What Would Jesus Say?

Pieter Brueghel the Younger “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery” (circa 1600s)


What Would Jesus Say?

By Robert Boucheron 


There is a gap of thirty years or more from the death of Jesus in about 30 A. D. to the writing of Mark, the earliest gospel, after 60 A. D. During this period of time, Jesus’s teaching—the parables, prayers, healings, and other words and deeds—was passed down by word of mouth, scholars believe. The Greek word for this oral material is logia, translated as “sayings.”

Evidence for an oral tradition comes from three passages. The best known is the beginning of the gospel of Luke. Luke 1:1-3 reads:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account . . .

Two other passages are quotations in Eusebius from Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord, a lost book by bishop Papias of Hierapolis, who wrote about 100 A. D:

Mark in his capacity as Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately as many things as he recalled from memory, though not in an ordered form, of the things either said or done by the Lord. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied him, but later, as I said, Peter, who used to give his teachings in the form of anecdotes . . .

Matthew put the sayings in in an ordered arrangement in the Hebrew [Aramaic] language.

The name at the head of each gospel has kata, or “according to” in Greek, and by custom we refer to the names as their authors. In fact, we do not know how the gospels were composed, by whom, where, or for what audience. A standard view is that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, added material, and aimed for gentile readers. John wrote last, at the end of the century and independently, with another eyewitness source, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”

Regarding the second passage from Papias, some scholars think that the gospel of Matthew was composed in Greek, based on its style, and not translated from a Semitic language. But Papias might still be correct, and what we have is a paraphrase or loose translation. Luke wrote better Greek than Mark or Matthew, and he altered the sayings. John reworked the sayings in the way that Plato used the words of Socrates to compose his dialogues, and John added his own theological ideas about Jesus. Some of the speeches in this gospel, then, are unlikely to be things that Jesus actually said.

As quoted, the words of Jesus have a literary quality. They are not spur-of-the moment improvisations or off-the-cuff remarks. After two thousand years and translation to English, they still sound fresh. In addition to the visionary “kingdom of God” and the ambiguous “son of man,” as well as many striking phrases, the sayings have rhetorical style, a gift for metaphor, and the story-telling appeal of the parables. They also sound consistent, the product of a single mind. Continue reading “What Would Jesus Say?”