‘Primitive Christianity and the Destruction of the Family’ (1908) by Karl Kautsky from Foundations of Christianity; a Study in Christian Origins. International Publishers, New York. 1925.

‘Primitive Christianity and the Destruction of the Family’ (1908) by Karl Kautsky from Foundations of Christianity; a Study in Christian Origins. International Publishers, New York. 1925.

If communism does not rest on community of production, but of consumption, it tries to convert its community into a new family, for the presence of the traditional family tie is felt as a disturbing influence. We have seen this in the case of the Essenes, and it is repeated in Christianity, which often voices its hostility to the family in harsh terms.

Thus the gospel attributed to Mark says (3, verses 31f.): “There came then his [Jesus’] brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him. And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee. And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren? And he looked round about on them which sat around him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.”

Luke is particularly harsh in this point too. He says (9, verses 59f.): “And he [Jesus] said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead; but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house. And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”

This demands extreme disregard for the family, but the following passage from Luke breathes direct hatred of the family (14, verse 26): “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”

Here too Matthew shows himself an opportunistic revisionist. He gives the foregoing sentence the following form (10, verse 37): “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” The hatred of the family is toned down here.

A closely related theme is the aversion to marriage, which primitive Christianity required as did the Essenians. The resemblance goes so far that it seems to have developed both forms of being unmarried: celibacy, abstinence from all marital practices, and unbridled extra-marital sexual intercourse, which is also described as community of women.

There is a noteworthy passage in Campanella’s City of the Sun. A critic says: “St. Clement of Rome says that by apostolic institutions wives too should be in common, and praises Plato and Socrates for having also said that this must be done. But the commentary takes this to mean community of obedience towards all, not the community of the couch. And Tertullian confirms the gloss, and says that the first Christians had everything in common, excepting the women, who were in common only in obedience.” This community “in obedience” reminds one strongly of the blessedness of the poor “in spirit”.

Peculiar sexual relations are indicated by a passage in the Doctrine of the Twelve Apostles or Didache, one of the oldest books of Christianity, from which we can see its organization in the second century. It says (XII, 11):

“But every prophet, tried and true, who acts with a view to the earthly secret of the church, yet does not preach that all should do as he does, shall not be judged by you, for he has his judgment in God; for just so did the old [Christian] prophets act.”

Harnack comments on these obscure words that the “earthly secret of the church” is marriage. The aim is to counteract the mistrust of the communities towards such prophets, who practiced strange sorts of marriage. Harnack conjectures that these lived in marriage like eunuchs or treated their wives as sisters. It is hard to conceive that such restraint would have aroused scandal. It would be different if these prophets did not merely preach sexual intercourse without marriage but practiced it “like the old prophets”, that is, the first teachers of Christianity.

Harnack himself cites as a “good illustration of acting with a view to the earthly secret of the church” the following passage from the letter on virginity, falsely attributed to Clement (I, 10): “Many shameless people live together with virgins under the pretense of piety and so fall into danger, or they go out alone with them on paths and in solitary places, in ways that are full of dangers and scandals, snares and pitfalls … Others again eat and drink with them, reclining at table, with virgins and consecrated women (sacratis), in the midst of pride and ease and much shamefulness; yet such things should not be among believers, and least of all among those who have chosen the virgin state for themselves.”

In the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians the apostles, who are pledged to remain unmarried, claim the right to roam freely through the world with ladies. Paul cries out: “Am I not free? … Have we not power to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles, and as the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas [Peter]?” (I Corinthians 9, verses 1 and 5)

This comes immediately after Paul has advised against marriage.

This going about of the apostles with young ladies plays a great role in the Acts of Paul, a romance which according to Tertullian was written by a presbyter in Asia Minor, during the second century, as he himself confessed. None the less, “these Acts were for a long time a favorite book of edification”, a sign that the facts related in it did not scandalize many pious Christians, but seemed highly edifying to them. The most remarkable thing in it is the “pretty legend of Thecla … which gives an excellent picture of feeling in the Christian world of the second century.”

This legend tells how Thecla, the betrothed of a noble youth in Icarium, heard Paul speak and immediately became an admirer of his. In the course of the tale we get a description of the apostle: small stature, bald head, crooked legs, projecting knees, big eyes, eyebrows grown together, longish nose, full of charm, looking sometimes like a man and sometimes like an angel. Unfortunately we are not told which of these features is classified as angelic.

In any case, the magic power of his words makes a deep impression on the beautiful Thecla and she leaves her betrothed, who accuses Paul before the governor as a man who induces women and youths to withdraw from marriage; Paul is thrown into prison, but Thecla gets to see him and is found in prison with him. The governor sentences Paul to be banished from the city and Thecla to be burned. A miracle saves her; the burning pyre is extinguished by a rainstorm, which also drives away the spectators.

Thecla is free and goes after Paul, finding him on the road. He takes her by the hand and goes with her to Antioch. There they encounter a nobleman who falls in love with Thecla at once and seeks to take her from Paul, offering a large sum as compensation. Paul answers that she is not his and he does not know her, a timid answer indeed for so proud a confessor. Thecla however defends herself vigorously against the dissolute aristocrat, who tries to obtain her by force. She is therefore cast to the wild beasts in the circus, who will not harm her, and so once more she goes free. She now puts on men’s clothing, cuts off her hair and wanders off again after Paul, who directs her to preach the word of God, and probably gives her the right to baptize, to judge by a comment of Tertullian’s.

Obviously the original form of this tale contained much that scandalized the later church; “but since these acts were found edifying and instructive in other respects, they made it do by means of a clerical revision that excised the most objectionable parts without however eliminating all traces of its original character” (Pfleiderer, op. cit., p. 179). But although much of the data may have been lost, the hints that have come through suffice to attest very peculiar sexual relations, quite at variance with traditional rules, that caused great scandal and hence needed to be energetically defended by the Apostles: relations that the later church, turned responsible, sought to palliate so far as it could.

How easy it is for celibacy to go over into extra-marital sexual intercourse, except in the case of fanatical ascetics, needs no elaboration.

The Christians expected marriage to come to an end in their future state, which would be inaugurated at the resurrection; this is shown by the passage in which Jesus has to answer the ticklish question as to who will be a woman’s husband after the resurrection if she has had seven on earth, one after the other:

“And Jesus answering said unto them, the children of this world marry, and are given in marriage: But they which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither many, nor are given in marriage: Neither can they die any more: for they are equal unto the angels; and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection” (Luke 20, verses 34 to 36).

This should not be taken to mean that in the future state of the primitive Christians men would be pure spirits without bodily needs. Their corporeality and their delight in material pleasures is particularly stressed, as we shall see. At any rate, Jesus says here that in the future state all existing marriages will be dissolved, so that the question as to which of the seven husbands is the right one becomes academic.

It is not to be taken as a proof of hostility to marriage that the Roman bishop Callixtus (217–222) permitted maidens and widows of senatorial rank to have extra-marital intercourse even with slaves. This permission was not the product of a communism whose hostility to the family was carried to an extreme, but mere opportunistic revisionism, which by way of exception, in order to win rich and powerful supporters, makes concessions to their tastes.

Communistic tendencies constantly kept arising in the Christian church in opposition to this sort of revisionism, and they were often linked up with rejection of marriage, either in the form of celibacy or what is called community of women, as often among Manichaeans and Gnostics. The most energetic of these were the Carpocratians.

“The divine justice, taught Epiphanes, the son of Carpocrates, gave everything to his creatures for equal possession and enjoyment. Human laws first brought thine and mine into the world, and along with them theft and adultery and all the other sins; as the apostle says, ‘By the law is the knowledge of sin’ (Romans 3, verse 20; 7, verse 7). Since God himself implanted the powerful sex drive in men for the conservation of the species, it would be ridiculous to prohibit sexual desire, and doubly ridiculous to prohibit coveting your neighbor’s wife, which would make what is common into private property. According to these Gnostics, then, monogamy is just as much a violation of the community of women required by divine justice as the private ownership of property is a violation of the community of goods … Clement concludes his description of these libertine Gnostics (Carpocratians and Nicholaites, a branch of the Simonians) with the remark that all these heresies may be divided into two tendencies: they either preach moral indifferentism or an overwrought sanctimonious abstention.”

Those were as a matter of fact the two alternatives of thoroughgoing housekeeping communism. We have already pointed out that the two extremes meet, that they rise from the same economic root, however discordant they may be in thought.

With the dissolution, or at least the loosening, of the traditional family ties a change in the position of woman must have taken place. If she ceased to be tied down to the narrow family housekeeping, she would get a feeling for and an interest in, other ideas outside the family. Depending on her temperament, talents and social position, she might now, along with family ties, get rid of all ethical thinking, all respect for social prohibitions, all discipline and shame. This was largely the case with the noble ladies of Imperial Rome, who were relieved of all family work by the size of their fortunes and artificial childlessness.

Conversely, the elimination of the family by housekeeping communism produced a marked rise of ethical feeling in the proletarian women which was now carried over from the narrow family circle to the much broader sphere of the Christian community, and rose from the selfless care for the daily needs of husband and child, a concern for the freeing of the human race from all misery.

Thus at the beginning we find not only prophets but also prophetesses active in the Christian community. For example, the Acts of the Apostles tells us of Philip the “Evangelist,” who “had four daughters, virgins, which did prophesy”. (21, verse 9)

The story of Thecla, whom Paul entrusts with preaching and even baptism, probably, also indicates that the existence of female teachers of the divine word was not at all unheard-of in the Christian community.

In the first Epistle to the Corinthians (chapter 11), Paul expressly conceded the right of women to appear as prophetesses. He requires of them only that they keep their heads covered – in order not to excite the lust of the angels. The fourteenth chapter it is true says (verses 34f.): “Let your women keep silence in the churches; for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”

But this passage is considered by modern textual critics to be a later forgery. Likewise, the entire first letter of Paul to Timothy (together with the second one and the letter to Titus) is a forgery of the second century. Here the woman is vigorously forced back into the narrow realm of the family: “She shall be saved in childbearing” (I Timothy 2, verse 15).

That was not at all the position of the primitive Christian community. Its notions of marriage, the family and the position of women are in complete correspondence with what followed logically from the forms of communism that were possible at that time, and are one proof more that this communism dominated the thinking of early Christianity.

Foundations of Christianity; a Study in Christian Origins by Karl Kautsky. International Publishers, New York. 1925.

International Publishers was formed in 1923 for the purpose of translating and disseminating international Marxist texts and headed by Alexander Trachtenberg. It quickly outgrew that mission to be the main book publisher, while Workers Library continued to be the pamphlet publisher of the Communist Party.

PDF of full book: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uiuo.ark:/13960/t8vc0dv54

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