Garry Wills: Wills's Jesus

Historians in the News

"Jesus, Jesus and More Jesus ... Jesus is all the rage in the media these days," writes Lynn Garrett in Publishers Weekly Religion BookLine. She's right. You can save time by reading Garry Wills's terse What Jesus Meant, a typical Willsian "makes you think" book; you can then skip the new Gnostic "Gospel of Judas," the search for the "real" historical Jesus, all of the Jesus-as-nice-guy sentimentalities, "gentle Jesus meek and mild," the Da Vinci Code fictions, and Thomas Jefferson's snippets that show Jesus as a moralist.

Wills is Roman Catholic, though more Catholic than Roman. He is devoted to orthodox Catholic faith in Jesus the Resurrected One, to be celebrated this Sunday. Sticking with the gospels, he finds no trace of anything that founds or backs the Roman or any other hierarchy in those four little openers to the New Testament. (Those who unwisely do not want to spend the time to read his 143-page Easter card, What Jesus Meant, can get the gist in his condensation, "What Jesus Did," in the Spring issue of The American Scholar.) Formal biblical critical scholars may consider his confidence in the four gospels to be historically naive -- being naive has rarely been a charge against Wills! -- but he takes them as the only words about Jesus that the church, through the ages, has read and heard to make up its mind about Jesus as the Christ of faith; and, with the letters of the apostle Paul, they are the really challenging texts.

What did Jesus say and do? Nothing that would please the WWJD -- "What Would Jesus Do?" -- crowd. If their likes favor what gets advertised as "family values," they won't find a line of support: Jesus was announcing the Kingdom of God, not the family. If others want to join the "New Fundamentalists," the liberal-radical Jesus Seminar scholars who vote for the few "authentic" sayings of Jesus, they will be cutting Jesus to fit their size and side in the culture wars.

Some of them might think Wills is doing the same, but I think he'd like them to check him out with the four gospel texts before dismissing him. The gospel texts are out to show that "Jesus is not just like us, that he has higher rights and powers." "He was called a bastard and was rejected by his own brothers and the rest of his family. He was an outcast among outcasts, ... homeless .... He especially depended on women, who were 'second-class citizens' .... His very presence was subversive .... He was in constant danger ... called an agent of the devil, ... never respectable ... scandalous." Jefferson and others looked in the gospels for "diamonds in the dunghill," but Wills thinks their efforts would end "like finding New York City at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean."

These are two different worlds. Wills's apostle Paul did not corrupt the Jesus of the gospels; he wrote a generation before they were put together, and his belief in the power of the resurrected Lord Jesus is what spread among those who kept the stories and sayings of Jesus alive. "The gospels express the ineffable in the language appropriate for the task, a language inherited from the Jewish scriptures," leaving a "task for faith, a reasoning faith," but "faith all the same."

Christians call this Holy Week. The book is well timed for them and it.

For Further Reading:

See the Spring issue of The American Scholar for Gary Wills's article "What Jesus Did." Single issues are $9.00. Check your library, or order it from slurding@pbk.org.

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