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Gary Wills, What Jesus Meant. Viking, 2006.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price


As is by now to be expected, conservative books on Jesus sooner or later take the obligatory swipe at the Jesus Seminar. Roman Catholic Gary Wills is no exception. Early on he aims his pot shot:

This is the new fundamentalism. It believes in the literal sense of the Bible – it just reduces the Bible to what it can take as literal quotation from Jesus. Though some people have called the Jesus Seminarists radical, they are actually very conservative. They tame the real radical, Jesus, cutting him down to their own size. Robert Funk called Jesus “the first Jewish stand-up comic.” (p. xxv)

For one thing, Wills quotes Funk as the voice of the Seminar when in fact that particular proposal, to style Jesus a stand-up comic, was voted down by the Fellows. Apart from that, let me be candid and admit a small element of truth in what Wills says: sometimes the Seminar’s discussions of how to reshape church life and liturgy in light of their resultant Jesus do strike me as an effort to reinvent Unitarianism. For all Westar’s sensitivity to the arts, I think we sometimes miss the music of the larger gospel tradition. But then that is not the primary point of the Jesus Seminar. The principle task is one of historical reconstruction. And that is really Wills’s gripe. Like his co-religionist, Luke Timothy Johnson, Wills thinks nobody has any business trying to reconstruct the historical Jesus. For him, the whole endeavor is ill-advised because foredoomed.

“Trying to find a construct, ‘the historical Jesus’ … is a mixing of categories, or rather of wholly different worlds of discourse. The only Jesus we have is the Jesus of faith” (p. xxvi). “So this book… will treat the Jesus of faith, since there is no other. The ‘historical Jesus’ does not exist for us” (p. xxviii). What is the problem? Again like Johnson, Wills does not deny that there may in fact have been a Jesus who would not match the Jesus of faith in all particulars. He just thinks such a figure is unavailable to us (I agree). And in any case, Wills thinks, a historical Jesus would not be nearly as impressive as the canonical Jesus of the creeds, which is the one he likes. Thus the title of this book is a trick. “What Jesus Meant” might seem to suggest an exposition of Jesus’ own message, but properly, given Wills’ initial caveats, it ought to denote: “the Significance of Jesus.” That is fair, though in that case, his disdainful words about the work of the Jesus Seminar seem not only spiteful but altogether beside the point. It is like an artist hissing at a draftsman. A fashion designer jeering at a physiologist.

Unlike Evangelical apologists of the N.T. Wright/Ben Witherington ilk, Wills does not even deny that the historical Jesus has been irreparably obscured by legend. Though he damns the Jesus Seminar for daring to say the gospels have been “embellished,” a word he sneers at, Wills admits that Jesus is lost in the bonfire of the legends as soon as we see him. That blaze is the first thing we see of him, as is equally true of the Baal Shem Tov and Saint Francis of Assisi. But, Wills judges, those legends are all “true.” They have the “meaning” of Jesus right. (Or at least we have to suppose they do, since Wills repudiates in principle any criterion by which to measure any distance between the real thing and the interpretations of it.) I believe Wills has made the mistake Nietzsche warned against when he said that the lack of truth does not entitle us to label our fictions “true,” which we might want to do since they’re all we have left. No, if we do that, we will soon forget and start mistaking our fictions for genuine fact. And that is exactly what Wills does throughout this book.    

No sooner does he disavow any aim of scholarly historiography in favor of writing “a devotional book” than he begins a book-length string of historical inference and reconstruction. He has jumped at once from one of his discourse worlds into another. For instance, Wills psychoanalyzes Jesus:

The frequently emphasized hostility he experienced from his own family helps us understand the shocking ease with which Jesus could later say, “If one coming to me does not hate his father and his mother [etc.] he cannot be my follower” (Luke 14.26). For members of his own family such an attitude was itself hateful. They could not see why he put on airs, went a different way, learned things beyond them, spent time on Hebrew texts that that only scholars could deal with, neglecting (no doubt) the family business of cabinetmaking (p. 6)

Does Wills not realize that he is drawing historical and psychological inferences about characters who are mentioned in the text only in passing? He is speculating on the probabilities of what “really happened” behind the text, for the text reports none of these attitudes, motives, injured feelings, much less whether Jesus studied Hebrew or ducked his duties in the shop. Wills’s ostensible view of the faith-Jesus and the nature of the gospel should not allow him such indulgences.

Wills warns us that Jesus, as a divine being with all the arbitrariness of Jehovah thundering from Sinai or belittling Job out of the cyclone, cannot be taken as our example. He ridicules Al Gore’s favorite slogan, “What would Jesus do?” because we, as mere mortals, have no business doing the things he did. For example: “Christian leaders have often rebuked the rebelliousness of young people by offering them a pastel picture of the young Jesus as a model of compliance and good behavior” (p. 7). By contrast, Wills says that in Luke 2:48 Jesus treats his parents with the aloof arbitrariness of a God who owes nothing to his creatures (p. xv). And yet in no time Wills is explaining Jesus simply as a different sort of not-uncommon child: “But there are many indications that Jesus was more like those restive and resisting children who have all the idealism and absolutism of youth – young people who chafe against the boundaries of the past and are panting to explore new horizons” (p. 8). Are these kids gods, too? Wills doesn’t seem to grasp his own point. Martin Kähler was consistent where Wills is not. Kähler understood that the Son of God presented in the stained glass of the gospels is not the sort of entity one can psych out. It is ludicrous to try to trace out his psychological development, the influences upon him, what made him tick, etc. If one does that, one is stepping away from the “Jesus of faith” (what Kähler called “the historic, biblical Christ”) and whoring after what Kähler dubbed “the so-called historical Jesus.”

Again, Wills draws the bold inference that Jesus was initially a member of the sect of John the Baptist and a fellow-traveler with the Essenes. All this he infers from the simple statement of the gospels that Jesus underwent the baptism of John. According to Mark, so did pretty much everybody else in Jerusalem and all Judea. Were they Essenes, too? Wills is trying to dig beneath the gospels to explicate the historical figure lying behind them, the very thing he condemns Funk and the Jesus Seminar (not to mention Thomas Jefferson) for doing. One might multiply examples. But do you see what Wills is doing here? He is playing a shell game; he is covering his tracks. Having disavowed both the possibility that the facts about Jesus could ever be discovered and the attempt of critical scholars to do it, Wills is now playing the same game, only without the “criticism” part. All his faith-talk simply signals he has given himself permission to take any and every gospel saying and story as literal fact, bearing no responsibility to do the hard work of sifting the wheat from the tares.

And yet Wills is a critic of sorts. Like the Jesus Seminar, he whittles away at the raw materials of the gospels, omitting items that do not fit the picture of Jesus he prefers to find there. Only whereas critical scholars are honest enough to admit they are bracketing the texts as “inauthentic” (another word Wills hates when the Seminar uses it, p. xxv), Wills just passes over the inconvenient texts in silence. His Jesus is an absolute pacifist, er, despite that little altercation in the temple. He is uncompromising in his advocacy of Samaritans and Gentiles and tax-collectors. Never mind that he is reported to have told his disciples to steer clear of Gentiles and Samaritans (Matthew 10:5). Forget that he told us to disdain the excommunicated as if Gentiles or tax-collectors (Matthew 18:17).

Wills, it turns out, is not so far from the Seminar when it comes to gospel legends. For instance, Jesus did not really confront Satan in the desert during a period of forty days. No, but the story is “true” nonetheless, for Wills, because it symbolizes the struggles Jesus endured before his public ministry. Or so Wills the historian of Jesus infers. Just as John Howard Yoder used to do, Wills argues (fallaciously, I think) that the temptations refer to the options of winning public support by providing food for the masses, assuming political power, and becoming the pope of a new religion. Never mind that exactly the same legend is told of Abraham, the Buddha, and Zoroaster. Wills laughs off parallel myths with the pathetic old rationalization that all such myths were pre-Christian prophetic dreams of Jesus (p. xxvii). But that doesn’t make the story fact. Oh no. It is apostolic interpretation. I’ve got news for you, Mr. Wills: one man’s interpretation is another man’s legend.

Did Wills’s personal savior actually eject demons from people? Maybe not: to call them “possessed” somehow denoted just that they were excluded as unclean (p. 30). And Jesus’ ministry of healing? Wills says the great thing was that he welcomed back the lepers and the dropsical and the menstruating into a loving social embrace. Is this Gary Wills or John Dominic Crossan—or Barbara Thiering? Wills is a great allegorizer of gospel narrative. After a while, the suspicion begins to dawn that Wills is perhaps not so conservative vis-à-vis miracles as he appears. It sounds almost as if he really means to echo Bultmann’s dictum that the supernatural, mythic element of the gospel must be retained but interpreted instead of merely rejected and subtracted as the older Harnack-type Protestant Liberals did. Wills mocks the Seminar for jettisoning the resurrection of Jesus (p. xxv), yet he himself has this to say: “Jesus was resurrected into us. We walk around living his life after his death. The Resurrection was not something that happened long ago, in a far place. It is happening now, everywhere on earth” (p. 138). One wonders how N.T. Wright, to whose silly apologetics for the resurrection Wills gives half-hearted lip service initially, thinks of that.

And here we find the greatest irony in a book packed with them: Wills’s Jesus is almost an identical twin of the Seminar Jesus (except that he also said all the stuff about himself that we read in John’s gospel). Wills places Jesus firmly on the side, and in the company of, the marginalized, the rascals, rogues, whores, madmen, lepers, homosexuals, you name it. Wills sees Jesus as utterly disdainful of Jewish purity and Sabbath regulations. In this he goes even farther than the Jesus Seminar. Wills appears oblivious of the fact that the gospels all depict Jesus arguing that he is not breaking the Sabbath, only rejecting certain scribal notions of how to observe it. Wills somehow imagines that Jesus and his disciples were notorious outcasts because they flouted the holiness code of Leviticus, touching people with skin disease, bodily emissions, etc. This is absurd, though a common misconception. Leviticus never prohibits such contact. It assumes one must touch the dead, the ill, the menstruating. One incurs ritual pollution as a matter of course in daily life. And then one does what little things are needful to restore ritual purity. Jesus does not commit abominations, the big-ticket items that would have gotten him in trouble: the gospels don’t have Jesus and the disciples going around having sex with animals or with each other. Jesus is never shown scarfing down a ham sandwich or a shrimp cocktail. And when the gospels show him munching a hot dog, it is always Hebrew National. (Or, even if they don’t show him eating franks, we may use Wills’s method of inference to suppose that he did.)

Wills’s Jesus was a feminist who shocked his contemporaries by traveling with women (even though the text never hints at such scandal—more historical inference by Wills) and letting them listen to them when they “should” have been seeing to Sunday dinner. Jesus according to Wills was absolutely anti-hierarchical and never thought of founding an institution. The notion of Peter as a priest or a bishop or a pope Wills finds laughable from the standpoint of “the Jesus of faith.” He aims a number of barbs against Pope Ratzinger. His Jesus sounds for all the world like that of Hans Küng (On Being a Christian) and Adolf Holl (Jesus in Bad Company). He’d never darken the door of a church and would be shown the door again if he did try to enter.

Though aloof from any political program, this Jesus insisted that the poor be fed and the street people be welcomed. If he were here among us today, he would be leagued with persecuted gays instead of their holier-than-thou persecutors. How is it possible that Gary Wills and the Jesus Seminar end up with such similar Jesuses? Wills has already told us, at least implicitly: certain figures will attract only legends of a type appropriate to them. Or as Claude Levi-Strauss said, all variants of the same basic myth will prove amenable to the same structural analyses. The same deep meanings will survive as the body of text, legend, and lore multiplies, like DNA regulating and directing new growth, though not without the occasional mutation. 

Wills’s Christianity is definitely Jesus-centric. What did Jesus mean by the “reign of God”? Simply himself. He was the presence of the reign of God. Wills does not seem to find this reductionistic. Wills wants it understood that Jesus wanted it understood that he was the only path to the Father. And what does this entail? Not what you might think. Pretty much what Walter Rauschenbusch said it did in the heyday of the Social Gospel movement: an egalitarian service to the poor and the outcast. Wills sounds like he is leading up to some version of orthodoxy but winds up with orthopraxy. His brief discussion of the atoning death of Jesus finally amounts to little more than the vacuous (pardon me) Moral Influence Theory of Peter Abelard: the death of Jesus somehow demonstrates the love of God. Earlier in the present review I observed that Wills seems to share Bultmann’s rejection of the old Liberal Protestant approach to gospel supernaturalism. It should not be abandoned, but rather interpreted. Well, now Wills himself sounds like an old-time modernist (sorry for that apparent oxymoron, but one has to use it!). Wills once wrote a book called Why I Am a Catholic. This new one reads as if the title were Why I Am Now a Liberal Protestant. It sounds as if Wells’s pious sneering at the work of the Jesus Seminar may be understood as political “triangulating.” He would seem to be trying to avert criticism from more conservative Catholics by saying, “Look, if it’s liberals and modernists you hate, you’ll find them over there in Santa Rosa! Don’t look at me!” I wonder if he will fool anyone.



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