Perhaps you’ll recall back in February when the head of the Jesuit order, Fr. Arturo Sosa, cast doubt on the trustworthiness of the Gospels (in particular, Jesus’ teaching on divorce):
There would have to be a lot of reflection on what Jesus really said. At that time, no one had a recorder to take down his words. What is known is that the words of Jesus must be contextualized, they are expressed in a language, in a specific setting, they are addressed to someone in particular.
Although he later walked back these comments to some extent, Fr. Sosa’s attitude about the trustworthiness of the Gospels is not uncommon in certain clerical circles and among many biblical scholars. Like melting snow from mountain peaks, in these two groups' skepticism tends to filter down to the laity, who naturally wonder if these documents can indeed be trusted to communicate what Jesus really did and said.
Right now let’s focus on authenticating the words of Jesus. Of course, the first half of Fr. Sosa’s comment is unimpeachably true: there were no tape recorders or smartphones recording Jesus’ exact words, say, on divorce (which are presented in Matthew 19, among other places). But I take umbrage, and so should you, with Fr. Sosa’s conclusion that we can’t really know what Jesus actually said—on this or any other issue that arose in his teaching.
Was it live, or was it Memorex?
Perhaps you remember the old ads for Memorex cassette tapes. The tagline in those ads was, well, memorable: “Is it live or is it Memorex?” Scholar Darrell Bock wrote an article relating this line to how Jesus’ teachings were written. Were they “live” (the “living” words of Jesus), or were they “Memorex” (word for word, as if recorded)?
The latter option must be ruled out. First of all, the Gospels were composed in Greek, whereas in all likelihood Jesus preached and taught in Aramaic, the “street language” of Palestine. So, we’re already dealing with a translation issue. This is why “red-letter” editions of the New Testament, which feature the words of Christ in red ink, can be somewhat misleading. They weren’t the literal, actual Aramaic words and phrases Jesus used, except perhaps in a few instances (for example, his use of the term Abba in referring to God the Father).
Scholars differentiate between the ipsissima verba (the actual words) of Jesus and the ipsissima vox (the actual voice) of Jesus. Thus, what we really have in the Gospels is the “live” option—the living words of Jesus. Gospel writers referred to Jesus as rabbi or teacher, with themselves as his students. What’s the job of any rabbinical student? To master the message of his rabbi. If a student were simply to “parrot” Jesus’ words to an audience, repeating them word for word, that person would be considered a poor student. What was actually expected was that a student could re-present the rabbi’s teaching in ways that are helpful for listeners or readers.
How was this done?
First, a word must be said regarding the ability of the disciples to memorize Jesus’ teaching. The German scholar Armin Baum has calculated that Matthew, Mark, and Luke together contain approximately 15,000 words of Jesus’ teaching. Could the disciples have committed that much material to memory?
You bet. Braun demonstrates that many rabbis of the time had not only committed to memory 300,000 words of the Hebrew scriptures but also that some Jewish scholars had memorized the nearly 2-million-word Babylonian Talmud. Surely the followers of Jesus, steeped as they were in a culture of oral transmission of doctrine, could accurately recall and communicate to others the comparatively small block of material in the Gospels.
Also, the evangelists knew how to use compression techniques to recount Jesus’ messages accurately in short spaces. Think about it: the Gospels speak of Jesus holding crowds spellbound for hours, yet his speeches can be read in just a few minutes. We do this as well when reporting on conversations we’ve had with others, communicating the gist of what was said. This is perfectly consonant with techniques used in the construction of Greco-Roman biographies, the genre of literature to which the Gospels belong. The one thing no student would have done is put words in a rabbi’s mouth that he never said. Again, accuracy was paramount.
A simple example of this method (cited by Bock) can be found in examining the Gospel accounts of Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah. Jesus prompts the discussion with a query:
Matthew 16:13: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
Mark 8:27: “Who do people say I am?”
Luke 9:18: “Who do the crowds say that I am?”
Here we have the same basic question being restated in slightly different ways. “Son of Man” is Jesus’ favorite self-appellation in the Gospels, with Mark and Luke rendering this as simply “I.” Similarly, the choice of the terms “people” (Matthew, Mark) and “crowds” (Luke) might be a case of the evangelists choosing different Greek words to translate an Aramaic term used by Jesus. In any case, the gist of the question gets across to the reader.
The Gospels also present slightly varied takes on how Peter answers Jesus:
Matthew 16:16: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Mark 8:29: “You are the Christ.”
Luke 9:20: “The Christ of God.”
Matthew’s rendering is longer, more complex and theologically unique, echoing not only the idea of Jesus as Son of God, but also hinting at a kingly sonship (Ps. 2). Luke adds “God” to Mark’s matter-of-fact statement. But in all three, the bottom line remains: Peter correctly identified Jesus as Messiah.
While maintaining basic accuracy, there existed a degree of flexibility in recording speeches in Greco-Roman biography. Despite this, the Gospels are much more stringent on this count than most Greco-Roman biographies. It’s actually startling to note how few variations there are between Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the synoptic Gospels) when one compares the words of Jesus in parallel passages.
And this is the point: we have to judge the Gospels by the historical standards of the first century A.D., not the twenty-first. When judged by the historical standards of their day, the Gospels pass with flying colors. The evangelists were clearly concerned about getting Jesus’ message right, and despite the claims of many skeptics, within the Church and without, we can indeed know with a great degree of certainty exactly what Jesus taught.