Study Guide

The Life of Jesus

by Erneset Renan

The Life of Jesus Themes

Christian Themes (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

For centuries, Christians had revered Jesus as God incarnate. Renan, however, attempted to draw a realistic portrait of a man who could be loved, and his character was entirely human. Many readers praised the charming style and sympathetic portrayal of the man in The Life of Jesus, but this portrayal, without any semblance of the miraculous or of divine intercession, enraged the authorities of orthodox religion, just as Jesus himself was reported to have done.

Did Jesus perform miracles? Renan’s nineteenth century readers had already been exposed to doubts about the supernatural. The Enlightenment of the previous century had gone so far as to declare that authentic miracles were not needed to support a natural religion based on common sense. One may ask whether Renan, in fact, throws new light on the question of the supernatural in Jesus’ life. Intent on portraying a fully human figure, he omits detailed descriptions of miracles, suggesting only that the stories about them sprang from a “spontaneous conspiracy” among Jesus’ devotees. Yet the Gospels are a primary source for Renan’s story, and he concedes, rather equivocally, “That the Gospels are in part legendary, is evident, since they are full of miracles and of the supernatural; but legends have not all the same value.” He debunks, however gently, the notion of a “supernatural birth” and the visit soon afterward from Chaldean astrologers.

At another point,...

(The entire section is 421 words.)