ERNEST RENAN was born in Tréguier, Brittany, on February 27, 1823. Following the death of his father five years later, Renan was left in the care of his older sister, Henriette, who saw to her brother's education and became his confidante and chief supporter until her death in 1861. Renan attended various Catholic seminaries, and even took minor orders; but in 1845, he promptly abandoned his priestly vocation as well as his Catholic faith. Thereafter, Renan would reject the claims of orthodox religion.
While still in the seminary, Renan displayed unusual brilliance in linguistics; in 1848, he won the Volney Prize for his Essay on the Semitic Languages. After receiving his doctoral degree, Renan was appointed professor of Hebrew at the College de France in 1862. But he used the occasion of his inaugural lecture to denounce Christ's divinity, and was promptly dismissed. Renan's teaching post was later restored to him, however.
Renan wrote extensively on early Christianity: his most famous work is The Life of Jesus, published in 1863. A profound analysis of the New Testament and other ancient accounts of Jesus' life, it depicts Christ as a simple teacher who became increasingly fanatical and deluded by his self-proclaimed Messianic purpose. The Resurrection, long cherished as the central mystery of Christianity, began historically as nothing more, Renan argues, than a rumor propagated by Christ's followers to keep the memory of their crucified leader alive. The Life of Jesus, while denounced by orthodox Christians, gained wide attention: more than 60,000 copies were sold within the first year of publication. The Life of Jesus was but one in a series of works collectively titled The History of the Origins of Christianity (1863-1881), whose main purpose was to show that the Christian religion was an outgrowth of human processes, not a divine purpose. Renan continued to publish and to teach at the Collège de France; he later became administrator of the Collège, and in 1878 was elected to the French Academy. Ernest Renan died in Paris on October 2, 1892.
Renan's other published works include: The Apostles (1866), The Christian Church (1879), and Marcus Aurelius and the End of the Ancient World (1880).