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Unwrapping Jesus, by Philip Yancey

Premiere Issue: Pneuma Review Fall 1998

Have you got Jesus All Wrong?

As a writer, I have the wonderful privilege of researching and meditating on one topic for months at a time. My latest project allowed me to focus on the grandest subject of all: Jesus. Growing up in the church, I learned his name as soon as I learned the names of my family members. But now, as an adult, what did I truly think about him? Which childhood impressions had been confirmed and which ones overturned?

As I reflect on what I learned in the process of writing The Jesus I Never Knew, I have come up with a “top ten” list. Please forgive me if the form seems irreverent. David Letterman style, it begins with number 10 and works upward.

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Jesus was a Jew

I knew that, of course. But the more I studied Jesus, the more I realized that his humanity had receded far away. Every week in church I would repeat the creed, which, significantly, hustles through Jesus’ life. “… Born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate,” it says. Did anything happen in the interval between birth and death?

Somehow, everything Jesus said and did in 33 years on earth gets swept aside in the rush to interpret his life correctly. For me, as for many others raised in the Christian tradition, the man who walked the dusty roads of Palestine has been all but lost. I knew Christ—“Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made”—but not Jesus, or Rabbi Jeshua bar-Joseph, the Jew from Nazareth.

A remarkable change has taken place in recent years, I learned during my library research: interest in Jesus is resurging among the Jews. In 1925, the Hebrew scholar Joseph Klausner could find only three full-length treatments of Jesus’ life by contemporary Jewish scholars. Now there are hundreds, including some of the most illuminating studies available. Modern Israeli schoolchildren learn that Jesus was a great teacher, who was subsequently “co-opted” by the Gentiles.

Jesus’ true-blue Jewishness leaps out from Matthew’s very first sentence, which introduces him as “the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Roughly, that might parallel an American politician being introduced as “the son of Abraham Lincoln, the son of George Washington.” Jesus grew up in a era of Jewish pride, when families were adopting names that harked back to the times of the patriarchs and the Exodus from Egypt (not unlike ethnic Americans who choose African names for their children). Circumcised as a baby, Jesus attended religious festivals in Jerusalem as a young man, and as an adult he worshiped in the synagogue and the temple. Even his controversies with other Jews, such as the Pharisees, underscored the fact that they expected him to share their values and act more like them.

Growing up, I did not know a single Jew. I do now. I know something of their culture: the close ties that keep sacred holidays alive even for families who no longer believe in their meaning; the passionate arguments that at first unsettled me but soon attracted me as a style of personal engagement; the respect, even reverence, for legalism amid a society that mainly values autonomy; the ability to link arms and dance and sing and laugh even when the world offers scant reason for celebration.

This was the culture Jesus grew up in, a Jewish culture. Yes, he changed it, but always from his starting point as a Jew. Now when I find myself wondering what Jesus was like as a teenager, I think of Jewish boys I know growing up in Chicago. When the thought jars me, I remember that in his own day Jesus got the opposite reaction. A Jewish teenager, surely—but the Son of God?

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 1998, Pneuma Review

About the Author: Philip Yancey is the award-winning author of over twenty books. You can learn more about him at his website, PhilipYancey.com.

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