The Life of Jesus Essay - Critical Essays

Erneset Renan

Vie de Jesus, Joseph Ernest Renan


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.

Principal Works

De l'origine du langage (nonfiction) 1848

Averroès et l'averroïsme, essai historique (history) 1852

Histoire générale et système comparé des langues Sémitiques (history) 1855

Etudes d'histoire religieuse [Studies of Religious History and Criticism] (history) 1857

Essais de morale et de critique (philosophy) 1859

Histoire des origines du Christianisme. 8 vols. (history) 1863-83; translated and reprinted as The History of the Origins of Christianity. 7 vols. 1897-1904

*Vie de Jesus [The Life of Jesus] (biography) 1863


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North American Review Advertiser (review date January 1864)

SOURCE: “Renan's Life of Jesus.North American Review Advertiser (January 1864): 195-233.

[In the following review, the critic praises The Life of Jesus for its vivid portrayal of Jesus while condemning the book for its rejection of Jesus' divinity.]

When we take up a new book on any old and familiar subject, on which many books have been written, we naturally ask, first, Was there any need of a new book on this subject? and if so, then, Was its author the man to write it?—and the second of these questions there are two ways of answering: either to inform ourselves from other sources who and what the man is, or to read the book itself, and judge...

(The entire section is 15426 words.)

Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (review date October 1864)

SOURCE: “The Life of Jesus.Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 96, no. 588 (October 1864): 417-31.

[In the following review, the critic condemns the skeptical tone of The Life of Jesus.]

It is a reproach frequently addressed to the Church, that she is more disposed to utter fulminations against the heretics who assail her, than to reply with sound reason and argument to their attacks. People say that the clergy are as ready as ever to denounce, and, when the occasion serves, to persecute, but that they are very slow to do manful battle for their faith, and meet their antagonists with their own opinions. Such a reproach has a specially severe meaning in an age...

(The entire section is 10327 words.)

John Tulloch (lecture date 1864)

SOURCE: Tulloch, John. “General Remarks; Positivism and the Supernatural.”1 In The Christ of the Gospels and the Christ of Modern Criticism: Lectures on M. Renan's ‘Vie de Jésus,’ pp. 1-31. London: Macmillan and Co., 1864.

[In the following lecture, Tulloch argues against the philosophical positivism that underpins Renan's position against miracles.]

The publication of M. Renan's Vie de Jésus marks a crisis in the present course of philosophical and religious opinion. This is its chief significance. The book itself has been judged very differently, from different points of view—denied all merit by some—loudly applauded by others; but the...

(The entire section is 4274 words.)

William G. Hutchison (essay date 1897)

SOURCE: Hutchison, William G. Introduction to Renan's Life of Jesus, translated by William G. Hutchison, pp. ix-xxxii. London: Walter Scott, 1897.

[In the following essay, Hutchison examines the early criticism of The Life of Jesus as well as the sources Renan used to write his biography.]

The year 1860 marked an important point in the life of Ernest Renan. Having acquired, by years of hard work and unremitting study, a European reputation as man of letters and as a writer of authority on the Semitic languages and Oriental archæology, he was commissioned by the Imperial government to proceed to Syria and undertake an expedition in quest of ancient Phœnician...

(The entire section is 7166 words.)

Lewis Freeman Mott (essay date 1921)

SOURCE: Mott, Lewis Freeman. “Syria; Henriette Renan; Professor of Hebrew; ‘Life of Jesus.’” In Ernest Renan, pp. 207-41. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1921.

[In the following excerpt, Mott praises the intellectual courage and literary imagination of The Life of Jesus.]

[The] greatest scandal to Renan's opponents was the publication of the Life of Jesus on June 24, 1863. Though certainly not so intended, it seemed like a gage of defiance designed to insult and irritate. That Renan had such a work in hand was no secret. Taine, who saw much of him at Chalifer, writes:

He read me a long piece of his Life of...

(The entire section is 3765 words.)

John Haynes Holmes (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: Holmes, John Haynes. Introduction to The Life of Jesus, by Ernest Renan, pp. 15-23. New York: The Modern Library, 1955.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1927, Holmes argues that The Life of Jesus was one of the most important and revolutionary books written in the nineteenth century and that the work remains a classic because of Renan's scholarly breadth and literary clarity.]

“Ernest Renan's Vie de Jésus,” said the late Joseph Henry Allen, famous scholar and church historian, “is the one great literary monument of a century of New Testament criticism.” This tribute to the immortal Frenchman's masterpiece was paid in 1895,...

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M. J. Lagrange (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: Lagrange, M. J. “Antecedent Leanings, Negative Prejudice, and Positive Aspiration.” In Christ and Renan: A Commentary on Ernest Renan's “The Life of Jesus,” translated by Maisie Ward, pp. 5-17. London: Sheed & Ward, 1928.

[In the following essay, Lagrange criticizes the theological and historical arguments of The Life of Jesus, concentrating on how Renan's work differs from nineteenth-century German biblical exegesis.]

From the very first, and in explaining his method, Renan is determined to distinguish himself from the German schools. And, in fact, the Life of Jesus was only discussed in Germany during the nineteenth century by...

(The entire section is 3136 words.)

John T. Noonan (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: Noonan, John T. “Renan's The Life of Jesus: A Re-examination.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 11 (1949): 26-39.

[In the following essay, Noonan argues that The Life of Jesus is a deeply flawed work expressing many of the prejudices of nineteenth-century religious skepticism.]

They admit certainly a real and historical Jesus, but their historical Jesus is not a Messiah or a prophet or a Jew. They do not know what He wanted; they understand neither His life nor His death. Their Jesus is, in His own way, an eon, an impalpable, intangible being. Pure history does not know any such being.


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Harold W. Wardman (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Wardman, Harold W. “1860-1863: The Middle East and the ‘Vie de Jésus.’” In Ernest Renan: A Critical Biography, pp. 72-90. London: The Athlone Press, 1964.

[In the following excerpt, Wardman places The Life of Jesus in a tradition of nineteenth-century romantic humanism and focuses on Renan's depiction of Jesus as a historical figure on whom the myth of Christianity was constructed.]

Though not his best historical work, the Vie de Jésus is too important a landmark in his life and in nineteenth century French literature to merit merely a passing attention. There can be no denying the importance of a work, whatever its actual worth, which...

(The entire section is 2183 words.)

Richard M. Chadbourne (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Chadbourne, Richard M. “Comedy of History.” In Ernest Renan, pp. 65-84. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1968.

[In the following excerpt, Chadbourne discusses Renan's biographical and historical treatment of Jesus, concentrating on the author's groundbreaking effort to recreate a modern and believable image of Jesus as man.]


The first paragraph of Chapter One of Vie de Jésus (“The Place of Jesus in World History”) states three ideas that will govern the entire Origines du christianisme: first, the “revolution” of Christianity is “the principal event in the history of the world”; second,...

(The entire section is 5391 words.)

Elisabeth Hurth (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Hurth, Elisabeth. “The ‘Uses’ of the ‘Literary’ Jesus: Ernest Rénan's Life of Jesus in New England.” ESQ 38, no. 4 (1992): 315-37.

[In the following essay, Hurth argues that although The Life of Jesus inspired much discussion and even imitation in nineteenth-century New England, the work's central position rejecting the divinity of Jesus was usually dismissed.]

“There are two ways of writing the Life of Jesus,” the North American Review observed in 1864. “The one is simply to ascertain and arrange the facts of his external history; the other is, then to go on and so interpret and explain those facts as to make it seen and...

(The entire section is 6848 words.)

Terence R. Wright (essay date summer 1994)

SOURCE: Wright, Terence R. “The Letter and the Spirit: Deconstructing Renan's Life of Jesus and the Assumption of Modernity.” Religion and Literature 26, no. 2 (summer 1994): 55-71.

[In the following essay, Wright examines The Life of Jesus in postmodern terms, concluding that part of what makes the work timeless is Renan's own awareness that all evaluation of Jesus' life and teaching, including his own, is conditioned by the age in which it is written.]

To rewrite the life of Jesus from a rational historical perspective is clearly central to the project of modernity, which is normally portrayed as sweeping away all superstition and replacing it with...

(The entire section is 7245 words.)

David C. J. Lee (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Lee, David C. J. “Fiction Christ.” In Ernest Renan: In the Shadow of Faith, pp. 187-206. London: Duckworth, 1996.

[In the following excerpt, Lee asserts that Renan structured Vie de Jésus in accordance with the conventions of the novel genre.]

L'humanité … veut un Dieu-homme. Elle se satisfera.

Drames philosophiques, Oeuvres complètes III, 559.

There can scarcely be a sense in which Vie de Jésus does not mark a crossroads. The book's publication in June 1863 led to Renan's first serious encounter with international celebrity. Of all his works it perhaps...

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Further Reading


Gaigalas, Vytas V. “The Church Bells Toll Against the ‘Antichrist’ (1863).” In Ernest Renan and His French Catholic Critics, pp. 33-60. North Quincy, Mass.: The Christopher Publishing House, 1972.

Describes how the French Catholic clergy responded to the publication of The Life of Jesus.

“Renan's “Vie de Jésus.” The Dublin Review (April 1864): 386-489.

Argues that The Life of Jesus is a detestable attack on Christian faith in the divinity of Jesus.

Schaff, Rev. Dr. The Romance of M. Renan and the Christ of the Gospels: Three Essays, New York: Carlton &...

(The entire section is 217 words.)