How do we know that what we read in the Gospels is what Jesus really said?
Well, for believers, their tradition tells them so. Christians believe that the church is guided by the Holy Spirit, and so the writings that were chosen for inclusion into the “canon” of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) were the ones that the early church felt most closely represent what Jesus said and did. That’s the religious reason (more or less.)
But even if you think of it in secular terms, it makes sense to trust the Gospel accounts. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) were written relatively soon after the death and resurrection of Christ, and agree on the general outlines of the story. And Mark, the earliest Gospel, is generally thought to have been written about A.D. 70, only 40 years or so after Jesus’s earthly life ended. There were still people around who had participated in Jesus’s ministry and could say to Mark, “Hey, that’s not the way it was!” Or, “You forgot to put that story in!” It would be akin to someone in our time writing about the Vietnam War or Watergate. There were still enough people around who would be able to inform whatever was written, by their first-hand experience.
On the other hand, many Christians today are, like me, not fundamentalists. We do not take every word in the Bible literally. We know the Gospels were compiled after a generation of oral histories, in which stories were probably altered slightly. That’s what naturally happens as stories are passed on. And the Gospels were written by four different writers writing for four different communities. So even though it’s about the same person, Jesus, the Gospel writers wrote things slightly differently, stressing different things, focusing on different things (depending on their audiences).
So there are bound to be a few discrepancies. And contradictions, too.
A few examples will suffice. Jesus makes only one journey to Jerusalem in the Synoptic Gospels, while he makes several in St. John’s Gospel. The story of Jesus’s birth in the Gospel of Matthew describes Mary and Joseph as living in Bethlehem, fleeing to Egypt, and then moving for the first time to Nazareth; while Luke has the two originally living in Nazareth, and traveling to Bethlehem in time for the birth and then returning home again. And when retelling the same stories and miracles, the Gospel writers use different words, even when they’re quoting Jesus. What Jesus says on the Cross differs from Gospel to Gospel. But again that’s not surprising, since you have four different people writing. They’re all true — and not in some vague, abstract philosophical sense, but in the sense that these things happened — but it’s not like reading a court transcript.
So when looking at different versions of the same story, or stories that seemingly conflict, how do we determine what it might be the closest to what Jesus said?
Scripture scholars use a number of tools to think bout these questions. For example, there is the criterion of “embarrassment.” If something seems like it could have been potentially embarrassing about Jesus to the early Christian community, it’s seen as the most accurate of the retellings. The most common example is Jesus’s baptism. Doesn’t it seem odd that Jesus would be baptized by John the Baptist? After all Jesus is the sinless one, right? So considering that, Scripture scholars suggest it’s close to impossible that the Gospel writers would’ve invented something of that nature or create something that might have been embarrassing to Jesus and purposely place it in the story.
Another interesting criterion is the rare use of Aramaic words. Many scholars suggest that when an Aramaic word is preserved in the text of the Gospels, it most likely represents a striking phrase that Jesus himself used, which was remembered, pondered and treasured by his disciples and reverently passed on to the Gospel writers, aka the evangelists. Examples of this are Jesus calling his Father “Abba” (a version of “Dad”), his raising the little girl from her deathbed by saying “Talitha cum,” (Little girl, arise) or his opening the ears of the deaf man by saying, “Ephphatha” (Be opened).
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