Wednesday, 9 March 2016


Conclusion of his History of the People of Israel.

WITH the fifth volume of the "History of Israel" Renan completed the great task upon which he set out more than thirty years ago—the investigation of the beginnings of Christianity. Beginning, curiously enough, in the middle, his life of Jesus was followed by six volumes on the Apostles, St. Paul, the Antichrist, the Evangelists, the Christian Church and Marcus Aurelius, each dealing with one of the factors the combination of which gave definite shape to early Christianity. After finishing this half of his task, he took up the history of Israel, tracing it from the beginning till the birth of Jesus.

In pursuing this course he was guided by the conviction that Christianity takes its rise with the Hebrew prophets of the eighth century B.C., preaching the doctrine of the superiority of righteousness over ritual. Upon an understanding of these prophets hinged the question as to the origin and meaning of the faith that Jesus heralded. Without, therefore, under-estimating the value of Hebrew history when viewed independently of its issue, for Renan that history appears set in its true light only when regarded as a religious drama the various acts of which lead unmistakably to the grand finale.

Renan's "History of Israel," accordingly, may be said to consist of three parts. The first two volumes contain the analysis of the events that led up to the rise of the prophets; in the third he unfolds his view of those prophets, while the last two illustrate the course of the prophetical ideas, steadily making their way, despite constantly recurring backsets, till their final triumph in Jesus. Viewing the five volumes as a whole, their interest centres in Renan's interpretation of Hebrew history, and it may safely be said that nothing he has done reveals the brilliancy of his mind and the greatness of his intellectual grasp as does this monument, which he was fortunately permitted to finish before his life came to an end. No one, of course, would turn to Renan as a standard historian of the period he treats any more than one would think of learning the facts of the French Revolution from Carlyle. For that purpose much more solid and sober productions exist, but if one would understand the meaning of Israel's remarkable career, there is no writer who has risen superior to Renan, and the world will have long to wait for the coming of a second Renan.

It may appear paradoxical to state that one must know Hebrew history in order to learn it from Renan, but such is, nevertheless, the case. One must approach him with the ability to control him, but, this being promised, no greater intellectual treat can be imagined, no more stimulating reading can be furnished than his brilliant pages, every line of which is illuminated by the genius of one of the greatest writers the modern world has seen.

In some respects the last volume transcends in power and brilliancy the previous ones. He has reached a period known as the Maccabean revival, for which sources are more abundant than for any other, barring the century prior to the Babylonian exile. The interest, too, of the century and a half intervening between the establishment of the Maccabean or Hasmonean dynasty and the definite constitution of Judea as a Roman province is enhanced by the events and movements of the stirring times succeeding one another in such rapid succession. The political situation undergoes great changes, and an admirable opportunity is afforded Renan of illustrating the interrelations between the intellectual and religious life, of the Hebrew during this time. Despite the establishment of a Jewish monarchy in the year 143 B C., Greek influence, against which the Maccabees led the revolt, wins the day. Hellenistic culture, overriding all obstacles presented by the Hebraic view of life, infiltrates itself into the very heart of Palestine.

The Hasmoneans themselves became the unwilling medium through which Greek civilisation made its way. The Greeks again prepared the way for the Roman conquest. The Jewish autonomy lasted about a century, but long before it came to an end Rome had secured a firm clutch on the country. The political incapabilities of the Jewish nation were never more apparent than during the century intervening between the reign of Simon as High Priest and secular chief, which began 143 B.C., and the conquest of Palestine by Pompey in 64-62 B. C. Internal dissensions sapped the strength of the nation. The perpetual conflict between the religious and the political phases of popular life led to the formation of parties, whose bitterness toward one another became accentuated as the contrast between the ideals that inspired the Maccabees and the reality of the situation became more marked. While the old opposition between the nationalists and the Hellenists had disappeared, it was only to make way for two new parties, who threatened the existence of the Jewish State much more seriously. Renan's view of the famous sects of the Pharisees and Saducees is that they were the forerunners of Christianity. Their very existence announced the end of the Jewish State, for a nation cannot maintain itself when divided by religious instead of political issues.

Nothing shows more clearly that the destiny of the Hebrew nation lay in a different direction from that hoped for by the old Maccabean patriots than the circumstance that the problems presenting themselves for solution were of a purely religious character. Neither the Pharisees nor the Saducees contained within themselves the elements necessary for the ruling of the people. The aims of the one, with a scrupulous insistence upon minute regulations for all the acts of life, were as impracticable, viewed from the political side, as the aristocratic principles of the Saducees were out of keeping with the popular instincts.

As the dissensions of the two parties increased, each one striving to secure control of the priesthood, upon which the secular power hinged, a feeling of despair overcame the choice spirits in the state. Renan sees in the rise and growth of the Essenes, whose fundamental principle was an avoidance of political strife in order to secure a stronger concentration for religious duties, a symptom of this feeling. The Essenes voluntarily relinquished the national ideals, and thoroughly disgusted with incessant wrangles between Pharisees and Saducees, in the course of which, on the one hand, demagogues of the worst type arose, and on the other there arose political corruption, the reaction was so strong as to engender a species of asceticism strangely commingled with mysticism quite foreign to the spirit of Judaism. The other extreme was not wanting, and one of the most brilliant chapters of this volume is the one devoted to an analysis of Ecclesiastes, which Renan regards as an expression of the complete scepticism and cynicism produced by the religious and political conflict of this period. No better proof could be desired of the triumph of Greek views of life than is to be found in the spirit underlying the philosophy of Koheleth, a figure which Renan thinks was really intended as a disguise for King Solomon.

The author of this remarkable book is thoroughly imbued with Greek culture. He is a Jew who has laid aside all hopes of a Jewish State, and is equally devoid of religious ideals. Retaining enough of the old prophetic aversion to the luxuries of life to prevent him from becoming a disciple of the school that saw in sensual pleasures the end-all and be-all of existence, he adopts a middle course, and, while counselling moderation in all things, preaches the doctrine of what might be called polished and religious laisser-faire. Leave bad enough alone, he seems to say. By meddling you only make it worse. Beware, above all, of politics. Reform, regeneration, and all the other watchwords of parties are meaningless terms. This despair of Koheleth carries over to all the affairs of life. It is as useless to attempt the solution of religious questions as it is to attempt the improvement of the social conditions. Philosophy is a deception; learning, a will-o'-the-wisp, and as for so-called pleasures, one soon grows weary of them. They, too, are insufficient to satisfy the cravings of the human soul. The unsatisfactory issue of Koheleth's musings reflects the unsettled condition of men's minds at the time when the book was written. "Vanity of vanities" becomes the fitting refrain that voices at once the loss of national ideals and the sad religious outlook.

It was fortunate for the creation of a better religious spirit that politics became divorced from the differences existing between the various Jewish sects. This was brought about through the definite incorporation of Judea as a Roman province. Herod was only nominally a Jew. His interests were bound up with Rome, and lacking all sympathy for the national independence of Judea, he became the willing tool of Roman policy. A further factor that aided in the dissolution of the Jewish state was the growth of Jewish settlements outside of Palestine. The most important of these was in Alexandria, where, under the influence of Hellenic philosophy, an interpretation of Judaism was developed in which the national elements were conspicuous by their absence. Philo, the chief representative of this school, is also the first example of the purely religious development leading to the universal form of Judaism. In Palestine itself the most noticeable consequences of the loss of national independence became manifest in the growth of the so-called Messianic ideals, the looking forward toward a final triumph of Jewish ideas. Naturally it was impossible to separate these ideas in Palestine itself from a restoration of the state, but outside of the country they were permitted to take on a purer form.

As Renan approaches the period embraced by his "Life of Jesus," he contents himself with the vaguest indication of the events that took place in Palestine. Instead we have a series of most powerful pictures illustrating the steady march of religious ideas—particularly those affecting the immorality of the soul and the logos, or theory of the Divine Word. For those who would recognise how close the bond is that unites Christianity to the form taken on by Judaism after the Roman conquest, these last chapters are to be strongly recommended. They constitute, as it were, Renan's farewell message. In summing up the interpretation he puts upon the history of Israel, he once more emphasizes the necessity that impelled its issue in the permanent establishment of the independence of religion, from racial, social or political factors. The ethical principles of Judaism and Christianity follow as a corollary from this assumption.

As for the practical execution of these principles, Renan recognises that we are still far from the period where justice will reign supreme. He bases his hope in a brighter future for humanity upon the growing aversion to violence and class oppression. It is not likely that military force will once more conquer the world and re-establish a new era of servitude. What he calls the "Jewish programme," Renan thinks, will be carried out, though with necessary reservations. For him, this programme is summed up in the single word "justice," which, he firmly hopes, will some day exist in reality upon this globe of ours.

These last pages, written with all the vigour that characterises his early productions, furnish an admirable means of forming a fair estimate of the man Renan himself. To those who are fond of denouncing him as a cynic, the sympathy which his last words breathe for suffering and struggling humanity constitutes the best reply. He has often been called a sceptic, and yet one may search far and wide through modern literature for stronger expressions of true religious faith than are to be found in Renan's works. Above all, the testimony must be given to him which he most valued— that his whole life was actuated by a love of truth. He made personal sacrifices for what he considered to be the truth. He investigated fearlessly, and when he spoke the ring of sincerity in his utterances was never wanting, while the boldness of these utterances was always tempered with a proper consideration for those who held opinions differing from his. All this is applicable in a marked degree to the last work that issued from his restless pen.

—N.Y.  Times.

Jewish Herald 30 Nov.1894

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