Renan, Ernest°

views updated


RENAN, ERNEST ° (1823–1892), French philosopher and Orientalist. Renan, born in Brittany, was one of the foremost French savants and authors of the 19th century. Educated for the priesthood, Renan rebelled against the oppressive Catholic intellectual atmosphere, and in 1846 abandoned his religious studies, dedicating himself to independent research. In 1847 he was awarded the Prix Volney for L'Histoire Generale et Système Compare des Langues Semitiques, in which his thesis was that monotheistic tendencies are inherent in the character of Semitic peoples. While working at the Bibliothèque Nationale in the department of Hebrew and Semitic manuscripts, Renan published an essay on Averroes and Averroism in 1852, a work of great erudition and insight into the world of medieval Arab philosophy. His real inclination toward biblical studies and historical research on the Jewish people and origins of Christianity soon became evident. His translations and commentaries on the Book of Job (1859), the Song of Songs (1860), and Ecclesiastes (1882) were widely appreciated at the time. When in 1860 he was barred from an appointment to the chair of Hebrew and Chaldaic at the Collège de France due to Catholic pressure, Napoleon iii appointed him head of a French archaeological mission to Syria and Palestine. There Renan wrote the first draft of his famous Vie de Jesus (published in 1863). During this voyage he also conceived the project of a Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum (1881–92). In 1862 his appointment to the Collège de France was confirmed, but he was suspended due to the furore created by his inaugural lecture.

Vie de Jesus was the first volume of a monumental Histoire des Origines du Christianisme, of which the subsequent volumes were Les Apôtres; Saint Paul; L'Antechrist (1873), a portrayal of Nero's empire; Les Evangiles et la Seconde Generation Chretienne; and Marc-Aurèle et la fin du monde antique (1881). Renan made erudite use of rabbinic sources; see his Le Judaïsme et le Christianismeidentite originale et separation graduelle (1883). In the later part of his scholarly career, Renan turned to the history of the Jewish people. His five-volume Histoire du Peuple d'Israël des origines à l'epoque romaine was published during 1887 to 1893. As in an earlier article (Le Judaïsme comme race et comme religion, 1883), he declared himself an enthusiastic admirer of the great biblical prophets, who were socialists before their time. Renan collaborated with A. *Neubauer in Les Rabbins français du 14me siècle (1877) and Les ecrivains Juifs français du 14me siècle (1893), thus integrating these rabbinic writers into the literary history of France. Renan's work has been analyzed by René Dussaud in L'Oeuvre Scientifique de Renan (1951). A bibliography is given in H. Girard and H. Moncel, Bibliographie des oeuvres d'Ernest Renan (1923).


A. Sulzbach, Renan und der Judaismus (1867).

[Yohanan (J.-G.) Cohen-Yashar (Kahn)]