(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Vie de Jesus Joseph Ernest Renan

The following entry presents criticism of Renan's biography Vie de Jesus [The Life of Jesus]. For discussion of Renan's complete career, see NCLC 26.

Widely regarded as one of the most important and revolutionary books of the nineteenth century, Renan's Vie de Jesus (1863; The Life of Jesus) was the first biography of Jesus that accepted his historical existence while rejecting the Christian belief that he was the son of God. Because it argued that “miracles are things which never happen, and, therefore, things which Jesus never did,” the book elicited a firestorm of criticism from church officials throughout Europe and America. It was denounced as blasphemous and, because of its popular appeal, was seen as a work that threatened to undermine the faith of Christians. Although Renan's portrayal of Jesus as an extraordinary mortal provoked the ire of Christian commentators well into the twentieth century, today The Life of Jesus is highly regarded by scholars, who see it as an important document that profoundly altered the tone and approach of western biblical interpretation. Renan's two main arguments—that New Testament sources were not infallible and that the formation of any religion, including Christianity, can best be understood through a study of social, linguistic, and psychological elements—have largely been accepted by modern secular academics. Praised for its intellectual courage, originality, stylistic beauty, and rationalist historicism, The Life of Jesus continues to be the work for which Renan is most highly regarded.

Biographical Information

Renan had already gained a reputation as a scholar of distinction before he began writing The Life of Jesus, and was especially renowned for his work on Semitic languages and Islamic philosophy. In 1860, Renan went to Syria with a team of archaeologists to inspect and translate ancient Phoenician inscriptions. The following year, inspired by visits to Jerusalem and other sites mentioned in the Bible, he began to compile notes that he would later use in The Life of Jesus to describe the geographical and social milieu in which Jesus grew up. In 1862, months after his sister died of malaria while assisting him with his manuscript, Renan returned to France, where he was made professor of Hebraic, Chaldean, and Syrian languages at the Collège de France. His first lecture, however, drew the censure of church officials for its suggestion that Jesus had been no more than an “incomparable man.” Renan's course was cancelled, although Renan continued to teach it from his home. Throughout 1863 he was often a guest at the literary salon of Princesse Mathilde, where he became acquainted with many of France's most liberal authors. In June 1863, Renan published The Life of Jesus, which, in spite of the official condemnation it received, was a popular success, selling over 60,000 copies in several European languages before the end of the year. The controversy surrounding Renan's skeptical account of Jesus' divinity resulted in the author's dismissal from the Collège de France in 1864. Refusing Napoleon III's subsequent invitation to work for the Bibliothèque Impériale, Renan returned to the Middle East, where he began work on Les Apôtres (1866; The Apostles), which would become the second volume, after The Life of Jesus, of his eight-volume study of the rise of Christianity from its Judaic roots to late antiquity. While every volume of this study, known collectively as Histoire des origines du Christianisme (1863-83; The History of the Origins of Christianity), has been praised for its scholarship, none appealed to popular tastes as much as The Life of Jesus.

Plot and Major Characters

Renan opens his twenty-eight-chapter account of Jesus' life and ministry with prefatory comments that explain his methodological and philosophical approach to his subject. The preface argues that the possibility of miracles is discredited by common experience and that although the Gospels are full of information that can be historically verified, the miracles attributed to Jesus in the New Testament did not really take place. Jesus, Renan insists, was an uncommonly spiritual and charismatic figure who was born into a time and place that was ripe to welcome the messiah-figure predicted in the Old Testament, a role Jesus himself gradually began to embrace toward the end of his life. The chapters that follow attempt to reconstruct a plausible biography of Jesus through analysis and comparison of the four New Testament Gospels. Jesus is described not as the son of God born to a virgin but as a humble boy born under normal circumstances to ordinary parents. Renan claims that Jesus probably received only the most rudimentary education and that his early livelihood was earned as a carpenter. Jesus' sermons, according to Renan, were initially concerned with messages of love, respect, and charity, usually conveyed by means of parables then commonly associated with rabbinical lessons. Jesus then became preoccupied with apocryphal images of the final days and a final judgment, probably because of the influence of John the Baptist. Renan claims that Jesus was an early disciple of John the Baptist before breaking away from him and enlisting his own followers. Jesus' disciples are usually described as simple men so “intoxicated” with their charismatic leader that they believed he was more than a mere mortal.

The plot and characters of Renan's The Life of Jesus would be familiar to anyone who has heard of or read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; only the interpretations Renan gives the events are unique. The raising of Lazarus from the dead, for example, is claimed as a fraud that Jesus and several of his disciples committed to elevate Jesus' status with the masses. Jesus' two trips to Jerusalem, the first ending in his rejection of orthodox Judaism and the second leading to his trial and death, are described in vivid, poetic, yet realistic detail. Renan argues that Jesus' resurrection was an hallucination by Mary Magdalene and that the disciples and early Christian writers uncritically accepted this story as true, which resulted in the mythological status of Jesus. Renan concludes The Life of Jesus with a postscript that reiterates his belief that although Jesus represented “the highest summit of human greatness,” the reality of his life and message was distorted by New Testament writers who, for various reasons, wrote of Jesus as a worker of miracles and the son of God. The modern world, Renan implies, is not best served by uncritically accepting these improbable elements of Jesus' life; instead, the central meaning of Jesus' moral message is most realistically displayed by discovering the authentic Jesus, a mortal man of unparalleled moral and spiritual sensibilities.

Major Themes

There are two major arguments that run through The Life of Jesus. The first, having to do with biblical scholarship in general, attempts to separate myth from historical truth in order to come to a more realistic portrait of Jesus. A great deal of The Life of Jesus concerns itself with the veracity of the four Gospels. Contradictions within these texts themselves combined with study of other contemporary accounts by the writers Philo and Josephus convince Renan that the Gospels were not divinely inspired, infallible works but rather texts written by individuals with certain thematic preoccupations and limitations. The Gospels, Renan insists, should not be treated differently from any other writings; they should be critically examined against other sources to separate factual information from literary or religiously inspired fancy. Although many of Renan's conclusions about the composition dates and veracity of the various Gospels have been supplanted in the last century, his methodological approach involving comparative literary analysis and historical objectivity has not.

The second, more central argument of The Life of Jesus has to do with the figure of Jesus himself. For Renan, it is inherently implausible that miracles ever took place or that Jesus was more than a mortal man. This idea in and of itself was not altogether new: the German theologian David Friedrich Strauss had concluded in his 1835 study of early Christianity, Das Leben Jesu, that the supernatural in general and the miracles of Jesus in particular were myths. However, whereas Strauss had concluded that Jesus himself was a figure of legend, Renan argued that study of biblical and secular sources proved that Jesus had in fact existed, had attracted a mass following for his spiritual teaching, and had been crucified for the revolutionary fervor he created. For Renan, the purpose of his The Life of Jesus was not to destroy belief in Jesus as a remarkable man with an important moral message, but rather to strip Jesus of the divine status that had been assigned to him by writers seduced by biblical prophesy of an expected messiah and furthered by Christianity's unquestioning attitude about scriptural authority. Throughout The Life of Jesus, Renan argues that belief in Jesus' divinity was due to two principal factors: Jesus' profound charisma combined with a period in Jewish history in which a frustrated people under the yoke of Roman repression yearned for a leader who would fulfill Old Testament prophesy and usher in a new age of Jewish glory and righteousness. Jesus himself, Renan believed, succumbed to his own growing religious fanaticism and began also to believe that he was the long-awaited messiah. Despite his own convictions or those of his immediate followers, Jesus, Renan concludes, was a “gentle,” “charming,” and “delightful” man around whom a myth of divinity was assigned to cope with social, political, and religious pressures that had been increasing for generations. A rational, skeptical detachment toward biblical sources was necessary, Renan insisted, to discover Jesus's timeless moral message and true place in history.

Critical Reception

The publication of The Life of Jesus created an immediate sensation across the European continent and in the United States, where the majority of critics, many of them church officials and Christian scholars, denounced Renan's conclusion that miracles were impossible and that Jesus was not the son of God. While a few of Renan's early opponents focused on the philosophical question of whether or not the possibility of miracles could be discounted by common experience, most were simply outraged that a book of such scholastic depth could conclude that Jesus was a self-deluded fraud on whom a myth of divinity had been superimposed. Many of the attacks on Renan were deeply personal in nature: Pope Pius IX called him the “European blasphemer”; others described him as a modern Judas Iscariot. Even those most inclined to accept Renan's biographical portrait of Jesus often complained that Renan's continued reverence for Jesus as the greatest of moral teachers meant that the author had been unable to achieve the historical and scientific detachment for which he argued. Despite the firestorm of criticism that The Life of Jesus sustained, and perhaps partly because of it, Renan's work had great popular appeal and sold extremely well. There were nineteenth-century critics, most notably Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, who praised Renan for his personal courage and intellectual insights, and friends and foes alike acknowledged Renan's superb prose that combined stylistic clarity with memorable, poetic descriptive passages. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the critical appraisal of The Life of Jesus had become largely positive. Although some commentators continued to attack Renan for his rejection of Jesus as Christ, and others, including Albert Schweitzer, pointed out fallacies in Renan's arguments about which Gospel sources were most reliable, most critics began to see The Life of Jesus as a defining work of its age, a masterpiece of scholasticism, stylistic clarity, wit, and courage that dared to apply scientific and historical principles to theological study. One critic even compared The Life of Jesus to Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species and Karl Marx's Das Kapital, asserting that all three are landmark books of the nineteenth century that revolutionized intellectual and popular thought. In the final decades of the twentieth century, interest in The Life of Jesus tapered off considerably, due less to failings of the work itself than to a growing acceptance of its central themes and methodology. Today, there is little of the controversy that sustained critical debates about the nature and value of Renan's biography of Jesus. While other works by Renan have become the subject of increased attention, The Life of Jesus remains the work with which his name is most commonly associated.