The Life of Jesus

by Ernest Renan

The Life of Jesus > Chapter II

Infancy and youth of Jesus
his first impressions
Jesus was born at Nazareth, a small town of Galilee, which before his time had no celebrity. All his life he was designated by the name of "the Nazarene," and it is only by a rather embarrassed and roundabout way [NOTE: The census effected by Quirinus, to which legend attributes the journey from Bethlehem, is at least ten years later than the year in which, according to Luke and Matthew, Jesus was born. The two evangelists in effect make Jesus to be born under the reign of Herod (Matt. ii. 1, 19, 22; Luke i. 5). Now, the census of Quirinus did not take place until after the deposition of Archelaus -- i.e., ten years after the death of Herod, the 37th year from the era of Actium (Josephus Ant., XVII. XIII. 5, XVIII. i. I, ii. I). The inscription by which it was formerly pretended to establish that Quirinus had levied two censuses is recognized as false (see Orelli, Inscr. Lat., No. 623, and the supplement of Henzen in this number; Borghesi, Fastes Consulaires [yet unpublished] in the year 742). The census in any case would only be applied to the parts of the Roman provinces, and not to the tetrarchies. The texts by which it is sought to prove that some of the operations for statistics and tribute commanded by Augustus ought to extend to the dominion of the Herods, either do not mean what they have been made to say, or are from Christian authors who have borrowed this statement from the Gospel of Luke. That which proves, besides, that the journey of the family of Jesus to Bethlehem is not historical, is the motive attributed to it. Jesus was not of the family of David (see Chap. XV.), and, if he had been, we should still not imagine that his parents should have been forced, for an operation purely registrative and financial, to come to enrol themselves in the place whence their ancestors had proceeded a thousand years before. In imposing such an obligation, the Roman authority would have sanctioned pretensions threatening her safety.] that, in the legends respecting him, he is made to be born at Bethlehem. We shall see later the motive for this supposition, and how it was the necessary consequence of the Messianic character attributed to Jesus. The precise date of his birth is unknown. It took place under the reign of Augustus, about the Roman year 750, probably some years before the year 1 of that era which all civilized people date from the day on which he was born.

The name of Jesus, which was given him, is an alteration from Joshua. It was a very common name; but afterwards mysteries, and an allusion to his character of Savior, were naturally sought for in it. Perhaps he, like all mystics, exalted himself in this respect. It is thus that more than one great vocation in history has been caused by a name given to a child without premeditation. Ardent natures never bring themselves to see aught of chance in what concerns them. God has regulated everything for them, and they see a sign of the supreme will in the most insignificant circumstances.

The population of Galilee was very mixed, as the very name of the country indicated. This province counted among its inhabitants, in the time of Jesus, many who were not Jews (Phoenicians, Syrians, Arabs, and even Greeks). The conversions to Judaism were not rare in these mixed countries. It is therefore impossible to raise here any question of race, and to seek to ascertain what blood flowed in the veins of him who has contributed most to efface the distinctions of blood in humanity.

He proceeded from the ranks of the people. His father Joseph and his mother Mary were people in humble circumstances, artisans living by their labor, in the state so common in the East, which is neither ease nor poverty. The extreme simplicity of life in such countries, by dispensing with the need of comfort, renders the privileges of wealth almost useless, and makes everyone voluntarily poor. On the other hand, the total want of taste for art, and for that which contribute to the elegance of material life, gives a naked aspect to the house of him who otherwise wants for nothing. Apart from something sordid and repulsive which Islamism bears everywhere with it, the town of Nazareth, in the time of Jesus, did not perhaps much differ from what it is today. We see the streets where he played when a child, in the stony paths or little crossways which separate the dwellings. The house of Joseph doubtless much resembled those poor shops, lighted shop, by the door, serving at once for kitchen, and bedroom, having for furniture a mat, some cushions on the ground, one or two clay pots, and a painted chest.

The family, whether it proceeded from one or many marriages, was rather numerous. Jesus had brothers and sisters, of whom he seems to have been the eldest. All have remained obscure, for it appears that the four personages, who were named as his brothers, and among whom one, at least, James, had acquired great importance in the development of Christianity, were his cousins-german. Mary, in fact, had a sister also named Mary, who married a certain Alpheus or Cleophas (these two names appear to designate the same person), and was the mother of several sons who played a considerable part among the first disciples of Jesus. These cousins-german who adhered to the young Master, while his own brothers opposed him, took the title of "brothers of the Lord." The real brothers of Jesus, like their mother, became important only after his death. Even then they do not appear to have equalled in importance their cousins, whose conversion had been more spontaneous, and whose character seems to have had more originality. Their names were so little known that when the evangelist put in the mouth of the men of Nazareth the enumeration of the brothers according to natural relationship, the names of the sons of Cleophas first presented themselves to him.

His sisters were married at Nazareth, and he spent the first years of his youth there. Nazareth was a small town in a hollow, opening broadly at the summit of the group of mountains which close the plain of Esdraelon on the north. The population is now from three to four thousand, and it can never have varied much. The cold there is sharp in winter, and the climate very healthy. The town, like all the small Jewish towns at this period, was a heap of huts built without style, and would exhibit that harsh and poor aspect which villages in Semitic countries now present. The houses, it seems, did not differ much from those cubes of stone, without exterior or interior elegance, which still cover the richest parts of the Lebanon, and which, surrounded with vines and fig-trees, are still very agreeable. The environs, moreover, are charming; and no place in the world was so well adapted for dreams of perfect happiness. Even in our times Nazareth is still a delightful abode, the only place, perhaps, in Palestine in which the mind feels itself relieved from the burden which oppresses it in this unequalled desolation. The people are amiable and cheerful; the gardens fresh and green. Anthony the Martyr, at the end of the sixth century, drew an enchanting picture of the fertility of the environs, which he compared to paradise. Some valleys on the western side fully justify his description. The fountain, where formerly the life and gaiety of the little town were concentrated, is destroyed; its broken channels contain now only a muddy stream. But the beauty of the women who meet there in the evening -- that beauty which was remarked even in the sixth century, and which was looked upon as a gift of the Virgin Mary -- is still most strikingly preserved. It is the Syrian type in all its languid grace. No doubt Mary was there almost every day, and took her place with her jar on her shoulder in the file of her companions who have remained unknown. Anthony the Martyr remarks that the Jewish women, generally disdainful to Christians, were here full of affability. Even now religious animosity is weaker at Nazareth than elsewhere.

The horizon from the town is limited. But if we ascend a little the plateau, swept by a perpetual breeze, which overlooks the highest houses, the prospect is splendid. On the west are seen the fine outlines of Carmel, terminated by an abrupt point, which seems to plunge into the sea. Before us are spread out the double summit which towers above Megiddo; the mountains of the country of Shechem, with their holy places of the patriarchal age; the hills of Gilboa, the small picturesque group to which are attached the graceful or terrible recollections of Shunem and of Endor; and Tabor, with its beautiful rounded form, which antiquity compared to a bosom. Through a depression between the mountains of Shunem and Tabor are seen the valley of the Jordan and the high plains of Peraea, which form a continuous line from the eastern side. On the north the mountains of Safed, in inclining towards the sea, conceal St. Jean d'Acre, but permit the Gulf of Khaifa to be distinguished, Such was the horizon of Jesus. This enchanted circle, cradle of the kingdom of God, was for years his world. Even in his later life he departed but little beyond the familiar limits of his childhood. For yonder, northwards, a glimpse is caught, almost on the flank of Hermon, of Caesarea-Philippi, his furthest point of advance into the Gentile world; and here, southwards, the more somber aspect of these Samaritan hills foreshadows the dreariness of Judea beyond, parched as by a scorching wind of defoliation and death.

If the world, remaining Christian, but attaining to a better idea of the esteem in which the origin of its religion should be held, should ever wish to replace by authentic holy places the mean and apocryphal sanctuaries to which the piety of dark ages attached itself, it is upon this height of Nazareth that it will rebuild its temple. There, at the birthplace of Christianity, and in the center of the actions of its Founder, the great church ought to be raised in which all Christians may worship. There, also, on this spot where sleep Joseph the Carpenter and thousands of forgotten Nazarenes who never passed beyond the horizon of their valley, would be a better station than any in the world beside for the philosopher to contemplate the course of human affairs, to console himself for their uncertainty, and to reassure himself as to the Divine end which tie world pursues through countless falterings, and in spite of the universal vanity.

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