In 1956 an American game show debuted called “To Tell the Truth”. Each round of the game introduced three people all claiming to be the same person, and a team of panelists would ask them questions. Those pretending to be the real (usually famous) person would make up answers, while the real person would answer truthfully. The inquiring panelists would then guess which was the real person. The host of the show would conclude by saying, “Will the real (name) please stand up?” and he or she would then stand up thereby revealing their identity and the accuracy of the panelists’ guesses.
It is for me hard not to remember this gameshow when reading some New Testament scholars’ portrayals of Jesus. Jesus has been portrayed in such varied roles as a Cynic (i.e. an ancient philosopher of protest), a Rabbi teaching Torah, a visionary mystic, a magus, a political revolutionary, a peace protestor, an eschatological herald of The End, a social reformer, and much more. I remember the words of G. K. Chesterton who said that the real Christ must be very big indeed if so many other little Christs can be carved out of Him. After reading these varied New Testament portrayals of Jesus, one wants to end it all by saying, “Will the real Jesus please stand up?” Or, at the very least, “Will those offering the latest portrayal of Jesus please sit down?”
The Quest for the Historical Jesus has been going on in scholarly circles even before it had been given that name in 1910 by the English translators of Schweitzer’s own Quest. It began in the 18th century with the scepticism of Reimarus, continued in the 19th century with Strauss, Renan, and Wrede, got its name from Schweitzer (who ironically thought the work of the previous Questers proved that the whole idea of the Quest should be abandoned), chugged along with the “we’ll never find Him but who cares” approach of Bultmann, and continues today, the gift that keeps on giving, the Quest that refuses to die. People like those in the Jesus Seminar and Reza Aslan keep the thing alive (and sell books at the same time).
What perhaps is not discerned even by some New Testament scholars who acknowledge the futility of the various Quests is how much they share with the Questers. For it seems almost axiomatic in some (most?) academic circles that whoever Jesus really was, the Gospels got it wrong, in that He didn’t say and do what the Gospels report that He said and did. When it comes time for the real Jesus to stand up, it is taken for granted that He will not be the one we see in the Gospels and hear proclaimed by the Church.
I see this time and again when reading some New Testament scholarship. The scholars confidently assert that Jesus didn’t say something that the Gospels report that He said. One scholar (for example) wants to portray Jesus as being opposed to fasting since fasting (says he) presupposes God’s absence and Jesus was now announcing God’s presence. Thus Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:16-18 (which presupposes that His disciples will fast) “shows that the stylized format of the sayings probably comes from the pen of Matthew”.
This scholar treats our Lord’s words about almsgiving (in Luke 11:41) in the same way. He ascribes it to “some redactive dexterity on the part of the evangelist” and says, “it is evident that Luke has personally inserted the injunction to give alms”, and that this is part of Luke’s agenda to “adapt Jesus’ radical requests for the renunciation of goods in his evangelistic interest to redirect the primitive eschatology of the Jesus Movement in a formal ecclesial and ascetic direction”. In other (and fewer) words, the evangelists made stuff up and put it in Jesus’ mouth, willfully distorting His teaching to make it conform to their own later agendas.
This method is precisely that of the Questers. All assume that the Gospel reportage is inaccurate and needs to be corrected, either by tweaking or by wholesale rejection. But how to discern whether or not Jesus actually said something that the Gospels report Him saying? The real principle, whether acknowledged or not, is whether or not this or that saying conforms to the new portrayal of Jesus that the modern scholar has constructed. One posits, for example, that Jesus rejected fasting, and so anything in the Gospels (or come to that, Acts or the Epistles) which suggests that He did not reject fasting is simply disallowed.
This is Quester methodology: the real Jesus was (for example) a Zealot revolutionary at war with Rome, and so anything that suggests differently (such as Mark 12:17 or John 18:36) simply can’t be authentic. The Quester has carved out a Zealot Christ from the Gospel Christ, and those embarrassing verses which suggest otherwise end up on the cutting room floor.
This is not to suggest, however, that the Gospel record offers a literary tape-recording of what Jesus said. For one thing, Jesus spoke in Aramaic and the Gospels report His words in Greek. The translation from Aramaic into Greek can be fairly wooden and literal or it can be loose and paraphrastic. Accuracy of report does not necessarily entail literal phraseology. In the Gospels we do not always hear the ipsissima verba of Jesus, but we do hear the ipsissima vox, the true voice of the Master and His actual teaching.
Thus, for example, the very Jewish “the abomination of desolation standing in the Holy Place” in Matthew 24:15 becomes “Jerusalem surrounded by armies” in Luke 21:20. But this liberty of translation and verbal flexibility do not mean that Jesus never spoke about the Holy City being surrounded and desecrated. It only means that Luke, writing for Gentiles who had no clue what “the abomination of desolation” might mean, offered a looser translation.
This is also not to deny that the different evangelists had their own specific points to make and their own literary goals. Matthew, for example, wrote with an eye to Judaism, and stressed the authentic Jewishness of Jesus. Luke, on the other hand, wrote with an eye on the nations, and stressed the universality of Jesus’ message. These different literary goals involved different ways of editing, collecting, and collating Jesus’ words and deeds. But collating is quite different from invention. The evangelists did not invent sayings and then place them in Jesus’ mouth to make their own points. The Church throughout its history has taken for granted the essential accuracy of the Gospel portraits and the authenticity of the various logia ascribed to its Master.
This, I suggest, is only what we should expect. The first generation of “the Jesus Movement”—i.e. the apostles and those responsible for transmitting and collecting Jesus’ words—really cared about what Jesus actually said and actually did. If Jesus said something, they regarded it as true and authoritative because He was the Lord. They might not have understood it fully, or they might have initially found it difficult (compare such sayings as recorded in Mark 10:25 or John 6:54-57), but if Jesus said it—well, they were stuck with it. Because Jesus said it, diluting it, distorting it, or chucking it were not options.
Also not an apostolic option was making stuff up and putting it in Jesus’ mouth, since what counted was what Jesus said, and if Jesus didn’t say it, the saying had no Dominical authority. Many if not most in the academic world assume that inventing various logia and attributing them to Jesus was fair game and was commonly done in the first generations. Accordingly, many sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are judged to be not authentically His, but rather the creative work of the evangelists.
Even apart from the psychological unlikelihood of such wholesale attribution (with its underlying assumption that no one then cared whether or not Jesus actually said it), we see the opposite tendency in the Epistles of the New Testament.
Take for example Paul’s words about divorce in 1 Corinthians 7. He is keen to forbid divorce among Christians, and so he prefaces his prohibition of such divorce by saying, “I give instructions—not I, but the Lord” (verse 10), citing a Dominical word, such as found in Mark 10:9. But when he comes to the case of mixed marriages with the Christian partner married to a pagan, he begins by saying, “I say, not the Lord” (verse 12), since he knew of no logion from Jesus about this matter. In the absence of such a word, he was forced to offer his own judgment on the matter.
In other words, the first apostolic generation of the Jesus Movement made a hard and fast distinction between what Christ said and what He didn’t say. They did not feel themselves at liberty to make something up and place it in the Lord’s mouth. Their over-arching aim was not creativity, but fidelity. The issue for them was not whether or not a teaching was good, but whether or not Jesus said it.
We see this also in what they did not attribute to Christ. In that first generation the Church almost tore itself apart over the question of whether or not Gentiles converting to Christ needed to be circumcised (see Acts 15). If the line between what Christ said and what He didn’t say was so porous that they felt themselves free to invent logia and attribute them to Jesus, then why did they not do so in this case? If the early church was that creative, we should expect to find the Gospels full of logia about Gentile disciples not needing circumcision. In fact that issue cannot be found in the Gospels, however handy and relevant such logia might have proven to subsequent discussion. Jesus never broached the issue, and so the later Church therefore had to muddle it through on their own. And after their verdict against requiring circumcision, no one felt themselves free to invent a logion about it and insert it into the Gospel record. The people in early Jesus Movement were relentless sticklers for historical authenticity about the Master. (This also, we may add, accounts for the historical conservatism of the subsequent generations of the early Church.)
All this means that Christians today are, like those in the early Jesus Movement, stuck with the words of Christ, whether we like them or not. It is true that many people throughout the years—both outside and especially inside the Church—have found some of those words unwelcome (such as His words about wealth and power in Mark 10:25 and 10:42-44), and have tried to blunt their force or otherwise wriggle out of them. Though the Evangelists might not have been that creative, later expositors and leaders certainly have been. All the more reason to listen attentively and humbly to what Jesus actually said. Human words, however wonderful, will pass away. It is only the words of Christ which will outlast heaven and earth (Matthew 24:35).