Return here to the Shadows in Eden home page.....

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Words of Jesus

What are the actual words spoken by Jesus? This question was prompted by my writing a previous [1]post in the first person as Jesus. This was not a conscious decision I made beforehand. It was something which simply happened when I began to write. I rather think now that had I pre-planned such a form for my post then I would have been too overawed to write a word. But the thought was also prompted by my noting that in my [2]King James Study Bible the editors had made the decision to print the entire text in black – except for all the spoken words of Jesus in the New Testament, which are printed in a confident red.

This textual colour choice might give Jesus’ words a certain authoritative conviction, but it also ironically invites the question: just how truly reliable are these as the actual spoken words of Jesus? To make one point clear: I am not one who subscribes to the theory that Jesus as a historical person did not actually exist. It might be an uncomfortable truth for some that we have no [3]independent verification outside of the gospels for his historicity, but that to me is not a reason in itself to call his existence into question, even if his actual nature might remain in the province of personal belief.

In the Gospel of Matthew, 8:4, having miraculously cured a leper, Jesus admonishes the man to tell no one what he has done. So how do we know about this incident, and what Jesus said to this man? Did the cured leper ignore Jesus’ wish and spread the news of what had transpired, and who had cured him? If there were other witnesses present who overheard Jesus’ words (and therefore were in a position to record and preserve them) then the words themselves were already public, making Jesus’ statement redundant. Either option demonstrates the uncertainty of the exchange, even its very unreliability.

"And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus saith unto him, See thou tell no man; but go thy way.." But how do we know this?
There are, of course, other such examples, not the least of which is the detailed exchange that took place between Jesus and Satan in the [4]wilderness. Clearly no one else was present to witness and record the incident, so how can we possibly know the actual words that were spoken – including those spoken by a supernatural being? And what actually were the last words spoken by Jesus on the cross? You can pick and choose, because three of the four gospels will tell you something different.

Both Matthew and Mark agree on what these last words were, having Jesus cry out in despair: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” [5](Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34). Luke’s phrase is one of simple acceptance: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46). John has Jesus utter the phrase of brief resignation: “It is finished.” (John 19:30). Not one of these three ‘last words’ phrases even remotely resembles the others. Clearly, while they might all be wrong, they certainly cannot all be right. Few examples of scripture contradicting itself focus our uncertainty more than these conflicting phrases. What they purport to be is not some mere conversational aside, but the actual last words uttered by Jesus in his earthly existence – words of no small moment for Christians everywhere.

Jesus’ actual appearance is a total unknown, and yet throughout history artists have portrayed him as he appears here. This portrayal of him has now become an entrenched aspect of Christian tradition: a tradition for which we nevertheless have no verification.
We are in a situation in which we are being forced to choose which contradictory Gospel account might be the more accurate version. Scholastically the problem does not present itself, as it simply demonstrates that the unknown writers of these gospels evidently were using different sources for their material. It only becomes a problem when scriptural authority is accepted as religious belief. Some light can be shed on the situation once we recognize that the four gospels were something of an experiment in literary form. The idea of weaving stories and apparent conversations together in a narrative to give them the ring of actual events was something of a novelty for its time. This contrasts with such a text as the ex-canonical Gospel of [6]Thomas, which makes no attempt at narrative, but rather presents an apparent conversation with Jesus in [7]instructional form. It has no ‘setting’ as such.

The first two pages of the surviving Gospel of Thomas, written in Coptic. It was buried along with other such texts in the Egyptian sands for sixteen long centuries before being discovered in 1945. Many such texts were destroyed in the purges ordered by Athanasius, the influential bishop of Alexandria, and deliberately burying them became a desperate way for those who valued them to ensure the texts' survival. Against all the odds, it worked.
This non-narrative form of the Gospel of Thomas is of particular interest because it appears to predate those [8]canonical gospels which derive certain common passages from it. This in turn strongly suggests that the original gospel writings were actually such non-narrative collections of ‘wise sayings’ (in this case, those of Jesus), which in turn implies that the narrative elements of the canonical gospels (the story lines, settings, miracles, etc.) were later additions which expanded upon these original collections of sayings.

Most of these collections have now been lost, but one source known simply as Q (from the German quelle, meaning ‘source’) is hypothesized from elements common to Matthew and Luke. It is possible that the authors of Q and Thomas were actually the [9]same person who therefore greatly influenced later gospel writers. This is because reconstructing Q from Matthew and Luke leaves only the sayings and teachings of Jesus, with no narrative elements: the same form as the Gospel of Thomas.

The lost text known as Q can be extrapolated from the contents common to the gospels of Matthew and Luke. While Q has never been found, its one-time existence is entirely plausible, and is a reminder that all such texts which we now have, both scriptural and ex-canonical, are simply those which have survived both the willful destructiveness of orthodox purges and the rigors of time. 
All of these gospel texts, whether they happen to be canonical or whether they are from other sources, and whether those sources are approved by orthodoxy or not, contain detailed and sometimes extended passages purported to be the actual words spoken by Jesus. On the face of things, it would seem to be stretching all credulity to presume that a scribe happened to be on hand on each and every occasion to record exactly what was being said, and any texts that might have been written at the time have been lost to history. What we have instead are only near-contemporary texts dating in some cases from [10]decades after the events which they describe.

So how can we so confidently take for granted that these words of Jesus are indeed what is claimed for them? It is, as with all such situations, a matter of faith. And perhaps it is so that, as I imply in my own previous post The Mystic Marriage, the words of Jesus need not be a matter of any historical record, but are any words, said by anyone, anywhere, at any time, which are truly spoken from the heart.

“As we say down here when we preach, it is written in red letter. It is in my King James Bible, and that is what I go by, the King James Bible.” ~ Serpent handler [11]Pastor Andrew Hamblin, Tabernacle Church of God, LaFollette, Tennessee.

[1] Please see my post The Mystic Marriage.

[2] The King James Study Bible, pub. Zondervan.  Printing the spoken words of Jesus in red is commonly encountered in Bibles, although such a two-colour print run adds to the expense of production. 

[3] The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (right), who switched his allegiance to the Romans, is often cited as an independent source which confirms Jesus' historicity, although the passages in his text which appear to refer to Jesus are thought to be later additions by an unknown hand, evidently with an agenda to provide such backdated independent confirmation of Jesus’ existence. The actual historicity of Jesus is naturally a very gnarly question to answer. The occupying Roman forces, normally such scrupulous bureaucrats, leave no record. This is mysterious in itself, considering the potential threat that such a person would have been to the stability of Roman occupation. Jesus was, after all, tried for sedition against the state. There is one possible reference by the Roman historian Tacitus to an unnamed messiah, but historical certainty is something else. 

[4] Please see my post The Good Satanist.

[5] Both Matthew (which copies from Mark) and Mark agree that after uttering these words Jesus ‘cried with a loud voice’ (Matthew 27:50, Mark 15:37) before dying. This statement has been used as something of a let-out clause by those striving to give the four gospels an internal coherence (as do the editors of my King James Study Bible, which is the Apologist approach to scriptural scholarship), and who for this reason claim that this ‘loud cry’ actually was the short phrase referred to in John. Such a claim is clearly unverifiable and speculative, and still leaves the discrepancy with Luke’s version (in which Jesus does not cry out) unexplained. My own instincts tell me that the phrase in John, "It is finished", if it was said at all. would have been uttered in a last gasp: one of almost whispered resignation. Can you really imagine these modest words being yelled out at max volume? 

[6] ‘Thomas’ is not a name, but a term meaning ‘twin’. This might mean that he was a true reflection – a ‘mirror’ – of the teachings of Jesus, or rather more mysteriously, that Jesus indeed had a twin, a second Self: a can of mystic worms which I might open in a future post. This to me is explanation enough of why this particular gospel never made it into the canon: if there is one thing that orthodoxy apparently abhors, it is mysticism, and the Gospel of Thomas is replete with statements which read more like Zen koans. It will by turns delight, intrigue and shock, and we need to put in some spadework to unearth the deep wisdom that is contained there.

[7] In this sense, the Gospel of Thomas is in the form of a catechism: instructions on faith or doctrine written in a question-and-answer format, as if the reader is in conversation with the writer.

[8] The famed ‘Doubting Thomas’ episode in John 20:24-29 suggests a calculated ridiculing of Thomas, and other passages in John imply a deliberate refutation of the ideas which the Gospel of Thomas expresses. Since this key incident in John's Gospel of Thomas’s skeptical encounter with the risen Christ is virtually ignored by the other three gospels, it is reasonable to conclude that this is a fictive incident which was written into the narrative to serve John’s anti-Thomas agenda, with John portraying Thomas as the ultimate agnostic.

[9] Since the Gospel of Thomas is considered to be a Gnostic text, and since the Q source must have been similar to Thomas - even perhaps by the same person - it logically follows that the amount of Q shown in my above 'pie-slice' diagram is a telling indication of just how much Gnostic influence still remains in the canonical gospels. The responses of Jesus in Matthew 8:20-22 are wholly Gnostic in their nature. "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head." (Matthew 8: 20, R.S.V.) "Foxes have their dens and birds have their nests, but the son of man has no place to lie down and rest." (Thomas 86).

[10] The scriptural texts most nearly contemporary with the events of the crucifixion are specific letters of Paul. Intriguingly, although he lived within the same generation, Paul himself shows little interest in the historical Jesus. Rather, he is impassioned about establishing the new beliefs on an Apostolic Gentile basis, and steering them away from a direction which tied them to a tradition of Jewish customs and prophets which was the focus of James. The four canonical gospels were believed to have been written within the first century, which nevertheless makes their authorship a retrospective one relating events which were not witnessed first-hand by their unknown writers. The oldest gospel is not Matthew, but Mark, which, like Q, has elements common to both Matthew and Luke, and from which the writers of these two gospels also evidently drew for source material.

[11] Quoted in: Snake Salvation: One Way to Pray in Appalachia, by Elizabeth Dias, Time, September 9, 2013. Please see my post They Shall Take Up Serpents.

Elaine Pagels: Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. Random House, 2003. Professor Pagels’ title contains the complete text of the Gospel of Thomas, as well as a comprehensive examination of both its content and the historical setting and aftermath, including emerging doctrinal conflicts of the early Church which were contested by a number of individuals who sought to shape Christian doctrine to their will. Not the least of these was Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons, who decided that only four of the many gospels then in circulation should be included in scripture – and then only the four of his personal choosing. Yes, it really was a single individual who decided for himself that he had the right to make such a momentous decision – and then made it.

The top image is a detail from the painting Christ and the Sinner, by Henrik Siemiradki. The third image is a detail from the painting Christ Crucified, by Harry Anderson. In the notes: Crucifixion, by Thomas Eakins. The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio. Saint Paul in Prison, by Rembrandt. Other graphics created for this post by Hawkwood for the © David Bergen Studio.



    Do you believe what Jesus said to be the truth or do you believe the interpretations of others?

    Mark 16:16 He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.

    Jesus said "Has been baptized shall be saved."

    Many interpreters have said that Jesus meant that they had been saved the minute they believed and that they should be baptized later, as a testimony of their faith.

    Should you trust your eyes when you see what Jesus said?
    Should you trust your ears and eyes when hear interpreters and preachers teach something Jesus did not say?

    When Jesus was alive He forgave sins of whom ever He wished to prove that He had authority to forgive sin.(Matthew 9:6)

    Matthew 9:2 And they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed.Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralytic, "Take courage, son;your sins are forgiven."

    Were the paralytics' sins forgiven the very minute his friends had faith? No, they had faith before they brought the paralytic before Jesus, yet he was still in his sins. The paralytic did not have sins forgiven until Jesus made the proclamation, "Your sins are forgiven."

    Jesus has made a proclamation for us, "He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved." Jesus never said, "He who has faith only will be saved."


    Under the New Covenant sins are always forgiven because of faith and baptism.



  2. Thank you for your comment on this subject, Steve. I'm afraid, though, that you already seem to have misunderstood the focus of my post in your first statement: "Do you believe what Jesus said to be the truth or do you believe the interpretations of others?"

    But my post is not about whether what Jesus said is the truth or not, or even about how others have interpreted that alleged truth. It is about the extent to which we can rely on the words in scripture which are claimed to be the actual words spoken by Jesus. Since these words were often-enough said in circumstances which would have made their recording and preservation impracticable if not actually impossible (I cite the example of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness), and since they are at times actually contradictory between the gospels (I cite the last words on the cross), and because there is no independent corroboration for these words outside the gospels, whether we accept these words as Jesus' actual spoken words falls outside of 'proof' and squarely within the province of personal belief.

    On your own blog you employ a parallel (in 'Historical Facts by Faith') that, since there were no living eye witnesses to the deeds of Hannibal of Carthage we, as much as the events in scripture, must also accept these deeds 'by faith'. But this is a very different situation from the gospels, because we have ample corroboration from Roman records and Roman and Greek historians (Plutarch, Livy, Polybius) to be able to accept Hannibal's achievements, not on faith, but as part of the historical record.

    In the same post you also mention the walls of Jericho 'falling down' because of obedience to God. As you will read in my own post here ('Joshua, Jericho, the Trumpets and the Wall'), obedience to God had rather less to do with the walls crumbling than previous conquests which razed the walls long before Joshua was supposed to have arrived there, as the archaeological record on the ground confirms.

    Peace of heart, and thank you again for your comment.

  3. So how do we know about this incident, and what Jesus said to this man?

    The Bible does not contradict itself; you only have to widen the horizon of your mind.

    Did the cured leper ignore Jesus’ wish and spread the news of what had transpired, and who had cured him?

    For a priceless miracle perhaps, that man forgot and told people about the situation.

    If there were other witnesses present who overheard Jesus’ words (and therefore were in a position to record and preserve them) then the words themselves were already public, making Jesus’ statement redundant.

    Just to confirm that human beings primarily are weak in terms of secrecy. It means that words of Jesus the Christ are not that seriously obeyed by any person on earth.

    Either option demonstrates the uncertainty of the exchange, even its very unreliability.

    There are things spiritually contained and therefore the carnal you is always doubtful. Even Thomas in the Bible was at first doubtful but confirmed that Jesus the Christ is God.

    You might find the blog of 2009 Most Educational to Follow by Mashable as worth reading. or perhaps controversyextraordinary Biblical topics.

    1. Thank you for your comment, entonces27. I can assure you that 'the horizon of my mind' is wide enough to encompass possibilities not accessible to those who are bound by their faith to filter opinions through the specific faith which they hold. This means that I am not so much ‘against’ any particular faith (I am not), but ‘for’ an assessment that could be supported by an impartial scholarship. If, as you say, the “words of Jesus the Christ are not that seriously obeyed by any person on earth” then why does Christianity even exist? The inevitable answer is that millions do seriously obey his words.

      My point which I make in this particular post is that the actual words claimed for Jesus in scripture are hearsay, and were at the very earliest recorded several decades after the Ascension. What you do not mention is an example where no one else was present, such as the episode of Jesus’ exchange in the wilderness with Satan. If no one else was present (and they were not) how can we possibly know what was said? Given that one of the participants was supernatural, and the dialogue could well have been an internal one, is there not, even for yourself, the remotest chance that this dialogue was an invented fiction written to make a theological point?

      “The carnal me”, as you describe it, is a rationalizing mind, and by no means always doubtful. But there are indications that the unknown author of John’s gospel disapproved of the texts attributed to Thomas ‘the twin’, and sought to ridicule him in this passage, which itself could therefore be an entirely fictional incident. We have no confirmations for these things, and no specific historicity beyond the scriptures themselves. What we are left with is faith, and it is through faith that we often accept what common sense and rational thought would in another context have us question.


You are welcome to share your thoughts.