Throughout the nineteenth century, dozens of authors across Europe and the United States—including Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ivan Turgenev, and Rainer Maria Rilke—gave fictional form to the figure of Jesus. This article focuses on literary portraiture in the Jesus novel, a genre of historical fiction that emerged independently in different national literatures from the 1830s onward alongside several parallel developments, including the secularization of biblical scholarship, the rediscovery of early Christian iconography, and western archeological advances into Palestine. The principal authors under consideration—Franz Delitzsch, Lew Wallace, and Ferdinando Petruccelli—each exploited a potent combination of ancient Christ images and modern race theory to construct detailed literary portraits of the historical Jesus. Indeed, among the foremost contributions of nineteenth-century novelists to the larger quest of the historical Jesus was the development and popularization of racialized Christ types, including the Greco-Jewish Jesus, a figure that Wallace introduced to an international readership through his sensational bestseller Ben-Hur_(1880). At the same time, authors of Jesus novels somehow had to negotiate the sacral quality of the imago Christi within the formal constraints of the literary portrait. At their most daring, literary portraits of the historical Jesus, whether they subvert or reify Christ's divinity, offer a limit case for reassessing the ambitions of the realist novel in the realm of the sacred.
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Jefferson J. A. Gatrall; The Color of His Hair: Nineteenth-Century Literary Portraits of the Historical Jesus. Novel 1 May 2009; 42 (1): 109–130. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-2008-006
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