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What the Gospels Meant Hardcover – February 14, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Wills's follow-up to his bestselling works, What Jesus Meant and What Paul Meant, sheds new light on the four books of the Bible best known to most Christians. In taking the gospels apart, Wills helps readers see the oft-read stories from the life of Christ in a new way. As a former teacher of ancient and New Testament Greek, he provides his own translations of the texts, accompanied by incisive analysis that incorporates the work of other scholars. Although some Christians remain uncomfortable with the use of biblical scholarship to expand upon Christianity's scriptures, Wills is obviously convinced of its value and holds that it need not weaken one's faith. In his epilogue, for instance, he notes how scholar Raymond Brown, whom he quotes extensively, remained a devout believer even as he plumbed the depths of biblical scholarship. Wills explains that the gospels are not historically true as that term would be understood today, adding that they were composed several decades after Christ's resurrection and are the culmination of an oral preaching process. Rather than historical accounts, he considers them to be a form of prayer: a meditation on the meaning of Jesus in the light of Sacred History as recorded in the Sacred Writings. Readers willing to have their impressions about these texts challenged by an erudite scholar will find this to be fascinating and worthwhile reading. (Feb. 18)
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Praise for What the Gospels Meant:
“Full of riches . . . Wills brings to bear the skills that have justly brought him renown as America’s greatest public intellectual: encyclopedic erudition, concise prose and a polyglot’s gift for ancient languages. . . . This introduces . . . biblical scholarship as a whole to a wide audience of readers hungry for a sophisticated account of those eternally curious texts.”
Chicago Tribune
“What readers will find here is an engaging look at the Gospels, informed by the best biblical scholarship, as well as by Wills’s own faith. . . . This eminently readable volume . . . underscores the attributes of each narrative to highlight truths more crucial than whether there were four discrete Evangelists.”
The New York Times Book Review
“Wills’s scholarship . . . is impeccable, placing the gospels within their original cultural and religious context . . . A book that offers profound spiritual and historical insight in an accessible and intriguing format.”
“Poetic, penetrating, and moving. General readers and scholars alike will profit from Mr. Wills’s basic contention, that reason and faith are not antinomies.”
The New York Sun
“An engrossingly concise sequel to his Paul book. Wills . . . shows that [the Gospels are] theological statements, applying Jesus to the different situations confronting each writer’s community.”
The Boston Globe
“Readers willing to have their impressions about these texts challenged by an erudite scholar will find this to be fascinating and worthwhile reading.”
Publishers Weekly
“A remarkable achievement—a learned yet eminently readable and provocative exploration of the four small books that reveal most of what’s known about the life and death of Jesus.”
Los Angeles Times
  --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; First Edition edition (February 14, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670018716
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670018710
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.8 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,164,668 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Garry Wills is one of the most respected writers on religion today. He is the author of Saint Augustine's Childhood, Saint Augustine's Memory, and Saint Augustine's Sin, the first three volumes in this series, as well as the Penguin Lives biography Saint Augustine. His other books include "Negro President": Jefferson and the Slave Power, Why I Am a Catholic, Papal Sin, and Lincoln at Gettysburg, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

54 of 60 people found the following review helpful By Kerry Walters VINE VOICE on March 4, 2008
Format: Hardcover
The four gospels have been dissected, scrutinized, and exegeted for the better part of 18 centuries. (Some would argue that, in the last two centuries, they've also been vivisected!) Thousands of volumes have been written on them. A simple amazon search of the word "gospels" reveals nearly 167,000 items alone.

That's why it's hard for me to get excited whenever yet another commentary appears. But Garry Wills' What the Gospels Meant is in a class of its own, as readers of his previous books might well expect.

Wills argues that the four gospels need to be read as forms of prayer, "meditations on the meaning of Jesus in the light of Sacred History as recorded in the Sacred Writings" (p. 7). As such, the gospels are (1) continuations of the sacred scriptures of the Hebrews and (2) accounts of Christ's indwelling in the Christian community. (Wills argues that the notion of the community of faith as the mystical Body of Christ is a quite early one, asserted by Paul in his baptismal hymn in Galatians 3.) Read individually, the gospels are on-the-ground "reports" from specific Christian communities. Read together, they constitute creed.

Wills examines the four gospels by focusing on the specific message and tone unique to each. None of the basics of what he has to say will surprise anyone who knows a bit about the New Testament. Mark, whom Augustine called Matthew's pedisequus et breviator ("drudge and condenser"), writes in less than elegant Greek and emphasizes the suffering of the persecuted Messiah and the community of his followers. Matthew is the great teacher, who neatly (and sometimes pedantically) collects Jesus' sayings (including the Sermon on the Mount) and connects them in with sacred scripture and prophecy.
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45 of 51 people found the following review helpful By Robert Moore HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 27, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I utterly loved both of Wills's other books on the New Testament -- WHAT JESUS MEANT and WHAT PAUL MEANT -- and I suppose it would be accurate to say that I merely liked this one. There is no question that I learned a good deal, but it simply wasn't crystallizing like those other two, bringing together all that was marvelous and debunking all the widespread misconceptions concerning Jesus and Paul. Wills is best when he is defending his perception against others. Here he is more in the way of an instructor, for while most Christians have some notion or both Jesus and Paul -- whether well or poorly formed -- few have very specific notions of what each of the gospels is like. I think most readers of the NT, with the exception of those in seminary or divinity school, tend to mix the four together, blending them all together. I'm not sure that most are aware that the nativity scenes are not present in all four gospels.

Speaking of seminary and divinity school (I attended both, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for a year before the right wing ideologues got a hold of it and Yale Divinity School after that), while attending both I developed a profound esteem for the late Raymond E. Brown, whose commentary on John and books on the death and birth of Jesus stand at the pinnacle of New Testament scholarship. Today no one thinks twice upon seeing a Biblical commentary written by a Roman Catholic scholar, but only a couple of generations ago such a thing was unheard of. It was only after Vatican II that Catholic Biblical scholars embraced the critical study of the Bible. No scholar did more to invigorate such studies within Catholicism as Brown. Anyone reading this will quickly discern how deeply indebted Wills is to Raymond Brown. This debt is indicated from the outset.
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43 of 51 people found the following review helpful By Michael P. Maslanka on February 17, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Regardless of your religious views, this is a beautiful book. Wills looks at each gospel and puts much into historical context: Mark, the first, was not so much a book for the ages as one dealing with immediate local concerns of the faithful, and lays open the rift between the siblings of Christ and other Church members. The writing on Matthew and the Beatitudes and the Antitheses is some of the strongest in the book, with Wills driving home the point that the message of Christ was built on one's intentions and internal integrity and not on one's adherence to external forms and coventional thinking. Good take on the Golden Rule, where he shows how Quakers used it to argue against salvery, as well as on the Prodigal son from Luke, which is something I have never undertsood or agreed with until reading Wills's comments,which puts it into the historical context of the struggle between Jew and Gentile to claim and direct the early movement. You also get a sense of Christ's compassion for women. And although he does not mention the Buddha, you can't help, for all the world, not to see how the teachings of the Buddha and Christ are twisted together like a pretzel.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Buck Leonard on March 31, 2008
Format: Hardcover
No one writes with better style and more authority than Garry Wills. My only problem with these books (What Jesus Meant, What Paul Meant) is that he writes with such certainty that when I disagree his tone strikes me as a bit arch and insulting. He spares no rod with any view he types as fundamentalist, which is troubling and ungenerous. He also makes pronouncements that are easily refutable. For example, he cites the Scofield Study Bible as saying the Lord's Prayer is not Christian. As an owner of a Scofield Study Bible, all I had to do was look to find this as catagorically wrong.
As to the rest of it, he's a wonderful translator of New Testament Greek, but I find these books rather schizophrenic. Wills undoubtedly has zeal and believes in his subject matter, yet he strains to make rationalist explanations of things so as to make these books more modern. For example, trying to explain the nativity narratives of the Gospels and the worldviews of each Gospel in language similar to deconstructionist critics. Yet he will elsewhere talk grandly of the Spirit at work in the lives of the disciples. One wonders why he has trouble accounting works to the Spirit in some places and none in others.
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