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What the Gospels Meant    by Garry Wills order for
What the Gospels Meant
by Garry Wills
Order:  USA  Can
Viking, 2008 (2008)
Hardcover, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Garry Wills (professor of history emeritus at Northwestern University, author of the New York Times bestsellers What Paul Meant and What Jesus Meant, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Lincoln at Gettysburg) adds to his impressive body of work with What the Gospels Meant, a carefully reasoned analysis of (and thoughtful meditation upon) the New Testament Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).

Wills brings a singularly effective approach to his subject: First, Wills argues that each Gospel 'is a meditation on the meaning of Jesus in light of Sacred History as recorded in the Sacred Writings,' which means that the (early Christian) authors' texts, written after the works of Paul, the true catalyst for the early Christian movement, can only be correctly understood and appreciated if they are considered as restatements and refinements of what had already appeared and what was commonly revered in Hebrew scriptures (i.e., the Old Testament as representations of Jewish history and writings); second, Wills further argues that each Gospel must be understood as having a unique purpose within a very specific rhetorical and chronological template (i.e., Mark - as the first author - focused on the suffering of Jesus, then Matthew focused on the teachings of Jesus, Luke followed with his focus on the physical existence of Jesus, and John - being the last in the chronological sequence - focused on the mystical aspects of Jesus); and third (and perhaps most importantly), Wills correctly argues that reading the Gospels now in the 21st century must be done with an appreciation of the earliest Christian-era contexts within which the Gospels were purposefully written (which necessarily objectively repositions the Gospels and removes them from the subjectively dogmatic sectarian readings too frequently espoused by some evangelical and fundamentalist Christians).

Finally, stating it in a different way, the dominant idea for Wills' analysis can be recognized in the title, What the Gospels Meant, for it is absolutely necessary to understand what the Gospels meant then in a dynamic Jewish context (when they were written) to properly understand what they could and should mean now in the 21st century.

So, why read What the Gospels Meant? Beyond what has already been mentioned, another reason lies in the fact that Wills studied for the priesthood, took his doctorate in the classics, and taught ancient and New Testament Greek for many years, so his qualifications for his subject are clearly established. A final reason is that What the Gospels Meant, like a stimulating conversation with a brilliant mentor, is a rewarding and provocative reading experience and is most highly recommended.

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