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Jesus of Nazareth was almost certainly executed as a suspected political rebel against the Roman imperial state. We know this because crucifixion was a penalty the Romans mostly reserved for political offences. The point of the punishment was not so much the excruciating agony it involved, but the fact that dissidents were pinned up in public view as a grim warning to other potential agitators. Their broken bodies were turned into advertisements for the power of Rome.
Even so, Jesus got off fairly lightly. If he really did spend only six hours on the cross, as the New Testament records, then his fate could have been far worse. Some of those who were crucified thrashed around for days. What probably helped him on his way was the scourging he is said to have received shortly before his death. A massive loss of blood would have meant he died more quickly.
Was Jesus really a political rebel? Almost certainly not, although it’s true that a good deal of what he said might have seemed to the casual bystander like sound Zealot stuff.
The Zealots, memorably satirised in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, were underground Jewish revolutionaries who planned to bring down the Roman state by force. They were not, however, quite as admirable as that might make them sound. They were also extreme Jewish nationalists who dreamed of creating a theocratic state once they had kicked out the occupying forces. In some ways, then, they were not all that far removed from Islamic or Israeli fundamentalists today. The Pharisees, who were not at all as black as the gospel writers (for their own political purposes) paint them, were their theological wing. Perhaps Jesus cursed them so roundly partly to put some daylight between himself and the Zealots.
Even so, there were probably Zealot militants in his immediate entourage. One of his comrades, Simon, is directly referred to as a Zealot, while two others, James and John, are given a nickname (‘Sons of Thunder’) that might suggest Zealot sympathies. Judas Iscariot’s surname may allude to his place of birth, but it could also be translated as ‘dagger man’, which might put him, too, among the anti-colonial insurgents. Perhaps he sold out Jesus to the occupying powers because he had expected him to be some kind of Lenin and was bitterly disenchanted. Even Peter, Jesus’s right-hand man, carried a sword, an odd thing for a Galilean fisherman to do. The so-called thieves who were crucified alongside Jesus were almost certainly Zealots, as (probably) was Barabbas, the prisoner who was released by Pontius Pilate in Jesus’s place.
When Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth while pregnant with Jesus, Luke’s gospel puts into her mouth a triumphant chant known by the church as the Magnificat. It speaks of God having raised up the lowly and cast down the mighty, filled the poor with good things and sent the rich empty away. This theme of revolutionary reversal is almost a cliché of the Hebrew scriptures: you will know God for who he is when you see the poor (or as St Paul colourfully calls them, the shit of the earth) coming to power.
The dispossessed are known in the Hebrew scriptures as the anawim, and Mary herself, as an obscure young Galilean woman favoured by God, is being presented by Luke as a representative of them. So is her son, who is homeless, propertyless, celibate, peripatetic, averse to material goods, virulently hostile to the family and a thorn in the flesh of the political establishment.
He is also remarkably laid back about sex, as suggested by the story of the woman of Samaria, about whom he makes joking reference to the fact that she has married five men and the one she lives with now is not her husband. Indeed, there is almost nothing about sex in the New Testament, a fact that some of his sex-obsessed followers seem not to have noticed.
Some scholars believe that the words Mary is made to sing were a kind of Zealot chant – the kind of thing they might have shouted on demos had the Romans been liberal enough to allow them.
Yahweh, in other words, is not a religious God. You cannot make graven images of him, because the only image of him is human flesh and blood. In the prophetic books of the bible, he tells the Jews that he hates their burnt offerings and that their incense stinks in his nostrils. What are they doing, he asks, about welcoming the immigrants, protecting the widows and orphans and shielding the poor from the violence of the rich?
Jesus himself fits squarely in this Judaic tradition: it is not the pious who will enter the kingdom of God but those who feed the hungry and visit the sick. In fact, in an extraordinarily audacious moment in the New Testament, he suggests that the riff-raff of the highways and by-ways will take priority in entering the kingdom over those faithful to the Mosaic Law. He himself eats with crooks and whores without first asking them to repent, in clear violation of Judaic orthodoxy.
All the same, it is hard to classify Jesus as a Zealot. If the Romans had really suspected him of leading a treasonable bunch of insurrectionaries, they would have rounded up his disciples after his death, which doesn’t seem to have happened. Besides, Jesus apparently believed in paying taxes to the Roman state, while the Zealots did not.
This is not to say that he lent his support to the imperial forces. ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ doesn’t mean that politics is one thing and religion quite another. Any such distinction is an anachronistic misreading. It is only the modern age that enforces such a clear division between politics and religion. The Jews who listened to Jesus’s sayings would have known well enough that the things that are God’s include justice, mercy, a devotion to the poor, bringing low the arrogance of the mighty and so on. It did not mean going to church. There were no churches.
If Jesus was not a nationalist revolutionary, why then was he murdered? The straight answer is that we don’t really know. The accounts of his various trials provided by the gospels are partial and obscure. Maybe the gospel writers themselves were unclear about the question. They were not, after all, eye-witnesses.
Jesus was certainly not executed because he claimed to be the Son of God. For one thing, all Jews were the sons and daughters of God. There would have been nothing particularly blasphemous in the assertion. Anyway, Jesus cannot have intended the phrase in some literal sense, since God is not generally considered to have testicles. For another thing, if Jesus had intended to suggest that he himself was divine, he would almost certainly have been stoned to death for blasphemy on the spot, which is at least one good reason why he makes no such declaration. Only once in the New Testament, and then ambiguously, does he seem to endorse the title. In general, however, he is notably wary of being labelled, giving the slip to the various categories that others try to foist on him.
He certainly does not present himself as the Messiah, the military chieftain who would lead the Jewish people to a triumphant victory over their enemies. Messiahs do not get themselves crucified. The idea of a crucified Messiah would have struck the Jews of the time as a moral obscenity.
Instead, Jesus appears to go out of his way to undercut the ardent expectations of his followers. While some of them are perhaps anticipating a victorious march on the Jewish capital, Jesus enters Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, in a deliberately carnivalesque gesture. He is a sick joke of a Messiah, one whose actions constitute a satirical comment on the nature of political power. The power he represents is the only authentic and enduring one – the strength that springs from solidarity with breakdown and failure, from a compact with the non-being and self-dispossession which is the anawim. When St John speaks of ‘the powers of this world’, he means the kind of violent, corrupt regime that did Jesus to death.
It is doubtful that either the Romans or the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling caste, actually suspected Jesus of seditious intentions. He had probably visited Jerusalem several times before, and no move had been made against him by the authorities. But it might have been politically convenient for the powers-that-be to have pretended that he had subversive aims.
Jesus came up to Jerusalem at the time of Passover, the feast that commemorates the emancipation of his people from slavery in Egypt, and the political atmosphere in the capital was probably electric. Freedom from the Egyptians would have brought to mind freedom from the Romans, and there would have been the usual assortment of minor prophets, visionaries, apocalypticists and half-baked holy men knocking around the city. Aware of Jesus’s popularity with the masses, the Jewish chief priests might well have feared that his presence could spark an uprising that might bring the full force of Roman power down on the backs of their people, and thus made a pre-emptive move against him.
As proof of his disruptive intent, the priests might well have appealed to the fracas in the Temple, when Jesus overturned the tables of the money-changers and drove them out of the place. This was not some anti-capitalist or even anti-commercial demonstration. Jesus would have known well enough that those who came to the Temple to sacrifice animals might have their offering rejected as impure by the high priest, and would consequently need to buy another on the spot. For this, they might need to change their local currency into the metropolitan one.
Jesus’s objection would not have been to this, but probably to the fact that the sacrificial tributes that people then offered were not really their own, Instead, they were part of a lucrative trade that enriched the clerical authorities, and this seems to have been enough to rouse Jesus’s plebeian fury. He also shows a potentially blasphemous disrespect for the Temple by claiming that it will be replaced by his own flesh and blood. He is striking at the whole apparatus of priestly power, which may well have been enough to get him arrested.
It would not, however, have been enough to get him executed. The right to execute was reserved for the Romans, who would have taken no interest in the esoteric theological squabbles of their underlings. It was no concern to them whether an obscure, itinerant country bumpkin from provincial Galilee had delusions of religious grandeur. The place was positively stuffed with religious cranks and fanatics.
They would most certainly have been alarmed, however, had Jesus been reported to them as a political threat, and it is probably this that the Sanhedrin managed to sell to them. So Jesus was probably sent to his death as a political agitator without either the Jews or the Romans actually crediting the charge. It was simply expedient to get him out of the way. The sign pinned above his cross – ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’ – was a well‑calculated sneer.
The New Testament presents the Roman governor Pontius Pilate as a vacillating, well-meaning liberal with a metaphysical turn of mind (‘What is truth?’ he inquires of Jesus). This, however, is a complete travesty.
We happen to know a little about the historical Pilate, enough to be sure that he was a brutal despot who executed at the drop of a hat. In fact, he was finally dismissed from the imperial service for dishonorable conduct. You had to be pretty dishonourable to be sent packing by the Romans. For their own political reasons, the gospel writers are out to shift the blame for Jesus’s death away from the Romans and on to the Jews. Jesus himself refuses to assign blame to his killers and appeals instead to the notion of false consciousness to let them off the hook: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’
The Christian belief is that crucifixion is never quite the last word. However dire the circumstances, the power that springs from self-dispossession will win out in the end. In Christian doctrine, this is known as the resurrection. Jesus’s comrades were so convinced that Calvary was not the last word that some of them were prepared to go to their own deaths for this faith.
That Jesus has risen from the dead is first reported by women, who were not regarded by the ancient Jews as acceptable witnesses. It is second-class citizens who are first granted this revelation. The body that the various witnesses saw, however, was marked with the wounds of crucifixion, to signify that there is no transformed existence without voyaging all the way through self-dispossession with the hope (but no guarantees) of emerging somewhere on the other side.
Like much tragedy, the narrative of crucifixion and resurrection signifies that there can be no remaking without a prior breaking, a case that has political implications. Or, as W B Yeats more memorably put it, ‘Nothing can be sole or whole/That has not been rent.’
In the end, Jesus was killed because he spoke out fearlessly for love and justice in a world that finds such things deeply threatening. He was, in short, a martyr, one who gives up his life as a precious gift to others, like Martin Luther King, Steve Biko or those who have died in the course of the Arab spring. It was because he was prepared to let himself go, with no thought of recompense or return, that according to the doctrine of the resurrection he was so profusely rewarded.
As the New Testament puts it, those who lose their lives shall find them, and according to the gospel writers those least capable of doing this are the rich and powerful. There are some who regard the gospel as a source of false consolation – pie in the sky and the opium of the people. They have clearly not taken note of its central message: if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do they’ll kill you.
Terry Eagleton’s How To Read Literature is to be published by Yale University Press later this year