My New Testament students are sometimes surprised when I ask this question in class. Most of them have never thought about it before. Why would we even ask whether we have the authentic words of Jesus? Aren’t they recorded in quotations in the gospels? Weren’t the gospel authors ear- and eye-witnesses writing down what they saw and heard? It turns out, in fact, that this is a very important question and one that is not considered seriously enough by many who read the Bible.
There are many reasons for pursuing the question of the precise words, known in Latin as the ipissima verba, of Jesus. For one thing, some of Jesus’s sayings seem contradictory. For example, Jesus teaches that one must follow the Ten Commandments (Matthew 19:17) and honor one’s father and mother (Mark 10:19). Yet he also says that one must hate one’s parents in order to follow him (Luke 14:26). Some statements by Jesus seem difficult to apply literally. Some are just hard to understand.
When comparing Jesus as portrayed in the Gospel of Mark with Jesus as portrayed in the Gospel of John, one might be forgiven for wondering if the two authors were even writing about the same person! Jesus in John’s gospel never speaks in parables while Jesus in Mark’s gospel does so frequently. Jesus in Mark never equates himself to God the Father while Jesus in John frequently does. Jesus in Mark wants it kept secret who he is; John’s Jesus never stops talking about who he is.
In trying to reach an answer to our query, it is best to place ourselves in the context of the first-century Roman world, specifically Jewish Palestine, at the time of Jesus. No serious scholar doubts that Jesus was, among other things, a gifted teacher. If the gospels are any guide at all, Jesus taught using various forms of figurative language: parables, aphorisms, similes, etc. He was an itinerant Jewish craftsman who gave up his occupation to wander about the Holy Land teaching about God and making various observations on everyday life.
Now imagine Jesus actually doing that. Envision him in Capernaum in Galilee surrounded by a few disciples. He decides that the time is right for trying out a story he has been composing in his mind about a Samaritan who gives aid to a fallen Jew. The parable is well-received and his audience is moved to consider the story’s various implications. Four months later, Jesus is in Jericho in Judea. This time he is surrounded by a more skeptical crowd; some are downright hostile. For different reasons, Jesus feels it is appropriate to share his Samaritan parable, knowing that the effect on this crowd will be different. Ask yourself: What are the chances that in Jericho Jesus recited his parable using the exact same wording that he used when he told it in Capernaum? I mean exact, word-for-word, repetition. The answer is nil. Not only would Jesus not be concerned about telling the parable identically, word-for-word the same way he did previously; but he probably intentionally altered the parable given the different circumstances and the different impact he wanted to make on this different audience.