The Words of Jesus and Skepticism

AuthenticityOne of the commonly cited reasons for suspending judgment on the words of Jesus is that studies seeking to authenticate the words of Jesus tend to be concerned only with methods for authenticating the words and less interested in what is actually said in the Gospels. These types of studies fall into three categories. Some reject virtually everything the gospels report as words of Jesus.  The classic example of this historical skepticism is R. Bultmann, who famously said that we can know little more than the fact that Jesus lived and died. His “Jesus of History” and “Christ of Faith” dichotomy is not particularly helpful and yields very little in the way of historical insight. Others accept the words of Jesus as presented in the gospels with no attempt to sort out the voice of the Gospel writer from the voice of Jesus. This is problematic for the simple reason that we do not have the words of Jesus at all. He taught in Aramaic, we read the remembrance of those words recorded in Greek many years after they were first spoken.

Most scholars who work in the field of Historical Jesus research attempt to find a place between these two extremes.  This approach to the words of Jesus would use the tools of the scholarship to weigh sayings of Jesus less skeptically than the first group, but also less naively than the second. While it is obvious that we do not have the actual words of Jesus, we have access to the “voice of Jesus” as reported by the evangelists. In this view, various criteria of authenticity are favored over others, producing differing results. As is typically the case for middle positions, the skeptics find this approach to be inadequate (or worse, faith–based) and the conservative finds them too restrictive (or worse, liberal).

This is not to say that I am skeptical of the sayings of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. On the contrary, I am convinced that the Synoptic Gospels accurately record the “voice of Jesus.” The work of N. T. Wright, for example, attempts to read Jesus within the story of the Jewish people and treats the words of Jesus within that narrative world.  Similarly, J. D. G. Dunn argues that the synoptic traditions were shaped by an oral tradition repeatedly performed by disciples interested in what Jesus actually said or did.

Is it even necessary to argue for the authenticity of the Words of Jesus? What (if anything) is the benefit of using the criteria of authenticity when we study Jesus?


Bibliography: Excerpted from Jesus the Bridegroom (Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick, 2013).

6 thoughts on “The Words of Jesus and Skepticism

  1. I do not think it is necessary to pursue the authenticity of the words of Jesus…however I think that it can be very beneficial for the Christian faith. Pursuing the authenticity of the Gospels allow Christians to have a more confident attitude within a theological debate. It provides us with evidence of a Historical Jesus…rather than a fabricated idea of Jesus who is a white man with long brown hair and wears a white robe with a baby blue sash. Understanding the authenticity of Jesus’ words helps us to gain a realistic sense of Christianity. It can help Christians to push out hazy, fanciful ideas about the Gospel. Strauss discusses in his book “Four Portraits, One Savior”, the importance of eyewitness accounts and tradition. “Ancient peoples tended to have better memories than we have today, and the authority of oral tradition was considered to be as high as, and sometimes higher than, the authority of written sources” (Strauss, pg. 55). This is true. We know that the Gospel writers were credible, and that their sources were viable. Trusting in this, and putting your faith in God, helps us to overall trust the authenticity of the Gospel.

  2. An intriguing debate, indeed! I suppose everyone has their own opinion on this subject, and I agree with what you said Kate – this kind of study being valuable to the Christian walk. However, it would be important, if not necessary, to argue for the authenticity of the Words of Jesus for those who do not believe in Jesus Christ. People want the truth and people want proof. Without it, for some, it will be hard to believe the Bible is real. By using the criteria scholars have established (on pages 360-361 of Strauss), it can help identify the authenticity of the Words of Christ. And yes, those scholars need to be careful which approach they use as, “they must be used with great caution and humility, since a scholar’s preconceptions concerning the historical Jesus can easily bias the result” (Strauss, 362). But the benefit of this study is that it might help authenticate Christ’s Words for those who are wondering. In correlation of 1 Timothy 2:4, “Who [God] desires all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of truth”

  3. The first of this two part question gets a no from me. It’s not essential to argue for the authenticity of the words of Jesus. Finding the authenticity of the words of Jesus is not needed to achieve a certain result or effect. That is of course the definition of necessary. In my opinion, the vast majority of people don’t think about this issue anymore. I’ve only once outside this blog read an article about Jesus’s actual words. It’s irreverent to what people are looking for today. Even if the words weren’t authentic, (which I think they are) they are still genuine and filled with great morals. The criteria of authenticity don’t make a lot of sense to me. Our view of history itself has altered immensely in the last half century. I think most people are done thinking that history is a set of impartial facts that can be rebuilt. I think the post-modern attitude is that a lot of history can be interpreted. The new age thing is that people can agree about certain events taking place, but the significance of the events will be considerably different. To me, it’s bad logic to separate past events/sayings from the story contexts that gave them importance. John 12:49 says “For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak.” If God has this power, the Holy Spirit has the power to lead these writers and copiers to the exact words of Jesus.


    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.



  5. I do not think it is necessary at all for us to argue the authenticity of the word of Jesus. The problem with arguing with authenticity is based on a faith standpoint – if you are Christian and one of faith, you are more than likely to believe in the inspiration of the word of God and if you are not of faith, it is obviously easier to agree with statements that the word of God is not authentic. Another problem with the claim that the only thing known by fact is that Jesus lived and died is the historical evidence to back either claim – for or against historical evidence – as historical text was transmitted through others by oral tradition in the ancient times. Strauss explains this in his text by saying, “Ancient peoples tended to have better memories than we have today, and the authority of oral tradition was considered to be as high as, and sometimes higher than, the authority of written sources” (Strauss, pg. 55). Furthering the statement that there is no necessity or benefit while considering the authenticity of Jesus is that it focuses on the ideas of human based evidence rather than true faith and belief. This pretty much removes all of the basic principles of Christianity – walking based on faith and not by sight. Paul explains this in His letter to the Corinthian church when he says, “So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Cor. 5:6-7). There may be a benefit to looking at historical views from a non-Christian standpoint, but substituting faith for this, as a believer, can only lead you astray.

  6. I feel that the argument over the authenticity of the words of Jesus is a bit pointless. A debate over the reliability of the Gospel writers to report the words accurately could be argued. However, once you have determined whether or not you trust the Gospel writers you will either be believing what they recorded, or you won’t. So, while I would advocate for some apologetic knowledge concerning the Gospels, I wouldn’t recommend one trying to authenticate Jesus’ words outside of the context of the Gospel. Also, I think that it is silly to concluded that we do not have the words of Jesus because (we assume) He spoke in Aramaic, and we have Greek text. Translation changes the symbols of communication; it does not change what one says. This is why the author of a book gets paid when copies of it are sold in every language it is published in, not only on the books in the original language.

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