Was Jesus a socialist? The answer, as I shall attempt to show, is that he was. But before I do so we must clarify what is meant by ‘socialism.’ It would be easier to start by pointing out what the socialism of Jesus was not.
Specifically, Jesus was not a Marxist. As he predated Marx by some 1,900 years, this should seem rather obvious. Nor was he a Bolshevik, a Trotskyite, or a Maoist. He did not belong to any socialist party and did not advocate social reforms through any political system. Jesus himself would not even have recognized the term ‘socialism’ as the term wasn’t coined until the early 1800s. But looking back through time we can see that when we strip them of their Pauline mythology, the authentic teachings of Jesus were the very embodiment of socialism. As the 19th century Christian Socialist, Etienne Cabet, put it, “Socialism is Christianity. It is pure Christianity, before it was corrupted by Catholicism."
So we can see what Jesus was not
, but what was Jesus for
that would qualify him as a socialist in our eyes? Jesus was for brotherhood, justice and equality. He was for the poor, and against their greedy and rich oppressors. He was for replacing the injustices and corruption of the marketplace with the kingdom of God, where “all who believed were together and had all things in common (Acts 2:44).” Jesus was for establishing a just and egalitarian kingdom of God in the here and now, in this world. Jesus was a social revolutionary and at the very heart of things he was a socialist. But the socialism of Jesus did not involve politics. It transcended politics. It was a withdrawal from the political systems of the time and the renunciation of their corrupting influence. Jesus said to “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” In other words, the kingdom of God could not be legislated into being through any political act or by any political party. It had to be built from the ground up by the people who had been filled with hope and uplifted by the social gospel of Jesus.
What justification do I have for these claims? Much of it is borne out by the bible itself. I will bring your attention to a few passages. We have the passage that I quoted earlier, Acts 2:44-47:
And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
This message is essentially repeated in Acts 4:32-35.This is socialism, pure and simple. They had all things in common. They distributed goods to any as they had need. It was an egalitarian and just society which did away with both worldly oppression and poverty. One can only wonder if the inspiration for Marx’s famous phrase, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”, came from these two bible passages. But it is the last sentence that is most interesting, “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” Those who were being saved.
This is not a salvation that exists beyond the grave. This is a salvation that is being actualized in the present tense. By divorcing themselves from the world around them and by building the kingdom of God by the sweat of their own brow, the people who followed Jesus’ message were participating in the realization of their own salvation.
The number of passages which convey a socialist message are too numerous to quote in their entirety, but I will highlight a few to drive the point home. We have James 5:1-6 where the rich are said to have miseries coming to them for exploiting their workers. Luke 1:49-53 where the hungry are filled with good things, while the rich are sent away empty. Matthew 19:16-24 where Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle that for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. James 2:14-17 where it is shown that pious thoughts are useless unless accompanied by works. Every good act is another step toward the realization of the kingdom. Matthew 25:31-46 in a very powerful passage makes clear that the kingdom is reserved for those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give drink to the thirsty. They shall inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world.
How closely does that passage mirror the sentiment of modern day socialists who proclaim that the new world shall be built on the ashes of the old? If you enjoy quoting scripture as much as I do then we could go on like this for many pages. But I will spare my readers and bring one final passage to light. Luke 16:19-31, the story of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man. “There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table.”
They both died and saw the tables had been turned. Lazarus is now comforted and the rich man is in torment. The rich man realizes it is too late for him, but as he has five brothers he beseeches Lazarus to act as a sort of biblical Jacob Marley and warn them to change their ways before they meet his fate.
I am sure that my esteemed opponent will point out many biblical verses that he will claim point to the opposite conclusion that I have reached. On the face of it the debate would seem to devolve into a battle of dueling verses, with me quoting a passage that says one thing and my opponent quoting a passage that appears to say the opposite. I shall try to stave off that type of scriptural tit for tat by demonstrating that not all bible verses are equally reliable. To accomplish this I shall reach outside the bible itself and into the realm of modern biblical scholarship. This is a field that has grown enormously in the last fifty years or so, spurred on by such magnificent discoveries such as the Nag Hammadi library, in 1945. Our knowledge of works like the Gospel of Thomas have profoundly altered our understanding of how the bible came to be written and how early Christian theology evolved and it has overturned many previously held misconceptions.
It has become increasingly apparent to the impartial observer that the Christianity adopted by the Emperor Constantine was substantially different from the Christianity preached by Jesus. It had gone from being an antiestablishment religion of the poor and the oppressed to being the official state religion of the the rich oppressors. The church hierarchy paid lip service to Jesus’ social gospel while they worked feverishly to augment their own temporal power and fill their coffers. It became a religion that Jesus would scarcely recognize. Christianity was less concerned with what Jesus had to say
as it was with the building up an increasingly elaborate mythology over the personhood of Jesus himself. They worshipped the man but forgot the message. We can see this process in action within the bible itself. If we compare the various accounts of the supposed resurrection, for example, we can see the mythology building up over time. If we compare the accounts of the resurrection chronologically, from Paul’s writings, to Mark, to Matthew and Luke, to John, we see that each version becomes more and more elaborate. Each version is more and more “fantastic” than the previous one. We can clearly see that the early Christian writers were inventing and expanding on the story of the resurrection over several decades. We go from the earliest Jewish-Christian sect like the Ebionites, who did not believe in the resurrection, to a full fledged mythology of Jesus’ divinity and atoning resurrection. Most of this occurred during the oral period of Christian history, before any of the books of the bible were written (around 30 CE to the mid 50s).
Undermining the reliability of the bible might seem to be a paradoxical strategy. If my opponent’s choice of verses cannot be trusted, then why should any of mine? Once again we turn to the abundant research of modern biblical scholarship. In particular, we will look at the research into what is known as the “Q gospel.” If we can see how Christian mythology expanded as time went on, it would stand to reason that the earlier a particular work was written, the more likely it is to be free from such embellishments. The Q gospel (although still hypothetical) would be such a work. Briefly, if we compare the passages from Matthew and Luke, we can see that they each used Mark as a common source. They also have a number of passages in common that did not come from Mark. In a theory that is gaining greater and greater acceptance, we can see that this lost text would be the Q gospel (the Q is German for ‘quelle’ which means ‘source&rsquo
. If this lost Q gospel could be found, or reconstructed
, it would be the closest writing we have to the actual Jesus. Thanks to the research of the Jesus Seminar, we now have a pretty good idea of what the Q gospel looked like.