Although I’ve had this award-winning book on my shelf for years, it took a break in my schedule and an upcoming New Testament Survey class for which to prepare that finally put The Jesus I Never Knew back on my radar. I’m so glad it did. I zipped through the book in 3 afternoons, but have taken the past 2 weeks to review all my highlights and notes from that read. This book is chock-full of necessary insights into Jesus’ experiences and teachings that would be good for any pastor / teacher / layperson to read. Yancey once again has provided the Christian community with an intensely thought-provoking book that will undoubtedly enhance every reader’s own personal Bible study.
The major theme of The Jesus I Never Knew is that Jesus Christ has been so commercialized and abused by churches and “Christians” alike for the past 2000 years, that the Jesus people talk about, write about, sing about, paint, etc. today resembles very little the true Jesus who walked the streets of Jerusalem so long ago. Jesus wasn’t a feminine, blue-eyed hunk who hugged lambs and frolicked with children in the meadows. He was God Himself born as a back-country, unbecoming carpenter who left his father’s earthly trade in order to follow His Heavenly Father’s call. Yancey encourages his readers to read about Jesus in Scripture without the “flash-forwards” that we’re so used to (24), since we already know the end of the story: to see Him for the first time, every time, so that those portions of the Gospels you normally skip over will suddenly explode with meaning.
As a journalist, Yancey writes with the edge of attention-grabbing statements that, at first, make you turn your head in question, until he later develops and clarifies those statements and you find yourself nodding in agreement. He also writes on a personal level, often referring to his own experience in finding the Jesus of his childhood ripped of its caricature façade. This down-to-earth approach certainly makes for an easy and entertaining read, but it also helps solidify the thoughts and images into the reader’s mind without all the religious jargon of scholarly works of its kind. Yancey also shows himself to be well read, but (thank you) not annoyingly so. I was fascinated by how he tied Jesus’ real-life experiences to modern literature (i.e. Dostoevsky) and politics (i.e. Communism). I very quickly learned to treat this book as a 300-page magazine article, thoroughly informative and ultimately life-changing, and perhaps you could do the same.
As a single “for example” regarding the insights Yancey brings out as he reads the Gospels with fresh eyes, I want to share some of his thoughts regarding what some critics call the “disciple’s scheme” to pull the wool over the eyes of the world regarding Jesus’ identity and His resurrection:
- Odd, unpredictable scenes show up [in the Gospels], such as Jesus’ family and neighbors trying to put Him away under suspicion of insanity. Why include such scenes if you are writing hagiography?…[The Gospels] operate more like a ‘whodunit’ detective story than like a connect-the-dots drawing. I found fresh energy in this quality of the Gospels (20-21). If Jesus had never lived, we would not have been able to invent Him (23). People who discount the resurrection of Jesus tend to portray the disciples in one of two ways: either as gullible rubes with a weakness for ghost stories, or as shrewd conspirators who conceived a resurrection plot as a way to jumpstart their new religion… The eleven, whom Jesus has to rebuke for a stubborn refusal to believe, can hardly be called gullible…  Cover-ups only work if all participants maintain a unified front of assurance and competence. That, the disciples surely did not do (211). According to all four Gospels, women were the first witnesses of the resurrection, a fact that no conspirator of the first century would have invented. Jewish courts did not even accept the testimony of female witnesses. A deliberate cover-up would have put Peter or John or, better yet, Nicodemus in the spotlight…Surely conspirators would have done a neater job of depicting what they would later claim to be the hinge event of history. (212-213) That Jesus succeeded in changing a snuffling band of unreliable followers into fearless evangelists, that eleven men who had deserted Him at death now went to martyr’s graves avowing their faith in a resurrected Christ, that these few witnesses managed to set loose a force that would overcome violent opposition first in Jerusalem and then in Rome—this remarkable sequence of transformation offers the most convincing evidence for the Resurrection. (216)
Insights such as these abound in The Jesus I Never Knew, and many will help readers understand the life of Christ in a whole new way. I close with an anecdote Yancey shares towards the end of his book that I think encapsulates the true reason why understanding who Jesus truly was is so important:
- George Buttrick, former chaplain of Harvard, recalls that students would come into his office, plop down on a chair and declare, “I don’t believe in God.” Buttrick would give this disarming reply: “Sit down and tell me what kind of God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in that God either.” And then he would talk about Jesus, the corrective to all our assumptions about God. (264)