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54 of 60 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 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. In a way, Matthew is the first Christian exegete. Luke is the compassionate gospelist who emphasizes Jesus' solidarity with the outcast and reconciliation between Gentile and Jew. How bitterly ironic, then, that Jesus is himself cast out by the powers-that-be. Finally, John is the mystical gospelist who preaches the Body of Christ and focuses on the Light within and without. John's gospel is a history of the interior community.

Again, nothing terribly surprising here. Wills writes with such elegance and easy erudition, however, that his discussion, however familiar it may be, is a delightful read. But what really makes his book worth reading are his wonderful translations.

Wills objects to what he calls the "prettified Bible English of most translations," arguing that it fails to capture the "telegraphic character" of the koine Greek. His own translations seek to remain loyal the "muscular and awkwardly eloquent" tone of the original, and they're startlingly insightful and evocative, making it impossible to read too-familiar scriptural passages with our usual jaded eyes. Take, for example, Will's rendering of the prologue to John's gospel (p. 159):

At the origin was the Word
and the word faced God,
and the Word was God;
this faced God at the origin.
Through him all things came to exist,
and without him nothing that exists existed.
What existed in him was vivifying,
and the vivification was alight to men,
and the light shone into the darkness,
and the darkness did not cope with it.

Or the Beatitudes from Matthew's Sermon on the Mount (pp. 77-78):

Happy the poor in their own mind,
since heaven's reign belongs to them.
Happy the sad,
since they shall be consoled.
Happy those who yield,
since they shall acquire the earth.
Happy those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail,
since they will eat and drink their full.
Happy those taking pity on others,
since they will be pitied.
Happy those who are pure within,
since they will see God.
Happy those who bring peace to others,
since they will be named God's sons.
Happy those who are punished for their virtue,
since heaven's reign belongs to them.

Great stuff, for those with eyes to see and ears to listen!
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45 of 51 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified 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. The dedication page reads "To Raymond Brown, devout scholar." Then a couple of pages later the Key to Citations page lists five works that are referred to by brief citation; four of them are by Brown.

If this implies that Wills book is somewhat derivative from Brown's work, I do not mean this as a bad thing. Brown himself wrote for scholars. Bringing some of Brown's insights to general readers in hardly a bad thing. Nor is everything in the book derived from Brown. Wills is obviously a careful and diligent reader of the Bible. If Brown is his guide in many things, the final result is very much the product of Wills's own mind.

No doubt anyone who is not already an advanced scholar of the New Testament (a designation that unfortunately would not exclude most Christian ministers) will profit from this book. It does, however, have a far narrower audience than Wills's Jesus and Paul books. I have recommended both of those books to friends. Wills's views on Jesus are very similar to my own (I wanted to cheer in the passages where he debunks any notion that Jesus could be taken as a religious or moral teacher without all the god talk, since the main thing he wanted to teach was that he was god). And I've long thought that Paul took way too much flak for things he never said nor taught. So if you ask, who comprises the potential audience for those two books, the answer is easy: anyone who wants to know more about Jesus and Paul. And since those are two of the dominant figures in Western history, regardless of how you feel about Jesus being god, anyone who wants to know anything about his or her culture. But who is the audience for this book? Well, anyone who wants to know more about the ways the Gospels differ from one another. But that is a smaller audience than the Jesus and Paul books. I certainly would hesitate before recommending it to anyone who didn't want to go beneath the surface. It could well be used by church Bible study groups with profit, since most ministers have a truly weak understanding of the Bible (sorry if that sounds negative, but one problem I've had trying to find churches to attend is finding ministers who knew much about the Bible).

So, if you read Wills's Jesus and Paul books and would like more, definitely give this a try. If you have read neither of those books, read them before this one.
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43 of 51 people found the following review helpful
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
on April 1, 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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 30, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is the first book by Wills that I have read and it seems from other reviews that this might be better if it had followed some of his other books.

Overall I found the book to have some interesting ideas and was very easy to read in format and flow. Wills takes each gospel one at a time, covers the basic topics of each and shows what each means when seen by a different audience. He is well organized, logical in his layout and keeps the structure easy to follow. His ideas add a unique interpretation to each of the narratives based on the context of each audience.
Two points that I which would have been covered:
1. How did he come up with each of the audiences?
I saw no real historical data to show that these groups existed. It could be that they are well known to his circle and I am expected to understand this, but references for those of us who are not familiar would have been helpful. Without that knowledge it becomes an 'if' it was written for these people 'then' this is how it would be seen.

2. I was disappointed in the fact that he seemed to gloss over the sermon on the mount.
Here is what is considered some of the world's greatest writings and I was expecting much more insight. A tribute to his writing is that after reading his background for the gospel audience I was seeing unique ways to view many of the stories and was reading on to see if he agreed with my ideas.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
The author has provided significant scholarship on the
meaning of the gospels. For instance, he contrasted
the lengths of the gospels. This turned up a 19,000
word document by Luke's gospel- the longest rendition.

There is an excellent section on the Sermon at the Mount.
The beatitudes are set forth in great detail together
with understandable prose to support the biblical script.
The miracle of Cana is described ; wherein, Christ turned
water into wine. The apostle Mark spent about 1/3 of his
writings on Christ's passion. Luke's gospel described the
famous prodigal son. The death and resurrection of Jesus
is told in strict accordance with the biblical account.

Overall, the book is an excellent rendition for biblical
enthusiasts. I was looking for more discussion of
"the end times" as related to the official biblical scripture.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 27, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Current theology is explained in relation to historical thought as well as the culture of the Jewish people at the time of Christ. While he relies heavily on Fr. Raymond Brown, Mr. Wills compresses volumes of Brown's scholarship into 209 very readable pages. He shows the similarities of the four gospels while also detailing their uniqueness. This book would be a good discussion group choice, either taken as a whole or gospel by gospel. If you are interested in trying to understand what the gospels are all about, I recommend this book. (It is shorter and not as detailed as Pope Benedict XVI's "Jesus of Nazareth" which was also surprisingly readable!)
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format: Audio CDVerified Purchase
I got the audiobook, narrated by the author. Garry Wills is a top scholar, having also mastered ancient Greek. He goes step by step through the Gospels and explains them historically and linguistically. This is the type of book that can be listened to multiple times, and I'll definitely keep it. The scholarly approach to understanding the Gospels is just incredible. I really appreciated Wills' attention to detail and tone. At the risk of sounding absurd, I felt that I truly got my money's worth.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on June 3, 2008
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
So far in this series of books, Garry Wills has goaded our brains into comtemplating What Jesus Meant and What Paul Meant. In examining the Gospels, both the Synoptics and John, Wills moves chronologically farther away from the historical Jesus and more into the young church's interpretation of his words and deeds. The important part of this scholarship is the relation of the gospel's Jesus and the character and needs of each individual congregation addressed by Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. This is interpretation uncluttered by church teachings. Surely anyone wishing an accessible, readable book on early Christianity could benefit from this volume.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on September 13, 2008
Format: Hardcover
If you have ever had questions about Biblical history this will give you cause for much thought. The author remains true to the truth that salvation is only through Christ. He utilizes his own translation, which makes a reader compare to their own favorite translations. Very conservative readers might be offended by Wills' pointing out differences between the book of Acts and the Pauline letters. I found myself studying the Scriptural references more carefully.
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