Speakers: Robert Priest (Royal Holloway) with responses from Jeremy Jennings (QMUL), Ruth Harris (Oxford)
Paper Title: A roundtable discussion of Rob Priest’s ‘The Gospel According to Renan’
Chair: Andrew WM Smith (UCL)
In September 1903, crowds gathered in hostile opposition and vociferous support of a statue being inaugurated in the town of Tréguier. Introducing his new book released by Oxford University Press this summer, Rob Priest described how the statue, designed by Jean Boucher, depicted the great writer Ernest Renan slumped in thought, whilst the Goddess Athena stood over his shoulder. This monument to a secular intellectual was created in the midst of debates around the separation of church and state in France. Positioned in front of the town’s Cathedral, it seemed a snub to the Catholic church in a region that was staunchly Catholic. The clashing crowds filled the town with signs that conveyed their message: one protester scaled the cathedral tower with a banner reading ‘Vive la République’, whilst another climbed even higher, and hung ‘Vive le Christ’.
Debates around religion were central to the intellectual, cultural, and political landscape of the Third Republic. It was in this context that debates around Ernest Renan’s secular masterpiece Life of Jesus became so dramatically impassioned. Published in 1863, Renan’s book has faded slightly from the contemporary landscape, though it was a controversial and popular text, with numerous editions and translations that carried his vision of the historical Jesus across the globe. Rob Priest’s discussion of Renan and his Life of Jesus considered the book in three main ways: firstly situating the text in context, then at the initial reception of the book, and finally its longer cultural and political legacy.
Jeremy Jennings discussed how the bayonets drawn in Brittany were redolent of the political culture of the age, and praised Rob’s work for drawing attention to the crucial importance of Renan’s seminal work. The reception of Renan’s book was divided, but always animated. It seemed that Renan’s work was designed to provoke maximum debate and garner a wide audience. Combining academic rigour with accessible pricing and a controversial launch catapulted it to the forefront of contemporary culture. Jennings highlighted how Life of Jesus spoke to theological discussions of Protestantism taking place at that time in the universities of Tübingen and Strasbourg. Yet, Renan’s work was distinguished by its lyricism. Despite denying the incarnation and the resurrection, Renan refused to doubt the Fourth Gospel, which promoted Christ’s ‘mystical’ or ‘magic’ acts. Instead, Renan used this section to stress the importance of Christ’s break with Judaism, and to contextualise his own break with Catholicism. He read in the Holy Land a ‘fifth gospel, torn but still legible’, and Jennings considered this experiential aspect of Renan’s work as central to the importance of the book. In such a vibrant cultural and theological context, these discussions of Jesus as a man as well as a deity ensured that Renan’s work would resonate.
Ruth Harris, Rob’s former PhD supervisor, praised the book’s contribution to our understanding of Renan’s work and its impact. She read in it an interesting gendered dimension, both in Renan’s own life and in his work. Renan’s tragic sister Henriette played an important past in the production of the work, and the book represented a ‘mutual production’. Renan himself credited the original idea to Henriette, and it was on their journey to explore the Holy Land that she was struck down with her fatal illness. Harris dubbed Henriette an ‘absent author’, and stressed that both the book and the man operated in a feminine milieu. In considering Christ as a man, Renan’s Jesus was an androgynous figure. His life story was not the ‘muscular Catholicism’ of the age, but rather a testament of suffering. By reading the life of Jesus as history and not myth, what was lost in divinity was gained in the exceptionality of Christ’s sympathetic suffering. This, too, was reflected in the reception of Renan’s work, which Priest covered by looking at the letters Renan had received. These spoke of how his work affected the ‘internal lives’ of his readers, and the letters he received from women showed that his work crossed the social boundaries of the age.
By stressing the ways in which Renan’s work crossed boundaries in its content, reception, and legacy, Priest showed how we can use it as a window on the age. In the debates around the statue in Brittany, and the compelling images which illustrate the confrontation, we gain a sense of what was at stake. In Rob’s excellent new book, we get a real sense of how by depicting Christ as an incomparable man, Renan offered a romantic reading of a sublime moralist who was not the supernatural figure with whom so many French readers would have felt intimately familiar. We are also reminded of how both the contemporary impact of the work and its enduring resonance interlocked with the major political and cultural battlegrounds of France’s turbulent nineteenth century.