Review of Terry Eagleton: Was Jesus a Revolutionary?

Jesus as RevolutionaryChris Murray reviews Terry Eagleton’s appearance at Durham Book Festival at which the leading literary scholar and cultural theorist examined the politics of the New Testament.

In 1945 Karl Popper argued that Jesus Christ was undoubtedly a revolutionary.  Popper portrayed Christ as a proto-socialist whose teachings against family and private property – increasingly popular over the first three centuries after his death – threatened to destroy the Roman Empire. The “ingenious political move on the part of the ruling powers,” Popper wrote in The Open Society and its Enemies, was to nullify this egalitarian movement by converting it into a Roman cult, which was adopted by Constantine. So began Christianity as we know it.

Terry Eagleton does not pursue that socialist interpretation of Christ’s teachings, but is more interested in circumstantial details of the New Testament with political significance. For instance, he says that crucifixion was reserved for dissenters. This may appear a rum suggestion to those of us who recall that, in the noted book, Himself was executed next to two thieves. Later, Eagleton hints that the thieves were not in fact thieves, but may have been zealots (i.e. Jewish dissidents). Thus, glimpses of intrigue.

At times it appears that Eagleton’s Redeemer simply fell in with a bad bunch; at others he is a downright troublemaker.

At times it appears that Eagleton’s Redeemer simply fell in with a bad bunch; at others he is a downright troublemaker. The surname Iscariot, meaning “dagger-man,” may have designated a zealot. Peter, the fisherman who carried a sword, seems to have expected trouble. Yet subsequently, Eagleton tells us that this rabble of fishermen could by no means have been considered “a threat to the state,” and that the decision to execute Christ likely occurred on trumped-up charges; echoes here of Socrates’ trial. What, then? This disruptor of moneylenders’ tables, Eagleton observes, interfered with the commerce of sacrificial offerings in the temple, and made an enemy of the Sanhedrin. Locals may have sold out on Christ for fear that his activities would lead to a crackdown from the Roman authorities upon the Jewish community at large. But it is credible that “the Romans were uninterested in the theological squabbles of their colonial underlings,” which leaves us in need of a reason why Christ was “murdered by the state.” Our man Eagleton seems somewhat non-committal amidst this range of speculations, which are not always compatible; to his credit he wishes to avoid too simple a hypothesis on a murky business. Even Pilate, he cautions, was not historically the “congenial Guardian-reader” the Good News Bible would have us believe.

These are observations Eagleton has advanced here and there over the course of his career. In culmination he provides answers to the big question of his title: that the love promoted in the New Testament was inherently radical in Roman times (as it is by the standards of organised Christianity today). That for Christ to rise after three days undid the decree of the Roman Empire, and was thus uncontestably an occurrence with political significance. That the sequence of crucifixion and resurrection intimates that “only by a breaking is a remaking possible,” which sounds like an egregious Shelley cancellation (to wit: rebellious).

Why does a dedicated Marxist avoid such a reading as Popper’s entirely? Probably because Popper precludes the idea of a divine Christ in favour of a Jesus who can only be a political symbol. With (shall we say) a different perspective on theology, Eagleton proposes that political conscience necessitates religious belief. He concedes that he has an axe to grind with one R. Dawkins, and concludes adventurously that those who dismiss religion as consolatory, and can contemplate the crucifixion without a stirring of faith, are politically disengaged. Hard not to be reminded of the point at which, quoting the works of T. Eagleton, he said that “sport is the opium of the masses.” I wonder whether he was any good at sport? He is, however, a diverting speaker on theology.

dbfDurham Book Festival 2014 continues until 20th October, with talks and topics ranging from politics to poetry, and fiction to feminism.


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