One 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).