Reading the Jesus Story
A review of Garry Wills' "What the Gospels Meant."
By John D. Spalding
This review originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
Remember playing "telephone" as a kid? You'd whisper a sentence in a friend's ear, and he or she would whisper it to the next person, and so on, until the last one reported a message so distorted from the original that everyone would convulse with laughter.
Biblical scholars sometimes refer to this game to explain how the Gospels evolved, presumably with less comedic results. After Jesus died, traditions about him circulated by word of mouth throughout the Mediterranean world.
The new religion grew quickly, as did the gulf separating those closest to the events from those preaching the Good News. When they were finally written some 40 to 70 years after Jesus, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John preserved stories that had changed over time—and their accounts don't always agree. Matthew and Luke, for instance, record conflicting bloodlines and birth stories for Jesus.
But as historian Garry Wills sees it, the differences among the Gospels needn't be a stumbling block to the faithful. In "What the Gospels Meant," he notes that the first four books of the New Testament weren't intended to be read as history, as we understand it. "They do not draw on firsthand testimony or documents. They do not use archives—for instance, court records for the trial of Jesus, birth records for his genealogy, or chronological time line." Rather, they consist of "oral memories" that early believers sifted and ordered as they attempted to "situate" Jesus in sacred history as the Messiah promised in the Jewish Scriptures.
Moreover, these stories were expected to be adapted, Wills contends. "Christians living in different situations felt it important to draw on different aspects of Jesus' life and message. They meditated on the things that were most urgent for them as members of Jesus' mystical body." For example, Mark, in the first Gospel recorded, emphasizes Jesus' suffering and abandonment. It was probably written for persecuted believers living in Syria shortly before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. For Mark's beleaguered community, Jesus' predictions of betrayal and brother-versus-brother strife would have had special meaning.
Matthew, on the other hand, was composed some 15 to 20 years after Mark, addressing a gathering of Jewish and Gentile believers, perhaps in Antioch, that "had taken on more formal procedures and structures than were known by Paul or Mark," Wills writes. It was written for didactic purposes, organizing Jesus' sayings in five large discourses and carefully citing the parts of the Hebrew Scriptures that were relevant to Jesus' teachings.
Wills' aim here isn't to explore each episode of every book, but to "suggest the goal, method, and style of each evangelist." Thus, he describes Matthew as a "great tidier-upper," and he notes that Mark, the shortest gospel and the one written in the most awkward Greek, was long underappreciated by experts as "a kind of biblical Cinderella . . . stressed by her shabby garb." As he has in his previous bestsellers, "What Jesus Meant" and "What Paul Meant," Wills provides his own translations of the koine, or common, Greek, remaining faithful to its rough connectives and random tense shifts.
Written anonymously, the Gospels were only ascribed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John some time in the second century. Luke is the longest and has the largest and most sophisticated vocabulary, which has led such scholars as Raymond Brown, upon whom Wills relies heavily in this volume, to speculate that Luke was Greek and was writing for Greeks. Luke presents Jesus at his most humane and compassionate; it alone includes the parables of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son and the Good Thief.
John, sometimes called "the Theologian," stresses Jesus' divinity, placing his existence before the creation of the world to show God at one with "the Word that will become flesh." Indeed, in John's Passion narrative, Jesus' feet barely seem to touch the ground: The agony in the garden of Gethsemane that underscores Jesus' fear and anguish in the other Gospels is absent from John. And Jesus doesn't passively accept his final ordeal as he does in Matthew, Mark and Luke, he controls it to the end, with full knowledge of what must—and will—happen each step of the way to Golgotha.
For Wills, the evangelists' perspectives differ more in degree than in kind. "The highlighted qualities of the individual Gospels are present in each one of them, just less emphasized in some," he writes. For all their idiosyncrasies, he sees the Gospels unified by a "high Christology," or belief in the divinity of Jesus, as it was experienced and articulated by the apostle Paul. In his letters, Paul's chief (some would say, sole) interest in Jesus was that his death and Resurrection proved him to be the Messiah. "This is the basic Announcement (Kerygma) that would be the test of orthodoxy," Wills writes. "It is the nucleus from which the Gospels were built up."
Not all theologians would use Paul as a lens for reading the opening books of the New Testament. Just because the apostle lived and wrote some 10 or 15 years before the first gospel was written doesn't mean the other evangelists knew Paul's work or shared his vision. The scholar John Dominic Crossan argues that Paul was shaped by a Platonic dualism that had no influence on Jesus or his closest followers. "If you begin with Paul, you will interpret Jesus incorrectly; if you begin with Jesus, you will interpret Paul differently," Crossan writes in his book, "The Birth of Christianity."
Whatever your views on Paul, "What the Gospels Meant" is 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.
Comment on this review here.
John D. Spalding is the editor of SoMAreview.com. His last piece was The First Christmas.
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