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vie de jésus

20 april 2014

I first heard of Ernest Renan's Vie de Jésus in a course on European intellectual history when I was a freshman in college. Its historical importance was seared on my memory so deeply that I've never forgotten it; its literary merit was left so unemphasized that I never managed to pick up a copy and start reading it.

I still haven't picked up a copy of Vie de Jésus, but when I got a new phone earlier this year, the iBooks app wasn't far behind. One wonder of e-books and iBooks is that the world's classics, if securely within the public domain, are no longer just a buck or two away at the used-book store, or $0.01 plus $3.99 shipping at Amazon. You can just "buy" them for nothing at the iBooks "store" – well, you already know this, or why would you even be reading this webpage.

An insidious thing about e-books is that you have no very good idea of what you're getting into. If I'd ever seen Vie de Jésus on a library shelf and been deterred by its thickness, that factor became irrelevant when it appeared on my iBooks shelf as a tiny thumbnail cover. All iBooks are exactly the height and thickness of your phone. Oh, sure, a subscript tells you that you have thousands of pages to go. But if you don't have to lug the sucker around, you'll start reading anything. Vie de Jésus runs 2,668 pages on an iPhone 5c, at least when you make the font big enough to read without your glasses. I've been plowing through it at a few score pages per night for a while now.

I would assume that any work of historical or biblical scholarship, first published in 1863, is now as obsolete as the electric telegraph. If anything that Renan posits in Vie de Jésus is still accepted wisdom about the historical life of Jesus, I'd be amazed. I'm amazed anyway, but not in the way I expected to be. I expected to have to transport myself back to the credulous 1860s, and be mildly and vicariously ruffled by the stirrings of rationalist "higher criticism" of the origins of Christianity. Instead I was pulled up distinctly short by how sharply this 1860s book challenges absolutely everyday assumptions of the 2010s Bible Belt.

Jesus wasn't God. He wasn't born in Bethlehem, let alone laid in a manger. He had brothers and sisters (and thus a non-virgin mother). He wasn't educated ("un jeune villageois qui voit le monde à travers le prisme de sa naïveté [a young small-town man who saw the world through the lens of his naïvety]," Chapter 3). He spoke little or no Hebrew or Greek, the cultured languages of his time and place. He was not a deep thinker – in fact he knew surprisingly little about the Hellenistic world and its culture, or the Roman Empire that he lived in. He wasn't much for theological systems; he preached a keenly felt, immediate presence of God within one's self. His relationship with John the Baptist was part bromance, part puppyfight. He was politically stupid, and as his celebrity grew, increasingly out of touch with reality. He didn't institute the Eucharist at the Last Supper. He didn't rise from the dead, though it was convenient for his followers to think that he did, and to embroider a metaphorical or mystical Resurrection into the central tenet of a world religion.

Yet for all the common-sense debunking of Christian legends in Vie de Jésus, Renan himself stays consistently in awe of his subject. He falls all over himself to commend the sublimity of his distinctly material Jesus. Renan finds everything to admire in Jesus's egalitarianism, social conscience, idealism, pacifism, and tolerance: in fact, all the reasons why Jesus remains admirable to non-theistic humanists. Such principles rarely deflect criticism from theists, who don't care how much you admire their guy while you're denying his divinity. One senses at times that Renan bends over further backwards than he'd like to placate Christian readers that he's unlikely to be able to placate anyway. But Renan's philosophy is consistent. He sees Jesus as having a (non-divinely) inspired sense of ethics, which arose at a culturally propitious moment, and evolved into a religion that has both strayed far from its beginnings and continually been recharged by a return to those beginnings.

And he's hardly just throwing a sop to Christian dogmatists. For Renan, Christ is "celui qui a les plus contribué à effacer dans l'humanité les distinctions de sang [the one who did the most to wipe out distinctions of blood among people]" (Chapter 2). Here sang, "blood," might mean to us race or ethnicity, but to Renan it more importantly meant class, in a France less than a century removed from an unthinkably radical revolution against a hereditary class system. It really means all these things. Jesus, in Renan's view, was the great anti-tribalist, and Renan himself was of a time and place – and not just in France but in Russia and the German empires and the United States – where anti-tribalism mattered greatly to progressive thinkers. And Renan's Jesus is more than progressive; he is nothing less than "le fondateur des droits de la conscience libre [the founder of the right to freedom of thought]" (Chapter 23).

A still-strong, even dominant strain in American evangelical Protestantism insists that a central argument for the truth of Christianity is the number and nature of the miracles of Jesus. Above all (it's Easter Sunday as I write this) he rose from the dead. He brought others back from the dead, and as if any more convincing were needed, he cast out demons and cured the blind and the halt, and probably cured cancer, psoriasis, and the common cold. Our weakness in the face of sickness, disability, and death means that the brute-force overcoming of such ills is attractively magical. But, says Renan,

Il n'arrive de miracles que dans les temps et les pays où l'on y croit, devant des personnes disposées à y croire.

[Miracles don't happen except in times and places where people believe in them, in front of people inclined to believe.] (Introduction)
Jesus's contemporaries were so inclined to believe in miracles, and so disinclined to believe in the specialness of anybody who couldn't produce them, that he found himself going along with his culture's fascination with hocus-pocus (a fascination shared intermittently by various Christian communities ever since).
Les miracles de Jésus furent une violence que lui fit son siècle, une concession que lui arracha la nécessité passagère.

[The miracles of Jesus were an imposition his world made on him, a concession thrust upon him by the necessity of getting ahead.] (Chapter 16)
Renan notes Jesus' insistence on not having news of his miracles bruited about, and speculates that he knew in material terms what charlatanism was involved in claiming to cure people who would either have gotten better anyway, or were susceptible to the placebo value of a little laying on of hands. But who ever got anywhere without generating "buzz," as Tim Rice would later characterize the superstardom of Jesus? "Il n'est pas de grande fondation qui ne repose sur une légende [there is no great structure that doesn't rest on a myth]" (Chapter 15).

Renan's anti-Semitism is often noted. I find it more ambivalence than anti-Semitism. (And it would be more to the point to note Renan's unmitigated contempt for Muslims.) "Personne plus que moi n'est disposé à placer haut ce peuple unique [Nobody is more inclined than I am to rate this unique people highly]" (Chapter 28), he protests; but despite such respect, he doesn't seem to like Jews very much:

Un des principaux défauts de la race juive est son âpreté dans la controverse, et le ton injurieux qu'elle y mêle presque toujours.

[One of the main faults of the Jewish race is their nastiness in argument, and the hurtful tone they almost always use when arguing.] (Chapter 20)
Yeah, like there's no beam in Ernest Renan's eye on that score.

The narrative achievement of Vie de Jésus is pretty pedestrian, if you ask me. With basically no independent biographical material to work with, Renan had to reconstruct the chronology and arc of Jesus's life from the Gospels themselves. This project involves liberal quotation and a breathless, almost campy treatment of the big moments from the New Testament, a kind of Jesus Highlight Reel. All the same, I was moved by Renan's account of the Passion. Crucifixion is all the more pathetic when you imagine it happening to a mere human. Of course that's part of the wonder of the Passion, that Jesus (to believers) was fully and "merely" human. But (and no offense to Mel Gibson or anything), imaginations of a divine Passion have an ace or two in the hole: the Resurrection, of course, but more importantly omnipotence and divine foreknowledge. Renan's Jesus really has been forsaken. And unlike the Jesus of Christianity, he had no way of knowing that he would one day be worshiped (Chapter 23) as "le héros incomparable de la Passion."

Renan, Ernest. Vie de Jésus. 1863. iBooks.