What the Gospels Meant

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?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.? (Los AngelesTimes)
In his New York Times bestsellers What Jesus Meant and What Paul Meant,Garry Wills offers tour-de-force interpretations of Jesus and the Apostle Paul. Here Wills turns his remarkable gift for biblical analysis to the four gospels of Matthew, ...

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“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.” (Los AngelesTimes)
In his New York Times bestsellers What Jesus Meant and What Paul Meant,Garry Wills offers tour-de-force interpretations of Jesus and the Apostle Paul. Here Wills turns his remarkable gift for biblical analysis to the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Wills examines the goals, methods, and styles of the evangelists and how these shaped the gospels' messages. Hailed as "one of the most intellectually interesting and doctrinally heterodox Christians writing today" (The New York Times Book Review), Wills guides readers through the maze of meanings within these foundational texts, revealing their essential Christian truths.

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Editorial Reviews

David Gibson
What readers will find here is an engaging look at the Gospels, informed by the best biblical scholarship, as well as by Wills's own faith, which he discusses openly…Wills is a dangerous man. He does not create a foolish consistency out of differing Gospels, but underscores the attributes of each narrative to highlight truths more crucial than whether there were four discrete Evangelists, or whether three wise men actually followed a star in the East. The credulous will be shocked by his rationality, while skeptics will be scandalized by his respect for the faith.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Wills's follow-up to his bestselling works, What Jesus Meantand What Paul Meant, sheds new light on the four books of the Bible best known to most Christians. In taking the gospels apart, Wills helps readers see the oft-read stories from the life of Christ in a new way. As a former teacher of ancient and New Testament Greek, he provides his own translations of the texts, accompanied by incisive analysis that incorporates the work of other scholars. Although some Christians remain uncomfortable with the use of biblical scholarship to expand upon Christianity's scriptures, Wills is obviously convinced of its value and holds that it need not weaken one's faith. In his epilogue, for instance, he notes how scholar Raymond Brown, whom he quotes extensively, remained a devout believer even as he plumbed the depths of biblical scholarship. Wills explains that the gospels "are not historically true as that term would be understood today," adding that they were composed several decades after Christ's resurrection and are the culmination of an oral preaching process. Rather than historical accounts, he considers them to be a form of prayer: a "meditation on the meaning of Jesus in the light of Sacred History as recorded in the Sacred Writings." Readers willing to have their impressions about these texts challenged by an erudite scholar will find this to be fascinating and worthwhile reading. (Feb. 18)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

New York Timesbest-selling author and Pulitzer Prize winner Wills (history, emeritus, Northwestern Univ.; What Jesus Meant) provides another splendid book for the educated general public. Here, he analyzes the four Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, insisting that the church deliberately "gives us four different takes on the central mystery" of Christ, which remains inexhaustible. He observes that Mark emphasizes Jesus's role as sufferer; Matthew systematically presents his teachings; Luke stresses the healing aspects of his mission; and John keeps always in mind his divinity. Wills also explains the parallelism between biblical Jewish and Christian Scripture and the use of symbolic language in the Gospels to reveal the meaning of biblical events, e.g., God's theophany to Moses in Exodus 33 and the Resurrected Christ's theophany to two disciples in Emmaus. Wills dedicates his book to the memory of the great 20th-century biblical scholar Raymond Brown, on whose work he relies extensively. Highly recommended for public, seminary, and undergraduate academic libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ10/15/07.]
—Carolyn M. Craft

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143115120
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 1/27/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 539,764
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Garry Wills

Garry Wills is one of the most respected writers on religion today. He is the author of Saint Augustine’s Childhood, Saint Augustine’s Memory, and Saint Augustine’s Sin, the first three volumes in this series, as well as the Penguin Lives biography Saint Augustine. His other books include “Negro President”: Jefferson and the Slave Power, Why I Am a Catholic, Papal Sin, and Lincoln at Gettysburg, which won the Pulitzer Prize.


Born in Atlanta in 1934 and raised in the Midwest, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and distinguished religion writer Garry Wills entered the Jesuit seminary after high school graduation, but left after six years of training. He received a B.A. from St. Louis University (1957), an M.A. from Xavier University of Cincinnati (1958), and his Ph.D. in classics from Yale (1961).

After graduating from Xavier, Wills was hired to work as the drama critic for National Review magazine, where he became a close personal friend and protégé of founding editor William F. Buckley. But as the winds of change blew across the 1960s, Wills got caught up in the cross-currents. A staunch Catholic anti-Communist in his youth, he began to drift away from political conservatism, galvanized by the civil rights movement and the Vietnam debate. He parted ways with National Review and began writing for more liberal-leaning publications like Esquire and the New York Review of Books, a defection that left him slightly estranged from Buckley for many years. (They reconciled before Buckley's death in 2008.)

In 1961, while he was still in grad school, Wills's first book, Chesterton: Man and Mask was published. [It was revised and reissued in 2001 with a new author's introduction.] Since then, the prolific Wills has gone on to pen critically acclaimed nonfiction that roams across history, politics, and religion. He expanded one of his Esquire articles into Nixon Agonistes (1970), a probing profile John Leonard said "...reads like a combination of H. L. Mencken, John Locke and Albert Camus." (The book landed Wills on the famous Nixon's Enemies List.) He has also written penetrating studies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Wayne, and Saint Paul; he has won two National Book Critics Circle Awards; and his 1992 book Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

Something of a rara avis, Wills is a Catholic intellectual who has produced thoughtful, scholarly books on religion in America. His translations of St. Augustine have received glowing reviews, and he has acted both as an outspoken critic of the Church (Papal Sin) and as an ardent advocate for his own faith Why I Am a Catholic). Proof of his accessibility can be found in the fact that several of his religion books have become bestsellers.

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    1. Date of Birth:
      May 22, 1934
    2. Place of Birth:
      Atlanta, GA
    1. Education:
      St. Louis University, B.A., 1957; Xavier University, M.A., 1958; Yale University, Ph.D., 1961

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 9 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 10 of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 21, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    are you curious how the first Christians became Christians?

    this book will help. it shows the lay reader where the threads of history are picked up in the gospels. with references to paul's letters and to what we know of jewish first century history. Mr. Wills shows that the notion of christ as divine came early, as illustrated in the prayers contained in paul. its not an easy read, but the writing is clear enough. it is written by a believer, but can be appreciated by the non believer, and perhaps even by an earnest fundamentalist (who may still imagine god dictating the bible to his prophets) - though if you are a fundamentalist, this will challenge every bit of your faith.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 4, 2009

    Gary Wills is a first-rate intellect and writer. All of his work is worth carefgul consideration.

    This book is one of a series by Gary Wills explaining his Catholic belief in light of contemporary biblical scholarship. Although I share neither Wills' expertise nor his faith, I found this brief for intelligent and informed belief of compelling interest. He summarizes the content of each of the four Gospels, focusing on particular cruxes to clarify the special nature of each of them, making credible inferences about each of the writers and his position within the Christian community of his time. The writing has the lucidity we have come to expect from this extraordinary public intellectual.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 16, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Thoughtful Commentary on the Gospels

    Wills has written an extraordinary clear and concise explanation of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John - placing the stories of Jesus' life in the context of contemporary Jewish life and writings as well as the early Christian communities who must used those Gospels to guide their spritual and life choices. As straightforward as Wills' exposition is, I think it would be difficult to follow without an everyday knowledge of the Gospels - such as one would have from a childhood of church-going - but one does not need to have faith or be a Christian to appreciate the powerful stories Wills helps the reader to understand.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 15, 2011

    An Orthodox Christian interpretation of modern biblical scholarship

    In 'What the Gospels Meant', Garry Wills takes an orthodox view of christianity and combines it with modern biblical scholarship to provide an enlightening and inspiring view of the gospels as written by and for four different christian communities. For example, Mark's gospel emphasizes the personal conflicts surrounding Jesus as an encouragement that his fellowship's own conflicts where not abnormal. Luke's emphasizes Jesus outreach and inclusion of non-Jews in his ministry as his community was much less jewish and Jerusalem had already been destroyed.
    In so doing, he affirms orthodox christian theology while acknowledging the Bible as 'inspired' rather than 'inerrant'. Those without at least a familiarity with the gospels may find it hard to follow, but with reference to their own copy of the New Testament, I think that it shouldn't be too difficult. Recommended, especially for those who have a hard time reconciling popular criticisms of the Bible with a genuine faith in Jesus.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 4, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    What the Gospels Meant . . . to me

    Mr. Wills has once again provided a work that intellectually gets to the core of belief and also makes one reflect on their own core beliefs. He is able to open up new lines of thought, raise new questions and offer inspiration in an intellectually understandable and concise form. Along with his companion volumes on Paul and Jesus, this makes for a trifecta of books that offer theological insight and comfort. I find myself picking up these volumes again and again to help answer questions, give comfort and ponder anew questions that arise regarding faith. I believe that is the best compliment one can give to a book, that you can pick it up time and again, and learn something new about it or yourself.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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