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What the Gospels Meant by Garry Wills

Non-Fiction Reviews

What the Gospels Meant by Garry Wills

And if Wills reads as persuasive, it is to himself, if not quite to this reader. Taking his stand before the time of St. Ireænus seems somewhat risky to me, if not downright reckless. I did, however, reflect that there yet remains powerful in this late hour of the West’s history a persistent if unacknowledged ambition of theologians per se to legislate for that cowran, tim’rous beastie, mankind. Granted, in our tradition we have Moses to thank for their vocation.

What the Gospels Meant by Garry Wills
What the Gospels Meant
by Garry Wills
Viking, 209 pp.
CLR [rating:4]

As You Like It

God cannot alter the past, though historians can.
— Samuel Butler

When, at the opening of the 20th Century, James Joyce’s hero Stephen Dedalus is readying himself for what turns out to be an Icarian flight from Ireland — the sow that eats its farrow — and the Catholic Church by which it has been possessed ever since around 450, we find him in PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN in peripatetic discussion with his friend Cranly. The latter is anxious that Stephen may be imperiling his soul should he forsake his faith, as seems to be his intent. The passage is coolly brilliant:

— Do you fear then, Cranly asked, that the God of the Roman catholics would strike you dead and damn you if you made a sacrilegious communion?
—The God of the Roman catholics could do that now, Stephen said. I fear more than that the chemical action which would be set up in my soul by a false homage to a symbol behind which are massed twenty centuries of authority and veneration.
— Would you, Cranly asked, in extreme danger, commit that particular sacrilege? For instance, if you lived in the penal days?
— I cannot answer for the past, Stephen replied. Possibly not.
—Then, said Cranly, you do not intend to become a protestant?
— I said that I had lost the faith, Stephen answered, but not that I had lost self-respect. What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?

Twenty Centuries of authority and veneration are not easily avoided or evaded by a soul on the road to salvation. They permeate the history that Dedalus in Joyce’s next work, ULYSSES, calls the nightmare from which he is trying to awake. For all one knows, it may have been that the person called Jesus was one who was making the same heroic effort vis a vis almost two millennia of Jewish history, though in his epoch it appears that the first-person as introspective singular was a novel concept not yet available, not in the sense of psychic interiority. One thinks of a near contemporary of the 1st Century BCE, the poet Catullus, who seems to have been the first to express that sort of self-consciousness, one that gives rise to an expression of one’s own inner dynamics; vide his “Odi et Amo.” Furthermore, and for all one knows of the Galilean, what he is said to have said was gathered through several decades of oral recollection as it entered traditions developed into ritual by those small communities to whom the Hellenist and quasi-Gnostic Saul of Tarsus, a Greek speaker unversed in Hebrew addressed some of his Epistles. And the records of their doings written up as history are the stories of events collected as ACTS (of the Apostles). What Joyce’s Dedalus lost his faith in was the entire religious and worldly structure of the Catholic church, which was assembling its own history of its forlorn messianic personage from the time of the first great Christian theologian Bishop Iranæus in the Second Century CE.

Garry Wills, an emeritus professor of history and expert in ancient and New Testament Greek, has for the past decade been writing handbooks, so to say, of haute vulgarisation, brief commentaries and interpretations for the layman, such as WHAT PAUL MEANT, WHAT JESUS MEANT, WHY I AM A CATHOLIC. Perhaps, having once studied for the priesthood, Wills in old age is returning to a sort of seminary, or teaching pulpit for a subject he did not pursue into practice. Indeed, a New York Times reviewer termed him “one of the most intellectually interesting and doctrinally heterodox Christians writing today.” Heterodox is a mild-enough characterization for his cast of thought. For instance, in WHAT THE GOSPELS MEANT, Wills rummages about in the century before there was a distillation and formulation of dogma and doctrine; discussing the supposed intentions of Synoptics (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) and John, and imagining from their levels of competent use of the Greek language, and clues or cues in their text, who they might have been and why and to what use their “Good News,” or gospels were put, he observes that these short additions to the Bible are not very often read as he thinks they ought to be, if read much at all. Furthermore, he tells us that in his mind they really are, or should be, not a New Bible or testament, but a continuation of the Bible of the Jews written about an extraordinary and rather mysterious Jew by Jews and for Jews. Apart from being thought of as Galileans involved with small groups of Galileans, especially women, they seem to have been writing to capture what of their subject, Jesus, they could: some of his life as a man and some striking events in it that were part of his remembered teaching as well as the acts he performed to demonstrate and illuminate it. Jesus’ practical “politics,” as it were. In short, the book purposes to place the reader in the first century following his crucifixion. It is not that he intends an epic drama of Romans ruling in Herod’s kingdom; instead, he tries to seat us offstage or backstage or in the cellar of that complex theater by walking us through each of four playbooks, explicating what he thinks are choice quotations and suggesting why he thinks their writers laid them out in their varied fashion (granted that Matthew and Luke took most of their essential matter from Mark’s narrative).

Wills is firm in his description of the construction and presentation of Matthew, analyzing its organization as obviously a textbook to teach those gathered to remember “the man who died,” as D.H. Lawrence titled his own last book, meant to stand as a fifth and final gospel in its renunciation of the execution and Resurrection. (A brilliant parody of the sacred texts if ever there was one). John, coming later (though Wills questions that dating), poses different questions that are not quite symbiotic with the three others. Furthermore, Wills offers a version of the Passover meal that quite contradicts the customary depiction most familiar from Leonardo da Vinci’s mural, suggesting that anecdotal source may well have been someone close to Jesus, a mere youth, the anonymous “Beloved Disciple.” Which makes things less rather than more clear as to what really went on before and through and after the last agon. Even that for Wills was not final, and he spins various explications of the Resurrection, accepting it as nothing short of miraculous and divine. Nevertheless, what really occurred is what history purports to tell us by combining tradition, oral testimony and the written record. Whether the Gospels, the “Good News,” containing and concluding with the apotheosis, provide the history of what actually happened remains an unanswered matter, since Wills has already made — by an elision begging that question — his own leap of faith.

The question for a historian is of course, How can what actually happened be known? [Consider Otto von Ranke’s maxim: Wie es eigentlich gewesen ist. A famous axiom.] And can what is recounted afterwards be assumed to represent a reasonably factual, objective and disinterested rehearsal of the actuality that is already slipping away into the past. Wills is obviously quite aware of this fundamental problem, especially when two millennia of religious institutions have been built upon a foundation of those four short biographies, each one leading up to and into what has been termed the central mystery, Jesus “mystical body,” to which members of the Church have given themselves up ever since. In any case, it is wise not to speak of that which cannot be expressed. So Wills chooses, in reading out for us his take on the Gospels’ Good News, to speak rather of what “they meant.” He is a Greek scholar, and offers us plain English translations of Jesus’s remembered words, which were not heard by their redactors, and certainly were not uttered in Greek, thus leaving us three times removed from the asserted actual. And for many centuries, all followers of the death and transfiguration of Jesus, speaking their many languages, have taken their meaning from them, that is, their sense … albeit translated from translations of the first translation of his own speech. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, the fundamental problem inherent in translation is simply begged. Jesus is quoted by Wills at one point as having said, in a crucial moment, “I AM.” That was, we read, what Moses heard on his mountain. In this regard, Wills points out that his first adherents, even the 12 disciples, understood themselves implicitly as forming a continuum with Torah, the Old Testament. But what is meant by that singular first “I AM (that which) I AM”? Spoken in Hebrew of thunder, as we read. In short, faith itself does not know what it is, only that it is. Wills in attempting to tell us what Jesus meant, assumes his interpretation of the texts will do for us. He presumes that decades after the man’s life was gone from the material body of this world, when the writers of the Gospels wrote these versions of the messiah’s biography they could unerringly set down in their Greek what his Aramaic actually said. And as for that, they but understood through a glass darkly. And regarding the poetry and metaphor of adages, parables and the performances thought by some to have been miracles unique to divinity, all that could not but serve to darken understanding. Veneration by its nature emanates from faith, which is only what it is, a more or less sturdy hope for hoping’s sake. Authority, however, ineluctably clings to the footstool below Cæsar’s throne.

The interesting conclusion one might find in this frankly heterodox book by a believer and communicant is that somehow Wills is also begging his relation to those who control and administer his faith; that is, the Catholic church, the history of which was gradually constructed by its theologians. Yet surely he must agree with any ignorant layman that theology draws its reasoning and thereby its authority from some ancient source. Otherwise it would be just a free-for-all, a clashing, murderous babble of blindfolded gladiators. And surely he knows that the path he traces in this book when he draws out the schemata of Matthew’s establishment of a royal genealogy for Jesus’ family in the line of David can be traced back further for its authority right through the Hebrews’ “history” to a shadowy, indeed mysterious person named Melchizedek, who is said to have ruled in Salem (that is, perhaps Jerusalem). It was that priest-king, or king-priest, who offered Abram bread and wine, a first sacred feast, after that first of the Jews, following his own god, departed with his clan out of Ur of the Chaldees, and fighting his way into West put down four kings in battle. (And established a covenant with Abram of ten per cent tithing, i.e., tribute.) That “history” was never erased by the theologians, who require a first event upon which to build their deductions and elaborate their inferences.

Notwithstanding, is it history? One surmises that Wills in addressing the ordinary person is going before, beneath, and around those twenty centuries of “authority and veneration.” Joined at the hip, both have descended from Abram’s authority, as conferred, not with anointment or baptism, but by a feast that is an event of the type of agape, and most strikingly for individuals is the essential act in their performance of the Catholic Communion. That may be one reason why Wills tells us that Jesus’s life and death is not a new testament, but part and parcel of the Tanakh, the book of the Jews. Also, it suggests that Wills is a creature of the time in which he writes, one of a sudden eruption of religiosity in the West. If he is evading theology and all its works from the Fathers down, ever since 100 A.D. — and recall that Pope Benedict XVI is a consummate theologian — it is a rather bold, high-wire act. It also makes best sellers.

That said, it is also true that he writes agreeably, and reasonably persuasively of what he supposes was meant by whatever Jesus said and did, what Saul of Tarsus (Paul) did, and what is related in the Gospels. As for his Paul, Wills mentions that a central, characteristic teaching is cited by Paul, who tells us that what Jesus wished was not ritual and ceremony and sacrifice, but for us to have a “circumcised heart.” I was surprised by that extraordinary metaphor’s being given that attribution, when it was first uttered by the prophet Hosea, who denounced sacrifice upon the Temple’s altar as being contrary to what the Lord wished of us. In any case, when one thinks of the immense variety which is the great ocean of the Jewish bible, its narratives, its laws, its dramas of enslavement and liberation, conquests and kingdoms, its books of wisdom and proverb, its teachings like the tales of Esther and of Ruth, not to mention Job and the stoic philosophy of Ecclesiastes, and poetry of the great prophets, whose line ended with messianic visions, and above all the heart of belief all condensed in the Psalms’ poetry, the four Gospels, as Wills describes them, reveal a teacher who spoke simply and directly, leaving metaphor aside, except for parable, which is fable-telling for moral exemplars.

Even if Wills’ rather chary handling of Jesus the shaman or thaumaturge working miracles walks between skepticism and belief by leaning on performance as metaphor for explication, his book certainly takes one to a more preferable theater of understanding than that absurd and amazing staging early in 2008 when a ringer, selected to appear in a short, live videocast, held up what was ostensibly The Bible, and shouted confrontationally and threateningly at a half-dozen aspirants to candidacy for the Republican party. In a voice seething rage and directed particularly to the minister, Huckabee and the Mormon, Romney, that person insisted, ”Do you believe in this book? Do you believe every word of this book?” And with that demand stupefied those educated and sophisticated politicians into stuttering silence.

And if Wills reads as persuasive, it is to himself, if not quite to this reader. Taking his stand before the time of St. Ireænus seems somewhat risky to me, if not downright reckless. I did, however, reflect that there yet remains powerful in this late hour of the West’s history a persistent if unacknowledged ambition of theologians per se to legislate for that cowran, tim’rous beastie, mankind. Granted, in our tradition we have Moses to thank for their vocation (since Melchizedek handed down no Law). And I also recalled Thomas Mann’s DOKTOR FAUSTUS [1947], wherein its hero, Adrian Leverkühn, aimed at becoming the Number 1 director and administrator of the Queen of Sciences, Theology Herself, forsakes that goal in pursuit of an ultimate, perhaps superhuman abstraction, Mathematics, the ultimate and highest possible knowledge— only to abandon them all for — Music. Mann’s great and ironic late novel, apophatic to a degree, ought to be regarded in this hysterical century of spasmodic rebirths of faith, all kinds of faith, including their armies, as having meant to lay Theology and its practitioners to rest for good — at least for thoughtful folk — except that in the dark night coming on, we still insist on picnicking in a cemetery full of unquiet graves.


And who lies in one of those graves, it might be asked? Returning to Joyce, Finnegan himself. In FINNEGANS WAKE, the four (virtual) bedposts around the sleeping dreaming body of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker transmogrify into the four writers who are Garry Wills’ subjects, the Synoptics and John. They are apparently heard by him as gulls crying, Quark! Quark! In his night made of all nights we hear: Three quarks for Muster Mark! Sure he has not got much of a bark. And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark. What Joyce meant remains rather a mystery readers may ponder, just as Wills ponders what Jesus is said to have promised his followers, what almost all of them failed to understand even as it was told and retold before it was finally written down.

Jascha Kessler
Professor Emeritus of Modern English & American Literature, UCLA
Santa Monica, CA



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