[Marxism] Which prophets really existed ?

Wythe Holt jr. wholt at law.ua.edu
Sat Sep 22 10:28:14 MDT 2012

Re: Which prophets really existed ?
Rule #1: YOU MUST clip all extraneous text when replying to a message.
As to these figures, their existence would certainly not have left on
the historical record the kind of impact it would leave today . . .
Rather we should ask how much of a mark a real personage would have
left compared to what these figures did.  By this measure, I don't see
what makes their existence doubtful, though, most assuredly their
followers would promote the cause by attaching to it a lot more of
those recognizably traditional divine attributes.  In the end, any
such figure from the past would remain central to a society only by
being turned into an icon of virtuous subservience.


Response of WH: With respect to Jesus, there is some contemporaneous evidence of his existence.  The work of Marxist historian Richard A. Horsley should be consulted; I especially recommend "Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs", "In the Shadow of Empire," and "Covenant Economics."  Jesus makes sense, from what Horsley has found, NOT as the prophet of some new religion, but as one of many Jewish peasants (and bourgeois) in the period ca. 100 BCE - 70 CE who were upset at the Grecization and then Romanization of Palestine and the concomitant enrichment of a few highfalutin families of Jews who went over to the conquerors' cultures and lifestyles.  

Jews were mostly peasant farmers (though by 70 CE their full identity as "Jews" was not yet established) and the core of Jesus's message, according to this interpretation (which I think very plausible), was to rally in a nonviolent fashion all of his fellow peasants who had been hard hurt, or even worse dispossessed from the farms which they believed Jehovah had covenanted with them and with each family of Jewish peasants to hold in perpetuity (with the 7-year and 50-year jubilees designed to get rid of intervening debts and restore them to full ownership of their land every so often).  Jesus was thus a rural radical peasant reformer -- but his reform was only to return to the covenant that god had made with his people, to restore the proper pattern of land distribution under that covenant, and to oppose and claim to be illegal the Roman/elite Hebrew ruling alliance -- not to found some new religion.  

All of this does to me seem consistent with two apparent facts about Jesus.  First, neither he nor his father (nor the rest of his family) is ever described in the Gospels or in Acts as being farmers.  Rather, Joseph (Jesus's father) is described as a "tekton," a Greek word usually mistranslated by the true-believer translators as "carpenter" but much better translated as "handyman; farm laborer".  A "carpenter" would have been a respected artisan, whereas a landless, roving "handyman" would have been at the very bottom of the local social scale.

In other words, Jesus's family was among those dispossessed from their traditional plots of land by the Roman invasion and the consequent imposition of a third harsh layer of taxation (after those paid to the temple and to Jewish elites).  Herod the Great, the Roman client king of Judea and a (non-Jewish; he was Nabatean) great oppressor of the Hebrew population, built two new capital cities for himself and for the stationing of Roman troops, one of them (Tiberias, named for the Emperor after Augustus) being only 7 miles from Nazareth where Jesus grew up.  Tiberias, built at great and backbreaking expense from local corvee labor, was likely a place at which Joseph would have slaved away during the construction.

The second fact that is important is that Jesus was crucified.  Crucifixion was a harsh and very public penalty, reserved by the Romans for those who rebelled against their power and authority.  A mere proponent of a new sort of religion probably would not have faced crucifixion, but Jesus was convicted of being a wanna-be "king," that is, of setting himself up in opposition to the Roman tyranny.  His social ministry, preaching a return to the covenant, a restoration of peasant land, and clear if nonviolent opposition to Jewish and Roman elites who did not want any such results to occur, would in this interpretation have been a real thorn in the Roman side.  Horsley shows how OTHER local rebels against the Herodian/Roman ascendancy -- some of them ALSO named "Jesus," or really "Joshua" -- were treated by the overlords when they were captured, always death by public execution.  This probably explains why Jesus's companions melted away upon his arrest, and his tomb was visited by the womenfolk in his entourage -- they were also guilty of treason in the Roman eyes.

Wythe Holt

Send list submissions to: Marxism at greenhouse.economics.utah.edu
Set your options at: http://greenhouse.economics.utah.edu/mailman/options/marxism/wholt%40law.ua.edu

More information about the Marxism mailing list