This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
How do we know that the red letters in the New Testament are what Jesus actually claimed and taught?
Dr. William Lane Craig’s Response
What we know, Lane, is that Jesus never actually uttered the words printed in red in the red letter editions of the Gospels. This point is obvious from the fact that these red letter editions are printed in English, and Jesus did not speak or teach in English!
All right, I’m teasing you; but there’s a serious point here. The Gospels were written in Greek, but Jesus taught in Aramaic. So even a red letter edition of the Greek New Testament would not give us the actual words of Jesus.
Granted, Jesus probably spoke Greek, at least enough to get by in his trade as a carpenter, since Greek was the common language of the Roman Empire, as a result of the pre-Roman conquests by Alexander the Great. Even though the Romans spoke Latin, in their dealings with Palestinians, they probably conversed in Greek—hence, the arresting centurion’s question to Paul: “Do you know Greek?” (Acts 21.37).
But in teaching his fellow Jews Jesus would naturally have spoken Aramaic. So what we have in the Gospels are Greek translations of what Jesus claimed and taught. Only rarely do we get glimpses of the original Aramaic words spoken by Jesus, as for example, Jesus’ words from the cross given in Mark: “At the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’” (Mark 15.34).
Moreover, we need to keep in mind that in a culture that lacked even the device of quotation marks, the distinction between direct and indirect discourse can be blurred. Read the account of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John’s Gospel 3.10-21, ignoring the quotation marks introduced by the English translators, and ask yourself where John’s direct quotation of Jesus ends and John’s commentary begins. Or read Galatians 2.11-21 about Paul’s public dispute with Peter and ask yourself where Paul stops recording what he said at the time and begins his present reflections upon what happened. It’s not clear. So in a culture where the distinction between direct and indirect discourse is not always clear, giving a paraphrase or the gist of what a person said rather than his very words is perfectly acceptable.
The Gospel writers employed common techniques of their day in giving the teachings of Jesus, such as paraphrase, summary, omission, clarification, contextualization, and so on.
So it’s very misleading to print Jesus’ words in red, as though we have the original words of Jesus recorded there.
What we want to show is that the Gospel writers gave an accurate representation of what Jesus of Nazareth said and taught. This is where New Testament historical-critical scholarship can be helpful. Scholars will sometimes say that in a particular teaching attributed to Jesus, we hear the very voice of Jesus (ipsissima vox); that is to say, something that renders very closely (in Greek) what Jesus said. His teaching on the Kingdom of God would be a good example. Everyone recognizes that the proclamation of the coming of God’s Kingdom or reign lay at the heart of the teaching of Jesus. On other occasions, scholars think that we have the very words (ipsissima verba) of Jesus, that is, a Greek expression that translates almost verbatim what Jesus said. His use of the expression “the Son of Man” as a term of self-reference would be a good example. Instances of this sort would have the best claim to be printed in red; but then we artificially mar the Gospels by such a device.
In fact, several years ago, a group of radical critics calling themselves the Jesus Seminar made headlines by parodying red letter editions of the Gospels by printing certain passages deemed to be authentic in red, passages that sounded like Jesus in pink, passages that were dubiously uttered by Jesus in gray, and inauthentic passages in black. Less than 20% of the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels were printed in red in their edition of the Gospels, reflecting their scepticism.
See here for a critique of the Jesus Seminar’s presuppositions and presumptions. What is significant about contemporary scholarship is that a strong case for Jesus’ divine-human self-understanding can be made merely on the basis of expressions widely recognized to be authentic, as I have shown in my chapter on the self-understanding of Jesus in Reasonable Faith.
The use of red letter editions of the Gospels ought to be shunned by serious students of the Gospels, since the device is fundamentally misleading as to the nature of the Gospel accounts.