What Did Jesus Say?
This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. John 21:24
In the spirit of the New Year, I begin a new thread of Life Notes. I will focus on the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the four Gospels. A reasonable case can be made that Christianity has strayed from its roots. In fact, some go so far as to say that Jesus would not recognize himself in some of today’s churches that claim to follow him. For this reason, I think it is worthwhile to attempt a foundational review of his life and teachings. One question that arises as we begin is how do we know what Jesus actually said? Is the Biblical record a reliable source?
The proximity of when Jesus lived and when his words were finally written down is one concern. The New Testament books that contain the majority of the words of Jesus are the four Gospels. The books written closest to Jesus’ life, however, are the letters written by Paul. Paul never encountered Jesus until after the crucifixion and does not quote him. Even Paul’s letters were written several decades after Jesus’ death. The Gospel of Mark, believed to have been the earliest of the Gospels, was written 40 or so years after Jesus died. The last of the Gospels, John, is dated 20 or so years after Mark. There are plenty of Jesus quotes in the four Gospels, but the time that passed between Jesus’ life and their writing is a concern for some people.
Another issue is which, if any, of the authors of the Gospels actually heard Jesus speak. There is some evidence that it was followers of the original disciples who actually wrote the books, meaning their writings are at least a generation removed from anyone who witnessed Jesus face to face. The stories of Jesus, no doubt, were passed along verbally from person to person, generation to generation, prior to actually being recorded in written form. Because few people were literate in Jesus’ day, most persons were good listeners with memories much better than ours are today. Even so, some question the dependability of the recollections contained in the Bible.
A final issue with relying on the Gospel record to discern what Jesus said is with the multiple translations. Jesus’ native language was Aramaic. He likely also knew Latin, Greek, and possibly Hebrew. The New Testament books translated Jesus’ words into Greek and have since been translated into many other languages, including English. As the argument goes, could the actual words of Jesus have been accurately preserved through all the different translations?
How are we to know, two thousand years and many cultures later, what Jesus said? For me, the answer lies not in the factual accuracy of scripture but in the implications of what is there. For example, a child may hear his teacher say, “Your homework is due tomorrow.” The student’s mom says, “You heard your teacher. Get your homework done tonight.” The student’s dad says, “Do as your mother said.” These are three different phrasings with identical implications. The importance is not the actual words, but the call-to-action inspired by the words. In Jesus’ case, it matters less that his words were recorded verbatim and more that the larger message Jesus communicated was preserved faithfully. I believe a strong case can be made that Jesus’ teachings may have been better understood some years after his death, allowing the authors time to reflect upon and live into the teachings.
Another important argument as to why we can rely on scripture to study what Jesus said has to do with one of his favorite teaching mediums – the use of parables. Jesus taught using parables, and no one questions the historical accuracy or factual nature of a parable. They were stories told to illustrate a point. The New Testament authors may have used parable-like paraphrasing to capture Jesus’ teachings, and to the extent that is the case, I think the essence of the teachings is very likely intact.
All of this is to say that the argument of whether Jesus’ words are accurately captured in scripture is not an issue to me. The more important questions are what did Jesus’ teachings mean at the time they were spoken, and what do they imply for us today? The latter question will be my focus in the coming weeks.
This is the 1st in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”