A couple days ago I shared few articles with a Facebook group to which I belong. We were discussing textual criticism, the preservation and collection of ancient texts, and subsequent English translations, so I posted these two articles written by Daniel Wallace recently: “Fifteen Myths about Bible Translation” and “Five More Myths about Bible Translations and the Transmission of the Text”. One of the subjects addressed by Wallace is “Red Letter Editions” of the New Testament. I said that I preferred that printers avoid the red font because I think it misleads people. The words of Jesus in the Gospels are the words of the Evangelist. The other article I decided to share was Helen K. Bond’s recent contribution to The Bible and Interpretation: “Ten Things I Learnt about Jesus by Writing a Book about him”. This one was relevant because she writes that she has become “…increasingly convinced that the search for authentic words of Jesus is a waste of time.” I think I agree to a large extent. We have Jesus’ words as interpreted and shared by the Evangelists. Our efforts to get behind the words of the Evangelists may provide us with some interesting theories concerning Jesus’ words in an Aramaic context, but even then I am cautious about such findings.

One person asked how this jives with the words of John 14:26: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” [1] The theological claim of this text is important to many Christians who hold a high view of Scripture to one degree or another. I thought my response there may be worth sharing here as well. I wrote the following in response:

We must rethink our understanding of how the Spirit reminded Jesus’ disciples of his words. Did the Spirit remind them of Jesus’ words verbatim or did the Spirit remind them of the gist of Jesus’ words? I would argue that Jesus’ message is preserved, while his exact words are not something about which we should worry.

In part, students of human memory are aware that we interpret everything we remember. If our memories were raw data alone we’d overload. Every thing we “remember” is important because we have categorized and interpreted it, framing it a certain way, giving it meaning (think about important events in your own life). This is why scholars differentiate between the ipsissima verba and ipsissima vox of Jesus. The “verba” being the “words” Jesus used, the “vox” being the “voice” or “message” of these words. If you compare the Synoptic Gospels you will see that some of the same events are described differently. If we seek the exact “verba” we’re in trouble. If we seek the “vox” we know that what is important is the gist of Jesus’ message.

Also, Jesus likely taught the same lessons and prayed the same prayers in a variety of different context in places all over Galilee and Judea. Each time he did this there was likely a slight twist, a contextualization if you will. Imagine a traveling evangelist saying the same thing exactly the same way in every pulpit. Unlikely, unless s/he is reading from a written document, verbatim, with no variance or exposition. Jesus didn’t read from a document, so we can presume he didn’t always say the same thing the same way twice. So when we see differences between the Synoptics, or the even great difference between the Synoptics and the Gospel of John, we do ourselves a great service by remembering that the Spirit gave us Jesus’ words as interpreted by the Evangelists who wrote the Gospels. There is nothing wrong with this. Jesus didn’t live in a world with recording equipment, but rather a world where he was making disciples, and part of making disciples is making sure that the disciples took ownership of his message, which is what the Gospels display.

For those who find John 14:26 to be an authoritative statement regarding the work of the Spirit in empowering the Evangelists to record the words of Jesus I don’t think we have to close our eyes to the differences between the Gospels, especially the Synoptics and the Gospel of John. Jesus’ words verbatim shouldn’t be our goal. Jesus’ message relayed and interpreted in what we need to seek when reading the Gospels.

[1] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update, Jn 14:26 (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995).