Terry Eagleton on Jesus
Posted by NT Wrong on May 7, 2008
Terry Eagleton’s introduction to the book Jesus Christ: The Gospels, Revolutions (London & New York: Verso, 2007) asks whether Jesus can be seen as a revolutionary. Terry Eagleton is an English literary critic, Marxist, and Catholic. Each of the books in this ‘Revolutions’ series begins with an introduction written by a contemporary radical writer (e.g. Žižek, Hardt, Bello, or Geoffrey Robertson), and is followed by a selection of the writings of a classic ‘revolutionary’ (e.g. Mao, Robespierre, Ho Chi Minh, or Trotsky). In Terry Eagleton’s case, his introduction to Jesus is then followed by an NRSV translation of the four canonical Gospels.
Noting that the Roman presence in Galilee was very small, Eagleton lends little weight to Jesus’s connection with ‘Simon the Zealot’ or other speculative grounds for associating Jesus with insurrectionists. But in doing so, Eagleton provides an interesting contemporizing description of the Zealots:
“The Zealots wanted a purified, traditionalist, theocratic Jewish state, and promoted an ideology not unlike that of al-Qaida today” (vii).
In addition, Eagleton observes that the Jesus Movement was quite distinct from the strict Essenes, whose fantastically “puristic” observation of the Law made the Jesus Movement “look like a bunch of hippies” (viii).
Eagleton decides that the evidence doesn’t support characterizing Jesus as a revolutionary in the sense of being an insurrectionist. So he recognises there must be another reason for Jesus’s crucifixion. Eagleton finds that Jesus avoids controversy for the most part, making it difficult for his Jewish opponents (who Eagleton identifies with the Sadducees) to level the charge of blasphemy. There is very little offence in claiming to be the “Son of God”:
“Jesus cannot have believed that he was literally the Son of God. Yahweh does not have testicles” (x).
But, it does not escape Eagleton that, in a few places, Jesus claims an unusual intimacy with Yahweh (as “Abba”), elevates himself above Moses, and blasphemously forgives sin (the prerogative of God alone).
According to Eagleton, Jesus saw himself as “the eschatological prophet foretold in the Old Testament, with a mission to Israel alone” (x). Though as Eagleton knowledgeably points out, this does not explain why the Romans crucified Jesus:
“[o]nly the Romans had power of execution, and they took no interest in the theological squabbling of their colonial subjects” (x).
So in the end, Eagleton decides Jesus’s crucifixion was a Roman overreaction [of Patriot Act proportions?] to Jewish intra-religious strife. The overreaction began with Jesus’ popularity amongst the poor:
“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 … Some of the common people seem to have hailed Jesus as their king during his carnivalesque entry into the city. They appear to mistake him for the Davidic Messiah, the mythical warrior who is to repair Israel’s fortunes and confound its enemies. This might then have created the kind of tinderbox climate in an already politically fraught capital which alarmed Jerusalem’s Jewish governors. Passover was a familiar hunting ground for troublemakers. Fearful that the Galilean preacher’s presence in the city might spark an insurrection, and that this in turn might trigger a military backlash from the Romans, they had him arrested. John the Baptist, Jesus’ mentor, was probably executed for much the same reason.”
Eagleton resists the interpretation of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple as “an ‘anti-capitalist’ gesture”. Instead, he interprets it (in line with N. T. Wright, who he has obviously read) as symbolic of its replacement by his own body as temple (xiii).
There is much more that is good reading from Eagleton’s pen in his short (23-page) introduction to the Gospels. His conclusion refrains from an overly-simplistic appropriation of Jesus for modern socialism, instead providing a sober judgment as to Jesus’s significance:
“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 reasons, 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” (xxx).
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