetairias kai syssitia poioumenoi), and regularly occupied in labors for the community.

“None of them desires to have property of his own, neither a house nor a slave nor a piece of land nor herds nor whatever else constitutes wealth. But they put everything together indiscriminately, and all of them use it in common.

“The money they earn by their labor in various ways they hand over to an elected administrator. Out of it he buys what is needed, and gives them ample food and whatever else is needed for life.”

It might be inferred from this that each man produced for himself or worked for wages.

Josephus describes their life as follows:

“After this [the morning prayer] they are dismissed by their chiefs and each goes to the work he has learned, and when they have diligently labored until the fifth hour [counting from sunrise, about eleven o’clock] they come together at a stated place, gird themselves with white cloths and wash their bodies in cold water. After this purification they go into the refectory, into which no one has entry who is not a member of their sect. When they have sat down in silence, the baker puts bread before each man and the cook sets a dish before each with one kind of food. Then a priest blesses the food; and it is not permitted to taste anything before prayer. At the end of the midday meal they give thanks again, and thus before and after eating they praise God, the giver of all food. Then they put off their mantles like sacred clothing and go to work again until evening. Supper is taken in the same way as dinner, and when guests come [members of the order from elsewhere, since strangers were not allowed in the refectory – K.K.], they too sit at table with them. Neither outcries nor disorder sully the house, and when they converse, one speaks after the other, not all at once, so that people who are not of their order feel the quiet in the house as mysteriously impressive. The cause of their quiet life is their constant moderation, for they eat and drink no more than is required for maintaining their life.

“In general they do no work except on the instructions of their chiefs, with the exception that they may be free in showing sympathy and helpfulness. Whenever an emergency requires it, any one of them may assist those who need and deserve help, or bring food to the poor. But they may not contribute anything to their friends or relatives without the consent of their chief.”

Their communism was carried to an extreme. It extended to their clothing. Philo says:

“Not only food, but clothing as well is in common with them. For there are heavy cloaks prepared for the winter, and light outer garments for summer, so that every man may make use of them as he will. For what one has counts as the property of all, and what all of them have counts as everyman’s.”

They rejected slavery. Farming was their chief occupation, but they also engaged in crafts. Only the manufacture of luxury articles and weapons of war was forbidden, along with trade.

The basis of their whole communistic system was community of consumption, not social production. There is some talk of the latter too, but it is only a question of work that brings in money for individuals either for wages or for goods sold, in either case the work is done outside the social organization. All the members of the order however have their lodging and meals in common. That is what holds them together, above all. It is communism of common housekeeping. This requires giving up separate housekeeping, separate families and separate marriages.

Actually we find, in every organization which rests on the basis of a communism of consumption and community housekeeping that separate marriage causes difficulties and an effort is made to eliminate it. This may be done in two ways that apparently are mutually exclusive, the sharpest extremes of sexual relationships, greatest chastity and greatest “looseness”. And yet both ways are equally likely to be followed by communistic organizations of the sort in question. From the Essenes down through all the Christian communistic sects to the colonies of the communistic sects in the United States in our times, we can see that all of them are against marriage, but are just as likely to incline to community of women as to celibacy.

This would be unthinkable if it were merely ideological considerations that had brought people to this communism and its superstructure of ideas. It is easily explainable on the basis of its economic conditions.

Most of the Essenes rejected all contact with women.

“They reject marriage, but adopt strange children while they are still young and teachable, consider them as their own children and instruct them in their ways and customs. It is not that they would do away with or forbid marriage or the reproduction of the species. But they say that the unchastity of women must be guarded against, since none of them is satisfied with one man alone.”

That is what Josephus says in the eighth chapter of the second book of his history of the Jewish War, from which these quotations on the Essenes have been taken. But in the eighteenth book of his Jewish Antiquities, chapter one, he says on the same question :

“They do not take wives and hold no slaves. They hold that the latter is unjust, and the first would give rise to disputes.”

In both places it is only practical considerations, not asceticism, that is the basis of opposition to marriage. Josephus knew the Essenes from his own observations. He had been successively with the Sadducees. Essenes and Pharisees until he stayed finally with the latter.

Thus Josephus is in an excellent position to tell us the basis of the Essenes’ hostility to marriage. That is not to say that what he says constitutes the ultimate cause; for we must constantly distinguish between the arguments someone adduces to justify his actions and the psychological motives that actually cause those actions. Very few men are clearly aware of these motives. It is a favorite procedure of our historians however to take the arguments that are handed down to them as the actual motives of the historical events and relations. They reject investigation into the actual motives as arbitrary “constructions,” that is they demand that our knowledge of history should never reach a higher point of view than it had at the time from which our sources come. All of the enormous body of facts that has been accumulated since then, which enables us to separate what is essential and typical in the most diverse historical phenomena from what is unessential and accidental, and to discover the actual motives of men behind what they profess – all this, they would say, is to be ignored.

Anyone who knows the history of communism will realize at once that it was not the nature of women, but the nature of communistic housekeeping that poisoned marriage for the Essenes. When many males and females lived together in a common household, the temptation to infidelity and jealous quarrels was too near at hand. If this sort of housekeeping was not to be abandoned either men would have to stop living with women or monogamy would have to be eliminated.

Not all the Essenes took the first way. Josephus reports in the previously cited eighth chapter of the second book on the Jewish War:

“There is still another sort of Essenes, who are in thorough accord with the previous ones in their way of living, their manners and rules, but differ from them in the matter of marriage. For they say, that those who refrain from marital relations would deprive life of its most important function (meros), reproduction would constantly decrease and the human race would soon die out, if everyone thought as they did. These people have the custom of trying (dokimazontes) wives for three years. If they have shown after three purifications that they are fit to bear children, they marry them. As soon as one is pregnant, her husband no longer sleeps with her. That is to show that they enter into marriage not for the sake of sensual pleasure, but only for the sake of producing children.”

The passage is not quite clear; but it says at least that these marriages of the Essenes were very different from the customary ones. The “trying” of wives does not seem conceivable except on the presumption of a sort of community of wives.

Out of the ideological superstructure that was built on these social foundations, one thought should be particularly stressed, namely, the Essenes’ assertion of the unfreedom of the will, in opposition to the Sadducees, who taught the freedom of the will, and to the Pharisees, who took an intermediate position.

“When the Pharisees say that everything happens in accordance with fate, they do not do away with the free will of man, but say that it pleased God to bring to pass a mixture as it were between the decree of fate and that of men, who will to do good or evil.” [53]

“The Essenes on the other hand ascribe everything to fate. They hold that nothing can happen to man that is not decreed by fate. The Sadducees will have none of fate. They say there is no such thing, and it does not determine the lot of men. They ascribe everything to the free will of man, so that he has himself to thank if something good happens to him; while unhappy experiences are to be considered as results of his own folly.” [54]

These divergent views would seem to arise out of pure thought. We already know, however, that each of these tendencies represents a different class. And when we understand history, we find that very often ruling classes incline to assume the freedom of the will, and still more often the oppressed classes uphold the idea of its unfreedom.

This is not difficult to understand. The ruling classes feel themselves free to do what they please, or to refrain from action. That comes not merely from their powerful position but also from the small number of their members. Regularity appears only in the mass, where the different deviations from the norm cancel each other out. The smaller the number of individuals observed, the greater the weight of the personal and fortuitous as compared with the general and typical. In the case of a monarch the latter seems to be entirely abolished.

The rulers thus easily come to consider themselves as raised above social influences, which appear to men, so long as they are not understood, as an occult power, as fate. The ruling classes feel themselves driven however to attribute freedom of the will not only to themselves but to those who are ruled. The misery of the exploited appears to them as the fault of the exploited themselves, every offence that they commit as a wanton misdeed, that arises from mere personal joy in evil and calls for rigorous punishment.

Assuming freedom of the will makes it easier for the ruling classes to carry out their function of judging and holding down the oppressed classes while feeling moral superiority and indignation, a factor which undoubtedly makes them more energetic in their task.

The mass of the poor and the harried, however, find that at every step they are the slaves of circumstances, of fate; its decrees are incomprehensible to them, but at any rate it is more powerful than they. It comes bitterly home to them what a mockery it is when the prosperous tell them to be the artisans of their own fortune. They try in vain to escape from the conditions that oppress them. And they realize that this happens not merely to isolated individuals among them, but that each of them drags the same chain after him. They see very clearly that not only their actions and the success of those actions, but their feelings and thoughts and hence their will are dependent on their circumstances.

It may seem queer that the Pharisees, in view of their intermediate social position, should accept freedom of the will and natural necessity at one and the same time. But almost two thousand years after them the great philosopher Rant did the same thing.

We need not here examine the rest of the ideological superstructure which arose on the basis of the Essenian social structure, although this is precisely what historians in the main are concerned with. For that gives them the opportunity to make profound explanations of the derivation of Essenianism from Parseeism or Buddhism or Pythagoreanism or some other ism.

That does not answer the question of the actual roots of Essenianism. Social tendencies within a people always arise out of actual needs within that people, and not through mere imitation of foreign models. It is possible to learn from other countries or other times, certainly, but people take from these sources only what they can use, what corresponds to a need. For example, the only reason why Roman law found such acceptance in Germany after the Renaissance was that it fitted in so well with the needs of strong rising classes, the absolute monarchy and the merchants. Naturally one does not go to the trouble of inventing a new tool when an existing one is ready to hand. The fact that a tool comes from abroad does not answer the question of why it finds application; that can only be explained by actual needs in the people themselves.

All the influences from Parseeism, Buddhism or Pythagoreanism that may have had an effect on Essenianism are dubious at best; there is no proof that any of them affected it directly. The similarities may very well arise from the fact that all of them arose under fairly similar conditions, which led to similar attempts at salvation in each case.

One would be most tempted to infer a connection between the Pythagoreans and the Essenes. Josephus says in fact (Antiquities, XV, 10, 4) that the Essenes lived in a way that was very similar to that of the Pythagoreans. But one might raise the question whether the Essenes learned from the Pythagoreans or vice versa. Josephus says to be sure (Against Apion, I, 22) that Pythagoras himself adopted Jewish conceptions and put them out as his own, but that is mere bragging to glorify Judaism, and is probably based on some forgery or other. Actually we know almost nothing certain about Pythagoras. It is only long after his death that information about him begins to be more abundant; and there are more bits, and in more detail, and more incredible, the further we go from the time in which he lived. We pointed out at the beginning that Pythagoras was treated like Jesus. He became an ideal figure, credited with everything expected of an ethical model, as well as a miracle-maker and prophet who showed his divine mission by the most astonishing feats. It was precisely because nothing definite was known of him that it was possible to attribute to him and put into his mouth anything that was desired.

Even the way of life said to have been introduced by Pythagoras, much like that of the Essenes, with community of property, is probably of relatively recent origin, perhaps no older than that of the Essenes.

This Pythagoreanism probably originated in Alexandria. [55]

There a link with Judaism was quite likely, and the transmission of Pythagorean conceptions to Palestine not at all out of the question. The reverse too was possible. Finally, it may be that both drew on a common source: Egyptian practice. In Egypt the advanced social development had already led, relatively early, to cloister-like institutions.

Its old civilization had long been declining, and as a result revulsion against private property and the pleasures of life together with Eight from the world had set in earlier than in the other parts of the Roman Empire; nowhere was such a course of action easier to put into execution than in Egypt, where the desert reaches up to the edge of civilization. Elsewhere anyone fleeing from the great city found private property in the country too, and in its most oppressive form, private property in land. He either had to withdraw into wildernesses many miles away from civilization, which only the most strenuous efforts could make habitable, a labor that the city-dweller is least of all capable of.

In the Egyptian desert, as in any desert, there was no private property in land. It was not hard to live there: the climate did not require any great outlay on buildings, clothing and heating to protect one from the weather. Moreover, it was so close to the city that the hermit could easily get the necessities of life from friends, or even fetch himself by walking a few hours.

Accordingly Egypt had begun early to produce a monk-like group of hermits. Then neo-Pythagoreanism arose in Alexandria, and finally in the fourth century of our era Christian monasticism got its start there. But Alexandrian Judaism as well had its own peculiar monastic order, the Therapeutae.

The treatise On the Contemplative Life in which Philo reports on them has been said to be spurious, but in this case the suspicion is groundless.

Like the sage, he says, they renounce their property, which they divide among their relatives and friends; they leave their brothers, children, wives, parents, friends and native city, and find their true home in union with others of like mind. These associations are to be found in many parts of Egypt, especially near Alexandria. Here each lives by himself in a simple cell, near to those of the others, where he spends the time in pious contemplation. Their food is very simple, bread, salt and water. On the Sabbath they come together for pious lectures and singing, men and women in a common hall, but the sexes separated by a partition. They reject meat-eating, wine and slavery. There is nothing said, however, about work on their part. They must have lived by alms from friends and admirers.

It is quite possible that Alexandrian Jews brought the notions of the Therapeutae to Palestine and thereby influenced Essenianism. And yet the two are fundamentally different. The Therapeutae live in contemplative idleness on others’ labor, the Essenes work diligently and earn so much that they not only support themselves but have a surplus to share with the needy. Both reject private property, but the Therapeutae have nothing at all to do with the goods of the world. They hate work as much as pleasure, they renounce means of production as they do means of consumption, and hence distribute their property among friends and relatives. The Essenes labor, and for that they need means of production; accordingly their members do not distribute what they own among friends, but collect them in a fund for common use.

Since they worked, they had to be able-bodied and eat well. Rigid asceticism is impossible for men who have work to do.

The difference between the Therapeutae and still more the neo-Pythagoreans, who for the most part merely prated about asceticism, withdrawal from the world, and giving up property, on the one hand, and the Essenes on the other points up the contrast between the Jewry of Palestine and of the rest of the civilized world of the Roman Empire at the time in which Christianity arose. In Essenianism we see the same vigor that we observe in the Zealots and that raises the Judaism of that era so far above the cowardly dejection of the other civilized nations, who fled from pleasure and temptation because they were afraid of struggle. Even the communistic tendencies among them had a cowardly and ascetic character.

What made Essenianism possible was the vigor of Judaism, but not that alone. There are other factors which brought it about that it was precisely Judaism that produced this unique phenomenon.

In general, we find in the last century before Christ that along with mass poverty there also increases the effort of the proletarians and their friends to relieve the misery by organized effort. Meals in common, the last remnant of primitive communism, are at the same time the initial point of the new communism.

Under Judaism the need for cohesion and mutual aid was especially strong. Fellow-countrymen abroad clung together more closely than at home, and no one was more homeless and was more constantly in foreign parts than the Jew outside of Judea. Thus the Jews were marked by a mutual helpfulness that was as striking as their segregation from the non-Jews. In a single phrase Tacitus emphasizes both their hostile hatred against all others and their constant gentleness toward one another. [56]

They also seem to have clung with especial stubbornness to their associations with meals in common. There is no other explanation for the fact that Caesar, who forbade all associations that had not come down from antiquity, permitted the Jewish ones.

“Although in all other cases he required the permission of the Senate for the formation of independent corporate bodies with their own funds, he immediately permitted the formation all over the Empire of Jewish associations with common meals and corporate property. In view of the desire, widespread at that time, for belonging to societies, which the state so feared and persecuted, this toleration of Jewish religious societies led many pagans to apply for membership in the Jewish associations as so-called Godfearing men, a request that was easily granted.” [57]

Such an association of proletarians would be very likely to take on a purely communistic character. But it was not easy for it to go much beyond meals in common out of a common fund, under urban conditions. Nor was there much incentive to go further. At that time, in the southern countries, clothing did not play an important part in the budget of proletarians; it served more for display than as protection against the weather. For sleeping quarters the proletarian of the city looked for some nook or corner. Finally, earning a living scattered them to the farthest ends of the city whether they begged or stole or peddled or were porters, or however it was they got by.

The common meal of the society, to which each brought his share and in which every member shared, whether he had been in a position to contribute something or not, was the strongest link that held the society together, and the most effective way of insuring the individual against the vicissitudes of life, which can so easily destroy the destitute.

In the country, household and occupation are inseparable. Meals in common presuppose a common dwelling and a common economy. Large agricultural estates were not rare at that time: operated by slaves to some extent, but also enlarged communistic families and lodging associations are found at this stage of development.

Palestine was by now the only region where Judaism still had a peasantry, and this we have seen to have been in constant and close connection with the metropolis of Jerusalem and its proletariat. It was easy for communistic tendencies, which were nearer to the heart of the Jewish proletariat than to any other proletariat of that time, to extend to the open country and there take the form that marks the Essenian doctrine.

The economic basis of the organization of the Essenes was peasant agriculture. “They are all engaged in farming,” says Josephus, with some exaggeration (Antiquities, XVIII, 1,5).

Such an organization on the land could last only as long as it was tolerated by the state. There was no way in which a productive commune could exist as a secret society, especially in the country.

Essenianism was therefore linked up with the preservation of Jewish freedom. When that was lost, it too had to go under. It was not suited to an existence in great cities outside of Palestine, as an illicit society.

Nevertheless the great city of Jerusalem was to develop a form of organization that proved to be more adaptable than ally other to the needs of the urban proletariat all over the Empire, and in the end better adapted than any other to the needs of the Empire itself.

This organization started in Judaism and spread over all the Empire, and incorporated all the elements of the new way of feeling and thinking that had arisen out of the social transformation and decay of that time.

We now go on to consider this organization: the Christian community.




41. Josephus, Antiquities, XIV, 7. 1 Talent – $1200.

42. Josephus, Antiquities, X1V, 7.

43. Jewish Antiquities, XX, 8, 8; cf. 9, 2.

44. Antiquities, XVII, 2, 4.

45. Jewish War, VI, 9, 3.

46. Histories, V, l3.

47. Antiquities, XVII, 2, 4.

48. Juvenal, Satires, III, 13-16.

49. Josephus, Jewish War, II, l3, 4 to 6.

50. Jewish War, II, 14, 1, 2.

51. Schürer, Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes, I, 617.

52. Josephus writes “Essenes”, Philo “Essaeans”. The word is a Hellenized form of the Syrian chase (Hebrew, chasid), pious. The plural of the word has two forms, chasen and chasuja.

53. Josephus, Antiquities, XVIII, 1, 3.

54. Antiquities, XIII, 5, 9.

55. On this question and the Pythagoreans in general, cf. Zeller, Philosophie der Griechen, volumes I and III.

56. Histories, V, 5.

57. O. Holtzmann, Das Ende des jüdischen Staatswesens und die Entstehung des Christentums, 1888, p.460.


Last updated on 24.12.2003