A new question has been submitted by Francisco (firstname.lastname@example.org) on [08/21/08]: Everytime I read the gospels I wonder how possible it was to keep Jesus’s exact words in each of the writings. Thus, I have a question: Is it possible that someone took notes while walking around along with Jesus, maybe one of hs disciples?
This is an excellent question. Many Christians make an assumption which seems perfectly logical, but which I believe is not consistent with the mindset of the biblical authors. It certainly seems logical to assume that if the gospel accounts are inspired by God (which is clearly claimed in such passages as 2 Timothy 3:16 and 1 Thessalonians 2:13), then the sayings of Jesus which are recorded are essentially exact transcripts of what he said. I will have to say that when I was a young Christian this is what I assumed. The thinking goes this way. If the Bible is inspired by God, then when a saying of Jesus is quoted, then it must be absolutely word-for-word, or the Bible is mistaken. Of course, this would apply to the Old Testament as well. Whoever wrote Genesis must have recorded an exact transcript of the conversation of Cain with Abel. If we take this to its logical conclusion, we are clearly left with something which seems not to be possible.
Now, I believe that the Bible is inspired by God. I also believe it is possible for God to put into the mind of the writer of Genesis chapter four the exact words used by Cain and Abel. However, the question is whether this is what actually happened and whether it is necessary that we have an exact transcript.
What we think about this is affected by our logical/analytical Western mindset and how we are culturally predisposed to think. The Jews clearly did not have our modern viewpoint, influenced as it is by scientific thinking. To one in a Near Eastern mindset two or three thousand years ago, the assumption that an inspired writing had to be literal and word-for-word would not even make sense. The writers of Genesis and 1 Samuel did not expect their audience to assume that their accounts were perfect transcripts. Neither did the New Testament writers. The Gospel writers put together speeches by Jesus which were a summary or a generalized version of talks which we can assume he gave many times. Did a sermon take place "on the mountain?" I believe that it did. However, Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6 are not word-for-word what Jesus said. In the case of Matthew, it is his best recollection, put in his own words, of what Jesus said. I would not rule out that some of Matthew 5-7 actually comes from other speeches Jesus made. Surely he left some things out. Luke was not even an eye-witness of the event. He produced his gospel from accounts of eye-witnesses and those who were taught by the apostles a version of the events which accurately reflects the teaching of Jesus, but certainly these are not the exact words from the sermon.
What is important for us is that the gospel accounts are inspired by God and that they are an accurate reflection of what Jesus said. I believe that this is in fact the case. In every case the spirit, and in many cases the exact words of Jesus are recorded. The point of view of the author does affect what Matthew, Mark, Luke and John recorded. The details which are included reflect the perspective of the authors and what they believed was most important. They do not record everything said or done in any one setting. In some cases, they pull together thing Jesus said in various circumstances to produce a coherent and readable account.
Again, the key is whether or not the gospels, and the rest of the Bible for that matter is inspired. The fact that recorded events are almost certainly not transcripts may be hard to accept for a modern thinker to accept at first, but I believe this is the most reasonable way to think about the biblical accounts.
John Oakes, PhD