Review of The Jesus We Missed: The Surprising Truth About the Humanity of Christ by Patrick Henry Reardon
By ALEXIS NEAL
This is, or wants to be, a biography of Jesus. Or at any rate, a biography of his humanity, as it’s far from an exhaustive account of all his activities. Reardon walks through the life of Jesus from birth through his youth and pre-ministry adult years, on into his earthly ministry, to the cross, the resurrection, and beyond, explaining how he thinks the dual nature of Christ as the God-man worked itself out.
I have to confess, I had high expectations for this book. The cover proudly proclaims that Dr. Russell Moore (a dean and professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of Adopted for Life, among others) wrote the foreword, and in that foreword, he claims that this book “is the best treatment of the humanity of our Lord Jesus that I’ve ever encountered” and that it’s Reardon’s “finest work”. (This language was slightly softened in his recent blog post on the book, which was virtually identical to the foreword, but described the book as “the best contemporary treatment of this subject that I’ve ever seen.” (emphasis added))
So I was pretty excited. But by the time I finished the book, my excitement had changed, first to confusion and then to disappointment. Let me explain.
Dr. Moore’s description of the book focused on the physical limitations and sufferings of Christ–a welcome and oft-ignored topic, to be sure. It is incredibly easy to sanitize the gospel story of Christ’s humanity. We don’t like to think of the savior struggling with acne or bad breath or body odor. We know He was human, but we don’t really understand what that means. I remember being blown away by this realization the first time I read Max Lucado’s God Came Near. While that book lacks the depth and theological discussion present here (which is hardly surprising, since it was never intended to be a theological treatise–it’s merely a series of poems and questions and anecdotes intended to bring home the reality of the humanity of Christ), it had, pound for pound, significantly more impact than Reardon’s work.
However, the bulk of the focus here is not on Christ’s physical limitations and experiences, but on His mental capacity. Reardon takes the view that Christ’s understanding of His role in the salvation story and His fulfillment of Scripture grew over time—not just when he was a youth or prior to His earthly ministry, but during His earthly ministry. He takes the view that Jesus’ knowledge was limited most of the time–in other words, that there were a few times when He could read minds or knew what was happening somewhere else, but those were isolated incidents, and most of the time He only knew what He could observe with His five senses.
And I’m not saying he’s necessarily wrong. Luke 2:52 clearly states that Jesus “grew in strength and wisdom.” But it doesn’t explain what that means, and religious scholars–orthodox, gospel-believing scholars–have argued about this for centuries. We don’t know when and how that growth occurred, or whether it continued once he started His earthly ministry. We know that He sometimes had supernatural knowledge–we don’t know if those are just examples or if those were exceptions to His general human limitations. In other words, Reardon may well be right. But he may not be. And the book doesn’t really acknowledge the disagreement. The tenor of the book is “Jesus was human, so obviously X” without any discussion of other possible interpretations or any mention of other schools of thought. He also uses guesswork to fill in a lot of the blanks in Jesus’ early life.
Logical guesswork, to be sure, but it’s still guesswork, and I tend to be leery of adding supposition to Scripture unless the author explicitly notifies the reader when he’s making a leap, so that the reader can decide whether to leap with him. This opinion/guesswork tension is further complicated by Reardon’s tendency to switch back and forth between the first person (“I believe”) and the awkward third person (“one conjectures”)–especially since the conclusions attributed to the generic third person ‘one’ are often thoughts that never crossed this reader’s mind.
My frustration with the substance of the book was exacerbated by the awkward organization and the uneven quality of the writing. The tone vacillates from scholarly to pastoral to (attempted) humor without much in the way of smooth transition, and the material is presented in what seems to be a rather random, meandering style. I realize that the life of Christ does not lend itself to the straightforward chronological structure so popular in Western culture–the gospels are not written that way. And really, the important thing is not what happened when, but that it happened. Still, I had hoped for a more linear (or at least clear) organization to guide the reader through this rather dense text. Instead, it felt scattered and difficult to follow.
Then, too, there were times when I literally had no idea what Reardon was trying to say, or why he was raising a certain point. I think I read this passage four times before just giving up:
We are no more able to separate ourselves from the time of human history than from the space of the created order. This is the reason, I believe, why the central day of Creation, the ‘fourth day’–Wednesday–provides the cosmic chronometer to measure man’s time on earth.
I have no idea what that even means, let alone how it relates to the humanity of Christ or ‘Jesus at Prayer’ (the chapter where this passage appears).
Bottom Line: I don’t know how many other contemporary works there are on the humanity of Christ (besides Lucado’s rather fluffy but nonetheless striking God Came Near), but I have a hard time believing that this is the best treatment out there. Orthodox, it certainly is. And it contains a clear presentation of the gospel. But I respectfully disagree with Dr. Moore. This book falls far short of the superlatives he bestowed upon it.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”