Just what did Jesus say? The Jesus Seminar and other scholars* conclude that only about 18% of the words attributed to him in the gospels are authentically his. They reach this conclusion because so much of what Jesus ‘said’ – 82% of his utterances – is demonstrably derived from elsewhere.
There were four major sources for his words, which I’ll discuss briefly here, providing an example of each. Bear in mind also that whatever the derivation of Jesus’ words, those we have today have been subject to, in their earliest days, an unreliable oral tradition, repeated copying and deliberate and accidental alteration. The earliest surviving ‘words of Jesus’ (a few fragments of the fourth gospel) date to a century after he lived.
1. The early church created a good deal of the Jesus narrative, making him say what was important to them. For example, ‘take, eat, this is my body,’ and ‘take, drink, this is my blood that is shed for you,’ is clearly a post-crucifixion perspective. While it appears in arguably the most Jewish of the gospels (Matthew’s) the idea of drinking blood, even symbolically, would have been, and remains, anathema to Jews, whose scriptures forbid it (Leviticus 17.10 -16). Jesus was an orthodox Jew; it was the Hellenised Paul who transplanted the pagan ritual into nascent Christianity. He relates in 1 Corinthians 11.23-26, written about 15 years before the first gospel, how his wholly imaginary ‘Christ’ told him of this bizarre activity. Once established in the early church, Jesus then had to be made to endorse it and it was written back into the gospels.
2. The gospel writers (or others) invented dialogue for him. His entire conversation with Pilate, for example, is invented not once but four times, the encounter being rendered differently in all four gospels. It is probable that the entire scenario is fiction, given the likelihood the excessively cruel Roman governor would even entertain the idea of questioning a seditious nobody himself. And then there’s the ‘I am’ statements of John’s Jesus that I considered here.
3. The gospel writers altered difficult sayings into something more palatable. For example, in Matthew 15.24 Jesus says he was ‘sent only to the lost sheep of Israel’ (my italics). By the end of the same gospel, as well as in Luke and John, this has become a commandment to ‘make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 28.19). So which was it? Was the message exclusively for Jews or was it for all? It suited early churches, filled with non-Jews, that the gospel was for everyone, just as Paul had argued. Jesus’ words to the contrary – even if they were sufficiently widely known to have had to be included in Matthew’s original account – needed to be amended. Who amended them and when we shall never know, but it was certainly after the idea of the Trinity had taken hold.
4. Statements Jesus actually made. The Jesus Seminar regards as authentic sayings such as:
If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also (Matthew 5.39)
If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well (Matthew 5.40)
Love your enemies (Luke 6.27)
Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the Kingdom of God (Luke 6.20) [changed in Matthew’s gospel to the less radical ‘poor in spirit’!]
If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile (Matthew 5.41)
As inspiring as these might initially appear, they actually mean very little; they’re either prophecies that didn’t come to pass, impractical moral expectations or pseudo-spiritual homilies. And how much of this advice, these admonitions, do today’s Christians follow? You’d be hard pushed to find many that do. After all, following Jesus doesn’t entail doing what he says.
* I have used Robert W. Funk et al‘s The Five Gospels (HarperOne, 1997), Simon Loveday’s The Bible For Grown-Ups (Iconbooks, 2016) and Mark Allan Powell’s rather less impartial The Jesus Debate (Lion, 1998) for this post