The Gospel According to Renan: Reading, Writing, and Religion in Nineteenth-Century France (Oxford Historical Monographs)
Robert D. Priest
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The Gospel According to Renan provides a new and holistic interpretation of one of the non-fiction sensations of the nineteenth century: Ernest Renan's Life of Jesus (Vie de Jésus). Published in 1863, Renan's book aroused enormous controversy through its claim to be a historically accurate biography of Jesus. While Life of Jesus provoked the ire of the Catholic Church in hundreds of sermons and pamphlets, it also sold hundreds
of thousands of copies, making a fortune for its author and his publisher.
Based on research into a huge range of print and manuscript sources, The Gospel According to Renan demonstrates how Renan's work intervened in a remarkable range of debates in nineteenth-century French cultural life. These went far beyond questions of religion, from the role of individuals in history to the meaning and significance of 'race'. Through an engaging reconstruction of Renan's intellectual formation, Priest shows how Renan's ideas grew out of the context of Parisian
intellectual life after his loss of faith in the 1840s. Going beyond a traditional intellectual history, Priest uses a wide range of new manuscript sources, many of which have never been examined by modern historians, in order to reconstruct the ways that ordinary French men and women engaged with one of the great
religious debates of their age. By tracing the legacy of Life of Jesus into the early years of the twentieth century, Priest finally shows how Renan's work found new political meaning in the heated debates over secularisation that divided French society in the young Third Republic.
and Durand, Vie de Jésus, pp. iii–vi. 16 Renan and Durand, Vie de Jésus, pp. v–vi. 10 12 The Legacy 185 beards and simple headdresses, surrounded by excited children. In keeping with Renan’s views on Jesus’ parents, they hardly featured: Mary was a nondescript woman gossiping by the well.17 The most tantalizing engravings dramatically simplified key scenes from the western artistic tradition. At the Last Supper, for example, Jesus and the disciples sat on the floor around a sparsely
distinguished scholars: alongside the renowned Abbé Dupanloup (later Bishop of Orleans), the seminary director Abbé Garnier and his junior Le Hir were erudite Hebrew philologists who encouraged Renan in his efforts to read the Bible in the original languages.4 These teachers let Renan attend Étienne Quatremère’s Hebrew lectures at the Collège de France, while Le Hir taught him Syriac on the walks they took twice a week from the Latin Quarter to Issy. To Renan, Le Hir was ‘both a saint and a
journeys from Galilee to Judea brought the contrast into focus: the desert against the trees, the pedantic priests against ‘the crowds of women and children . . . who awaited the salvation of Israel’.79 Renan stressed the point: ‘the God [Jesus] found in the desert was not his God. It was instead the God of Job.’80 On returning from his first attempts to minister in Jerusalem, ‘Jesus re-entered Galilee having completely lost his Jewish faith’.81 All quotations in this paragraph from OC iv.
requires some explanation. At first, both followed their instinct to satirize. Lasserre seems to have got straight to work on his sardonic pamphlet L’Évangile selon Renan, which was printed in early August 1863 and soon became a best-seller, going through at least two dozen editions in the first year. Veuillot also set out on a satirical path, writing a biting poetic attack on Renan called ‘Le Rat’, which was finished at the end of summer. But Veuillot held this poem back from the press, turning
republican propaganda. Its interpretation of society centred on reading: even though Republicans acted in the interest of the majority, Trébois argued, the monarchist minority was able to manipulate the population through its control of printed information and alliance with the church. The solution was to support the creation of a ‘democratic bookshop’, fund popular libraries, and establish republican reading circles.45 It is easy to imagine that Trébois’ personal experience of the transformative