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Jennifer Stevens. The Historical Jesus and the Literary Imagination, 1860-1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. Price: US$95.00

  • Edward Adams

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  • Edward Adams
    Washington and Lee University

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The past two decades have witnessed a resurgence of scholarly attention to the historical Jesus along with numerous novels that have taken advantage of this work in re-imagining the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Bart Ehrman’s many popularizations present the most conspicuous academic example of this trend. In works such as Jesus, Interrupted (2009), he has undertaken to remind readers of the rich scholarly tradition, which climaxed in the mid-nineteenth century, which aggressively queried the discrepancies among the four canonical gospels and sought to generate both specific textual tactics for critiquing their historical validity and larger theories that might explain their complicated affiliations and chronological ordering. The Jesus Project, with its elaborate color-coded voting procedures for adjudicating the authentic and the spurious in the gospels, is the most notorious instance of this cultural phenomenon, while major novelists and minor, from Norman Mailer and the Nobel-prize winning José Saramago to Anne Rice of vampire fame, have been churning out bestselling fictional lives of Jesus. To top it all off, Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code (2003) and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) earned enormous profits and generated heated controversy by spectacularly exploiting the seemingly inexhaustible appeal of this subject matter.

One inadvertent attraction of Jennifer Stevens’s impressively meticulous study of a previous era of scholarly interest, fictional productivity, and cultural debate over the historical Jesus is the assurance that our fad, too, will pass. Though The Historical Jesus and the Literary Imagination, 1860-1920 runs well into the twentieth century, though it quotes authorities already weary of new books on the subject as early as 1872, and though in its own analysis this earlier phase arguably peaked as late as 1916 with George Moore’s The Brook Kerith, a novel centered upon Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus, and Paul, still her study documents a clear sense of a rise beginning in the 1860s followed by steady decline by the 1890s. Stevens’s book is a welcome documentary survey of the Victorian era’s deep interest in the historical Jesus, both in scholarly and fictional forms. Though in insight or brilliance it hardly compares to Albert Schweitzer’s magisterial The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1910), it is nonetheless worthy to be set beside Schweitzer’s study as a reliable and long overdue resource for anyone interested in this phenomenon’s major English exemplars. Schweitzer’s book is notoriously light on English contributions to this project—focusing, rightly, on what was fundamentally a German tradition in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries till that dominance was upended by the unprecedented popular success of Renan’s La Vie de Jésus (1863). Nonetheless Stevens shows that the English were avidly reading and responding to what the Germans and French were doing, although with largely orthodox and defensive biographical treatments of Jesus and later with somewhat more daring fictional ones. Thus, her study is a partial corrective and a valuable resource for anyone, whether scholar or layman, interested in the nineteenth-century English dimension of this widespread and controversial cultural phenomenon. There is no better book for relatively brief, well-contextualized (in terms of Stevens’s close attention to the contemporary reception of each of these works), and authoritative overviews of the main figures from biographers such as J.R. Seeley, F.W. Farrar, Cunningham Geikie, and Alfred Edersheim to novelists such as Samuel Butler, Edwin Abbot, Joseph Jacobs, Marie Corelli, Frank Harris, and George Moore.

Stevens’s survey duly begins by acknowledging the predominant role of German and French scholarship. She is too swift, however, in presenting the all-important German contribution. Of course, it would be pointless to attempt to substitute for Schweitzer here, but Stevens’s account, by focusing solely on David Friedrich Strauss’s Life of Jesus, Critically Examined (translated by George Eliot and published in 1846, just as the English blasphemy laws had been relaxed), too easily ignores other major German figures who guided English practitioners such as Seeley and Farrar. Her rapid summary of Strauss, moreover, is inadequate: it is a frankly impossible task to sum up Strauss’s dense 1,500 pages in the four that Stevens allows herself (or, perhaps, was allowed by the publisher).

She is much better on Renan, whose neat distillation of the German scholarship followed by his elegant biography of Jesus and his teachings are much more amenable to summary, but this success points to a deeper flaw in Stevens’s book. Strauss resisted moving beyond a critical examination of the Gospels and their varying testimonies to producing his own life of Jesus; that is, his scholarship remained negative. Renan took the positive step of synthesizing a new history of Jesus based upon what could be gleaned in the wake of negative criticism combined with a sensitive rendering of the holy land based upon his own travels there, the notorious fifth gospel. Stevens’s book is in fact largely a history of the positive side of this phenomenon; that is, of the impact of Renan on a series of English biographies and then novels. Renan’s remarkable success in France and, soon, in England was an irresistible temptation to English authors and publishers alike (Stevens repeatedly documents evidence of Renan’s appeal)—as Strauss’s work had clearly not been. In short, Stevens gestures toward both Strauss and Renan, but her study is really determined by the latter—and a firmer focus on that core fact and its consequences would have sharpened this sometimes distracted study. Furthermore, Renan’s popularizing success was, from the beginning, faulted by sober scholars and artists alike (George Eliot, for example, dismissed its light-weight credentials), but Stevens comes to rely far too heavily on Renan’s problematic status for her own assessments of his English followers. She repeatedly winds up judging the various English biographies and novelists for their Renan-like aesthetic excesses: “Yet however contemptuous Farrar might have been of Renan’s ‘sunset imagination’, his own book offers the reader a prose style every bit as vivid and effusive, an irony underscored by a significant number of reviewers” (56). Stevens is perfectly correct to note Farrar’s hypocrisy here, but at the same time there is a deeper problem with Stevens’s own analysis as she yet again faults one of the endless series of English Renanians—for writing like Renan. At some point, one expects her analyses to transcend this routine—but they do not.

This weakness in her argument’s divided focus upon a German influence (weakly handled) and a French one (managed impressively at first, then loosely) contributes to another methodological problem—Stevens’s decision to focus on novels at the expense of drama and poetry: “The choice of prose fiction over drama and poetry was in most respects a straightforward one,” but this “book’s focus on the novel and the short story is by no means entirely pragmatic…[a]s the youngest literary genre, prose fiction held the great appeal for those aspiring to modernize and revitalize the Scriptures; it was also best fitted for retelling source narratives that belong essentially to a realistic mode” (4). The proto-novelistic aspects of Renan’s biography support this decision, though again her argument does not fully ground this connection between the English tradition’s key influence and key genre. But in practice her decision results in the exclusion of some of the most interesting examples of the influence of historical Jesus scholarship upon Victorian literature (such as Harriet King’s The Disciples [1873], Edwin Arnold’s epic poems on the Buddha and Jesus [1879 and 1891], and several major Browning poems and even, implicitly, his Ring and the Book [1868]), in which Strauss’s thinking comes strongly to bear.

Stevens herself, moreover, does not stick to novels. Indeed, her analysis becomes most interesting and most free of its aesthetic condescension when it turns to Oscar Wilde’s self-consciously Baudelairean prose poems on Jesus—and their subsequent oral tradition. Stevens did well to break with her own methodology —the chapters on Wilde, Wilde’s followers, and the Wildean play and then novel by Moore are the most fascinating in her book. In contrast to her ready exclusion of poetry Stevens does discuss prose poems and oral tales, neither of which have much to do with the novel. This unevenness underscores her book’s inconsistent methodology which is exacerbated by her appeals either to easy aesthetic judgments or plausible, but undocumented, cultural assertions.

I will conclude, however, by returning to my initial characterization of this book, which remains my overall one. As someone who has explored this material, beginning with Strauss and Renan, with increasing seriousness for several years now, I found much of this book a welcome resource, even a revelation—a clearly written, well-researched, and reliable survey of a daunting collection of Victorian lives of Jesus. The weaknesses in methodology, whether in relation to inadequate treatment of the Germans, especially Strauss, or arbitrary generic emphases, certainly undermine the worth of Stevens’s claims regarding the cultural logic of this phenomenon; but her book’s fundamental value as a much needed documentary history of its key biographers and novelists remains strong.

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