The Red Letters: The Words of Jesus or the Voice of Jesus?

Gutenburg BibleIn our last post, we took up the issue of Red Letter Bibles. In particular, we sought to demonstrate the problems that necessarily ensue when we seek to elevate the red letters of scripture above the black ones. This doesn’t square with scripture’s view of scripture; nor does it square with Jesus’ view of scripture. What is more, it doesn’t square with an orthodox theology of the Godhead – failing to recognize that the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, inspired the entirety of Bible. All the letters are really red.

(Again, to be clear, my beef isn’t with red letter bibles, but is rather with red letter theology.)

I’d like to explore a different but related issue in this post. It too will illustrate the problem with red letter Christianity. That problem is the words actually spoken by Jesus. When Jesus opened up his mouth to utter, say, the Sermon on the Mount, what sounds actually issued forth? Were those words verbatim what we see in Matthew 5-7? The short answer is: No. Longer answer follows.

What we have in red ink are not the very words of Jesus. (The technical Latin theological phrase to describe this concept is ipsissima verba, which would mean something like “the very words themselves.”) What we do have are the inspired words of the biblical author (in this case Matthew) that authoritatively, reliably, (even inerrantly) convey the message of Jesus. This is what theologians describe as the ipsissima voca – the very voice of Jesus.

Now I know that this distinction will make some people extremely uncomfortable. “Are you saying I can’t trust the words of Jesus?” Nope. I’m not saying that at all. Keep reading; take it easy!

Picture the scene. You are alongside the Sea of Galilee. A great crowd has gathered to hear the teaching of this astonishing rabbi from Nazareth. They say he teaches with utterly unique authority, not like the Pharisees and scribes. They say he has performed amazing miracles: causing the lame to walk, the blind to see, feeding thousands from a few loaves of bread, casting out demons, even raising the dead. He strides to the top of a grassy mound surrounded by an enormous crowd. As the breeze blows gently through the lilies at your feet, you bristle with anticipation. He opens his mouth to begin to speak….

Now consider:

  • There is no stenographer present.

If you are present for a courtroom trial, there will be a stenographer. The purpose? To record verbatim every word (whether uttered, mumbled, or obstreperously hollered) of every witness, the lawyers, judge, etc. It is vital for the court record to have an exact and complete record of what is said. When Jesus spoke, however, there was no stenographer. No one was seeking to record everything he said verbatim.

The gospel accounts that we have were written down later (at least in their final form), after about 30 years or so. It seems that there wasn’t much need to write these things down as long as there were eye-witness apostles strolling around who served as primary sources for the proclamation of the gospel. However, as the generation of the apostles began to die off, it became necessary to preserve the message of the gospel (which includes more than simply the teaching of Jesus) in an adequate and proper way. Hence, the gospels.

When, say, Mark, wrote his gospel, did he pull up the stenographer’s notes from a particular sunny Galilean afternoon? No. He wrote down the words of Jesus as conveyed to him from those who were actually present on that day, in his case the words of the apostle Peter. Mark’s gospel gives us the words of Jesus via the apostle Peter, who was an eye-witness (or, in this case, an ear-witness) to the teaching of Jesus. Does this diminish the words of Jesus found in Mark’s gospel? No. Peter was a close disciple and friend of Jesus. Peter was there. The words of Jesus were no less important to Peter than they are to anyone else who has ever lived. He was willing to die (and, indeed, did die) for his Lord. What’s more, the Spirit of God lived in Peter, and enabled him to recall and communicate all that was necessary for the sake of the ongoing apostolic witness of the church. So, we can rely on the fact that what we have in Mark is an accurate representation of the teaching of Jesus through the witness of Peter.

I’ll say more than this concerning the reliability of the witness of the gospel writers in what’s to follow. But this serves to demonstrate the point that what we have in the gospels isn’t necessarily a word for word presentation of what Jesus said on every occasion. Instead it is an authoritative presentation of what Jesus said as presented by dependable eye-witnesses. Jesus no doubt said a great deal more than is recorded, he even said things in a different chronological order at times (which a comparison of the gospels will demonstrate), but what we do have is a good and trustworthy representation of what Jesus did, in fact, say.

  • Jesus would have publicly taught in Aramaic.

Another relevant point that we rarely think about as Bible readers: When we read our red letters, we are reading Jesus’ words in English. But Jesus didn’t speak English. The New Testament was written in Greek. Our Bibles are English translations of the Greek words of Jesus. But Jesus didn’t speak Greek either (at least not primarily, and certainly not in the context of his public teaching). Jesus spoke Aramaic.

Aramaic is sort of a sister language to Hebrew (think of the relationship of Spanish and Italian, for instance). The average man on the street among the Jews of Palestine spoke Aramaic. But the New Testament was written in Greek. Why Greek? Because from the time of Alexander the Great (4th century BC), the entire eastern half of the Mediterranean came under Greek domination, from Greece to Afghanistan, and Greek became the common language. Even the Romans (whose native language was Latin, of course), would ordinarily have made use of Greek in the eastern half of the Empire. When the New Testament was written, it was written in Greek (not Aramaic) because the church was spread broadly throughout this part of the world. Outside of Palestine, no one would have been able to read things written in Aramaic (even Jews outside of Palestine spoke Greek).

So, when we read the words of Jesus in the Greek New Testament, we are actually reading the voice of Jesus (who most likely spoke these things in Aramaic) conveyed to us through the words of the apostles (now communicated via Greek).

Do we ever have the very words of Jesus?

Yes. On some occasions the gospel writers preserved for us direct verbatim quotations of the words of Jesus in the original Aramaic. When they did so, they would usually provide a translation of the meaning of those words into Greek. For instance, consider these examples:

  • Matthew 27:45-47  45 From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. 46 About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”– which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”
  • Mark 5:41-42 41 He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means, “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). 42 Immediately the girl stood up and walked around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished.
  • Mark 7:33-35  33 After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. 34 He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means, “Be opened!”). 35 At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.

Notice that in each of these examples Matthew and Mark give the Aramaic phrase followed by a translation of that phrase into Greek. We can be grateful that they didn’t always provide verbatim Aramaic speech with translation – the gospels would be much longer and less beautiful literarily! Notice, too, that the things that are given verbatim tend to be rather intense moments – Jesus’ words from the cross (which were misunderstood due to the similarity in sound to the name Elijah), the drama of a moment of resurrection, a particularly arresting healing encounter. But…there would have been little sense in preserving everything Jesus said in Aramaic. What benefit would that have served for the use of the early church in Greek speaking contexts?

Other examples in Hebrew/Aramaic include individual words that show up in Jesus’ teaching:

  • Matthew 5:21-24  21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca, ‘is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. 23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
  • Mark 7:10-13  10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ 11 But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), 12 then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

“Raca” would mean something like “blockhead.” “Corban” was a technical term for a gift devoted to the Lord. So, too, the use of “Abba,” an intimate Aramaic term for one’s father appears in Mark 14:36. These isolated terms reflect a verbatim quotation of Jesus words.


So what? What difference does any of this make? So Jesus didn’t probably teach in Greek, but in Aramaic…does that mean I can’t rely on his words as presented in scripture? My purpose here is not to undermine anyone’s confidence in the words of Jesus in the Bible. In fact, I’ve staked my eternal soul on the trustworthiness of those words.

I believe we can trust the words of Jesus because I believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the gospel writers. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John weren’t just guys writing an interesting story about a significant historical religious figure. They (under the Spirit’s supervision) penned the Word of God – the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God.   Every jot and tittle of these books was exactly what God intended. They do not reflect the very words of Jesus verbatim (which would have been indecipherable to their audience!), but they do represent the very voice of Jesus. They say exactly what the Triune God (Father, Spirit, and Son) intended for them to say. They are the words of Jesus not because they are the result of a stenographer’s transcription, but because they are the very voice of God, given us by the inspiration of the Spirit of Jesus. Another way of saying this is to tie it back in to the last blog post. Scripture as a whole is God’s Word. Because of the certainty of this, we can have confidence in the red letters of scripture.