It was heresy pure and simple. Jesus was a magnetic teacher with a vivid personality and "merely an incomparable man." None of the supernatural elements in his Scriptural biographies are true. This was the conclusion of J. E. Renan in his Vie de Jésus (Life of Christ) which saw publication on this day, June 23, 1863. The Life raised an immediate storm. Atheists said it did not go far enough in stripping veneration from the person of Christ. Believers deplored its blasphemous denial of Christ's divinity.
People who wanted the emotion of religion without the substance readily fell in with Renan's sentimental view of Christ. The Life was read because it fit the mood of the day. Deism and the skepticism of the French philosophes were undermining the faith of many. In Germany theologians such as Strauss had already denied the supernatural element of the gospel on dubious scientific, textual, and archaeological grounds. The science has changed and new findings of archaeology, such as the Dead Sea scrolls, have repudiated much of the "advanced" thinking of the nineteenth century and broadened our understanding of the world Christ entered, although new skeptical arguments have taken their place.
The Life also was read because of Renan's fame as an orientalist. His first work, a history of Semitic languages, had won him a prize. Through the good offices of Napoleon III he was able to study in the Holy Land. There a sister, who had been devoted to him, died of a fever which also almost claimed Renan's life. He had already begun to compose his controversial account of the life of Christ before he took ill. Now he finished it.
Renan created a work of stylistic beauty. In the French, its lure was heightened by poetic passages. Even in translation its force is not completely lost. "The idea of being all-powerful by suffering and resignation, and of triumphing over force by purity of heart, is indeed an idea peculiar to Jesus ..." Yet Renan's Jesus is not the gospel's. He denied a transcendent God.
Jesus attacked riches. "An admirable idea governed Jesus in all this, as well as the band of joyous children who accompanied him and made him for eternity the true creator of the peace of the soul, the great consoler of life." This of course, is pure sentimentality and has nothing to do with the terrible resistance Christ met which cut his soul. The disciples are better described as impulsive men who had constantly to be corrected by their master than as joyous children. Yet Renan depicts them in a mist of intoxication. "No one during the course of this magical apparition, measured time any more than we measure a dream. Duration was suspended; a week was an age."
And the resurrection? "The strong imagination of Mary Magdalen played an important part in this circumstance. Divine power of love! Sacred moments in which the passion of one possessed gave to the world a resuscitated God!" Thus Renan removed the divine from Christ, rendering Him down until there was little left but a decent role model.
- Brandes, Georg. Creative Spirits. Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries, 1967, 1923.
- Renan, Ernest. The Life of Jesus; with a biographical sketch by William G. Hutchinson. New York: A. L. Burt Co., n.d.
- "Renan, Joseph Ernest." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Editors F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Ruoff, Henry W. Masters of Achievement. Buffalo, N.Y.: Frontier Press, 1910. Source of the image.
Last updated April, 2007.