Ernest Renan’s Assessment of Jesus Christ

By Wayne Jackson

If Christ emphatically asserted that he was the Son of God, when in fact he was not, then he lied. Not only would he have been a liar, he would have been a scoundrel of the worst magnitude.

Joseph Ernest Renan (1823-92) was a philosopher, theologian, and orientalist. He was educated at an ecclesiastical college in Treguier, Brittany. Young Renan was a brilliant student. When he was only fifteen, he won all of the academic prizes at the school. Later, he became a professor in a theological seminary in Paris. Eventually, though, his study of German theology, accompanied by his disenchantment with Roman Catholicism, led him to have doubts about the truth of Christianity. And so, in 1845, at age twenty-two, he left his initial teaching position.

After a somewhat checkered life for several years, Renan embarked upon an archaeological mission to Phoenicia and Syria in 1860. He spent some time in Palestine during this adventure. While there, he wrote his celebrated volume, The Life of Jesus. At the time, his on-site library consisted solely of the New Testament and a copy of the writings of Josephus. While the Encyclopedia Britannica is sympathetic to Renan, it concedes that his book “is scarcely the work of a great scholar” (145).

Other writers have characterized his effort in the following fashion:

“In this book, written in an attractive and vivid style, but in a tone that hardly rang sincere, he repudiated the supernatural element in Christ’s life, ignored his moral aspect, and portrayed Him as a charming and amiable Galilean preacher” (Cross, 1153).

“Using the new German textual and philosophical criticism with a rationalistic skeptic’s assumptions, he depicted Jesus as a truly remarkable itinerant preacher, but certainly not the Son of God. His portrait came at the right historic moment for him and achieved immense popularity among [an] enlarging skeptical readership” (McIntire, 836).

“This volume created a storm of controversy, precipitating Renan’s removal as professor of Hebrew at the College de France in 1864, a position he had accepted only two years earlier. On the common level, however, the book was quite popular. It went through eight editions in the first three months, and many others in subsequent years. One writer has noted, though, that in the thirteenth edition Renan ‘virtually admitted what many of his critics, orthodox and unorthodox, had been saying since the book first appeared.’ The book, he said, was not really scientific history at all. It was rather a picture of ‘one of the ways in which things might have happened’” (Brown, 153).

An example of this is seen in the way in which the philosopher approached the incident of the resurrection of Christ. In a sentimental, rather theatrical fashion, Renan argued that the post-resurrection “appearances” of the Lord were merely the result of ardent expectations, combined with excited nerves, on the part of Jesus’ followers. He suggested that the slightest circumstances were bound to produce apparitions on subjects (e.g., the disciples) who already were susceptible to suggestion.

His theory, of course, flies directly in the face of the evidence (the only basis upon which to construct an argument). The concerted testimony of the Gospel writers is that the followers of Jesus were not expecting his resurrection — even though he had plainly prophesied it (Mt. 16:21). Following the Savior’s death, the disciples’ hopes were dashed.

Consider this narrative regarding Mary Magdalene.

“She went and told them that she had been with him, as they mourned and wept. And they, when they heard that he was alive, and had been seen of her, disbelieved” (Mk. 16:10-11).

Note the despair of those disciples who had left Jerusalem’s sad scenes and were headed toward Emmaus. They sighed: “But we hoped that it was he who should redeem Israel” (Lk. 24:21).

The case of Thomas is even more well-known.

“But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (Jn. 20:25).

The evidence is clear. The disciples were not inclined toward believing in the Lord’s resurrection. Only solid evidence convinced them.

Moreover, the New Testament narratives clearly suggest that those early devotees of Christ’s teaching were normal, rational folks. There is no indication at all that they were dream-world mystics who could be led easily into believing fantasies. Such a view is pure invention, contrived by those who have motives for rejecting the authority of Christ.

After considering Renan’s mythological reconstruction of those events associated with the Lord’s resurrection, Wilbur Smith was constrained to comment: “Hardly any serious student of this century has dared reaffirm Renan’s ridiculous hypotheses . . .” (392).

It is perfectly obvious that Ernest Renan was no friend of the Christian system. Any testimony that he offers regarding Jesus, therefore, must be viewed in the light of his skepticism. This fact places the quotations we are about to introduce in a most dramatic focus. It reveals, in a shattering fashion, that even Christ’s critics have been forced to bow their heads to his incomparable majesty. Further, it throws a floodlight upon the pathetic inconsistency of infidelity. We will briefly reflect upon these matters.

We should mention that Renan’s The Life of Jesus is published in the U.S. by Prometheus Books, the leading purveyor of atheistic materials in the nation. Chapter XXVIII is titled: “Essential Character of the Work of Jesus.” From this section, we lift the following quotes in which the historian described Jesus.

Renan’s Tribute to Jesus

“His [Christ’s] perfect idealism is the highest rule of the unblemished and virtuous life . . . . The foundation of true religion is indeed his work” (220).

“Jesus will ever be the creator of the pure spirit of religion; the Sermon on the Mount will never be surpassed. Whatever revolution takes place will not prevent us attaching ourselves in religion to the grand intellectual and moral line at the head of which shines the name of Jesus . . . . The faith, the enthusiasm, the constancy of the first Christian generation is not explicable, except by supposing, at the origin of the whole movement, a man of surpassing greatness” (221).

“Let us place, then, the person of Jesus at the highest summit of human greatness” (222).

“Marcus Aurelius and his noble teachers have had no permanent influence on the world. Marcus Aurelius left behind him delightful books, an execrable son, and a decaying nation. Jesus remains an inexhaustible principle of moral regeneration for humanity” (223).

“The great originality of the founder [of Christianity] remains then undiminished; his glory admits of no legitimate sharer” (225).

“This sublime person, who each day still presides over the destiny of the world, we may call divine … in the sense that Jesus is the one who has caused his fellow-men to make the greatest step towards the divine” (226).

“In him was condensed all that is good and elevated in our nature … all the ages will proclaim that among the sons of men there is none born who is greater than Jesus” (227).

What Does This Mean?

There are some very devastating conclusions which may be drawn from Renan’s descriptives of Jesus.

First, his testimony stands in opposition to the assertions of that bizarre conglomerate of intellectual misfits who have asserted that the Lord’s claim (of being the Son of God) was merely the rantings of a deranged mystic.

George Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright — to whom almost nothing was sacred — once claimed that Jesus was a man who was perfectly sane until Peter, at Caesarea Philippi, hailed Him as the Christ, the Son of God (Mt. 16:16). At that point, Shaw alleged,

“Jesus became a monomaniac . . . . His delusion is a very common delusion among the insane and . . . such insanity is quite consistent with the retention of the argumentative cunning and penetration which Jesus displayed in Jerusalem after His delusion had taken complete hold of Him” (quoted by Grounds, 33).

How does that assessment square with Renan’s affirmations that Christ was a brilliant intellectual, the highest summit of human greatness, etc. Is that how one describes a lunatic?

Second, Renan’s assessments of Jesus are at variance with a recently concocted notion that Christ “plotted and schemed” to feign his death so as to convince his peers that he was the Messiah (Schonfield, 155). This view assaults the very character of Jesus and stands in contrast with every fragment of historical evidence as to the goodness of the Teacher from Nazareth. Renan’s characterization that in Christ “was condensed all that is good and elevated in our nature” is in vivid conflict with Schonfield’s charge.

Third, how, in the name of common sense, could one possibly write the complimentary things about Jesus that Renan did, and, at the same time, make the charge that the Lord was not the Son of God? These are wholly irreconcilable.

Anyone with more than a microscopic knowledge of the New Testament must be aware of the fact that Jesus Christ claimed to be more than a man. He asserted that he existed eternally — before the patriarchs (e.g., Abraham) lived upon the earth (Jn. 8:58; 17:5). He contended that he came to this planet from heaven (Jn. 6:51). When others worshiped him, and confessed that he was the Messiah, the Son of God, rather than rebuking them, commended their testimony (cf. Mt. 14:33; 16:16). On trial, under oath, he acknowledged being God’s son (Mk. 14:62). There simply is no question about the claims Jesus made.

Now here is the rub. If Christ emphatically asserted that he was the Son of God, when, in fact, he was not — then he lied. Not only would he have been a liar, he would have been a scoundrel of the worst magnitude. Upon the basis of their faith in his identity as a divine Being, Jesus led others to forfeit their lives, frequently in the most horrible fashion imaginable. How could anyone possibly praise such a person?

We must conclude that Renan’s adulation of Jesus reveals more about himself than anything else. He found the evidence concerning the Lord too compelling to ignore, but more demanding than he could accept. And he is not the last to be in this position.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Brown, Colin (1968), Philosophy & The Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press).
  • Cross, F.L., Editor (1958), The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (London: Oxford University Press).
  • Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.), Vol. 19.
  • Grounds, Vernon C. (1945), The Reason For Our Hope (Chicago: Moody).
  • McIntire, C.T. (1974), The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church , J.D. Douglas, Ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).
  • Renan, Ernest (1991 Reprint), The Life of Jesus (Buffalo, NY: Promethus Books).
  • Schonfield, Hugh J. (1965), The Passover Plot (New York: Bantam).
  • Smith, Wilbur (1945), Therefore Stand (Boston: W.A. Wilde Co.).
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.