The politics of the early Christians


Review by Brian Reeves

Jesus the Man (Doubleday, 1992, 624 pp., $15.95)
Jesus of the Apocalypse: The Life of Jesus After the Crucifixion (Doubleday, 1995, 462 pp., $15.95)
The Book That Jesus Wrote (Doubleday, 1998, 362 pp., $29.95)
By Barbara Thiering

Christmas is one of the bizarre and depressing aspects of late capitalism and continues to be a central focus of many people's lives every year. With its alleged message of "good will to all men" (sic), it is all too often the opposite — the ritual of family visits, exchanges of gifts, trauma and pain!

This Christmas, a major publisher has reissued the books of the bible, complete with introductions by various celebrities. An antidote to the banality of the literal meaning of Christmas is to sit down with one of Barbara Thiering's many books on interpretations of the gospels.

Thiering is a Sydney-based academic and theologian who has put together a convincing and radically new interpretation of the gospel events, and the political context and factions that are at their roots.

Her books are of interest to Marxists because they illuminate the political nature of early Christianity and call into question some established interpretations. Each book contains historical and empirical interpretations that tear apart the "supernatural" mainstream version.

There are a number of aspects to Thiering's argument. An important part of it is derived from evidence contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Discovered in the 1940s, the scrolls contain writings of the Essenes, one of the main religious-political groups in Judea in the last century BC.

Thiering noticed that there were extraordinary similarities between the events depicted by the Essenes and the early Christians. Using the "pesher technique" — a method in ancient Judea of concealing the real meaning of texts — she unravels both the scrolls and the gospels.

The story that emerges is compelling. After the Roman annexation of Judea, the local royal family, the Herods, developed an elaborate scheme to extract tribute from Judean and diaspora Jews. They hooked up with the Essenes, supporters of the old David dynasty, which was exiled at Qumran near the Dead Sea, and developed a religious ideology based on prophecy.

The core of the prophecy was that a Jewish empire would replace Roman rule. The Essenes provided the ideas and rationale for people to send in their shekels to buy their entry into the new empire.

However, the Essenes were politically divided over who could be members. An "eastern faction" was opposed by a more liberal western faction. They were, in turn, divided between those who supported and opposed military revolt against the Romans.

Jesus was born in this context. He was the natural child of Joseph (a descendant of the Davids) and Mary (who was a virgin in the sense that she was a nun, and had got it on with Joseph before the completion of the sanctioned processes of their wedding).

Interpreting the pesher codes in both the gospels and scrolls, Thiering goes on to demonstrate how the events described in them occurred mostly in the monastery at Qumran — the "new Jerusalem".

Jesus became a leader of the more liberal and "peaceful" western faction, and upset people by assuming the role of both high priest and future king. Each faction played for the patronage of the Herodian dynasty. It all culminated in the crucifixion of Jesus.

Jesus did not die on the cross. He survived and went on to supervise the founding of a new mission. His alleged "resurrection" from death marked the beginning of the gospel myth.

Jesus the man went on to live until about 70 AD and supervised the writing of the gospels according to the pesher code. Thiering's latest book, The Book That Jesus Wrote, examines this. Her Jesus of the Apocalypse debunks the myths of the Book of Revelations. The latter's lurid imagery conceals another version of the early church's emergence.

Each volume contains sections outlining her methodology. These correlate dates and measurements given in the original texts of the scrolls and the gospels. Unlike some other recent attempts to uncover the "historical Jesus", the method is rigorous, and there is no corny new-age mysticism.

It remains curious that the ideology of a set of politico-religious factions in the kingdom Of Judea would later become the main intellectual currency of the Graeco-Roman world under Constantine. Thiering's work suggests that this began to occur in the first century BC because of the Herods' network and closeness with key families in Rome.

Engels and Kautsky's discussion of the origins of Christianity as a millennial movement of the oppressed may not be entirely accurate. It was, perhaps, more likely that sections of the Roman ruling class liked the Christian religion's fusion of Greek and Jewish thought, which was a further progression from the Essenes. Perhaps this is also why Nero and other emperors' persecution of the Christians never succeeded in wiping out the religion.

Perhaps the militant eastern faction of the Essenes, which was later wiped out by the Romans, expressed more of a longing for liberation from Roman rule.

Thiering's outlook as a theologian means that she does not draw consistent materialist conclusions. She sees Jesus as some kind of teacher of ethical purity through his doctrine of acquiescence in Roman domination.

Thus she sees the church as continuing to preach his message of peace. In fact, it is a message of passive acceptance of oppression.

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