In the first century most information was not recorded, it was reported orally. Jesus taught orally, the disciples listened, remembered, and eventually wrote down what he said. The problem is obvious, how do we know if the disciples accurately recorded the words of Jesus many years after they were spoken? For example, compare Matthew 16:13 with Mark 8:27and Luke 9:18: What does Jesus say? “who do the people / crowds say that I / Son of Man is?”
Two issues are involved. First, should we argue for the “exact words” of Jesus in the first place, and second, how can we determine whether the words of Jesus are in fact accurate reflections of what he taught to his disciples and the crowds? I will discuss the second question in the next post, but for now, how can we be sure that the words of Jesus as we have them in the text could be what Jesus actually said? Essentially, there are three options for the Words of Jesus.
- The gospels are the exact words of Jesus. In the modern world, we expect newspapers to record exactly what someone says. If not, the person quoted will likely complain that they were mis-quoted. In fact, the presence of quote marks is an indication in the modern world that the words between the quote are the exact words that were said.
- The word of Jesus in the gospels are fabrications of the early church. The early believers created sayings for Jesus to meet needs in their own communities. The sayings that were created usually are the claims that Jesus makes to be the Messiah or to be God. The gospel writers are using “creative license” to make Jesus claim the things that the church came to believe about him. This is the position of the Jesus Seminar scholars.
- The words of Jesus accurately reflect the things that Jesus said, but likely not the exact words in every case. The gospel writers accurately give the gist of the teachings of Jesus. This position understands that in the oral period there were possible adaptations and changes made to the sayings of Jesus, but that the changes were not as radical as the second position states. In fact, the proof that the gospel writers did not create sayings is found in Luke 1:1-4 – Luke bases his gospel on the reports and teachings of eyewitnesses to the events.
Scholarship usually uses the terms Ipsissima Vox versus Ipsissima Verba. Vox is the “very voice” of Jesus, while verba refers to the “very words” of Jesus. The gospels record the voice of Jesus rather than his exact words. Why is this so?
First, Jesus likely taught in Aramaic, the common language of the first century Jew. When addressing a crowd of Jews in a synagogue, Aramaic would have been the only language he could have used. The text of the New Testament is in Greek, implying that the words of Jesus have been translated from their Jewish / Aramaic context into the Greek language.
Second, Jesus is said to have spoken for hours to attentive audiences (Mark 6:34-36.) The longest speeches in the Gospels would only take a few minute to read (Sermon on the Mount and the Olivet Discourse, for example). The writers are clearly giving us the teaching of Jesus in a summary fashion.
Third, It is very likely that Jesus taught very similar things in different places. Many in the crowds would not have traveled with him, the theme of the Kingdom of God and the ethical demands of the Kingdom would be repeated in many different settings in similar, although different ways. Which set of sayings does Matthew record?
In the end, I think we ought to treat the words of Jesus in the gospels the same way that we would treat the words of any ancient speech. No ancient writer claimed to have written word for word what was said by a historical character. In the ancient world, this was impossible and not expected as it is in the modern world. A writer like Thucydides knew that he did not have the exact words of the famous speeches in his history, but he was confident he had the gist of what was said.
A question remains for the evangelical Christian: Is “the gist of the words of Jesus” good enough?