Robert Priest

Mar 10, 2016

The Gospel According to Renan

Reading, Writing, and Religion in Nineteenth-Century France

Oxford University Press 2014

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Robert Priest's The Gospel According to Renan: Reading, Writing, and Religion in Nineteenth-Century France (Oxford University Press, 2014) is a fascinating book about another fascinating book: Ernest Renan's Vie de Jesus, published in 1863. Renan's was a nineteenth-century non-fiction bestseller, but is far from widely read today. In a series of chapters that explore issues of authorship, content, and reception, Priest offers readers a contextual analysis of this "secular" life of Jesus within Renan's own biography and oeuvre. He also examines the controversy surrounding the book in France, and traces its continuing impact and legacies into the early twentieth century.

One of the major contributions of this work is its analysis of the popular reception of Vie de Jesus by French citizens across the political and religious spectrum. In addition to contemporary press and pamphlet discussion of the text, Priest also consulted hundreds of letters addressed to its author from men and women throughout France. This previously unexamined archival material gives us a glimpse of how "everyday" readers responded to Renan's work, its spiritual and political meanings. The Gospel According to Renan illuminates the history of reading and writing under the Second Empire. Its in-depth analysis of La Vie de Jesus also reveals a great deal about the intersections of religion and politics in the years leading up to the Third Republic.

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Roxanne Panchasi

Roxanne Panchasi is an Associate Professor of History at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada who specializes in twentieth and twenty-first century France and its empire. If you have a recent title to suggest for the podcast, please send her an email (

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