Monday, December 13, 2010

Jesus the Greek

Ernest Renan... Nassim Taleb (whom I have written about recently) is a fan of his. Friedrich Nietzsche was most decidedly not.

Renan was a seminarian who famously renounced his Roman Catholic faith to become a leading scholar of Semitic languages and a literary celebrity in 19th century France. Much of his fame was due to the spectacular success of his Life of Jesus which rejects the miraculous but which betrays a continuing religious sensibility built around philosophical idealism and a sentimental attachment to the figure of Jesus. For Renan (as one of his biographers put it) religion was expelled from the front door but came in again through the back. Nietzsche saw Renan's perspective as not only religious, but priestly.

Renan had a deep knowledge not only of the languages of the Holy Land but also of its geography and he traveled widely in the region with his beloved sister while researching the Life. What he has to say about the ethnic background of Jesus of Nazareth is interesting, though it probably says more about the (relatively mild?) anti-Semitism of Renan's cultural milieu than about historical reality. There was a great vogue at the time for all things Indo-European, and, though Renan saw the Indo-European and the Semitic peoples as "the two great races which, in one sense, have made humanity [read: European civilization] what it is," he is not altogether even-handed in his treatment of these two traditions. Clearly, Renan is ever-so-slightly uncomfortable with a Jewish Jesus, and the infinite delicacy with which he expresses himself on this matter is nothing short of comical.

He points out that, at the time of Jesus' birth, the population of Galilee was racially diverse and "there were many who were not Jews (Phoenicians, Syrians, Arabs, and even Greeks)." Since many of these non-Jews converted to Judaism, it is impossible, asserts Renan, to "ascertain what blood flowed through the veins of him who has contributed most to efface the distinctions of blood amongst mankind."