The four gospels have been dissected, scrutinized, and exegeted for the better part of 18 centuries. (Some would argue that, in the last two centuries, they've also been vivisected!) Thousands of volumes have been written on them. A simple amazon search of the word "gospels" reveals nearly 167,000 items alone.
That's why it's hard for me to get excited whenever yet another commentary appears. But Garry Wills' What the Gospels Meant is in a class of its own, as readers of his previous books might well expect.
Wills argues that the four gospels need to be read as forms of prayer, "meditations on the meaning of Jesus in the light of Sacred History as recorded in the Sacred Writings" (p. 7). As such, the gospels are (1) continuations of the sacred scriptures of the Hebrews and (2) accounts of Christ's indwelling in the Christian community. (Wills argues that the notion of the community of faith as the mystical Body of Christ is a quite early one, asserted by Paul in his baptismal hymn in Galatians 3.) Read individually, the gospels are on-the-ground "reports" from specific Christian communities. Read together, they constitute creed.
Wills examines the four gospels by focusing on the specific message and tone unique to each. None of the basics of what he has to say will surprise anyone who knows a bit about the New Testament. Mark, whom Augustine called Matthew's pedisequus et breviator ("drudge and condenser"), writes in less than elegant Greek and emphasizes the suffering of the persecuted Messiah and the community of his followers. Matthew is the great teacher, who neatly (and sometimes pedantically) collects Jesus' sayings (including the Sermon on the Mount) and connects them in with sacred scripture and prophecy. In a way, Matthew is the first Christian exegete. Luke is the compassionate gospelist who emphasizes Jesus' solidarity with the outcast and reconciliation between Gentile and Jew. How bitterly ironic, then, that Jesus is himself cast out by the powers-that-be. Finally, John is the mystical gospelist who preaches the Body of Christ and focuses on the Light within and without. John's gospel is a history of the interior community.
Again, nothing terribly surprising here. Wills writes with such elegance and easy erudition, however, that his discussion, however familiar it may be, is a delightful read. But what really makes his book worth reading are his wonderful translations.
Wills objects to what he calls the "prettified Bible English of most translations," arguing that it fails to capture the "telegraphic character" of the koine Greek. His own translations seek to remain loyal the "muscular and awkwardly eloquent" tone of the original, and they're startlingly insightful and evocative, making it impossible to read too-familiar scriptural passages with our usual jaded eyes. Take, for example, Will's rendering of the prologue to John's gospel (p. 159):
At the origin was the Word
and the word faced God,
and the Word was God;
this faced God at the origin.
Through him all things came to exist,
and without him nothing that exists existed.
What existed in him was vivifying,
and the vivification was alight to men,
and the light shone into the darkness,
and the darkness did not cope with it.
Or the Beatitudes from Matthew's Sermon on the Mount (pp. 77-78):
Happy the poor in their own mind,
since heaven's reign belongs to them.
Happy the sad,
since they shall be consoled.
Happy those who yield,
since they shall acquire the earth.
Happy those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail,
since they will eat and drink their full.
Happy those taking pity on others,
since they will be pitied.
Happy those who are pure within,
since they will see God.
Happy those who bring peace to others,
since they will be named God's sons.
Happy those who are punished for their virtue,
since heaven's reign belongs to them.
Great stuff, for those with eyes to see and ears to listen!