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Joseph Ernest Renan

1823-1892. French humanist historian of religion and oriental philologist, who unsettled both Catholics and Protestants with La Vie de Jésus (1863). Using the new German textual and philological criticism with a rationalist skeptic's assumptions, he depicted Jesus as a truly remarkable itinerant preacher, but certainly not the Son of God. His portrait came at the right historic moment for him and achieved immense popularity among enlarging skeptical readership. The work expanded into Histoire de origines du christianisme (7 vols., 1863-81), with further studies of the apostles, Paul, Antichrist, the early church, and the end of the ancient world. He wrote Histoire du peuple d'IsraÉl (5 vols., 1887-93) with the same perspective. Renan was raised Catholic and prepared by seminary study to enter the priesthood. This he abandoned (1845) along with his Catholic faith. Thereafter he went on numerous archaeological digs in the Near East and became professor of Hebrew at the Collège de France (1862) until removed because of the furor over his Jésus. He was reinstated (1870) and appointed director of the college (1879) under the secularist Third Republic.