What the Gospels Meant
Garry Wills
Viking, $24.95, 224 pp.

What Paul Meant
Garry Wills
Viking, $14, 208 pp.

What Jesus Meant
Garry Wills
Viking, $13, 176 pp.


Garry Wills has written widely and well for many years. He has won awards for his historical work and approval for his works on religion. Like others who have written seriously for a long time and accomplished much, he has found it increasingly easy to write colloquially, even personally. He wrote Why I Am a Catholic and got an award. At some point, the thought occurred to him—as it has to other celebrated authors like Reynolds Price and Norman Mailer—to turn his hand to Jesus.

Or maybe his editor suggested that he was better equipped to do it than those guys. After all, Wills sat through those seminary courses in the 1960s, and mastered Greek and Latin so well that he had a first career as a professor of classics. He could easily give the New Testament a fresh translation, stripping its simple language of ecclesiastical diction. He could bring what everyone agrees is his exceptional historical insight to bear on the figure of Jesus.

So, invoking the spirit of Romano Guardini and G. K. Chesterton, he published What Jesus Meant (2006). He called it a devotional book rather than a scholarly one. References to scholars are few and there are no footnotes. Like his worthy mentors (and like Benedict XVI in his recent reflection on Jesus), Wills eschews the excesses of historical-critical biblical scholarship, explicitly repudiating the Jesus Seminar. He begins with the conviction that God was in Christ, so that the quest for “what Jesus meant” is not a search for recoverable pieces but an inquiry into the significance of his words and deeds. Jesus was not a Christian, he avers, but Christianity must be measured by the incarnate God. In the spirit of “faith seeking understanding,” then, Wills steps immediately into Jesus’ story from birth to Resurrection. The slender and unimposing book contains many fine observations, among them that Paul should be taken seriously as an interpreter of what Jesus meant.

The boldness and simplicity of Wills’s approach, though, camouflages a serious problem. He refuses to provide any justification for distinguishing what Jesus meant from what the Gospels say. In effect, he picks and chooses among the four Gospels for what makes sense to him. Not only is this the sort of carelessness that Wills would not countenance in his normal historical pursuits, it exposes him to the charge of subjectively imposing on Jesus his own predilections, a charge that is difficult to avoid for anyone undertaking this task, which is precisely why scholars like John Meier and John Dominic Crossan spend so much time on tedious methodological questions. This lack of methodological rigor is especially evident in the chapters “The Radical Jesus” and “Against Religion,” in which Jesus gives voice to views remarkably similar to those espoused by the author.

Still, the success of that book—success being measured here by its becoming a New York Times bestseller and receiving plaudits from the likes of Peter Gomes and James Carroll—led Wills and his editor to a second volume of the same sort, What Paul Meant (2007). This book also became a bestseller and was applauded by Andrew Greeley and the Christian Century. It is another slender volume with the same engaging prose, and—consistent with the first book—provides a positive and rehabilitating treatment of Paul in the face of all his cultured despisers: “Those who say that Paul’s was an alien spirit superimposed on that of a loving Jesus do not see that they both taught the same message of love,” Wills writes.

Still, the book on Paul is not without its own problems, especially in Wills’s increased reliance on standard New Testament scholarship on the apostle. Thus, with the majority of critical scholars, he finds the true Paul not in Acts but in the letters that are universally attributed to Paul (Romans and Corinthians, for example) as opposed to the disputed letters (Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy). The approach of not-this-but-that, however, leads to a focus more on Paul’s life than on his thought, with an exaggerated emphasis on Paul’s distance from the Jerusalem church and the unreliability of Acts.

More troubling in this book are the number of overstatements and errors. I draw these only from pages 2 to 8. Wills says that “during the earthly career of Jesus, Paul was never in the same country with him”—he cannot know that. He states that Paul “often took occasion to stress how distant he was, how independent, from the gatherings in Jerusalem”—no, he doesn’t. He mischaracterizes 1 Cor 1:12 by stating “he defended himself against ‘a party of Peter’ in Corinth.” He states, with no support, the supposition that “there were probably later letters suppressed or destroyed because they were an embarrassment to the gatherings—whence the blackout on Paul’s last days and death.” He says Paul “gave different advice on observance of the Jewish food code to the Galatians and the Romans”—it was the Corinthians and Romans, and it wasn’t that different at all. He claims that Paul “refused to accept financial support from the Corinthians but he welcomed it from the Galatians”—no, it was the Philippians.

Wills properly asserts the importance of the Resurrection experience for Paul, as well as elements of continuity between Jesus and Paul. And he correctly rebuts the biased readings that make Paul a fomenter of hatred, a misogynist, or an anti-Semite. But such correctives do not amount to a genuinely positive reading of Paul’s thought, of “what he meant.”

Another year, another volume: 2008 sees the arrival of What the Gospels Meant. Wills begins by acknowledging that his first book was criticized because “I drew indiscriminately from all four Gospels to find the true Jesus,” but does not really answer the criticism by stating that “all of the Gospels [are] authentic.” The issue is not whether they are authentic, but how they are to be read: as sources for a historical reconstruction of Jesus, or as distinctive spirit-guided portraits of Jesus.

Wills is correct when he places Gospel composition within the life of the early church, and when he defines a Gospel as “a meditation on the meaning of Jesus in the light of Sacred History as recorded in the Sacred Writings,” but he then goes too far in that direction when treating each Gospel ecclesially: Mark is a “Report from the Suffering Body of Jesus,” Matthew a “Report from the Teaching Body of Jesus,” Luke a “Report from the Reconciling Body of Jesus,” and John a “Report from the Mystical Body of Jesus.”

What the Gospels Meant, like Wills’s previous books on Jesus and Paul, contains large patches of his own translations of New Testament texts. For the most part, the translations are a pleasure to read. One suspects that for Wills, the chance to offer them was a prime incentive for writing the series. The treatment of each Gospel, though, amounts to a set of observations—most of them the standard stuff of New Testament introductions—rather than a powerful reading.

The book is dedicated to Raymond E. Brown, and that scholar’s influence is felt strongly throughout but most obviously in the birth and passion accounts and in all of John. As in What Paul Meant, however, the scholarly references serve mainly as ornament, with little evidence that Wills has done more than skim complex discussions. And Wills’s mini-essays on aspects of each Gospel stay safely on the surface. Stressing only the Gospel of Luke’s “reconciling” or “irenic” character, for example, risks missing entirely the passionate (and divisive) challenge posed by this prophetic composition. Indeed, Wills’s willingness to divide his treatment of each narrative into topical discussions prevents him from offering a convincing argument for what each evangelist sought to accomplish in his portrayal of Jesus.

Because he does not engage the Gospels literarily at the level of their narrative rendering of Jesus, Wills fails to convey a coherent sense of what each of them “meant,” and—more serious—a sense of what these compositions continue to “mean” for countless readers.

Each of Wills’s books nevertheless contains some elements of delight such as arise from a humane spirit and excellent style. They have a positive disposition toward Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels, if not always toward every stripe of Christian. They would disappoint only those readers who—believing the extravagant blurbs and reviews—think that Wills alone can rescue them from the deadly obfuscations of clerics and scholars. To write simply and truly about complex subjects—and the subjects of all three books are extraordinarily complex—one must know enough to cut through the complexity and isolate what is deepest and most important in the subject. In these three books, Wills simply did not know enough to do the job.

Published in the 2008-05-23 issue: View Contents

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor.


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