Garry Wills – “A Reasoning Faith”

In his introduction to What Jesus Meant, Wills discusses his approach. It also applies to his subsequent book, What Paul Meant. He says, “This is not a scholarly book but a devotional one. It is a profession of faith – a reasoning faith, I hope, and reasonable.”

He makes a false dichotomy between “scholarly” and “devotional.” Normally, when an author says his non-fiction work is not scholarly, it means he avoids pedantry. The vast majority of nonfiction books are not scholarly, but few are “devotional.” Mr. Wills misrepresents his books. What Jesus Meant should have been called, “What Jesus means to me.” These are radically different. In the present case, they have little in common and often contradict each other.

While Mr. Wills claims to be a historian, he denies the existence of “the historical Jesus”:

“Trying to find a construct, ‘the historical Jesus,’ is not like finding diamonds in a dunghill, but like finding New York City at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. It is a mixing of categories, or rather of wholly different worlds of discourse. The only Jesus we have is the Jesus of faith. If you reject the faith, there is no reason to trust anything the gospels say” (xxvi). He repeats this on the following page: “The historical Jesus does not exist for us.”

This is nonsense. There has been an enormous amount of research conducted on the historical Jesus over the past century, and a good deal of it has been useful. Not only can it be discussed rationally, unlike devotional literature, it can also be discussed in light of other evidence besides the gospels. This is merely Mr. Wills’ bizarre and sophistical declaration that he will not allow fact to interfere with his faith. This holds true for his subsequent book on Paul as well.

An example, also from his introduction, helps illustrate this. He quotes Romano Guardini with admiration:

“If we could get back to the ‘original,’ that is, if we could work our way back to the picture of Christ as it existed before it had been turned over in the apostles’ minds or elaborated by their preaching, before it had been assimilated by the corporate life of the faithful, we could find a figure of Christ even more colossal and incomprehensible than any conveyed by even the most daring statements of St. Paul or St. John…. The statements of the apostles are guides to him which never quite do justice to the fullness of his divine human natures. The apostles never state more about the historical Jesus than he actually was; it is always less” (cited on page xxix).

That is, he claims that the “original” Jesus – what is normally called the “historical” Jesus – is even more colossal a figure than that presented in the Gospels. Not only is this incredible, it indicates an amazing ability to suppress evidence from both gospels and reason.

According to this theory, those who knew the “original” Jesus best would best appreciate “the fullness of his divine human natures,” and be the best judge of his incredibly “colossal” nature. How then do you explain that the people of Nazareth, who knew Jesus far longer and far better than his disciples, rejected him? The gospel authors did not make up Jesus’s sad complaint, “A prophet is without honor in his own home.”

While the people of Nazareth knew Jesus well, his own family knew him even better. Thus the gospel of Mark tells us that when his family heard of his public mission, “they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind’” (3:21). That is, his own family tried to lock him up as a lunatic. Again, Mark would not have made up such embarrassing material.

Even if you willfully deny this Gospel evidence, the fundamental story of early Christianity contradicts the Wills/Guardini claim. The mantra of early (Gentile) Christianity is that the Jews rejected Jesus. This is also undeniable. Even the Galileans, who knew him far better than other Jews, rejected him. Josephus, a near-contemporary who spent much of his career in Galilee, knew next to nothing about Jesus. If the “original” Jesus was so colossal – or even half as impressive as the gospels make him out to be – the Jews would not have overwhelmingly rejected him. The Jews yearned for a Messiah, and repeatedly answered the call of false Messiahs. For example, about 25 years after Jesus, a self-proclaimed Messiah known as the Egyptian attracted a following far larger than Jesus’. (Josephus claimed he had 30,000 followers; Luke said 4,000, still far larger than Jesus’.)

Garry Wills claims to have “a reasoning faith, I hope, and reasonable.” He fails here as well. For example, Wills actually believes that Jesus resurrected Lazarus after he was dead for four days, when his putrefied body stank. Not only had Lazarus long been brain dead, his brain was now a rancid porridge. Yet Mr. Wills thinks it perfectly reasonable that Jesus said a prayer and instantly revived and healed him, making him as good as new. No one today of sound mind could find this claim to be reasonable, even ignoring the fact that none of Jesus’ earlier biographers ever heard about it – only John, who wrote decades after they did. But Garry Wills insists on it.

Garry Wills books on Jesus and Paul are devotionals with no concern for fact and relatively little concern for scripture (which he often suppresses). Mr. Wills is simply presenting his fantasies and his rationalization for them. Many of his basic claims are (justly) rejected by New Testament scholars, who are themselves creatures of faith. Mr. Wills is an excellent sophist, capable of giving a favorable spin to false and unreasonable claims. But these are pleasant, pious frauds which people want to believe in. They are like stories of the tooth fairy gone viral. That’s why these books were best sellers, and why they are in most local (U.S.) libraries. There is an enormous demand for pious crap. That’s why evangelicals welcomed Donald Trump.