The Life of Jesus

by Ernest Renan

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First published:Vie de Jésus, 1863 (English translation, 1864)

Edition(s) used:The Life of Jesus, introduction by John Haynes Holmes. New York: Modern Library, 1927

Genre(s): Nonfiction

Subgenre(s): Biography; history

Core issue(s): Chastity; Gospels; Jesus Christ; works and deeds


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 entire section contains 1441 words.)

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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 establish the kingdom of righteousness on earth. His nature undergoes a decided change; he becomes an ardent revolutionary who believes not in the restoration but the destruction of the law. According to Renan, he even commits something akin to fraud by appearing miraculously to raise up Lazarus, or allowing the people to think he has done so.

Inevitably, he is brought down by a combination of a treacherous disciple, Judas Iscariot, who Jesus knew would betray him; a Jewish high priest; and Pontius Pilate, Roman procurator of Judea. Reluctantly, Pilate sentences Jesus to crucifixion only to prevent an uprising. Jesus is buried by Joseph of Arimathea, a sympathetic member of the Sanhedrin. After three days, a devotee, Mary of Magdalen, brings word that Jesus is gone from the tomb, and the disciples quickly spread the word that “He is risen!”

Renan carefully sticks to the “naturalistic” elements of the story, saying, “For the historian, the life of Jesus finishes with his last sigh.” Still, tying up loose ends, he adds a chapter on the fate of Jesus’ enemies, and another on the far-reaching effects of Jesus’ work. He concludes by affirming that “all the ages will proclaim that among the sons of men, there is none born who is greater than Jesus.”

Christian Themes

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, Renan hints at a charge that can be neither proved nor disproved, namely that the raising up of Lazarus may have been a hoax. Not surprisingly, the Church found this suggestion offensive and unjustified. Understandably, this suggestion, along with Renan’s treatment of the Bible as being subject to the same standards as other historical documents, infuriated some orthodox critics. There can be no doubt of Renan’s devout Catholicism or his deep love for Jesus, but as a historian he presents some purported facts that, if authenticated, could render their subject unworthy of respect.

In addition, while generally plausible, Renan’s biography is occasionally given to idle, even sentimental, speculation. Generally, in keeping with the most widely accepted image of Jesus, Renan portrays him as having no romantic impulses toward women. However, near the end of the narrative, Jesus is shown in the Garden of Gethsemane, possibly reflecting for a moment on the “young maidens who, perhaps, would have consented to love him.” Reportedly, a young Frenchwoman of Renan’s day, after reading The Life of Jesus, complained, “What a pity it does not end with a marriage!”

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.