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In a review in the New York Times, John Leonard once wrote that Garry Wills “reads like a combination of H. L. Mencken, John Locke and Albert Camus.” That seems a good summary for this writer of exceptional depth, and long-standing contributor to Harper’s Magazine (he authored nine articles), though his writing clearly is closer to Camus and Locke than Mencken. Garry Wills started his career as a drama critic for William F. Buckley, Jr., at ‘National Review’ and built his reputation with ‘Nixon Agonistes,’ a work that landed him high on the Nixon enemies list. Along the way he emerged as a brilliant scholar of the rhetoric of America’s Civil War era, and he won a Pulitzer Prize for his masterful analysis of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address in ‘Lincoln at Gettysburg.’ But Wills’s academic career started with a passion for classics, and he has most recently returned to that. Wills is a leading expert on the Greek of the Christian scriptures, and he has put his skills as a textual analyst to work in a series of penetrating studies of sacred texts: ‘What Jesus Meant,’ ‘What Paul Meant,’ and the last in the series, and the subject of this interview, ‘What the Gospels Meant.’
1. Let’s begin with the end. You answer your own question: “How to read the Gospels? As a whole, with the reverence they derive from and address, yet with the intelligence God gave us to help us find him.” That’s clearly the approach you’ve taken in this whole series of books dealing with Christian scripture. But since the time of David Strauss at least there has been caution about applying the tools of scientific inquiry to points of faith, a fear that it strips away the mystery that surrounds questions of faith, and that it will inevitably lead to a debunking, to the view that “God is dead.” By putting the Gospels in the setting of the communities in which they arose, aren’t you stripping away the mysteries? How do you cope with this criticism?
Since I believe in the divinity of Jesus, there is no way I can reduce the mystery of that fact. To look at the history and nature of the gospels does not do so. To present ignorance of the history as a mystery to be revered is an exercise in false religiosity. As Augustine said, God wants us to use our reason in reading Scripture; otherwise he would not have given us reason in the first place.
2. Much of your approach starts with the language of the earliest texts, which you tell us is a sort of pidgin, or marketplace, Greek—not a language steeped in great literary or philosophical tradition. What does the style of language tell you about those involved in producing these texts and the purposes for which they were prepared?
Since koine Greek was the language of the Roman Empire, and the gospels were written in the Diaspora, not in Jerusalem, the gospels show how rapidly the Jesus movement exploded into the “outside” world and addressed people across a wide spectrum of cultures in the Empire.
3. You have presented the view, based largely on textual analysis, that the original texts present a view of women that is far more accepting of them and their role in the church than later evolved in the established churches, which you term “misogynistic.” Can you give some examples of this? How do the church hierarchies cope with scholarship that undermines their views about the role of women?
Recent popes have defended the subordinate position of women in religious activity by saying that Jesus did not ordain women as priests. But neither did he ordain any men as priests. There are no priests in the letters of Paul or the gospels. Paul never calls himself, or Timothy, or any of those he writes to, priests. He does call a number of women his “co-workers,” the term for his fellow evangelists. He says there were women prophets, and one woman, Julia, was an apostolos (“apostle”), his own highest title.
4. You write “Jesus’ calm bearing under trial and torture and execution is a model for his followers as they face their own ordeals.” You put this in the context of the persecution of the early church in Syria and the Gospel of Mark. Can you explain what evidence you see for a Gospel related to a suffering Jesus and what this meant at the time of its preparation?
The gospel of Mark, whose community was clearly divided under persecution, notes that Jesus’ own family turned against him, giving a model of perseverance under the most discouraging circumstances.
5. The opening verses of John must be among the most powerful and poetic words of Christian scripture. You tell us that this text is likely a “hymn” and that it has been edited to serve as a preface to a text that begins with the story of John the Baptist. Can you explain the basis for this interpretation?
Raymond Brown’s analysis of the opening of John’s gospel is brilliant. He points out that the poetic structure is broken by prose inserts, connecting the hymn with the treatment of John the Baptists that follows it. He concludes that the gospel most likely began with the Baptist material (as Mark’s does), but that these connective sections were added when the poem was placed at the outset of the gospel.
6. You had a long relationship with William F. Buckley, Jr. Can you tell us how you met him and describe your relationship with him?
I sent a satirical article on Time style to National Review in 1957, when I was a graduate student. Bill asked to me to come see him in New York and we became friends as I wrote for the magazine and advised him on Catholic matters. But differences over Vietnam and the civil rights movement led to a break between us that was healed only by his sister Priscilla, who rightly said that our friendship was too precious to throw away. I am grateful to her for bringing us back together before his death.
Buy a copy of ‘What the Gospels Meant’ at your local bookstore, or online here.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”