(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Philip Yancey frequently writes about questions that have puzzled or alienated believers and nonbelievers alike, working to set aside traditional ideas in search of spiritual truth. He recalls how Jesus was presented to him in his youth: first as a comforting, neighborly figure, and later as an all-powerful God who nonetheless spoke casually to individuals as a friend. Yancey felt remote from these images of Jesus and suspicious of the way modern American Christians portrayed him.

However, motivated by the impact Jesus had on his own life, Yancey was moved to reexamine these traditional views. He used Gospel accounts and historical knowledge to rediscover who Jesus was, why he came to earth, and how he made a lasting difference to humankind. Yancey was also inspired by films about Jesus’ life; he felt movies could make biblical events seem more vivid and less predictable. In The Jesus I Never Knew, he breaks down his inquiry into three parts, examining Jesus as a first century Jew; Jesus’ teaching, miracles, death, and resurrection; and what Jesus’ ascension means for the world.

Yancey contrasts sentimental Christmas cards with biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth, which actually occurred during a time of political scandal and religious conflict. He imagines the impact of the virgin birth on a first century Jewish community, noting that under Jewish law Mary could have been stoned for becoming pregnant while betrothed to Joseph. When Jesus was born, Palestinian Jews were rejecting the Greek culture popular among Romans and instead celebrating their own heritage. Yancey notes that Jesus’ genealogy is traced back to Abraham, the founder of Israel; Jesus was circumcised according to Jewish custom; and he worshiped in the Jewish temple. Under despotic Roman rule, the Jews waited for their Messiah. They did not believe Jesus was the Messiah because he did not seek to become a king, and rather than freeing the Jews, he preached that they were somehow already blessed.

Before beginning his ministry, Jesus faced three temptations: Satan asked him to turn a stone into bread, bow down to Satan in exchange for power over all nations, or jump from a great height and allow God to save him. Yancey sees in the temptations the human desire that God perform miracles to bring prosperity and peace to individuals and to the world. The temptations demonstrated that God would not coerce obedience...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Honey, Charles. “New Book Explores Jesus’ Different Side.” Review of The Jesus I Never Knew. Grand Rapids Press, February 3, 1996, p. B3. Review features a short interview in which the writer quotes Yancey on his portrayal of Jesus.

Yancey, Philip. Church, Why Bother? My Personal Pilgrimage. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1998. Yancey examines his own experiences at church and how he came to view church as a place of community.

Yancey, Philip. “Unwrapping Jesus: My Top Ten Surprises.” Christianity Today 40, no. 7 (June 17, 1996): 29-34. Yancey borrows the “top ten” format from popular culture to present ten overlooked aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry.