Jesus Christ: The Gospels, Presented by Terry Eagleton

When a Marxist meets the Messiah

It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to heaven, Jesus memorably said. But does that make him a revolutionary? Hugo Chávez, the president of Venezuela, thinks so, claiming Christ is the greatest socialist in history. According to Verso's blurb for this volume in a series of revolutionary writings, Terry Eagleton believes he is as well. But such claims depend on your definition of revolutionary: a person engaged in the overthrow of a political system, or something more indefinable.

Eagleton's argument forms the introduction to the "revolutionary" Gospels. As he points out, reading the New Testament should offer no comfort to anyone with a mortgage, a car, and a couple of children. Suburban Christ is not. Nor does he offer much by way of support of the nuclear family, urging his followers to leave their families and follow him.

He has even less to say about sex. Go back to the Gospels and it really does seem astonishing that the churches have become so embroiled in rows about who sleeps with whom. It is true to say that Jesus is not so keen on divorce, but that may well have to do with the way it was used to discard and shame women in the Jewish society of his time.

Indeed, one of the most radical aspects of Jesus's life is his treatment of women, as Eagleton rightly highlights. He always treats them with respect, including those who were viewed as unclean, in a way that would have shocked his contemporaries. That same respect is evident throughout the Gospels for other outcasts: lepers, non-Jews such as Samaritans. This radicalism and other aspects to Jesus's character – unconventional, an outsider, someone with few possessions – make him ideal revolutionary material. But unlike the prototype, this is someone who sets great store by hospitality, who is sociable and goes to parties.

Eagleton has some some peculiar notions here about Jesus. One is the claim that he is capable of ethical extravagance, citing his urging of the love of one's enemies, turning the other cheek, and rejoicing in being persecuted. These surely all flow from his golden rule of loving one's neighbour, and doing as you would be done by. Then there is Eagleton's idea that Jesus advocates non-resistance to evil. Perhaps he did not read the account of Christ's 40 days and nights in the desert, resisting the devil, or the moment he lost his temper with the moneylenders in the temple, or his call to his followers to reject the material rewards of this world.

Arguments that Christ is a political revolutionary usually depend on the historical Jesus, caught up in the maelstrom of Roman occupation. But Eagleton's reading is far more intriguing, hinting at this Marxist scholar's Catholic upbringing. He notes that Christ's followers have a relationship with him, not something that you would have with Che or Lenin.

While Eagleton has produced a provocative introduction, his arguments' weakness is their narrow range. For Christianity is inspired not by these Gospels alone but also by 2000 years of theological and spiritual writing. They have led to some extraordinary things done in Christ's name: some appalling, some inspiring.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of Christianity is its idealism, particularly the belief that the kingdom of heaven can be built on earth. That way lies Utopia, always a recipe for disaster. But there have been other dreams, inspired by Matthew, chapter 25: "I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me..." That helped give rise to the theology of justice and also of solidarity. And that in turn led to a trade union of the same name, and the eventual transformation of eastern Europe. Now that was some revolution.

Catherine Pepinster is the editor of 'The Tablet'

Verso £7.99 (174pp) (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in