The Life of Jesus by Ernest Renan

The Life of Jesus by Ernest Renan

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I just finished reading two biographies about Jesus, back to back – the Modern Library classic of 1863 titled The Life of Jesus by Ernest Renan, and Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus. The books will be reviewed separately but with several significant comparisons.

Renan’s The Life of Jesus was the first known attempt to put aside the religious perspective and write about Jesus in a historical context. This brought him esteemed recognition for his extensive research and innovative creativity. Renan was both a religious scholar and an expert on ancient Middle East languages. He utilized all his skills to bring authenticity to his telling.

Before beginning the history of Jesus, Renan goes to great lengths to explain his sources; what they were, how reliable they are, and particularly regarding the Gospels, how and when they were written. This bears major significance, since the gospels were written many years after Jesus died, with different compilations and alterations, and translations yielding differing interpretations. So Renan uses only the most reliable information available. In addition, with each direct quote and historical fact, the source is explicitly and immediately cited. This is quite unlike O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus which simply leaves a brief list of sources at the back of the book.

In addition, Renan discounts all miracles: Mary conceiving Jesus as a virgin, the immaculate conception, healing miracles performed by Jesus and other men of that time, Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life, and the resurrection. Since medicine and science played no part in the lives of the people of Judea/Palestine of that day everyone lived in the supernatural. There is no certainty of the cause or explanation for some events that may or may not have happened. Miracles have never been proven and traditionally historians do not report miracles as historic events. However, the reader is welcome to draw their own conclusions, based on the facts presented.

Renan shares many details about the history of the Palestinian area prior to Jesus’ birth and during his lifetime; the power of the Roman pagans and the conflict within the Jewish hierarchy. The strict Jewish laws and exorbitant fees charged to participate in religious rituals encouraged a few poor Jewish people to seek solace elsewhere. And Jesus offered an appealing package – solitary direct prayer to God, in private, with no rituals needed, and eternal life – a concept foreign to the Jewish people. And yet, it was not so much the Jews, but the pagan idol worshipers who were attracted to Jesus.

Renan explains the influence John the Baptist had on Jesus, how Jesus selected his disciples, and the essence of his teachings. Following the timeline of Jesus’ life on earth – how he went from a curious Jewish child to gradually giving up Judaism to embrace Christianity.

Throughout Jesus’ lifetime there was much confusion about his identity. Was he the Son of Man, the Son of David, the Son of God, John the Baptist risen from the dead, Elias, Jeremiah, who? The disciples often misunderstood his intentions. As quoted from O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus  Even the disciples, despite their deep belief in Jesus and his teachings, sometimes care more about jockeying for power than about understanding his true nature and his message for the world. Three times Jesus has told his disciples that he will die this week, but his followers refuse even to contemplate that.” (Pg. 187)

And after Jesus was gone, the disciples were convinced there would be an Apocalypse within 3-1/2 years. As time passed, and the Apocalypse never happened, Jesus’ teachings went from intelligible to obscure.

While O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus ends the day of the resurrection, Renan does attempt to explain the process of how Christianity evolved. Nevertheless, it is difficult to understand how Jesus’ teachings of “no rituals”, no “egotistical verbiage” (Pg. 131), turned into the powerful, highly organized, ritualized, institution of today. “It was a pure religion, without forms, without temple, and without priest; it was the moral judgement of the world, delegated to the conscience of the just man, and to the arm of the people.” (Pg. 269)

Reading The Life of Jesus has been a defining moment for me. Never before did I totally comprehend the historical significance of Jesus’ short life on earth. Until that time the Jewish people claimed God as theirs alone… Leaving the rest of humanity in darkness. Jesus brought the concept of “One God”- the God of all humanity – for all people, all lands, all ages, until the end of time – “the rights of man, the rights of religion, and the rights of deliverance” (Pg. 225)- placed above any (earthly) national or state laws. That alone is miraculous.

It is fascinating to read about Jesus strictly from the historic perspective; unbiased, clear, compelling, and powerful.

The Life of Jesus is rated 5 Stars. As compared to…. Killing Jesus – Rated 3 Stars.

All contents © 2014 Lois Weisberg. All rights Reserved.

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