Vie de Jesus
More than a century
before The Da Vinci Code, another instant bestseller not only
managed to upset the entire Christian community; it actually managed
to create entirely new inroads of debate about Jesus Christ –
thus giving rise to the discussions entertained in The Da Vinci
seem to have a short-term memory. The furore that reigned as a
result of the “allegations” made in The Da Vinci Code
is not the first time that the Christian world is upset by a book
– or a film.
Of course, as so little is known about the life of Jesus and even
less agreed upon by most sections of Christianity, controversy
is easily generated. Seconds-long scenes from the movie "The
Last Temptation of Christ" by Martin Scorsese (1988) revolved
around the potential that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, instead
of dying on the cross. A brief scene of the married couple making
love is shown in the film, which sparked the anger of many protesters.
Joseph Reilly of “Morality in Media” described the
film as “an intentional attack on Christianity,” and
James Dobson of “Focus on the Family” warned ominously
that “God is not mocked”, i.e. arguing the film was
In this instance, controversy did not begin in 1988, but a few
decades earlier, in 1951 with the publication of the book on which
the film was based. It led almost to its author Kazantzakis’
excommunication from the Greek Orthodox Church. The novel was
placed on the Roman Catholic Index of Forbidden Books, and Protestant
fundamentalist groups in the United States tried to have it banned
from libraries. Of course, this only helped in making it become
a century and a half ago, The Da Vinci Code had a non-fiction
equivalent. For one, it was not only controversial, but it was
– once again – also a tremendous bestseller. Written
by Ernest Renan, and published in 1863, “La Vie de Jesus”
sold nearly 5000 copies per week. Of course, the book market was
much smaller then, but even today, selling 5000 copies per week
for any book is more than respectable, and is given only to a
few – especially if one were to exclude paperbacks. In less
than six months, 60,000 copies of this momentous work were sold.
Edition quickly followed edition, no less than twenty-three appearing
within the space of twenty years.
“La Vie de Jesus” also had another thing in common
with The Da Vinci Code: between 1863 and 1864, an incredible 300
books and booklets were published denouncing its blasphemy and
mistakes. But the book was republished, and 45 different editions
have come out, the most recent appearing in 2005. And as in so
many other instances, the Christian community forcefully attacked
Renan. Many of the attacks on Renan were deeply personal in nature:
like The Da Vinci Code, it even got a reaction from the Vatican,
Pope Pius IX calling Renan the “European blasphemer”;
others described him as a modern Judas Iscariot.
becoming one of the Church’s most vociferous critics, in
the beginning, Renan had actually trained for the priesthood,
entering the college of St Sulpice in Paris, to take his degree
in philology. One can only appreciate the coincidence that his
chosen college would feature in The Da Vinci Code.
But what should have prepared him for a religious life, actually
convinced him to become a critic of Catholicism. When he began
his study of Hebrew, he learned that the second part of Isaiah
differed from the first not only in style but in date; that the
grammar and the history of the Pentateuch were later than the
time of Moses; and that the Book of Daniel was clearly written
centuries after the time in which it was set. In short, it was
clear that it was all wrong. Though today, these revelations might
seem minor, when Renan made these observations, no-one had seriously
seen – or at least published – similar observations.
felt disappointed, and no doubt in internal turmoil, as there
was largely no-one thinking like him. No wonder therefore that
rather than opt for the priesthood, he decided to become a teacher
and set himself on a path to educate the world about the “true”
Christ – as Renan saw him.
Again, it might seem normal today, but if it is, it is largely
thanks to Renan. Rather than accept as dogma that Jesus was the
Son of God and somehow supernatural, “La Vie de Jésus”
argued that the life of Jesus should be written like the life
of any other man, and that the Bible could be subject to the same
critical scrutiny as other historical documents. Apart from pulling
Jesus down from his religious pedestal, it had a side-effect:
it opened up the floodgates of endless speculation and analysis.
Hence, not only does the modern debate about his possible marriage
and offspring find a precursor in Renan, today, Renan’s
initiative means that hundreds of books are written, speculating
about what for any other person would be totally boring and unimportant
aspects, like where precisely the tableware used at the Last Supper
has ended up! (Has anyone ever pondered the notion that the first
thing that might have happened to the “Holy Chalice”
was that after dinner, it was washed?)
Vie de Jesus” is therefore an appropriate title, for it
began the discussion about dozens of small details in the man’s
life, as written down by the gospels. But the book was not Renan’s
first airing of his theories. In fact, his critical religious
views were already well-known and the book was more or less seen
as the next stage of his proclamation of his doubts about Christ’s
status as Son of God.
Before, when the chair of Hebrew and Chaldaic at the College de
France became vacant, Renan had offered himself as a candidate.
There was little chance he would get the position, but Renan must
have known that he would create controversy and would force the
government to come up with lame excuses as to why he was not retained.
Indeed, in a twist that reveals the ingenuity of governmental
thinking of a bygone era, Renan was instead “handpicked”
to go on an archaeological mission to Syria – buying the
government more time.
Alas, Renan had used his foreign posted to begin working on the
first draft of “La Vie de Jesus”, with the help of
his sister, who had travelled with him to the Middle East. Alas,
she died on this trip, the result of a severe attack of fever.
Upon his return to France, the chair was still vacant and –
apparently with no excuses left – was given to Renan. His
inaugural address provoked more than one interruption, the climax
coming when he referred to Jesus as “a man so great that
[...] I should not wish to contradict those who, impressed by
the unique character of his movement, call him God.” The
Catholics, who had vehemently opposed his appointment in the first
place, demanded a reaction: four days later, Renan was suspended
from his professorial duties, although he retained his salary.
Following the French Revolution, there was supposedly a strict
separation of State and Church, and Renan was testing the relatively
new system to its limits, and largely beyond its breaking point.
Indeed, the subsequent publication of “La Vie de Jesus”
prevented his reinstatement, whereupon the French ministry offered
him a post in the Bibliothèque Imperiale, which he unsurprisingly
the controversy, thousands welcomed “La Vie de Jesus”,
as it not at all was negative towards Jesus. It “merely”
stated that Jesus was not the Son of God, but instead an enlightened
human being – one of us – who excelled where most
of us did not tread.
The success of “La Vie de Jesus” resulted in a number
of follow-up books, discussing related aspects. Three years later,
Renan published “The Apostles”, followed by “The
Gospels and the Second Christian Generation”, “Saint
Paul, The Antichrist”, and “The Christian Church,
and Marcus Aurelius”. This is very similar to the strings
of books that followed “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”, which
saw the same authors digging ever deeper into “the mystery”.
To some extent, the same fate befell Dan Brown, his other novels
becoming world bestsellers, though tackling themes that were moderately
(e.g. Angels and Demons) to vastly (e.g. Deception Point) different
from The Da Vinci Code.
what Renan was saying was not truly unique and neither was he
the first to experience the rage of Orthodoxy against a book and
its author. The reaction was at least as great as that provoked
by Strauss’s “Das Leben Jesu”, which had been
published nearly thirty years earlier.
The German theologian David Friedrich Strauss had concluded in
his 1835 study of early Christianity that the supernatural in
general and the miracles of Jesus in particular were myths. However,
whereas Strauss had concluded that Jesus himself was a figure
of legend, Renan argued that study of biblical and secular sources
proved that Jesus had in fact existed, had attracted a mass following
for his spiritual teaching, and had been crucified for the revolutionary
fervour he created. Thus, Renan more so than Strauss, should be
held responsible for a century and a half of speculation about
details of Christ’s life; if Strauss had his way, the “Christ
myth” would have been just that: exposed and done away with,
to be replaced with discussion on anything but Jesus.
It was just one such detail of Jesus’ life that became the
focus of “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”, “The Last
Temptation of Christ” or Dan Brown’s “The Da
Vinci Code”: a focus on the possible marriage of Jesus with
Mary Magdalene and their offspring.
Both claims are unsupported either by biblical or apocryphal documents
and are thus evidence of how the “gaps” in Jesus’
life themselves have become subject of endless speculation, resulting
in books and films tackling material that hardly seems to matter,
if the world was not so obsessed with “Jesus the Man”.
Indeed, it is Renan’s “fault” that the obsession
with Christ continues. For any logical person, if Jesus Christ
is no longer Christ – the Son of God – this means
his role in history can largely be negated. Whether he married,
had offspring, did this, or that, has become irrelevant. But Renan
was almost singularly instrumental in arguing that even though
Christ was not the Son of God, we should still study him and his
life. And hence, he created a strange mixture of “he’s
just human, but we need to study him” that has so typified
this type of literature, whether in non-fiction or fiction, that
gave rise to The Da Vinci Code.
a scientist, Renan is best remembered for his two main arguments:
that New Testament sources were not infallible, as they were written
by humans, and that the formation of any religion, including Christianity,
can best be understood through a study of social, linguistic,
and psychological elements. Both of these arguments have largely
been accepted by modern secular academics. In retrospect, it is
therefore clear that Renan’s book has strongly influenced
modern biblical research – or was ahead of its time.
Though many have regarded Renan’s approach as a welcome
breeze within the halls of biblical academia, it has to be said
that Renan’s “liberal approach” nevertheless
had its origins in his own dogma. Rather than argue that there
was zero evidence that Jesus was the physical Son of God, born
of a virgin, Renan was convinced that “miracles are things
which never happen, and, therefore, things which Jesus never did.”
So, in short, Jesus was not the Son of God, as miracles cannot
be performed. Today, such reasoning is normally encountered within
the ranks of the sceptical community and the likes of James Randi,
who argue e.g. against faith healers not on individual deficits
of those claiming to perform such healings, but instead on a broader
canvas that anything beyond the boundaries of the purely physical
simply does not exist, and hence faith healers are charlatans.
It is indeed in that category that Renan should, in retrospect,
be depicted, and not amongst those who used the available evidence
and let it speak for itself.
for example, the miracle of the raising of Lazarus. Renan claimed
that the raising of Lazarus from the dead was a fraud, which Jesus
and several of his disciples committed to elevate Jesus’
status with the masses. This allegation can only be partially
true, for if we take the bible’s chronology, then Jesus
raised Lazarus only a few days before his own execution. So if
anyone invented it, it were the disciples, post Jesus’ death;
there was too little time for Jesus’ fame to be derived
from him raising Lazarus within Jesus’ own lifetime.
Indeed, the raising of a dead person back to life is a phenomenal
feature when taken literally. The question, of course, is whether
we should take it literally. Without going into too much detail,
it seems rather more likely that the raising of Lazarus was first
of all subject to a series of careful edits, in which the original
account got greatly distorted. Today, with apocryphal material
at our disposal and a better understanding of the other cults
that competed with Christianity for attention, an image is emerging
that the “raising of the dead” was largely an initiation
ceremony performed by Jesus, Lazarus being the initiate. However,
today, such possibility receives scant attention, as the scholarly
dogma states that Jesus’ group was open to all and hence
required no initiation. But each time new apocryphal documents
are discovered, they add further weight to this initiatory aspect
of Jesus’ original cult.
But more importantly, in this approach, there is no need for the
dogma of whether or not Jesus could perform a miracle or not,
or whether miracles exist. What it shows, is that the bible was
edited, and an original account distorted almost beyond recognition,
and definitely making it into something that in origin was not
meant to be read as such.
interest to The Da Vinci Code enthusiasts will be that Renan argued
that Jesus’ resurrection was a hallucination experienced
by Mary Magdalene and that the disciples and early Christian writers
uncritically accepted this story as true, which resulted in the
mythological status of Jesus. In short, for Renan, Mary Magdalene
was to blame for the wrongful conclusion that Jesus had risen
from the dead. Again, recent research and discoveries have highlighted
that the original gospels ended with the crucifixion of Christ;
his resurrection, and definitely Mary Magdalene’s encounter
in the garden, are seen as later continuations of these original
accounts and should definitely not be blamed on Mary Magdalene.
Indeed, Renan was a pioneer and as such we should condemn too
strongly him getting details wrong. But there is a bigger problem:
even if Renan had focussed on miracles, a far less dogmatic –
and hence scientifically more valid – point would be to
point out that Jesus was neither the first nor the last to claim
he was able to perform miracles. Others, such as that other biblical
character Simon Magus, were said to perform similar if not identical
miracles. In retrospect, Simon Magus would become known as an
evil person, for Jesus’ miracles were genuine, and Simon’s
In truth, of course, Simon Magus was not the only magician. If
anything, the performance of miracles had always been the bailiwick
of magicians, throughout the Middle East and throughout history.
Indeed, all of the miracles Jesus performed and that are reported
in the bible, are on the repertoire of the magician; what is claimed
special about Jesus, is that he did not practice magic, but that
they were real – miracles, not parlour tricks. But this
in itself shows a typically Christian sense of superiority, which
suggests that its own “miracles” were unlike any of
the “pagan magic tricks”, a belief that still pervades
Western society and was instrumental in the Christian world’s
dealing with religion it encountered, especially in the New World.
The situation is hence very similar to our modern times, and specifically
the position of e.g. Uri Geller, and the question whether spoon
bending is a supernatural skill, or a trick – the act itself
remaining nevertheless totally identical from the observer’s
point of view: the spoon bends. Rather than debate the specifics,
modern sceptics conclude that Geller is a magician, a conclusion
that is not based on any hard evidence, but on the belief that
the supernatural does not exist; the laws of physics state spoons
– metal – only bend if pressure is applied, so they
argue Geller applies pressure. Full stop.
what, in the end, did Renan accomplish? Most importantly, popularising
the notion that the bible was written by humans and should not
be treated as infallible. Secondly, that Jesus’ role should
be the subject of debate, rather than blind dogma. Alas, his own
discussion of Jesus was within another dogma, namely that miracles
could not exist. But, specifically, what Renan did – and
what Dan Brown did as well – was not merely attack the Church,
however easy that might be to do, but that apart from criticism,
he offered a new definition of Christ – or, rather, Jesus.
For Renan, Jesus was an example of an extremely moral man. Specifically,
he argued that it should not be on Jesus, but his message, that
Christianity should concentrate. A century later, several of the
young men entering the priesthood equally felt that the message
was more important than the Man, which was echoed in the Second
Vatican Council, in which it was argued that the salvation no
longer had to be guaranteed because Christ died on the Cross,
but merely by the fact that he had shed blood on the cross. It
was a remarkable statement to make, arguing to some extent that
it no longer mattered whether Christ died on the Cross or not,
while at the same time maintaining that he was still the Son of
God. But it could have been the first step in a redefinition of
Christianity, which in the end has decided to once again become
more conservative in its dogma in recent years than it appeared
to be in the 1960s and 1970s.
also argued, throughout his book, that belief in Jesus’
divinity was due to two principal factors: Jesus’ profound
charisma combined with a period in Jewish history in which a frustrated
people under the yoke of Roman repression yearned for a leader
who would fulfil Old Testament prophesy and usher in a new age
of Jewish glory and righteousness. This identification, of course,
has since been used to explain the appeal of certain modern apocalyptic
sects, and why, time and again, people “fall” for
the promises of their leaders. But it is also very similar to
the role of The Da Vinci Code, as its success was further evidence
that the Christian world at its largest had grown dissatisfied
with blind belief, and tried to reinterpret itself in a manner
that itself too is a sign of the times. Hence, there is indeed
nothing new under the sun.
Whether friend or foe, The Life of Jesus became the defining work
of its age, just like The Da Vinci Code is there with Harry Potter
as the defining books of the first decade of the 21st century.
One critic even compared “The Life of Jesus” to Charles
Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” and Karl Marx’s
“Das Kapital”, asserting that all three are landmark
books of the 19th century that revolutionized intellectual and
popular thought. Only the future can tell whether The Da Vinci
Code – and the first decade of the 21st century –
can ever be seen as such.