Sweeping, one-sided generalizations are not exactly hard to come by. In Canada our politicians regularly sound off indiscriminately on subjects which, simply put, cannot be adequately addressed in a pithy phrase or soundbite. Even if we understand that certain issues are incredibly complex, however, democratic-representative politics in the twenty-first century frequently seems to demand ready-made, often merely symbolic answers to pressing questions. For their part, pundits and editorialists offer us what are at best uneven insights in their weekly summary judgments. Then there is the relatively harmless use to which each of us put generalizations on a daily basis. Without being too terribly concerned by their justification, we employ them for a whole host of reasons. We often try to convey something quickly to someone we trust to understand our meaning. In these instances nuance isn’t really needed. But if generalizations are useful, sometimes harmless, or even necessary, that is not to excuse their excesses. Many are injuriously imprecise and deserve to be disdained. Perhaps especially in politics, and certainly no less in scholarship, all should be stringently scrutinized. For as Cicero noted long ago (De divinatione) and Descartes saw fit to repeat after him (Discours de la methode), there is nothing so absurde or étrange that a philosopher has not said it.
Take N. T. Wright, a scholar from whom I have learned a great deal. There is at times what I would call a distorting imbalance between the care he shows to his own subject, the New Testament and its world, and the short shrift he gives to other periods and topics, such as the European Enlightenment. He has published thousands and thousands of pages on early Christianity in volumes which, when held together, would be too heavy for any normal person to carry at once. His erudition is equal parts effortless and back-breaking. Whereas Jesus and Paul are treated with subtlety and sophistication, and upon which Wright rightly makes several types of considered generalization, the Enlightenment barely warrants a throw-away line here or there. In the case I’ve just cited he wants to make an important distinction: namely, that an Enlightenment understanding of personal embodiment needs to be bracketed if we’re to grasp the conception of resurrection in the New Testament. Now, quite aside from any questions about this equation, i.e. the notion that modern subjectivity can be adequately adumbrated by referring to the Enlightenment alone, it goes without saying that his book is about the New Testament and not eighteenth-century European thought. Nevertheless, by choosing to employ this historical contrast he does open himself up to a critical rejoinder. Is his comparison accurate? And just as importantly: Why do the New Testament and its world automatically get all the critical sympathy? Why not Baruch Spinoza, Voltaire, or Immanuel Kant? Would Wright be happy if a scholar of the Enlightenment made a generalization for purposes of comparison with the New Testament in order to demonstrate the force of, say, David Hume’s argument against miracles? I rather doubt it. To put the matter a little differently, is it not also possible that there are forms of contemporary Christian understanding that might get in the way of seeing le siècle des Lumières properly? Indeed there are. How then should we choose between the orientation on offer from different historical periods? Why should I take my cue from the New Testament world rather than, oh I don’t know, Giambattista Vico or Alexis de Tocqueville?
If Wright has an equivalent in the world of Enlightenment scholarship, that person is the historian Jonathan Israel. Both men have written impossibly hefty tomes on their favoured subject. Whereas Wright pleads for a careful understanding of Jesus, the apostle Paul, and the early Christian movement, Israel makes the case for the gospel of Spinoza, his disciples (Spinozists), and their movement (Spinozism). Like Wright, Israel equates his subject of study with what he clearly regards as the most important part of history: the radical Enlightenment. And again like Wright, Israel has written a short, more popular abridgement of his tale in order to give his interpretation a wider hearing among the general public. Evidently he feels this is a firm position from which to criticize rival views in a rather superficial fashion—at least when compared with the unending analytical detail Spinoza and Spinozists apparently warrant. At the end of Enlightenment Contested, for instance, Israel forcefully asserts that the philosopher Charles Taylor gets the radical Enlightenment all wrong. Although Israel provides more than a fuzzy generalization, his reply to Taylor’s historical-philosophical position shares some of the weaknesses to which generalizations are frequently prone: it skips along the surface of the position it criticizes, barely addressing the scope, depth, and content of Taylor’s œuvre, not to mention the fact that it does not squarely address the rival philosophical methodology being employed. Both Wright and Israel plead for their own historical subject at staggering length while effectively trying silence all alternative views under an unending avalanche of words. Setting aside the substance of their work—which, again, I do indeed value and think merits thoughtful consideration—on a psychological and ideological level something more than mere scholarship is going on here.
There appears to be a correlation between the self-confidence authors such as Wright and Israel gain from treating their own subject with exhaustive—not to say exhausting—attention and the ease with which they issue inaccurate generalizations about others of which they are suspicious or dismissive. Which brings me to an unrelated instance of a similar phenomenon and the main subject of this essay. On the first page of Marx and Marxism (2018) Gregory Claeys makes the following statement: “unlike Christ, [Marx] was never content only to console the poor: he wanted, more ambitiously, to end poverty instead, and thus the need for consolation.” Here we have a Marxist scholar of Marx more or less endorsing Marx’s own blinkered view of religion as an “opiate.” Like Wright and Israel, Claeys offers a sympathetic and stimulating interpretation of his subject. His book is succinctly written, often thoughtful, and well worth the read. However, as my citation suggests, he accords neither the subject of religion nor the person of Jesus Christ anything like the same attention he gives to Marx and Marx’s context. Contrasting Marx as secular political revolutionary to Jesus as religious apolitical sage sidelines Jesus as a model for full human freedom because he purportedly didn’t recognize the Marxist truth that the all-rounded, equal development of each person is inescapably political. Given that Claeys can barely bring himself to write the word theology, let alone try to understand it sympathetically, there’s little doubt about the seriousness with which he treats such matters. And even when he is critical of Marx for being inattentive to forms of oppression other than those based on class, such as gender or race, he never deigns to include religion.
A moment’s consideration demonstrates the immense imbalance of Claey’s ill-conceived generalization. He has written a book on Marx’s life and the development of his thought, situating it carefully in multiple contexts, including the context which Claeys knows a great deal about, Owenism. At the end of the day, though, the subject of religion does not play a very big role his account. The explication of Marx’s thought which it provides is in no way dependent on the superficial statement with which it begins. In fact Claeys does not even spend a great deal of time on what Marxist cultural criticism might entail (though he has a brief section on the Frankfurt School), including criticism of religion. Instead, religion and Jesus Christ are dismissed as subjects about which Marx was more or less right, apparently with little more needing to be said. Nowhere does Claeys suggest that higher criticism of the Bible or the philosophy of religion in early-nineteenth-century Germany might itself be put in context. As Peter Harrison has recently shown in The Territories of Science and Religion (2016), reinforcing what Brent Nongbri concludes in Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (2013), the understanding of religion had undergone a series of major transformations from antiquity to Marx’s day. Marx approached religion largely in Feuerbachian terms, as a distorted system of beliefs projected outwards from humanity’s subjective nature that accorded roughly with its historical stage of social structure (agrarian, feudal, capitalist, etc.). Yet in the New Testament, the church fathers, in Thomas Aquinas, and right up to the Reformation, religio is regarded as a habit or practice of inner piety which, yes, brings a measure of tranquility, but more importantly is a kind of discipline that trains one to comprehend the truth. The emphasis of religion-as-practice in the pre-modern world was on cultivating a disposition which aimed at right living, and in that sense it was like Greek philosophy, both natural and metaphysical. For most of human history religion was therefore not an external, reified, mystifying system of doctrines to which one subscribed for consolation. Given Marx’s impatience with much of Hegel’s metaphysics, let alone his inversion of the speculative method, he did not and perhaps could not give sufficient room to such considerations—Claeys merely follows suit. But this puts the latter’s jejune jibe about Jesus in proper light. For we can then see that it creates a needlessly misleading antithesis between Marxism and religion—though that isn’t to say that the relationship between Marxism and religion is straightforward or evidently harmonious.
With the subtlety of a sledgehammer, Claeys asserts that all Jesus wanted to do was console the poor. Apparently Jesus had no political ambition or plan to end poverty. Since no evidence or interpretive support is given for either of these points, Claeys must regard them as so obviously true as to require no further comment. He trusts that his readers will simply nod their head in agreement. But consider the disparity further. Would he be satisfied if someone dismissed Marx based solely on the murkiness of the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” and the horrible Leninst abuses to which it has been put? Obviously not. And I think he would be right to be dissatisfied. Nonetheless, he depicts Marx as the self-aware, critical hero who was never so weak or feeble-minded as to offer the suffering mere consolation; no, no, for all of his faults at least Marx was ambitious, creative, revolutionary—swoon. Thus for him Jesus is kind of pathetic, an also-ran who was content to administer the fleeting balm of consolation, a way of managing the symptom of poverty without ever bothering with its underlying causes.
If Marx haughtily shut rivals down because he thought their ideas wrong or vague, a rather egregious moral failing for a communist committed to democratic equality, as several biographers note, it would seem that his arrogance got in the way of genuine self-criticism and, I would add, self-clarity. In fact Claeys himself makes this point. But it really should have given him much greater pause. For in his framing statement about Jesus Claeys is either choosing to ignore decades and decades worth of historical scholarship, in which the political implications of Jesus’s mission have frequently been highlighted, or he reveals his complete ignorance of it; he is either choosing to ignore decades and decades worth of theological work on the connection between Christianity and social and political liberation, or he reveals his complete ignorance of it.
I have been focusing on Claeys so far, but he is by no means alone among recent commentators. In another introduction to Marx, Terry Carver cites chapter and verse to make a similar point: ““the poor you will always have with you” (Mark 14:7; Matthew 26:11; John 12:8.)”. That these verses have been used in oppressive ways in Christian history is indisputable. Even so, it’s a massive mistake to privilege this fact to the complete exclusion of the ways in which Christian scriptures and traditions could be used in quite radical ways too—think of the Levellers in seventeenth-century England. Basically, the same general point holds for Carver as for Claeys. In his introduction Carver pleads repeatedly and rightly for a keen sensitivity to Marx’s rhetorical aims and his political activities. Such an approach understands Marx by attending as much to what he did as to what he said, shifting the emphasis away from his “great works” alone. Doing intellectual history along these lines is indeed laudable—it’s just that I think we should extend it much more evenhandedly to both Marx and to Jesus. Or, to cite one of Marx’s copious criticisms of bourgeois political economy, which is really something borrowed from Hegel’s dialectic, Claeys and Carver are being “one-sided and inadequate.” Reading the Gospels with an eye to what Jesus did as much as what he said provides an infinitely more subtle and substantive political picture than the facile tactic of cherry-picking one verse out of many, as if resting content with the conventional reading somehow bolsters one’s Marxist bona fides.
A word about proof-texting to start. Although Claeys and Carver are right to refer to Mark 14:7 as the type of verse used to reinforce social and political hierarchy in Christendom, it is an egregious error to leave matters there. Consider how Marx at his best proceeds. When he criticizes Adam Smith’s account of profit he does not merely cite a line or two as if the logic of his thinking was patently wrong on the face of it. That would have been woefully inadequate given the prevalence of laissez-faire thinking at the time. No, as anyone who has read Capital with any adequate level of attention knows, Marx deploys the full range of his philosophical powers to try and demonstrate that Smith’s theory doesn’t make full sense of commercial society. It is “one-sided and inadequate,” so to speak. Marx is of course far from sympathetic to the great philosopher of sympathy. Nevertheless, I think it’s fair to say that he aims to get Smith’s account right, grosso modo. The historical-materialist dialectician explicates Enlightenment political economy by subjecting it to the focused light of his own encompassing perspective. This is to take a Hegelian approach to rival perspectives, incorporating them into a more philosophically comprehensive account. Although there are certainly grounds on which to criticize Marx’s interpretation of Smith, the Physiocrats, or David Ricardo, at his strongest he attempts to grasp their thought fully, to reveal its internal limitations and weaknesses, and in so doing to appropriate and move beyond it. I am not saying that Marx was always right or fair-minded, either towards German philosophy (e.g. Hegel) or French socialism (e.g. Proudhon) or British political economy (e.g. Mill). He wasn’t. He knew how to make polemical, rollicking, rhetorically sharp remarks as well as anyone. And since he was convinced of the justice of his cause, he believed himself vindicated in so doing. But when Claeys and Carver refer to Mark 14:7 alone, far from invoking the potency of Marx’s prose, their reference recalls instead the petulant pleas of biblical literalists.
And in any case even a straightforward reading of the Gospel of Mark raises deep and unanswerable questions about the mystifying framing with which Claeys starts his book and Carver sets up his citation. Let me quickly sketch the relevant biblical episode here before taking a wide-angle and then a close-up view. First of all, the verse in which Jesus makes the comment about “the poor” is not some free-floating saying. The key background feature to note is Passover (14:1). It is absolutely central to keep this in mind because Passover is the communal celebration of God’s deliverance of Israel from imperial bondage in Egypt. An indisputable connection is being drawn here to subsequent subjugation under Rome. The leader of the exodus, as the Israelites knew from popular oral tradition, from liturgical celebration, and from scripture, was Moses. As we will see below, and as virtually every recent commentary on the Gospel of Mark indicates, Jesus is explicitly linked with Moses in multiple and significant ways. In chapter 14 the chief priests and Pharisees—who are repeatedly depicted as intermediaries and collaborators with imperial Roman rule—fear that Passover may spark a Moses-like form political resistance, even a possible uprising (14:2). Without very much work at all, in other words, and having paid only the slightest attention to the story Mark itself tells, we can begin to see that the narrative context of the verse Claeys and Carver have in mind depicts Jesus as someone who could motivate the people to undertake another exodus from political bondage and social servitude. Does it still seem so obviously plausible to depict Jesus as apolitical or merely consolatory with respect to the poor? And just to be clear, the social movement Jesus led, including the threat of popular political resistance it entailed, was no mere theoretical possibility. We know from independent sources such as Josephus that the people of Israel did indeed revolt—e.g. upon Herod the Great’s death in 4 BC—precisely because of the harsh depredations of Roman occupation.
Now, this vignette doesn’t answer the question at the heart of Claeys and Carver’s rather tired objection. Even if I think it’s historically clear that Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels as peasant community leader whose charismatic ministry can be characterized as offering good news (gospel) to the poor, in both word and deed—in keeping with the emancipatory ethos of popular Israelite covenantal tradition—how are we to make sense of that seemingly tricky verse? It appears to take the poor for granted as a naturally existing species. In fact, though, the burden of proof is on those who assume we can lift Jesus’ words from their narrative and historical setting and still make good sense of them. It is only by reading and citing Mark 14:7 in isolation, as if it were some stand-alone pericope or in keeping with the longstanding assumptions of elite power in Christendom, that it is possible to see Jesus as explicitly ignoring what Marx and his contemporaries called “the social question.” If we no longer read history solely according to the social outlook of the powerful, having rightly taken our cue from Marx and Antonio Gramsci and E. P. Thompson and many others, why should we continue to do so with respect to early Christianity? So let’s zoom out and consider the social and political context for Mark’s Gospel.
In Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel (2001), Richard Horsley insists that Mark’s narrative is addressed to the oppressed people of a subject nation. That is the political and social backdrop to the Gospel’s origins. Israel is a subject nation in a relatively unimportant part of the Roman empire. The people of Israel had been conquered by Rome, they were now ruled by Roman appointees and Jewish leaders in cooperation with Rome, they had been violently repressed whenever they offered any kind of resistance to this rule, and they were heavily taxed by the combined rule of Rome, Rome’s appointed intermediaries, and the temple-state. When speaking of “the people” it needs to be remembered that ancient Israel was an agrarian society, the vast majority of which (~90%) was made up of peasants eeking out a subsistence life. It is among such people that the Gospel of Mark shows Jesus in action. And who is it that would have born the burden of Roman, Jewish, and temple taxation? Those same peasants. Tribute was due to Rome, taxes were due to Roman rulers or their surrogates (like Herod Antipas), and there were tithes to pay to the temple establishment. This is a situation of harsh socio-economic exploitation. Such oppression compounded the precariousness of ancient agricultural life, enabling the all-too-common practices by which the already-wealthy and powerful consolidate their position further by pushing families into debt or off their ancestral lands—which explains some of the parables Jesus chose to tell, such as tenants working for absentee landlords (12:1-12).
If Roman imperial domination is a major factor of the political reality in the background to the story of the Gospel of Mark, so too is the remembered history of political domination of Israel by foreign imperial powers. As previously noted, the links between Jesus as leader of an emancipatory social movement and Moses as the ancestral leader of Israel’s original liberation are fairly clear and quite frequent—40 days in the wilderness (1:13), the leader as healer (passim), the provision of food for the people in the desert (6:30-44, 8:1-9), leading all of Israel to freedom, fairness, and fullness (the 12 disciples; 3:13-19, 6:7-13), and so on. To Moses can be added Elijah, a major prophet who led a campaign of covenantal renewal that was in keeping with the Sinai code and its emancipatory institution. In the Gospel of Mark these two links are most clearly signalled in the transfiguration (9:2-8)—which takes place on a mountain in the presence of God’s spirit, just like the Sinai covenant. But one needs to know the remembered tradition in which Moses descended from Sinai similarly transfigured (Exod 34:33) to catch this and many other allusions. These are connections that an attentively educated reading of the Bible can yield. Yet it would seem that even otherwise careful scholars can miss or ignore such vital links (if they bother to read the Gospels at all). In sum, the Gospel of Mark links Jesus explicitly and implicitly to these past movements of political-religious liberation from foreign domination, restoring the covenant and thus just social relations to the people, most of whom were poor peasants. That is an essential element of the “good news” announced at the start of the story. Jesus is audaciously linked to the closest intimacy with God—even closer than Moses and Elijah—and he is associated with John the Baptist’s movement of covenantal renewal and its proclamation of emancipatory judgment.
Since we are attempting to grasp the significance of what Jesus says about the poor in Mark 14:7, I would also like to emphasize another relevant feature of the Gospel, namely, that it is a story of “good news” for poor peasants and, in a manner of speaking, it is a story by poor peasants. Scholars such as Horsley argue that the text as we have it now, in written (Greek) form, is probably based on an orally performed story which preceded it. This previously-existing performed narrative was itself a work of configuration combining remembered teachings, sayings, and activities of a charismatic peasant leader, Jesus of Nazareth. In that sense the Gospel is unlike most ancient literature, which is by, for, and about the socially and politically powerful—think of Augustus’ Res gestae or even Trajan’s Column. It would be no great exaggeration to describe the Gospel of Mark as a counter-narrative of imperial power, presenting readers and listeners with the “great things” (res gestae) or “triumph” accomplished by a lowly peasant leader and the movement he initiated. This is an astonishing fact. The Gospel of Mark originated in a message and movement that addressed itself to the poor, the oppressed, the marginal. Horsley maintains that it was probably first recited in village assemblies (ekklesia) as a continuation of the covenantal movement re-inaugurated by Jesus. All of which seems to stand at odds with the words uttered by Jesus in Mark 14:7.
In the setup to v. 7, however, we learn that two liturgical festivals are happening in Jerusalem: Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread. We also learn that the chief priests and teachers of the law are scheming to have Jesus arrested because they fear an uprising among the people. Yet for the very same reason they don’t wish to act during the festival. Jesus, meanwhile, is in the village of Bethany. There a woman breaks a jar of perfume and pours it over him (14:3). Although the male disciples rebuke her, Jesus praises her and chastises them instead (14:5-6). Next comes our verse. Given Jesus’ citation of the Shema and other conventional scriptural teachings elsewhere in Mark, almost certainly in their oral form, it is more than reasonable to assume that at v. 7 he is referring to a version of Deuteronomy 15:11, which is itself a part of the Pentateuchal covenantal codes : “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” With all of this as background and tacit knowledge, Jesus’ words cannot be construed as an act of complacency towards the poor or as merely consolatory. Since he is echoing the legal-holiness-justice teaching found in Deuteronomy, and given the wider context of Mark and its narrative “from below” as I have sketched it, it is much more likely an exhortation, a call for solidarity with and fairness towards those living a precarious agricultural existence under imperial subjugation. Jesus’ words are part and parcel of the overall proclamation of the “good news” of God’s basileia, his realm, his “commonwealth.”
Moreover, when read with historical and literary judgment, v. 7 is properly seen as an element belonging to the plot, not an immutable prescription. The start of chapter 14 initiates the Passion narrative. That too is absolutely central to keep in mind when interpreting the words and deeds in this episode. There is a literary setting in which this saying fits, making it partial and misleading on multiple levels to lift Jesus’ words about the poor out of the Gospel in general and the Passion narrative in particular. Taking a close-up view of the woman’s act of anointing also enables us to see it as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death. Later in Mark (16:1) we are told that several women were on their way to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body. Anointing serves a mnemonic narrative purpose, then, and one which once again highlights the “true discipleship” of the women over against men. On a concretely historical level, breaking the expensive bottle of perfume may well have been an extravagant act associated with honouring an important guest. This too certainly makes sense in Mark’s story. Lastly, anointing is frequently associated with important biblical figures, most notably kings. When David is first anointed as King of Israel he is not made king simply for the sake of it, but in order that he might unite Israel and Judah and campaign against some of the Israelites’ enemies (Amelekites, Philistines; see 1 and 2 Samuel). Given that Mark’s Gospel makes other references to kingship and that David’s anointing is a religious-political act of resistance performed by the prophet of YHWH, Samuel, I think it is fair to see the woman’s generous gift as inclusive of all of these symbolic resonances, but especially this last one. Noteworthy too is the fact that the anointing is performed by a woman. Generally speaking, women are shown in a much more positive light in Mark, offering up a stark contrast to the incomprehension and unfaithfulness of the male disciples. As Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza argued decades ago in her feminist classic, In Memory of Her (1983), there are even radical undercurrents of early Christian egalitarianism—“the discipleship of equals”—retained in Jesus’ declaration that the woman will be remembered wherever the gospel is told. This is consistent with the theme of the commonwealth of God belonging to everyone equally, including the poor, the sick, the sinner, the outcast, the vulnerable, the foreigner, and those with no legal or social status (e.g. when Jesus says that the basileia belongs to children). So far we have Jesus as peasant leader (John the Baptist), as prophetic liberator (Moses-Elijah), and now as anointed leader/ruler (David/Son of Man). All of these signs come together on the eve of Passover, the quintessential movement of socio-political liberation in Israelite tradition. In sum, only an incredibly simplistic interpretation of this verse could wield it as evidence that “unlike Christ,” Marx alone offered an adequate response to the situation of the poor.
Just to drive this point home a bit further, let’s consider the proclamation of the basileia of God in slightly greater detail. If we do so while keeping our theme in mind, i.e. for the purposes of thinking about the politics of poverty, then the relevant question is: for whom is this proclamation good news? And for whom is it a threat? Generally speaking, in Mark’s Gospel Jesus is portrayed as bringing healing, wholeness, and solidarity to the most marginal people: liberation from the oppression of demon possession—which anthropologists tell us is a noted feature of subject colonial peoples; recovery from sickness—which was both a physical and social phenomenon; and reintegration into the community for outcasts—which can include both lepers and tax collectors collaborating with oppressive imperial powers. If the 12 disciples represent all of Israel (12 tribes), then Jesus’ ministry is presented as encompassing the whole people of God, most especially the poor and the marginal, as well as the land of God: Jesus and the disciples cover quite a bit of ground in their travels and many people come from far and wide to hear and see them in action—Judea, Galilee, Iudema, the trans-Jordan.
A specific instance of this can be found in the episode in which Jesus and his disciples pick grain left over from the harvest, customarily left for those in need in keeping with covenantal commandments (e.g. Lev 19:9-10). There Jesus makes it clear that the point of religious observances is for the good of the people—“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (2:27). Here he is speaking to the Pharisees, who, in their effort to make Israel a kind of priestly nation through observation of a stricter holiness code, hold that such customary behaviour is unlawful on the sabbath. Neither Caeys nor Carver are remotely cognizant of the possible similarities between this common-law gleaning practice, Jesus’ defence of it, and Marx’s earliest journalism in which he defends the same customary rights for peasants to collect wood. The episode also includes a link between King David and Jesus (2:25-6). If David was viewed as a liberator of sorts, and if we take the “Son of Man” figure from the Book of Daniel as equally emancipatory, then at 2:23-28 Jesus is not only identifying himself with this symbolic repertoire, he is saying that sabbath observance serves a concrete social purpose. Mark makes it quite clear which characters in the story are in conflict with Jesus: Pharisees, teachers of the law, and the priestly aristocracy, certainly, but equally the “Herodians” (3:6), i.e. those who in some manner or other supported the continued rule of Herod or his family as the imperial Roman appointee. An important aspect of this conflict to keep in mind, then, is the contrast it draws between Jesus as religious leader of a peasant social movement of community renewal—the commonwealth of God—and those who have twisted God’s covenantal teachings in order to collaborate with Rome and thus the continued exploitation of God’s people (in this case curbing the customary covenantal gleaning rights).
There are many other telling ways in which Jesus indicates in word and deed what the commonwealth of God is like: he shares meals with a variety of marginalized people, he is put in the same room or in close contact with social pariahs, he feeds the hungry and gives water and wine to the thirsty. One might say of the man possessed by an unclean spirit at 1:21-28 that he was subject to a hostile, evil power, and that Jesus, with greater “authority,” emancipates him from his bondage. Evidently it is one of several central synecdoches for the commonwealth of God. In narrative terms, coming as it does early in the Gospel, it prepares the reader for more of the same. Next Jesus touches a sick woman and a leper (1:29-31; 1:40-2), violating social custom in so doing. Jesus not only heals them in a physical sense, he simultaneously grants them the means by which to live a full life in rejoining the community. The linked healings of Jairus’ daughter and the old woman (5:21-43) are further evidence still of Jesus’ ministry of wholeness to all of Israel, including women, outcasts, the “unclean,” as well as foreigners. As the Pharisees’ accusation at 2:16 indicates (“why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”), Jesus offers holistic redemption and restoration to all who are willing.
And just how was the commonwealth of God to be structured? Was no thought or concern to be given to the poor, who, again, were the vast majority of the people in ancient Israel? In Mark’s Gospel the male disciples are not only too concerned with status and hierarchy, they are unable to grasp Jesus’ repeated teachings about status inversion. He uses several types of analogy in order to outline a new social imaginary. In sharp contrast to the deeply hierarchical, patriarchal society around them, Jesus repeatedly tells the male disciples that true leadership in God’s commonwealth is equal and open service to all. The women in the Gospels of Mark and John are faithful disciples where the men fail—it is women and not men who first witness Jesus death and resurrection. Or consider one of the more familiar teachings of Jesus about God’s commonwealth: children are to be welcomed as if they were on the same level as great and mighty adults. Everyone in God’s realm is to serve each other in humility and equality. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (9:35) In the next episode involving children, Jesus characterizes the commonwealth as belonging to “such as these.” God’s promised realm of justice and peace and freedom is linked to those who, in social terms, are most humble and have what amounts to no status at all (10:13-16). In the words of each of the synoptic Gospels, “the last will be first and the first will be last.” By putting children at the heart of God’s commonwealth Jesus is making a sharp contrast with the scheming of James and John, who want to be given prominence (10:35-45). Jesus explicitly contrasts this Greco-Roman, “gentile” obsession with hierarchical “tyranny” to the equality of his commonwealth: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:43-44). Jesus then connects this suffering service to his mission: he came to give his life as a ransom—where ransom is a socio-economic exchange in which a debt is paid for the liberation of those held in bondage. When a young man asks Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life (10:17), having kept all of the covenantal teachings (10:20), Jesus spells out the social implication by exclaiming: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the commonwealth of God!” (10:23) Some ancient manuscripts make the point even starker in the next verse: “how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God!” (v. 24) Obviously the whole of Mark’s Gospel portrays Jesus as the greatest of all men and yet, exemplifying the basileia he proclaims and instantiates, he serves the poor, the sick, the outcasts, the possessed and oppressed, in love and compassion. He welcomes them and meets their physical, spiritual, and social needs. True disciples in the commonwealth of God do likewise.
Many scholarly commentators note that Jesus’ open table is an intimation of the eucharistic meal. By sitting with “tax collectors and sinners” Jesus welcomes, accepts, and forgives all those seated around him who are willing to repent, something later formalized in Christian liturgy. Given the references to drunkards and drink, it is not unreasonable to see Jesus’ table as downright fun and festive. This celebratory common table is therefore a symbolic indication of the wholeness, happiness, and justice of God’s commonwealth, which is of course especially good news for the oppressed and the outcast. Indeed, when Jesus gives thanks to God in the two episodes of miraculous feedings (6:30-44; 8:1-10), commentators frequently note another connection with the eucharistic meal: they are demonstrations of what life in the commonwealth is like, where God and the lived observation of his commandments ensures the provision of food and drink and rest for those who desperately need it. In this case the people are in desperate need because they live under exploitative imperial domination. Like Moses leading the Israelites in the desert (an allusion at 8:4), passing from bondage to liberty in God’s realm, Jesus feeding the five and four thousand reveals the extravagant abundance of God’s loving compassion for the people, and it anticipates the festive fecundity ecstatically realized—by true disciples—in the eucharistic celebration around a common, open table.
Who would see Jesus’ message and mission as a threat, then? All four Gospels show Jesus in conflict with various levels of social and political power. In Mark’s Gospel he attacks the institutional authority of the temple and those who had an interest in its maintenance. For example, at 13:2 Jesus daringly declares the immanent destruction of Herod’s architectural wonder. This prophesy/judgment may be the main historical reason for Jesus’ arrest and ultimately his execution by Rome as “king of the Jews.” Whatever the case may be, Mark’s Gospel provides many links between the content of Jesus’ teaching, the significance of his emancipatory action, and the hostility of the powers that be. Take the episode which appears just before the temple prophesy, an encounter with a scribe asking about the most important covenantal teaching (12:28-34). Jesus links two uncontroversial commands in a rather controversial way: the Shema of Deut 6:4 with Lev 19:18. The fact that Jesus does not quote the Pentateuch exactly when recounting these teachings suggests that he is drawing from oral tradition. That oral tradition, maintained in peasant communities, probably construed the ethical, social, and political overtones of “scripture” in a way different from the elite guardians of the text, including scribes, Pharisees, and chief priests. In his combinatory redescription Jesus joins the Decalogue’s “first table” of duties towards God to the “second table” of duties towards others such that loving and worshipping God rightly is by definition a matter of loving others and treating them justly. Or, as he told the disciples, each must be a servant of all. That service most certainly includes economic provision. In keeping with covenantal tradition but extending it further, Jesus describes exploitation of or indifference towards the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized, as impious, as immoral. This is entirely consistent with his proclamation of the commonwealth of God, centred as it is around the extravagantly festive open table at which all who repent are welcome to sit—true sabbath communion for “humankind.” The fact that Jesus overtly condemns the teachers of the law for impoverishing widows immediately after his summation of Moses’ teaching is surely indicative of who is failing to live up to God’s commandments (12:38-40). Following his summation and his subsequent condemnation of the apologists for elite oppressors, Jesus adds fuel to the fire by foretelling the destruction of their institutional existence. Unlike the disciples, Jesus is not impressed with the grandeur of Herod’s temple (13:1-2)—for it was built by exploiting God’s people. Rather, like the “legion” of evil powers keeping the marginal and the poor oppressed, the temple will be “thrown down.” Jesus seems to be calling into question not only Roman authority, but those Jewish authorities who have twisted God’s commandments for their own narrow benefits. As the scriptures attest (1 Samuel 8:4-18), it was not God’s original intention that there should be kings ruling in his realm. God was to rule directly. There could even be an echo of this at Mark 12:35-7. Either way, Jesus invokes the popular notion of God’s direct rule. As the Gospels of Matthew and Luke both have it: “your basileia come.”
In the twenty-first century world a tiny fragment of the world’s population controls more than half the world’s wealth. Billions of people live on dollars a day while a few privileged and powerful billionaires launch themselves into space for pleasure. If Marx’s explosive critique of capitalism retains its validity for these and very many other reasons, as I believe it does and as Terry Eagleton has cheekily argued in Why Marx Was Right, there are similar, though certainly not identical, ethical and political resources to be found in Christianity. Eagleton himself presented an edition of the Gospels for Verso along these lines, and in his most recent work the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre continues to underscore his longstanding conviction that contemporary social critique is strongest where Thomistic Aristotelianism is “informed by Marxists insights.” It is therefore quite disheartening to see some Marxist scholars continue to issue silly and skewed generalizations about Jesus and his politics. When more than a billion people continue to orient their lives around the person the Gospel of Mark calls the “Son of God,” deleterious misconceptions about the incompatibility of religion and political justice should be clearly identified and vehemently rejected. Correcting such myopia is part of the ongoing work of helping Christians see themselves and their faith in such a way as to enable them to reforge bonds of solidarity with the oppressed, the marginalized, and the outcast—most of whom are themselves religious. Simply put, there is no good reason to see religion or Jesus as inherently apolitical, as concerned with private consolation rather than public justice. Instead of asking the vast majority of the world’s population to forgo their religious convictions and thus the framework of their ethical and political behaviour, the much more salient, genuinely radical philosophical move is to engage their traditions for their liberationist potential. In the case of Christianity that means putting the politics of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark squarely in the limelight.Notes
- The New Testament and the People of God, Fortress Press, 1992; Jesus and the Victory of God, Fortress Press, 1997; The Resurrection of the Son of God, Fortress Press, 2003; Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Fortress Press, 2013. This is only a small selection of his work.
- For example, in The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, HarperOne, 2016, Chapter 2, where Wright equates the Enlightenment almost exclusively with its neo-Epicurean variant.
- The Radical Enlightenment, Oxford University Press, 2001; Enlightenment Contested, Oxford University Press, 2006; Democratic Enlightenment, Oxford University Press, 2011.
- As Samuel Moyn cheekily put it.
- A Revolution of the Mind, Princeton University Press, 2009. To this one could add many other recent accounts, such as Anthony Pagden’s The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters, Penguin, 2013.
- Taylor has a section entitled “The Radical Enlightenment” in his book Hegel, Cambridge University Press, 1975; that book preceded both Israel’s and that of Margaret Jacob, who also published a book under that title in 1981, revised for a second edition in 2006.
- Sloppy mistakes can be made by those valorizing other eras of the past too, such as “modernity.” In Evolution of the Word (HarperOne, 2012, p. 2), a presentation of the New Testament in chronological order, Marcus Borg bizarrely suggests that the Enlightenment started in the sixteenth century and that it “began” with “science.” First of all, I cannot think of any recent scholarly account of the Enlightenment that places its start-date in the sixteenth century. Yes, Diderot and d’Alembert saw themselves in continuity with Bacon, Descartes, and Newton, as they wrote in their introduction to L’Encyclopédie; but that is hardly definitive for historical understanding. In Evolution of the Word Borg very frequently speaks of mainstream scholarly consensus when arranging the biblical texts chronologically, such as the dating of the Pastoral epistles. His dating of the Enlightenment is without question well outside the scholarly consensus. In The Radical Enlightenment, Israel starts his account with Spinoza and thus the seventeenth century. Like Peter Gay before him (The Enlightenment, 2 vols., Norton, 1966, 1969), in The Enlightenment: A Genealogy (University of Chicago Press, 2010), Dan Edelstein traces the Enlightenment to the seventeenth-century literary debates between ancients and moderns. Like Ernst Cassirer before him (The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, originally published in German in 1932), in The Case for the Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2001) John Robertson dates the movement to the eighteenth century, tying it to the appearance of David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40). I could go on and on and on.
- Gregory Claeys, Marx and Marxism, Nation Books, 2018, p. 2.
- As Pierre Hadot has forcefully argued: Qu’est-ce que le philosophie antique?, Gallimard, 1995.
- Terrell Carver, Marx, Polity, 2018, p. 65.
- Karl Marx, Capital, vol. III, trans. David Fernbach, Penguin, 1991, p. 306.
- About the origin of surplus-value, for instance, or when he pits what he likes to call the “esoteric” Smith against the “exoteric” Smith in the second volume of Capital.
- For a relatively brief example that makes mention of Ricardo at its end, see Volume 3, Chapter 15, Section 3 of Capital, especially at p. 368. Marx acknowledges Ricardo’s “deep understanding” of capitalist production, which is right as far as it goes. But, consistent with all three volumes of Capital, Marx rejects it as inadequate because it approaches economics from within the capitalist framework. Alternatively, another characteristically Hegelian example can be found towards the end of Volume III, p. 969: “It is the great merit of classical economics to have dissolved this false appearance and deception, this autonomization and ossification of the different social elements of wealth vis-a-vis one another, this personification of things and reification of the relations of production, this religion of everyday life, by reducing interest to a part of profit and rent to the surplus above the average profit, so that they both coincide in surplus-value; by presenting the circulation process as simply a metamorphosis of forms, and finally in the immediate process of production reducing the value and surplus-value of commodities to labour. Yet even its best representatives remained more or less trapped in the world of illusion their criticism had dissolved, and nothing else is possible from the bourgeois standpoint; they all fell therefore more or less into inconsistencies, half-truths and unresolved contradictions.”
- I am aware of the fact that many scholars regard Mark as being written either for a non-Jewish audience outside of Israel, or a border community in northern Israel. Obviously much of what I am asserting here would require a lifetime’s worth of scholarship to justify fully. I encourage readers to look to scholarly commentaries and monographs, including the work of Horsley but also those which take a different stance than I do, to decide for themselves if what I am presenting here is compelling or not.
- Exodus 21-23; Leviticus 17-26; Deuteronomy 12-26. Not to mention the fact that the Gospel of Mark is saturated with allusions to all three sections of Jewish scripture: Pentateuch, Prophets, Writings.
- Many commentators have made similar observations, though not quite in the way I have construed it here. See, for instance, Robert H. Stein, Mark, Baker Exegetical Commentary, Baker, 2008, pp. 634-5. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza points out that in the phrase “whenever you decide to do so you can do good to them,” the “to them” is not present in all ancient manuscripts. Thus on this alternate reading Jesus is not merely accepting the perennial presence of the poor but is indicating that one can always act justly if one wants. See In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, Crossroad, 1994 , pp. 152-3.
- As Schüssler Fiorenza observes, “The term basileia belongs to a royal-monarchical context of meaning that has as its socio-political referent the Roman Empire. Basileia is also a tensive symbol of ancestral range that appeals to Israelite traditions. It is an anti-imperial Israelite symbol that shapes the oppositional imagination of the Jewish people victimized by the Roman imperial system. This gospel of the basileia envisioned an alternative world free of hunger, poverty, and domination.” In Memory of Her, pp. xxxiii-iv.
- See In Memory of Her, pp. 320-1.
- Cf. Darrell Bock, Mark, New Cambridge Bible Commentary, Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 336.
- Marx-Engels Collected Works, vol. I, Lawrence & Wishart, 1975, pp. 224-63.
- Virtually every commentary I consulted noted that the phrase “Son of Man” is difficult to interpret. At the same time, each also acknowledged its possible connection to the Book of Daniel. See Larry Hurtado’s comments on this section in Mark, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series, Baker, 2011 .
- See Hurtado, Mark, on 2:13-17.
- Yale University Press, 2011.
- Jesus Christ: The Gospels, Verso, 2007.
- Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, Cambridge University Press, 2016, p. xi.