The Words of Jesus

redletterIn 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? In Luke 6:20, Jesus says “blessed are the poor,” but in Matthew 5:3, he says “blessed are the poor in spirit.”

Two issues are involved. First, should we argue for the “exact words” of Jesus in the first place? Jesus spoke Aramaic, we are reading a translation of a Greek text. For this reason alone we ought to dispense with the pious assumption the “red letters” are exactly what Jesus spoke, but are the accurate recollections of what he spoke. Second, if we think we can we determine whether the words of Jesus are in fact accurate reflections of what he taught, what evidence could we give to support this assertion?

Essentially, there are three options for the Words of Jesus.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Scholars usually uses the phrases Ipsissima Vox and Ipsissima Verba to describe the words of Jesus 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? 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.

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. 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?

The best solution is that Matthew arranged the sayings of Jesus thematically, for theological reasons. Luke did the same, although his strategy for arranging the Sermon on the Mount differs from Matthew. We are not reading a verbatim 15 minute slice of a long sermon from Jesus, but the sorts of things he often said, so often his followers remembered and repeated the sayings in various contexts.

Does the distinction between  Ipsissima Vox and Ipsissima Verba help with other problems in the Gospels, such as the Synoptic Problem, or the oral period between the events of Jesus’ life and the writing of the Gospels?

13 thoughts on “The Words of Jesus

  1. The fact the Jesus taught in Aramaic, his teachings were written down in Greek, and we read them today in English makes me skeptical that we read Jesus’ exact words on our English Bibles. Having grown up in Tanzania, East Africa for ten years I have become fluent in English and Swahili. From this, I can testify how wording is very rarely the same between just two languages, not to mention 3.
    With this new understanding on my part, the Ipsissima Vox helps clarify the letters in red of the Bible. I always thought that they were the exact words of Jesus. Now, I understand that the Ipsissima Vox helps us as readers understand the voice of Jesus, the meaning behind the text even if they are not Jesus’ exact words. It also has made me realize the great responsibility the translators have when deciphering the meaning of the words into different languages – as they are dealing with words inspired directly from the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16).

  2. Interesting as always. However I find one thing consistent in such discussions…the absence of the work of the Holy Spirit and the work of inspiration. John 14:26 How does it play into the into the Ipsissima Vox view? It is a promise that the Spirit will bring to “remembrance all that I said to you.” That sound more like words than voice.

    • Does inspiration dictate exact words? we see many times in the NT how the authors don’t accurately quote the OT instead they interpret the OT, i would think that is in the same way with Jesus words, interpreting His words and making a summary of what he said. I believe John 14:26 is speaking of the Holy Spirit explaining or revealing to the Disciples in Full of who Jesus was and what Jesus said.

      • I would say no, inspiration does not dictate words. As I understand inspiration, the authors “think the thoughts of God” (from Millard Erickson), not necessarily a dictation of exact words. I do think the Holy Spirit guided the authors as the used whatever sources they had (Mark or Q, other written and oral sources, their own memories).

        Jim is right, however, there is rarely any discussion of inspiration in source/form criticism or historical Jesus research, even if the scholar does believe in the inspiration and authority of the Bible.That might just be the nature of the study, since it is easy to say “God inspired it that way” and never really explore the nuances of the differences between the gospels. If an evangelical started his book on the formation of the Gospels with “the Holy Spirit inspired it all,” it would not have much of an impact on “the academy” since it would be immediately assumed the writer was a fundementalist and has little or nothing to contribute to the conversation.

  3. I agree with Danae that because of the language differences, it’s hard to believe that Jesus’ sayings in the Gospels are translated %100 accurately. This is actually impossible when we look at the fact that there are words in certain languages that don’t exist on others, which I’m sure is the case with Aramaic being translated to Greek and English. I believe in the third option, that Jesus’ words were recorded as accurately as possible by the Gospel writers. If we believe that every book in the Bible is divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit, including the Gospels, than we need to believe in the accuracy of
    the recorded words of Jesus, while understanding that language barriers add some minor differences.

  4. In the battle of the confusion over Jesus’ words in scripture, this seems to shed the most amount of light on the topic. We all can dissect and argue the inerrancy of scripture as much as we want but when it comes to Jesus, how can really know what he said was true or the exact wording? The truth is, I believe, is that we really can’t. Based off the fact that Jesus spoke primarily Aramaic and the first translation of the Bible was in Greek speaks volumes within itself. Also, Jesus most likely spoke for hours at times (Mark 6:34-36) which can often be read in only a couple minutes. Jesus also most likely went around and spoke to many different people the same sorts of messages, thus the paraphrasing. P. Long states it as this, “the ethical demands of the Kingdom would repeated in many different setting in similar, although different, ways.” (The Words of Jesus) I do believe that the words of Jesus were not simply fabrications from the early Church, abused by a “creative license” from the gospel writers but true, inerrant, and from heart of Jesus. All we have to do is factor in some important variables into the equation of the New Testament/Jesus circumstances.

  5. Option three is is! With a hint of option one. The Bible has been passed through different languages and different writers. Go on your language conversion app and type a sentence to convert to Spanish. Then read that sentence to some Spanish speaking friends and watch their understanding come through the confusion. Why is there even a synoptic problem? I’m getting so uninterested the more I hear about criticisms, studies, research, and ideas concerning the gospels. The synoptic gospels are so similar because they are all inspired by the same Holy Spirit and are all written by people who witnessed or were told about the same events. Does the difference between Jesus’s voice and Jesus’s exact words help other problems in the gospels? I’m still in the dark on what the problem is. “Compared with other ancient biographies, the Gospels were written relatively soon after the events they narrate—from twenty to sixty years after the death of Jesus. The two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great were written more than four hundred years after his death, yet historians consider them to be generally trustworthy.” That quote is from a man named Michael Gleghorn and I’m just confused on why there is so much argument and confusion. The focus is on the meaning, and intended application, of spoken words. I don’t think arguing over the exact words of Jesus is important to the meaning of the words. In my personal world, I see a lot of Christians, Muslims, and atheists. I hardly ever meet or converse with people who are bent on the words of Jesus. I think some of these theological concerns/issues are dated and don’t really exist in an impactful way anymore. It seems like people are focused on other issues. At least that’s what I notice in my life, but that’s why I’m glad blogs are opinion based.

  6. Along with Danae, I too use to think that the red letters in the Bible were the exact words of what Jesus said, but learning about Ipsissima Vox and Ipsissima Verba has cleared some areas up for me. Learning now that probably most of the scriptures that we read are Verba instead of Vox of Jesus it makes more sense. I understand that all scripture were written by humans by the guidance of God (2 Peter 1:21), but yet I thought that whatever Jesus said would have been word for word. Then knowing that Jesus spoke in Aramaic, and then transferred to Greek, then transferred to English of course we are going to have some words changed. It would be like hearing a story from school then going home and telling your parents the same story, the words aren’t going to be exactly the same as what you heard in school.

  7. I suppose I would find it more likely that Jesus’ words were accurately reflected but not copied down word for word, especially when translating them. There are some sounds, inflections, and other factors that can be incredibly hard, or even impossible to translate directly. If the disciples also did not initially take notes while listening to Jesus preach, it would have been a bit of a stretch if they actually got His exact words. I, like Denae, always believed that the red letters in the Bible were always Jesus’ exact words. I always wondered how people knew he said those EXACT things, but now with the realization that these represent the voice of Jesus rather than His exact words, it all seems more credible to me.. Not that I ever truly doubted what was written in the Bible, I just did not understand how they could have a handle on every detail when they happened.

  8. Many Biblical scholars today believe that the words in red in our Bible were not necessarily the direct words of Jesus. There are a few possible reasons as to why they would not be. One is because Jesus spoke the originally words in Aramaic, however the Bible was first written in Greek. This means that Jesus’ words had to be translated from Aramaic to Greek and then eventually into other languages, like English. It makes sense then why the different Gospel writers have the things Jesus said written down differently. Another explanation for this is that Jesus spoke similar words or speeches multiple times to different groups of people, so the authors were quoting them differently. The words could also be a summary of Jesus’ teachings, so the authors summarized them differently from one another. Whether or not the words were Jesus’ direct quotes or not, we can still gain understanding and knowledge by reading and studying what they say and then applying them to our lives.


    Do you believe what Jesus said to be the truth or do you believe the interpretations of others?

    Mark 16:16 He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.

    Jesus said “Has been baptized shall be saved.”

    Many interpreters have said that Jesus meant that they had been saved the minute they believed and that they should be baptized later, as a testimony of their faith.

    Should you trust your eyes when you see what Jesus said?
    Should you trust your ears and eyes when hear interpreters and preachers teach something Jesus did not say?

    When Jesus was alive He forgave sins of whom ever He wished to prove that He had authority to forgive sin.(Matthew 9:6)

    Matthew 9:2 And they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed.Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralytic, “Take courage, son;your sins are forgiven.”

    Were the paralytics’ sins forgiven the very minute his friends had faith? No, they had faith before they brought the paralytic before Jesus, yet he was still in his sins. The paralytic did not have sins forgiven until Jesus made the proclamation, “Your sins are forgiven.”

    Jesus has made a proclamation for us, “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved.” Jesus never said, “He who has faith only will be saved.”


    Under the New Covenant sins are always forgiven because of faith and baptism.



    • Steve, I appreciate your comments, but you should know that including your blog URL and using CAPS gets your comments flagged as spam. This may happen on any WordPress blog you try to comment on. Perhaps you should format your response in a less-spammy way?

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