Do the Gospels Misquote Jesus?

Category: Bible 297 2

One of the biggest criticisms to the reliability of the Bible is that it is filled with contradictions and inconsistencies. Bible Scholar Bart Ehrman once said that the Bible “is chock full of discrepancies, many of them irreconcilable.”[1] One of the most commonly cited types of contradictions in the Bible is that the Gospel writers changed the words of Jesus. 

Here is an example: Matthew, Mark, and Luke quote the voice at Jesus’ baptism as saying something different. Matthew 3:17 quotes the voice as saying, “This is my Son, in whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Mark 1:11 records, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Luke 3:22 records the same thing as Mark.

There are plenty more than that one. Matthew 5:3 records Jesus as saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Luke 6:20, however, records Jesus as saying, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Notice that Matthew says “poor in spirit” while Luke just says “poor.” These are only a couple of examples (I’ll go over a few more below).

Scholar Craig Blomberg notes that simple variations in language are “by far the most common kind of difference between the Gospel parallels.”[2] These differences (skeptics call them “contradictions”) are said to prove that the Bible is false and not the Word of God. Since the Scriptures cannot even quote Jesus (or anyone else) correctly then how can we trust them in anything else? That is a good question, and in this article I will examine the reasons why the Gospels “misquote” Jesus.

The Literary Genre of the Gospels

Most scholars today acknowledge that the Gospels fit into the literary genre of biographies (with Luke also fitting into the genre of “history”). One of the biggest problems with studying the Gospels is the natural tendency to compare them to the way modern authors write biographies. If we look at the Gospels as modern biographies then they are “woefully inadequate.”[3] Modern biographies will include topics such as a person’s family background, stories from the childhood, and many other subjects from a person’s life that the Gospels simply do not include about Jesus.

Also, the Gospels do not fit into the modern way of “doing” history. They are not very long and do not read like a typical history book. Skeptics believe because the Gospels are nothing like modern biographies or history books then they are unhistorical and cannot be trusted.

However, the Gospels do fit into the ancient literary genre of Greco-Roman biography. These books were generally shorter and it was common to skip over large parts of a person’s life (like how Mark and John say nothing about the birth of Jesus). It was common to actually limit the discussion to a person’s key speeches or events in their life, and these moments in a person’s life were usually chosen and organized for making a moral statement (and not about historical interest like modern biographies are). “The subject of the biography exemplified certain virtues. Emphasizing these encouraged readers to emulate the virtuous life of their biographical subject…They were written to teach, to exhort, and to improve their readers.”[4]

Paraphrasing Jesus

As we have seen, many critics point to the variation in recording Jesus’ words and deeds. What many of them do not realize is that the Greco-Roman biographer/historian had greater literary freedom to paraphrase and even slightly alter the words of a person for stylistic reasons. The writers of the Gospels were simply doing what biographers and historians did in their day. No one would have accused them of doing anything bad. “The early Christians [along with non-Christians] didn’t see these variations as a problem because that’s what they were accustomed to in their biographical and historical writings.”[5]

There are two things to note about the practice of paraphrasing in the ancient world. First, there were no quotation marks in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek.[6] Second, the Gospels give us what is called ipsissima vox (“his own voice”) and not ipsissima verba (“his own words”). We must remember that Jesus did his teaching in Aramaic and not in Greek, so the Gospels (written in Greek) do not preserve his exact wording anyway (except for a few cases).[7]

Mark Roberts says:

“Naysayers who deride the reliability of the Gospels because of such things as verbal inconsistencies between the Gospels are making an error of anachronism. Their negativity is almost as silly as criticizing the Gospels for failing to include digital photographs of Jesus.”[8]

Darrell Bock explains why each Gospel writer may have reworded certain teachings:

“Such variations, reported by authors who knew the tradition’s wording, reveal their intent to summarize and explain, not merely to quote, as they sought to apply Jesus’ teaching to their audiences, selected what to discuss, and sometimes arranged their material for topical reasons rather than by sequence…Each Evangelist retells the living and powerful words of Jesus in a fresh way for his readers, while faithfully and accurately presenting the ‘gist’ of what Jesus said.”[9]

Before I move onto the examples of variations in Jesus’ teachings, let me give an example from the ancient world outside the Bible. The ancient Greek historian Thucydides (who lived from 460-395 BC) mentions the difficulties of recording speech in the ancient world:

“It was difficult for me to remember the exact substance of the speeches I myself heard and for others to remember those they heard elsewhere and told me of.”

He continues:

“I have given the speeches in the manner in which it seemed to me each of the speakers would best express what needed to be said about the ever-prevailing situation. But I have kept as close as possible to the total opinion expressed by the actual words.”[10]

Thucydides did not feel free to make things up. “In other words, the Greek standard of reporting speeches required a concern for accuracy in reporting the gist of what had been said, even if the exact words were not remembered or recorded. The ancients also recognized an author’s right to summarize and bring out the contemporary force of a speaker’s remarks. In other words, the historian sought to report and edify.”[11]

Examples of Variations in Jesus’ Words

Now that I have covered that ancient writers did not have to directly quote someone word-for-word, let us examine a few passages in the Gospels

First, I mentioned the alleged contradiction concerning the voice at Jesus’ baptism. It is apparent that the message is the same between the Gospels, although it is worded slightly different. Blomberg believes that Matthew may have reworded the message so that his readers may know that the heavenly voice spoke not only for the benefit of Jesus, but also for those who were in the crowd.[12] So Matthew changed the “you” to “this” to help his readers understand a point he wanted to make.

Secondly, why does Matthew 5:3 change the beatitude to “poor in spirit” whereas Luke says only “poor?” Blomberg explains it well: “[Matthew] has not distorted a promise originally made to all the materially poor regardless of their spiritual condition. Rather, he has recognized the close equation between poverty and piety in certain first-century circles and phrased the words of Jesus in a way that clarifies that when he blessed the poor he was thinking of the materially impoverished ‘who stand without pretence before God as their only hope.’”[13] Matthew was wording it in a way to make sure it would not be misunderstood by his readers.

The Mustard Seed

Let me now go over a few other examples. Matthew 13:31 says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field.” Mark 4:31 says that the mustard seed was planted in the ground. Luke 13:19 says that the man planted the mustard seed in his garden.

So, was the mustard seed planted in a field or a garden? Mark only mentions the ground (which can be either a field or a garden). Luke mentions that it was planted in a garden, while Matthew says a field. This makes perfect sense when we consider the cultural context of the Gospels. Matthew was writing to Jews and Jewish purity laws forbade them from planting a mustard seed in a garden, while in the wider Greco-Roman world, who Luke was writing for, planted them in gardens. Matthew and Luke worded the parable in a way that made sense to their readers.[14]

Digging Through the Roof

Another “contradiction” appears in Mark 2:1-12 and Luke 5:17-19. This is an incident where four men came to Jesus carrying a paralytic man. Since the crowds around Jesus were so big, the men went on the roof of the house, and made an opening in it. Mark says that they did this by digging through the roof. Then they lowered the man to Jesus. Luke 5:19 says concerning the same men, “When they could not find a way to do this [take the paralytic to Jesus] because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.”

Mark 2:4 references the men “digging” through the roof. Luke removes “digging” and notes that the roof was made of tiles. However, people do not dig through tiles. Roofs in Palestine were thatched so digging makes sense. Luke replaces the thatched roof with tiles because his audience, Greeks and Romans outside of Palestine, would have had tiled roofs. “All these changes simply help a non-Jewish audience to picture the scenes more vividly and comprehensibly in their minds, even if the actual details of the imagery have changed.”[15]

Laying a Foundation

The last example of “misquoting” Jesus that I will cover is from Matthew 7:24-27 and Luke 6:47-49. Matthew says, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

Luke changes the teaching. “I will show you what he is like who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice. He is like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid a foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck the house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.”

The meaning of what Jesus was saying is the same, although it is worded differently. Luke changes the wording to “dug down deep and laid a foundation on rock” because this was a practice that was much more common outside of Palestine. Luke also “turns the description of the storm with its violent wind, appropriate for the small, dry Israeli desert river beds suddenly swollen with rain, into a calmer flood, more characteristic of a larger river [outside of Palestine].” Luke changed the imagery to something that made more sense to his audience.[16]

Conclusion

Anyone who believes that changing the wording of Jesus’ teaching is a “contradiction” shows that they do not understand the way ancient authors wrote. Word variation was an acceptable practice during the time of Christ, and we should not use that as an excuse to criticize the Gospels. I will finish this article with a good quote from Blomberg, who summarizes the issue very well:

“So long as what was written remained faithful to the meaning of the original utterance, authors were free to phrase their reports however they liked, and no-one would accuse them of misquoting their sources or producing unreliable narratives.”[17]

He continues,

“Even today in informal conversation substantial paraphrases of another person’s speech are accepted as faithful to its original meaning, so there is no reason to object to the fact that the ancient world permitted a similar flexibility with written reports.”[18]

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[1] Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted. (New York: HarperOne, 2009.) Pg. 19.

[2] Craig Blomberg. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Second Edition. (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2007.) Pg. 157.

[3] Mark D. Roberts. Can We Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007.) Pg. 83.

[4] Roberts, 85-86.

[5] Ibid., 86-88.

[6] Blomberg, 157.

[7] Roberts, 88. Blomberg, 157. Darrell Bock, “The Words of Jesus in the Gospels: Live, Jive, or Memorex?” In Jesus Under Fire. Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland eds. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.) Pgs. 77-78.

[8] Roberts, 92.

[9] Bock, 76-77.

[10] Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War 1.22.1. Quoted in Bock, 79.

[11] Bock, 79.

[12] Blomberg, 158.

[13] Ibid., 160.

[14] Ibid., 163.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 162-163.

[17] Ibid.,157.

[18] Ibid., 168.

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2 thoughts on “Do the Gospels Misquote Jesus?

  1. Pingback: Matthew and 2′s | findingdoubt

  2. Gerald R Fogerty

    God is cool. He believes some of us have enough intelligence to be able to figure out what He’s trying to communicate. Jesus is The Word, correct? He is the ultimate or complete expression of what God is all about, true? But, Jesus was a helpless infant, a young boy, a dying Savior, The Risen Lord, etc. He didn’t remain in the exact same physical or emotional state all the time. So, when we discuss His words as recorded in the Bible, we can see clearly Who He is and was even though there are limitations in the manner in which language depicts him.

    Reply

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