Garry Wills: What the Gospels Meant

Since the 1960s, Garry Wills has been one of America’s most popular and acclaimed writers on both history and religion. In works such as Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, he exhibited a special gift for refreshing our understanding of familiar documents and the traditions they articulate with the historical nourishment of their original contexts. That gift is also much in evidence in his later series of works on Scripture: What Jesus Meant, What Paul Meant, and, most recently, What the Gospels Meant.

Earlier this year, I sat down with Garry Wills to discuss What the Gospels Meant, as well as broader religious and historical themes suggested by my reading of it in the heat of the presidential primary season. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. –James Mustich

James Mustich: Let’s start with the title of your new book What the Gospels Meant: why “meant” as opposed to “mean”?

Garry Wills: That’s partly accident. I am writing, of course, about what they meant when they were written. But this series started when my nice Lutheran editor at Viking, Carolyn Carlson, asked me to write a book about what Jesus said. I said, “I’m a believer in Jesus, and what he said is not the whole matter. It’s what he did. He died for us and rose again. I would rather talk about what he said and did, what they meant taken together.” That gave us the first title, What Jesus Meant, and then, as the series developed, What Paul Meant and What the Gospels Meant followed naturally. In the case of the new book, my concern is a kind of original intent — what the Gospels meant when they were written. They mean something to us now, but my emphasis is on the conditions of their original composition.

JM: Do they mean something different to us today?

GW: Certainly they do, because of the accident that we’re not there; a lot of people have misunderstood what the situation of the Gospels was in their original communities. People had a different idea about them in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance, and they have a still different idea today. We, for instance, often go to the Gospels for what we would consider the factual content, asking, “Is this history? Is this biography? Is this what really happened?” Of course, it’s not history. It’s not biography. It doesn’t draw on archives. It doesn’t draw on Jesus’ birth certificate or genealogical chart in our modern sense, or the transcript of his trial. So what the Gospels meant to their original audience is not what we expect from them after the 19th-century historiographical revolution.

For instance, we now might say, “Prove to me that Jesus rose.” That was not a subject that the first audience for the Gospels was interested in, because its members believed that — they began from that. There would be no reason for them to have been gathering together unless they knew and believed that Jesus rose. Writing the first writings of the New Testament, Paul says 500 people had talked to the risen Jesus. So they began with that; they didn’t need to ask for proof.

What they did want to know was what does the resurrection of Jesus mean? Concretely, how does it relate to the Sacred Writings, the Jewish Scripture? Is he the Messiah? If he is the Messiah, what does that mean? The early communities of believers reflected mainly on that. Paul is the very first one who gives us the test for followers of Jesus, and he didn’t make it up. He said, “I am passing on to you what was passed on to me, that Jesus suffered and died for us, and was buried according to the Sacred Writings, and rose again according to the Sacred Writings.” The Sacred Writings being, of course, the Jewish Scripture — that’s what set up the language for what the resurrection meant. Paul wrote, or preached orally, out of the Sacred Writings. He did that to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews. He said, “You are the seed of Abraham. He was promised to be the father of many nations; you are the many nations.” And all of his preachings came from that. He would have been horrified if he thought that the letters he wrote to five troubled communities addressing their troubles would be something that would be a new scripture. None of the people who wrote the New Testament thought they were writing the New Testament. [LAUGHS] They didn’t think they needed it. They had all the writings that they needed — the existing Sacred Writings. And everything these first believers say about Jesus is related to them.

The Gospels are written at a time when the communities need to address their own internal problems, mainly after they were driven out of Palestine. They are all written in the diaspora, in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. They are all written (except one, Mark) after the Fall of the Temple. Mark’s Gospel is probably written on the verge of the Fall of the Temple, when the believers of Jesus were driven out by the zealots, across the boundary and into Syria. Through the Gospels, these believers are trying to reconnect themselves to the world from which they came — Palestine; they are trying to remember their roots because they are having trouble doing that. Luke, for instance, who probably writes farthest away, in Greece, knows that Jesus was an observant Jew; his parents went to the Temple after he was born. But Luke says Joseph and Mary had to be purified after Jesus’ birth. That’s not true; only Mary had to be. Luke has forgotten, if he ever knew, what the Jewish ritual and law was.

So those kinds of elements are forgotten. The basic Kerygma that Paul had set up is remembered, and they are trying to connect it to their roots. It’s interesting that the earliest art of the followers of Jesus was not about Jesus. In the catacombs, they don’t show pictures of Jesus. As the Jews had this sacred hesitancy to name God, they had a sacred hesitancy to picture Jesus. So what the catacombs show is Moses striking the rock, or the three young men in the fiery furnace, or Daniel in the Lion’s den, or Samson killing. All of those are what they reflected on at the agape, at the Christian meal (what we call Christian; at the time, that term didn’t exist). What the first believers did was reflect on the Jewish history that Jesus had fulfilled.

JM: You say at one point early in the book that the shape of the Gospels was determined by their uses. If the people who wrote the Gospels did not regard them as scripture, as you suggest, what were the particular uses of these texts?

GW: Liturgical. It was what they reflected on, read, preached, sang at their gatherings. That comes out clearly in the opening hymn of John and the canticles of Luke — those are all shaped by Jewish conventions for hymns; that was the language that they had and that they used. The earliest things that we have are shaped in terms of the Jewish liturgy.

After all, the followers of Jesus met in the synagogues. When Paul went out into the diaspora, and other people with him (he was not alone by any means; he had many co-workers; he names two dozen or so, six or more of them being women), naturally, they went to the Jewish communities. There were more Jews in the diaspora than in Palestine, and the Jewish communities were often a third of the city that they went to; so, of course, Paul and the others found them — these were their people, they shared their language; they all spoke (koine) Greek. It’s only when Paul and his followers were driven out as heretics — because they thought Jesus is the Messiah, and others did not — that they were driven out. But still, their form of worship had already been shaped by where they started — in the synagogues. And the Gospels would be used liturgically in their gatherings apart from the synagogue when they could no longer meet there.

JM: You refer to this book and the others in this series as devotional rather than scholarly, but they are clearly informed by a great deal of scholarly information. What exactly do you mean?

GW: Well, I don’t pretend to be a Bible scholar, because I don’t consider myself qualified. I don’t know Hebrew. I don’t know Aramaic. I wouldn’t count myself a real Bible scholar unless I knew those. I know Greek because I read the Gospels in Greek from high school on. So I have to rely on other scholars for telling me what the Aramaic of this or that means, or what the Hebrew means, and I try to go to ones that are of the best repute, etc. But my reason for writing is not to contribute to the world of scholarship; it’s a profession of faith, because the Gospels are not written only for scholars. They’re written for us believers in the broadest sense. As I say, my editor asked me originally what I thought Jesus said, and there are many people talking about that, and not making much sense in some cases.

We have a very bad history of dealing with the Scriptures, of course, and my church especially does — the Roman Church. For a long time, in the Middle Ages, people forgot what the situation of the original composition of the Gospels was. Then the patriarchal, monarchical church wanted to suppress certain aspects of the Gospels; in the Western church, especially, they started preaching only from the 4th-century translation of the Gospels into Latin. That was a good enough translation for its time — a lot of it was done by Jerome. But he didn’t even start learning Hebrew until he was translating the things. Nonetheless, unfortunately, at the Council of Trent, the Roman Church said, “You can’t deal with any other Bible than the Latin translation, the Vulgate,” which killed Biblical scholarship in the Catholic Church for centuries, until the 20th century, really. The church thought, with good reason, that people going back to the original were taking different approaches from the authorized one, and it wanted to quash that. Now, a number of Catholics, like Erasmus, said, “That makes no sense at all. You should go to the originals; you shouldn’t rely on second-hand stuff.” But the church did for a long time. Then, in the 19th century, the revolutions in historiography and philology and archaeology started throwing new light on the Scriptures, and that scared the Roman Church, as it scares fundamentalists in America to this day. They want to stick with the King James Version. The Roman Church wanted to stick with the Jerome version, the Latin.

As a consequence, there were attacks on the higher criticism in Germany in the 19th century, and on what was called “modernism” in the 20th century. In the early part of the 20th century, when you became a priest, you had to take an anti-modernist oath which said that the Gospel of John, the Letters of John, and the Revelation of John were all written by the same person, and that person was the Apostle John. Now, none of that is true! And yet, generations of priests had to take that vow. It was not until the 1950s that that kind of suppression of knowledge was broken. Now, Catholic scholars are in the forefront. They are as good as any — Fitzmyer and Brown and others. But for a long, long time, their type of scholarship was suppressed.

There’s another problem. Some preachers, of all Christian denominations, believe that since a simple approach to the Gospels is what people have taken in the past, it would disturb their faith — would shake their faith — if they were told, “Well, it’s not all literally true. There was not really a star that guided the Magi. In fact, there weren’t even Magi.” Even pastors and priests who know better don’t want to tell their followers that; I’ve had them say that to me, both Catholic and Protestant. But it makes no sense! As Raymond Brown points out, the story of the Magi and the star doesn’t make any sense as a story, because a star guides people from some far country, and they get as far as Jerusalem — then all of a sudden the star deserts them and they have to go ask road directions from Herod. [LAUGHS] And when the star is no longer needed, it pops up again; it makes no sense at all. The point is, this is the star out of the Sacred Writings. It’s the star that Balaam invoked in the Book of Numbers: “a star will rise out of Jacob.” That’s what the early communities said. “We don’t know who was there at the birth of Jesus, but our belief is it was the birth of the Messiah.” And what does that mean? Well, we know that this is the fulfillment of the hopes of the Sacred Writings, of sacred history, and therefore, the meaning of it is that the hope for the star out of Jacob has been fulfilled — and that’s what they’re talking about in the story of the Magi.

Now, there’s no reason you can’t preach that. That’s what they preached originally. But they didn’t believe there was a real star; they believed there was a star out of the Sacred Writings. And would you rather have it out of the heavens or out of the Sacred Writings? Yet every time Christmas comes around, you get Life magazine or some other magazine saying, “Was there a comet? Was there a conjunction of two stars?” All that is nonsense! But pastors and priests are afraid to preach that.

So, to get back to your question, my book is not scholarly. There’s nothing I say that scholars don’t know. But because priests and pastors don’t dwell on what the scholars know, I think it’s important for lay believers to say, “We can believe this.” Folks like me, ordinary folk. There’s no reason why we have to keep thinking these false things because they were thought in the past.

Especially it’s wrong to tell lies, and there is a terrible tradition in all the churches that, if it helps faith, you can tell lies. And it starts very early. Even Jerome, in the 4th century, can’t help himself when interpreting a disagreement between Peter and Paul about segregation between Jew and Gentile in early gatherings, a disagreement that is documented in Paul’s letters. Paul finally says, “That’s tearing apart the body of Christ. We’re all members of the body of Christ. We all know that our baptismal hymn had said that. So stop saying that we’ve got to eat separately.”

Jerome said, “Oh my God, this is Peter! This is Paul! They can’t have disagreed.” And he explained that they were dissembling, pretending to disagree in order to set up Paul’s answer. Augustine wrote a scathing response saying, “They were lying in order to present the truth of the Gospel? That’s terrible!” He went on to write a whole treatise, On Lying, asserting that you can’t lie to bring about the spread of truth. The argument has been repeated century after century after century, all through our history.

JM: In reference to the Catholic Church, I think your phrase is “structures of deceit” — there are “structures of deceit” built into the church’s interpretation of many matters. What interests me is that it seems to sell faith short when you feel the need to replace it with certainty or dogma; it illustrates a great lack of faith.

GW: Yes.

JM: If one reads the Hebrew Bible or New Testament, without the trot of dogma, one is continually confronted with wonder, bizarre happenings…

GW: Challenge. Right.

JM: The challenge to make sense of it is not always a devotional exercise, but a kind of intellectual or spiritual struggle that requires faith of some sort. So that grappling with the Scripture ennobles faith, where certainty diminishes it.

GW: Yes.

JM: Is dogma an appeal, then, to the least common denominator, an attempt to constrain the energies of faith?

GW: It gives you unbought certitudes. It gives you quick answers that dispel mystery. One of the reasons I am so dependent on Augustine is that he never takes those shortcuts. He knows the whole thing is mysterious. He said, “If it’s God, you don’t understand it, and if you understand it, it’s not God.” He said, “All of us go a certain way and no farther toward the tremendous mystery of God, and we can’t make fun of anybody who also goes only part way.” When he’s talking about the Trinity he says, “Well, God, the Father, is not the Father of God, the Son. God is not gendered, for one thing; he’s not male; he’s not Father. We use that terminology because it gives us a certain thing to go on. Certain things in the Father-Son relationship are like the relationship of the first person and second person in the Trinity. But it’s not literally true.”

When he talks about the Trinity, he likes to talk about his own language. He says, “God made humans in His or Her image. So the closest thing there is to God that we can study is ourselves, and our fellow human beings. So if we do that, how are we like God? Well, we have mind and will and memory, we have all these faculties, and they’re different, one is not doing the same thing as the other, and they’re all me — I conceive of them and feel them as myself. So, as we are one in many, and we are that in a higher degree than anything else we know in the Universe, that’s what God is like.” Only like. Not the same. We’re not God. But he’d rather talk in those terms than in terms of Father-Son.

JM: Allow me to segue into history. For reasons unrelated to this interview I have been reading some of your other works, those focused on American history. Despite the difference in subject matter, it has struck me that there is an intellectual kinship among these three devotional books (What Jesus Meant, What Paul Meant, and What the Gospels Meant), and historical books like Inventing America, Lincoln at Gettysburg, and your Henry Adams book. In all of them, you seem to find it congenial to turn to fundamental documents to explore what they meant in their original context, and to illuminate how these documents shaped meaning over time. Whether you are addressing Christianity, or the Catholic Church, or American government and politics, your self-appointed task often seems to be the exploration of the difference between, in your own words, “what a tradition means and what a document says”. The similarity of your intellectual attack, if you will — your interest in “original intent” across both religion and history — is quite consistent.

GW: My training is that of a philologist; I am a classicist by training. One of the interesting things about being a classicist is that we have only a limited amount of information from Greek antiquity, for instance. My doctorate was on the plays of Aeschylus. We’ve got the plays, but how do you interpret them? You have to know something about the history. Given the paucity of evidence from antiquity, a classicist has to be trained to a certain degree in papyrology, numismatics, archaeology, history of course — because you have to piece out around a text what the background was, what was going on in the world at that time. Even to know what the words mean is sometimes very hard. There are words that are used only once or twice in all of Greek history, the hapax legomena as they’re called, and you have to tease out their meaning by analogy to other words that may have been formed the same way. (Of course, modern Biblical scholarship was all done by Germans who were trained in classical philology.) So yes, my background disposes me to go at subjects in that way.

JM: Do you see in the two strands of your work any broader connections? For instance, does your interest in the original intent of the Gospels echo an interest in the original intent of the Founders, with all that the phrase connotes in current political discourse?

GW: I don’t like the original intent people on the Supreme Court. But original intent is an important part of, also, a tradition. America does have, more than other countries, a documentary orientation. That is, we have a written Constitution. England doesn’t. A lot of places don’t. We have a much closer connection with our Constitution than other countries have with their foundational events. In England, for example, the foundations fade off into legend, into King Arthur, etc. America has a very short history in comparison with a lot of other countries, and our history is very documentary. We do appeal to the Constitution in day-to-day life.

Now, the original intent, I argue, was what Madison said — that the Constitution is a sketch to be applied and adapted. He used, by the way, Scripture as an example. He said that there are Scriptural texts that are mysterious and have to be tested and have to be interpreted down through the ages, and the same will be true of the Constitution.

But what original intent people on the Supreme Court want to say is: “If cruel and unusual punishment included whipping and all horrible kinds of things in the 18th century, then it has to mean that now.” Madison would not say that at all. He would say that this is a changing situation. Jefferson wanted to revise the Constitution on a regular basis, and Madison said, “No, you can’t do that; the whole thing would fall apart if you did that. But you don’t have to, because you can apply these texts to new situations.” So yes, I think a documentary approach to American history is very important; but there are several ways you can interpret that, and the current Supreme Court seems to me to be doing it in a very silly way.

For instance, women clearly were not given citizens’ rights at the beginning, not even in the Declaration of Independence. When Jefferson says, “all men are created equal,” he means homo politicus — men, political men who at that time had the power of self-government. Women are not included. Slaves are not included. Children are not included. The crazy are not included. Jefferson had no idea that women would be treated as equals. And certainly not slaves. Now, by the time Lincoln is arguing with Douglas, he’s saying, “All men are created equal. That has to mean something. Do you want to exclude blacks?” And Douglas said, “Well . . .”

By that time, homo politicus had changed its meaning in terms of our practice and our testing of what makes political sense. So our original documents in that sense have to be developed. Cardinal Newman talked about the development of dogma, because life is change; if you have a set of dogmas that can’t change, they will become irrelevant. They have to change in order to be part of life. But you do have to know what was originally meant.

A good example of that is the literal approach to the Bible. Both the Jewish Sacred Writings and what we now call the New Testament say slavery is okay. In fact, slavery is recommended, and even commanded in the Jewish Scripture. In the Christian, Paul says “Slaves, obey your masters.” Jesus never criticizes slavery. He talks about slaves when he says that the master gives certain things to the slaves. They say “servants” in the modern translations, but it’s “slaves” in the Greek. Slavery was taken for granted. It was a part of life. Slaves were a third of the population.

Now one approach, of course, which has plagued our history in America, holds that if it’s good enough for God to accept slaves, it’s got to be good enough for us. We’ve got to accept slaves, because the Bible does in both its Testaments. It took the Quakers in the 18th century, John Woolman and others, to say, “Wait a minute; we don’t have to do everything that the Bible says. Certain parts of the Bible are time-bound, they’re part of the language of culture at a time when the culture was different from ours. And besides, the Bible is not consistent with itself. You can pit text against text, and you can decide some texts are less eternally true than others.” They said, “Look at the Sermon on the Mount. The Golden Rule is ëdo to others what you would have them do to you.’ Well, would you have them enslave you? No. Therefore, you shouldn’t enslave them.”

It’s a matter of which Bible texts are more important, which are more time-bound, which are less theological. The same thing is true of all our readings of the Scripture. Again, Augustine is the great example here. He says, “We know that the world was not created in six days. How do we know that? Because we have reason. God gave us reason, and He meant for us to use it. So we read the Greek astronomers, and they proved that the world is round. If it’s day on one side, it’s night on the other. There’s no such thing as day one, or absolute day one. So God is not talking about the day that hits the globe. He is talking in symbolic language. What do the symbols mean? We’ve got to figure out the symbols.”

That’s the difficulty with original intent; it pits different levels of meaning, different symbols, and various kinds of rationality against each other. You have to know what kind of language is being spoken. For instance, the Bible is not talking about astronomy; it’s talking about symbols of creativity. And the story of the Virgin Birth is not an obstetrics text. We know what the Virgin Birth means, because John says in the opening hymn that if you’re born of the Spirit, you’re not born of the flesh — you’re not born of earthly lusts and desires. And he says to Nicodemus, “You have to be born of the Spirit to enter into the Kingdom, and everybody who accepts Jesus is born of the Spirit, which is not born of the flesh.”

JM: Your occupation as both historian and writer on religion gives you a rare and long perspective on our political-religious climate. In America, we’ve been in the midst of what you’ve called a “span of evangelical fervor” for a while now. I’m wondering what your take is on our current state of affairs, and if you’re hopeful for the future.

GW: Yes, I am always hopeful. We’ve had these spans of fervor before, and they’ve lasted longer than this one promises to last. There is that angle of belief, fundamentalism, which is recurrent, and is especially strong today around the world — not only in America. Fundamentalism is a big phenomenon in all faiths — Jewish, Muslim, Christian.

In this country, our great bastion is the separation of Church and State. It’s the only original thing in our Constitution. Everything else, Federalism, bicameralism, tripartite administration, judicial independence, they’ve all been around in theory and practice. But we are the first government that had no official God and no official cult of God. Jefferson and Madison both held that the separation of Church and State would free religion, save it from the corruptions that have occurred when governments appointed pastors and paid pastors and dismissed pastors. And that proved to be true to a large extent.

The myth of the Religious Right is that we were a very religious country at our founding, and we’ve been declining ever since. It’s exactly the opposite. Only 17% of the people were churchgoers in the 1770s. We were never less religious in evangelical terms, though we were never more religious in terms of enlightened deistic belief in the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God. Luckily, that enlightened belief is what set up the government, and the framework it provided made possible the explosion of religion that occurred at the beginning of the 19th century. We’ve been becoming more religious ever since, which has continued right up to this day.

We’re still the most religious of the developed countries, and that’s because we have a much freer religiosity. Madison, when he went to Princeton, said to his friend there, who was a Presbyterian and became a Presbyterian minister, “You’re so lucky. You don’t have an established church here, as we do in Virginia. We have an established Anglican church, so we persecute the Baptists, and our priests, our Anglican priests, are lazy drunkards. We should have a world in which the pastors don’t get appointed and paid from above — they should have to go out and get congregations on their own. That’s a more healthy situation.” It was out of that experience that he developed his views on religious freedom and its protection through the separation of Church and State.

The only scary thing in this year’s campaign (and it’s not too scary, because he’s not going anywhere) is Huckabee, who wants to get rid of the First Amendment. That’s really tearing the very heart out of the Constitution. He wants to put God into the Constitution. He wants to establish religion. He’s a very nice, likeable, attractive guy, but he’s got the most horrible message of them all.

JM: Last question. What do you hope that readers will get from this particular series of books, What Jesus Meant, What Paul Meant, and What the Gospels Meant? You say they’re devotional, but they assume a kind of engagement with Biblical scholarship that is considerable, even as it enlivens the mysteries at the core of what you’re writing about.

GW: Yes. I want readers to realize there are riches to be explored in these texts. The best example of what I don’t want them to do is to go along with the stereotypes of Paul as misogynistic and anti-Semitic and all that. I want them to realize that the texts reveal a different church world than we’ve been used to thinking about, and it’s a much more interesting, fascinating one, and we have a lot to explore in the Gospels and in Paul that has not been explored because of our preconceptions about what is there.

                                                                                                                         —February 26, 2008