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About the Author

Garry Wills, 1934 - Garry Wills was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1934. Wills received a B.A. from St. Louis University in 1957, an M.A. from Xavier University of Cincinnati in 1958, an M.A. (1959) and a Ph.D. (1961) in classics from Yale. Wills was a junior fellow of the Center for Hellenic Studies show more from 1961-62, an associate professor of classics and adjunct professor of humanities at Johns Hopkins University from 1962-80. Wills was the first Washington Irving Professor of Modern American History and Literature at Union College, and was also a Regents Professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara, Silliman Seminarist at Yale, Christian Gauss Lecturer at Princeton, W.W. Cook Lecturer at the University of Michigan Law School, Hubert Humphrey Seminarist at Macalester College, Welch Professor of American Studies at Notre Dame University and Henry R. Luce Professor of American Culture and Public Policy at Northwestern University (1980-88). Wills is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and his articles appear frequently in The New York Review of Books. Wills is the author of "Lincoln at Gettysburg," which won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1993 and the NEH Presidential Medal, "John Wayne's America," "A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government" and "The Kennedy Imprisonment." Other awards received by Wills include the National Book Critics Award, the Merle Curti Award of the organization of American Historians, the Wilbur Cross Medal from Yale Graduate School, the Harold Washington Book Award and the Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting, which was for writing and narrating the 1988 "Frontline" documentary "The Candidates." (Bowker Author Biography) Garry Wills is a Pulitzer-prize winning historian and cultural critic. A former professor of Greek at Yale University, his many books include Lincoln at Gettysburg, Reagan's America, Witches and Jesuits, and a biography of Saint Augustine. He lives in Evanston, Indiana. (Publisher Provided) Garry Wills is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine and The New York Review of Books. He lives in Evanston, Illinois. (Publisher Provided) show less
Image credit: I took this photo!

Works by Garry Wills

What Jesus Meant (2006) 824 copies
Saint Augustine (1999) 806 copies
What Paul Meant (2006) 585 copies
James Madison (2002) 446 copies
Why I Am a Catholic (2002) 423 copies
What the Gospels Meant (2008) 332 copies
The Rosary (2005) 191 copies
Chesterton (1961) 86 copies
Travelers' Tales GREECE : True Stories (2000) — Contributor — 31 copies
Bush's Fringe Government (2006) 20 copies
Jack Ruby (1994) 15 copies
At Button's (1979) 8 copies

Associated Works

The Iliad (0750) — Preface, some editions — 38,713 copies
The New Journalism (1973) — Contributor — 331 copies
Christian Science (1907) — Introduction, some editions — 274 copies
The Best American Essays 2002 (2002) — Contributor — 219 copies
Saint Augustine's Childhood (2001) — Translator, some editions — 130 copies
The Hidden Encyclical of Pius XI (1995) — Introduction, some editions — 100 copies
Saint Augustine's Memory (2002) — Translator — 99 copies


Achilles (185) American history (376) ancient (335) Ancient Greece (704) Ancient Greek (205) ancient history (161) ancient literature (205) antiquity (181) biography (563) Christianity (291) Civil War (193) classic (1,008) classic literature (204) classical (219) classical literature (334) classics (2,256) epic (1,013) epic poetry (627) fiction (1,695) Greece (788) Greek (1,149) Greek literature (701) Greek mythology (371) history (1,354) Homer (955) Iliad (274) literature (1,283) mythology (1,505) non-fiction (698) poetry (2,705) politics (289) read (309) religion (630) Theology (177) to-read (1,044) translation (307) Trojan War (444) Troy (281) unread (198) war (382)

Common Knowledge



Another volume in this series that doesn't have nearly as much of a biography of the book as I would have expected - it's far more about Augustine and his thinking rather than the context of the book and its publication history.
JBD1 | Nov 22, 2023 |
heart of Gospel
SrMaryLea | 17 other reviews | Aug 23, 2023 |
I must comment on the frequent typos in Gary Wills’ otherwise excellent (if quibble-worthy) commentary on the four canonical Gospels of the New Testament. The typos seem to get worse as the book goes along. At first it is just things like the missing “to” before what is obviously meant to be an infinitive of a verb, or an “s” at the end of a noun that should not be plural or a verb that should not be third-person singular in the present tense (or a missing “s” where one should be). But then more glaring typos appear such as a transposition of words: “more than other any” instead of “more than any other” (page 148). Then there is this howler: “without him nothing that exits existed” instead of “without him nothing that exists existed” (page 157). And in a section where Wills explains his analysis of the opening verses of the Gospel of John, and how they constitute a hymn, which, although in poetic form, is broken up by four passages in prose, he muddies an already complex explanation by getting his own notation wrong:

He designates four small groups of verses (some as short as one verse) as w, x, y, and z. Each is a little block of explanatory prose inserted between the poetic lines of the hymn, but in presenting the insertions, he gives the “y” designation twice. By comparing Wills’ analysis to the text of the Gospel itself, I realized that the second of the two passages, which Wills labeled “y,” should have been labeled “x” (pages 160-161). I suppose that all of the other typos could have been Wills’ own fault in his original manuscript, but this last one is a candidate for being an editor’s mistake. I can imagine an editor becoming confused by Wills presenting the lettered passages out of order: w, y, x, z: I would be confused by it too, except that Wills does say that “w” and “y” both have to do with John the Baptist, whereas x and z have more to do with the Lord; so, that explains why he deals with the two passages that have to do with the Baptist together even though this puts the “y” before the “x.”

(Here I would indict the mindset of modern editors who will overlook “exits” where it should be “exists” and then intervene to turn an “x” into a “y” when they should have left it alone. These editors are reminiscent of the spiritually blind guides of Matthew 23:24 whom Jesus accuses of straining out a gnat while swallowing a camel whole.)

Editorial objections aside, as an amateur Bible scholar, I am fascinated by Wills’ book. Wills closely follows Father Raymond E. Brown (1928-1998), a Sulpician priest and scholar who is the most frequently cited source in this book. Indeed, the dedication reads “To Raymond Brown, devout scholar.” It might be fair to say that Wills is a popular interpreter of Brown’s work on the Gospels, although Wills might say that Brown does not need an interpreter, that he is clear enough. But Wills’ book is only 209 pages, and he distills four books by Brown (two of which are two volumes each). If you want to know what Brown thinks but don’t have time to read six volumes, Wills’ book might be your better bet.

Though a devout Christian, Wills has nevertheless read the New Testament carefully and is far from ignorant of the fact that the Gospels are written my men with agendas and idiosyncrasies, but while recognizing the evangelists’ personal quirks, Wills regards them as inspired and is unperturbed by the obvious discrepancies among the Gospel accounts. (By the way, Wills capitalizes “Gospel” consistently whether he refers to a particular gospel or not; I ordinarily do not capitalize the word when using it generically, but here I will defer to Wills.)

It is instructive to see the operation of Wills mind as he sifts through the data of the Gospels. He would like to believe that the Gospels reflect historical events, but when Matthew and Luke each give genealogies of Jesus, he knows they don’t jibe. Wills, like Brown, dismisses the importance of such discrepancies to faith in Jesus. He thus analyzes the genealogies in terms of what message about Jesus each evangelist is trying to put forward. For instance, Matthew’s genealogy traces his bloodline to Adam, while Luke traces it back to God. Matthew and Luke also give different accounts of Jesus’ nativity. Christmas celebrations have long gloried in mashing these two traditions together into one, ignoring the differences amid the pageantry. But it is difficult to reconcile the contradiction that, in Matthew, the Holy Family flees to Egypt to escape King Herod’s murderous rage, but Luke, while relating no such story, has the Holy Family go home to Nazareth, but also has Jesus visit the Temple in Jerusalem at eight days of age. (Only Luke tells that story or the subsequent one about Jesus returning to the Temple at age twelve.)

Wills is aware that extra-canonical traditions have grown up around the Gospels despite the lack of evidence for them in the books of the New Testament itself. For example—and I know this will come as a surprise to many Christians—although each Gospel is attributed to a named author, there is no internal evidence to identify any author by name. The Gospels were all written anonymously and originally published without attribution. So were other books such as the Acts of the Apostles, although analysis of the Greek writing style of Acts has long persuaded scholars that whoever wrote the Gospel of Luke is the same person who wrote Acts. The names associated with most New Testament writings are a matter of tradition originating in the second century, well after these books were written, and these attributions depend entirely on pious guesses made by the early Church Fathers. The exceptions, of course, are the thirteen letters attributed to Paul, all of which bear his name, and seven of which he is genuinely believed to have written.

Wills goes through the Gospels in the order in which they are now generally accepted to have been written: Mark, Matthew, Luke (see quibble below), and John. The traditional order, still maintained in most copies of the New Testament, puts Matthew first. While pointing out their similarities, Wills also goes into detail about what makes each Gospel unique. The first three Gospels are called the Synoptics which means that they “see together (syn-optic)” or view the Gospel narrative similarly. They are more alike on many points than they are like John, although there are points of similarity between all four Gospels.

Without preliminary matter, the Gospel of Mark begins with John the Baptist acknowledging Jesus. Matthew begins with his own preliminary matter, consisting of a genealogy for Jesus and a nativity story, but then he turns to John the Baptist. Luke begins by addressing an apparent patron, praising his own authorial process and research and a nativity story that differs from Matthews on significant points, but he also turns next to John the Baptist. (Luke saves his genealogy for a later chapter.) The Gospel of John begins with a hymn (interrupted by little blocks of prose) that likely belonged to a first-century Christian liturgy, but after that comes a vaguely familiar scene featuring John the Baptist who acknowledges Jesus. Despite their differences, then, the four Gospels have some narrative features in common: They agree that Jesus encountered John the Baptist, who vouched for Jesus having a special relationship with God; that he traveled in Galilee, a region of northern Palestine; and to Syria, a region outside of Israel; and that he went to Jerusalem where he scandalized the Jewish authorities to the extent that they turned him over to Rome’s Prefect Pontius Pilate, who ordered Jesus’ crucifixion. All four Gospels suggest that Jesus rose from the dead and that he is divine, most explicitly in John’s Gospel.

Wills, following Brown, shows that each Gospel seems to be expressing the teachings needed by a particular community in the diverse early Christian Church. For example, Mark presumably speaks to a persecuted church located in first-century Syria. The odd thing about the way that Mark originally ended his Gospel (in the oldest manuscripts that have been found) is that the women who come to the tomb on Easter Sunday are said to flee the empty tomb and to tell no one what they have seen and heard. Had that been the last word, how would Christianity have come into existence let alone spread? So, additional lines, in a different writing style, were added to later editions of Mark to show that Jesus did, indeed, contact his followers and let them know that he had risen. But why did the original version show so much fear and faithlessness among the disciples? Wills suggests that many among Mark’s persecuted audience were falling away, yielding to intimidation and temptation to forsake their faith. Perhaps Mark meant to shame these apostates, or by portraying as many acts of betrayal as he could, among the disciples of Jesus, he may have wanted to inspire them to return to the fold by suggesting that even those disciples who knew Jesus intimately were tempted to fall away.

The author of Luke and Acts, for another example, may have been writing furthest away from Jerusalem, and yet he idealizes the Holy City and favors it as a setting. Luke’s disciples make Jerusalem their permanent home base, while the other Gospels insist that the disciples go back to Galilee after the crucifixion.
Matthew and Luke both follow Mark’s narrative enough that some passages are almost word for word the same as in Mark, except that Matthew and Luke each write in more polished Greek than Mark, and generally clean up Mark’s homely style. (This led scholars in the nineteenth century to conclude that Matthew and Luke copied Mark, otherwise, if Mark copied Matthew or Luke, why would he turn their more literate style into less polished prose?) Matthew and Luke also add material not included in Mark. Notably, their Great Sermons contain numerous sayings attributed to Jesus but which appear nowhere in Mark.

Although Matthew and Luke are similar to each other, as well as to Mark, Luke never rewrites Mark in the same way that Matthew does, and Luke does not phrase the non-Markan sayings of Jesus in the same way as Matthew. Additionally, Matthew has some non-Markan sayings that Luke does not have, and Luke has some non-Markan sayings that Matthew does not have. From this, scholars long ago realized that both Matthew and Luke were aware of Mark and were aware of a number of the same non-Markan sayings attributed to Jesus, but Matthew and Luke did not copy each other, and most likely were not even aware of each other. As to who was first, Matthew or Luke, scholars generally agree that the order in which the four canonical Gospels were written is: Mark first, John last, and it is anyone’s guess whether Matthew came before Luke or vice versa.

Matthew and Luke also include other material, essentially sayings, parables and narrative episodes (pericopes is the technical term for all of these) that do not appear in Mark or John. Wills does not mention this, but Matthew includes a saying about a “city on a hill” (5:14) in his Sermon on the Mount that does not appear in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (yes, the settings of the two otherwise similar sermons are different geographically, as Wills notes). Otherwise, all of the sayings near the-city-on-the-hill saying in Matthew are similar to sayings used by Luke. My hypothesis is that Matthew took the hill-city saying from an early version of the Gospel of Thomas, the only other source we know of that has a similar saying. (Another possibility, though, is that the saying about the hill-city was in oral circulation and that it came to Matthew and Thomas independently.)
Wills says at one point that Brown once believed that the author of the Gospel of John was the Apostle John, son of Zebedee, but his scholarship convinced him that the book is best understood as the work of three men, the first being an unidentified disciple (known as the Beloved Disciple) who established a community or school (or both), the second being a sophisticated student of the school, who wrote the first version of the narrative Gospel, and the third was a later redactor or editor, who added material and comments, including the final passage of the Gospel that speaks of the Beloved Disciple as the author of the book and speaks of him in the third person, thereby plainly admitting that there are, at least, two authors (page 154).

Knowing that the Christian books of the Bible are not inerrant, Brown and Wills nevertheless try to attenuate folly wherever possible. Consider this sentence, for example:

“[Luke] says that Paul was trained in Jerusalem and returned there more often than his [Paul’s] own letters can verify” (page 149).

This mitigates the impact of Paul’s flat contradiction of Luke who, in Acts, says that the first thing that Paul did after his conversion was to go to Jerusalem (Acts 9:26), while Paul maintains that he waited 3 yrs. before going back to Jerusalem (Galatians 1:15-18) and did not go back again after that for fourteen years (Galatians 2:1).

On the other hand, Wills’ (and presumably Brown’s) analyses of the Biblical texts are astute. For example, the first chapter of the Gospel of John is often published as if it were a piece of continuous prose, but Wills shows the first eighteen verses to be alternating poetry and prose, presumably part of a hymn used by the community that produced the Gospel. Even those, like the Jesus Seminar, who recognize that this passage is a mixture of poetry and prose, erroneously differ from Wills as to which parts are prose and which are poetry (and how many prose insertions there are). For example, they include verse nine as poetry, whereas Wills classifies it as prose, which appears to be right. If the text immediately preceding verse nine is prose, as the Jesus Seminar agrees, then verse nine belongs with it and not with the block of poetry that follows it. Wills shows that there are a number of passages in Luke, John and the letters of Paul (i.e., Philippians and Galatians) that are poetic and presumably reflect hymns that were sung in primitive Christian churches. In the case of John, these hymns may have been peculiar to that community or else were created by and spread from that community. (This hypothetical community was of great interest to Father Brown, who wrote about what could be discovered about it from the Gospel itself.)

Wills says, “Some think that a study of the way the Gospels were built up, their symbolism, their dependence on the Jewish Sacred Writings, will make people less devout” (page 207). Wills disagrees and holds up, as an example, none other than Father Raymond Brown, who authored many books and articles analyzing the New Testament. Wills shares Brown’s view that the differences between the four Gospel accounts are different aspects of one truth, viewed by four different men. “It’s as if one walks around a large diamond to look at it from three different angles,” Wills quotes Brown as saying (page 208). (Brown says “three” instead of “four” here because, for some reason that Wills does not explain to us, Brown was momentarily leaving Matthew out of his consideration.)

The counter argument would be that Wills and Brown are extraordinarily capable of what George Orwell called “doublethink,” whereby one holds two contradictory thoughts in mind. They know that some differences between the Gospels cannot be reconciled, yet they maintain their faith that the Gospels are still able to present ultimate truth. Perhaps many people in the pews who are blissful in their ignorance of these discrepancies would not digest them as well as Wills/Brown. Living with ambiguity does not settle as well with most human beings as it does with some.
Brown abandoned his original belief in the tradition that the Beloved Disciple, who is described in the third person throughout the Gospel of John, is necessarily named John. The price of doublethink is that one occasionally lapses into the tradition. So it is that Wills quotes Brown as referring to the Beloved Disciple as “young John” at one point (page 199).

Wills, channeling Brown, raises objections to the thesis (to which I happen to subscribe) that Lazarus is the Beloved Disciple. In his book on the Gospel of John, “Brown rightly asks,” says Wills, why it is that if Lazarus is the same as the Beloved Disciple, they are given two different designations (page 185). Brown (and Wills) may be expecting too much transparency from the text here, which they seem not to require elsewhere, as when they argue that the figure designated as “another disciple” who accompanies Peter to the house of Annas (John 18:15-16) is Nicodemus. I might “rightly ask,” why the Gospel does not say that his name is Nicodemus if that is his name. (My view is that, at this point in the Gospel of John, all figures with no-name descriptors such as “the one that Jesus loved” or “another disciple” are the Beloved Disciple.) It is amusing that Wills/Brown note that the Beloved Disciple is commonly seen as Peter’s companion, but not, apparently, when Wills/Brown would temporarily prefer to make Peter’s companion into Nicodemus.

Note: it is curious that most writers on Jesus and his early movement tacitly acknowledge but rarely state explicitly that the terms “disciple” and “apostle” are not interchangeable, but are overlapping categories. The twelve apostles are disciples, but they have been raised from among the other disciples to a special status. In the first chapter of Acts, it says that there were 120 active disciples subsequent to the crucifixion. Therefore, Nicodemus and Lazarus (or, for that matter, Mary Magdalen and Martha, the sister of Lazarus) are close followers of Jesus and therefore among his disciples.
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MilesFowler | 4 other reviews | Jul 16, 2023 |



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