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Early Christianity: Opiate of the Privileged?

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T radition has it that Christianity recruited most of its initial supporters from among the very poorest and most miserable groups in the ancient world. Since early times, many ascetic Christians have claimed that poverty was one of the chief virtues of the "primitive" church, and by the nineteenth century this view that was ratified by the radical Left as well. Karl Marx's collaborator Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) put it thus: "The history of early Christianity has notable points of resemblance with the modern working-class movement. Like the latter, Christianity was originally a movement of oppressed people: it first appeared as the religion of slaves and emancipated slaves, of poor people deprived of all rights, of peoples subjugated or dispersed by Rome" (Engels, 1964 [1894], p. 316). Working from this assumption, Karl Kautsky (1854-1938), the German editor of Marx's works, built the case that Jesus may have been one of the first socialists and that the early Christians briefly achieved true communism (Kautsky, 1953 [1908]). Although many Bible scholars rejected Kautsky's claims, the view that Christianity originated in lower class bitterness and protest remained the received wisdom all across the theological spectrum. As Yale's Erwin Goodenough (1893-1965) summed up in a widely adopted college textbook: Still more obvious an indication of the undesirability of Christianity in Roman eyes was the fact that its converts were drawn in an overwhelming majority from the lowest classes of society. Then as now the governing classes were apprehensive of a movement which brought into a closely knit and secret organization the servants and slaves of society (Goodenough, 1931, p. 37).

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General Developmental Tendencies in the Social History of Primitive ChristianityThe Social Composition of the Pauline CommunitiesSocially Determined ConflictsThe Attractiveness of the CommunityModels for the Self-understanding of Early Christian ChurchesReferences
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