5:16:20 Renan's Life of Jesus, a book review

I learned of Ernest Renan's The Life of Jesus by reading my great-grandfather's diary from 1868. At a preparatory school away from home, he received $1.00 in the mail from his father, recommending Renan's book. Great-grandfather bought a used copy the same day. I, curious about what my great-grandfather read, ordered my used copy on eBay, an 1866 edition that I'm sure is the one Charles Edward read.

book cover

My paternal religion lineage is Puritan/Congregational, so I didn’t expect to read "hell, fire & brimstone, repent now,” but I had to be sure.

What a delightful surprise. Ernest Renan, French, has written a sincere biography, based on the four Gospels and Flavius Josephus et. al. With utmost care he strives to uncover truth and render a nuanced life.

How does Ernest Renan do it? The honest way. He goes to Galilee, he visits Jerusalem, Hebron, and Samaria. The Life of Jesus was written in situ, inspired by the landscape. And the text asserts nothing without tying it to a source(s). Almost every page of the text has multiple footnotes. In brief, Renan evaluates the four Gospels with a rigor I see in such modern Biblical scholarship as the work of Bart D. Ehrman.

Renan emphasizes Jesus was no theologian or philosopher. He was a man of action with disciples. "To be a disciple of Jesus, it was necessary to sign no formula, to pronounce no profession of faith; but a single thing was necessary, to follow him, to love him. He never argued in relation to God, for he felt him directly within himself." (p. 83)

As for the intuitive universality of Jesus’s teachings: “Jesus did not even know the name of Buddha, Zoroaster, or Plato; he had read no Greek book, no Buddhist sutra, and yet there is in him more than one element which, without his knowledge, came from Buddhism, from Parseeism, or from the wisdom of the Greeks. … the religion founded by Jesus … was natural, that is to say, conformable to the instincts and to the needs of the heart in a given age.” (pp. 372-373)

The years of Jesus's ministry are assessed with skillful insight. We see a popular Jesus pressed on to where tragically he becomes one with an acquired mission as Messiah and loses his individual freedom. His fate under Jewish law is as absurd as an adulterous woman stoned to death under Islamic law.

There's much to consider in the 376 pages of Renan's Life of Jesus, but most of all, I took comfort knowing I had a book to be appreciated with great-grandad & great-greatgranddad across the ages,

The Life of Jesus by Ernest Renan (translated from the French by Charles Edwin Wilbour), Geo. W. Carleton, Publisher, New York, 1866, 376 pp.

E-book copies available online here

Image credit: author digital scan


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Read Charlie Dickinson's latest novel, Losing Laika, as an ebook in these five downloadable formats:

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Read Charlie Dickinson's story collection The Cat at Light's End, as an ebook in these downloadable formats:

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