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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 869

Garry Wills opens by making the bold assertion that Christ was not a Christian and that if modern Christians seek to emulate his behavior in the manner of What would Jesus do? bracelets, they are ignoring the fact that they can never truly be like Christ because they are not divine. He points out that if one seeks to understand what Christ would have humans do, one must look at his words and deeds and then attempt to understand them in the context in which they occurred. The best source for these deeds are the Gospels, because they were written most contemporaneously with his actual life. He also notes that many modern theologians cleanse the Gospels of the descriptions of Jesus they find unappetizing, and these are chiefly his very radical statements about religion. Jesus was, Wills believes, adamantly and often violently opposed to the formalized religious structures of his day, so much so that the religious leaders who recognized the danger he posed to them conspired to have him killed.

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Wills follows Jesus’ life chronologically, beginning with the Annunciation to Jesus’ childhood status as displaced person, on the run from Herod. Wills remarks that Jesus probably was educated by religious radicals, as he would not normally have enjoyed any education at all, coming from a working-class home. Jesus’ connection with John the Baptist confirms his association with radicals who were seeking to reform what they viewed as a dissolute and corrupt church. Wills interprets the testing of Jesus in the desert by Satan as a metaphor for his entire spiritual education and the assumption of his mission. He overcomes the temptations put before him and is ready to take up the heavy burden of bringing salvation to humanity.

When Jesus began his ministry, he took as his followers those who were social outcasts or from the working classes, people who were explicitly outside the power structures of their day. He purposely associated with those who were despised and unclean according to the dictates of traditional Judaism. Wills comments that all Jesus’ miracles were performed in times and places where they could teach particular religious lessons to his followers; many of those he healed were considered unclean by their community, yet Jesus did not reject them. Wills points out that any distinctions among people based on money, social position, political alliance, religious observance, or anything else are false in Jesus’ opinion, and he acted in a way that showed his disdain for such divisions. Wills notes that modern distinctions between those who are acceptable or not acceptable according to religion are often based on very selective readings of Old Testament texts, particularly Leviticus, which Jesus pointedly and repeatedly spurned in word and deed.

The radicalism of Jesus regarding religious leaders is revealed in his many statements about the dire plight of Scribes and Pharisees, and his complete rejection of any titles of rank for himself or his followers. Jesus also believed in equality between men and women, and Wills points out that this was the most difficult of his positions for even his disciples to comprehend. Nevertheless, women were a constant presence among Jesus’ followers, and many are named in the Gospels as supporters of his work and apostles. Women also remained with Jesus when the male disciples deserted him. Additionally, Jesus discarded utterly any use of violence or warfare to advance his aims, though many wished him to lead an uprising against Rome. His overriding teaching is summed up in his statement that whatever one does to one of his followers, one does to Jesus himself. This is a powerful injunction against judgmental behavior and a strong call for servant leadership by those who would follow Christ.

Jesus’ most excoriating criticism was reserved for religious authorities, as previously noted, and Wills examines in detail the many ways Jesus rejected the religious legalism of his day. He broke the Sabbath regularly by traveling, obtaining food, healing, and other practices. Also, he disdained the practice of sacrifice. This rejection of a formal, ritualized forgiveness, as opposed to a true inner examination and change of heart, marked him as treacherous to the priests of his day. Jesus noted that the temple of Jerusalem would be destroyed, and Wills interprets this as a positive development from Jesus’ point of view because he opposed the pompous official religious observance it represented. There is no historical evidence that Jesus wanted his followers to have an organized priesthood of any kind, in Wills’s opinion.

The church Jesus founded, Wills asserts, is the gathering of true believers in a community of love and support. Any other organization, especially one that controls money, political power and influence, or any social hierarchies is antithetical to what Jesus stood for. Jesus suffered a painful death at the hands of those who represented established religion. The God he represented and was united with was one whose love for humanity was so great as to be incomprehensible. Jesus sought to eliminate all barriers between people, and between people and God. The image for the final communion of God and humans in Heaven is a banquet, at which all are welcome who enter in the spirit of true love and service.

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