James Crossley and Robert J. Myles, Jesus: A Life in Class Conflict (Zero Books 2023), 304pp. James Crossley and Robert J. Myles, Jesus: A Life in Class Conflict (Zero Books 2023), 304pp.

James Crossley and Robert Myles offer a sober account of Jesus as a socially credible religious organiser, finds Dragan Plavšić

In the 1960s, a dissident Czech Marxist, Vítězslav Gardavský, noted how for two thousand years the figure of Jesus had ‘taken on a whole range of different forms, shapes, and patterns’. He added that since Marxists are especially ‘eager to get down to the root of things’, they are driven to ‘do their best to trace the original model [of Jesus] from which all the others have developed’. Their aim is ‘to establish what the original Christian motivation was…’ and in this way to gain ‘some sort of yardstick…[for] recognising and judging the versions which are wide of the mark…’i

James Crossley and Robert Myles are two scholars of Jesus and early Christianity who share an interest in Marxist historiography and how past struggles can ‘give us insight into the struggles we face today’ (pp.xi-xii). Their general aim in Jesus: A Life in Class Conflict is indeed to uncover the ‘original’ Jesus as part of what they call ‘The Quest of the Historical Materialist Jesus’ (p.1).

Wide of the mark

Allied to this quest is their more specific aim of providing a critique of the ‘wide of the mark’ version of Jesus propagated by mass-marketed ‘neoliberal lives’ (p.xii) and the ‘cottage industry of historical Jesus research’ (p.255). They mean the mainstream story of ‘Jesus the Great Man’ (p.14) who inspires a band of dedicated loyalists to spread the word and ultimately change history by founding Christianity. It is ‘wide of the mark’ for two key reasons.

First and foremost, it turns Jesus into a ‘singular “genius”’ (p.90) by abstracting him from the specific context in which he was active – the class-divided religious ferment of first-century Galilee – and turning him into a religious icon. By contrast, the ‘orienting assumption’ in this book is that ‘Jesus was not just a religious leader’ (p.xii). And second, though Christianity became one of the world’s great religions, the ‘Jesus movement’ (p.1) failed to change history as its original leaders and followers intended or expected.

That said, situating Jesus in his class context has its own particular difficulties, not the least of which is the relative lack of historical evidence. This is exacerbated by the unreliability of the key sources, the canonical New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They are after-the-event reports, much adapted for apologetic reasons, with most scholars dating the earliest, Mark, to 70 CE, some forty years after Jesus’ death. Given these limitations, Crossley and Myles are modest about what can be achieved. Their stated aim is to reconstruct as ‘plausibly’ as they can a ‘sober account’ of Jesus by ‘sifting fact from fiction’ and ‘highlighting the importance of class and material conditions…’ (p.1). It helps that they write clearly, without academic affectation.

The other danger for those bending the stick against ‘overreliance’ (p.255) on ‘Jesus the Great Man’ is to bend it too far. This risks ‘underestimat[ing] the importance of personal activity’ii by turning living, breathing individuals into mere ciphers of their social contexts. Crossley and Myles seek to circumvent this danger with their view of Jesus as a ‘socially credible religious organizer’ (p.21).

Class beginnings

They begin with his unremarkable background as a peasant carpenter, quite likely illiterate, from Nazareth, an insignificant and conventional enough Jewish village. His no-less-conventional Jewish upbringing would have taken place in a rural setting where ‘what mattered most was sustaining traditional ways of life’ (p.36) in changing times.

More broadly, as with the rest of the ancient world, Palestine was a brutally class-divided society with urban elites maintaining ‘their extravagant lifestyles by extracting surplus from the labor-power and agrarian produce of the villages in the surrounding countryside’ (p.42). This was enforced by the might of imperial Rome and local client rulers like Herod the Great and his successor sons.

Resistance was rife and often violent. One option was banditry, typical of pre-modern rural societies, with bandits ranging from more popular figures to murderous thugs. Herod the Great executed many. Another was insurrection, the most famous of which – after Jesus’ death – was the Great Jewish Revolt against Rome of 66-73 CE. But there were lesser ones. An uprising in 4 CE, shortly after Jesus’ birth, led by a bandit’s son, was suppressed by the Roman governor who sacked and razed Sepphoris, a city near Nazareth where rebels had attacked a palace. For good measure, he enslaved its inhabitants.

Here Crossley and Myles argue that it is likely the subsequent rebuilding of Sepphoris and the building near the Sea of Galilee of the new city of Tiberias (named after the then Roman emperor) brought disruptive socio-economic consequences. As a result, Jesus grew up ‘against the historical background of a gentrifying Galilee’ (p.31) where major urban projects were sharpening class tensions: economic benefits were being unequally distributed; higher taxes were being levied to fund construction; and completion (Tiberias was completed in 19 CE) led to sudden, socially dislocating unemployment.

The Gospels make no reference to Sepphoris or Tiberias. But as G.E.M de Ste. Croix noted in his The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, this ‘…should not surprise us: Jesus belonged wholly to the … Jewish countryside of Galilee and Judaea’.iii The peasants of the rural villages were the social constituency – the active class focus – of the Jesus movement, not the urban centres they viewed as moneyed and decadent.

Movements

It was precisely the lack of any sustained representation of peasant interests in this unstable and changing world of class antagonisms, imperial brutalities and Jewish sensitivities that led to the repeated emergence of ideologically charged movements seeking to articulate them. Crossley and Myles point to, in Jesus’ lifetime and subsequently, several such movements, all of them ruthlessly repressed when they developed significant followings.

Ideologically, these movements were based on ‘millenarianism’. This was the belief that God would ‘imminently and dramatically interven[e] in human history’ (p.21) to wreak destruction and herald a new Golden Age after the ‘radical or even revolutionary transformation’ of the old order. This also involved ‘a divinely appointed human agent or agents’ (p.5), in effect a ‘religious organizer’, who could ‘pose challenges to the status quo and its ideological apparatus through personal access to the divine’ (p.48).

Clearly striking a responsive chord with Galilean peasants yearning for deliverance from exploitation and poverty, these movements drew many from the villages to hear their rebellious message and possibly to join them. All of which makes it easier to understand how the otherwise improbable transformation of a socially marginal carpenter into the ‘key organizer’ (p.3) of one such movement began.

The Gospels are helpful here. They point to Jesus being drawn to millenarianism when he was thirty or so, after contact with John the Baptist’s movement. John ‘was almost certainly more popular than Jesus was in his lifetime’ (p.52), famously baptising him in the River Jordan. He too envisaged ‘a radical reordering of the world’ based on ‘an imminent divine intervention’. As Crossley and Myles note, this is where Jesus received his ‘ideological training’ (p.49).

John’s teaching combined ‘strict moral adherence to traditional values’ (p.71) with an acute sense of social divisions, an appealing mix for an audience of tradition-bound but ruthlessly exploited peasants. Thus, John condemned Herod Antipas (Herod the Great’s son) for marrying his brother’s wife, while Jesus would later contrast his teacher’s poverty with those ‘dressed in soft clothing’ who ‘live in luxury … in royal palaces’ (p.57). When John’s movement became a potential threat, Antipas had him executed.

Vanguard

When or why Jesus parted ways with John the Baptist is not known, but he may have opted to establish a following of his own. For it to thrive, Crossley and Myles argue, he needed ‘a culturally credible vanguard party cast in recognizable concepts’. And this is, in effect, what he set about organising among the fishers of Galilee. The Twelve, as his ‘inner vanguard’ of apostles or disciples came to be known, were ‘distinguished from a wider group of supporters with varying levels of attachment and commitment to the movement’ (p.75). The politically anachronistic framing of all this by the authors is provocative, certainly, but it jolts us into seeing an old story anew, from a more sober perspective.

Here Crossley and Myles reject the ‘bourgeois tendency’ (p.79) of treating rural artisans like Jesus as ‘middle class’ and fisher-disciples Peter, Andrew, James and John as ‘entrepreneurs’ of the Galilean fishing trade. In addition to there being ‘nothing equivalent to a middle class in antiquity’ (p.40), the reality is that, like the peasants with whom they lived cheek by jowl, carpenters and fishers struggled to survive in ‘circumstances geared toward subsistence living’. Tellingly, the Gospel of Luke has the fisher-disciples complaining that they ‘worked all night’ (p.133) but caught nothing.

This links to a more curious tendency in modern scholarship which views the itinerancy of Jesus and the Twelve (their travelling from place to place with no permanent home) as a ‘lifestyle choice’. The claim ‘dovetails’ all too ‘comfortably with the neoliberal ethos of late capitalism’ (p.130). By contrast, and rather more plausibly, Crossley and Myles relate itinerancy to the material ‘precariousness of rural, non-elite life’ (p.132) where unrelenting hardship drove some – typically the young – to abandon work for other ways of surviving, such as joining bandits or itinerant millenarians.

Crossley and Myles also reject ‘romantic notions’ about what the Jesus movement believed. In particular, they deny its beliefs were ‘proudly egalitarian and progressive’. Such notions would have been ‘nonsensical’ to a peasant culture thoroughly imbued ‘with internal hierarchies and … inherited assumptions about the ideal and often patriarchal function of kings, judges, angels, and an overarching divine ruler’ (p.75). As a result, though Jesus’ brand of millenarianism was indeed revolutionary, he sought a new type of kingdom with kings serving peasants instead of oppressing them:

In envisaging a new world order where the last would be first and the first would be last, the movement was, ultimately, unable to conceive of a world beyond autocratic … models of leadership (pp.99-100).

Nevertheless, it is clear that ritual expressions like the ‘kingdom of God’ and the ‘kingdom of Heaven’ once had radical political significance for the early Jesus movement. They referred to ‘an actual kingdom’ which was ‘for this earth’ and not, as later, to ‘a heavenly afterlife or an ethereal vision’ (pp.106-7). To drive the point home, Crossley and Myles suggest translating ‘kingdom of God’ as the ‘Dictatorship of God’ or even the ‘Dictatorship of the Peasantry’ to ‘emphasize the properly political content of the phrase to which modern readers have become desensitized’ (p.108). This is pushing it, of course, but their underlying point certainly stands.

Radical and reactionary

This notion of a ‘revolutionary kingdom’ also highlights the intricate way in which radical and reactionary impulses intertwined in the early Jesus movement. Consequently, just as it could not envisage a world without kingdoms, it could not envisage one without poverty, notwithstanding its own ‘mission to the poor’. The Gospels of Mark and Matthew both record Jesus saying that ‘you will always have the poor with you’ (p.125), for this was a world in which the mass production of modern times – the essential precondition for eradicating want – was of course inconceivable.

In similar vein, the movement’s emphasis on traditional values – Jesus stood uncompromisingly against divorce, for example – was a class-based necessity for maintaining credibility with the peasantry, but it was also one that could be turned agitationally against the lax morality of the elite. And in tandem with its ‘mission to the poor’ was its lesser-known ‘mission to the rich’. A ‘primary target’ was wealthy people willing and able to ‘fund and sustain the movement’ (p.88) in its hand-to-mouth itinerancy.

We can detect here something of the pragmatic character of the movement’s thinking, which may have flavoured even its most fantastical idea. Thus its belief that the ‘coming of the divine kingdom to earth’ – God’s intervention from on high – was ‘imminent’ (p.16) may have been accompanied by a sober appreciation of how, on earth, the movement could best assist God when the time came.

Here Crossley and Myles reject the modern claim that Jesus was non-violent or pacifist. Instead, they suggest the movement took a tactically circumstantial approach, treating force as justifiable, but only at the moment of God’s supernatural intervention. This was ‘oddly practical’ as ‘there was no way a movement from Galilee had the power or resources to overthrow local elites and certainly not the entire Roman Empire’ (p.155). Advocating force would also have alienated the rich.

Collective ending?

Passover commemorates the exodus of the Jews from slavery in Pharaonic Egypt. Its strong associations of deliverance from oppression by divine intervention were not lost on first-century Jews ruled by Rome. Inevitably, Jewish-Roman relations became particularly tense as crowds poured into Jerusalem for the festival.

Conscious that as their movement had grown, relations with the authorities, their class enemies, had become increasingly antagonistic, the fateful decision Jesus and his followers took to go to Jerusalem for Passover was hardly naïve. They were entering a potentially explosive situation where it would have been difficult to ‘avoid getting seduced by the commotion of a crowd, take part in a riot, and possibly get injured or die’ (p.196). They may even have thought this Passover was when God’s kingdom would come.

The incident that led to Jesus’ trial and crucifixion – his overthrowing of the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of the dove sellers in the Jerusalem Temple – needs to be seen in this wider context. Rather than an isolated individual act, Crossley and Myles argue that it was more plausibly a collective one. Relying here on the research of others, they point to the Gospel of Mark’s account of Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. Mark reveals that Barabbas, the man chosen over Jesus to be pardoned by Pilate, was in prison ‘with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection’ (Mark 15:7; p.208).

This incidental reference to an ‘insurrection’ and a fatality puts the crucifixion in a different light, especially when we consider that Mark refers to Jesus being crucified between two ‘bandits’ or ‘insurrectionists’ (Luke changes this to ‘wrongdoers’ or ‘criminals’) (p.209). Was there an attempted insurrection in Jesus’ last week? Was he crucified between bandit-insurrectionists because he was one of them? And was this the ‘real reason’ he was ‘martyred on a Roman cross’ (p.223)?

Failed revolution

After Jesus’ death, Christianity became one of the world’s great religions. But otherwise nothing much changed. There was no imminent coming. The material hierarchies in Galilee were not reversed. The first and last remained first and last. The ‘millenarian manifesto of the Jesus movement’ ended in ‘a failed revolution’ (p.255).

It was now that the tensions between ‘opposing and contradictory forces’ (p.256) in the movement’s ideology came to the fore. Where the Gospels of Mark and Matthew had stressed the imminent coming of the ‘kingdom of God’ and the ‘kingdom of Heaven’, the Gospel of John removed virtually all such references, replacing them with the idea that Jesus’ ‘kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18.36, p.16). Not coincidentally, John relocated the Temple incident to the start of the story, making the immediate cause of Jesus’ crucifixion his miraculous resurrection of Lazarus. At the same time, the material temptations of its ‘mission to the rich’ laid the basis for ‘people of different social standings and competing class interests’ (p.256) joining. The result was a shift in focus from rural peasants to urban classes, as Christianity spread from city to city across the Roman Empire.

Ultimately, the original political bearings of the Jesus movement were reshaped to suit ruling-class ends. Yet its millenarian impulse and its revolutionary message were never completely lost. Christianity has justified oppressive hierarchies aplenty. But it has also justified resistance to them. This book does a very good job of showing us why.

i God Is Not Yet Dead (Penguin Books 1973) p.36.

ii Milan Mahoveč, A Marxist Looks at Jesus (Darton, Longman & Todd 1976) p.217. Mahoveč was directing this criticism at Karl Kautsky’s Foundations of Christianity (1908).

iii The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World from the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests (Cornell University Press 1981) p.427.

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Dragan Plavšić

Dragan Plavšić is a member of Counterfire in London and of Marks21 in Serbia. He jointly edited The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (2003).

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