Verso's "Revolutions" series, which includes Slavoj Zizek introducing Mao, Trotsky and Robespierre and Geoffrey Robertson introducing the Levellers, now expands to take in the New Revised Standard Version of the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, with an introduction by Terry Eagleton. It's the most interesting in the series, not just because Eagleton is on such good form iconoclastic, intellectually spry and eloquent but because Jesus's revolutionary credentials are the least well established. "I did not come to bring peace but a sword," He said (Matthew 10:34), and He certainly kept what Eagleton calls "some shady political company" (mentioning no names, Simon the Zealot). But why, if they were known insurrectionists, were His disciples not rounded up after His execution and arrested?
Jesus leaves others to label Him, and "there is a sense throughout the text of His deliberately evading definition." He never claims to be the Son of God, except once, "implausibly", in Mark. Nor does He claim to be the Messiah, which in first-century Jerusalem would have been understood as a warrior-king kind of figure. Born in a stable and crucified on the cross, Jesus, says Eagleton, was "a sick joke of a Messiah", and his arrival in Jerusalem on an ass a "satirical" anti-Messianic gesture. He probably saw himself as the prophet foretold by the Old Testament, whose arrival would herald the advent of the Kingdom of God.
There is no room in an early first-century worldview for historical self-determinism, which is why Jesus cannot be a revolutionary in the sense that, say, Lenin was. The Kingdom of God was coming whether people wanted it to or not; Jesus was just there to prepare them for it. Etymologically, then, as well as because of His utterly extraordinary actions and teachings, it comes to make sense to call Him, as Eagleton does, an avant-gardist.