By Roland Boer
University of Newcastle
Religion and Theology
I have recently completed a couple of studies of someone largely and unjustly neglected in biblical criticism, namely Geoffrey Ernest Maurice (or G.E.M.) de Ste. Croix.1 A Marxist classicist, Ste. Croix produced three decades ago arguably the best study of ancient economics, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (Cornell University Press, 1981). In that text as well as in other published work, Ste. Croix has much to say about early Christianity, ranging from the Gospels to some delightful studies of the thuggery at key church councils such as that of Chalcedon.
Falling Away from Jesus
However, Ste. Croix manifests sharply a pervasive narrative device in biblical criticism that I would to call a “narrative of the Fall” (with full credits to Genesis 3). In Ste. Croix’s hands, it goes as follows: Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, may have trashed the Hellenistic codes of property, undermining moral, social and economic perceptions of goodness, beauty and worthiness, might even have told a terribly aristocratic and anti-democratic Plato to put a sock in it. Yet after Jesus, any rough edges were quickly smoothed down, the early church accommodated itself to society at large and eventually became the religion of state: betrayal, compromise – narrative of the Fall.
What is remarkable about this narrative is that Ste. Croix was no lover of Christianity. Although he was many things – school leaver at 15, erstwhile British Israelite, air-force pilot, tennis player (he defeated Fred Perry, the last great English tennis player, at Wimbledon in 1929), long-distance hiker, and classics scholar from the age of 40 – he found Christianity obnoxious, reactionary, and sexist. Yet he was willing to grant Jesus a somewhat revolutionary status. Not so his followers. Nevertheless, Ste. Croix reveals through his very outsider status to biblical criticism a distinct truth of that discipline – its tendency to deploy Fall narratives. These narratives convey a sense that the transition in question is a compromise in which the original ideals have been betrayed.
Indeed, a sizeable portion of biblical scholars argue, like Ste. Croix, that there is something radical about the records concerning Jesus (for example, Halvor Moxnes; Dale Martin; Richard Horsley; John Dominic Crossan; Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza). The catch is that once you grant this position, then you need to account for the way the church attained such grandeur and wealth within at most three centuries, the terminus ad quem being the (in)famous conversion of Constantine.
Drawing the Line
Within those three centuries, something happened to the Christian movement. It depends where one draws the line: did the Fall from a rebellious, proto-communist movement happen later or earlier. Some, like the Anabaptists and indeed Christian anarchists, argue that the Fall happened with that imperial conversion in 312 CE. Others place it progressively earlier. In the flood of current “empire studies,” the Fall happened somewhere in the second century. Although some note the ambivalences concerning attitudes to empire (e.g., Stephen Moore), the majority of these studies argue that much of the New Testament is anti-imperial, challenging the propaganda, religion, power and oppression of the Roman Empire. So if one agrees that the texts of the New Testament were written during the first and early second centuries, the Fall must have happened after they were written.
Others push the date earlier. It must come, it is argued, after the first Christian communities mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, where “all who believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:44; 4: 32-7). In order to make this argument, one has to make a significant leap of credulity to assume that this account in Acts provides evidence of a real historical practice. But if you do, then the Fall happens after these early communities, perhaps in the later first century.
Yet others want an earlier date still, locating it with Paul. A characteristic motif of liberal theology and biblical criticism from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century was that the change took place between Jesus and Paul. Jesus may have been the radical, but Paul is the great institutionaliser, the one who establishes new churches, puts down excesses (either legalism or libertarianism), and commands women and slaves to be subordinate (so Adolf von Harnack; William Wrede; Albert Schweitzer). In other words, the shift already takes place within the New Testament. If we add the point that Paul’s genuine letters (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon) are actually the earliest biblical texts in terms of when they were written, then the shift happens very early indeed – around the 40s and 50s. After all, Paul is the one who wrote gems such as “Let every person be subject to the ruling authorities” (Romans 13: 1).
Problems: Linearity, Christian Logic, and Biblical Criticism
The problems with such narratives of the Fall are legion, so I would like to focus on two or three such problems: it is far too linear, it partakes of a deep logic within Christianity, and it bedevils biblical criticism. Concerning linearity, it assumes some more or less pristine moment – at least the early circle around Jesus – that is subsequently lost. A far better and more realistic option in light of the biblical material is to identify contradictions that run through all this material. The linear narrative that Ste. Croix and so many others propose is in fact a way of ordering this messy material. Yes, there are texts that are quite radical and others that are decidedly reactionary – even in the sayings of Jesus! The Gospel narratives may have given rise to the movements of Christian communism and Christian anarchism, but one may also trace a line to the Inquisition.
As far as the deep logic of Christianity is concerned, this narrative of the Fall is but one manifestation of the drive of all reforming movements within Christianity: the corrupt and otiose present form of the church is a result of falling away from the initial moment; so we need to peel away the layers of tradition and corruption and return to that first moment. Monastic orders already in the fourth century operated on this basis, as did the perpetual movements in the Middle Ages seeking simplicity and a life imitating Christ (Augustinians, Benedictines, Cistercians, Franciscans, Beguines and so on), as did the Reformers such as Luther and Calvin, and as do so many groups today that break away from a mainstream church. The cycle is both perennial and yet self-defeating since the search for the mythical early model always falls short.
But we also see this narrative of the Fall operating in biblical interpretation, although at another level to what I outlined above. How often have we come across the claim that more than 2000 years of interpretation have obscured and distorted the true meaning of the text? It may be the search for the historical Jesus, queer readings, feminist interpretation, evangelical readings, or the claim to be doing simple “exegesis.” Who has not entertained the thought that their reading of, say, Genesis 1-3, or perhaps John 1, will provide a “true” interpretation that cuts away all the wayward efforts that have piled up over the millennia? The moment we entertain such a thought, even for a moment, we partake of that same narrative.
1 Roland Boer, Criticism of Theology: On Marxism and Theology III (Historical Materialism Book Series; Leiden: Brill, 2011), pp. 103-57, and “Marxism and the Spatial Analysis of Early Christianity: The Contribution of G.E.M. de Ste. Croix.” Religion, forthcoming.
I was one of Geoffrey's students in the 60s. We talked about the Athenian tax system and Demosthenes'demands, disastrously resisted by the propertied classes, for taxation in defence of democracy, still a kind of imperial democracy. We never discussed Jesus, but I'd have thought that the logic of his position would be that Jesus may have been a radical but he could not have been a democrat, democracy being incomprehensible in his time. The Christian movement would then have been doomed to develop along authoritarian lines and therefore to lose its radical impulse. Without the radical impulse irrational elements would have come to the fore and the rest is history.
#1 - Martin - 06/30/2011 - 21:43
He was not so much interested in whether jesus was a democrat, but in why the early church fell away from a radical position. It's that very narrative of a falling-away that is problematic. Is it not possible the seeds of that reactionary position may be found in the words put into Jesus' mouth by the gospel writers?
#2 - roland - 07/03/2011 - 08:22