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Paul of Tarsus: Jew, Roman & Christian Missionary to the Gentiles.   Leave a comment

Part One – From Tarsus to Antioch & Galatia:



For Christmas 2018, my eldest son gave me a copy of Tom Wright’s Biography of the Apostle Paul, ‘hot off the press’. It reminded me of the time, as a child, when I found a picture book of Paul’s life on my Coventry grandmother’s bookstand and read it in one sitting, cover to cover. It also reminded me of watching the television film shown above (from which I have included stills throughout the text). Both as Saul of Tarsus and Paul the Apostle, his was an eventful and exciting life story, as he himself recognised in his later letter to the church at Corinth:

Let me tell you what I’ve had to face. I know it’s silly for me to talk like this, but here’s the list. I know what it is to work hard and live dangerously.

I’ve been beaten up more times than I can remember, been in more than one prison, and faced death more than once. Five times I’ve been thrashed by a Jewish court to within an inch of my life; three times I’ve been beaten with (Roman) rods by city magistrates; and once I was nearly stoned to death. 

I’ve been shipwrecked three times; and once, I was adrift, out of sight of land, for twenty-four hours.

I don’t know how many roads I’ve tramped. I’ve faced bandits; I’ve been attacked by fellow-countrymen and by foreigners. I’ve met danger in city streets and on lonely country roads and out in the open sea.

(II Cor. 11: 23-33, New World.)

The writings of Paul have had an incalculable influence on Western culture and beyond, and his words continue to guide the lives of two billion Christians throughout the world today. In his biography, Tom Wright traces Paul’s career from the Sanhedrin’s zealous persecutor of the fledgling Church, through his journeys as the world’s greatest missionary and theologian, to his likely death as a Christian martyr under Nero in the mid-sixties of the first century.


To understand Paul, Wright insists, we must understand the Jewish world in which the young Saul grew up, a world itself firmly earthed in the soil of wider Graeco-Roman culture. This is what I want to concentrate on here, especially in the context in which Wright is writing, a twenty-first century which seems just as filled with religious and ethnic hatred and in which anti-Jewish thought, feelings and actions are once more on the rise, despite the atrocities of the previous century. The ‘Breaking News’ as I write is that incidents of anti-Semitism in Britain have risen for the third year running: 1,652 incidents were recorded by Community Security Trust (CST) in 2018, including more than 100 Assaults. Growing up in a Baptist manse in Birmingham in the 1960s and ’70s, I became conscious of anti-Semitism at the age of eleven when I asked one of the older boys I regularly walked to school with if he was a ‘Jewboy’. I had heard my father use the term, but didn’t think, at that time, that it meant anything other than a ‘Jewish’ boy and didn’t realise that it was used as a term of abuse. After they were called to the school, my parents informed me of this, I apologised to the boy and never used the term again. Later, I understood that my father’s view of the Jews was based on ‘replacement’ theology, the idea that the Christian Church had been chosen to replace the people of Judea and Israel, who had proved themselves unworthy by their rejection of Jesus and their ‘role’ in his crucifixion. One of my seventh-generation Baptist grandmother’s books, George F Jowett’s The Drama of the Lost Disciples (1961) expressed this (then) popular view:

Jesus Himself… denounces the Sadducean Jews, telling them that the glory shall be taken away from them and given to another (Matt. 21: 43). Again, when He says He came not to the Jews, but to the lost sheep of the House of Israel (Matt. 15: 24). He knew He would not convert the Sanhedrin and its following, so it had to be others – the lost sheep. Who were they? The answer lies in his answer to Paul, the converted Saul, whom he commands to go the Gentiles.

C. H. Dodd wrote (1970) that Paul was the pioneer leader in the Christian approach to the Graeco-Roman public. The fortunate preservation of a number of his letters has put us in a position to know him better than we know most individuals of the ancient world. The information they give can be supplemented from the account of his career given in the Acts of the Apostles. Whilst there are points where it is not easy to bring the two sources of our knowledge into complete harmony, there is a good reason to believe that the author of ‘Acts’, thought to be Luke (the gospel-writer and Greek doctor), was well-informed, and may have travelled with Paul himself. This made him an eye-witness, and his account may be used as a historical frame in which to set Paul’s own accounts, contained in his letters.

Saul of Tarsus:


According to Acts 21: 39, Paul was born at Tarsus in Cilicia, an ancient Greek city, and then a strong centre of Hellenistic culture, his parents belonging to the Jewish colony there. Tarsus was ten miles inland on the river Cydnus in the south-east corner of what is Turkey today, in ‘Asia Minor’, on the major east-west routes. It was a ‘noble city’ which could trace its history back two thousand years. Generals like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar had recognised its strategic importance; the emperor Augustus had given it extra privileges. It was a city of culture and politics, of philosophy and industry. It had a thriving textile business, producing materials from goats’ hair, used to make shelters, which may well have been the basis of the family business of tent-making, in which Saul had been apprenticed and which he continued to practice.

The cosmopolitan world of the eastern Mediterranean flowed through the city, which rivalled Athens as a centre of philosophy, not least because half the philosophers of Athens had gone there a century earlier when Athens had incurred the wrath of Rome in a struggle for power. The Jews had struck a deal with Augustus Caesar by which he accepted that they were exempted from adopting the ‘divinity’ cult of his father, Julius Caesar. In return, they agreed to pray to their One God for Rome and its emperor.

We don’t know how long his family had lived in Tarsus. Later legends suggest various options, one of which is that his father or grandfather had lived in Palestine but had moved during one of the periodic social and political upheavals which always carried ‘religious’ overtones as well. They were orthodox Jews and brought their son up in the Pharisaic tradition (23:6; 26:5). The word ‘Pharisee’ has had a bad press over the centuries since. Modern research, operating at the academic rather than the popular level, has done little to dispel that impression, partly because the research in question has made things far more complicated, as research in question in question has made things far more complicated, as research often does. Most of the sources for understanding the Pharisees of Saul’s day come from a much later period. The rabbis of the third and fourth centuries AD looked back to the Pharisees as their spiritual ancestors and so tended to project onto them their own questions and ways of seeing things. But besides Paul’s writings, the other first-century source on the Pharisees, the Jewish historian Josephus, also requires caution. Having been a general at the start of the Roman-Jewish war of AD 66-70, he had gone over to the Romans and claimed that Israel’s One God had done the same thing, an alarmingly clear case of remaking the Almighty in one’s own image.

In Tarsus, as throughout the ‘Diaspora’, there were all sorts of cultural pressures which would draw devout Jews into compromise. Families and individuals faced questions such as what to eat, whom to eat with, whom to do business with, whom to marry, what attitude to take toward local officials, taxes, customs and rituals. The decisions individuals made on all of these questions would mark them out in the eyes of some as too compromised and in the eyes of others as too strict. There was seldom if ever in the ancient world a simple divide, with Jews on one side and gentiles on the other. We should envisage, rather, a complex subculture in which Jews as a whole saw themselves as broadly different from their gentile neighbours. Within that, the entire subgroups of Jews saw themselves as different from other subgroups. The parties and sects we know from Palestinian Jewish life of the time – Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and a nascent militantly ‘zealous’ faction – may not have existed exactly as we describe them, not least because the Sadducees were a small Jerusalem-based aristocracy, but intra-Jewish political and social divisions would have persisted.

We can’t be sure how many Jews lived in Tarsus in Saul’s day. There were, quite possibly, a few thousand at least in a city of roughly a hundred thousand. But we can get a clear sense of how things were for the young Saul. In the ancient world, there was no such thing as ‘private life’ for individuals and families. A tiny number of the aristocracy or the very rich were able to afford a measure of privacy but for the great majority, life was lived publicly and visibly. The streets were mostly narrow, the houses and tenements were mostly cramped, there were noises and smells everywhere, and everyone knew everybody else’s business. We can assume that this was true for the Jews of Tarsus who would have lived close to each other partly for their own safety and partly for the ease of obtaining ‘kosher’ food. The questions of where one stood on the spectrum between strict adherence to the ancestral code, the Torah, and ‘compromise’ were not theoretical. They were about what one did and what one didn’t do in full view of neighbours, and about how those neighbours might react.

The Torah loomed all the larger if one lived, as did the young Saul, outside the promised land and hence away from the Temple. The Torah, in fact, functioned as a movable Temple for the many Jews who were scattered around the wider world. Wherever they were, in Rome or in Babylon, Greece or Egypt, if they prayerfully studied it, then it might be as if they were in the Temple itself. They would be in the divine presence, not in its most dramatic form, but there nonetheless. But the Temple in Jerusalem remained central, geographically and symbolically. It was the place where heaven and earth met, thus forming the signpost to the ultimate promise, the renewal and unity of heaven and earth, the new creation in which the One God would be personally present forever. We don’t know how often Saul travelled with his parents to the homeland with his parents for the great festivals. It is quite probable that, at an early age, the young Saul acquired the sense that all roads, spiritually as well as geographically, to Jerusalem. The Temple was like a cultural and theological magnet, drawing together not only heaven and earth but also the great scriptural stories and promises. In addition, therefore, it was the focal point of Israel’s hope, The One God, so the prophets had said, abandoned his house in Jerusalem because of the people’s idolatry and sin. Tom Wright argues that we will never understand how the young Saul of Tarsus thought and prayed until we grasp…

… the strange fact that, though the Temple still held powerful memories of divine presence … there was a strong sense that the promise of ultimate divine return had not yet been fulfilled. …

… The God of Israel had said he would return, but had not yet done so.

Saul of Tarsus was brought up to believe that it would happen, perhaps very soon. Israel’s God would indeed return in glory to establish his kingdom in visible global power. He was also taught that there were things Jews could be doing to keep this promise and hope on track. It was vital for Jews to keep the Torah with rigorous attention to detail and to defend the Torah, and the Temple itself, against possible attacks and threats. … That is why Saul of Tarsus persecuted Jesus’s early followers.

The young Saul was not ‘learning religion’ in the accepted modern sense of general religious education, and the mature apostle was not a teacher of it. Today, ‘religion’ for most people in the West designates a detached area of life or even a private hobby, separated by definition from politics and public life, and especially from science and technology. In Paul’s day, ‘religion’ meant almost the exact opposite. The Latin word religio has to do with binding things together. Worship, prayer, sacrifice, and other public rituals were designed to hold the unseen inhabitants (gods and ancestors) together with the visible ones, the living humans, thus providing a vital framework for ordinary life, for business, marriage, travel, home life and work. The public nature of individual life was apparent in the workplace. We know from Paul’s later letters that he engaged in manual work, both as a young apprentice and later to support himself as a missionary. ‘Tent-making’ probably included the crafting of other goods made of leather or animal hair in addition to the core product of tents themselves. Many people migrated from place to place for work, those who worked outside needed awnings and pilgrims required ‘tabernacles’ for their sojourns.

The market for tents and similar products was widespread. We might guess those likely purchasers would include regiments of soldiers, but travel was a way of life for many others in the Roman Empire. It seems unlikely that a Jewish tent-maker would be selling only to fellow Jews. We can assume, therefore, that Saul grew up in a cheerfully and strictly observant Jewish home, on the one hand, and in a polyglot, multicultural, multi-ethnic working environment on the other. Strict adherence to the ancestral tradition did not preclude know-how of the wider world of work, and how it spoke, behaved and thought. The tent-maker was unlikely to have had a ‘sheltered’ upbringing. The place where the invisible world (‘heaven’) and the visible world (‘earth’) were joined together was the Temple in Jerusalem. If, as in his case, you couldn’t get to the Temple, you could and should study and practice the Torah, and it would have the same effect. Temple and Torah, the two great symbols of Jewish life, pointed to the story in which devout Jews like Saul and his family believed themselves to be living:

… the great story of Israel and the world, which, they hoped, was at last to set up his kingdom, to make the whole world one vast glory-filled Temple, and to enable all people – or at least his chosen people – to keep the Torah perfectly. Any who prayed or sang the Psalms regularly would find themselves thinking this, hoping this, praying this, day after day, month after month.


As an apprentice in the bustling pagan city of Tarsus, the young Saul knew perfectly well what it meant to be a loyal Jew. It meant keeping oneself pure from idolatry and immorality. There were pagan temples and shrines on every corner, and Saul would have had a fair idea of what went on there. Loyalty meant keeping the Jewish community pure from all those things as well. Saul’s family seem to have lived with a fierce, joyful strictness in obedience to the ancient traditions and did their best to urge other Jews to do the same. At the same time, his father possessed the coveted status of a Roman citizen, which meant that the family had a superior standing in the local community and his son also had Roman citizenship as his birthright (Acts 22: 25-29). He grew up bilingual (fluent in both in Aramaic and Greek) and bi-cultural: at home, he was Saul, named after the first king of Israel; outside he was Paulus, a citizen of Tarsus and of Rome. He was also literate in Hebrew, able to read the scriptures in the original. His mind had the freedom of two worlds of thought: He had more than the average educated man’s understanding of Greek literature and philosophy. His language quite often carries echoes of ‘Stoicism’.

A Zealous Student in Jerusalem:


On the other hand, Saul’s formal education seems to have been entirely within the native Jewish tradition, and he was sent to Jerusalem as a young man to study under Gamaliel (Acts 22: 3), the most distinguished rabbi of his time. Paul was not only, evidently, well versed in the Scriptures, but also in the Rabbinic methods of interpreting them, which sometimes present difficulties for modern readers.

He was therefore well-equipped for his later mission to take the message of a religion rooted in Judaism to a generally non-Jewish Hellenistic public.


At every stage of Israel’s history, the people of the One God had been tempted to compromise with the wider world and forget the covenant. Resisting this pressure for Saul meant becoming zealous. In his letter to the Galatians (1: 14), Paul wrote I was extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions. Nevertheless, Saul the Pharisee and Paul the Roman, it seems, did not live in complete harmony within the same skin. There are signs of psychological tension; in early life, the Pharisee was uppermost. He recites with pride the privileges of the chosen people:

They are Israelites; they were made God’s sons; theirs is the splendour of the divine presence, theirs the covenants, the law, the temple worship, and the promises. (Rom. 9: 4, NEB)

Not only was he proud of the Hebrew people, but he was also proud beyond measure of his own standing as a Jew:

Israelite by race, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born and bred: in my attitude to the law a Pharisee, in pious zeal a persecutor of the church, in legal rectitude faultless (Phil. 3: 5-6).

In another retrospect on his early life he added a significant claim:

In the practice of our national religion I was outstripping many of my Jewish contemporaries in my boundless devotion to the traditions of my ancestors (Gal. 1: 14).

That tells us something powerful about the man; from a young age, he had possessed an irresistible drive to excel, to be distinguished. It was necessary to his self-respect that he should himself as the perfect Pharisee: in legal rectitude faultless. This has led to some Judaistic readers to suggest that there was something extravagant or abnormal in Paul’s account of his pre-Damascene phase. The time came when he himself was forced to confess to himself that this was fantasy, not reality. He was not faultless, and his efforts in pursuit of perfection had been self-defeating:

When I want to do the right, only the wrong is within my reach. In my inmost self I delight in the law of God, but I perceive that there is in my bodily members a different law, fighting against the law that my reason approves. (Rom. 7: 21 f.).

Yet by the time Paul was studying in Jerusalem, it was clear that the Abrahamic ‘project’, Israel’s ancestral vocation, was at the point where it needed rescuing. Some Jews had returned to Palestine from Babylon, while others were scattered all over the known world. But the cry went up from one generation to the next over the four centuries to the time of the Roman occupation: We are still in exile! Exile was not just a geographical reality; it was a state of mind and heart, of politics and practicalities, of spirit and flesh. As long as pagans were ruling over Jews, and demanding taxes from them, and profaning their Holy Place, the Jews were again in exile. Since the exile was the result of Israel’s idolatry, according to the prophets, what they needed was not just a new Passover, a new rescue from slavery to pagan tyrants: they needed forgiveness. As Tom Wright has put it, …

That was the good news the prophets had spoken of, the word of comfort at every level from the spiritual to the physical. … When the One God finally puts away the idolatry and wickedness that caused his people to be exiled in the first place, then his people will be ‘free at last’, Passover people with a difference.

That was the ancient hope which Saul of Tarsus cherished along with thousands of his fellow Jews, by no means all of whom were as ‘zealous’ as he was. Few had his intellectual gifts, but they were, like him, very well aware, through scripture and liturgy, of the tensions between those promises and their present predicament. Theirs was a religious culture suffused with hope, albeit long deferred. That was the great narrative in which they lived out their daily lives in their heads and their hearts, giving shape and energy to their aspirations and motivations. Paul sought a means of working out his inner conflict in action, and it was this that made him, at first, a persecutor. His first contact with the new sect of the ‘Nazarenes’, it appears, was one of the most radical and aggressive representatives, a Hellenistic Jew (like Paul himself) named Stephen, who was reported to be…

… forever saying things against the holy place and the law … saying that Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place (the Temple) and alter the customs handed down to us by Moses (Acts 6: 13 f.)


This was an act which impugned the most sacred pledges of Israel’s status as God’s chosen people. And when it appeared that these sectaries hailed Jesus of Nazareth as God’s Messiah, this was sheer blasphemy. Did not the Law say, cursed is everyone who is hanged on a gibbet (Gal. 3: 13)? These people were dragging the glory of Israel into the mire: they were enemies of the Temple and the Torah, enemies of Israel, enemies of Israel’s God. Jerusalem’s Temple, like the wilderness Tabernacle before it, was designed as a small working model of the entire cosmos. This was where the One God of creation would live, dwelling in the midst of his people. When the Temple was destroyed, this vision was shattered, but the prophets had declared that God would one day return and that the people should prepare for that day. Yet the Jews of Saul’s day found themselves in the long, puzzling interval between the time when the One God had abandoned the Temple and the time when he would return in glory, bringing heaven and earth together at last. Seers, mystics and poets wrote of dreams and visions whose subject matter was the rescue of Israel and the final saving ‘revelation’ (apokalypsis in Greek) of the One God. This was the world in which Saul of Tarsus, heir to these traditions, practised his fierce and loyal devotion to Israel’s God. This was how he could keep hope alive and perhaps even to glimpse its fulfilment in advance.

Locating him within this world is not a matter of psychoanalysis, but of history. We are trying to think our way into the mind of a zealous young Jew determined to do God’s will whatever its cost, eager to purge Israel from idolatry and sin, keen to hasten the time when God would come back to rule his world with justice and righteousness. All the fear and hatred that Saul felt for that in himself which was ‘fighting against the Law’ could now be directed upon overt enemies. Stephen was stoned to death, with Saul as an accessory. This was only a beginning. With characteristic determination to outstrip everyone else in his zeal for the Law, Saul obtained from the high priest a commission to hunt the heretics down wherever they might be found (Acts 9: 1 f.).

The Followers of ‘The Way’ & The Road to Damascus:


According to Acts, the Sanhedrin’s persecution of the first followers of ‘The Way’ (not yet calling themselves Christians) collapsed when Saul had his dramatic encounter with the risen Christ on the way to Damascus, and became Paul, on a permanent basis. The incredible happened, apparently. Paul was struck blind and heard the voice of Christ speaking to him and was suddenly converted to the faith of ‘The Way’. Going into hiding with those he had planned to persecute, he had his sight restored. Wright suggests that this ‘apocalyptic’ event needs to be set in the context of Saul’s seeking, through prayer and meditation, to inhabit for himself the strange old traditions of heaven-and-earth commerce, to become in mind, soul and body, a visionary whose inner eye, and perhaps whose outer eye, might glimpse the ultimate mystery. The practice of this kind of meditation was something one might well do on the long, hot journey from Jerusalem to Damascus.


When this news got back to Jerusalem, it stunned the Sanhedrin, infuriating them beyond measure. They ordered an all-out drive to seize him and kill him on sight. In a complete reversal of circumstances, the hunter became the hunted. Paul went into hiding himself, appealing for aid from Christ’s disciples. Not unnaturally, they feared this might be a ploy by a man they knew to be clever, cruel and unscrupulous to uncover their secret network of survivors of his own terror, but they finally complied, lowering him over the wall of the city with a rope (Acts 9: 25). The effects of his conversion experience on both his career and the passage of history in which he played his part are open to observation. It is evident that it brought a resolution to his personal predicament. His attempt to resolve it by externalising his inner conflict had proved to be no solution at all. He now found real reconciliation of the contending forces in his soul through his reconciliation with the ‘enemies’ he had been pursuing with such pious hatred. He threw in his lot with them and with ‘Jesus whom he was persecuting’. But to do so meant standing with one who was under the curse of the ‘Law’: it was to become an ‘outlaw’. He wrote that he had been crucified with Christ (Gal. 2: 20).


It was the most complete break possible with his past self. It took all meaning out of the desperate struggle to see himself in legal rectitude faultless. He could now accept himself as he was, aware of his weaknesses yet willing to stand at the disposal of his new Master. He wrote of how we make it our ambition to be acceptable to him (II Cor. 5: 9). This was a different type of ‘ambition’ from that which had spurred him on to outstrip his Jewish contemporaries. It was the displacement of self from the centre, which proved to be the removal of a heavy burden. But above all it was a liberating experience: ‘Christ set us free, to be free men’ (Gal. 5: 1). It shows itself in an expansion of the range of his interests and energies, no longer restricted by Jewish nationalism and orthodoxy. For an Orthodox Jew who lived the life of a great Greek city, relations with Gentiles were always problematic. Paul was repressing his natural instincts in maintaining the degree of separation from his Gentile fellow-citizens which ‘legal rectitude’ seemed to require. Now he could give those instincts free rein. From the moment of his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, he knew that the ‘dividing wall’ was broken down and that he must ‘go to the Gentiles’. Thus the main direction of his new mission was decided from the outset, though it may have been some years before the required strategy was worked out. The rest of what happened to him after this escape with the disciples, as St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, is well-known, not just from the narratives in Acts, but also from his own letters. But we are scantily informed about his early years as a Christian, and the skeleton outline of the Acts tells us little. All that we have from the man himself are his recollections and reflections on the situations into which his missionary career had brought him.

Similarly, the drama of Saul’s Damascene conversion fits too neatly with the need for an early Christian account of a new departure, schism or breakaway in what, in reality, was a gradual evolution of Christianity from Judaism. At first, Christians were regarded as a Jewish sect by both Jews and Gentiles. This led to opposition and persecution of the church by the Jewish authorities, who objected to its doctrines and the admission of Gentiles without their accepting the Law. Yet since Jews were also already scattered in communities throughout the Empire and beyond, they provided Christian missionaries with an entry into the Gentile world. It was not until three years after his conversion that Paul returned to Jerusalem (Gal. 1: 17-19). At that time he stayed for a fortnight with Peter (or ‘Cephas’, as he calls him, using the Aramaic name given to him by Jesus) and also met James, ‘the Lord’s brother’. These would be able to tell him much at first-hand about Jesus. His stay in Jerusalem seems to have been cut short. however, and he then spent a period of about a dozen years in ‘the regions of Cilicia and Syria’ (Gal. 1: 21). Perhaps some of the adventures he recalls later in life belong to that period, but Acts records only his return to Tarsus, in Cilicia (9: 30) and his removal to Antioch, in Syria (Acts 11: 25 f.). It was with his arrival in the Syrian capital, where Jesus’ followers were first given the nickname ‘Christian’, that the story of his missionary journeys really begins.


The Synagogues; The Judaeo-Palestinian Converts & The Antiochene Church:

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Above: Paul regularly used the local synagogue as his starting-point when bringing the gospel to a new place. Later, the bridges between Jews and Christians were broken. This reconstructed second-century synagogue is at Sardis, in modern-day Turkey.


Since these first missionaries, such as Paul and other apostles were Jews, they used the synagogues, both inside and outside Judea and Palestine as ready-made centres for evangelism. Paul regularly used the local synagogue as the starting point for bringing the gospel to a new place. Recent archaeological evidence at Capernaum and elsewhere in Palestine supports the view that early Christians were allowed to use the synagogues for their own meetings for worship. Although most of their fellow Jews remained unconverted, many God-fearing Gentiles, who were attracted to Judaism but had not gone through the ritual of total integration into the Jewish community, became Christian converts. In fact, in spite of the growing divergence between the church and the synagogue, the Christian communities worshipped and operated essentially as Jewish synagogues for more than a generation. Apart from the period of the Jewish wars, the Roman Empire enjoyed three hundred years of peace and general prosperity. This was known as the Pax Romana, the Roman peace. It allowed both Christians and Jews great freedom to travel throughout the Mediterranean world along superbly engineered roads and under the protection of the Roman government. Paul was able to do this until the final years of his life, but he was only the first of many missionaries. Equally, pilgrims to Jerusalem were able to travel in the opposite direction. This was part of the reason why Paul emphasised the importance of good government.


The ‘Christian’ community at Antioch included a substantial proportion of non-Jewish converts from paganism. The division between Jew and Gentile, from the Jewish point of view, was greater than any other social or cultural division, more important even than the other two distinctions that run through the whole ancient world, those between slave and free, on the one hand, and male and female on the other. Different Jewish community leaders would draw the lines between Jew and non-Jew at different places. Business dealings might be fine, but business partnerships might be frowned upon. Friendships were tolerated, but not intermarriage. The lines might be blurred, broken or redrawn, but they were still there. Underneath it all, there was still a sense of difference, of “them and us.” Social and cultural indicators would provide visible markers. What you ate, and who you ate with were the most obvious of these, but there were others too. From a Gentile perspective, non-Jewish writers of the day sneered at the Jews for their ‘Sabbath’, claiming that they just wanted a “lazy day” once a week. The fact that Jews didn’t eat pork, the meat most ordinarily available, looked like a ploy to appear socially superior. Jewish males were circumcised, so if they participated in the gymnasium, which normally meant going naked, they might expect taunts.

Beneath these social indicators was the more deeply seated non-Jewish suspicion that the Jews were, in reality, atheists. They didn’t worship the gods, didn’t turn out for the great festivals, didn’t go to parties at the pagan temples and didn’t offer animal sacrifices at local shrines. They claimed that there was only one true Temple, the one in Jerusalem, but rumours abounded, going back to the time when the Roman general Pompey had marched into the Holy of Holies, that the Jews had no image, no statue of their god. Hence the charge of atheism, which was not so much one of theological belief (since the authorities tolerated a whole range of beliefs) but a practical one. The gods mattered for the life and health of the community as a whole. If bad things happened, it was because the gods were angry, probably because people hadn’t been taking them seriously and offering the required worship. People who didn’t believe in the gods were, therefore, placing the entire city, the whole culture or the whole known world at risk. The Jews had their answers for all this, and Saul would have grown up knowing these debates well. After his move to Antioch, he must have heard them repeated with wearying familiarity. “Our God,” the Jews would have said, …

“… is the One God who made the whole world. He cannot be represented by a human-made image. We will demonstrate who he is by the way we live. If we join the world around in worshipping the local divinities – let alone in worshipping the Roman emperor (as people were starting to do when Saul was growing up) – we will be making the mistake our ancestors made.”

In fact, a significant minority of Gentiles admired the Jews for their integrity in this respect, preferring their clear lines of belief and behaviour to the dark muddles of paganism. Many of them attached themselves to the synagogue communities as “God-fearers.” Some went all the way to full conversion as “proselytes.” But the Jews were clear about the fact that, if they compromised with the pagan world around them, however ‘compromise’ might have been defined in any particular city or household, they would be giving up their heritage, and with it their hope for a new world, for the One God to become king at last. So what would the diaspora Jewish communities in Tarsus or Antioch think of the suggestion that the One God had already done what he had promised by sending a Messiah to be crucified? What would this mean for Jewish identity? Was this ‘good news’ simply for the Jewish people, or might it be for everyone?

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Syrian Antioch, even more than Tarsus, was exactly the kind of place where these questions would rise quickly to the surface. It boasted a busy, bustling mixture of cultures, ethnic groups and religious traditions, including a substantial Jewish population. The Roman General Pompey had made it the capital of the new province of Syria, and Julius Caesar had raised it to the level of an autonomous city. With a population of around a quarter of a million, it was widely regarded in antiquity as the third or fourth city of the East, after Alexandria, Seleucia and later Constantinople. It was a classic ‘melting-pot’ in which every kind of social and cultural group was represented.

It isn’t difficult to imagine the crowded streets, the markets selling exotic fruit as well as local produce, the traders and travellers, foreigners in strange costumes and the temples on every street corner. It wasn’t surprising that some of the early followers of Jesus had found their way there, considering that everyone else had. Nor was it surprising that they were eager to share the ‘good news’ of Jesus with non-Jews as well as Jews. If the Jewish scriptures had seen the coming king as Lord of the whole world, how could membership in this kingdom be for Jews only?

Some of the believers who had come to Antioch from Cyprus and Cyrene saw no reason for any such limitation. They went about telling the non-Jews about Jesus as well. A large number of such people believed the message, abandoned their pagan ways and switched their allegiance to the Christ as Lord. Many Jews would have naturally supposed that these Gentiles would then have to become full Jews. If they were sharing in the ancient promises, ought they not to share in its ancient customs as well? What sort of common life ought this new community to develop? The introduction of this Gentile element in Antioch had no doubt acted as a stimulant, and it is not surprising that they soon found themselves impelled to reach out to a still wider public in the Graeco-Roman world. For this task, they selected a Cypriot Jew of the tribe of Levi, Joseph, known as Barnabas (Acts 4:36 f.; 11: 22-24; 13: 2.), a nickname given to him by the church in Jerusalem which means “son of encouragement.” He was one of those early followers of Jesus who had the gift of enabling others to flourish. The Jerusalem church had sent him to Antioch to see what was going on there.

002 (4)Good-hearted Barnabas (pictured in a recent film portrayal by Franco Nero, right) was not the sort to jump instinctively to a negative response, to reach for familiar prejudices just because something was new. He could see the transformed lives and transparent faith of the Gentile believers which were the work of divine grace, reaching out in generous love to people of every background and origin.

Barnabas shared Paul’s belief that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ had broken down the barriers to Gentile inclusion in God’s kingdom. The evidence of a new dynamic in worship and of the love which meant shared obligations of mutual support told its own story to Barnabas. Others from Jerusalem, faced with the same evidence, might have reached a different conclusion. They would have urged the believers in Antioch to restrict themselves to their own ethnic groups, at least for mealtimes and perhaps even for the Lord’s meal, the “breaking of bread.” Many Jews would have assumed that Gentiles still carried contagious pollution from their culture of idolatry and immorality. But as far as Barnabas was concerned, what mattered was the depth of their belief and allegiance to the Lord. This new community was not defined by genealogy, but by the Lord himself, and what counted as a sure sign of their belonging to Him was loyalty and ‘faithfulness’.

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Paul was an obvious choice to join him as a companion since Barnabas had first introduced him to the Antiochene church (Acts 11: 25 f.). They were therefore at the centre of the controversies there and became firm friends. The vibrant and excited group of Jesus-followers in Antioch was doing something radically counter-cultural, experimenting with a whole new way of being human, and Barnabas and Paul would have to help them think through what that really meant. In this way, the friendship between the two ‘brothers in Christ’ helped to shape Paul’s mind and teaching, leading to what, with long hindsight, we might call Christian theology. It had been a decade since Saul had gone to Tarsus, after his brief time in Damascus and Jerusalem. We don’t know whether anyone in either Jerusalem had seen or heard of him during that time, but Barnabas had a strong sense that he was the right man for the job. This was the beginning of a partnership that would launch the first recorded official ‘mission’ of the new movement. He worked with Barnabas and the local leaders in Antioch for a whole year, teaching and guiding the growing community.

002 (6)The pair was then sent to Jerusalem with a gift of money for the Jerusalem believers, who were suffering from their decade-long persecution by the authorities and struggling to stay alive at a time of widespread famine in AD 46-47. Paul’s own retrospective account of the visit (Gal. 2: 1-10) ends with the Jerusalem leaders admonishing him to go on “remembering the poor.”

While there, Paul argued his case for inclusion of the Gentiles in the koinonia (international fellowship). The three central ‘pillars’ of the Jerusalem church; James (brother of Jesus), Peter and John, all agreed that they would continue to restrict their mission to the Jewish people in ancient Israel, while Paul, Barnabas and their friends in Antioch could continue their work among the Gentiles of the Mediterranean world.

Into Asia Minor – The First Missionary Journey:



The junior colleague soon slipped into the leading role for which his vigour and discernment marked him out. Thus began what is commonly referred to as his ‘First Missionary Journey’ which first took the two to Cyprus (Acts 13: 4-12) and then on as far as the interior of Asia Minor, and in particular to a group of towns in the southern corner of the province of Galatia (Acts 13: 14,51; 14: 6 f.). We can date this journey roughly to AD 47-48.


Above: It was through country such as this (in modern Turkey) that Paul and his companions, Barnabas and John Mark, travelled into central Asia Minor on their first arduous mission. They founded a number of churches in Galatia.

In the first of these towns, Antioch-towards-Pisidia (Acts 13: 15-50) the apostles began with an address in the synagogue to a congregation which included both Jews and ‘Gentile worshippers’. The latter was a group of people, now fairly numerous in many Hellenistic cities, as in Antioch, who were attracted to by Judaism to attend the synagogue services, without becoming regular ‘proselytes’ and members of the ‘commonwealth of Israel’. They showed a lively interest which spread to circles without previous association with the synagogue. From his letters, we can gather that Paul suggested that these people could become full members of the people of God without submitting to the Jewish Law, by joining the Christian church. This provoked a violent reaction from stricter Jews, however, who could only see this new preaching as a threat to their way of life. They denounced Paul and Barnabas as false teachers leading Israel astray.

002 (5)Paul’s response was to quote Isaiah 49: I have set you for a light to the nations so that you can be salvation-bringers to the end of the earth. This delighted the non-Jews who had heard his message: they were free to belong to God’s ancient people. But this, in turn, strengthened Jewish reaction, producing an altogether more serious turn of events.

Both the leading Jews and the leading citizens of the town saw the threat of real civic disorder. When opposition turned to violence, this was sufficient to cause the missionaries to leave the town in a hurry, symbolically shaking the dust off their feet as they did so, but also leaving behind them the beginnings of a new community filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. After that experience, however, the missionaries put out a statement of policy, making it clear to the Jewish communities in the cities they were to visit that:

It was necessary that the word of God should be declared to you first, but since you reject it … we now turn to the Gentiles (Acts 13: 46).


002 (2)This principle, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek (Rom. 1: 16; 2: 9 f.) was the principle that guided Paul’s ministry and expressed many times in his letters. In his letter to the Romans, he provided a theological justification for it (Rom. 11: 1-27). The outcome of this tour was the foundation of several communities, largely Gentile in membership, and the unleashing of Jewish hostility to Paul’s mission which was to follow him wherever he went, and to finally bring his active career to an end. When Paul and Barnabas found themselves facing people in remote highlands of ancient Anatolia with a strange language and religion, they became overnight heroes when Paul healed a man who had been crippled since birth (depicted above). As the pagan crowd began to worship them, they remonstrated with it that this was not the purpose of their mission. At that point, Jews from the towns where they had already been who had followed them there, told the pagan crowd in the town of Lystra what they thought about the missionaries:

That turned the crowd against them, and they started to throw stones at Paul. They thought they had killed him, and dragged him outside the town. Paul’s friends stood round him; they, too, thought he was dead. But he got up and went back into the town. (Acts 14: 8-20)


Illustration by Trevor Stubley of the stoning of Paul at Lystra,

for Alan T Dale’s Portrait of Jesus (OUP, 1979).

Paul explained to his friends that this kind of suffering was precisely the sign of the two world’s colliding; they are on the cusp of a new world, and if this is what it costs, so be it. Despite these trials and tribulations, what they had witnessed before in Syrian Antioch – the creation of a new community in which Jews and Gentiles were able to live together because all that previously separated them had been dealt with on the cross – had come true in city after city. At the heart of Paul’s message was radical messianic eschatology. ‘Eschatology’ because God’s long-awaited new day had dawned; ‘Messianic’, since Jesus was the true son of David, announced as such in his resurrection and bringing to completion the purposes announced to Abraham and extended by the psalmists and the prophets to embrace the whole world; ‘Radical’ in the sense that nothing in the backgrounds of either Paul or Barnabas had prepared them for the new state of affairs they were facing. The fact that they believed it was what the One God had always planned did not reduce their own sense of awe and astonishment.

What they could not have foreseen, as they travelled back through the southern part of the province of Galatia and then sailed home to Syria, was that the new reality they had witnessed would become the focus of sharp controversy even among Jesus’s followers and that the two of them would find themselves on opposite sides of that controversy as it boiled over. The missionaries returned to the church which had commissioned them at Antioch-on-the-Orontes (Acts 14: 25-28). Barnabas chose to return to Cyprus (Acts 15: 39). Paul took on Silas as his new travelling companion and colleague. He was a member of the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15: 22 f.), but a Hellenistic Jew and possibly, like Paul himself, a Roman citizen.

(to be continued…)

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Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part Five   Leave a comment

Part Five – The Peasants’ War of 1525: A Puritan Revolution?

The causes of the German Peasants’ War have been a subject of controversy among historians for a considerable time. They generally agree that the background of the rising of 1525 resembled that of the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, rather than the Puritan revolts of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, in which men and women of lower orders in society were also involved. Neither did the Peasants’ War in Germany resemble previous local revolts among the Jacquerie of France which were usually of a purely local nature, related to abuses of feudal rights by particular lords. For one thing, the German peasant class was not uniformly impoverished; the initiative for the redress of grievances came not from the downtrodden, but rather from the more prosperous and enterprising, possessed themselves of both lands and a respectable competence in farming them. In fact, the well-being of the German peasantry throughout the territories was better than it had ever been, and those who took the initiative in the insurrection, far from being driven on by sheer misery and desperation, belonged to a rising and self-confident class. They were people whose position was improving both socially and economically and who, for that very reason, were impatient for the obstacles which stood in the way of their further advance to be removed.

It is therefore hardly surprising that in their efforts to remove these obstacles for themselves, the peasants showed that they were not at all eschatologically minded but, on the contrary, politically minded in the sense that they thought in terms of real situations and realizable possibilities. The most that a peasant community ever sought under the leadership of its own peasant aristocracy was local self-government. The first stage of the movement, from March 1525 to the beginning of May, consisted simply of a series of local struggles in which a great number of communities really did extract from their immediate lords, ecclesiastical or lay, concessions giving them greater autonomy. This was achieved, not through bloodshed but by an intensification of the tough, hard-headed bargaining which the peasantry had been conducting for generations.

Underlying the rising there was, however, a deeper conflict. With the progressive collapse of the royal power, the German state had disintegrated into a welter of discordant and often warring feudal authorities. But by 1525 this condition of near anarchy was approaching its end, for the great territorial princes were busily creating their absolutist principalities. The peasantry saw its traditional way of life disrupted and its inherited rights threatened by the development of new types of states. It resented the additional taxes, the substitution of Roman Law for ‘custom’, the interference of centralised administration in local affairs, and it fought back. The law was being unified by displacing the local codes in favour of Roman Law whereby the peasant again suffered since that Law knew only private property and therefore imperilled the commons – the woods, streams and meadows shared by the community in old Germanic tradition. The Roman Law also only had three categories of peasant – free men, freedmen and slaves. It had no category which quite fitted the medieval serf.

The princes, for their part, realized clearly enough that the peasantry stood in their way of their plans for state-building and that the peasant insurrection offered them a chance to assert and consolidate their authority. It was they, or rather a particular group of them, who saw to it that the rising ended catastrophically, in a series of battles or massacres, in which perhaps as many as a hundred thousand peasants were killed. It was also those princely dynasties which gained most from the reduction alike of the peasantry, the lower nobility and the ecclesiastical foundations to a condition of hopeless dependence which was to last for centuries.

Another change, associated with the revival of commerce in cities after the crusades, was the substitution of exchange in coin for exchange in kind. The increased demand in precious metals enhanced their value; the peasants, who had at first benefited from the payment of a fixed sum of money rather than a percentage in kind, found themselves hurt by deflation. Those who could not meet the imposts sank from freeholders to renters, and from renters to serfs. The solution which at first presented itself to the peasants was simply to resist the changes as they operated in their society and return to ‘the good old ways’. They did not, to begin with, demand the abolition of serfdom but only the prevention of any further extension of peonage. They demanded a return to the free use of the woods, waters and meadows; the reduction of imposts and the reinstatement of ancient Germanic law and local custom. The methods used in the attainment of these ends were at first conservative. On the occasion of a special grievance, the peasants would assemble in thousands in quite spontaneous fashion and would present their petitions to the rulers with a request for arbitration. Not infrequently the petition was received in a patriarchal manner and the burdens were in some measure eased, yet never to the extent of forestalling a future recurrence.

Somewhat inevitably, therefore, the peasants’ demands began to go beyond economic amelioration to political programmes designed to ensure an influence commensurate with and even exceeding their economic importance. The demands also changed as the movement worked north to the region around the big bend of the Rhine where peasants were also townsmen, since artisans were farmers. In this area, urban aspirations were added to agrarian concerns. Further down the Rhine, the struggle became almost wholly urban, and the characteristic programme called for a more democratic complexion in the town councils, a less restrictive membership in the guilds, the subjection of the clergy to civil burdens and uncurtailed rights for citizens to engage in brewing.

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Many of these demands had coalesced in a movement in Alsace which had taken place just prior to the Reformation. This movement had used the symbol which became characteristic of the Peasants’ War of 1525. This was the Bundschuh, deriving its name from the traditional leather shoe of the peasant. The word had a double meaning because Bund was also the word for an ‘association’ or ‘covenant’. Müntzer had already used for his ‘covenant of the elect’ and before that, the peasants had adopted the term for a ‘compact’ of revolution. The aims of this Bundschuh had centred not so much on economics as on politics. Its adherents believed that ‘the axe should be laid to the root of the tree’ and all government abolished save that of the pope and the emperor. These were the two traditional ‘swords of Christendom’, the joint rulers of a universal society. To them, the little men had always turned for protection against overlords, bishops, metropolitans, knights and princes. The Bundschuh proposed to complete the process by wiping out all the intermediate grades and leaving only the two great lords, Caesar and the Apostle.


Prior to the Peasants’ War of 1525, therefore, this movement was often anticlerical, but not anti-Catholic. Bishops and Abbots were resented as great landowners and exploiters, but “Down with the bishop” did not mean “Down with the Church.” The banners of the Bundschuh often carried, besides the shoe, some religious symbol, such as a picture of the Virgin, a crucifix, or a papal tiara. The woodcut shown below shows the crucifix resting on a black shoe. On the right, a group of peasants are tilling the soil, and Abraham is sacrificing Isaac, a sign of the potential cost of being a member of the Bund. A movement so religiously minded could not but be affected by the Reformation. Luther’s Freedom of the Christian Man was purely religious but could very readily be given a social turn. The ‘priesthood of all believers’ did not mean for him egalitarianism, but it did for Carlstadt. Luther had certainly blasted usury and in 1524 had come out with another tract on the subject, in which he also attacked the subterfuge of annuities, a device whereby capital was loaned in perpetuity for an annual return. His attitude on monasticism likewise admirably suited peasant covetousness for the spoliation of cloisters. The peasants, with good reason, felt strongly drawn to Luther. 


The part played by Thomas Müntzer in the Peasants’ War as a whole has often been exaggerated. The main theatres of the struggle were the areas where the development of the new states had gone the furthest. These all lay in southern and western Germany, which had already seen many peasant risings in the years before 1525; there, Müntzer seems to have had no influence at all. In Thuringia however, the situation was a peculiar one, for there had been no previous peasant revolts and there was little sign of an impending revolt even in 1525. The insurrection came very late and took a curiously anarchic form. Whereas in the south and west the peasants had conducted themselves in an orderly and disciplined fashion, in Thuringia they formed small, unorganised bands which scoured the countryside, looting and burning monasteries and convents. It may well be that these outbreaks were encouraged, if not caused, by the agitation which Müntzer had been conducting.

The hardcore of Müntzer’s following still consisted of the League of the Elect. Some of his congregation from Allstedt joined him at Mühlhausen and no doubt helped him in building up a new organisation. Above all, he continued to rely on the workers from the copper-mines at Mansfeld, who had joined the League in their hundreds. These workers, often recruited from abroad, often migrants, often exposed to unemployment and every kind of insecurity, were notoriously prone to revolutionary excitement, just as were the weavers, and they were correspondingly dreaded by the authorities. That he was able to command such a following naturally gave Müntzer a great reputation as a revolutionary leader; so that, if in Mühlhausen itself he never rivalled Pfeiffer in influence, in the context of the peasant insurrection he loomed far larger. Although, as their written demands clearly show, the Thuringian peasants did not share Müntzer’s millenarian fantasies, they certainly looked up to him as the one famous, learned and pious man who had unreservedly thrown in his lot with theirs. They certainly had no other leader.

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When the ‘great upheaval’ came in 1525, the polemical papalist cartoonists lost no time in portraying Luther as the leader of the Bundschuh, and the Catholic princes never ceased to hold him responsible for the uprising. Some historians have also tried to prove that Luther was actually the author of the movement which he so vehemently repudiated. Such an explanation fails to take account of more than a century of agrarian unrest which preceded the Reformation.

One contributory factor as to why the revolts were so widespread in 1525, which had nothing to do with Luther or his Reformation, was astrology, which had remained an important feature of medieval life alongside the Church. Medicine, in particular, was largely determined by the theory of the four humours, relating the bodily fluids to the movements of the planets and stars. Since ancient times, heavenly signs were taken to be harbingers and forebodings of great events.

Astrological speculation may well explain why so many uprisings were in the constellation of the occurred in 1524-25, as it was in 1524 that all planets were in the constellation of the Fish. This had been foreseen twenty years earlier and a great disturbance had been predicted for that year. As the time approached, the foreboding was so intense that in 1523 no fewer than fifty-one tracts were published on the subject. Woodcuts like the one below displayed the fish in the heavens and upheavals upon earth. The peasants with their banners and flails watch on one side, while on the other the emperor, the pope and the ecclesiastics all gather. Some peasant leaders held back from taking action before 1524 in the hope that the emperor would call an imperial diet to redress their grievances in 1524. The Diet of Nürnberg had taken place in March 1523 and had deferred action on reform until a second diet could be called to issue an Edict on 18 April 1524. This did nothing to deal with peasant grievances, however, and another diet was not due until the summer of 1526. In the meantime, the ‘great fish’ unloosed the waters upon the peasants, princes, prelates and papacy.


All this was foreign superstition to Luther, if not entirely to Melanchthon, but at the same time, he could not claim a complete dissociation with the outbreak of the Peasants’ War. The attempts to enforce the imperial edicts through the arrest of Lutheran pastors were often the immediate cause of assemblies of peasant bands to demand their release. Luther was regarded as a friend by these peasants, and when some of them were asked to name persons whom they would accept as their arbiters, the first name on the list was Martin Luther. No formal court was ever established to try the peasants for rebellion, and no legal judgement was ever given. But Luther himself did pronounce a verdict on their demands as couched in the most popular of their manifestoes, The Twelve Articles, first distributed in March 1525. These opened with conciliatory phrases reminiscent of those used by Luther himself in his Address to the German Nobility and On the Freedom of the Christian Man of 1520:

To the Christian reader, peace and the grace of God through Christ… The gospel is not a cause of rebellion and disturbance… If it be the will of God to hear the peasants, who will resist his Majesty? Did he not hear the children of Israel and deliver them out of the hand of Pharaoh? 

The first articles have to do with the Church. The congregation should have the right to appoint and remove the minister, who is to preach the Holy Gospel without human addition, a phrase which sounds as if Luther could have written it. Ministers were to be supported on a modest stipend by congregations out of the so-called great tithe on produce. The surplus should go to relieve the poor and to obviate emergency taxation in war. The so-called little tithe on cattle should be abolished, for the Lord God created cattle for the free use of man. The main articles embodied the old agrarian programme of common fields, forests and waters. The farmer should be free to hunt, to fish, and to protect his lands against game. Under supervision, he might take wood for fuel and building. Death dues, which impoverish the widow and orphan by requisitioning the best cloak or the best cow, were to be abolished. Rents should be revised in accord with the productivity of the land. New laws should not displace the old, and the community meadows should not pass into private hands.

The only article which exceeded the old demands was the one calling for the total abolition of serfdom. Land should be held on lease with stipulated conditions. If any labour in excess of the agreement was exacted by the lord, he should pay for it on a wage basis. The Twelve Articles conceded that any demand not consonant with the Word of God should be null. The whole programme was a conservative one, in line with the traditional feudal economy. Notably, there was no attack on legitimate government. The evangelical tone of the articles pleased Luther, but in addressing the peasants he disparaged most of their demands. As to the right of the congregation to choose its own pastor, it would depend on whether they would pay his stipend. The abolition of tithes would be highway robbery and the abrogation of serfdom would be turning Christian liberty into a thing of the flesh.


Having thus criticised their programme, Luther then turned to the means envisaged for its realisation. Under no circumstances, Luther declared, must the common man seize the sword on his own behalf. If each man were to take justice into his own hands, there would be neither authority, government, nor order nor land, but only murder and bloodshed. But all this was not intended to justify the unspeakable wrongs perpetrated by the rulers. To the princes, Luther addressed an appeal in which he justified many more of the peasant demands than he had done when speaking to them. He told them that the will of the congregation should be respected in the choice of a minister, just as he had told the peasants that they should not rebel against the opinion of the prince. The demands of the peasants for redress of their grievances were fair and just and the princes had no-one but themselves to blame for these disorders. They had done nothing but disport themselves in grandeur while robbing and flaying their subjects. The true solution was by the traditional means of arbitration.

But neither side was disposed to take that course and Luther’s prediction was all too abundantly fulfilled, that nothing would ensue but murder and bloodshed. Luther had long since declared that he would not support the private citizen taking up arms, however just the cause, since such means inevitably entailed wrong to the innocent. He could not envisage an orderly revolution, much less a nonviolent one. Indeed, it is difficult for historians to envisage how there could have been one in the early sixteenth century, or even in the following century, given the amount of bloodshed in wars and rebellions throughout Europe. The Peasants’ War lacked the cohesion of the Puritan Revolution because there was no clear-cut programme and no coherent leadership. Some groups wanted a peasant dictatorship, some a classless society, some a return to feudalism, some the abolition of all rulers except the pope and the emperor.

The separate bands were not coordinated; their chiefs were sometimes peasants, sometimes sectaries, like Müntzer, and sometimes even knights. There was not even unity in religion since there were ‘Papalists’ and ‘Lutherans’ on both sides, though the distinction was not yet a clear one. In Alsace, where the programme called for the elimination of the pope, the struggle took on the complexion of a religious war. The Duke and his brother, the Cardinal, hunted the peasants as unbelieving, divisive, undisciplined Lutherans, ravaging like Huns and Vandals. There can be no question that the hordes were undisciplined, interested mainly in pillaging castles and cloisters, raiding game, and depleting fish ponds. The drawing below of the plundering of a cloister is typical of the Peasants’ War. Observe the group in the upper left with a net in the fish pond. Some are carrying off provisions. The bloodshed does not appear to be considerable, though one man has lost a hand. At various points peasants are guzzling and vomiting, justifying the stricture that the struggle was not so much a peasants’ war as a ‘wine fest’.

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A further glimpse of the peasants’ behaviour is revealed in a letter from an abbess who says that her cloister was raided until not an egg nor a pat of butter was left. Through their windows, the nuns could see the populace being abused and the smoke rising from burning castles. When the war ended, seventy cloisters had been demolished in Thuringia, in Franconia 270 castles and 52 cloisters. When the Palatinate succumbed to the peasants, the disorder was so great that their own leaders had to invite the former authorities to return to assist in the restoration of order. But the authorities preferred to wait until the peasants had first been beaten.

There was no one individual, not even the emperor, who could have carried through an alternative, constructive plan for bringing the peasants into the new economic and political order of the sixteenth century. The only other man who was sufficiently well-known and trusted throughout Germany was Martin Luther, but he refused, not out of cowardice but because he believed that it was the role of the magistrate to keep the peace. The magistrate must also, if necessary, wield the sword. It was certainly not for him to forsake his ministry for the sword and, by leading the peasants, to establish a new theocracy of the saints to replace the papal one he had not yet fully demolished. That would be a betrayal of his territorial Reformation.


Yet Luther would never have condemned the peasants quite so savagely had it not been that there was someone else who aspired to the role he himself rejected. In Saxony there would have been no Peasants’ War  without Thomas Müntzer. After all his wanderings across Germany to Bohemia and the Swiss borders, he had now, at last, found in the peasants the Bund of the Elect who would slaughter the ungodly and erect the kingdom of the saints. The point was not the redress of economic grievance, which in Saxony was not as acute as elsewhere, since serfdom had long since been abolished there. Müntzer was interested in economic amelioration only for the sake of religion, and he did have the insight to see what no one else in his generation observed, that faith itself does not thrive on physical exhaustion. He renewed his attack on Luther on this point, in familiar terms:

Luther says that the poor people have enough in their faith. Doesn’t he see that usury and taxes impede the reception of the faith? He claims that the Word of God is sufficient. Doesn’t he realise that men whose every moment is consumed in the making of a living have no time to learn to read the Word of God? The princes bleed the people with usury and count as their own the fish in the stream, the bird of the air, and the grass of the field, and Dr Liar says  “Amen!” What courage has he, Dr Pussyfoot, the new pope of Wittenberg, Dr Easychair, the basking sycophant? He says there should be no rebellion because the sword has been committed by God to the ruler, but the power of the sword belongs to the whole community. In the good old days the people stood by when the judgement was rendered  lest the ruler pervert justice, and the rulers have perverted justice. They shall be cast down from their seats. The fowls of the heavens are gathering to devour their carcasses.

It was in this sort of temper that Thomas Müntzer came to Mülhausen and began fomenting a local peasants’ war. In April 1525, Müntzer set up, in the church he had been called to in Mühlhausen, a long, white silk banner bearing a rainbow as a symbol of God’s covenant and the motto, The Word of the Lord Abideth Forever. Under this, he began to preach:

Now is the time, if you be only three wholly committed unto God , you need not fear one hundred thousand. On! On! On! Spare not. Pity not the godless when they cry! Remember the command of God to Moses to destroy utterly and show no mercy. The whole countryside is in commotion. Strike! Clang! On! On!

He announced that he would shortly be marching out under this standard at the head of two thousand ‘strangers’ (real or imaginary members of his league). At the end of the month, he and Pfeiffer did take part in a marauding expedition in the course of which a number of monasteries and convents were destroyed; but this was not yet, by any means, the apocalyptic struggle of which he dreamed. In a letter which he sent to his followers at Allstedt can be recognised the same tone that was once used by John Ball in the English Peasants’ Revolt of a century and a half previously:

I tell you, if you will not suffer for God’s sake, then you must be the Devil’s martyrs. So take care! Don’t be so disheartened, supine, don’t fawn upon the perverse visionaries, the godless scoundrels! Start and fight the Lord’s fight! It’s high time. Keep all your brethren to it, so that they don’t mock the divine testimony, otherwise they must all be destroyed. All Germany, France and Italy are on the alert. The master wants to have sport, so the scoundrels must go through it. The peasants in Klettgau and Hegau and in the Black Forest have risen, three thousand strong, and the crowd is getting bigger all the time. My only fear is that the foolish fellows will let themselves be taken in by some treacherous agreement, simply because they haven’t yet seen the harm of it…

Stir up the people in villages and towns, and most of all the miners and other good fellows who will be good at the job. We must sleep no more! … Get this letter to the miners! … 

At them, at them, while the fire is hot! Don’t let your sword get cold! Don’t let it go lame! Hammer cling, clang, on Nimrod’s anvil! Throw their tower to the ground! So long as you are alive you will never shake off the fear of men. One can’t speak to you about God so long as they are reigning over you. At them, at them, while you still have daylight! God goes ahead of you, so follow, follow!

This letter shows in what fantasies Müntzer was living, for Nimrod was supposed to have built the Tower of Babel, which in turn was identified with Babylon; and he was popularly regarded not only as the first builder of cities but as the originator of private property and class distinctions, as the destroyer of the primal, egalitarian State of Nature.And to his summons to cast down Nimrod and his tower Müntzer adds a whole series of references to apocalyptic prophecies in the Bible: the prophecy of the messianic kingdom (Ezekiel xxxiv), Christ’s prophecy of his Second Coming (Matthew xxiv), the prophecy of ‘the Day of Wrath’ (Revelation vi), and, of course, ‘Daniel’s dream’. All this shows how completely, even at this late stage in Müntzer’s mission, the assumptions on which he worked and the terms in which he thought were still prescribed by the eschatological tradition. He was assuming the role of the messianic saviour.


At the same time as Müntzer and Storch, the latter recently expelled from Zwickau were preparing their followers for the Millennium, Luther was composing his ferocious pamphlet, Against the thievish, murderous gangs of the peasants. This work did much to arouse the princes of central Germany, who had so far shown far less resolution than those in the south and west. Frederick the Wise was weary, unwilling to act against the peasants, and on the point of death when he wrote to his brother John:

Perhaps the peasants have been given just occasion for their uprising through the impeding of the Word of God. In many ways the poor folk have been wronged by the rulers, and now God is visiting his wrath upon us. If it be his will, the common man will come to rule; and if it be not his will, the end will soon be otherwise. Let us then pray to God to forgive our sins, and commit the case to him. He will work it out according to his good pleasure and glory.

Brother John, for his part, yielded to the peasants in his territory the right of the government to collect tithes. He wrote back to Frederick, declaring,… as princes we are ruined. The old Elector died on 4 May and brother John succeeded him. Luther had tried to dyke the deluge by going down into the midst of the peasants to remonstrate with them, but he was met with derision and violence. It was then that he decided to write his tract in which he claimed that all hell had been let loose and all the devils had gone into the peasants, and the archdevil was in Thomas Müntzer, who does nothing else but stir up robbery, murder and bloodshed. A Christian ruler like Frederick the Wise should, indeed, search his heart and humbly pray for help against the Devil, since our warfare is not with flesh and blood but with spiritual wickedness. The prince should, indeed, exceed his duty in offering terms to the mad peasants, as John had done. If they declined, he must quickly grasp the sword. He had no use for Frederick’s plan to sit still and leave the outcome to the Lord, preferring the more pro-active approach of the Landgrave Philip of Hesse, who claimed if I hadn’t been quick on my toes, the whole movement in my district would have been out of hand in four days. In his tract, Luther wasted no words in setting out how the princes should deal with those peasants who rejected their terms:

If the peasant is in open rebellion , then he is outside the law of God, for rebellion is not simply murder, but it is like a great fire which attacks and lays waste a whole land. Thus, rebellion brings with it a land full of murders and bloodshed, makes widows and orphans, and turns everything upside down like a great disaster. 

Therefore, let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab , secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you don’t strike him, he will strike you, and the whole land with you.

Some of the princes were only too ready to smite, stab and slay; and Thomas Müntzer was only too ready to provoke them. Duke George, the new Elector John and other princes called for help from the Landgrave Philip, a young man scarcely twenty years of age, but already with a considerable reputation as a military commander, who had just put down the uprising in his own territories. He marched at once to Thuringia and headed for Mühlhausen, which the princes agreed as being the centre of the whole Thuringian insurrection. Müntzer and the peasants, eight thousand strong, had formed themselves into an army at nearby Frankenhausen. They sent word to the princes that they sought nothing but the righteousness of God and desired to avoid bloodshed. The princes replied that if they delivered up Thomas Müntzer, the rest of them would be spared. But they had already turned to Müntzer as their saviour, who seems to have chosen Frankhausen as a rallying point because it was close to the castle of his old arch-enemy, Ernest of Mansfeld. They now called him to take his place among them, and Müntzer was quick to answer their call. He set out from Mühlhausen with some three hundred of his most fanatical followers. The number was significant because it was with the exact same number that Gideon overthrew the Midianites. He arrived at the peasants’ camp on 11th May. On his arrival he spoke out: Fear not, Gideon with a handful discomfited the Midianites and David slew Goliath.

He then ordered the peasants from the surrounding villages to join the army, threatening that they would otherwise be brought in by force. He also sent an urgent appeal to the town of Erfurt for reinforcements and threatening letters to the enemy. Clearly, he was not going to give himself up. He wrote to Count Ernest of Mansfeld in particularly vitriolic terms:

Say, you wretched, shabby bag of worms, who made you a prince over the people whom God has purchased with his precious blood?… By God’s almighty power you are delivered up to destruction. If you do not humble yourself before the lowly, you will be saddled with everlasting infamy in the eyes of all Christendom and will become the devil’s martyr.

But neither of his missives had much effect. Erfurt either could not or would not respond, and the princes took advantage of the delay to surround the peasant army. By the 15th May, Philip of Hesse’s troops had been joined by those of all the other regional princes and had occupied a strong position on a nearby hill overlooking the peasant army. Although somewhat outnumbered, the princes also had ample artillery, whereas the peasants had very little. They also had about two thousand cavalry, whereas the peasants had none. A battle fought under such circumstances could have only one possible result, but the princes again offered terms, requiring the handing over of Müntzer and his immediate following. The offer was made in good faith, as the princes had already avoided unnecessary bloodshed elsewhere, following Luther’s advice. The offer would probably have been accepted, had it not been for Müntzer’s intervention.

The propheta made a passionate speech in which he declared that God had spoken to him directly and promised him victory; that he himself would catch the enemy’s cannonballs in the sleeves of his cloak; that in the end God would transform heaven and earth rather than allow his people to perish. Just at that moment, a rainbow appeared in the sky, the very symbol on Müntzer’s banner, as if to prove that God would keep his covenant. Müntzer’s fanatical followers were convinced that some tremendous miracle was about to transpire and were somehow able to convince the confused, amorphous and relatively leaderless mass of peasantry of this.

Having received no reply to their terms, the princes grew impatient and the order was given to the artillery to fire the cannon in an opening salvo. The peasants had made no preparations to use their cannon, nor to escape the field. Seemingly in a mass trance and still singing, ‘Come, Holy Spirit’, they seemed to be expecting the Second Coming at that very moment. The effect of the salvo was devastating, with the peasants breaking ranks and fleeing in panic while the princes’ cavalry ran them down and slaughtered them. Losing just half a dozen men, the army of the princes dispersed the peasants and captured Frankenhausen, killing some five thousand peasants in the process. Only six hundred were taken prisoner, so perhaps another two thousand somehow escaped. A few days later, Mühlhausen surrendered without a struggle and was made to pay heavily for its part in the general insurrection, also losing its status as a free imperial city. Müntzer himself escaped from the battle-field but was soon found hiding in a cellar in Frankenhausen. He was handed over to Ernest of Mansfeld, tortured, made to sign a confession, after which he was beheaded in the princes’ camp, along with Pfeiffer, on 27 May. Storch died as a fugitive later in the same year. The princes continued to ‘clean up’ the countryside.


Other bands of peasants were also savagely put down. The forces of the Swabian League were led by a general who, when outnumbered, would have recourse to diplomacy, duplicity, strategy and, when necessary, combat. He managed to isolate the bands and destroy them one at a time. The peasants were tricked and finally outnumbered themselves. It was claimed that over a hundred thousand were massacred altogether. Although they were not exterminated as a class, the hopes of the peasants for a share in the political life of Germany were at an end, at least for the following three centuries.

Luther’s savage pamphlet was late in leaving the press and appeared just at the time when the peasants were being butchered. But the tract was noticed by them, and the set of phrases, smite… stab… slay… were never forgotten by them. He tried to counter the effect by another pamphlet in which, though he held to his original conviction over the consequences of rebellion, he criticised the princes for their failure to show mercy to captives and their venting of vengeance on the countryside, in which the bishops also took part. Despite Luther’s stance, hundreds of ‘Lutheran’ ministers throughout Germany took part in the war on the peasants’ side. The rulers of Catholic lands thereafter used this participation as a reason to exclude evangelical preachers from their lands. Luther himself became less tolerant of radical preachers, lest some of them might turn out to be little Müntzers in disguise.  Nevertheless, his support for the princes in the peasants’ war led to others becoming Lutheran and to the repeal of the edicts against him at the Diet of Speyer in 1526.

Though there were elements of a puritan movement on the side of the peasants, a clear divide had opened up among Lutherans whose goal was to establish a territorial church, and the few who were prepared to sign up to a more radical congregationalism more biased towards the poor. The battle lines in both church and society, in both material and spiritual life, had been clearly drawn. The Peasants’ War had been a war in the sense of a series of battles and stand-offs in which the peasants in some areas won some concessions from the princes. Apart from the Twelve Articles, some of which were connected with church reform, there was no agreed manifesto which could be referred to as a revolutionary platform or programme. That was something that some later historians, looking for a legacy, gave to the uprisings. Millenarian movements grew up in parallel and took advantage of the general mood of unrest, rather than directing or leading it in any coordinated way.

(to be continued…)



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