How important was class struggle in the early Jesus movement?

Tim Murray writes: One of the pleasures of the last few weeks was the chance to review the collection of essays edited by Robert Myles, recently published under the title Class Struggle in the New Testament (Lexington/Fortress, 2019). In a publishing culture that increasingly values quantity of output over any discernible value or purpose, it refreshing to find the editor explicitly clear on the intentions of the volume: to “reinvigorate an exploration of class and class struggle within the study of the New Testament and its world,” arguing for the use of class, as a “significant analytical category in biblical studies” (page 2). The contributors attempt this from a broadly Marxian framework. Indeed, Myles strongly emphasises “class struggle” to signify the conflict inherent in economic and social reality, rather than allowing class to designate some kind of individual identity. Again, it is good to find him explicit about the real target of his monograph: neoliberalism and “capitalist realism in which liberal-democracy and capitalism are regarded as the only feasible political and economic systems” (8). He is also at pains to argue that such ideology is deeply embedded in biblical studies, both “constrained by it” and “generative of it” (9).

Such clarity is not as common as it should be and I’m grateful to Myles for putting his cards on the table from the opening paragraphs onward, especially as I too find myself disaffected by the neoliberal ideology he describes and feel deeply frustrated with ‘capitalist realism’. I resonate with his desire to ‘struggle’ against a system that perpetuates enormous injustice whilst insisting that there is no alternative.

But political and ideological sympathies are not enough – as Myles says, the aim is to demonstrate that class should serve as a significant analytical category in Biblical Studies and in my view, unfortunately, the overall contents of the volume fail to convince me. But before the critique, let me offer a bit more description to those less familiar with the field.

The essays vary in focus, although almost all of them spend more time on class analysis than exegesis of the New Testament. Chapters by Cadwallader, Zeichmann and Rollens focus primarily of thickening and nuancing our understanding of (various classes) in the world of the New Testament, focussing on peasants, soldiers and the ‘retainer class’ respectively. Those by Elliot, Myles, Worthington and Weaver are centred on New Testament texts or authors (the cleansing of the temple, the call of the fishermen-disciples, Matthew’s gospel and Paul’s language of gift). Other contributions by Walsh, Boer/Petterson and Galbraith pick up wider issues (understanding the literature of the gospels, slavery in early Christianity and the development of Archangels in second-temple Judaism). James Crossley offers a concluding chapter which serves as an epilogue, to which I will return. Despite such diversity, the whole volume shows the influence of three scholars in particular whose works are referenced again and again: the Marxist classicist G.E.M. de Ste Croix, Richard Horsely and James Crossley.

First, positively, in several of the chapters there is much to learn; I particularly valued the contribution of Zeichmann, whose discussion points out that it is erroneous to conceive of ‘Roman’ soldiers as actually Roman, that is, Latin speaking foreigners. The evidence Zeichmann produces demonstrates that this is not an accurate reconstruction, but the ‘Roman army’ was composed for the most part of men that were “not necessarily foreigners, let alone identifiably Roman” (56). He goes on to show how soldiers were primarily recruited from, and remained within, those in a marginal economic position. The chapter by Rollens was also a helpful corrective, reminding us that those of the ‘retainer class’, whilst usually seen as functioning the assert the dominance of the elite, could occupy a much more ambiguous role mediating power relations. Myles’ own chapter too shrewdly observes a number of unwarranted assumptions scholars have made that have controlled their reconstruction of the social location of Jesus’ fishermen-disciples.

The second positive is that this volume does serve to capture the state of class analysis in New Testament studies. Crossley notes in his concluding chapter, “the reception of this book should provide a good indication as to where the field is and the extent of what it is prepared to entertain in relation to class politics” (245).

Crossley might be right, but my suspicion is that any ‘indication’ of whether New Testament scholars are willing to entertain class analysis is likely to be hard to distinguish from their reception of the volume as a whole, because it is not simply class analysis that is present, but also exegesis, with its methodological and historical components. Unfortunately for the editor, it is here that the volume is at its weakest. At the risk of picking on one or two individual contributors, offering some examples seems necessary:

Neil Elliot’s chapter ‘Jesus, the Temple, and the Crowd’, examines the link between Jesus and ‘the crowd’ in the final week of his life, with particular attention to the temple incident. Elliot wants to argue that Jesus did not act alone in the temple, but the overturning of the tables was “the act of a crowd, as an act of riot” (39). A longer quotation captures his thrust:

Pilate did not crucify a politically innocuous Jesus in order to forestall the possibility that the crowds might, inaccurately and artificially, attach their nationalistic fervour to this figure. Rather, Pilate crucified Jesus because he was a leader among the troublesome crowds and an instigator of a significant public disturbance (38).

In order to argue his case Elliot recognises that he has to reject the narrative of the gospels, suggesting that “the way they diverge from this account is exactly what we should expect from apologetically motivated narratives.” Thus, Elliot claims that the gospel writers have systematically removed “any implication that Jesus and the crowds were of one mind” (38).

Thus, Mark’s claim in 15.7 that there had been an insurrection, along with Pilate’s custom of releasing a prisoner is probably “invented… out of thin air”; the change in the crowds view of Jesus, who acclaim him as messiah on his arrival into the city, yet call for Pilate to kill him only days later is, according to Elliot, “scarcely credible as history” (31). Matthew is particularly to blame for “inventing this fickle crowd” (29).

The problem is that as one reads the chapter it becomes clear that Elliot is arbitrarily selective of what parts of the gospels he wants to accept and which to be suspicious of. For example, he seems to want to take all the gospel references to ‘the crowds’ in the passion week as referring to the same group of people (so that he can claim their changeability is incredible), but is this really plausible, or might ‘the crowd’ have varied in how it was constituted? Similarly, Marks’ insurrection is invented for theological/apologetical reasons, but the title above Jesus head, King of the Jews, is a “solid historical datum” (39).

The fundamental problem is this: Elliot wants to argue that Jesus was the leader of violent mob action in a political (class) rebellion. However, none of our only sources of this event support his reading. The grid he uses to choose which gospel traditions to accept as authentic are, therefore, those that can be made to correlate with his thesis, whereas those which speak against it are dismissed as ‘apologetic’.

Other essays in the volume also dispense with the interpretation provided by the evangelists, from time to time, when they want to assert a reading which lacks evidence in the text. Myles addresses Peter’s claim that the disciples have “left everything” to follow Jesus (Mark 10.28). He reads Jesus’s response (which mentions persecutions) together with Mark 1.16 to say that the disciples did not ‘leave everything’ as a voluntary decision to follow Jesus “as an internal and individual decision of the heart” (131), but rather that they were “driven from their fields and households”; they have “’given up’ what little they do have as an alternative to the grim prospect of staying bridled within an equitable and exploitative political-economic system” (131).

As is probably becoming clear, many of the essays in this volume accept and rely on Richard Horsley’s reconstruction of the historical Jesus and take that as their starting point. Frustratingly, there is almost no engagement with the scholarship that critiques Horsley or raises serious critical questions: if Jesus was a peasant leader in a class struggle, why are the majority of his dealings in the gospels clearly not with the poor? Why are the issues that he teaches on so rarely focussed on the material needs of the poor? If this was his agenda, how does one explain why it is so little featured in all our early Christian literature? If the editor wants to convince me of this reconstruction of Jesus these are the meta-questions that must be answered, or at least acknowledged.

The lack of engagement with those who disagree is a repeated feature in the book. Moving on from the gospels, Taylor Weaver wants to read Paul as “disturbing social harmony by withdrawing or augmenting benefactive/gifting practices” (200). One example he gives is 1 Thessalonians 4.9-12, where Paul apparently is appealing to the church to withdraw from public affairs to undermine the patronage system that embeds class division. But Weaver cites only one scholar, whose study is 40 years old, showing no awareness of the vast scholarship on this text in the last couple of decades, most of which argues decisively against such a reading. Again, one is unlikely to be convinced when the main alternative interpretative options are not even mentioned.

All this leaves me somewhat frustrated. I am sympathetic to the political angle of the volume; I share many of the concerns of the editor; I am interested in Marxist analysis; I am open to being shown the value of class analysis in New Testament studies… but if I may be allowed to overstate the case a little, it seems (on the terms of this volume) that in order to do so I also have to accept one angle on the historical Jesus (one which I find unconvincing), I have to accept an arbitrarily suspicious historical-critical approach to the gospel texts and I have to take little interest in the scholarship that disagrees with the above two points (with some exceptions). Is it any surprise, then, that the accusation of ‘ideological bias’ made against the academy by Myles strikes one as pointing out the speck in a brother’s eye?

I imagine that the reception of this review, as with Myles’s collection of essays, will be largely controlled by these larger issues: how do we approach the New Testament texts? What is our reconstruction of Christian origins? What methodology is most appropriate both to history and to the New Testament? Is Richard Horsley right!? It does not seem to me that class analysishasto locate itself in only one quite restricted set of answers to these questions; unfortunately, that is the impression given by this volume.

As a postscript one may also reflect on an even more provocative issue this book raises. Myles and his fellow contributors clearly think that the New Testament has something to offer us as we address our own political and economic context—but what? Is it merely an ancient record capturing possible indicators of a temporally and geographically distant class struggle? Try as I might, I continue to struggle to see why we should care about class struggle (or much else) in the New Testament, if it does not have some kind of claim on us. If it is just a matter of historical interest, fine, but I think one could draw on better resources to address the problems raised by neoliberal capitalism. If, however, the New Testament is read as scripture, with some kind of authority invested in it, with some kind of claim to be meaningful for us today, then that is a different matter. To accept either of these presuppositions will lead to a different approach to the text and that is the final conundrum for this review: in this volume, Myles and his colleagues want us to consider that ‘class struggle in the NT’ has some meaning for us today—but they approach the texts with secular historical-critical presuppositions. Is this combination ever going to invigorate anyone into anything, for it begs the question of why we should care? To be fair to Myles, that issue is writ large over a huge among of New Testament scholarship and it is perhaps unfair to pick on this book. The issue, though, is surely unavoidable for the reader.

Dr Tim Murray completed his PhD in New Testament at the University of Nottingham supervised by Professor Roland Deines. He is now a staff elder at Amblecote Christian Centre near Stourbridge in the West Midlands.

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23 thoughts on “How important was class struggle in the early Jesus movement?”

  1. Oh, I really enjoyed this article (without wholly agreeing with it). One of the most interesting and thoughtful articles I’ve read on this site. Thank you to Tim.

    As someone from a privileged background, ‘class’ sometimes feels like a disqualifying identity, in the language and arguments of Marxism.

    I do believe class struggle is real, and I do believe class operates to help some people maintain their status and power, while keeping others at disadvantage.

    Fundamentally I believe in social justice, and the imperatives of community need: of the interests of the many and not just the few. (As a Shelley enthusiast, I very much identify with Jeremy Corbin’s chosen slogan.)

    Although communism as a historic practice has been repeatedly hijacked and abused, the values of communism are still deeply relevant in the world we live in today. If asked to describe my political identity and if I had to use a label, then I’d probably identify as communist.

    But when it comes, specifically, to class struggle – as I said above – I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having been born into privilege, and being acculturated through many of the networks and connections and social skills of privileged class.

    To then claim empathy or identification with, say, working class or proletariat… that is a push.

    One thing I do love about the gospel narratives is that Jesus seems to have been followed by, supported by, loved by, a mixture of people: the poor, the uneducated, the marginal, but also the wealthy and well-educated.

    This whole subject is really interesting, and thank you Tim for writing your article, and Ian for publishing it.

    I hope we explore this with as much energy as we apply to the endless squabbles over human sexuality.

    • Whatever the doctrine’s theoretically merits may be, I view communism as being utterly incompatible with human fallibility. Every single attempt to put it into practice has been a disaster for good reason.

      Going by results, the best system, by far, has proved to be mixed-economy capitalism, with the state encouraging a free market to spearhead innovation and economic dynamism, while simultaneously protecting its population from capitalism’s inherent ruthlessness.

      Perhaps there’s a better system, but if so, it can only be seriously considered when it’s proved that it can work in practice. Capitalism started organically: it’s replacement will have to do the same, and prove itself not by state diktat, but by popular support.

  2. Is there a difference between ‘Marxian’ and ‘Marxist’ or am I being pedantic?

    Thankfully I don’t suffer from ‘middle-class guilt’ having had a poor background; and having lived whilst the gulags and Stasi were operating I can’t see how the idea of ‘struggle’ can become anything other than oppressive authoritarianism. I would advise keeping church life apolitical. There are plenty of effective ministries targeting the poor which Christians can operate whatever their personal political views.

    • “Is there a difference between ‘Marxian’ and ‘Marxist’ or am I being pedantic?”

      Not that I’ve ever heard from an Academic, or read in a book on the subject of Marx. My opinion is that the distinction is a political one.

      The latter term, “Marxist” is frequently a pejorative, often used synonymously (falsely) with “Communist”, and labels the person so-accused sharing ideas not simply with Marx, but with the various other regimes and idealogies which have acted in his name. Note that the google definition of Marxist references Engels.

      The former term is more explicit. A “Marxian” idea is one found and derived explicitly from the works of Marx. I have never heard or read it used as a label or slur, only ever as a descriptive.

  3. ‘The problem is that as one reads the chapter it becomes clear that Elliot is arbitrarily selective of what parts of the gospels he wants to accept and which to be suspicious of. ‘

    – we see this time and again from atheists and others who want to present a ‘historical’ Jesus by conveniently ignoring large parts of the main source material we have about him. So we have multiple Jesus’s made in the images of multiple people, all vying to be the ‘historical’ one.

    • On the flipside, the best scholars reconstruct an historical Jesus that they’re profoundly uncomfortable with, such as the millenarian prophet who, in the 90s/early 00s, fought off the “Jesus of California” promoted by the Jesus Seminar.

      And it works both ways: for reasons of not only of biblical authority, but perilously deep theological waters that go to the nature of Christ himself, many devout Christians are profoundly uncomfortable with all the imminent eschatology found in the New Testament.

      To be fair, this Jesus is so alien from our post-Newtonian worldview that many liberals are left uneasy. Hence the stopover in California.

      • Jesus has always been profoundly uncomfortable. If your understanding of Him is not, you can be assured you have the wrong, unhistorical and unreal Jesus.

        As for imminent eschatology, I think that understanding comes more from some of the writers of the New Testament than Jesus Himself. It is telling that at the end of his Gospel, John had to clarify some of Jesus’ words about the end of life of one of His disciples. It reminds me of those who quote a single verse from a Gospel and assert, “There you go, Jesus said he was coming back to end the world within a few decades, and he didnt!”

  4. I guess the first thing I’d be curious to know, from anyone who has studied it, is: what was the class situation in society at the time of Jesus and in the towns and countries where he lived and travelled, and which groups and categories of people had power?

    For example, how powerful were the religious elites? Were there clans or types of people who had economic or land-linked power? With the overlay of Imperial authority, was there pressure on traditionally powerful groups? Was there any discernable difference in the class balance, between town and country? Were rabbis generally from an educated middle class? Was a carpenter’s family working class or skilled artisan and a bit wealthier?

    I know virtually none of this, and that’s before I move on to how Jesus interacted with diverse groups, or the impact, threat and challenge to power his ministry presented; and how the early Christians interpreted the teaching of Jesus in the way they regarded class, the status quo, and what these days we might call the ‘common weal’.

    Lots of things to reflect on. It’s an interesting topic. I love to try to visualise the kind of world Jesus walked in.

    And the issue of Christianity and social struggle is fascinating too.

    • From what I’ve read of 1st century Palestine in E.P. Sanders, Paula Fredriksen, etc, direct imperial authority was extremely limited, with Rome asserting herself either indirectly via vassal kings (think the various Herods), or, even where she nominally ruled directly (as in Judea when the Herodian Tetrarchy fell to bits around A.D. 6), via intermediaries such as the High Priest of the Temple. Sanders conjures up an image of small garrisons of Roman troops who were mobilized to deal with insurrection, but were usually confined to barracks, with day-to-day government delegated to local officials.

      As for wider class structures, going from memory, yes, carpenters and the like would’ve been skilled artisans, roughly what we’d think of as middle class, and definitely a minority, with opportunities far beyond those who worked on the land. As today, allowing for urban squalor, there’d be increased opportunities in cities, alongside what we’d call multiculturalism, such as Sepphoris, a city just a few miles from Nazareth in which Jews and Pagans mixed.

      Judaism of course placed particular emphasis on sacred words, so literacy may’ve been relatively higher amongst Jews than Gentiles (this much disputed, and is ultimately informed guesswork). I’m sure there were some rabbis from humble origins, but would expect most to come from middle and upper classes. Temple priesthood itself was hereditary and down to the lottery of birth.

      My picture of Jesus’ world is an agrarian society spotted with towns and cities — some Jewish, some a Hellenistic/Jewish hybrid — a socially stratified society with some extremely limited opportunities for class mobility, ruled either by vassal kings or Roman governors, but with little difference day-to-day, since locals were employed to do routine work like collect taxes and run what few municipal services there were. Religion would’ve been embedded in the fabric of daily life in a way few can conceive of in the contemporary West. I find it fascinating, but also know that I’ve barely scratched the surface in imagining what it was like.

    • While I cannot add much to James’ excellent summary of Sanders position, I would advocate for Kenneth Baileys work (Jesus through Middle Eastern eyes) as a good insight into the issues of class boundaries.

      Granted it was not written with this in mind, but the book does attempt to listen to the words of Jesus from differing perspectives within Jesus’ society, and reflect on them. Often the strength of Baileys work lies in the contrast between the social/class boundaries of the various characters. The story of the Syrophoenician woman is a good example.

    • There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about socio-economic stratification in the Empire (which is not *quite* the same as class structure, but is quite closely related to it).

      Three of the main protagonists on this have been Bruce Longenecker, Peter Oakes, and Stephen Friesen. I’d recommend Longenecker’s ‘Remember the Poor’ as a good way in; though it is a few years old, it offer a revision and critique of Friesen’s approach.

      Reviewed here:

  5. Excellent article & incisive criticisms, my thanks.

    Precisely because I’m a fan of the “historical-critical approach,” I’m alert to its pitfalls, principally the “Jesus of California” trap of “reconstructing” a Jesus in your own image. I always apply a simple test: is the historical Jesus presented utterly alien to his author and their values? (Call it “Jesus-against-interest.”) E.P. Sanders’ passes the test with flying colors: as he put it, he’s a liberal Protestant, and his historical Jesus really isn’t.

    Pro-Marxist Jesus fails miserably for the simple reason that a 1st century Jewish prophet didn’t think in such socio-political terms. Yes, Jesus of course recognized and denounced economic injustice, but his solutions were different in kind to those embraced by Marxism, a political doctrine that’s inherently atheistic: Jesus saw salvation not in some grand arc of historical materialism leading to revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat, but in divine intervention. Where Marxism’s (theoretically) ground-up, Jesus’ message is top-down. Yes, we must live lives of moral perfection and act justly in our daily affairs, but systemic justice comes from God, not Man.

    Unless scholars place theology at the center of Jesus’ teaching, instead of using it as a bolt-on to his supposed political program, they’ll keep making these fundamental errors.

  6. Nobody in the book argues for a “pro-Marxist Jesus”, so this is a nonsense critique. On the very first page of the book, in the preface, I write: “the task at hand is not simply to rescue Jesus or the various authors of the New Testament for modern day political aspirations. As we will see, the New Testament encodes a mixture of conflicting class perspectives”.

    Nor can I think of any contributor who assumes Horsley’s reconstruction of the historical Jesus as their starting point. In fact, several essayists, myself included, are critical of exactly this caricature of a supposedly “radical, Che Guevara” Jesus, which one may associate more with the scholarship of NT Wright or JD Crossan, than with those who seriously apply insights from Marxist literary criticism to the New Testament corpus.

    • To correct my original comment, that should’ve read “proto-Marxist,” but auto-correct did its thing and it flew under my radar, so apologies for that error.

      I was speaking generally, & working off the review, so I’m certainly making no claim that my pretty flippant description (revised or otherwise) is a fair summary the original work. 🙂

  7. I tend to avoid blogs and social media, and had no intention of adding to my review above (!), but since Robert Myles has commented I thought it might be helpful to comment just once and respond directly just to clarify a couple of things… so, Dr. Myles:

    First of all, I concede that the essays present a range of views of a range of topics – the danger of any review like this is too much ‘lumping together’ – a charge I may be guilty of. However, I did indeed read your introductory chapter and the sentence your cite. I don’t think I claimed your volume presented a ‘pro-marxist’ Jesus, but I would suggest that at numerous points I was presented with a ‘Jesus of the peasants leading a resistance against the Romans/Temple authorities/wealthy’. It was on these occasions that some of the questions I raised in my review came to the fore (essentially, is this really the case?). If you disagree I guess it is down to other readers to make up their own minds.

    Second, given your objections to my review, and James Crossley’s really fair and helpful response on your blog, I think it might be helpful for you to clarify what you’re hoping for from readers. It seemed to me that you do want to bring class analysis in the New Testament to bear on the current political context – hence your interesting discussion of neoliberalism and capitalist realism. So what was the main purpose of writing the book:
    1) Is it just to give us a better understanding of the world of the NT (i.e., to present the ‘class struggle’ that was the context in which these people lived and these texts were written)? If so, that’s fine, but how do you see that related to all your comments on the contemporary scene?
    2) If it is to suggest that key figures (Jesus/Paul) were engaged in leading movements that were actively class struggling (!) – which I suggest several essays do – then I’d push my exegesis questions – is this interpretation really supported by the evidence?
    3) If it is to further describe/articulate class analysis, using the texts of the New Testament as an arbitrary resource to do so, then again fair enough. But wouldn’t it be fair to say we could choose another set of texts/historical context that can do the job better?

    I know that in my review I’m pushing into bigger questions concerning New Testament studies, which you may feel is unfair, but I’d certainly be interested in your response to the above…


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