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George Moore in the Footsteps of Ernest Renan in the Holy Land1

Yousra Sabra
p. 199-210


In 1913, the Irish writer George Moore set sail across the Mediterranean for what was known in those days as The Holy Land. The result of this “fact-finding” mission was the publication in 1916 of the sensational The Brook Kerith — the life of Jesus, seen through the eyes of Joseph of Arimathea. Like his illustrious predecessor Ernest Renan, Moore’s fascination with spirituality owed much to a childhood steeped in the mystical Celtic tradition, which had survived over the ages on the remote North-West Atlantic seaboard.

In this article, I will discuss what is hitherto uncharted territory, i.e. the influence of Renan’s 1861 mission in Palestine and the subsequent publications of La Vie de Jésus (1863) on Moore’s itinerary and literary production. To this end, a comparative textual analysis of La Vie de Jésus and The Brook Kerith proves to be more rewarding.

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  • 1 I would like to thank warmly Prof. Dairine Ni Cheallaigh, whose guidance, orientation, resources, e (...)

1In 1913, the Irish writer George Moore set sail across the Mediterranean for what was known in those days as The Holy Land. The result of this “fact-finding” mission was the publication in 1916 of the sensational The Brook Kerith : a Syrian Story — the life of Jesus, seen through the eyes of Joseph of Arimathea. Two years prior to this adventure, in 1911, Moore had published The Apostle, a Drama in Three Acts, the dramatization of an imaginary meeting between Jesus and St Paul in an Essene monastery. Like his illustrious predecessor Ernest Renan, Moore’s fascination with spirituality owed much to a childhood steeped in the mystical Celtic tradition, which had survived over the ages on the remote North-West Atlantic seaboard.

Moore and Biblical exegesis

2Moore’s interest in the religious temperament, especially Christian mythology, is ever-present in his previous writings. His earlier books, A Modern Lover (1883), A Mummer’s Wife (1885) and Esther Waters (1894), reveal his interest in religion through individual female characters who struggle to come to terms with the conflict between their religious upbringings and their natural desires (Stevens, 2010). In his later literary career, his interest in religion became more evident as it extended to include Biblical criticism. The Untilled Field (1903), a volume of short stories set in County Mayo and in rural Dublin in the 1880s, was considered anti-clerical as Moore attacked clerical interference in the daily lives of the Irish peasantry.

3However much he upset everyone around him with what they regarded as his blasphemous conduct and declarations, Moore was a profoundly spiritual being. His upraising in a Catholic family and studying at a Catholic boarding school, at St. Mary’s College, Oscott, have always affected him and even shaped his background. His later conversion into Protestantism in 1904 is “comically exhibited” in Irish Times (Dictionary of Irish Biography, 2002). This conversion left writers and critics in dilemma ; some like Frasier (2000) and McCabe (1925) consider this conversion genuine, taking as evidence Moore’s words in his correspondences and in his writings. They refer to his remark in Hail and Farewell, an autobiography of Moore, that Protestantism “leaves the mind free, or very nearly” (266) resulting in what Moore considered as fact “ninety and five per cent. of the world’s literature was written by Protestants and agnostics” (195). However, those who understand Moore know that he never gave up on Catholicism ; converging to Protestantism was just a cry against the clerical practice in his days.

4Much of the credit of turning Moore’s attention to Biblical exegesis goes to the writer and critic Edouard Dujardin. In his correspondence with Dujardin, Moore acknowledged him as “my master in exegesis” (Letters from George Moore to Edouard Dujardin, 1886-1922, ed. by John Eglinton, 1929, p. 109). In fact, their relation was reciprocal ; Edouard Dujardin’s La Source du fleuve chrétien (1906) was translated, thanks to Moore’s effort, into English in 1911. Moore, on the other hand, had toyed with the idea of accompanying Dujardin on his mission to Palestine in the summer of 1909, just two years prior to his own trip. His intention of visiting the Holy land had already been stimulated.

Moore searching for real-life experience momentum

5Never a man to be confined, Moore continually looked for wider horizons. Being influenced by French writers, especially Zola, Moore endeavored to introduce Naturalism into Irish literature. He believed in detailed realism, focusing on the minute details of social conditions, relations, and environment, which have inescapable force in shaping human character. To communicate believable everyday reality, he needed to live the moment and to be impregnated by the scenery, environment and topography of the places he was to write about. This is what happened in The Lake (1905), which Moore dedicated to Dujardin ; he rediscovered the beauty of the countryside around his childhood home, describing the lake Lough Carra, where the protagonist faked his death to reach freedom.

6Moore followed the same trend in The Brook Kerith. But the challenge was the subject matter – the life of the man who has influenced and shaped religious spirituality, Jesus of Nazareth. Moore sought a tradition based on a controversial life of Jesus from a skeptical standpoint, already started in Germany by David Friedrich Strauss’s The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835) and in France by Ernest Renan’s La Vie de Jésus (1863). Although the possible influence of Renan was briefly mentioned at the time, it has never been taken up by Moore’s scholars. With Naturalism in his intellect and the Scriptures in his heart, Moore started his mission and followed the footsteps of Renan in the Holy land.

7Moore must have felt a peculiar synchronization with Renan, after all, Renan was French, and Moore admired the French creativity and innovation. Like Moore, his first education was at a Catholic school in his hometown, Tréguier. Then, with his sister’s influence, Henriette, he attended the college for the nobility, St Nicholas du Chardonnet in Paris, and then at St. Sulpice. After college, he continued his studies, learnt Hebrew and studied German exegesis (Francis’s, 1895). He majored in Semitic philology, especially in Middle East ancient languages and civilizations. He was dissatisfied with the version of Christianity he was educated in, a feeling George Moore knew too well, so he refrained from becoming a priest. Ingersoll (1892) up hails Renan’s action, “Renan began to think ; a dangerous thing for a Catholic to do. Thought leads to doubt, doubt to investigation, investigation to truth ; the enemy of all superstition. He lifted the Catholic extinguisher from the light and flame of reason” (608).

Renan and Moore in the Holy Land

8In 1860, the Emperor, Napoleon III, commissioned Renan on an archaeological mission to Phoenicia. His sister urged him to “undertake an expedition which implied no political adherence to the Government, no personal advancement” (Robinson, 1897, 131). Renan immediately accepted.

9When Renan and his sister were about to start their trip to Lebanon, a war between Druze and Christian Maronite was launched. The Emperor decided to protect the Christians there, and thus, Renan crossed the Mediterranean in a vessel with French soldiers. Renan explains in his Mission de Phénicie (1864-1874) the facilities of being with the people of his country :

  • 2 Translation: The presence of our soldiers on the spot was a most favourable element in my design. T (...)

La présence de nos soldats était une circonstance très-favorable à mon dessein ; les fouilles que je me proposais de faire s’en trouvaient singulièrement facilitées : il fut décidé que ces fouilles seraient faites par les soldats et que ma mission tiendrait lieu, pour l’armée de Syrie, de ces commissions scientifiques que la France, en sa noble préoccupation des choses de l’esprit, a toujours associées à ses expéditions militaires dans les pays lointains2.

10Always accompanied by his sister, Renan visited many places in Lebanon, Palestine and Syria on horseback without speaking of fatigue ; they were under the spell of the Mediterranean. “A new energy, a light of youth, animated them both” (Robinson, 1897, 134). While at Ghazir, Lebanon, in July 1861, in “the utmost peace conceivable on earth”, Renan started writing La Vie de Jésus with only two books, The New Testament and Josephus. He wrote, and his sister copied saying joyfully : “This book I shall love. Because we have done it together. And because I like it !” Soon, both fell ill ; he survived while she didn’t. Devastated by her death, he carried on with his book in France to fulfill his sister’s wish, and in 1863, La Vie de Jésus saw light.

11Like Renan, Moore wanted the sensory and physical experience to relive the past and create the future. He was seeking knowledge and inspiration. Being a leading propagator of Naturalism in English and influenced by Renan’s mission in the Middle East, Moore took Renan’s itinerary and literary production. Though Renan’s visit to the Holy Land came as a result of a commission, Moore’s was totally personal and educational. He wanted to find the truth about the Messiah by being the Messiah. Mitchell (1916), in her biography of Moore, indicates : “It is possible that the light which fell from Heaven on Moore was in the nature of a literary inspiration, and he saw as in a vision the book which he, a Messiah, should write about an Apostle” (110).

12In the dedication section of his book The Brook Kerith, Moore reveals the source of inspiration and major input that resulted in such a controversial work. It was, he declared, the copy of the Bible, which his friend Mary Hunter gave him as a Christmas present. However, this is just a disguise to the many sources of inspiration he experienced. His lifelong obsession with Biblical mythology was the drive. Besides, he had already dreamt of it and visualized it. He declared in a letter to Emily Lorenz Meyer that his Jesus would be “quite different from Renan’s young man, polite and charming” (284). This is enough evidence that he was influenced by Renan.

13Mitchell gives a detailed description of his excursion across the Mediterranean to the Holy Land taking his own words. He started his expedition from the South of France, Marseilles, and into the Mediterranean Sea :

At Marseilles Mr. Moore embarked on the bluest of blue seas. With Marseilles, he says, my quest really began. When I looked on those white shores rising behind me out of the blue water into the twilight, the precipitous chalk worn and corroded by the wind into battlements and parapets and towers, reminding the beholder of Valhallas builded [sic] by gods that have been — a beautiful phrase of William Morris. Those phantasmal ghostly shores rising steeply out of the wave with not a blade of grass enchanted me all through the lingering twilight until they faded as the vessel passed out of the bay, and suddenly I realised where I was and whither we were hastening, and I thought, I’m afloat for the first time on the Mediterranean, that sea, around whose shores all the old stories sprang up like flowers (123-124).

14In 1914, Moore reached Port Said, Egypt, and was rowed ashore to Joppa in Palestine. He was received so well that he felt “The East welcomed a Messiah from Ireland” (Mitchell, 125). Like Renan, yet 50 years later, Moore wanted to discover Palestine on horseback. Yet, being in his sixties and the horse (or the pony that he ended up with) was not practical, in addition to the exhausting expedition that included climbing mountains to discover each and every monastery, he suffered a lot till “till each several bone in George’s body shrieked for mercy” (Mitchell, 127). There, he started his great vocation – writing The Brook Kerith. Indeed, according to Moore, his story did not begin to take shape until he had “ridden through the hills and spent a night with the monks at Kerith” (as cited in Stevens, 218).

The outcome of Renan and Moore’s expeditions

15The culmination point for both Renan’s and Moore’s expeditions is in the production of two major literary and mythological works ; Renan produced a biography while Moore a narration. Both showed, in their books, the minute details of the scenery, weather, environment, inhabitants and places in Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

16Renan maintains in the introduction of his book that he had “traversed, in all directions, the country of the Gospels … visited Jerusalem, Hebron, and Samaria ; scarcely any important locality of the history of Jesus has escaped me” (44). In describing Galilee and Nazareth, Renan writes about the weather, the architecture, the people and the plantation. He makes comparisons between the past and the present, between one place and another :

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 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… (The Life of Jesus, II, 50-51).

17Nazareth, with its simplicity and humbleness, was charming to Renan. He believed that this aspect of nature “at once smiling and grand, was the whole education of Jesus” (Renan, III, 89) since this “enchanted circle, cradle of the kingdom of God”, was for years his world. He also believed that being dispersed along the coast of the Mediterranean and exposed to the use of the Greek language, which was adopted in Palestine, prepared the way for “a propagandist” of which ancient societies, divided into small nationalities, had never offered a single example. His contrastive description of Jerusalem and Galilee shows the reason for Jesus’ preference to spend most of his time in the mountains of Galilee. It also shows that this single aspect of harmony with nature was the source of his transfiguration and divinity :

A beautiful external nature tended to produce a much less austere spirit -- a spirit less sharply monotheistic, if I may use the expression -- which imprinted a charming and idyllic character on all the dreams of Galilee. The saddest country in the world is perhaps the region round about Jerusalem. Galilee, on the contrary, was a very green, shady, smiling district, the true home of the Song of Songs, and the songs of the well-beloved. During the two months of March and April the country forms a carpet of flowers of an incomparable variety of colors. The animals are small and extremely gentle -- delicate and lively turtle-doves, blue-birds so light that they rest on a blade of grass without bending it, crested larks which venture almost under the feet of the traveller, little river tortoises with mild and lively eyes, storks with grave and modest mien, which, laying aside all timidity, allow man to come quite near them, and seem almost to invite his approach. In no country in the world do the mountains spread themselves out with more harmony or inspire higher thoughts. Jesus seems to have had a peculiar love for them. The most important acts of his divine career took place upon the mountains. It was there that he was the most inspired ; it was there that he held secret communion with the ancient prophets ; and it was there that his disciples witnessed his transfiguration (The Life of Jesus, IV, 74).

18Renan’s description of the minute details, of the singing of birds, of the movement of the turtles, of the gentleness of animals, and of the carpet of flowers, is just like a painting, so vivid and so enchanting. Not only can Galilee be drawn with so accurate details, but also as a map with the names of places surrounding it. After all, he is a historian who appreciates details and analyzes them to arrive to conclusions on what really happened or what even did not happen, what is probable and what is plausible. Renan could not but contrast the Holy Land to his home country in an attempt to arrive at a better understanding of this attachment with Galilee :

Jesus lived and grew amid these enchanting scenes. This contented and easily satisfied life was not like the gross materialism of our peasantry, the coarse pleasures of agricultural Normandy, or the heavy mirth of the Flemish. It spiritualized itself in ethereal dreams -- in a kind of poetic mysticism, blending heaven and earth (The Life of Jesus, IV, 76).

19While Renan dedicated full paragraphs just describing the villages at different periods of the year, Moore’s description was everywhere, in every paragraph, not separated from the flow of the narration. Moore’s description was purposeful ; it served his story.

20Moore recognizes the beauty of Galilee from the perspective of the traveller – such a pleasant resort that does need a guide. The reader accompanies Moore in the Holy Land and is mesmerized :

[…] in Galilee : a pleasant winter resort, to be reached easily in a day by a path through the hills, so plainly traced by frequent usage that a guide was not needed… (The Brook Kerith, 64).

21Moore’s description cannot escape the fields and flowers, the smiles of the people, the songs of birds over the hills. All this is perceived through the senses of Joseph of Arimathea, on his errand to meet Jesus :

[…] into a delightful morning all smiles and greetings and subtle invitations to come away into the forest and fields, full of promises of flowers and songs […] There were clouds in the sky, so the sun kept coming and going. A great lantern, Joseph said. That God holds in his hands, Azariah answered […] the hills clothed in moving light and shade so beautiful that the appeal to come away to the woods and fields continued in their hearts (The Brook Kerith, 20).

22Moore shares Renan the same appreciation towards nature. Like Renan, he depends on this visualization of details that abide in his memory exactly as he experienced them. He finds pleasure in describing the “fig-trees” and “vines” and their smell that hypnotize him. This experienced pleasure on Moore’s behalf is relived in his narration that flows so spontaneously without any impediment :

[…] his eyes admired the slopes, now greener than they would be again till another year passed. The fig-trees were sending out shoots, the vines were in little leaf, and the fragrance of the vineyards and fig gardens was sweet in the cool morning when the dusk melted away and rose-coloured clouds appeared above the hills ; and as Joseph rode he liked to think that the spectacle of the cavalcade faring through the vine-clad hills would abide in his memory, and that in years to come he would be able to recall it exactly as he now saw it (The Brook Kerith, 109).

23This is what Dujardin called the “melodic line”, and Moore embraced it warmly since he was in search for his own distinctive prose style and he found it. “To avoid impeding the narrative flow, Moore omits speech marks, composes paragraphs of unusual density and keeps upper-case letters to a minimum” (Stevens, 243).

24Both Renan and Moore find in their hitherto mentioned publications a promising opportunity to communicate their mythological visions. Renan believed that “the religious ideas of the races grouped around the Mediterranean” have been profoundly modified (The Life of Jesus, 2). His major belief is demonstrated by depicting Jesus as a man and not as the Son of God, rescinding Jesus from any miraculous attribute. He states clearly in his introduction that “in the name of universal experience, that we banish miracle from history” (29). His verification of such a conclusion lies in belief that the life of Jesus should be written like the life of any historical person (Wiseman, 1864). However, he paid tribute to Jesus placing him “at the highest summit of human greatness” (Renan, The Life of Jesus, 305) :

Jesus will ever be the creator of the pure spirit of religion ; the Sermon on the Mount will never be surpassed. Whatever revolution takes place will not prevent us attaching ourselves in religion to the grand intellectual and moral line at the head of which shines the name of Jesus . . . . The faith, the enthusiasm, the constancy of the first Christian generation is not explicable, except by supposing, at the origin of the whole movement, a man of surpassing greatness” (The Life of Jesus, 304).

25Renan attains Jesus the highest and noblest attributes of humans. He believed that by humanizing Jesus he was restoring to him a greater dignity (Chadbourne, 68). This is consistent with Moore’s version of Jesus of Nazareth.

26Moore’s Jesus survives crucifixion and is changed ; he deplores his “pretentions to Messiahship” (Gilman, 1916, 934), and his life takes a new direction. His thoughts about God and heaven become obscure ; he considers them as "are our old enemies in disguise … God is but desire, and whosoever yields himself to desire falls into sin. To be without sin, we must be without God” (The Brook Kerith, 356-357). At the end of the book, it is suggested that Jesus joins the Buddhists in India.


27With this new vision and belief delineating the life of the man who has changed humanity, Moore and Renan are also changed. Moreover, their masterpieces The Brook Kerith and La Vie de Jésus have changed the world ; these books were considered by some as blasphemous and by others as enlightening. To all intents and purposes, Renan’s and Moore’s journeys across the Mediterranean to the Holy land have changed the prevailing Christian belief spread along humanity, especially across the Mediterranean Sea, where Renan breathed and was moulded by Christianity, and across the Atlantic, where Moore got his first education.

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Primary Sources

Moore George, The Brook Kerith: A Syrian Story, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1916. Republished by Kessinger Publishing. (1 May 2004). Online version :


Renan Ernest, The Life of Jesus, London, Trubner and Co. Paternoster Row, 1863.

Secondary sources

Chadbourne Richard M., Ernest Renan, New York, Twayne Publishers, 1968.

Eglinton John (ed), Letters from George Moore to Édouard Dujardin 1886-1922, New York, Crosby Gaige, 1929.

Espinasse Francis, Life and Writings of Ernest Renan, Hong Kong, Forgotten Books, 2013 (Original work published in 1895).

Frazier Adrian, George Moore, 1852-1933, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2000.

Ingersoll Robert G., “Ernest Renan”, The North American Review, vol. 155, No. 432, Nov.,1892, pp. 608-622.

Mccabe Joseph, The Myth of the Resurrection, London, Freethought Press, 1925. Reprinted in New York, Prometheus Books, 1993.

Mitchell Susan L., George Moore, New York, Dodd, Mead & Co., 1916. The Internet Archive. Accessed 19/10/2012


Moore George, Moore on Parnassus: Letters (1900-1933) to Secretaries, Publishers, Printers, Agents, Literati, Friends and Acquaintances, ed. by Helmut E. Gerber and O. M. Brack Jr. Newark, University of Delaware Press, 1988.

Moore George and Magee William Kirkpatrick, Letters of George Moore : With an Introduction by John Eglinton, to whom they were written, Bournemouth, Syndenham & Co., 1942.

Moore George, Hail and Farewell!: Salve, London, Heinemann, 1912.

Robinson A. Mary F., The life of Ernest Renan, New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1897.

Stevens Jennifer, The Historical Jesus and the Literary Imagination 1860-1920, Cambridge, Liverpool University Press, 2010.

Welch Robert, “George Moore 1852-1933”, in The Dictionary of Irish Biography, Cambridge, Royal Irish Academy and Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Wiseman Nicholas Patrick, “Renan’s Vie de Jésus”, The Dublin Review II, January/April 1864, pp. 386-419.

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1 I would like to thank warmly Prof. Dairine Ni Cheallaigh, whose guidance, orientation, resources, editing and much more has played a major role in producing this article.

2 Translation: The presence of our soldiers on the spot was a most favourable element in my design. Thereby my excavations were singularly simplified—they were made by the soldiers. Thus my mission to Phoenicia took that place in the Syrian Expedition, which the French army, in its noble preoccupation with the things of the mind, has ever loved to accord to Science in her more distant ventures.

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Para citar este artículo

Referencia en papel

Yousra Sabra, « George Moore in the Footsteps of Ernest Renan in the Holy Land », Babel, 29 | 2014, 199-210.

Referencia electrónica

Yousra Sabra, « George Moore in the Footsteps of Ernest Renan in the Holy Land », Babel [En línea], 29 | 2014, Puesto en línea el 01 febrero 2015, consultado el 26 agosto 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/babel.3670

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Yousra Sabra

Lebanese University & Université de Toulon - Laboratoire Babel (EA 2649)

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