Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2017 Issue

Ernest Renan, The (Emotional) Life of Jesus

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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

  • <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Darwin, Charles. <i>On the Origin of Species.</i> Presentation Copy. Sold for $500,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Darwin, Charles. Autograph Letter Signed, 3 pp, negotiating the 2nd American edition with Appleton. Sold for $21,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Hemingway, Ernest. Autograph Letter Signed, 8 pp, Paris, 1924, to his father discussing Bullfighting, Stories, and his new baby. Sold for $25,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Shakespeare, William. <i>Corialanus.</i> London, 1623. 1st printing [Extracted from the First Folio]. Sold for $50,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Swift, Jonathan. <i>Gulliver's Travels.</i> London, 1726. 1st edition, Teerink's A edition, fine, large copy. Sold for $21,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Fitzroy, Robert. Autograph Letter Signed to agent Thomas Stilwell, informing him of the progress of H.M.S. Beagle. Sold for $17,575.
    <center><b>Bonhams<br> Property from the Collection of Nicole and William R. Keck II</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Shakespeare, William. <i>Sonnets.</i> 1901. 2 volumes. Printed on vellum and illuminated by Ross Turner, bound by Trautz-Bauzonnet. Sold for $13,825.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Beardsley, Aubrey. <i>The Birth, Life, and Acts of King Arthur.</i> 1893-94. 2 volumes. Contemporary painted vellum gilt by Chivers. Sold for $5,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Assisi, St. Francis. <i>The Canticle of Brother Sun.</i> Illuminated on vellum, for the Grolier Society. Sold for $7,575.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Rackham, Arthur. <i>Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.</i> 1/500 copies signed by Rackham. Sold for $4,825.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Proust, Marcel. <i>Du coté de chez Swann.</i> 1st edition, 1st issue. Inscribed by Proust. Sold for $8,825.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Sergio Trujillo Magnenat, <i>Bogotá 1938 / IV Centenario / Juegos Deportivos Bolivarianos,</i> 1938. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> <i>McQueen Drives Porsche,</i> designer unknown, 1970. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b><br>Joe Bridge, <i>Bignan / A Des Ailes,</i> 1921. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Graham Simmons, <i>The Army Isn’t All Work,</i> 1919. $1,000 to $1,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Leonetto Cappiello, <i>Je ne fume que le nil,</i> 1912. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> <i>Attack of the 50 ft. Woman,</i> designer unknown, 1958. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Raymond Tooby, <i>Festival Guiness / Have You Tried One Yet?,</i> 1952. $600 to $900.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Francisco Tamagno, <i>Terrot & Co. / Dijon / Cycles Motorettes,</i> 1909. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b><br>A. Hori, Oakland / General Motors, circa 1925. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> James Montgomery Flagg, <i>Travel? Adventure? Answer – Join the Marines!,</i> circa 1918. $4,000 to $6,000.
  • <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Roberts, David. Twenty Lithographs of the Holy Land, 19th Century. $2,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Declaration by the Reps. of the United Colonies of N.A. 1775. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Composer Jerome Kern personal Letters, Albums and Other. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Paine, Thomas. <i>Common Sense,</i> London 1776. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Stowe, Harriet Beecher. <i>Uncle Tom’s Cabin,</i> Cleveland 1852. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Hobbes, Thomas. <i>Leviathan,</i> 3rd edition, London 1651. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Anno Regni Georgii III. Intolerable Acts and other Bills, 1774. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Wilberforce, William. An Abstract of the Evidence, 5 Letters, and two books. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Nightingale, Florence. Notes on Nursing and Signed Letters, ca. 1860 $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Tolstov, Leo. <i>War and Peace,</i> 5 volumes, 1886. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Dickinson, John. Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, 1768. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Twain, Mark. <i>Tom Sawyer,</i> 1877 [and] <i>Huckleberry Finn,</i> 1885. $4,000 to $6,000.

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