Early Christianity and Anarchism

An anarchist Jesus?

Ever since anarchism emerged as a distinct doctrine in the 19th century (largely through the debates within the First International regarding the proper direction of working class and socialist movements), there have been Christians who have claimed that Jesus was a kind of pacifist anarchist. I examine these claims in my forthcoming book, The Anarchist Current, by reviewing the history of early Christianity. In this section, I compare the early Christians to the Jewish rebels against Roman rule, who appear to have been much closer to modern anarchists than Jesus and his followers.

Early Christianity and the Jewish Revolts in Palestine

When considering the alleged anarchism of Jesus and his followers, it is useful to compare them to the Jewish groups in Palestine who refused to pay taxes to the Roman Empire and denied the legitimacy of Roman authority. The refusal to pay Roman taxes pre-dated the so-called Jesus movement by about 30 years. Then between 66 and 70 CE, about 30 years after Jesus’ purported death, there was a protracted Jewish rebellion against Roman rule and the Jewish high priests and aristocrats who collaborated with the Romans. Some of the Jewish opponents of Roman authority, the “Fourth Philosophy” group, refused “to call any man master,” taking “God as their only leader.” [Horsley and Hanson, pp. 191 and 215; Horsley, p. 41] As we shall see, refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of any earthly authority is the basis of much of what is now described as “religious” anarchism.

During the rebellion, a group called the “Zealots” fought not only “against the alien Roman oppressors,” but also “a class war against their own Jewish nobility.” [H & H, p. 226] The Zealots opposed “hierarchical power and privilege,” and chose their priests by lot, which was meant to ensure that the priests were chosen by God, “the true ruler of society.” [H & H, pp. 233] Unlike other Jewish rebel groups, and the nascent Christian communities, the Zealots did not have individual leaders, but reached “decisions collectively.” [H & H, pp. 235] While 19th and 20th century anarchists did not believe in any master, including a divine one, they believed, as did the Zealots, that no person had the right to rule over others; they rejected hierarchy and privilege; many of them advocated class war against the aristocracy and the capitalists; and they also practiced forms of non-coercive collective decision-making.

The Zealots share more similarities with 19th and 20th century anarchists than Jesus and his followers, who do not appear to have participated in or to have supported the 66 – 70 CE Jewish rebellion against Roman rule, which was consistent with Jesus’ advice to suffer earthly authorities gladly. [Ekkehard and Wolfgang Stegemann, The Jesus Movement: A Social History of Its First Century (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), trans. O.C. Dean, Jr., p. 212] According to the early historian of Christianity, Eusebius (c.260–c.340 CE), the Christians left Jerusalem at the beginning of the rebellion to sit it out in areas that remained under Roman control. [Stegemann & Stegemann, p. 220]

The four gospels in the New Testament that purport to set forth Jesus’ life and teachings all post-date the 66 – 70 CE rebellion. Despite the fact that the Christians had not supported the rebellion, the Christian communities in Palestine suffered along with the Jewish ones as the Romans put down the rebellion and reasserted Imperial authority. [Horsley & Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs, p. 259] According to Horsley and Hanson, the “violent reimposition of the pax Romana […] meant that little survived of the concrete movement started by Jesus in Palestinian Jewish society.” [p. 259]

It is possible then that the authors of the gospels gave Jesus’ views a more spiritual slant in order to avoid further persecution by the Roman authorities. But even before the suppression of the 66 – 70 CE rebellion, Paul, perhaps Jesus’ most important disciple, was telling his fellow Christians that:

Every person must submit to the supreme authorities. There is no authority but by act of God, and the existing authorities are instituted by him; consequently anyone who rebels against authority is resisting a divine institution, and those who so resist have themselves to thank for the punishment they will receive (Romans 13:1–3).

This is anything but a religious anarchism denying the legitimacy of earthly authorities. Christian teachings like this provided support for the later transformation of Christianity into the official religion of the Roman Empire.

However, the transition of Christianity from an outlawed religious movement to state religion was to take over two hundred years. Regardless of whether the authors of the New Testament gospels tried to downplay the political significance of Jesus’ teachings, and despite Paul’s admonitions to the faithful to obey those in authority, as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, Roman officials remembered that they had executed the founder of this sect as a dangerous rebel who claimed to be the Messiah. By around 117 CE, being a Christian had become a crime under Roman law. [Stegemann, pp. 323 – 324]

Robert Graham