There is a genre of books out there among biblical scholars known as 'the quest for the historical Jesus.' For several decades now, authors have attempted to reconstruct the culture and mindset of the ancient near east and present it to readers in order to better understand what kind of person, culturally bound and all, that Jesus was. The Jesus I Never Knew, by Philip Yancey is in that genre.
Yancey, primarily a journalist, writes smoothly and as if he's reporting on the observable historical and cultural contexts he has learned about from reading a deluge of books on first century Palestine. In seminary, they always told us that we can't view an authentic Jesus through our 21st century goggles. We can't interpret the Bible using post-enlightenment thinking. Yancey's book as another attempt to help us take off our modern day view points and presuppositions in order to understand the person of Jesus as one of his followers would have understood him.
The problem with doing this reminds me of an old joke: Two elderly fish are swimming along one morning talking about old times before oil tankers and deep sea divers. They swim past a young fish zipping by in the other direction. One of the elderly fishleman says to the young fish, "How's the water today?" The young fish swims past for a moment, then stops and says to himself, "What the hell is water?"
Point being: the problem with totally getting out of our post-enlightenment thinking is, we're stuck in it like the young fish in the water and don't even know it. So, with that said, books like Yancey's and so many others is, while they may be shooting at a target they'll never hit, they are also very much needed to keep us from interpreting Jesus as if he was speaking in culture 2,000 years after his own.
Yancey is a good writer. This book includes lots of pertinent information for pastors and researchers. As well, he includes a slew of usable stories for application purposes.
The book is divided into three parts for the sake that the table of contents looks pretty: Who He was; Why He Came; What He Left Behind. However, in reading it, the book more or less begins with discussion on the birth of Jesus and chronicles pointed topics throughout his life concluding with the death and resurrection as told by the four Canonical Gospels.
Overall, I'm glad I read it and may read more by Philip Yancey in the future. I found myself underlining on more pages than not. My one hold up, and this is for me only, is that Yancey is writing from a very conservative theology. Again, this isn't a negative, it's simply a place at which I have a different preference. The result is, most of the time his theology doesn't affect what he's writing. Conservative or whatever, the facts, historical context and literary criticisms are the same. Where it does play a role is in his reflections and statements of truth that are actually based on belief. But again, this doesn't surface enough to make a huge difference.
I give the book a thumbs up. A definite worth-while-read for any pastors and teachers of the Bible. I do expect to refer back to this book in the future for it's plethora of useful information about Jesus' life and culture, just not for it's theology.