Essay / On This Day

Ernest Renan's Life of Jesus

According to the Christian History Institute, June 23 was the very day in 1863 when French philosopher Ernest Renan (1823-1892) published his Vie de Jesus. Renan’s book was not the first attempt at a critical biography of Jesus, but it was the first best-seller in the genre. It is written in purple prose that nineteenth-century audiences found intoxicating (apparently the original French is even more gorgeous; untranslatably so if its fans are to be believed).

The Life of Jesus, like all best-sellers, was a perfect fit with the needs and wants of its audience. Nineteenth century Europe was looking for a way to stop being Christian in the old-fashioned sense, but still wanted to be deeply spiritual, and wanted to keep respecting Jesus. Renan’s English translator remarked in his preface that “the great problem of the present age is to preserve the religious spirit, whilst getting rid of the superstitions and absurdities that deform it, and which are alike opposed to science and common sense.”

German critics, especially D. F. Strauss, had already applied critical tools to the Jesus story and left no stone standing in the edifice of faith. Strauss had denied all the miracles, explaining them away as early Christian attempts to express the meaning of life in mythological form. But Strauss and company were so Teutonic, so Protestant, so rigid and absolutist in their argumentation, that their popularity was limited to hard-line rationalists on their way to explicit atheism.

Renan, on the other hand, wrote from the Roman Catholic side of Europe, in French, and with a delicate touch and some ambiguity. He prided himself on being no less scientific than his German precursors, but over all his writing there is a haze of obscurity and tenderness. Strauss launched bombs at the historic Christian faith; Renan diffused the outlines of Christianity in a fine mist with the colors of a distant sunset over the hills of Galilee. Strauss lectured and made demands of his audience’s intellectual integrity: We Moderns MUST Cease Believing In The Old Way. Renan, by contrast, enthused about the beauties, quaintness, and sublimity of our noble faith. The passage to unbelief did not have to be the desperate, destructive critical puberty of German Protestant liberalism. It could also be the fragrant flowering of French Catholic cosmopolitanism, a delicate maturity which leaves behind the childish faith of the nursery days with the same melancholy nostalgia that a mother feels when she sees the crib and swaddling clothes in the corner of the attic.

In Renan’s own words:

If the love of a subject can help one to understand it, it will also, I hope, be recognized that I have not been wanting in this condition. To write the history of a religion, it is necessary, firstly, to have believed it (otherwise we should not be able to understand how it has charmed and satisfied the human conscience); in the second place, to believe it n o longer in an absolute manner, for absolute faith is incompatible with sincere history. But love is possible without faith. (p. 65)

Along with his gorgeous writing, Renan’s bag of tricks included delicate description of the landscape and customs of the near east. He wrote the first draft of the work during an archaeological expedition to Syria. Even without the religious interest, his book could probably have been popular just as a kind of travel literature, evoking romantic notions of Palestinian geography and culture. Albert Schweitzer described the magical effect this travelogue had on the readers:

He offered his readers a Jesus who was alive, whom he, with his artistic imagination, had met under the blue heaven of Galilee, and whose lineaments his inspired pencil had seized. Men’s attention was arrested, and they thought to see Jesus, because Renan had the skill to make them see blue skies, seas of waving corn, distant mountains, gleaming lillies, in a landscape with the Lake of Gennesareth for its centre, and to hear with him in the whispering of the reeds the eternal melody of the Sermon on the Mount. (Schweitzer, Quest of th e Historical Jesus, p. 181)

The other main tool Renan used was the constant contrast between the simple, life-giving message of jesus against the complex aridity of Christian doctrine. Renan was personally pushing against the elaborate scholasticism of Roman Catholic doctrine as he had encountered it in school, but the contrast he sketched out was attractive to readers in other contexts as well. Who wouldn’t choose a trip to Galilee to sit around in sandals, eating hummus and listening to Jesus tell stories, over a theology lecture in a classroom or church? “Nothing is further from scholastic theology than the Gospel… God, conceived simply as Father, was all the theology of Jesus. And this was not with him a theoretical principle, a doctrine more or less proved, which he sought to inculcate in others. He did not argue with his disciples; he demanded from them no effort of attention.” (p. 122) And again, “Jesus gave the world true religion, pure worship, in spirit rather than in creeds. His creeds are not fixed dogmas, but images susceptible of indefinite interpretations. We should seek in vain for a theological proposition in the Gospel. All confessions of faith are travesties of the idea of Jesus…” (p. 384)

Life is short, and the world is full of books. Is Renan’s Life of Jesus still worth reading? I think it is. Although it drags in places, and the purple writing cloys (Thus He rode, on His long-eyelashed gentle mule, from village to village, from town to town. The sweet theology of love (la delicieuse theologie de l’amour) won Him all hearts. His preaching was gentle and mild (suave et douce), full of nature and the fragrance of the country.”), Renan is still very instructive. He is the kind of old-fashioned liberal who makes our twenty-first century liberals look under-educated and philistinish. His book is a classic in a genre that is still “selling like a Waverley novel,” as they used to say, or selling like it’s on the Oprah Book Club, as publishers would say today.

Renan’s Life was, among other things, an attempt to keep Jesus while jettisoning the Christian faith. Plenty of people still want to do that, and most of them don’t realize what a monumental task it is. Renan knew that he had to work magic in order to manage a separation between Jesus and Christian faith: He had to perfume the air with exotic eastern spices, transport his readers to far-away places, and hypnotize them with beautiful phrases. Just slapping an “I Love Jesus, It’s Christians I Can’t Stand” bumper sticker on your car is not sufficient.

And Renan also knew that the Jesus who can still be admired in abstraction from Christian doctrine was not the same Jesus. He might be an inspiring young Nazarene prophet who had the purest God-concept of his times, but he was wrong about too many things. We could honor him as a great founder, whose breakthrough to spiritual religion was nothing short of miraculous, but we shouldn’t hold him up to our more advanced standards any more than we should any great founder. Just think of what Jesus must have imagined the “Kingdom of Heaven” was actually going to be like: some kind of divine interruption of the course of human history!

Our principles of positive science are offended by the dreams contained in the programme of Jesus. We know the history of the earth; cosmical revolutions of the kind which Jesus expected are only produced by geological or astronomical causes, the connection of which with spiritual things has never yet been demonstrated. But, in order to be just to great originators, they must not be judged by the prejudices in which they have shared. Columbus discovered America, though starting from very erroneous ideas…

The inevitable next best-seller that shows an eager audience how to love Jesus without believing in him (probably around the time of next Easter’s Newsweek) should be held to at least the standard set by Renan’s Life.

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