We cannot ask this question in the present day without at once calling to mind a famous work, "The Life of Jesus," by M. Renan. It is useless, we are told, to attempt to enlighten one's audience by simply reading the Gospels, since, in estimating their worth, we are compelled to remember a book, the novelty of which, if not its value, is attested by a circulation in France of fifteen thousand copies. We, therefore, hold it for the present to be impossible to enter upon the study of the life of Jesus Christ without in some way encountering the work of his most modern historian. This is the task before us now.
Our personal knowledge of a writer is not always necessary to enable us to judge of his work. Thus, for example, it is perfectly needless that we should be acquainted with either the morals or the creed of a mathematician in order to appreciate his treatises on algebra and geometry. Such, however, is not the case as regards a philosopher, or even an historian. Here it is evident that the writer's doctrines must influence his decisions. Even unconsciously the author will magnify the men and the systems which are in agreement with himself, while he will very heartily despise the persons who differ from him. To know, then, whether M. Renan is in danger either of abasing or exalting Jesus Christ, it is necessary that we should become acquainted with his philosophical or religious principles. We shall not seek our information, either in the author's life or in his previous works, but exclusively (with the exception of one single reference) in the volume we are studying. Judging only, then, from "The Life of Jesus," what are M. Renan's beliefs?
And, first, does M. Renan believe in God, or not? If he does, what is his God -- spirit or matter? a person or a thing? To use familiar terms, is M. Renan a Deist or a Pantheist? He is neither.
What, then, is his God? He tells us elsewhere that the name of his God is, "Our Father, the Abyss." This truly happy term is in itself an exposition of doctrine concerning the Deity; it is a declaration that he who adopts the name sees no more clearly into the idea of a God than one can see into an abyss. M. Renan does not affirm that there is no God, but simply that he does not know him. Is it possible to believe in a God of whom we have no distinct notion? No. The theory of "Our Father, the Abyss," will be powerless in our life: this is all we can say for it.
In the next place, what is M. Renan's idea of man? A single sentence from his book will tell us. At page 2 he says: "Man, as soon as he rose above the animal, became religious." If there was a time when man rose above the animal, there must have been a previous stage in which he was not distinct from it, and at this stage man was simply the first of the animals. Whether he was a monkey or an elephant we do not know, but at least he was a member of the family. Whether we like it or not, we are no more than perfected beasts.
Now, between this Father-Abyss and this man the child of the brute, what religious relationship has been established? It could not have been very clear, since it emanated from a God of darkness; nor very close, since it applied to the descendants of humanized brutes. In fact, we shall see, that in spite of all the clearness and the strength which this principle has acquired during the progress of ages, it is still, according to M. Renan, very obscure and very weak.
This supposed relation between man and God varies strangely according as you consult various philosophers and theologians. Some resolve it into love, others into obedience; some demand from us an entire consecration, others speak of ten commandments, and others again only of two. According to Christians, man must be just, pure, faithful; he must honor God, love his brethren, and have respect for their lives, their goods, and their homes. Were we to admit duties so numerous and so imperative, it would be but too easy to convict M. Renan's morality of great incompleteness; we do not, therefore, propose to examine it on all these points. We shall test it only on one point -- a point very simple, very elementary, and absolutely indisputable. This one unassailable point is veracity. Ought man to be sincere and truthful, or is he at liberty to weaken the rich wine of truth by mixing it, more or less, with the water of falsehood? Let us listen to M. Renan in a series of confessions which cannot but be truly sincere, and since they are made for the benefit of readers whom he believes to be in sympathy with himself.
M. Renan, with the air of a legislating moralist, says, "To enable it to bear its burden, humanity has need of the belief that it. does not receive its full reward in this life. The greatest service we can render it is frequently to repeat that it does not live by bread alone." (P.184.)
Humanity, then, believes in another life. But why? Is it because this belief is true? No; but it is in order that humanity might be enabled to bear its burden. In order, then, to do it service and to encourage it, it would be desirable, not to teach, but to proclaim to it, and "frequently to repeat, that it does not live by bread alone."
This language is clever, and the thought is well concealed: but let us tear away the vail and then we shall read as follows: Without faith in the future, man would not patiently bear his burden; for prudential reasons, therefore, let us persuade him that after the day of this short life there comes a long and blessed morrow. We must convince man of this, not because it is true, but because faith in this dogma will insure the welfare of those whom this life dissatisfies.
Our readers, then, need not be surprised if M. Renan, adversary of Jesus as he is, should nevertheless think it wise to preserve a certain faith in a future world, for he teaches us (p.237) that there are such things as "innocent deceptions." Besides, he distinctly says, (p.316,) that "in order to obtain from humanity the less, you must claim from it the greater." He is so firm a believer in the efficacy, and, if we may say so, in the lawfulness of falsehood, that he adds, "the immense moral progress due to the Gospel comes from its exaggerations."
Laying aside the Gospel for the present, let us bear in mind the above profession of faith -- an immense moral progress is to be obtained by means of exaggerations. If, therefore, M. Renan should ever teach morality, he will recommend exaggeration.
The above quotations are not the only ones of the kind to be found in his work. Here, for instance, is another: "It is because of its double meaning that his thought [that of Jesus] has become fruitful." (P.282.) When, therefore, you are anxious to succeed in morals, use duplicity; M. Renan will insure you success. But possibly we may have wrongly interpreted this "thought" with the "double meaning;" perhaps it is meant that the thought was true in both its aspects. No, for the author adds, "his chimera has not shared the fate of so many besides; . . . it concealed a germ of life, which, introduced into the bosom of humanity, (thanks to its fabulous surroundings,) has borne there some everlasting fruits." (P.282.)
This double-faced thought, then, was a chimera, and this chimera, thanks to its fabulous surroundings, has borne some everlasting fruits!
Moralists, philosophers, legislators, do you wish for a people who shall be perpetually moral, wise, and peaceful? Teach it a chimera enveloped in fable, and M. Renan guarantees your success. In any case, whether you reckon upon this success or not, bear in mind that M. Renan thinks that there are innocent frauds, fertile thoughts with double meanings, and that in order to obtain a little from humanity it is necessary to exact much.
It is not meant, indeed, that all falsehoods are equally efficacious. No; one must know how to choose between them; and the best are those which have their foundation in the prejudices of the age or the nation in which we live. With this caution it is possible to transform a folly into a great truth! Thus, listen: "Jesus, by accepting the Utopias of his time and of his race, could, thanks to some fertile misconceptions, transform them into exalted truths." (P.284.)
We do not complain that M. Renan should profess to believe that Jesus relied on the Utopias of his age, and that he had recourse to misconceptions. What we wish to point out is, the principle accepted by M. Renan, namely, that great truths were the offspring of these Utopias and misconceptions, and that good was the result of error and falsehood. It is not with Jesus, but with his historian, that, for the moment, we have to do.
We have no wish unduly to prolong the study of his principles in this matter of veracity; nor are we anxious to comment upon them, since our readers may do it for themselves: we, therefore, in concluding on this point, confine ourselves to the quotation of a final passage. Our own thoughts upon it will be indicated by simply italicising.
"In the East," says our author, "there are a thousand evasions and subterfuges between good faith and imposture. . . . Real truth is of very little value to the Easterns: they look at every thing through the media of their ideas, their interests, and their passions.
"History would be impossible if one did not openly admit that sincerity has many degrees. All great things are achieved by the masses. Now we do not lead them except by lending ourselves to their ideas. The philosopher who, knowing this, nevertheless isolates himself, and retreats within his own nobleness, is highly praiseworthy; but he who takes humanity with its illusions, and seeks to act both upon and with it, must not be blamed. . . . It is easy for us, impotent as we are, to call this, falsehood; and, proud of our timid honesty, to treat with scorn the heroes who have accepted the battle of life on other terms. When by our scruples we shall have achieved as much as they did with their falsehoods, we shall have the right to be more severe toward them." (Pp.252, 253.)
It will thus be seen that, in our author's estimation, the success which is achieved justifies the means used. Whosoever accomplishes great things by means of falsehood may claim the indulgence of those who have only done little things by means of truth.
Well, M. Renan -- No! At the risk of being called "rustics," we again say, No! We prefer to be truthful, though without worldly success, than to be triumphant impostors. Our conscience protests against your immoral principles, and we must say so in passing.
We are not concerned with ourselves, however, but with M. Renan and the principles he extols. From all that has preceded we think ourselves warranted in concluding that, according to our author, sincerity and truthfulness are elastic, that we may have more or less of them, and that in the event of success no one has the right to be severe toward the impostor who brings his falsehood to a successful issue.
Who now needs be surprised that M. Renan should ascribe to Jesus the doctrines he himself judges to be good? He is anxious to justify those who have learned in this way to secure their triumphs: to ask for more would be too severe. Besides, Jesus lived in the East. M. Renan does not require of him on behalf of truth a platonic love which he, the author, does not himself profess. Hence we now see in the Life of Jesus, as it is imagined and interpreted by M. Renan, the hero contenting himself with the same measure of truth which is to be found in the writer. But let us remember that in this estimate it is M. Renan's picture that we have in that of Jesus. Put in his place, we now see what M. Renan would have said and done.
It must be understood that Jesus, whether we pronounce him to be a God or an impostor, could not fail to be convinced of his own great superiority over his contemporaries. Thus M. Renan supposes that he treated them with a "transcendent scorn," and that he indulged in "subtle railing" at them. For example, when the disciples, carried away by a spirit of revenge, ask their Master to punish those who refuse them hospitality, by calling down upon them fire from heaven, Jesus, grieved at heart, says to them, "Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of." M. Renan sees in this holy answer nothing but a "refined irony!" Thus a "transcendent scorn," a "subtle raillery," and a "refined sarcasm," mark the tone of this "master of irony" discovered by M. Renan. Can we find in the sacred text, or even in the profane writings of the period, a single word to authorize this estimate? Not a single one! But this "refined irony and railing," and this "transcendent scorn," are fashionable in our day; and the writer, who has taken his degree in these arts, attributes them to his hero. Thus M. Renan says of Jesus, "His exquisite derisions, his mischievous provocations, always pierced to the heart. Masterpieces of fine raillery, his strokes are inscribed in lines of fire on the flesh of the hypocrite. . . . Incomparable strokes, and worthy of a Son of God! A God alone can kill after this fashion. Socrates and Molière only graze the skin: this man sends fire and fury to the very bones." (P.334.)
Here is a noble superiority of Jesus over Molière! Molière merely grazes the skin, but Jesus kills! Such is the admiration accorded to the Saviour! Such are the praises M. Renan gives his hero! Ah! we may now understand why Jesus, though silent when he was scourged, yet sighed when he received a certain kiss.
If the Jesus invented by M. Renan was a mocker and a railer, one need not be surprised at the discovery that he was vain: wit and vanity are so nearly allied. Thus, according to Renan, he willingly allowed men to give him a qualification which did not belong to him; he even acted a part! His historian informs us that when the title of Messiah, or of Son of David, was given to him, he accepted it with pleasure. (Pp.238, 132.) If a miracle-monger sought to make capital for himself out of the popular credulity, "Jesus saw in this a homage paid to his own renown, and was not, therefore, too severe." (P.295.) One day his friends went even so far as to get up the farce of a resurrection, and Jesus consented to play his part in it. (P.363.)
In order, however, that this assumed character of miracle-worker may be invested with more likelihood, we are told that Jesus took it unwillingly, (p.264,) and even in spite of himself. (P.268.) "Sometimes Jesus made use of innocent artifices. . . . He pretended to know some secret respecting the person he wished to gain over to his side. . . . Concealing the real source of his power, he allowed it to be thought. . . . that a revelation from above revealed secrets to him." (P.162.) "It was by a contradiction that the success of his work was insured." (P.126.)
Better still, with somewhat of irony, M. Renan makes us feel that if we resolve on being more sincere than Jesus we shall miss the end which he attained. "Let us continue," says he, with the subtlety he ascribes to another, "let us continue to admire the morality of the Gospel; let us suppress from our religious instructions the delusion which was the soul of it; but let us not suppose that the world is to be moved by the simple ideas of individual happiness or morality. The idea of Jesus must be taken as a whole, without those timid suppressions which take away from it precisely that which make it efficacious in the regeneration of humanity." (P.125.) And so, a delusion regenerated humanity! Let us pass on, however: the above is our author's opinion, and it is perfectly natural that he should have attributed it to his hero.
But may not M. Renan, who approves the use of these flexible laws of truth, and ascribes it to Jesus, have used them himself? May he not have done in his book what Jesus is said to have practiced in his work? May he not himself also have employed this irony, this subtlety, this railing, and this transcendent scorn? We are all the more authorized to believe so, not only because in principle he approves of this supple truth, but also because he avows his determination to make use of it. In his Preface, speaking of the historical documents which may prove not to be in perfect agreement with each other, M. Renan tells us that "they must be gently enticed, so as to bring them together." (P. lvi.) Here is indeed our critic's great secret: an enticing of texts, so that they may be brought to say what he desires.  We shall soon see him at this subterranean work. Will he entice the texts in favor of Jesus, or to his disadvantage? What has preceded may have aroused our suspicions: these suspicions will be confirmed by facts. It is simply natural that a writer who extols Oriental insincerity, and even ascribes it to genius, should make use of it himself against his adversary Jesus Christ.
We all know the story of that poor widow who, lacking the very necessaries of life, nevertheless casts into the treasury the two mites which are all that remain to her; and we all think, with Jesus, that inasmuch as this woman has given all "her living," she has done more than the rich, who, in spite of their large gifts, have only given of their abundance. Well, we are all mistaken; and M. Renan, by his process of "enticement," learns from the narrative that the intention of Jesus was "to extol the poor who gave little, and to humble the rich who gave much." (P.339.)
Again, we all know the parable of the rich man who, clothed in purple, and living sumptuously every day, leaves Lazarus at his gate to die of sickness and hunger. We have all felt that the lesson to be learned is in the contrast between selfish opulence and resigned poverty. Our able critic has seen neither this selfishness nor this resignation: by "gently enticing" the text he makes it portray, not a bad rich man, but simply a rich man without the badness. 
The design of this is, that Jesus may be suspected of loving the poor better than the rich, and therefore suspected of communism by readers who are more or less wealthy.
The Gospels acquaint us with two facts concerning John the Baptist which, if made to be contemporaneous, would be contradictory, but which, if placed under their several dates, harmonize with each other. At the commencement of his ministry the Precursor places himself below Jesus; but toward the close of his life John sends two of his disciples with the question, "Art thou he that should come?" What does M. Renan? He treats them as contemporaneous, and charges the first statement with exaggeration, in order to give the more weight to the second, in which John expresses his doubts respecting Jesus. (P.202.)
Elsewhere M. Renan is anxious to eliminate from the Gospel the central idea on which the Christian doctrine rests; namely, redemption. For this purpose he examines the texts which bear upon the Lord's Supper, the emblem of his expiatory death. Our author, in the first place, gratuitously supposes that "Jesus was fond of the opportunity afforded at meal-times for taking the lead in light and pleasant conversation. Sharing the same loaf in common was considered as a sort of fellowship. In giving expression to his thought Jesus said to his disciples, I am your food; that is, my flesh is your bread, my blood is your wine. . . . Then he would further say, This is my body; this is my blood." (Pp.303, 304.)
Is not this an admirable use of texts? First, ordinary meals are supposed; then the bread which is common to all becomes the type of communion; then, as the third supposition, Jesus is led from this to represent himself as the food of his disciples. Then the word "food," which is introduced in the supper by M. Renan, gives place to the phrases, "This is my body," "This is my blood;" and so, thanks to a series of "enticements," a unique fact -- the great fact of the Last Supper -- is transformed into a common habit Jesus had acquired. It is no more than one of the pleasant dinner parties of which Jesus was so fond! Hence, to make this "enticement" all the more easy, great care is taken to suppress the words, "With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer;" and, "My blood, which is shed for you." Is there, then, so much pleasantness in conversing about one's sufferings, and the announcement of one's own death? Yet it is in these very words, "I have desired," that M. Renan sees the proof that "Jesus was fond of these dinner parties!" 
When there can be no question as to the nature of the love felt for Jesus -- as, for instance, when it is the love of the disciples in general, and not that of a few women in particular -- the means are still found of falsifying the truth by a clever trick. It is well known that Jesus offered salvation to the repenting sinner. M. Renan alters this, and says, "This charming doctor forgave every one who loved him." (P.219.) After having thus parodied a doctrine which leads through repentance to holiness, into a feeling which much resembles egotism, M. Renan reduces the model disciples of Jesus to very nearly the standard of children. "Jesus," he says, "almost confounds the idea of the disciple with that of the child. . . . He who is humble as this little one, is greatest in the kingdom of heaven." (P.192.) According to the words of Jesus, it is not the child as such, but his humility, which is held up as an example. Has our clever critic found out that humility is almost the whole of childhood?
After all these insinuations, Jesus is represented as "making progress in his fanaticism." We, on the contrary, see M. Renan progressing in his recklessness. Gathering strength from the past achievements of his pen, he advances more boldly in his accusations, and he does not hesitate to say, "By detaching man from the earth, his life was shattered. The Christian henceforth is to receive praise for being a bad son and a bad citizen, provided it be for Christ's sake that he resists his parents and opposes his country." (P.314.) Surely if a mere man, especially if a wicked man, were to demand obedience to his commands to the neglect of the righteous laws of a father or of a monarch, we should refuse it. Does M. Renan forget that Jesus claims to be the only Son of a God who cannot command that which is wrong? or does he maintain that a son or a subject must, under any circumstances, obey his father or his king? Was Salome right, then, when in obedience to her mother she asked for the head of John the Baptist? Was Nero's slave right when, by the emperor's orders, he stabbed Agrippina? Is not the moral law within us above that of a father and of a monarch? Is it necessary to violate conscience in order to be a good son or a good citizen? M. Renan dares not say so; but here, as elsewhere, in order to justify his opposition to Jesus, he begins by assuming, without proof, that this Jesus is not the Christ, the Son of God.
M. Renan rejects no means of assault upon the work of Jesus. Anxious to set aside the prediction of the ruin of Jerusalem, he is content to say that Jesus guessed it, forgetting that in his Introduction (p. xvii) he had declared the Gospel of Luke to be posterior to the siege of that city, for the sole reason that the details of the catastrophe are too minute. Thus, at one time the prophecy is correct, but then it is only a guess; while at another time it is a fraud written after the event.
At page 343 we find another contradiction. Jesus seeks misunderstandings, and designedly prolongs them; then, in a note, the author questions the authenticity of the passage. If the passage be not authentic, this search after misunderstandings never took place, and the wiser course in this state of doubtfulness would have been to set aside both the note and the explanation. The able critic, on the contrary, extracts from the whole two accusations: he quotes the passage from the sacred text in order to accuse Jesus of a want of straightforwardness; then he questions the authenticity of the quotation in order to discredit the book from which it is made. Thus a word which may not have been spoken becomes a two-edged sword, striking in turn both Jesus and the Gospels!
We proceed to another piece of skill. Jesus, describing those who in his day had the courage to brave persecution by declaring themselves his disciples, and the strength to conquer their lusts by remaining pure in the midst of the general corruption, calls them violent men; that is, characterized by a spiritual violence used against themselves, thereby conquering the fear of a persecuting world and the passions of a sinful nature.
M. Renan, who is on the alert to catch every expression that may bear a double meaning, pauses at this one. In this moral violence done to one's self he sees a physical violence done to an adversary; and the following are the terms in which he falsifies the meaning of Jesus: "The kingdom of God cannot be conquered without violence; it is by means of crises and upheavings that it must be established." (P.237.)
Truly; but with this difference, that Jesus speaks of a moral violence done by Christians to themselves, while what is substituted for this is a brutal violence done by the same Christians to their adversaries. It is not one and the same thing to slay one's passions and to kill one's brother!
After having dethroned Jesus, our author is busy with overturning his friends, and, in particular, the Apostle whom Jesus loved. M. Renan thinks that St. John was jealous of Peter, and hated Judas. (P.381, etc.)
On the other hand, he almost justifies the judges who condemned the Saviour; "for," says he, "the proceedings which the priests resolved to take against Jesus were quite conformable to the established law," (p.393,) "and from the Jewish point of view Jesus was certainly a blasphemer." (P.397.) Elsewhere M. Renan excuses Pilate, who, says he, "could hardly help doing what he did." (P.410.) Finally, O gentleness of criticism! we find pity, even almost to tears, for Judas! He is called "poor Judas!" He is found guilty only of "having had his head turned by the foolish coveting of a few pieces of silver," and the attempt is made to absolve him on the ground of his repentance: "Judas," we are told, "does not seem quite to have lost all moral sense, since . . . he repented." M. Renan's proof of this is that the guilty man committed suicide! (P.382.) "Perhaps, too," he adds, "the fearful hatred with which he was looked upon may have led to acts of violence in which the hand of God was seen." (P.438.) The meaning of this is, that probably Judas was murdered by the Christians! Let it be admitted, then, that a suicide which was not committed cannot prove his repentance. But enough. The multiplication of examples would be irksome: those we have given are sufficient for our purpose.
It must be borne in mind that our aim has not been to analyze M. Renan's book, but simply to judge of what amount of confidence we are warranted to repose in him as our guide in the study of the life of Jesus. At first sight we recognize the author as hostile to his hero, weakening the authority of the Gospels, denying a priori Christ's miracles, falsifying texts in order to tarnish his character, praising his adversaries, and at the same time paying him equivocal compliments of little moment, but serving to weaken the blows struck, and to prevent the martyr's friends from crying out.
Every one may now judge for himself whether this guide suits him or not. For ourselves, what we have seen of him is enough, and we prefer to walk alone rather than to give our hand to him who wishes to lead us astray.
 By this method we undertake to make oui (yes) mean non (no). Do our readers doubt it? Listen. First of all, it is a simple fact that oui and non are nearly related: oui is a monosyllable, non is a monosyllable; oui has three letters, non has also three letters: oui contains an o, non also contains an o. Do not be surprised that oui should have a u, and non an n. Do you not see that u is only n upside down? If there are two n's in non (no) it is simply the same letter doubled; and if there is an i in oui (yes,) the Greeks will tell you that it must be an iota subscribed. You see then, by "gently enticing" it, no (non) means yes (oui.)  In order to a complete analysis too many details are necessary. Our author has the art of sheltering himself behind the letter: his real purpose is discovered only in the spirit of his book. Thus, in his exposition of this parable, he says, "He [the rich man] is in hell because he is rich; because he does not give his property to the poor; because he dines well, while others at his gate dine poorly." And, indeed, what great harm is there in dining well, while others starve? Ah! if we were poor we might understand it better. Specially so, if the hard contrast between such luxury and misery, good living and sores, lasted our whole life-time, and if, every day, we were refused the crumbs given in preference to the dogs!  A passage is here omitted in which Renan is shown to make insinuations against the character of our Lord so offensive and revolting that they cannot be reproduced in English without shocking the feelings of our readers beyond endurance. Well may M. Roussel say: "Let us draw the vail before these horrible insinuations, whose very timidity discloses a dread of wounding the public sentiment, and is a better proof of the hero's holiness than of the historian's moderation."
 In order to a complete analysis too many details are necessary. Our author has the art of sheltering himself behind the letter: his real purpose is discovered only in the spirit of his book. Thus, in his exposition of this parable, he says, "He [the rich man] is in hell because he is rich; because he does not give his property to the poor; because he dines well, while others at his gate dine poorly." And, indeed, what great harm is there in dining well, while others starve? Ah! if we were poor we might understand it better. Specially so, if the hard contrast between such luxury and misery, good living and sores, lasted our whole life-time, and if, every day, we were refused the crumbs given in preference to the dogs!
 A passage is here omitted in which Renan is shown to make insinuations against the character of our Lord so offensive and revolting that they cannot be reproduced in English without shocking the feelings of our readers beyond endurance. Well may M. Roussel say: "Let us draw the vail before these horrible insinuations, whose very timidity discloses a dread of wounding the public sentiment, and is a better proof of the hero's holiness than of the historian's moderation."