New Internationalist

Was Jesus Christ a revolutionary?

Issue 411

Terry Eagleton sifts through the texts of the Gospels and comes up with some ambiguous answers.

ILLUSTRATION: Francis Blake / Three-in-a-Box
ILLUSTRATION: Francis Blake / Three-in-a-Box

Jesus certainly kept some shady political company. One of his inner circle was known as Simon the Zealot, the Zealots being an underground anti-imperialist movement dedicated to driving the Romans out of Palestine. The Roman presence in the province was not in fact particularly oppressive. No Roman institutions, legal, educational or religious, were imposed on the people. In Jesus’s own home territory of Galilee there was no official Roman presence at all, so it is unlikely that he would have grown up at the knee of smoulderingly anti-imperialist parents. Any Roman soldiers he saw as a child would have been on holiday.

Even so, there were religious reasons why even hands-off rule by a pagan state was objectionable to God’s chosen people. The Zealots wanted a purified, traditionalist, theocratic Jewish state, and promoted a theology not unlike that of al-Qaeda today. In addition to the militant Simon, two other of Jesus’s disciples, James and John, are given a nickname (Sons of Thunder) which some New Testament scholars suspect may link them, too, to the insurrectionists. Perhaps Judas sold Jesus because he had expected him to be Lenin, and became bitterly disenchanted when he realized that he was not going to lead the people against the colonial power.

Daggers drawn

It is, however, unlikely that Jesus was part of the anti-imperial resistance. For one thing, he seems to have believed in paying taxes (‘Render unto Caesar…’), while the Zealots did not. For another thing, he was at daggers drawn with the Pharisees, who were in some ways the theological wing of the Zealots. In fact, they are the only sect whom he curses to hell.

Another reason why Jesus is unlikely to have been a Zealot is that his disciples were not arrested after his execution. Had they been known insurrectionists, the occupying Roman forces would almost certainly have moved in to mop them up. There may have been a sprinkling of anti-imperialist militants among the disciples, but the Roman authorities seem to have been clear that the Jesus movement was not out to overthrow the state. This is not why he was crucified.

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Indeed, why he was crucified is something of a mystery. It was certainly not because he claimed to be the Son of God. Jesus makes no such claim in the Gospels, except once, implausibly, in the Markian trial scene; and Mark had his own axe to grind. Taken in a literal sense, the title ‘Son of God’ would almost certainly have resulted in Jesus’s being stoned to death on the spot for blasphemy, which was presumably one excellent reason why he did not make claim to it. In any case, Jesus cannot have believed that he was literally the Son of God. Yahweh does not have testicles.

Only the Romans had power of execution, and they took no interest in the theological squabblings of their colonial subjects. Or rather, they took an interest only if they threatened to breed political consequences. They would certainly have been put on the alert if Jesus had claimed to be the Messiah, since the Messiah was seen for the most part as a militant political leader who would put Israel on its feet again. But Jesus does not claim to be the Messiah either, except on two occasions, both of which are historically dubious.

It is likely that Jesus ended up on Calvary because of his enormous popularity with some of the poor, who had swarmed into Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and who no doubt looked to him for some vague sort of salvation from the Roman occupation. His popular support was probably by no means as massive as the evangelists make out. Even so, there was a general expectation that God was about to do something dramatic. For Christian theology, he did – but it turned out to be a resurrection, not a revolution.

It may be that Jesus’s violent act of trying to clear the temple of moneychangers, which sailed preciously close to blasphemy, was enough for his antagonists to nail him. A reverence for the temple was an essential feature of Judaism, and a strike against it was a strike against Israel itself. The temple rulers controlled Israel’s currency and economy, so that the place was among other things perceived as a bastion of the ruling class.

Not ‘anti-capitalist’

Running out the moneychangers was not, however, intended as an ‘anti-capitalist’ gesture. Jesus would have understood well enough that pilgrims would not have brought their sacrificial animals with them from home, for fear that they might be found blemished by the priests who inspected them on arrival. They would consequently buy a dove or pigeon in the temple itself, and would need to change currencies to do so. Jesus was probably signifying the destruction of the temple in a symbolic way, rather than expressing his distaste for its commercial sleaze. The paraphernalia of organized religion was to be replaced by an alternative temple, namely his own murdered and transfigured body.

Quite what the charges against Jesus were is not entirely clear. The accounts of the Gospels on this score are mutually inconsistent. The general impression is that the whole of the Jewish governing caste were against Jesus, but that they could not find common ground among themselves on why they were. He was certainly accused of blasphemy. But the Romans would not have cared about that, and in any case executing someone as a pseudo-teacher or pseudo-prophet was remarkably rare in Jesus’s day.

The High Priest, Caiaphas, had therefore to concoct some charge which legitimated Jesus’s execution in the eyes of the Jews while sounding sufficiently alarming to the Romans to spur them to dispose of him. Protesting that he claimed to be king of the Jews, even though we have no evidence that he did, would fill the bill nicely. Suitably spun, it might sound like blasphemy to the Jews and sedition to the Romans. But it might also have been enough to get Jesus crucified to advise the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, that this unruly vagabond represented a threat to law and order in such politically volatile conditions.

Brutal Pilate

Pilate seems to have had a particular penchant for stringing people up. He is presented in the Gospels as a vacillating liberal of a metaphysical turn of mind, but we know enough about his historical record to be sure that he was nothing of the sort. He was, in fact, a notoriously brutal viceroy, an official who was accused of bribery, cruelty and executions without trial and who was eventually dishonourably dismissed from office. Had Jesus come up against a more liberal regime, he might well have got off.

Was Jesus, then, a ‘spiritual’ rather than a political leader? This, to be sure, is the customary reading of his exhortation to render unto Caesar what was owed to him, while at the same time granting God his due. But it is unlikely that this is how his words would have been understood in first-century Palestine. It projects back upon them a modern distinction between religion and politics which is decidedly non-scriptural. Those who heard Jesus’s words would have understood that ‘the things that are God’s’ included mercy, justice, feeding the hungry, welcoming the immigrant, sheltering the destitute and protecting the poor from the oppression of the powerful. There is little opiate delusion in Jesus’s grim warning to his comrades that if they were true to his Gospel of love and justice, they would meet the same sticky end as him.

The motif of a close link between the deepest suffering and the highest exaltation is a traditional one in Judaism, as it is in the Western lineage of tragedy. True power flows from powerlessness, a doctrine which Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection is meant to exemplify.

In the so-called Beatitudes, the poor, hungry and sorrowful are declared blessed, but not the virtuous. Unlike the virtuous, they are signs of the coming kingdom because they exemplify the emptiness and deprivation which the New Jerusalem is destined to repair. The point of prophecy is not to foresee the future, but to warn those in the present that unless they change their ways, the future is likely to be extremely unpleasant.

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Bathos

The kingdom did not, of course, arrive shortly after Jesus’s death, as the first Christians (and certainly St Paul) seem to have believed it would. The Christian movement begins in bathos. Its origins lie in a hideously embarrassing anti-climax, one which follows hard on the heels of the shameful scandal that the Son of God has actually been butchered.

One reason why Jesus and his followers expected the kingdom to arrive very soon is that they had no notion that human activity might have any role in helping to establish it. For the early Christians, the kingdom was a gift of God, not the work of history. History was now effectively at an end. There was no point in seeking to overthrow the Romans when God was about to transform the whole world. Jesus’s disciples could no more bring about the kingdom of God by their own efforts than socialism for deterministic Marxists can be achieved by intensified agitation.

Some aspects of the way Jesus is portrayed in these texts have an obvious radical resonance. He is presented as homeless, propertyless, peripatetic, socially marginal, disdainful of kinfolk, without a trade or occupation, a friend of outcasts and pariahs, averse to material possessions, without fear for his own safety, a thorn in the side of the Establishment and a scourge of the rich and powerful. The problem of much modern Christianity has been how to practise this lifestyle with two children, a car and a mortgage.

Jesus has most of the characteristic features of the revolutionary activist, including celibacy. Marriage belongs to a regime which is already passing away, and there will be no marrying in New Jerusalem. This is not an anti-sexual motif. Celibacy is seen by Christianity as a sacrifice, and sacrifice means giving up what is regarded as precious. St Paul, an enemy of the flesh in popular mythology, regards the sexual union of two bodies, not celibacy, as a sign of the coming kingdom. Actually working for the kingdom, however, involves surrendering or suspending some of the goods which will characterize it. The same is true of working for socialism.

‘He expected it to be soon swept away by a form of existence more perfected in its justice, peace, comradeship and exuberance of spirit than even Lenin and Trotsky could have imagined’

Even so, Jesus is not presented as an ascetic, in the manner of the ferociously anti-social John the Baptist. He and his comrades enjoy food, drink and general festivity, and he enjoins men and women to unburden themselves of anxiety and live in the present. What one might call Jesus’s ethical extravagance – giving over and above the measure, turning the other cheek, rejoicing in being persecuted, loving one’s enemies, refusing to judge, non-resistance to evil, laying oneself open to the violence of others – is similarly motivated by a sense that history is now at an end.

In his crucifixion and descent into hell, Jesus in St Paul’s view is ‘made sin’, identifying with the scum and refuse of the earth, enduring a solidarity with suffering, evil and despair in order to transfigure it through his resurrection. Like the classical tragic protagonist, he succeeds only through failure. If he lay down confidently expecting to spring up again, he would not have been raised from the dead.

Effervescent hopes

This, then, is what all the effervescent hopes of Jesus and his entourage have come to. The crucifixion proclaims that the truth of human history is a tortured political criminal. It is a message profoundly unacceptable to those sunk in a dewy-eyed delusion (idealists, progressivists, liberals, reformers, Yea-sayers, modernizers, socialist humanists and the like), though one which was perfectly understood by a Jew like Walter Benjamin. Only if you can gaze on this frightful image without being turned to stone, accepting it as absolutely the last word, is there a slim chance that it might not be.

Christianity is thus considerably more pessimistic than secular humanism, as well as immeasurably more optimistic. On the one hand, it is grimly realistic about the recalcitrance of the human condition. On the other hand, it holds out not only that the redemption of this dire condition is possible, but that, astonishingly, it has in some sense already happened. Not even the most mechanistic of Marxists would claim these days that socialism is inevitable, let alone that it has already come about without our noticing. For Christian faith, however, the advent of the kingdom is assured, since Jesus’s rising from the dead has already founded it.

Was Jesus, then, a revolutionary? Not in any sense that Lenin or Trotsky would have recognized. But is this because he was less of a revolutionary than they were, or more so? Less, certainly, in that he did not advocate the overthrow of the power-structure that he confronted. But this was, among other things, because he expected it to be soon swept away by a form of existence more perfected in its justice, peace, comradeship and exuberance of spirit than even Lenin and Trotsky could have imagined. Perhaps the answer, then, is not that Jesus was more or less a revolutionary, but that he was both more and less.

Terry Eagleton is Professor of Cultural Theory at the University of Manchester. This is an edited extract of his introduction to The Gospels, published as part of its ‘Revolutions’ series by Verso, London and New York, 2007, www.versobooks.com

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