The Rhetoric of the 99% and the Rise of Christianity

One of the arguments frequently used by apologists is that Christianity must be true because there is no other plausible explanation for the rise and rapid spread of the Jesus cult except for the resurrection. This argument is a favorite of William lane Craig. It is apparently so compelling that even Anne Rice found it an impetus for faith until the obvious malfeasance of the Catholic Church drove her away.[1]

Given the number of religions in the world, and the fact that they persist even after they have been demonstrated to be fraudulent, it would seem that the rise of a religion hardly requires much attention. People join religions; they believe in demonstrably false propositions; we need not fret over their motives.

However, our interlocutors will not be so easily dismissed, and we would be remiss if we did not indulge them somewhat in their effort to shift their burden of proof.

To that end, I would like to offer an alternate hypothesis (not necessarily original) to the rise of the Jesus movement—one that requires no supernatural shenanigans: The Jesus movement thrived because it was psychologically and socially appealing to the great multitude of the oppressed within the Roman Empire. While it in no way offended the religious sensibilities of pagan believers, with its virgin birth and dying and rising god, it did offer an attractive economic philosophy—a subversive economic ideology which, at least initially, offered distributive justice, an anti-rich rhetoric and  the promise of a great reversal in the afterlife.

The “Empty Tomb” argument is often presented with implicit or explicit subordinate claims about the great risk involved in believing in Christ. Apologists claim that the persecution of the Church was so great that only sincere conviction (and the breath of the Holy Spirit) are sufficient to explain its appeal.

As is the case today, claims about Christian persecution are highly exaggerated. Whether fairly or not, the Christians soon became unpopular and occasionally, the Roman populace as well as officials used violence against them. However, it appears that Rome was not initially enthusiastic in its pursuit of the Jesus cult. This is best demonstrated in the letter between Roman emperor Trajan and Governor Pliny the Younger circa 112 C.E. in which the emperor advises a policy of passive enforcement; Christians are not to be pursued and should only be prosecuted if, having come to the attention of imperial  officials, they refuse to worship the gods. As Candida Moss as documented, persecution of the Church was in fact sporadic, even as Christians eagerly sought sanctification through martyrdom.

More importantly, the first documented instance of persecution begins in 64 C.E. under Nero who scapegoated the unpopular minority for his own crimes. Let us note that this is three decades after Jesus’s putative appearances, and most of the followers at this point would not have been the alleged 500 eyewitnesses of the resurrection but rather those who became persuaded of the event though evangelization.  They would be no different than a Christian today who, having heard of the Gospel, became persuaded. This type of conversion in no way contributes to our knowledge of whether the resurrection was an historical event.

Whatever persecution the Christians suffered at the hands of the Jews, it is unlikely that it is as Acts 7 depicts because the Romans would not have permitted a conquered people to employ capital punishment. A fact the Bible confirms as it attempts to explain how the Jews were responsible for Jesus’s Roman execution (John 18:31).

Therefore, it seems that at most the first generation of Christians might have faced the disapprobation of their neighbors. They still call that persecution in the Bible Belt but I am not sure that it counts.

The early Church drew its ranks from the less reputable members of society—the poor, slaves, women; these had little to lose in esteem (1 Corinthians 1:26). Those who had the most to gain from joining the movement. The Church offered a community and a message that appealed to them.

Luke records that the earliest Christian practice radical redistribution of wealth:

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:32-37)

Luke goes on to emphasize how serious it was for a wealthy member of the community to withhold portions of their wealth from the apostles:

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”

When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened (Acts 5:1-6).

Fearful indeed. Undoubtedly, both the claims of the perfectly equitable distribution of resources as well as those of divine punishment ought to be viewed with some skepticism. They are surely romanticized. You can dodge the tithe and live!

Nonetheless, there is probably much truth in Luke’s telling. The early Christians probably strove for economic equality and those who failed to do so probably faced some Earthly consequences. This was an important aspect of early Christianity.

As late as 251 C.E., a man named Anthony walked into a church and heard these words attributed to Jesus, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; and come, follow Me" (Matthew 19:21). He considered it a personal commandment, did so and became an ascetic.

I can personally testify to the generosity of many of the Churches that I have belonged to when I have needed it and how being the recipient of such generosity strengthens one’s commitment to the church.

Thus, it is highly plausible in an empire in which 30% to 40% of the population were in bondage and in which wealth was disproportionately held in the hands of a few, that the dispossessed found not only a place to satisfy the pecuniary needs but also a place where they found solidarity in their afflicted state. 

For the Church not only offered some level of economic security for the poor, but a rhetoric of class warfare that surely pleased this audience. They heard the Church’s leadership preaching sayings of Jesus like the following:

But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 10:24-25).

In his epistle James writes, “Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?” (James 2:5-6).

Surely, music to the ears of the 99%. Someone, please, send the producers of Fox News a Bible.

Lastly, the earliest Gospels—the synoptic Gospels—preached not salvation by faith but salvation by charity and what the Catholic Church rightly calls, the preferential option for the poor.

According to Matthew’s Gospel, this is how Jesus will decide who gets into Heaven:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25”31-46).

Moreover, if you happened to have been poor in this life; if you watched the rich indulge in conspicuous and excessive consumption, fear not, justice is coming. When the rich man, who found himself in Hell for failing to be charitable to the beggar at his door, asked for a drop of water, Abraham said this to him:

“Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony” (Luke 16: 24-25).

This is a message that would have surely resonate with many in the first century and continues to resonate to this day.

That a man died and rose from the dead might be received as an amusing oddity, even intriguing proposal but not necessarily motivating. When Paul preached resurrection to the Athenians, they rebuffed him (Acts 17: 16-34).

But that God will bring economic justice is an ideology many people can rally behind, even if it is inconveniently packaged in talking snakes and substitutionary atonement.




[1] Anne Rice, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt (Toronto: Random House, 2005), 337.