The Last Supper by Ugolino da Siena (Ugolino di Nerio) Italian, ca. 1325–30
Is it possible to quote the actual words of Jesus?
When someone quotes the words of Jesus, are they really doing that? Is Jesus a historical person that you can actually quote?
To answer that, let’s refer to someone whose words we can verify. Take Abraham Lincoln. We can verify what he said on November 19, 1863. How can we do this?
To establish a historian’s methods to verify what a historical person said, a perfect paradigm is how we can quote the words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
The Gettysburg Address is a speech that U.S. President Abraham Lincoln delivered during the American Civil War at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, now known as Gettysburg National Cemetery, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on the afternoon of November 19, 1863, four and a half months after the Union armies defeated Confederate forces in the Battle of Gettysburg, the Civil War’s deadliest battle. It remains one of the best known speeches in American history.
Lincoln’s carefully crafted but brief address, which was not even scheduled as the day’s primary speech, came to be seen as one of the greatest and most influential statements on the American national purpose. In just 271 words, beginning with the now famous phrase “Four score and seven years ago” , referring to the signing of the Declaration of Independence 87 years earlier, Lincoln described the U.S. as a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”, and represented the Civil War as a test that would determine whether such a nation could endure. Lincoln extolled the sacrifices of those who died at Gettysburg in defense of those principles, and then urged that the nation ensure: that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Despite the prominent place of the speech in the history and popular culture of the United States, its exact wording is disputed. The five known manuscripts of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s hand differ in a number of details, and also differ from contemporary newspaper reprints of the speech. Nor is it precisely clear where, on the grounds of the Gettysburg cemetery, Lincoln delivered the address. Modern scholarship locates the speakers’ platform at least 120 feet (37 m) away from the traditional site in Soldiers’ National Cemetery at the Soldiers’ National Monument, such that it stood entirely within the private, adjacent Evergreen Cemetery. A 2022 interpretation of photographs of the day, using 3D modeling software, has argued for a slightly different location—straddling the current fence around Evergreen Cemetery.
Shortly after Everett’s well-received remarks, Lincoln spoke for only a few minutes. With a “few appropriate remarks”, he was able to summarize his view of the war in just ten sentences.
Despite the historical significance of Lincoln’s speech, modern scholars disagree as to its exact wording, and contemporary transcriptions published in newspaper accounts of the event and even handwritten copies by Lincoln himself differ in their wording, punctuation, and structure. Of these versions, the Bliss version, written well after the speech as a favor for a friend, is viewed by many as the standard text. Its text differs, however, from the written versions prepared by Lincoln before and after his speech. It is the only version to which Lincoln affixed his signature, and the last he is known to have written.
So, for Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address we have a variety of handwritten documents and third-party newspaper accounts. Therefore, we have a verifiable historical record of what Lincoln said. That is what it takes to verify what someone in the past said.
Now, of course, everything in the New Testament lacks such historical means to verify anything said by anyone in that text using the paradigm method of the historian as was done with Abraham Lincoln’s words of the Gettysburg Address.
Now, take another example to illustrate what maybe a similar situation, let us take the words of Socrates.
Socrates did not document his teachings. All that is known about him comes from the accounts of others: mainly the philosopher Plato and the historian Xenophon, who were both his pupils; the Athenian comic dramatist Aristophanes (Socrates’s contemporary); and Plato’s pupil Aristotle, who was born after Socrates’s death. The often contradictory stories from these ancient accounts only serve to complicate scholars’ ability to reconstruct Socrates’s true thoughts reliably, a predicament known as the Socratic problem. The works of Plato, Xenophon, and other authors who use the character of Socrates as an investigative tool, are written in the form of a dialogue between Socrates and his interlocutors and provide the main source of information on Socrates’s life and thought. Socratic dialogues (logos sokratikos) was a term coined by Aristotle to describe this newly formed literary genre. While the exact dates of their composition are unknown, some were probably written after Socrates’s death. As Aristotle first noted, the extent to which the dialogues portray Socrates authentically is a matter of some debate.
What we have here is the testimony of three contemporaneous people who left behind written documents referring to Socrates. But what these contemporaneous writers have done is used Socrates as a literary character in their writings. They all do not proport to have recorded what Socrates said at any given time. They are simply fabricating situations in which Socrates is within this philosophic story speaking as one character to another character in the story. No one would consider anything that Plato wrote about Socrates as actually being spoken by Socrates. What we can say is that Plato said, “X, Y, and Z.” Not that Socrates said those words. Since Plato wrote the books and used Socrates as Plato’s literary character.
The point I am about to make is that Jesus, as far as what can be historically verified, is a literary character used by varying writers of the New Testament, specifically Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. Nothing can be determined about what Jesus said since there were no tape recorders nor newspaper reporters, or handwritten documents of Jesus. All we have is the literary creation known as the New Testament.
We do have possible third-party documents that refer to the existence of a Jesus or at least to a teacher called The Christ. The first and most reliable is the War Annals of the Roman General Tacitus.
The Roman historian and senator Tacitus referred to Jesus, his execution by Pontius Pilate, and the existence of early Christians in Rome in his final work, Annals (written ca. AD 116), book 15, chapter 44.
The Annals passage (15.44), which has been subjected to much scholarly analysis, follows a description of the six-day Great Fire of Rome that burned much of Rome in July 64 AD. The key part of the passage reads as follows (translation from Latin by A. J. Church and W. J. Brodribb, 1876):
But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.
Next we have Suetonius.
The Roman historian Suetonius (c. AD 69 – c. AD 122) mentions early Christians and may refer to Jesus Christ in his work Lives of the Twelve Caesars. One passage in the biography of the Emperor Claudius Divus Claudius 25, refers to agitations in the Roman Jewish community and the expulsion of Jews from Rome by Claudius during his reign (AD 41 to AD 54), which may be the expulsion mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (18:2). In this context “Chresto” is mentioned. Some scholars see this as a likely reference to Jesus, while others see it as referring to another person living in Rome, of whom we have no information.
Christians are explicitly mentioned in Suetonius’ biography of the Emperor Nero (Nero 16) as among those punished during Nero’s reign. These punishments are generally dated to around AD 64, the year of the Great Fire of Rome. In this passage Suetonius describes Christianity as excessive religiosity (superstitio [GMJ:
literally meaning Excess fear of the Gods.]) as do his contemporaries, Tacitus and Pliny.
And, lastly, we have Josephus.
The extant manuscripts of the book Antiquities of the Jews, written by the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus around AD 93–94, contain two references to Jesus of Nazareth and one reference to John the Baptist.
The first and most extensive reference to Jesus in the Antiquities, found in Book 18, states that Jesus was the Messiah and a wise teacher who was crucified by Pontius Pilate. It is commonly called the Testimonium Flavianum. Almost all modern scholars reject the authenticity of this passage in its present form, while most scholars nevertheless hold that it contains an authentic nucleus referencing the life and execution of Jesus by Pilate, which was then subject to Christian interpolation or alteration. However, the exact nature and extent of the Christian addition remains unclear.
Modern scholarship has largely acknowledged the authenticity of the second reference to Jesus in the Antiquities, found in Book 20, Chapter 9, which mentions “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James.”  This reference is considered to be more authentic than the Testimonium.
Almost all modern scholars consider the reference in Book 18, Chapter 5 of the Antiquities to the imprisonment and death of John the Baptist also to be authentic and not a Christian interpolation. A number of differences exist between the statements by Josephus regarding the death of John the Baptist and the New Testament accounts. Scholars generally view these variations as indications that the Josephus passages are not interpolations, since a Christian interpolator would likely have made them correspond to the New Testament accounts, not differ from them. Scholars have provided explanations for their inclusion in Josephus’ later works.
Now, what we have in all those accounts, if we accept the historical veracity of the documents, is that a teacher called Christ was executed by the Roman authorities by means of the Roman method of crucifixion. No specific evidence of what this Christ may have specifically said or taught is mentioned.
Now, the New Testament is a self-proclaimed collection to persuade the reader to believe that what it is telling will convince the reader to become a member of the Christian faith. The document is the creation of and is preserved because it is the record of the believers of the Christian religion. The Gospels are the term for the first four books of the New Testament. The Gospels is the English translation of a Greek word meaning “Good News”. Thus, those books are teaching the Christian religious doctrine concerning the belief that there is ‘good news’, i.e., you, the reader, may have been born in sin, but Christ by his death and resurrection can ‘save’ you.
Presumably, if the teachings of Jesus were only transmitted to other Jewish students, Jesus and his teachings would have disappeared from history. The Talmud, which has records of Jewish teachers and
preachers who could and would have been contemporaneous to Jesus, might have been the only records of this teacher. All of those other preachers and teachers were not part of the mainstream of the Rabbinic tradition and teachings and thus left no theological impact on Judaism.
The reason that Jesus did become important is because the followers of Christ directed their efforts to spread the ‘Good News’ to non-Jews who took up this new set of mythological beliefs. That act of transmission to non-Jews was the act of creating Christianity, a new religion.
When you say you are quoting the words of Jesus, you are actually doing no such thing. Since there is no verified record of what that person said, you are merely quoting from the authors of the New Testament. Just as no one says they are quoting Socrates, but instead saying that they are quoting Plato who used Socrates as his literary character.
The only reason you can quote Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John is that the Christian religion preserved that set of documents. You cannot separate the teachings of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John from the Christian religion. The New Testament only exists because it is the teachings of the Christian religious mythology concerning the Christ named Jesus.
Gary Jaron's musings.
In my High School Art Department someone had made an ornate sign on hung it on the wall that read: 'Ignore this sign completely.' A paradox couched in sarcasm and irony. This blog is for random musings on anything and everything that comes into my head.