Skeptic doubts Jesus’ words

Here’s the most recent question posed by a viewer of The Real Jesus:

Comment from archieabe:

I have a comment for you on a related topic, if I may: The typical Christian believer today seems to think that he or she knows what Jesus said and what Jesus did over 19 centuries ago. In reality, no living mortal today knows (beyond a reasonable doubt) what Jesus said or did way back in the 1st century A.D. No one. Your thoughts?

It’s on the same level as doubting that Abraham Lincoln really gave the Gettysburg Address.

This is a speech that many school children have been taught to memorize in the last 150 years. Yet despite the speech’s prominent place in the history and popular culture of the United States, the exact wording of the speech is disputed. The five known manuscripts of the Gettysburg Address differ in a number of details and also differ from contemporary newspaper reprints of the speech.

We don’t have the original copy of the Gettysburg Address that Lincoln reputedly wrote on the back of a letter on a train on the way to the ceremony. So who is to say that the Gettysburg Address isn’t the product of the imagination of a popular newspaper writer?

One might counter that the five newspaper reprints prove that a speech was given and from the similarities we can reconstruct what Lincoln said to a 98 percent or better probability. Given the nature of human language, the high degree of similarity is evidence that Lincoln did in fact give the speech and that is approximately what we have today with some small edits by newspaper writers.

But doubters and conspiracy theorists can say that the above photo isn’t really Lincoln and point to a number of problems with the “obviously doctored photo.”

When we compare this analogy to the Gospel accounts, we are basically dealing with the same issues, the same degree of similarity between variant manuscripts, and a larger body of manuscript evidence.

We must also take into account that the disciples preserved Jesus’ teachings, not His exact words. A preacher who gives an early morning sermon and a late morning sermon varies his words and content, but might be said to have “preached the same sermon.” That is what we have with the sayings of Jesus. The “Sermon on the Mount” contains roughly the same words as the “Sermon on the Plain.” In other words, the recorded words of Jesus are teachings that were repeated many times and committed to memory by His disciples.

Here I remind the skeptic that he can probably remember the words to popular songs he heard when he was a teenager. He can recall all but a few words (or perhaps a line) many years later. My elementary school teachers made us memorize poems that I can easily recall today (with some refreshing). This was essentially how the Gospel was preserved for about 15 to 20 years — but by the time Paul began preaching in the 50s, we know that there had been a “Gospel” that various itinerant evangelists had committed to memory. This is the Gospel that later became Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

We have to take into account that the words of Jesus were probably given in Hebrew or a dialect of Hebrew such as Aramaic. The “Gospel” survived this way for about a decade or two before someone thought to record it in Hebrew or Aramaic and then later in Greek. So the four different Greek renderings of the same account are going to have some natural variations.

In fact, the testimony of the church fathers is that Matthew was a “Hebrew” Gospel later rendered into Greek around 63 or 64 A.D.

According to Papias, Mark was the “rendering” of Peter’s Gospel told to Mark, Peter’s interpreter at Rome. Mark’s Gospel was originally Peter’s Gospel in Aramaic, but the Greek version is Mark’s rendering of what Peter preached.

Then Luke is Paul’s Gospel. It has the core of the “proto-Gospel” preached by Matthew and Mark with the addtion of some carefully researched details told to Luke by disciples and family members of Jesus he had known in Jerusalem, Antioch and Ephesus.


The Gospel of John was written with the help of a committee of elders who helped John recall some of Jesus acts and words not preserved in the three so-called “Synoptic” Gospels.

This is the early historical record of how the four Gospels were written. This rings true if we understand anything about how all the Hebrew scriptures came into being. Usually being the record of the sayings of prophets told to scribes and later purposefully redacted in some small details.

We also have to remember that the accounts were not written in a vacuum, but were continually preserved by eyewitnesses who knew each other well and had the opportunity to correct details if someone introduced something novel or deviant from the original words or events.

There is also manuscript evidence as well as several historical accounts that testify to this process. The theories of the liberal critics on how the Gospels came into being are without any documentary evidence and rest on pure conjecture.

Here is an image of the Rylands fragment, which is a portion of the Gospel of John copied about 115 A.D. Most assume this is at least a copy of a copy. Therefore, critics variously claim a date of 67 to 96 A.D. for John’s Gospel. The amazing thing about this fragment is that it matches exactly the words of documents that were copied centuries later which is the basis for the Gospel of John we have today.

Although it is a fragment, it contains a portion of John on both the front and the reverse. The text is approximately where it should be on the reverse if the words of today’s accepted Gospel of John were the same.

In other words, this particular fragment is more reliable than the Gettysburg Address!

2 Comments

I disagree with your comparison to the Gettysburg address. No one who know the historical method would find that comparison anything but ludicrous.

We know Lincoln spoke the words. We have copies of the speech and multiple named witnesses to verify the same and a multitude of other print discussing the same.

The books of the bible are for the most part anonomyous. There is significant evidence of a central document and scant evidence of actual authorship. Noextent writing by Jesus exist and outside of the gospels who seem to echo each other we have nothing else.

Add in variable dates and it is clear your analogy fails and fails miserably.

This comes from a Christian who finds such apologetics embarrassing to the faith.
Anonymous said: "We know Lincoln spoke the words. We have copies of the speech and multiple named witnesses."

The charge that no words from Jesus' hand exist is true of almost every character from ancient history. Julius Caesar didn't write his own history. He had scribes, historians and poets to record it. But we don't doubt the history of Caesar merely because it isn't corroborated by others in his own lifetime.

We have copies of Jesus' words and speech from multiple named witnesses.

Yoour claim that the books of the Bible are anonymous is only a claim. The authors themselves claim to be eyewitnesses in the writings themselves.

The earliest records of the church fathers name the authors as known in their day -- 1 Clement names Peter and Paul -- Papias names the authors of the four Gospels. You can doubt the testimony and the coroborating testimonies -- but from the mid-first century to about 130 A.D. there are at least 18 writers who all give historical information that matches the Gospel in many fine details.

Some of the fathers didn't simply echo the words, but also claimed to actually have had possession of the original writings. For instance, Clement writes from Rome in about 96 A.D. to the Corinthians and asks them to refer to Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. Think about it: to make a false claim in a letter to a church that didn't really have this letter would be foolish.

Ignatius and Polycarp are writing from Anticoh and Asia Minor showing familiarity with almost every book of the New Testament in a short space. They aren't unrelated writers, but their lives overlapped the Apostles in their "our generation" (1 Clement).

In short, there is far more evidence that these are reliable accounts than for many other events.

Be skeptical, but a reasonable person doesn't deny historical fact simply because they are a basis for a religious faith.

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