Two new books about Jesus.

Two new books about Jesus.

Two new books about Jesus.

Reading between the lines.
April 13 2006 11:49 AM

Jesus Nation

The never-ending American battle over how to think about Jesus.

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Tabor seems stuck in an endless loop, squinting across the sands of time as much as the terrain of Galilee and Judea, holding out for some imagined "real" contact with the historical Jesus—contact that the Gospels themselves, written long after his death by people who believed in him but hadn't known him, can never provide. But if Tabor's shovel ever clinks on the ultimate tomb—that of Jesus himself—will he have landed on the real Jesus?

Garry Wills would answer that question firmly in the negative. We can't get close to the historical Jesus, he argues in What Jesus Meant. Even the discovery of his DNA in an ancient ossuary—Tabor's supreme fantasy—would leave us distant from him. The only access to the real Jesus is by faith, not by works of digging through layers of earth or texts. Archaeology and literary sifting take us further away from him whenever they search for some original Jesus of Nazareth who had not yet become the worshipped Christ. "The only Jesus we have is the Jesus of faith," Wills writes. "If you reject the faith, there is no reason to trust anything the gospels say."


It would be easy to miss the point of Wills' brief, gemlike volume by seeing it as a traditionalist reaffirmation of Christ's "divinity" in the face of human-Jesus proponents such as Tabor. In fact Wills follows Emerson's model of protecting the divine-human Jesus against the corrupting embrace of the legalistic, formalist churches. The biggest threat to knowing the real Christ comes not from the historical-Jesus seekers but from institutions that claim control over him. Invariably those holy bodies distort his meanings, using the power of his image to aggrandize themselves.

Wills shares Emerson's view that Jesus dispensed with "religion" altogether, since its rules and observances got in the way of doing his Father's will. Jesus rejected "politics" too, preaching a radicalism that challenged the stultifying conformities imposed by all movements for a new society. Jesus taught the radicalism of sacrificial love, not that of social "change." The poor, the sick, the abused you have always with you, he said, and you must always love them as you say you love me. If you despise them, you hate me, too.

As much as Jefferson and Emerson, Wills wants to protect Jesus from the priests, bishops, and popes who have claimed privileged access to him. Where he departs from Jefferson and Emerson, as well as from Tabor, is in reasserting the power of sin to subvert our best efforts to follow Jesus. It's not just the churches that keep crucifying Christ. Believers do, too. Contrary to Emerson's notion of an open-ended human "divinity," Wills believes it is in the fallen nature of human beings to sin. Judas, according to Wills, taught this lesson powerfully. "I have sinned in turning over this innocent man" (Matthew 27:4). That "act of contrition," writes Wills, "redeems him, makes him a kind of comrade for all of us who have betrayed Jesus. He is our patron. Saint Judas." Wills thus anticipates the recent flurry of interest in the noncanonical Gospel of Judas. But rather than seeing Judas as a hero wrongly blamed for betraying Jesus, Wills takes Judas as a sinner who repents for what he himself considers an act of betrayal.

What Jesus Meant, one of Wills' most personal books, features several memorable reflections on Gospel passages, all of them his own beautiful translations from the Greek. In his meditation on the atonement, Wills suggests taking the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross as the commiseration of a loving Creator, who chooses to suffer alongside foundering human creatures. An experience with his young son brought home to Wills the wisdom of this viewpoint. A nun at school had told his son that all sinners would end up in hell. Naturally he experienced a gruesome nightmare and asked his father, "Am I going to hell?" "There is not an ounce of heroism in my nature," Wills writes, "but I instantly answered what any father would: 'All I can say is that if you're going there, I'm going with you.' "