(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Ernest Renan names five main sources for his biography: the Gospels, the Old Testament Apocrypha, the works of Philo Judaeus, the works of Flavius Josephus, and the Talmud. Josephus barely mentions Jesus. Philo knew nothing of him but lived in a contemporary intellectual center, Alexandria, and this afforded a perspective on the dominant religious and philosophical ideas of the time.

In Renan’s account, Jesus is born at Nazareth, a small, obscure and nondescript town in the region of Galilee, within a few years of what is now called the beginning of the Christian Era. His given name, Jesus, is a variation of Joshua. His parents, Joseph and Mary, are artisans and laborers. Renan reports that Jesus’ family includes brothers and sisters.

Jesus learns to read and write as a boy, but because the Gospels show him speaking “Aramean” (Aramaic), Renan expresses doubt that he understood Hebrew or Greek texts. Renan gives thanks that Jesus did not learn the “scholasticism” of the type demonstrated in the Talmud. Renan believes that the scholars of the time tended to overinterpret the Pentateuch and the Prophets, hoping to justify the popular Messianic dream. Jesus undoubtedly shared that dream, but with his “grand genius,” he sees the true meaning of the Old Testament, especially its truly poetic portions such as the lyrical Psalms. He is perhaps inspired by the apocryphal testaments as well, with their tales of the Messiah arriving to make the nations bow down. Jesus takes the marvels described in these books as a matter of course, though this does not entail visions such as that of the burning bush that had appeared to Moses; Renan states that Jesus understands God as distinguished from seeing him.

Jesus follows Joseph’s profession of carpenter. Renan points out that Jewish custom of the time called for a man engaged in intellectual pursuit to take up a manual trade; Saint Paul, for example, worked as a tentmaker. Initially, Jesus sees himself as a “son of man” (like Ezekiel), convinced of the need to take action beyond the requirements of Mosaic law, but when he...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Chadbourne, Richard. Ernest Renan. New York: Twayne, 1968. A biography of Renan that discusses his works as well.

Fredriksen, Paula. Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity. New York: Vintage, 2000. A much later biography of Jesus, which traces the development of Christianity.

Lee, David C. J. Ernest Renan: In the Shadow of Faith. London: Duckworth, 1996. Looks at the religious beliefs of Renan; contains some biographical information.

Singley, Carol J. “Race, Culture, Nation: Edith Wharton and Ernest Renan.” Twentieth Century Literature 49, no. 1 (Spring, 2003): 32. This discussion of Wharton’s admiration for Renan and his works talks at length about Renan and his writings.