The Life of Jesus Summary
by Erneset Renan

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The Life of Jesus Summary

(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 meets John the Baptist, his thinking undergoes a drastic development. According to Renan, Jesus and John were about the same age and, seeing each other as equals, became allies.

Jesus adopts John’s watchword, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” To many Jews, the kingdom of heaven was the ancient theocracy, and its restoration would mean the overthrow of the Roman regime. The Messiah would be the king of David’s restored dynasty. At first, Jesus does not claim to be this Messiah but seeks to prepare his people for the coming kingdom by preaching an ethic of love and righteousness. He adopts John’s practice of baptizing his countrymen. However, John’s work as a prophet is soon ended, for his censorious style in the ancient tradition brings him into conflict with Herod Antipas. This event actually opens the way for Jesus, who has previously deferred to John, to develop his own voice fully.

Jesus illustrates his teachings with parables and stories of everyday events. The mustard seed grows into a mighty tree that canopies the world; the shepherd leaves a flock of ninety-nine to search for one lost sheep; and the Samaritan helps the wounded stranger. Similarly, parables were often employed in the discourse of rabbis and in the Talmud. This practice endears Jesus to the common people, whose faith enables him to cure many illnesses. However, the Pharisees and Sadducees, guardians of the Jewish faith, resent his popularity, especially among Jews whose fidelity to orthodox principles is already uncertain.

His popularity, coupled with the disapproval of religious and political leaders, makes Jesus more self-assured. He begins to call himself the Messiah instead of a son of man. He also foretells his death at the hands of authority, his ascent to heaven, and his eventual triumphant return to...

(The entire section is 976 words.)