Personable Jesus

Revisiting Ernest Renan's Life of Jesus


in Features • Illustrated by Eric Lauterbach


One of the chief art-related themes of Easter has always seemed to have been, “This is Jesus, he was a super magical guy.” The day smacks of the reverential, no doubt in part because of the films playing on various TV stations that always seem to remain within the peripheries of our vision, as well as parading children in their early spring finery, the blazers for boys and the white gloves of girls that only seem to get worn to church this one time of the year when it is neither cold nor warm.  

In my family, post-egg hunt, we’d drive on Easter Sunday to the home of my religious grandmother, and she’d have a veritable marathon of “go Jesus go” films flicking across her antiquated TV set.  

The iconography creeped me out — and I also thought Pontius Pilate was this wizard-like masterful aviator millennia before flight was an official thing — in part because watching these films was like having your ears boxed with dogmatic celluloid. I was bothered, too, by this idea that you had to worship another human, just as I balk nowadays when people on dating sites express their hope that you are God-fearing. That, to me, seemed to undercut what Jesus ought to have been about and oriented around, a parabolic lesson in person-form. 

I don’t think any great human wants or needs you to worship them. They want you to be a better person through what they can teach you, they want a connection with you based on the truism that you both (hopefully) seek growth, and if they are an artist, they understand it is their work that has eternal life and bolsters your own life in the time you have on this spinning orb. 

I didn’t say any of this — well, too much of it, anyway — at ten-years-old to my not-very-elderly-elders, and thus knock the day off course. But I will tell you who once did: a radical thinker named Ernest Renan who wrote a book in 1863 called Life of Jesus that exploded the seemingly safe confines of the theological world and led to a general abjuring of Renan himself. Regardless of the backlash from holy quarters, it has remained in print over these many decades, with writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marcel Proust, Edith Wharton, and James Joyce sidling up to a kind of  Renan-charged secular-sacred blend — or a demystifying of the latter — that would inform their own work.  

Renan was born in February 1823 in Brittany, France. He was something of a prodigy, and at the age of 15 took every known schooling prize in the land. His father died when he was five, and his sister, who was then 17 — and also precocious — became the de facto intellectual head of the family, which certainly played a role in Renan’s mental proclivities.  She watched as Ernest set out to become a priest, which didn’t last long, as the young man realized that the Catholic church had a greater bent towards careerism than faith, a sobering epiphany. He was the kind of person whom people branded a rebel, who was not actually a rebel in that he did not strike the poses we associate with the breed, but in the larger, more complex sense that his keen mind wheeled and wove in a manner that the minds of others did not. Renan was a searcher for answers and did not hesitate to dilate upon them when he thought his quarry was in hand.  

He studied philosophy, he studied philology, he was a man of faith — though not in the regimented Catholic sense — who was also an adherent of science. As he and his sister took a trip through Ottoman Syria and Palestine, the woman he had so long admired and viewed as an intellectual sparring partner died. Having with him at the time a copy of the New Testament and a volume by the first-century Roman-Jewish scholar Josephus, Renan turned to ponder the life of Christ with a meaty hypothesis in mind: What if Christ were all but stripped of his status as the son of God, and instead considered as a man, plain and simple? A guy. Bloke. Dude down the street. Were there convenience stores, you could run into him at one, grabbing a burrito, just like you. Not a mystical, magical being. 

Renan’s Christ was a son like I was a son, which appealed to me, made sense to me, de-hocus-pocused spirituality for me and made it tangible. The core idea for Renan featured Christ as an artist of unsurpassed human feeling and understanding. He was a philosopher who needed a way to get his rhetoric across, which meant narrative, symbolism, all in service to a philosophy based upon love. You can see why someone like Fitzgerald thought so highly of the book. It moves with the same sort of pace and rhythm of prose in one of Fitzgerald’s perfect short stories like “Winter Dreams,” which Fitzgerald described as rhythmic writing. Note the quality of sprung rhythm quality of Renan’s account of the end of Christ’s life:  

The death of Jesus was thus resolved upon from the month of February or the beginning of March. But he still escaped for a short time. He withdrew to an obscure town called Ephraim or Ephron, in the direction of Bethel, a short day’s journey from Jerusalem. He spent a few days there with his disciples, letting the storm pass over. But the order to arrest him the moment he appeared at Jerusalem was given.”

It reads like a Western potboiler — this timeless tale of the East — crossed with urban noir; as if Cornell Woolrich had taken inspiration from the Dead Sea Scrolls after a stint on a dude ranch. The effect is intended: Renan wanted to dish out the narrative because as Christ himself knew, nothing enmeshes and bonds us like storytelling. (Renan himself devoured Victor Hugo novels.) Hence, all of the parables, the metaphor, analogies, in which Christ spoke. If you’re a churchgoer, and you find yourself nodding off during the readings, note how the bits in quotes — from the voice of Christ the man, narrative-helmer — jerk you back awake, re-center focus. Or, as Renan writes: 

The movement he directed was entirely spiritual, but it was still a movement; hence the men of order, persuaded that it was essential for humanity not to be disturbed, felt themselves bound to prevent the new spirit from extending itself. Never was seen a more striking example of how much such a course of procedure defeats its own object. Left free, Jesus would have exhausted himself in a desperate struggle with the impossible. The unintelligent hate of his enemies decided the success of his work, and sealed his divinity.  

What he means by “entirely spiritual” is in concept. If the metaphor turns out to be actual, possessed of an earthly transliteration — a sort of divine existence while on earth — then so be it, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can aspire and never reach — in fact, there may be no tenet more vital to being human. If you are constantly reaching, as in attaining, you might not be reaching high enough, is what Renan’s Christ professes. That’s his faith — in the reach, the striving. The villains of this piece — as of our time— are those who want the same old for the sake of the same old. We see it in the art worlds, where the emphasis on finding work like other work kills off audience and the chances of a possible influx of audience, whereas the new, the bracing, from the Beatles to Disney to Hitchcock to Billie Holiday, has been what we most go for in what I call the gut of the human soul. And probably the soul of the human gut, and the gut and soul of the heart. Now, Renan is shaving off the ends of some puzzle pieces here to make them fit together better with his narrative/ideological outline, and I wouldn’t agree that if Christ had not died, his movement, as Renan terms it, would have been quelled. To my thinking, if the person is that good at what they do, you’d prefer to have them around in support of their own cause, rather than not around, because, with the latter, we are getting into martyr territory, and I find martyr territory limiting.  

But we know, historically, that this man Jesus Christ died, and his struggle with those militantly hidebound had just been beginning — after all, he was only 33. He would have had a long fight in front of him. “Unintelligent hate” is an arresting qualifier because it presupposes something approaching its opposite — a smarter hate, if you will. Renan is describing a hatred born of someone else’s virtues, not their vices. Hating the person of true character, of genius, of productivity, expertise, rather than the warmonger, the child molester, the arsonist, the skimmer of funds.  

I have a rooting interest in this, and a professional one, as someone despised throughout his own industry, a hate that came with greater success, increased creativity, a singularly voluminous body of work. I remember once, a long time ago, back when various venues were starting to ban me out of petty power plays, envy, if I spoke on NPR or had a feature in Rolling Stone or a short story in Harper’s — believe me, I understand Renan’s concept of “unintelligent hate” — a friend remarked that I was the kind of person who ends up nailed to a cross, and those words have haunted me ever since. I hope they are not true, but it’s one more reason the earthly Christ has resonance for me, why I also think Christ the human would have been able to do more by forestalling death. Renan is advocating on the devil’s behalf, with the part about necessary expiration, at that very moment in Christ’s life, but there’s a subtle point, this notion of the sealing of divinity, a securing of official divine status. Yes, to become the figure-in-the-sky type of being, the deity, death played a role in the brand, we might say. Renan’s Christ, though, is not foremostly about divinity. In truth, its ancillary. Renan on Christ’s so-called “Miracles” is notable: 

It is impossible, among the miraculous narratives so tediously enumerated in the Gospels, to distinguish the miracles attributed to Jesus by public opinion from those in which he consented to play an active part. It is especially impossible to ascertain whether the offensive circumstances attending them, the groanings, the strugglings, and other features savoring of jugglery, are really historical, or whether they are the fruit of the belief of the compilers, strongly imbued with theurgy, and living, in this respect, in a world analogous to that of the “spiritualists” of our times. Almost all the miracles which Jesus thought he performed appear to have been miracles of healing. Medicine was at this period in Judea what it still is in the East — that is to say, in no respect scientific, but absolutely surrendered to individual inspiration. Scientific medicine, founded by Greece five centuries before, was at the time of Jesus unknown to the Jews of Palestine. In such a stale of knowledge, the presence of a superior man, treating the diseased with gentleness, and giving him by some sensible signs the assurance of his recovery, is often a decisive remedy. Who would dare to say that in many cases, always excepting certain peculiar injuries, the touch of a superior being is not equal to all the resources of pharmacy? The mere pleasure of seeing him cures. He gives only a smile, or a hope, but these are not in vain.

Cut through the hocus-pocus, Christ becomes more relatable, his power to inspire, to make us think, to check our own impulses, not diminished — even increased. As with a great work of fiction, you have a literal level of “these things actually happened,” and you have a metaphorical level of “X also means Y, which didn’t literally happen.” They are coevals, they simultaneously exist, neither undercuts the other. It’s like how the scientist can be a person of deep faith, a term I find more useful than belief, which is suggests the province of the spiritualists that Renan is referencing above.  

So far, so good, on the thesis front for our Mr. Renan, but then the ground begins to shake, with Renan’s assertion that elements of Christ’s earthly value stem from his Aryan nature, his shedding of Jewish traits, by which I mean, what Renan held to be Jewish traits. Renan didn’t quite use terms like Judaism the way we do now, viewing this particular term as a mode of thinking, as if it were a philosophical branch. He wrote, “There is no such thing as a pure race,” and eugenics abhorred him, but he did believe that the Jewish people were predisposed to monotheism. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing, one supposes, but it trends to being a bad thing when we discuss an entire class of people as inclined towards anything. You’d see more of this in the past — Orson Welles, for instance, could tell charming stories in which lump-sum characteristics were attributed to Poles, Russians, Spaniards, Italians, Jews, and this was a man who was a tireless and well-documented champion for equity. Renan’s “deal” with Judaism was he found this alleged monotheism limiting, which I suppose makes sense if you’re the writer of a book that seeks to humanize a religious figure, stripping away the celestial and identifying and extrapolating the transcendent in the earthly.  

He argued that the Jews had done more good for society than any other group, and were moral and intellectual paragons, with Jesus the Jew at the “summit of human greatness,” as “a man of surpassing greatness.” Renan was always careful to gender Jesus, to underscore human identity, keep him in place as that person you’d run into at the convenience store. The man part doesn’t matter, the human part does. Jesus is someone “we may call divine . . . in the sense that Jesus is the one who has caused his fellow men to make the greatest step towards the divine.” That divine factor being — and this is the rub — a life of evolution, of self-awareness, of service to others, of character, courage, sacrifice, thralldom to truth. Renan’s point was precisely that with divinity as we normally intend with the word “divinity,” we undercut Jesus’s real power as someone who lived a life that transcended what we normally mean by being human, attaining by questing, whether we actually attain or not. That is both the human mystery and the human reality of the divine. It’s the essence of Renan’s Christ.  

Life of Jesus’s current publisher is the leading issuer of atheistic texts in this country, a note of irony to savor. These days, atheism is often a pose, a “Look at what I don’t believe in, ma,” stance for attention. We always want the attention now. It provides us no substance, our white-hot need for it often makes us depressed and unwell, it breaks us, makes us kill ourselves, even, but we fork our lives over to it until our lives cease to be lives and become existences. I meet a lot of people with advanced degrees, who study art, who think they are artists, and it’s all but a given that they will remark that they are atheists. And I think about so many of the great, true artists, the vast majority, and their reserves of faith in something bigger than who they were, a bigger something akin to a mine from where their art came, where they found the artist who could make their art. Bach understood that he could not write music like he did simply because he had some chops and some vision. Mozart, Joyce, Beethoven, Van Gogh, Keats, Dickens, Shakespeare. They knew it wasn’t just solely because of them. They acted in some degree of concert with something else; what that is, who is to say?  

As one might imagine, life got a tad tricky for the truth-charging Renan after the book’s publication. The idea that Christ was this Hobo Joe-type of an itinerant preacher, who was charming and amiable — words that kind of set him up as a con man — produced anger. Renan lost his job, and even the Encyclopedia Britannica — which is usually as toothless as it gets — decided a later to bemoan that the book “is scarcely the work of a great scholar.” But when it came to the life of Jesus Christ, human, Renan wasn’t really interested in scholarship, and a lot of the details of that actual life were scattered on the winds long ago. He wanted to reach you, one human artist to his fellow human artists and potential human artists. De-Christ the Christ and you get Christ. It’s like a parable — and paradox — of death and resurrection. There’s a worthy Easter egg for you. •


colin fleming’s most recent books are an entry in the .33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke's Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963; a volume about 1951's Scrooge as the ultimate horror film; and a work of fiction called If You [ ]: Fabula, Fantasy, F**kery, Hope. He's the author of the comic novel Meatheads Say the Realest Things. His fiction appears in Harper's, Commentary, Virginia Quarterly Review, Salmagundi, and Boulevard, with his writings on art, film, music, literature, and sports running in The Atlantic, Salon, Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, and JazzTimes. His op-eds feature in USA Today, New York Daily News, The New York Times, LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He's a regular radio guest and maintains the voluminous Many Moments More blog on his website, which ranges in its explorations from ballet to film to sports to literature to music to art to nature to unique workout routines in historical structures while exposing the corruption and discrimination — and plain bad writing — rampant in publishing, and documenting what it truly means to endure and grow. Sometimes there are posts on Twitter @colinfleminglit.