"THE great event of the history of the world is the revolution by which the noblest portions of humanity have passed from the ancient religions, comprised under the vague name of Paganism, to a religion founded on the Divine Unity, the Trinity, and the Incarnation of the Son of God. It has taken nearly a thousand years to accomplish this conversion. The new religion had itself taken at least three hundred years in its formation. But the origin of the revolution in question is a fact which took place under the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius. At that time there lived a superior personage, who, by his bold originality, and by the love which he was able to inspire, became the object and fixed the starting-point of the future faith of humanity."
- Ernest Renan
"And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change…"
The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, Douglas Adams
Whether you accept him as your personal lord and saviour, write him off as a rabble-rousing Jew, or deny his existence altogether, it’s hard to deny that the legend of Jesus has had a huge impact on modern society. He has changed lives, structured society, shaped Western civilisation and started wars, but ironically, any discussions about his character, influences or motives have long been taboo.
Until 1863, that is, when the respected French scholar Ernest Renan published his “La Vie De Jesus” (The Life Of Jesus). At the time, Renan was one of the world’s leading historians. A typical post-Enlightenment atheist, he had gone to the Middle East (then under Muslim control, and without the modern state of Israel) to try and better appreciate the early sociological circumstances of early Christianity.
While there, the countryside gave him an understanding of the factors that had driven Jesus to his humble philosophy. He immediately realized that any history of Christianity must include a history of Christ himself, examining the social and political factors of his time to see how his philosophy might have been shaped. To do this though, it was necessary not to consider Christ as a divine being who arrived on Earth with his ideas fully-formed, but as a human being who was constantly being shaped by the society around him. And so Renan set out to write out a biography of an ancient, human figure, in the same way that biographies had been written of Alexander The Great and Attila The Hun. It cost him his career, but I think it was worth it.
The book itself is fascinatingly detailed, but here’s a whistle-stop tour of the main points:
Jewish society before Jesus
“Caring little for the national dynasty or political independence, it accepted all governments which permitted it to practice freely its worship and follow ifs usages. Israel will henceforward have no other guidance than that of its religious enthusiasts, no other enemies than those of the Divine unity, no other country than its Law.”
Jesus was a Jew. He was born into a pre-Talmudic society some time 2,000 years ago. His early education would have been shaped by Jewish concerns of the time. According to Renan, Judaism was already differentiating itself from other religions, not only by being monotheistic, but by blurring the boundaries between nationality and religion. Around 4BC, the estimated time of the birth of Jesus, there was no real difference between being Jewish and being Israeli (such as Israel existed then). Other nations believed their neighbours to be almost “outside of the jurisdiction” of their gods. The Jews were one of the first peoples to believe in a single, universal God, who ruled over all men and whose rules applied to all humanity.
Renan (whose anti-Semitism, it must be said, is only matched by his loathing for Islam) traces this ideology back to the feeling of persecution felt by the Jews at the time. All Jews at the time felt that their nation was constantly under threat by their neigbours, and comforted themselves with the belief that all believers and non-believers would equally face the wrath of their god. This idea may seem completely normal to us now, but at the time it was revolutionary, as religion and race were often the same thing. Jewish society still didn’t make the distinction, but by refusing to recognize the concept of “our gods” and “their gods”, they were unwittingly laying the foundations of a universal religion.
Factors in Jesus’s development
"We may suppose, however, that the principles of Hillel were not unknown to him. Hillel, fifty years before him, had given utterance to aphorisms very analogous to his own. By his poverty, so meekly endured, by the sweetness of his character, by his opposition to priests and hypocrites, Hillel was the true master of Jesus, if, indeed, it may be permitted to speak of a master in connection with so high an originality as his."
Jesus’s humble philosophy had already been part of the school of Semitic thought for up to 100 years before his birth, and Renan points to Hillel as one of the main proponents of this (Hillel’s thoughts later formed an important part of the Talmud). Renan also claims, rather grandly, that “Jesus participated in the taste which everyone had for these allegorical interpretations (of Prophets and Psalms). But the true poetry of the Bible, which escaped the puerile exegetists of Jerusalem, was fully revealed to his grand genius.”
Essentially Renan points to two schools of Jewish thought that were influences on Jesus’s philosophy: the simple, kind philosophy of scholars like Hillel, and the deep analysis of the Old Testament amongst Jewish scholars who were constantly searching for proof that they were the chosen people, which extended to a never-ending search for the messiah who would lead them to rightful position as a world power to rival the Romans.
Renan also makes a passing reference to early Buddhist missionaries who may have passed through the Middle East around this time, although he dismisses them as an influence on Jesus without ever explaining why.
The early life of Jesus
Renan’s first controversial assertion about Jesus is that the birth of Jesus is a myth. He begins by dispelling the myth of Joseph and Mary attending a census in Bethlehem by saying, “The census effected by Quirinus, to which legend attributes the journey from Bethlehem, is at least ten years later than the year in which, according to Luke and Matthew, Jesus was born. The two evangelists in effect make Jesus to be born under the reign of Herod (Matt. ii. 1, 19, 22; Luke i. 5). Now, the census of Quirinus did not take place until after the deposition of Archelaus -- i.e., ten years after the death of Herod.” To Renan, one of the major factors in the legend of Jesus was a desire to meet the criteria of the prophecies of the Messiah. One of these was to prove the bloodline of Jesus was connected to King David, and would therefore be born in Bethlehem as David was. A study of the then-current Roman census system shows that there would have been no requirement for Joseph to register outside of Nazareth, but Nazareth at the time would have been seen as a place unworthy of producing a messiah.
One way or another, Jesus came into the world, and received the same strict Semitic education as his peers. He would have little knowledge of the outside world, including Greek or Roman culture. At the time, Renan says, “Questioned as to the time when it would be proper to teach children 'Greek wisdom,' a learned Rabbi had answered, 'At the time when it is neither day nor night; since it is written of the Law, Thou shalt study it day and night.'"
Jesus’s two main sources of knowledge would have been the Pentateuch and the Prophets, the two cornerstones of Jewish thinking at the time. He would have been also shaped by the huge feeling of Jewish insurrection around him – the constant search for a messiah, and the eternal desire to fight off external oppressors. At the time there was an enormous Jewish opposition to laws imposed from Rome, including the census and taxation, which were seen as heretical. (“Taxation, to a pure theocracy, was almost an impiety. God being the sole Master whom man ought to recognize, to pay tithe to a secular sovereign was, in a manner, to put him in the place of God.”)
In short, Jesus grew up hearing almost only two things: the unlimited power of God, and the desperate need for a saviour.
Jesus as a young prophet
Jesus’s early teachings, as described in Matthew, Mark and Luke (Renan dismisses John as, basically, John’s own philosophical work), are simply pious, humble, and largely in keeping with the Jewish teachings of the time. He says, “An exquisite sympathy with nature furnished him each moment with expressive images. Sometimes a remarkable ingenuity, which we call wit, adorned his aphorisms; at other times their liveliness consisted in the happy use of popular proverbs. "How wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye, and then thou shalt see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye."
John The Baptist
"On the whole, the influence of John had been more hurtful than useful to Jesus."
More than the apostles, John The Baptist was an influence on the life of Jesus. He appeared before Jesus’s rise, and was for a while thought to be the Messiah himself. The main case for this was that it was thought that the Messiah would speak with the Spirit of Elias, the ancient guardian of Israel. John, a stoic who liked to fast in the mountains, occasionally returned from the hills claiming to have spoken to Elias. The people took this to mean that John was Elias.
The description of John is the one time that Renan portrays Jesus as a political figure, attempting to find the best way of communicating with the public. John was far more popular at the time than Jesus, so Jesus chose to throw his support behind John, adopting baptism as a symbol of religious redemption, even though he personally didn’t like this new sacrament. The new testament makes a great deal of how John baptizes Jesus and then throws his full support behind him, but according to Renan, the immediate history after the death of Jesus is full of bitter in-fighting between Christians and Baptists (John’s disciples even refused to believe that Jesus had really died).
The biggest influence on Jesus’ life, according to Renan, was the difference between Galilee and Jerusalem.
Galilee was the place that inspired Renan to write his life of Jesus: a gorgeous, verdant valley where a man could take a small patch of land and grow enough food to feed his family. In a place like this, it’s easy to become a socialist and an ecologist. By taking only what you need and remaining in touch with nature, you could sustain idyllic lifestyle, which you could pass on to your children, and they to theirs, and so on. Wealth and success meant nothing there.
Jerusalem on the other hand was a rat’s nest: a cut-throat, filthy city full of criminals and thieves, crawling with theologians who had studied the Bible so closely that the text had lost all meaning. Jesus attempted to preach his gospel there, but was rejected.
This had two effects: in some ways he became more focused on the spiritual life of the poor, because of what he had seen in Galilee; in other ways he came to despise insincerity and dogma, due to the corruption of the people of Jerusalem. He railed against the ruling classes who sought to worship his God with dogma rather than love, and around this time he stopped calling himself the “Son Of Man” and began calling himself “The Son Of God”.
"It is easy to understand the antipathy which, in such an impassioned state of society, must necessarily break out between Jesus and persons of this character. Jesus recognized only the religion of the heart, while that of the Pharisees consisted almost exclusively in observances. Jesus sought the humble and outcasts of all kinds, and the Pharisees saw in this an insult to their religion of respectability. The Pharisee was an infallible and faultless man, a pedant always right in his own conceit, taking the first place in the synagogue, praying in the street, giving alms to the sound of a trumpet, and caring greatly for salutations. Jesus maintained that each one ought to await the kingdom of God with fear and trembling."
The arrogance of the priests rendered the courts of the temple disagreeable to him. One day some of his disciples, who knew Jerusalem better than he, wished him to notice the beauty of the buildings of the temple, the admirable choice of materials, and the richness of the votive offerings that covered the walls. "Seest thou these buildings?" said he; "there shall not be left one stone upon another." He refused to admire anything, except it was a poor widow who passed at that moment and threw a small coin into the box. "She has cast in more than they all," said he; "for all these have of their abundance cast unto the offerings of God: but she of her penury hath cast in all the living that she had." This manner of criticizing all he observed at Jerusalem, of praising the poor who gave little, of slighting the rich who gave much, and of blaming the opulent priesthood who did nothing for the good of the people, naturally exasperated the sacerdotal caste.
The death of Jesus
Despite being a blatant anti-Semite, and having little love for the ruling class of Israel at the time, Renan still feels some sympathy for the people who ordered the execution of Jesus, as being genuinely concerned with his disruption of the security of their state:
“The fatal sentence which Jesus had really uttered, "I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days," was cited by two witnesses. To blaspheme the temple of God was, according to Jewish law, to blaspheme God himself. Jesus remained silent, and refused to explain the incriminating speech. If we may believe one version, the high priest then adjured him to say if he were the Messiah; Jesus confessed it, and proclaimed before the assembly the near approach of his heavenly reign. The courage of Jesus, who had resolved to die, renders this narrative superfluous. It is probable that here, as when before Hanan, he remained silent. This was in general his rule of conduct during his last moments. The sentence was settled; and they only sought for pretexts. Jesus felt this, and did not undertake a useless defence. In the light of orthodox Judaism, he was truly a blasphemer, a destroyer of the established worship. Now, these crimes were punished by the law with death.”
Renan’s description of the death of Jesus after this is truly fascinating, especially for any secular or non-Christian person who wants to understand what all the fuss is about. The point, Renan says, is that history is full of glorious leaders who killed for their belief, or died nobly in battle. Jesus was perhaps the first one to march to his own death, without any kind of fight, accept it, and hope to teach some lesson by his death rather than his struggle for life. This is Jesus’s ultimate lesson to us – the ultimate sacrifice, death, made calmly as an example of how far we should go to help each other.
“Rest now in thy glory, noble initiator. Thy work is completed; thy divinity is established. Fear no more to see the edifice of thy efforts crumble through a flaw. Henceforth, beyond the reach of frailty, thou shalt be present, from the height of the divine peace, in the infinite consequences of thy acts. At the price of a few hours of suffering, which have not even touched thy great soul, thou hast purchased the most complete immortality. For thousands of years the world will extol thee. Banner of our contradictions, thou wilt be the sign around which will be fought the fiercest battles. A thousand times more living, a thousand times more loved since thy death than during the days of thy pilgrimage here below, thou wilt become to such a degree the corner-stone of humanity that to tear thy name from this world would be to shake it to its foundations. Between thee and God men will no longer distinguish. Complete conqueror of death, take possession of thy kingdom, whither, by the royal road thou hast traced, ages of adorers will follow thee.”
This really is just a sampler of some of the amazing observations made by this brilliant scholar. Try the full text at http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/ernest_renan/life_of_jesus.html