This alternative is still more clearly forced upon us by the latest phase in the progress of infidelity, -- the book of the Strauss of France.
Renan has eclipsed all former infidel biographers of Christ, so far as popularity and ephemeral effect is concerned. His |Life of Jesus,| which first appeared in 1863, has had all the success of a sensation novel, and will probably share the same fate before it is ten years old.87 In disposing of it, we can be much briefer, since a refutation of Strauss is also a refutation of Renan.
He essentially agrees, as already remarked, with Strauss, to whom he expressly refers as his main authority for critical research in detail; but he correctly remarks that the term myths is better applicable to India and primitive Greece than to the ancient traditions of the Hebrews and the Semitic nations in general; and prefers the words legends and legendary narratives, |which, while they concede a large influence to the working of opinions, allow the action and the personal character of Jesus to stand out in their completeness.|88 This brings the gospel history down to a level with the history of Francis of Assissi, and other marvelous saints of the Romish Church; although Renan, inconsistently enough, prefers a parallel between the myth of his favorite Cakya-Mouni, the founder of Buddhism, and the legend of Jesus, which again throws him back to the mythical theory.89 He regards the so-called legend of Jesus as the fruit of consentaneous enthusiasm, and imaginative impulse of the primitive disciples. No great event in history has passed without a cycle of fables; and Jesus could not, had he wished, have silenced these popular creations.90 He, moreover, differs from Strauss by admitting the essential authenticity of the chief portions of the four Gospels, including even the most contested of all, that of John, -- a concession almost as fatal to his own as to the cognate mythical theory, and hence pronounced by Strauss the one essential error of Renan. He consequently allows a larger body of facts in the life of Christ. He undertakes, to some extent, the task of reconstruction, and proposes to clothe the cloudy phantom and dim shadow of the mythical Jesus with real flesh and blood. In his essay on the |Critical Historians of Jesus,| he quotes with approbation the objection of Colani to Strauss: |No doubt the apostles, once believing in the Messianic character of Jesus, may have added to his actual image some lineaments borrowed from prophecy; but how came they to believe in his Messianic character? Strauss has never explained this. What he leaves of the Gospels is insufficient as ground for the apostles' faith; and it is useless to ascribe to them a disposition to be content with the minimum of proof: the proofs must needs have been very strong to overcome the crushing doubts occasioned by the death on the cross. In other words, the person of Jesus must have singularly surpassed ordinary proportions: a large part of the evangelical narratives must be true.|9l His |Life of Jesus| is, moreover, interspersed with truly eloquent and enthusiastic tributes to Jesus, -- concessions which must either overthrow his whole legendary hypothesis, or else resolve themselves into empty declamation. So far, we may regard the French child as an improvement on its German parent, and a progress in the skeptical world towards the acknowledgment of the truth.
But while Renan, aided by clear common sense, a lively French imagination, and a fresh contemplation of the Holy Land, which he calls the |fifth Gospel,| surpasses Strauss in the estimate of the historical character of the gospel-record, he is equally hostile to all miracles, which, in his oracular opinion, |always imply imposture or fraud;| and falls far below him on the score of scholarship, consistency, and even morality. We mean, of course, the morality of his theory, and have nothing to do with the morality of his life or private character. Compared with this critical master, Renan is a mere dilettante and a charlatan. He nowhere makes a serious attempt to prove any of his novel and arbitrary positions; refers for detail, once for all, to Strauss and half a dozen inferior infidel books; ignores their refutation, and the whole apologetic literature of the last thirty years; and deals in oracular assertions and eloquent declamations for artistic effect. His book nowhere rises to the dignity of solid science and scholarship. It is essentially a religious romance, with Jesus as the hero, adapted to the tastes of the fashionable world.92
According to Renan, Jesus was born at Nazareth (not at Bethlehem), but assumed the title of Son of David as a necessary condition of success. TIe grew up amidst the charming scenery of Galilee, an ignorant peasant of extraordinary genius and spotless virtue. He was a delicious Rabbi (Rabbi delicieux), of ravishing beauty, a preacher of the purest code of morals, and a healer of many diseases of body and mind. But finding at last that he had either to satisfy the foolish Messianic expectations of his people, or to renounce his mission, he yielded to his friends, and entered on a course of mild and beneficent deception. By a sudden and unaccountable transformation of character, this greatest man born of woman became a disappointed and morbid fanatic, a thaumaturgist, and a charlatan, who connived even at downright imposture and falsehood in the so-called resurrection of Lazarus, and paid for his error with his blood.93 His life was at first a delightful pastoral and lovely idyl, at last a terrible tragedy, and ends for the historian with his expiring sigh on the cross. But so deep was the impression which this sublime though deluded genius and hero made, that he arose in the belief of his ignorant and credulous disciples. Thus the death of the man Jesus was the beginning of his worship as the incarnate God. The exact truth about the resurrection, Renan thinks, |on account of the contradictory documents,| we shall never know, except that |the strong imagination of Mary Magdalene here enacted a chief part.| |Divine power of love!| adds the enthusiastic declaimer; |sacred moments, when the passion of a hallucinated woman gave to the world a risen God!|94
And what a God! -- such a God as only a heathen idolater, or a polluted fancy, or a crazy intellect, could worship; a Jesus who is idolized on the one hand as the perfect man, |whose legend will call forth tears without end, whose worship will grow young without ceasing;| and who almost in the same breath is charged with vanity, self-delusion, erotic sentimentalism, fanaticism, and complicity with fraud! We can hardly trust our eyes when we see this great Orientalist digging from the grave of disgrace and contempt the exploded hypothesis of vulgar imposture, as if it were the last conclusion of science; and read the suggestion that the resurrection of Lazarus was a pious fraud, contrived by himself and his two sisters, and weakly connived at by Jesus, in the hope of producing an impression among the unbelieving Jews. But this wretched opinion is, if possible, eclipsed by an entirely original invention of which neither Reimarus nor Paulus nor Strauss nor Celsus ever dreamed. Renan is not ashamed to outrage the feelings of all Christendom, and to disgrace himself, by profaning even the sacred agony in Gethsemane with the sensuous picture of a Parisian love-novel.95 May God forgive him the criminal intrusion of such wanton fancies, from which every pious mind instinctively recoils in horror, as from a blasphemy of the Son of Man, and a direct approach to the unpardonable sin, -- the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit! Much rather give up, with Strauss, the whole scene in the garden as unhistorical, than thus pollute and insult the suffering Redeemer, while bearing in boundless love the accumulated guilt of the whole race.
Renan's Jesus is the most contradictory and impossible character ever conceived. There are many happy and unhappy inconsistencies in the world, and even great and good men sometimes combine conflicting traits of character. But there is a great difference between inconsistencies and absolute contradictions; and not until all the laws of logic and psychology are overthrown, nor until fire and water, health and poison, dwell together in peace, will thinking, sensible people be made to believe that one and the same person can be a sentimentalist, an enthusiast, a fanatic, an impostor, a wise and charming rabbi, an unequaled saint, and an incarnate God. The Christ of the Gospels requires faith; the Jesus of Renan, the utmost stretch of credulity. The Christ of history is a moral miracle; the Christ of romance, a moral monstrosity and an absurdity. Renan exposes himself to the combined force of the objections which have been urged in the preceding pages against all the false theories of the gospel history. His self-contradictory picture of Jesus, divested of the meretricious charms of a brilliant style and sentimental hero-worship, is an insult to sound sense and the dignity of man: it rouses the noblest instincts of our nature to just indignation, and is unworthy of a serious refutation. To state it in its nakedness is to expose, to refute, and to condemn it. Even as an artist he has failed in the main figure, since his hero lacks the essential quality of truthfulness of conception, unity and consistency of character; a defect arising not from any want of artistic power of representation, which we freely accord to him in an eminent degree, but from a sort of inevitable judgment which must overtake every one who dares, with unclean hands, to enter the sanctissimum of history, and to draw the picture of the purest of the pure and the holiest of the holy.96