Garry Wills, What The Gospels Meant (New York: Viking, 2008), 209pp.
With five books on Saint Augustine, and his book Lincoln at Gettysburg (1993) that won the Pulitzer Prize, Garry Wills remains one of our country's most public and outspokenly Christian intellectuals. Today he is Professor of History Emeritus at Northwestern University. In a book called What Jesus Meant (2006), Wills tried to recapture the radically subversive life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth: "He intended to reveal the Father to us, and to show that he is the only-begotten Son of that Father. What he signified is always more challenging than we expect, more outrageous, more egregious." In a companion volume called What Paul Meant (2007), he argued that "what Paul meant was not something other than or contrary to what Jesus meant, but that we can best find out the latter by studying the former. His letters stand closer to Jesus than do any other words in the New Testament."
The present volume obviously forms a trilogy with the first two. Unfortunately, it doesn't offer much more than a similar title. Like the first two volumes, Wills writes on a popular level for a general readership. That's a commendable undertaking for a scholar of his erudition, but in a book so short he does little more than glide across the surface of complex matters. Luke's genealogy and the visit of the magi, for example, get a little over a page, the virgin birth in Matthew about two pages. Each of the beatitudes gets a few sentences. Brevity requires him to skip entirely much of the gospels.
Wills admits, and it's no understatement, that he quotes very generously and almost exclusively from the renowned scholar Raymond Brown. As in his previous two books he makes his own translations from the original Greek in order to recapture the "rough-hewn majesty" and "brutal linguistic earthiness" of the koine Greek in which the Gospel story was originally written, in contrast to the over-familiar and "churchly" idiom of so many translations. Lots of times this works, but at other times he tries too hard, as when he translates the beatitude in Luke 6:22–23, "Happy you whom men hate, and cast out and revile, and blacken your name for the Son of Man's sake. At such a time take heart and be frisky!" Or John 1:14. "And the Word became human flesh and bivouacked with us."
After a short introduction in which he describes the nature of the Gospel material, he devotes three chapters each to Mark (Report from the Suffering Body of Jesus), Matthew (Report from the Teaching Body of Jesus), Luke (Report from the Reconciling Body of Jesus), and John (Report from the Mystical Body of Jesus). His aim, he says, is to "suggest the goal, method, and style of each evangelist." Throughout the book he compares and contrasts the four writers, and corrects them when he sees fit.
Wills repeatedly highlights what he calls the "basic meaning of Jesus" as found in Paul's letter to the Corinthians (15:3–4): "As my first concern, I passed on to you what had been passed on to me, that Messiah died for our sins, in accord with the Sacred Writings, that he was buried, and that he arose on the third day in accord with the Sacred Writings." Such is the "basic announcement" of Christian proclamation, the "nucleus" that gave birth to the Gospels. And we read those Gospels today, he says in the very last sentence of the book, "as a whole, with the reverence they derive from and address, yet with the intelligence God gave us to help us find him" (209).