Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2017 Issue

Ernest Renan, The (Emotional) Life of Jesus

264fbcc8-382a-4eff-b217-5f19ebed0c52

Recreation of Renan's university office in his birth home.

Regarded as the “first historical biography of Jesus”, Renan’s Vie de Jésus is a very emotional book. As such, it deeply irritated the historians, while selling like hot cakes. Historians and feelings had never got along very well, anyway—just like Jesus and the Pharisees.

 

Big Man with Big Beard

 

Once the country of the Most Christian Kings, France has now become hostile to the mere idea of God, and only the bold dare mentioning it in a discussion—that’s when they are automatically identified as the nostalgic conservators of an old stinky morality, or as plain idiots. And here comes the unavoidable question: “So, you really think there’s a big guy with a big white beard sitting in the clouds, looking at you?” Don’t try to argue. Just laugh casually: “Ha, ha! Yes, and sitting next to him is Santa Claus!” Then grab an appetizer and shift to a topic that really rocks: the weather. Yet, there was a time in France, when you couldn’t even suggest that Jesus was an ordinary man. Thus, when Ernest Renan (1823-1892) published the “first historical biography of Jesus Christ1 in 1863, he created a nationwide scandal that even reached the Vatican. Different times, different ways.

 

The Book

 

When Renan announced the publication of his Vie de Jésus in Juin 1863, people queued outside the bookshop of his publisher in Paris to buy their copy. “The book being expensive (7,50 Francs) and thick (in-8°),” Perrine Simon-Nahum writes in 20072, “the publisher had ordered a very humble first edition (10,000 copies).” But the book met with immediate success. “Between 1863 and 1864, it was published twelve times. (...) Between 1864 and 1944, some 430,000 copies were sold. By 1947, it had been translated into 12 languages.3” Renan became the second most well paid writer in France, just after Victor Hugo—the latter earned 300,000 Francs with Les Misérables, while Renan earned 195,000 Francs with Vie de Jésus. In September 1867, Renan reworked his preface for the thirteenth edition, “which is the reference today.” (Simon-Nahum). There is also a fully illustrated (60 realistic engravings) edition dated from 1870. In March 1864, came out a popular edition bearing another title, Jésus; it is a shorter (262 pages) and smaller (in-32°) edition, with no footnotes, and from which the most complex passages have been deleted—or simplified. This approach earned Renan a few more enemies. At the end of the day, his book is not rare, and can be found easily. Some rare bibliophilists’ copies, finely bound, are also available.

 

The Author

 

When his book came out, Renan was not a “nobody”—a renowned researcher, he had just been elected to the chair of Hebrew at the Collège de France; in the complex political context of the time, he was identified as “the symbol of the laic and republican threat.” (Simon-Nahum). Thus, following his scandalous inaugural speech, Minister of Public Instruction Gustave Rouland immediately suspended him: “You have indeed systematically denied the most essential dogma of our Christian faiths (...). It is therefore impossible for the government that wishes both peace of consciences and public peace, not to notify its legitimate and deep concern.” The law separating the Church from the State wasn’t voted until 1905 in France, and politics were still involved in religious matters. Consequently, the Emperor himself, Napoléon III, informed Renan that he couldn’t tolerate “one of the basis of the Christian religion to be denied.” In his speech, Renan called Jesus, “an incomparable man4, so mighty that I would not contradict those who, hit by his exceptional achievements, call him God.” This provocative statement owned him many detractors—a librarian from Dijon has listed 214 pamphlets published against him at the time. He was called a blasphemer; some claimed he should be burnt alive, and when the archbishop of Reims put a ban on his book, Pope Pius IX congratulated him in person! And on June 11, 1864, Renan was officially revoked from the Collège de France.

1.Vie de Jésus (Paris, chez Michel Lévy frères, 1863).

2. In the article Le scandale de la Vie de Jésus de Renan, published in the periodical Mil Neuf Cent (n°25).

3. Including in English as The Life of Jesus (London, Trübner & Co.—1864).

4 A reference to a famous speech by the French preacher Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704).

Rare Book Monthly

  • <i>Der Sturm.</i> 1922. Sold October 2021 for € 13,000.
    Diophantus Alexandrinus, <i>Arithmeticorum libri sex.</i> 1670. Sold October 2021 for € 18,000.
    <i>Cozzani Ettore e altri, l’Eroica. Tutto il pubblicato.</i> Sold October 2021 for € 11,000.
    Newton Isaac, <i>Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica.</i> 1714. Sold October 2021 for € 7,500.
    Manetti Saverio, <i>Storia naturale degli uccelli.</i> 1767-1776. Sold April 2021 for € 26,000.
  • <center><br>Swann Auction Galleries<br>Maps & Atlases<br>Natural History<br>& Color Plate Books<br>December 9, 2021</b>
    <b>Swann, Dec. 9:</b> AUDUBON, JOHN JAMES. Carolina Parrot. Plate 26. Hand-colored aquatint and engraved plate from Audubon's <i>Birds of America.</i> $80,000 to $100,000.
    <b>Swann, Dec. 9:</b> Francisco Henrique Carls. [Album de Pernambuco e seus Arrabaldes]. Fifty-three chromolithographed plates of landscape, town views and more of the state of Pernambuco, northeast Brazil. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann, Dec. 9:</b> Captain Thomas Davies, after. Group of 5 engraved topographical scenes of North American waterfalls. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <center><br>Swann Auction Galleries<br>Maps & Atlases<br>Natural History<br>& Color Plate Books<br>December 9, 2021</b>
    <b>Swann, Dec. 9:</b> William R. Morley. Morley's Map of New Mexico. Large lithographed pocket map with original hand-color in outline. $7,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Swann, Dec. 9:</b> Frederick William Beechey, et al. <i>The Zoology of Captain Beechey's Voyage; Compiled from the Collections and Notes Made by Captain Beechey…</i> $7,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Swann, Dec. 9:</b> ZUDA ROKASHI (Priest Hotan.) Nansenbushu Bankoku Shoka No Zu. Woodblock wall map of the world on 16 sheets joined. $5,000 to $7,500.
  • <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>Zang Tumb Tuuum:<br>la révolution futuriste<br>Online Auction<br>30 November – 7 December</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, Nov. 18:</b> The "Official Edition" of the United States Constitution and the First Printing of the Final Text of the Constitution, 1787. $15,000,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Nov. 30 – Dec. 7:</b> Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso. I Paroliberi Futuristi. 1914-1915. 8 p. Unique corrected proofs, for an anthology that remained unpublished. €40,000 to €60,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Nov. 30 – Dec. 7:</b> Cangiullo, Francesco. Studenti in Lettere. Università. 1915. Seminal work, featured in 3 historical futurist exhibitions. €20,000 to €30,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Nov. 30 – Dec. 7:</b> Cangiullo, Francesco. Chiaro di luna. Circa 1915. Collage and gouache on paper. €15,000 to €20,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Nov. 30 – Dec. 7:</b> Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso. Manicure. Faire les ongles à l'Italie. Circa 1915. A fantastic parody of an advertising poster. €20,000 to €30,000.
  • <b><center>Doyle<br>Rare Books, Autographs & Maps<br>December 9</b>
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 47. Roosevelt, Theodore. Photograph inscribed to Morris J. Hirsch. May 7th 1918. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 178. Whitman, Walt. <i>Leaves of Grass.</i> Brooklyn, New York: [Printed for the author], 1955. First edition in the first issue binding. $70,000 to $100,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 38. Mather, Cotton. <i>Magnalia Christi Americana; or, the Ecclesiastical History of New-England.</i> London: Printed for Thomas Parkhurst, 1702. First edition. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 55. Taylor, Zachary. Autograph letter signed as President-Elect. Baton Rouge: January 15, 1849. $5,000 to $8,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 203. Picasso, Pablo. <i>Verve</i> Vol. V, Nos. 19-20. Paris: Editions Verve, 1948. Inscribed on the title page by Picasso. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b><center>Doyle<br>Rare Books, Autographs & Maps<br>December 9</b>
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 211. Domergue, Jean-Gabriel. L'Ete a Monte Carlo. Lithographed poster, Lucien Serre & Cie, Paris, circa 1937. $1,000 to $1,500.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 105. Manuscript Illumination attr. to Neri da Rimini. Large excised initial "N" from a choirbook, extensively historiated. [Likely Rimini: first quarter of the 14th century]. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 40. McKenney, Thomas L. and Hall, James. <i>History of the Indian Tribes of North America, with Biographical Sketches and Anecdotes of the Principal Chiefs.</i> Philadelphia: Rice, Rutter & Co., 1870. $3,00
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 222. Searle, Ronald. [Pets--a dog, cats and a parrot-- surrounded by books, and inspecting a globe, perhaps planning global domination]. Original drawing, 17 3/8 x 13 1/2 inches. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 98. Faden, William; Scull, Nicholas and George Heap. A Plan of the City and Environs of Philadelphia, Survey'd by N. Scull and G. Heap. London: William Faden, 12 March 1777. $3,000 to $5,000.

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions