Jesus the Radical

Garry Wills, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author known for writings on American history (Lincoln at Gettysburg), on St. Augustine, and on the papacy (Papal Sin), now turns his attention to Jesus. Unlike many recent popular treatments of Jesus, this book makes no claim to offer a reconstruction of the real “Jesus of history” behind the gospels. Instead, Wills offers what he calls a “devotional” portrayal of the figure of Jesus as he appears within the canonical texts: The only Jesus we have, Wills insists, is “the Jesus of faith.”

Wills contends that by reading the gospels we can learn “what Jesus meant”—an ambiguous phrase that seems to mean not only “what Jesus intended to say (as opposed to how his message has been domesticated by the church)” but also “what was the true significance of his life and teaching.” Wills unambiguously confesses a “high” orthodox Christology: Jesus “intended to reveal the Father to us, and to show that he is the only-begotten Son of that Father.” He was truly raised from the dead, and the gospels tell us the truth about him. Precisely because Jesus is a mysterious, divine figure, however, he is also an iconoclast who escapes ordinary human religious and political categories: “He did not found a church or advocate a politics.”

Wills’ Jesus is a fierce critic of religion. He opposes all external religious ceremonies and rules; he recognizes as authentic only the “religion of the heart, the inner purity and union with the Father that he had achieved and was able to share with his followers.” Here Wills seems to offer us a disturbingly anti-Jewish Jesus who sounds suspiciously like a 19th-century liberal Protestant. This reading of an anti-religious Jesus provides the basis for Wills’ repeated scathing critique of the institutional Roman Catholic Church. “The pope, like his predecessors, is returning to the religion Jesus renounced, with all its paraphernalia of priesthood, separation from the laity, consecration of places and things, distance from the ‘unclean’ life of those not privileged by consecration. … Religion is still trying to kill Jesus.”

If Jesus cannot be co-opted by the church, still less can he be used to support any political agenda, for “Jesus had no political program.” Wills’ insistence on this point is puzzling, because he shows eloquently that Jesus rejected violence, preached and practiced an egalitarian ethic, broke down social barriers, and championed the cause of caring for the poor. Rather than recognizing all this as a political agenda, though, Wills describes it as “a systematic anti-politics.” His underlying concern seems to be that the “faith-based politics” of the contemporary evangelical Right in the U.S is a form of “idolatry” based on values alien to Jesus’ teaching. Granting the cogency of this concern, one might still wish Wills would read John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus to see a compelling account of the way in which Jesus’ anti-politics is very much a real politics, a set of practices meant to be embodied in the life of a community.

ONE NOTEWORTHY feature of the book is its fresh translation of gospel passages, often cited at some length in the text. Wills, who holds a doctorate in classics, ventures to give us his own translations, which seek to convey the rough, forceful character of “the marketplace Greek of the New Testament.” Some of these translations nicely capture the nuances of the text. For example, “The announced time is fulfilled, God’s reign impends. Turn back, and trust in the announcement” (Mark 1:15). Or, “What is sown as a sensate body is raised as a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44)—hardly marketplace Greek, but an astute rendering of the difficult adjective psychikos. On the other hand, one finds occasional clunkers and even mistakes (translating oikeioi in Galatians 6:10 as “house-gatherers”—it means “members of the household”). Overall, though, Wills succeeds admirably in his goal of getting us to hear the New Testament afresh as a word spoken to real people in the everyday language of the Roman world.

Because Wills stays so close to the New Testament texts, his portrayal of Jesus successfully conveys the disturbing, enigmatic power of the figure to whom the gospels bear witness—a Jesus who challenges the status quo and reveals God’s unfathomable grace. Wills also offers theologically illuminating accounts of difficult topics such as atonement through Jesus’ death, Jesus’ descent into hell, and the resurrection. Particularly admirable is Wills’ alertness to the symbolic literary character of many of the gospel stories.

Nonetheless, this book is plagued by difficulties of three kinds: historical, theological, and political. From a historical point of view, questions must be raised about Wills’ uncritical harmonizing of the gospel accounts, and his lack of attention to the different theological perspectives of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. More troubling is Wills’ representation of Jesus as having, for all intents and purposes, flatly rejected his own Jewish religious heritage. As a corrective, I would suggest a careful reading of E. P. Sanders’ The Historical Figure of Jesus.

From a theological point of view, while applauding Wills’ high Christology, I am uneasy about the book’s incessant anti-ecclesial polemic, which seems to make Jesus the purveyor of an individualistic Protestant spirituality. Wills repeatedly portrays the Roman Catholic establishment in such an unfavorable light that this reader is curious to read his book Why I Am a Catholic to discover why Wills has not long since abandoned an institution he regards as so massively unfaithful to the spirit of Jesus’ teachings.

From a political point of view, one fears that Wills will unwittingly give aid and comfort to the politically conservative forces that he abhors by portraying an otherworldly Jesus who simply stands aloof from human political realities. A more historically informed reading of Jesus within the Judaism of his time would show that Jesus’ apocalyptic message of “the reign of God” did entail both a vehement critique of politics as usual and a constructive vision for justice in God’s world.

Richard B. Hays is George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.

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