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.
This is the way things work in oral cultures where most people cannot read or write. Each retelling of a story is always, and often intentionally, different. It is a performance. It is designed to reach the audience at hand, an audience with its own distinctive characteristics. Jesus may have told the Parable of the Good Samaritan a half-dozen times or more never telling it exactly the same way twice. He, as well as those who heard him give the parable on multiple occasions, might have sworn that it was always the same parable. But if we could have recorded the multiple recitations and played them back to compare them, it would have been obvious to us that the parable was never told the exact same way twice. Some versions would have been quite different. But to those living in an oral culture, all the variations of the parable would have been considered the same parable. They would have deemed us crazy for thinking otherwise.
So, what is the authentic form of the Parable of the Good Samaritan as Jesus told it? Each version he gave was authentic. But today we only have one version of it (Luke 10:25-37). Is our version the same as any of the versions told by Jesus? Let’s take the previous example a step further. Imagine that six different groups of six people heard Jesus give the Samaritan parable each time he told it. In other words, the first time Jesus uttered it, six people heard it. The next time, six different people heard it, and so on. There are now thirty-six people who have heard one of six versions of the Good Samaritan parable.
Further, imagine that each of those 36 first-generation hearers decide to share the parable with six friends on six separate occasions. Each time one of them retells the parable, it is done so somewhat differently (maybe very differently) from the way Jesus told it to them. Now there are 216 more versions of the Good Samaritan parable being shared around Jewish Palestine! Contrary to popular belief, people in oral cultures did not memorize each and every word of a story and repeat it precisely the same way each time they retold it. How much variation was introduced into the parable? Research has shown that in oral cultures variation in storytelling can range from slight to extreme.
Now, let’s say a few of those 216 second-generation, Aramaic-speaking, recipients of the parable were bilingual and had some Greek-speaking Jewish friends with whom they wanted to share the parable. These bi-linguists would have made their own oral translations from Aramaic to Greek on the fly as they began the process of spreading the story in an entirely different language. How many times was this done? How many different Greek versions of the parable resulted? Who can say? And while innumerable Greek recitations were proliferating around Galilee and Judea, some were making their way overseas with carriers who would spread the parable in various foreign countries. How long did this go on?
In the case of the Good Samaritan parable, our earliest written version of it is in Greek and dates to the very late first or early second century. Jesus, by all accounts, died around 30 CE. Thus, for about seventy years recitations of the Good Samaritan parable were shared orally before the author of the Gospel of Luke finally wrote one down. This written version ultimately became the official version; that is how literary cultures work. But we must remember, the version of the parable that Luke received was one of perhaps hundreds or even a thousand renditions, none of which are exactly as Jesus told it. The parable may even have been altered in some way by Luke himself. How different is Luke’s version from any of the forms uttered by Jesus?
The transmission of oral traditions, that is, the passing down orally of the teachings of Jesus, is a cultural process that underlies each of the four New Testament gospels but goes unnoticed and unappreciated by most modern readers. It is important to remember that anything Jesus said would have been said in Aramaic. Even if Jesus could speak fluent Greek, a doubtful proposition, most of his followers would have spoken only Aramaic making it essential that Jesus teach in the language they could understand. All of the New Testament gospels were originally written in Greek, however, and none of the authors were eyewitnesses to what they wrote. Everything Jesus said has not only been subject to change during the decades-long process of oral transmission but was altered through translations into foreign languages. You might also consider the language of your New Testament. It is certainly not Aramaic and probably not Greek. The sayings of Jesus in your New Testament are already two languages away from Jesus’s native tongue and the Greek versions of his sayings that underlie your New Testament are several generations away from Jesus’s original Aramaic rendition(s). Thus, we do not and cannot have the original words of Jesus.
Should we give up hope then, of ever knowing what Jesus said? We have to remember that the objective of retelling stories in oral cultures was to preserve the gist of the story, its general outline and main theme or point. Whether the gist of any individual story told by Jesus was properly understood and retained by those who retold it remains an open question, but we have quite a number of sayings attributed to Jesus that we can compare for similarity of style. Most of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the first three gospels of the New Testament do seem consistent with a particular individual’s thought and character. It is possible, according to most scholars, to catch at least a glimpse of the man behind the stories. But clearly there are some sayings attributed to Jesus in the New Testament that appear to be at odds with the overall content of his teaching as represented by the majority of the sayings. Consider again the way Jesus speaks in the Gospel of John. John’s picture of Jesus is nothing like that presented in the first three gospels. Many scholars believe that the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John are the result of theological reflections by later Christians who were coming to terms with who they believed Jesus was and are rarely representative of things he actually said historically.
There are specific criteria that scholars use to try to evaluate the historical authenticity of the sayings attributed to Jesus. One criterion is called “the criterion of multiple independent attestation.” Essentially, this criterion places a high value on sayings attributed to Jesus that appear in more than one independent source. The more often a saying or story appears in different sources, the more likely it reflects something said by the historical Jesus. What is an “independent source”?
To answer this question, it is necessary to understand that, according to most scholars, the Gospel of Mark was the first New Testament gospel to be written, sometime around 70 CE. Later came the Gospels of Matthew and Luke whose authors relied on Mark for a large portion of their own compositions. Thus, if a saying is attributed to Jesus in both the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Matthew, it cannot generally be said to be from two independent sources since Matthew was likely dependent on Mark for the saying.
However, the authors of Matthew and Luke also incorporated into their gospels a previously-written collection of Jesus’s sayings, now lost, which scholars simply refer to as “Q” (Quelle = German for “source”). Additionally, both authors also attribute a number of sayings to Jesus that are unique to each gospel. Most scholars also suggest that the Gospel of John is independent of the other three gospels; its author obtained and developed teachings attributed to Jesus from alternate sources. Thus, we have at least five independent New Testament sources for sayings and stories attributed to Jesus: Mark, Q, sayings unique to Matthew, sayings unique to Luke, and the Gospel of John. (Paul, on rare occasions, also quotes sayings attributed to Jesus in his letters. Many scholars consider the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas to be another independent source.) Therefore, if a saying attributed to Jesus is found in, say, the Gospel of Mark, Q, and Paul (Mark 10:1-12; Matt. 5:31-32//Luke 16:18; 1 Cor. 7:10-11), then it occurs in three independent sources. The sources are independent because neither derived the saying from the others.
Finding a saying or story attributed to Jesus in multiple independent sources heightens our confidence that Jesus may have said something very like it. It follows, however, that just because a saying only appears in one source, like the Good Samaritan parable which is unique to the Gospel of Luke, it is not automatically ruled out as being something Jesus might have said. In such cases we must apply other criteria.
Another useful criterion requires that the saying attributed to Jesus fits his historical and cultural context in order to be considered authentic. A saying that is more representative of, say, a Greek Jewish environment, is less likely to come from Jesus. This criterion is used more to rule out suspect sayings than to demonstrate their authenticity.
The criterion of “embarrassment,” or “dissimilarity,” is one that is more useful for evaluating stories about Jesus but can sometimes be applied to his teachings. This criterion suggests that if a tradition proved embarrassing to later Christians who nevertheless felt obliged to retell it, then it is more likely to be historically authentic. An obvious example is the story of Jesus’s crucifixion. This was not something Christians would have made up! Particularly hard sayings of Jesus might fall into this category, such as when Jesus is quoted as teaching that one must hate one’s family in order to follow him. Finally, there is the “criterion of coherence” which basically allows that, once all of the other criteria have been applied, any individual tradition about Jesus that sounds similar in style or content to the others is also likely to be authentic.
Remember, sayings authenticated by these criteria are not the actual words of Jesus. They are representative of the things that Jesus might have said and perhaps did say in some fashion. But we can never retrieve the actual words of Jesus as he first uttered them. That may not have been possible even for Jesus!