The Pale Galilean: Ernest Renan, Jesus, and Modern History

Will Theiss on France’s greatest historian

In 1884, General Charles Gordon, the bumbling British imperialist who had earned his fame in China, was wasting away at Khartoum. He had gone on a campaign to rescue British assets in the Sudan from a militant Islamic leader he called the Mahdi. Things went very badly. By the beginning of the year he was under siege in the city, awaiting a rescue army that never came and smuggling pathetic messages out to be printed in the Times in London. He also kept a journal. It swings from biblical quotations and eccentric piety to racism and descriptions of his hopeless state of affairs—and back. On October 5, for instance, he described his agony over killing a scorpion in the bathtub (“It stung me upon the finger”). That day he also recorded a rumor that a Frenchman wandering through the desert had been arrested by the Mahdi: “It might be Renan,” he wrote, “the author of the ‘Life of Jesus’ … He was a Roman Catholic priest originally, is a great Arabic scholar, and evidently a very unhappy and restless man.” He went on: “I met him once in the rooms of the Royal Geographical Society one afternoon.” “If it is Renan he will not approve of the pepper system.” And finally, rendering a pithy verdict only an English Victorian could give: “If he comes to the lines, and it is Renan, I shall go and see him, for, whatever one may think of his unbelief in our Lord, he certainly dared to say what he thought, and he has not changed his creed to save his life.”

Whoever Ernest Renan was, this episode suggests that he ought to be condemned to historical oblivion. Most clubbers at the Royal Geographic Society of the nineteenth century have not remained our heroes. Charles Gordon himself was effectively killed as a subject for historical study in 1918 by Lytton Strachey’s sarcastic portrait in Eminent Victorians. But, as three new best-selling books prove, Renan has survived in the imagination of the French public. It is worth wondering what this means.

Ernest Renan was born in 1823 in Tréguier, a small town in Brittany. His mother and his older sister were his closest companions as long as they lived; Renan never learned, nor has the scrupulous horde of subsequent biographers discovered, very much about his father. He was a captain of the French navy, spent time as a prisoner of the English, and later vanished at sea. Jean Balcou—the author of an authoritative new biography which won the prestigious Prix de la Biographie of the Académie Franc̨aise in 2016 and which was reissued in paperback earlier last year—suggests that the many months Renan spent at sea, anywhere from Norway to Lebanon, brought the son closer to the father.

It was not unusual that Renan, a prize-winning student from a pious family, should have been ushered into the priesthood. But if his mother imagined her son a simple priest in Tréguier, she should not have allowed him, in 1838, to begin his theological studies at the age of fifteen in Paris. Immediately Renan felt the shock of discovery and the whirl of intellectual excitement. “I saw things,” Renan wrote years later, “that were as new to me as if I had suddenly been transported to France from Tahiti or from Timbuktu.” The next seven years he devoted to study at three historic Parisian institutions: first, Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonet, one of the glories of medieval Paris, where Renan regarded the famous abbot Dupanloup as a father figure; next, two years of philosophy at Issy, at that time a rural and charming park on the Seine outside the city; and lastly, three years at Saint Sulpice. It was at Issy that things began to go, from the point of view of the Church, off the rails. Renan began to study and ponder with new zeal, not theology, but Kant and Descartes. His teachers were either amused or furious. His mathematics professor predicted that he would never take care of the “poor souls” entrusted to him: “He’ll always be studying … he’ll simply say to those who come searching for him: oh! leave me alone, leave me alone.” Another teacher at Issy put it in simpler terms by thundering, vous n’êtes pas chrétien, “you’re no Christian.”

If there was any hope of restoring Renan to his old piety, and separating him from his beloved secular philosophy books, the game was over by the time the young scholar entered Saint Sulpice in 1844 to complete his course in theology. This famous institution, the destination of many sojourners to the Latin Quarter then and now, was in the 1840s noticeably infected by the twin epidemics of philology and liberalism. Renan fell under the spell of the abbot Arthur-Marie Le Hir, who taught Hebrew: suddenly the whole apparatus of medieval theology fell away, and Renan sharpened his tools for the study of the ancient sources themselves. Le Hir taught Renan Syriac. Later he described comprehending under Le Hir, for the first time, the “vocation of philology.” At night, he read the new novels of Victor Hugo. By the next year he had thrown himself even further into the study of the German writers of the last century: Goethe, Herder, Fichte. By 1845 the twenty-two year old seems to have sketched out with more or less accuracy the road his life would take. “Who will found among us the rational and critical sort of Christianity?” he wrote in a letter. “Perhaps I myself could have a hand in this great project.” That year he left Saint Sulpice and became a modern thing, a Parisian litterateur.

Balcou is impressively thorough on this most important period of Renan’s life. He had help: in 1883 the aging Renan published his Souvenirs d’enfance et de jeunesse, which gave the authorized and synoptic account of his enlightenment and departure from the Church. He cited as much from his own letters and diaries as from his memory. (A good sign of Renan’s arrogance and philological competence is that he referred to this period of his life as Nephtali, from the Hebrew for “wrestle”—surely meant to describe his inner struggle, but also to put himself on par with Israel.) An autobiography is the biographer’s nemesis: Balcou confesses that these were among the hardest pages to research and write, and he does well to find unreported letters, well-hidden juvenilia, and obscured means of entry into the material. But nevertheless Balcou could have done something more to contextualize these years of European intellectual life, in order to show why studying Hebrew and German in 1840 was likely to electrify a French student in a way unthinkable, say, in 1740. For the first time in Germany scholars were applying the fully matured principles of the study of classical antiquity, their Altertumswissenschaft, to the texts of ancient Judaism and Christianity. This development was long in the making; it began in 1777, so they say, when Friedrich August Wolf signed himself into his university as F. A. Wolf, stud. philol. But now his disciples began reading religious antiquity with a new rigor. Ferdinand Christian Baur, whom Balcou never mentions, was the guiding spirit of this movement; David Friedrich Strauss, whom Balcou describes only later in the book, was its most famous son. His 1836 Das Leben Jesu, a biography of Jesus in imitation of first attempts by Hegel and Schleiermacher, shocked most of its readers and inspired some. In 1846 a young Mary Anne Evans, who later used the pen name George Eliot, translated it into English (“the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of Hell,” as one reviewer put it). This was the context in which Renan left seminary to become the most important historian and philologist of nineteenth-century France.

Renan quickly established his reputation. Already in 1848 he won a prize with his first pamphlet, Histoire de l’étude de la langue grecque dans l’Occident de l’Europe depuis la fin du Ve siècle jusqu’à celle du XIVe (“a history of the study of the Greek language in western Europe from the 5th to the 14th century”), a methodical show of erudition about the obscure world of Greek studies in the Middle Ages; by rooting around libraries in Italy he shed new light on the great Islamic polymath Averroes.

Here we are approaching a minefield. In 1847—not two years into his new life as a stud. philol.—Renan submitted his Essai historique et théorique sur les langues sémitiques en général et sur la langue hébraïque en particulier and won the prestigious Prix Volney from the Institut de France. He later called this the Histoire générale et système comparé des langues sémitiques, and in that form it went through several editions in Renan’s lifetime. If this work is known at all to English readers in the twenty-first century it is known through the piercing analysis it received in Edward Said’s Orientalism of 1979. Said’s analysis did more than pick out the racist and essentialist statements that litter the Histoire générale. It attempted to show how Renan, the leader of what Said called the second generation of professional French Orientalists, succeeded in constructing a “philological laboratory” through which the Semitic Near East would be brought to life and given meaning. Renan was an anatomist. “Semitic was Renan’s first creation,” Said wrote, “a fiction invented by him in the philological laboratory to satisfy his sense of public place and mission.” To prove that Renan liked what he called Semitic language and culture, as he no doubt did, would not suffice as a defense. Readers can decide whether Balcou’s brief defense of his hero stands up to Said. This reader doubts it. At the very least the question of Renan the Orientalist’s Semitism is capable of attracting interlocutors on both sides today.

Un homme incomparable. A distinguished man, a gentleman perhaps. Those words cost Renan his chair of Hebrew in the College de France, made him a personal enemy of the Pope, started a near riot in a lecture hall in Paris, and made him one of the outstanding literary celebrities in an age of literary celebrities. They are what he called Jesus in his Vie de Jésus of 1863. Note the omission: Jesus was a man who, though unlike any other, was not God. The work had occurred to Renan in the years 1860-1862, while he toured the holy sites of what he called Phoenicia and began to collect the inscriptions that would form the basis of the massive scholarly project he founded late in life, the Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum. By all accounts the rotund and large-headed Frenchman cut a comic figure in the Judean desert. His wife Cornélie and his older sister Henriette flanked him. “He had a certain tendency to obesity,” wrote an observer. “Like all great minds, he was fully absorbed by his work, and he only rarely paid attention to what was going on around him. He adored his sister, he adored his wife, but he did not consider them except during meals and in the evening. He had no time to enter into their small rivalry and I don’t think he noticed who tied his tie in the morning.” But in the meantime Renan stumbled around Palestine like Gibbon around Rome: he was plotting his great historical masterpiece, the Histoire des origines du Christianisme of which the Life of Jesus was only volume one of eight. That Henriette, the pious and loyal woman of Brittany, died in a small coastal town north of Beirut added elegiac notes of personal loss to a scholarly work. It sold everywhere, quickly.

Even more than David Friedrich Strauss, Renan applied the refined tools of nineteenth-century historical positivism onto whatever documents had something to say about the life of Jesus. The same critical eye that regarded the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus and the Talmud also regarded the canonical gospels and New Testament epistles—and occasionally found the former more reliable than the latter. Among Renan’s most lucid and most controversial ideas was that a miracle does not count as a historical event; people believing in a miracle does. Renan’s Jesus is a man of simple piety and almost unimaginable charisma whose main historical significance was his legion of followers.

Renan’s Jesus was enough like a nineteenth-century Parisian intellectual to make some readers suspect autobiography. In conjuring Jesus’ humble piety in the scenic background of the Judean hills Renan recalled his own secular and scholarly pilgrimage in his footsteps. Something similar can be said for the third volume of the Histoire des Origines, Saint Paul, published in 1869 after another tour of the Mediterranean and Middle East. “Paul is no Jesus,” he definitively wrote. But in Paul’s frenetic proselytizing around the Mediterranean, in Paul’s life onboard a ship, in Paul’s torturous encounter with Athenian classical beauty at the Acropolis—in all of these things Renan saw glimmers of himself and indeed glimmers, even more faint, of his unknown father, lost at sea. Balcou’s section Paul entre Jésus et Renan is an essay in itself, a meditative reflection on the agonistic trio, and one of the interpretive highlights of his book. And Balcou is no doubt correct when he reads the seventh volume of the Histoire des Origines, the Marc-Aurèle et la fin du monde antique of 1882, as another round in Renan’s prolonged struggle with himself, and another frame in the hectic kaleidoscope of his self-examination. Marcus Aurelius, the last pagan sage, was himself the author of an autobiography; and when Renan was writing this volume, he was also writing his Souvenirs d’enfance et de jeunesse, his popular and mythologizing autobiography. It would take Sigmund Freud—or a biographer as skilled as Balcou—to sort all of this out.

There are places where in reading Renan’s vast corpus Balcou missed a literary reference, or a connection with the contemporary intellectual environment, and so hemmed in his own interpretation. In February 1886 Renan wrote a comedy in one act, the Dialogue of the Dead, to celebrate the birthday of his friend Victor Hugo, whose death the previous May had occasioned perhaps the largest ritual of national mourning in the history of France. Renan’s short scene put France’s best dead writers—Racine, Corneille, Boileau, Diderot, Voltaire—together for a brisk conversation in Elysium, in the underworld; they passed around books, gossiped, told the news and praised one another. It is clear (and Balcou does not say it) that Renan took the idea from Lucian, the Syrian Greek writer of the second century CE whose Dialogues of the Dead—uproarious dialogues among philosophers, politicians and mythological characters in a timeless underworld—was a fundamental text in Greek classrooms between the Renaissance and the nineteenth century. This is not just scoring points. The Lucian reference matters. When Lucian wrote his Dialogues of the Dead in the second century he regarded the classical past as a closed chapter. Everybody who mattered, from Homer to Alexander to Cicero, was dead, and they were having dinner together. By stringing up a Lucianic comedy in 1886 Renan was also arguing for a Lucianic view of French history. The classical age was over; it ended with Hugo. The rest of us, we who are still up here, are missing the party.

Among the many wise things Balcou has to say about Renan, one in particular helps immensely to explain Renan’s surprising durability in the French cosmos. Balcou suggests that part of the appeal of the Vie de Jésus is the way in which Renan invited the reader to participate in historical inquiry. Renan did this especially in his long and enthralling preface: the sources are few, he said, and the truth is perhaps nowhere more alloyed with myth than in the days of early Christianity; but these are the sources we have, and we will try to see what they tell us about the homme incomparable. Renan, the magician who reveals his tricks, has lifted the curtain and shown, almost embarrassingly, the mechanics of historical inquiry. A masterful scholar, he is also the mascot of the amateur historian—the writer who approaches some documents and tries to make sense of them.

Balcou has given us, I think, the key to one of the most popular and enigmatic French books of the past several years. It is Emmanuel Carrère’s Le Royaume, published in 2014 and translated into English last year as The Kingdom. It is hardly the case that Carrère is unknown in the English world—he was being reviewed by John Updike in The New Yorker in the ’80s—but his fame in America is a shadow of his reputation in France. (“Honestly? I am quite well known. I am next to Michel Houellebecq,” he said recently in an interview.) His mother is an eminent historian of Soviet Russia and holds a chair in the same Académie Franc̨aise where Renan so desperately coveted, and finally achieved, membership.

Carrère’s reputation is as a genre-bending writer in the postmodernist mode. He has famously stopped writing novels in favor of books that, although nonfiction, are nevertheless unsettling for readers accustomed to a strict separation of fact from fiction. His last book, Limonov, was an account of the life of Russian writer, dissident, and provocateur Eduard Limonov, who is still alive—written in the first person. Can an account of a life be called a biography if it its subject is still alive, if it is based on no amount of interviews or research, and if it is written in the first person? It is a question worthy of Renan.

Perhaps the best way to describe The Kingdom is as a Souvenirs d’enfance et de jeunesse and a Histoire des origines du Christianisme all mixed into one. The first chapter describes Carrère’s own crisis of faith. His crisis was not that he suddenly doubted the Christian religion: his crisis was that he suddenly believed in the Christian religion. For three years, he says, he lived the life of a devout Catholic. He went to mass every day. He prayed. He believed in the resurrection of Christ and the forgiveness of sins, and all the rest. He had grown up in secular Paris, and still this happened to him. He is so fascinated by his years of belief that he conducts, and dramatizes, a historical inquiry. He narrates taking down old boxes of letters and diaries from the closet in his office, and he quotes them in all their juicy, pious detail. This feels like more genre-defying experimentation—trying to get inside the foreign mind of a past self, by reading his mail—but one should remember that Renan wrote in this exact genre in 1883, when he, too, gave his readers glimpses into his old documents, and tried to excavate the mind of the young seminarian he no longer was. Carrère’s Paris and Renan’s Paris, too, are the same. Both go into the bookstores. Both pray at Saint Sulpice.

It turns out that this historical exercise was a warm-up. The next three sections are a fascinating, rambling, immersing history of early Christianity, whose two protagonists are Luke and Paul. Carrère’s eye for the fascinating historical detail buried within the New Testament is often exhilarating, for instance the detail which set Carrère off on his historical mission in the first place. Reading Acts of the Apostles, traditionally ascribed to Luke, he noticed something strange in chapter 16:

When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

What the theologian might notice in this passage is the strangeness of the dream, and the ability of Paul to direct himself as if by prophecy. But what the historian should notice is the sudden change from the pronoun they to the pronoun we. Luke has arrived. He must have been in Troas; he must have been persuaded by Paul’s mission. Everything before Acts 16 is done by them, everything after, by us. Carrère is of course not the first person to notice this. But he uses it as the open door, the Proustian madeleine, which invites one to investigate the past:

I realized that I was going to follow Luke, that what I was going to write would be largely a biography of Luke, and that these few lines in the Acts of the Apostles were the door I’d been looking for to enter the New Testament. Not the main door, not the one that opens onto the nave, facing the altar, but a small, hidden side door: exactly what I needed. I tried to zoom in—the way you do with Google Maps—on the exact point in space and time when this person who says “we” in the Acts appears.

Notice that Carrère, like Renan before him, does not just narrate history: he narrates how one stumbles into history, how one does history, and why it matters.

Carrère is explicit about his debt to Renan. He has read the Histoire des origines du Christianisme very closely and refers to it often. And once, he interrupts his story of Paul to give a short biography. There is even good evidence that Carrère thinks of himself as a kind of Renan redux. “[Renan] believed,” he writes, “that to write the history of a religion it is best to have believed in it, and not to believe in it anymore.” Carrère knows he has this in common with his hero. He is willing to admit that the Vie de Jésus feels old fashioned—himself a master prose stylist, Carrère calls Renan’s style “very Third Republic,” and not in a good way. But he is attuned to Renan’s revelatory transparency as a writer of history. He identifies “that way Renan has of explaining to the reader how exactly he made his historical stew: which sources he used, how he exploited them, and on what grounds.”

Renan rears his head, too, in another of France’s most popular books of the past two years, the Histoire Mondiale de la France. This montage of French history, compiled by dozens of young scholars and containing essayistic snapshots of events between 35,000 BCE and 2015, struck a nerve during the tense 2016 presidential elections. It became that increasingly rare thing, an academic book that sells. Renan, along with very few other great figures of French history, gets his own chapter. It is March 11, 1882, and Renan, in a lecture hall of the Sorbonne, is giving his famous address, Qu’est-ce qu-une nation? What is a nation? Nothing less, he said, than a people with a common past, and a people that constantly assents to belong to a nation based on a consciousness of the past. He wrote the intoxicating phrase, un plébiscite de tous les jours, to describe this assent. The address, in the form of a pamphlet, has never been out of print in Paris since he gave it. Balcou goes further: he compares it with “I Have a Dream.”

I do not ultimately know what Renan’s politics are worth to us, or what his liberal nationalism can tell us. But thanks to Balcou and Carrère we have before us another more durable strand of his legacy. Renan made it known what a historian did, by showing in vivid terms what he himself did.

Will Theiss studied history at Yale and Cambridge, where he was a Gates Scholar. He is currently a Ph.D. student at Princeton.