Philip Yancey, “The Jesus I Never Knew”

This was given the 1996 Gold Medallion Christian Book of the Year Award.  The author is a popular Christian writer who’s won other awards and is editor-at-large for Christianity Today.  He was born in a Christian home in Atlanta, then became somewhat disillusioned, but came back to the faith.

I enjoyed the book, and discuss some of its points I found most noteworthy below.  There’s no particular organization to the book, just Yancey’s thoughts on various facets of Jesus.  I’ll note that the author is sometimes a bit politically correct, but generally not too bad (the exception (58) is a parallel that he tries to draw between twentieth century Palestinians and the Jews under Rome, which I found both stupid and offensive).  Speaking of politics, by the way, I noted in the course of reading this book that it is both important and interesting that Jesus had so little to say about politics generally and about Rome in particular, despite the Roman occupation at the time:  It would have been an obvious thing to discuss had He thought it important.

Some specific points that Yancey makes:

  • The Jews, uniquely, resisted both Roman and Greek rule (57).
  • There’s much discussion in chapter four on the primacy God gives to human freedom.
  • He cites Dorothy Sayers frequently.
  • Jesus frequently complimented people (88-89).
  • Here’s a wonderful sentence (188):  “The might of the world, the most sophisticated religious system of its time allied with the most powerful political empire, arrays itself against a solitary figure, the only perfect man who ever lived.”
  • From page 241:  “In William Barclay’s judgment, ‘If Jesus had publicly claimed to be Messiah, nothing could have stopped a useless flood tide of slaughter.'”

I also copied three longer passages, and I think they’re worth quoting here.  First (216):

Others—at least fifteen Jews within a hundred years of Jesus—had made Messiah claims, only to flare and then fade like a dying star.  Fanatic loyalty to Jesus, though, did not end with his death.  Something had happened, something beyond all precedent.  Surely the disciples would not lay down their lives for the sake of cobbled-together conspiracy theory.  Surely it would have been easier, and more natural, to honor a dead Jesus as one of the martyr-prophets whose tombs were so venerated by the Jews.

Second (257):

            Scott Peck writes that he first approached the Gospels skeptically, suspecting he would find public-relations accounts written by authors who had tied together loose ends and embellished their biographies of Jesus. The Gospels themselves quickly disabused him of that notion.

    I was absolutely thunderstruck by the extraordinary reality of the man I found in the Gospels. I discovered a man who was almost continually frustrated. His frustration leaps out of virtually every page: “What do I have to say to you? How many times do I have to say it? What do I have to do to get through to you?” I also discovered a man who was frequently sad and sometimes depressed, frequently anxious and scared…. A man who was terribly, terribly lonely, yet often desperately needed to be alone. I discovered a man so incredibly real that no one could have made Him up.

     It occurred to me then that if the Gospel writers had been into PR and embellishment, as I had assumed, they would have created the kind of Jesus three quarters of Christians still seem to be trying to create . . . portrayed with a sweet, unending smile on His face, patting little children on the head, just strolling the earth with this unflappable, unshakable equanimity. .. . But the Jesus of the Gospels—who some suggest is the best-kept secret of Christianity—did not have much “peace of mind,” as we ordinarily think of peace of mind in the world’s terms, and insofar as we can be His followers, perhaps we won’t either.

And third (267):

   On our own, would any of us come up with the notion of a God who loves and yearns to be loved? Those raised in a Christian tradition may miss the shock of Jesus’ message, but in truth love has never been a normal way of describing what happens between human beings and their God. Not once does the Qur’an apply the word love to God.  Aristotle stated bluntly, “It would be eccentric for anyone to claim that he loved Zeus”—or that Zeus loved a human being, for that matter. In dazzling contrast, the Christian Bible affirms, “God is love,” and cites love as the main reason Jesus came to earth: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.”