What Jesus Meant (Review)

Garry Wills has a background in the classics, taught Greek and now teaches history at Northwestern. Wills is a Catholic and his theology is conservative in the sense that he believes in the divinity of Jesus and his resurrection. Wills explicitly states that the book, What Jesus Meant, is his personal interpretation of Jesus and his teaching, and describes the book as “devotional.” At the same time, Wills wants to challenge social-political beliefs held by various groups, but mainly the Religious Right (the Vatican, and Liberal Biblical scholars are also targets).

In this thread, I’ll lay out some of the arguments I found interesting or provocative in the hopes of sparking an interesting discussion.

The book starts with Jesus’ birth and ends with his death. Wills wants to restore the radical and enigmatic elements of Jesus and his teaching that he feels (rightly imo) the Christian establishment has watered down or even expunged. He also attacks what he feels are distortions or errors of Jesus and his teachings.

Some of the intersting things about the book:

Wills’s approach to interpreting the NT and his personal translations of NT scripture. These translations add interesting insights into the NT scripture (Old Testament scripture comes from New English Bible). For example, Wills uses the phrase “Heaven’s reign” instead of the more common “Kingdom of Heaven.” His reason is the kingdom suggests an actual place and political entity, whereas Wills interprets the scripture to mean the “personal presence of Jesus.”

I also liked the way Wills rejected a more fundamentalist (literalist and inerrant) approach, on one hand, while also rejecting a purely historical approach–i.e. only allowing scripture that was the most historically accurate. Instead, Wills starts from faith, faith in the divinity of Jesus and his death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sin. He feels that this is the best and only way we can really understand what Jesus’ life and teachings meant. There are dangers with this approach, but it appealed to me and lead to some refreshing insights. For example, he talks about the star on Jesus’ birth. To him, he’s certain there wasn’t any actual star, but, rather, the star refers to Jesus–a star will come out of Jacob” (I believe that is the scripture). I feel this more figurative approach does not take away anything from the truth of Christianity, and I found it liberating as well.

Jesus teaching is apolitical
Personally, I find this part of the book the least interesting as I have heard the arguments before and share most, if not all of them. The primary basis for this claim is Jesus’ response to Pilate about how if his Kingdom was of this world his followers would fight for him. Wills also cites Jesus’ words regarding violence, which he interprets to mean that Jesus would never condone war on any grounds. The basic point is that Jesus would never advocate a theocracy.

Jesus rejected religious formalism
A key component to Wills’s theology is the idea that Jesus was totally opposed to formal religion, i.e. the rituals and practices; Jesus’ religion is a “religion of the heart.” In this context, he addresses the issue of homosexuality and creates a rather compelling argument as to why Christian preoccupation and vitriol on homosexuality is way off base. His argument is that homosexuality is part of the Levitical purity code, which prohibited the mixing of items that did not belong together (e.g. weaving different types of thread together or planting two different types of seed in the same field.) According to Wills, Jesus strongly rejected the notions of spritual clean-ness and unclean-ness based on external forms. What makes someone clean or not, comes from a person’s heart. Wills concludes that homosexuality is the same sort of thing. After all, most Christians reject most of the Levitical codes involving, so why not the one involving homosexuality? This was one of the most compelling arguments I’ve heard. There’s one problem, though. Part of the Levitical codes involve incest, and I don’t think Wills would argue eliminating that taboo. The question for me is what’s the basis for adopting some rules and not others.

There’s also another problem. Jesus also states in Matthew 5 that not one bit of the law will be eliminated. I wish Wills would have addressed this verse in the context of the debate. Futhermore, Jesus seems to attack the religious leaders for their attitude, not necessarily the religious forms. Jesus tells his followers, in one of the scriptures Wills uses, that they should do what the Pharisees say, but not copy what they do.

Wills also goes at some length to attack existence of church hierarchy (even going as far as challenging the Biblical basis of the Pope, which makes his book, Why I Am a Catholic, all the more intriguing). He doesn’t believe that it can be supported based on Jesus’ teaching. The main verses Wills cite involve Jesus telling his servants that if they want to be great, they must be the servant; if they want to be first, they have to be last. I’m not a Catholic, so I never believed in the legitimacy of the Pope. On the other hand, I don’t have a big problem with the position either.

Wills has some interesting things to say about the temple and sacrifices, specifically that Jesus wanted to get rid of these things and make a religion of the heart.

There are other interesting insights into Jesus that I can’t recall now. I also recall Wills’s citation of prophecy from OT about Jesus that I don’t recall reading in the NT.

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