Today we have a really important question about how we should think of the recorded words of Christ in our Bibles. Do we have the actual words of Christ, or do we have a paraphrase of what he said? The question is from Reston, who lives in Newton, Iowa. “Pastor John, as I continue to study the Bible, and specifically the actual text and transmission of the Bible itself, I keep running into a debate over two Latin phrases: ipsissima verba (‘the very words’) and ipsissima vox (‘the very voice’), or the gist of the words. The debate is whether or not the Gospel writers give us the exact words spoken by Christ, or the paraphrased gist of Jesus’s words. What do you think? And what bearing does this have on our Bible interpretation?”
This question takes me back almost fifty years to the three years that I spent at the University of Munich in Germany, from 1971 to 1974, working on a dissertation about the words of Jesus in Matthew and Luke: “Love your enemies.”
To write a dissertation for a German university in the 1970s about the words of Jesus was to be presented with this very question all the time: Can we peel away the layers of tradition and get back to the ipsissima verba of Jesus, the very words of Jesus? So, I had to immerse myself in the kind of scholarship that developed methods to get to Jesus’s words. You immersed yourself in these things because that’s the way the work was done to peel away the layers and try to get to the ipsissima verba.
“Communicating meaning, intention, is essential. Words are means to that end.”
Now, if you wonder whether I had a crisis of faith, you might be surprised about the nature of the crisis. It wasn’t a crisis of my belief in the truth and worth of Scripture, but a crisis of my belief in the truth and worth of such academic scholarship. And it really was a crisis. What was I doing? And what have they done for two centuries in this country, Germany, and everywhere else that was influenced by higher criticism?
It went something like this: Article after article that I read, and book after book, began and was pervaded by the words probably and perhaps. And yet they tended, at the end of the article, at the end of the book, to move toward what were called the assured results of critical studies. And I could never see a clear path. How did you get from all those probablys and all those perhapses to this so-called “assured results of scholarship”? It all looked like historical guesswork to me. And to my mind, they were not at all assured because they were built on guesses over and over and over again. That’s what gave them the appearance of scholarship.
And as a Christian who had come to trust in Jesus Christ as the Lord, Savior, Treasure of my life, who had stood forth from the Bible with such compelling evidence to my mind and heart as real and reliable, I knew there must be a better way, and a more reliable way, to come to a conviction about the truth of the person, and the teachings, and the work, and the words of Jesus.
This was the crisis: What was at stake for me was not whether Christ was real and the New Testament was true. What was at stake was whether any missionaries would give their lives for guesswork. I mean, really, scholars, come on. What’s going to happen on Sunday morning with pastors who believe what you believe, who don’t believe what you don’t believe, who handle the Bible the way you do? Nothing’s going to happen. That’s what’s going to happen. There could be no missionaries; nobody will give their life for this kind of guesswork. So, that’s background. That’s what came to my mind when I read this question.
What Jesus Said
Let me say three things about the ipsissima verba, the very words of Jesus. First, we do not know what language Jesus spoke in every conversation and every teaching moment of his life. He could speak in Greek, he could speak in Aramaic, he could speak in Hebrew, but there is very good evidence that at least some of the time (most scholars would say most of the time; there’s a little bit of guesswork going on here) he was speaking in Aramaic, the ordinary Semitic language of Galilee and Judea at the time. Some of the evidence for that is that the Gospel writers preserve some of his Aramaic words:
- “Talitha cumi” in Mark 5:41
- “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” in Mark 15:34
- “Ephphatha”in Mark 7:34
- “Abba” in Mark 14:36
And these leftovers from Aramaic caused most scholars to say he probably spoke most of the time in Aramaic, which was a Semitic language — it was related to Hebrew, and very much like Hebrew in Judea and Galilee at that time. This means we probably don’t have the very words of Jesus all the time because he didn’t speak in Greek, and what we have is Greek. The New Testament was written in Greek originally, and we read it in our translations. And so, even if he sometimes taught in Greek, which he may well have, readers of English today don’t have the very words because they’re reading English.
That’s the first observation: we probably do not have the ipsissima verba because he spoke in Aramaic, and nobody reads Aramaic when they read the Greek New Testament today, which is the way it was written.
What Jesus Meant
Second observation: What is essential in connecting us reliably with the mind of Christ — what he really intended to communicate when he taught — is not the very words, but the very meaning, the very intention that he had when he communicated with whatever words he used. Communicating meaning, intention, is essential. Words are means to that end. Here’s an example: What if you sent a friend to ask me if I thought you should purchase a subscription to a certain video service? And he reports back to you, in writing, in an email, “John said, ‘Yeah, I am sure that would be a great use of your money.’” Now, those are my very words, but what if I had sarcastically said them to your friend, like this: “Yeah, I’m sure that would be a great use of your money.” The meaning, the intention of my words, is “Don’t be stupid. Don’t waste your money on that subscription.”
So, the point is this: My very words may not carry my meaning. People need to realize this about language. Meaning and language are not the same, and we need to be alert to how language communicates intention. I want to know what Jesus meant — what he intended me to understand. Whether I have his very words or not is relatively unimportant compared to this: Are the words that God used to communicate the meaning of Jesus doing that for us?
The second point, then, is that we must not assume it is better to have the very words of Jesus than it is to have an accurate and faithful rendering of the meaning and the mind of Christ, guaranteed by God in the inspiration of the Scriptures.
The Church’s Infallible Charter
Here’s the third observation: The Bible itself presents us with a doctrine, a teaching, about its own inspiration by God, and its truthfulness and reliability, that secures for us not the less-important very words of Jesus in Aramaic or Greek or Hebrew, but a true and reliable communication of what Jesus meant — what he intended to communicate with the words that he used.
“God himself planned that there would be preserved for us a faithful, and true, and infallible writing.”
Do we have that now truthfully and faithfully communicated in the language of Scripture, Greek and Hebrew? And the answer is yes. And I’ve tried to gather all my thoughts about these things — about how we know the Bible is true — in a book written a few years ago, called A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness. I recommend that. If you want to go deeper into how I think the Bible shows itself to be true, that’s where I try to say all that I understood.
And my argument is that God has provided a self-authenticating Scripture, which enables the simplest believer, by the Holy Spirit, through the divine marks and evidences of the Scripture itself, to know that it is true, and to know with such confidence that they can justly give their lives for this truth.
Let me close with one paragraph from that book about the message of Jesus in the New Testament in particular.
[Jesus] came to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37) with all the authority of God (John 17:2; Matthew 28:18). He planned and prepared for that truth and authority to be preserved through a band of apostles whom he would guide by his own Spirit into all the truth needed for the foundation and preservation of his church (John 14:25–26; 16:12–14; Ephesians 2:20; 1 Corinthians 2:13). In perfect harmony with God’s will for Christ and Christ’s will for this church, those spokesmen put their teachings into writing with a sober, conscious sense that what they wrote for the church would be her infallible charter till Jesus comes again. (A Peculiar Glory, 124)
So, I conclude that, for the most part, not having his very words is not a loss for the church since he himself planned that there would be preserved for us a faithful, and true, and infallible writing of what he wanted communicated.