Book Review: Garry Wills, What The Gospels Meant

If you are interested in a refreshingly different take on how the Gospels show us Jesus Christ, then I strongly recommend What The Gospels Meant by Garry Wills.

Wills is a political columnist whose work appears in newspapers all over the country on a syndicated basis.  He has written many books over the years, chiefly about religion, politics, and political history.  He is currently an emeritus professor of history at Northwestern University.

In this book, Wills’ big idea is that though the Gospels are truthful accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus, the Gospel writers had other priorities than the strict factual, chronological, and historical accuracy which we evangelicals so dearly cherish.  The Gospels are historical, but more in the sense that Gone With the Wind is historical than in the sense that your American history textbook is historical.  The Gospel writers did not go around digging up birth certificates, death certificates, baptismal records, etc. nor did they spend hours at the library poring over primary source documents.  Instead, their accounts arose from the unique communities of faith that each writer was a part of.  Each Gospel account was shaped by that community, the memories and recollections of Jesus that were passed on within that community, and the unique issues, concerns, and emphases of each community.

The Gospel of Mark was the first one written, about thirty years after the death of Jesus.  It was written for the encouragement of a community of believers that was beset by persecution from without and divisions within–opposition from Jewish Zealots who seized the Temple in 67 AD and drove them to the hills of Syria, and from Judaizers who sought to insist upon observance of Jewish law.  Thus the emphasis of the Gospel of Mark is upon the suffering Jesus.  If Jesus suffered so much for being who he was, then of course his followers should be expected to suffer too.

Matthew wrote his Gospel for a community of believers that was centered around Antioch.  This was a well-developed center of the Christian faith during the latter part of the first century AD, one which contained a good mix of Jewish and Gentile believers.  It even had its own school of Christian training–a first-century seminary, if you will.  There is much about the Gospel of Matthew which indicates that it may have been used for teaching and learning in this environment.

Luke had a keen interest in reconciliation.  He shows us the kinder, gentler side of Jesus through his encounters with women, a very low-ranking class in first-century society, and through such moving stories as those of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.  He also had a liturgical bent; the walk to Emmaus in Luke 24 follows the outline of a liturgy that was used in his community of believers.

John’s Gospel focuses on the mystical side of Christ.  From the get-go, he describes Jesus as the Word of God who has come into the world.  Wills advances a view that will probably arouse disagreement from many evangelicals–that John was probably not the author of the Gospel of John.  Instead, John (the disciple whom Jesus loved) formed a school of Christian teaching devoted to passing on what he had learned from Jesus.  The Gospel of John was written by a couple of people from within this school who were very close to John and very strongly influenced by his teachings.

Wills brings it all together by noting that we need all four Gospels.  Life would be a whole lot easier for us in the face of atheistic critiques (which are oh-so-quick to note the contradictions and inconsistencies in the Gospel accounts) if we had just one Gospel account of Jesus’ life and ministry.  But attempts to pick one Gospel and discard the others (such as Marcion’s second-century assertion that only the Gospel of Luke was genuine), or to combine the best parts of all four Gospels into one coherent, consistent narrative (such as Tatian’s Diatesseron), have failed to gain any traction.

There is a reason for this.  The four Gospels show us four different aspects of Jesus.  If we lacked any of them then our view of Jesus would be incomplete.  If we were to attempt to harmonize them into one consistent narrative, then the resulting view of Jesus would be incomplete.  A quote from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy best sums it up:  “He has always cared more for truth than consistency.  If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them.”

We must apply this to our reading of the Gospels.  With the four Gospels we get multiple truths and multiple inconsistencies.  In order to gain a full revelation of Jesus Christ we must care more for truth than consistency; we must be willing to take the truths that all of the different Gospels show us along with the apparent inconsistencies.


One thought on “Book Review: Garry Wills, What The Gospels Meant

  1. “Wills’ big idea is that… ” Hold on, if a person can’t even get the individual details right, then why would anyone want to assume that they have it right when it comes to the ‘big’ ideas.

    Take this statement for example, John (the disciple whom Jesus loved)…

    Simply assuming that the traditions of men are true was not a safe thing to do in Jesus’ day and it is not a good Bible study method today either. And it is a far cry from the method of the Bereans who searched the scriptures to see concerning the things that they were taught.

    But one has to take off their own shoes before they can take a walk in someone else’s moccasins, and similarly, when it comes to a case of The Bible vs. Tradition, one has to be willing to let go of the traditions of men in order to see the truth that is hidden in plain sight in the text of scripture. has a free eBook that compares scripture with scripture in order to highlight the facts in the plain text of scripture that are usually overlooked about the “other disciple, whom Jesus loved”. You may want to weigh the testimony of scripture that the study cites regarding the one whom “Jesus loved” and may find it to be helpful as it encourages bible students to take seriously the admonition “prove all things”.

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