Today, I recorded and posted Word Magazine # 83: Ipsissima Verba or Ipsissima Vox? You can listen here.
Here are my notes:
In the recent Megiddo radiointerview I did with Paul Flynn on the text of the NT, he had asked me about this quote from Dan Wallace:
Scholars are not sure of the exact words of Jesus. Ancient historians were concerned to get the gist of what someone said, but not necessarily the exact wording. A comparison of parallel passages in the Synoptic Gospels reveals that the evangelists didn’t always record Jesus’ words exactly the same way. The terms ipsissima verba and ipsissima vox are used to distinguish the kinds of dominical sayings we have in the Gospels. The former means ‘the very words,’ and the latter means ‘the very voice.’ That is, the exact words or the essential thought. There have been attempts to harmonize these accounts, but they are highly motivated by a theological agenda which clouds one’s judgment and skews the facts. In truth, though red-letter editions of the Bible may give comfort to believers that they have the very words of Jesus in every instance, this is a false comfort. -Daniel B. Wallace https://danielbwallace.com/2012/10/08/fifteen-myths-about-bible-translation/
I’ve been wanting to do a follow up response to this idea of the verba/vox distinction and related issues, like whether Jesus spoke Greek or only Aramaic.
So, I want to look at four sources I’ve recently reviewed on these topics, along with some final thoughts conclusions on how believers are to understand the use of modern historical-critical methodology in Biblical criticism.
First: Irving Hexham, Understanding World Religions: An Interdisciplinary Approach (Zondervan, 2011).
A few weeks ago, I noted Irving Hexham’s questions about whether Jesus spoke Aramaic or Greek. See my post here. Hexham suggests that the consensus among modern NT scholars that Jesus spoke Aramaic rather than Greek only came about in the eighteenth century with the rise of source criticism and subtly undermined the traditional view that the Gospels faithfully recorded the exact words of Jesus.
Second: Paul D. Feinberg, “The Meaning of Inerrancy,” in Norman L. Geiser, Ed. Inerrancy (Zondervan, 1980): 267-304; esp. 301.
This book comes from the evangelical “Battle for the Bible” period. It was written to defend inerrancy against its liberal despisers. In Feinberg’s article he attempts to define inerrancy in such a way that it might remain compatible with the challenges of the modern historical critical method.
Of note is his specific discussion about whether the Gospels record the ipsissima verba (the very words) or the ipsissima vox (the very voice) of Jesus.
Feinberg notes: “Inerrancy does not demand that the Logia Jesu (the sayings of Jesus) contain the ipsissima verba (the exact words) of Jesus, only the ipsissima vox (the exact voice)” (301). He adds:
When a New Testament writer cites the sayings of Jesus, it need not be that Jesus said those exact words. Undoubtedly, the exact words of Jesus are to be found in the New Testament, but they need not be so in every instance.
Feinberg gives two reasons for his argument. First, he says “many of the sayings were spoken by our Lord in Aramaic and therefore had to be translated into Greek.” Second, he suggests that it is impossible which of the sayings are “direct quotes, which are indirect discourse, and which are freer renderings.”
My guess, however, is that most faithful, ordinary Christians (untrained in modern historical criticism) will be puzzled by this viewpoint for two reasons. First, they likely expect that the words of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels are, just that, his words, and not merely a close approximation of them. Second, they assume that distinctions between direct and indirect discourse are no harder to discern in the Greek of the New Testament than in English (or any other coherent language). So, for example, when they read John 5:8: “Jesus said unto him [i.e., the impotent man at the pool of Bethesda], Rise, take up thy bed, and walk,” they assume that this is a direct quotation, recording not merely an approximation of Jesus’ words but his exact words. If he originally spoke those words in Greek, and not Aramaic, it would, of course, require no translation.
Feinberg’s analysis appears not to be aimed at that ordinary Christian reader but at the skeptic who is eager to find errors or inconsistencies in the Biblical text. He believes that by surrendering a vigorous defense of the Logia Jesu in the Gospels as Christ’s precise words, in favor of a more nuanced suggestion that such sayings might only be free renderings by the Evangelists, he has safeguarded the Scriptures against charges of errancy. But has he conceded too much? Does this not buttress the skeptic’s view that the Gospels provide an often creative and inventive account of Jesus’ life and ministry as opposed to a meticulously accurate record of his words and deeds?
Furthermore, does Feinberg’s approach neglect the supernatural aspect of the faithful transmission of Scripture? Its accuracy does not, in the end, depend on the care or skill of the penmen but on the faithfulness of the God who directed them. Consider Christ’s promise to his disciples: “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (John 14:26).
Third: Darrell Bock, “The Words of Jesus in the Gospels: Live, Jive, or Memorex?” in Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, Eds., Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Zondervan, 1995): 73-99.
This essay appears in a volume dedicated to defending the reliability of the NT Gospels over against the hyper-skepticism of the Jesus Seminar. As with Feinberg, however, one wonders if the author does not concede too much to the Bible’s despisers.
Bock suggests three points on a spectrum of understanding Christ’s words in the Gospels: live, jive, and Memorex. The “Memorex view” would be that of the traditionalists who assume that the words recorded in the Gospels are the exact words spoken. Bock rejects this view, however, stating, “It is possible to have historical truth without always resorting to explicit citation” (75). The “jive view” would be that the Jesus Seminar, which holds that the Gospel writers had maximal freedom in inventing or creating the recorded words. The mediating position which Bock champions is the “live” option, suggesting:
This is what the “live” approach is all about. 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. I call this approach one that recognizes the Jesus tradition as “live” in its dynamic and quality (77).
Bock then follows Feinberg by insisting on a distinction between ipsissima verba and ispissima vox. He cites one “universally recognized reality” as making the verba/vox distinction necessary: “that Jesus probably gave most of his teaching in Aramaic” while the Gospels were written in Greek, adding, “In other words, most of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels is already a translation” (77). So, Bock concedes: “Since a translation is already present in much of the tradition, we do not have ‘his very words’ in the strictest sense of the term” (77). The best Bock can say is that the Gospels “give us the true gist of his teaching and the central thrust of his message” (78).
Bock defends this view as in keeping with (1) the practices of Greco-Roman historiography; (2) the oral Jewish culture of remembering; and (3) the nature of historical writing. Regarding the third point, Bock notes: “History is not a static entity” (81).
Again, it seems unlikely that the faithful Christian reader will necessarily share these assumptions. Whatever the ordinary practices of secular Greek, Roman, or Jewish authors or the customary vagaries of ancient or modern history, the believing reader sees the Bible as an extra-ordinary work. Why then, under the Spirit’s direction, should it not faithfully record the very words of Jesus?
Note: When one reviews the examples cited by Bock one notices how thin are the actual citations of perceived variances in the words of Jesus among the Gospels (see pp. 84-89).
Bocks gives attention to variances in the order of the temptations in the temptation narratives, perceived differences in narrative sequencing in the Synoptic Gospels, detail differences in Synoptic parallels, and differences in verbal citations (like the Father’s voice at Jesus’ baptism or Peter’s confession).
When it comes to specific words from Jesus, Bock only cites two examples: (1) Jesus’ question to the disciples at Caesarea Philippi (p. 86); and (2) Jesus’ teaching on the coming of the Son of Man (p. 88).
Bock concludes: “The Gospels are summaries of the teaching of Jesus,” giving the “gist” but not the exact words (89).
This modern, evangelical approach was not, however, the one taken by pre-critical interpreters, who could acknowledge slight variations in the Gospels accounts while still affirming the full reliability of the Gospels in accurately recording Christ’s precise words (and those of others). How did they do this? By making reasonable harmonizations, often assuming that one Gospel writer might have recorded what Jesus (or another figure) said on one occasion or moment while another Gospel writer recorded what he said on another occasion or in another moment, thus explaining the occasional differences in wording. A report of Christ’s words might then be precise but only partial without assuming that the Evangelist had creatively summarized Christ’s words.
Fourth: Robert L. Thomas, “Impact of Historical Criticism on Theology and Apologetics,” in Robert L. Thomas and F. David Farnell, Eds., The Jesus Crisis: The Inroads of Historical Criticism Into Evangelical Scholarship (Kregel, 1998): 356-377, especially 367-372.
Thomas challenges the evangelical embrace of the verba/vox distinction. According to Thomas, this move “now has the evangelical world wondering what words Jesus spoke. The general impact of that field of scholarship has been on the side of assuming the gospel writers never reported His exact words or the ipsissima verba—the very words—of the Lord” (367).
While conceding that Jesus’ speeches in the Gospels are shorter than the original speeches, Thomas argues that this does not mean that the words which are recorded in the Gospels are not Christ’s exact words.
Thomas offers a direct challenge to Bock, in particular, including his assumption that Jesus spoke only in Aramaic and this had to be translated into Greek. He notes a “growing realization among contemporary scholars” recognizing “the wide use of Greek among the Jews of Jesus’ day,” adding, “The assumption that Jesus never spoke Greek is certainly unfounded” (368).
Thomas thinks it highly likely that the followers of Jesus would have written down and accurately memorized Jesus’ exact words. Regarding the differences in the Synoptic Gospels, Thomas reflects:
If the Gospels do contain the very words of Jesus, what is one to make of their disagreement in wording when recording the same discourse or conversation? The fact that no single gospel records everything spoken on a given occasion furnishes an adequate response to that challenge. It is probable, in fact, that no combination of parallel accounts records the entirety of a speech or dialogue. Christ undoubtedly repeated some of His teachings with slightly differing wording on different occasions. He very probably did so on the same occasion too. So instances where parallel accounts report the same substance in slightly different forms may easily be traceable to different but similar statements on the same occasion, with each writer selecting for his account only a part of what was said (369).
Thomas’ view here reflects that held by the pre-critical interpreters.
He likewise notes the special nature of the Bible as a Holy Spirit inspired work:
Another factor overlooked by evangelicals in the whole issue of literary independence versus interdependence is the role of the Holy Spirit in enabling the memories of the eyewitnesses of Christ’s life….
The Spirit’s work in reminding and inspiring is a supernatural work, guaranteeing a degree of accuracy and precision that is without parallel in the annals of human historiography (372).
In conclusion, let me share some insights from Alvin Plantinga’s Knowledge and Christian Belief (Eerdmans, 2015). This is a simplified and popular version of his Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford, 2000).
Plantinga argues in that book that there is warrant or justification for Christian belief (i.e., that it is not necessarily irrational to hold Christian beliefs). At the conclusion of that book he addresses three “defeaters” (arguments against his thesis). The three are challenges based on Historical Biblical Criticism; Pluralism; and Evil.
For the purposes of this discussion, I thought his comments on Historical Biblical Criticism (HBC) are worth sharing. Plantinga writes:
So HBC has not in general been sympathetic to traditional Christian belief; it has hardly been an encouragement to the faithful. The faithful, however, seem relatively unconcerned; they find traditional biblical commentary of great interest and importance, but the beliefs and attitudes of HBC have not seemed to filter down to them, in spite of its dominance in mainline seminaries. According to Van Harvey, “Despite decades of research, the average person tends to think of the life of Jesus in much the same terms as Christians did three centuries ago” [“New Testament Scholarship,” p. 194]. One possible reason is that there is no compelling or even reasonably decent argument for supposing that the procedures and assumptions of HBC are to be preferred, by Christians, to those of traditional Biblical commentary. A little epistemological reflection enables us to see something further: the traditional Christian has good reason to reject the skeptical claims of HBC and continue to hold traditional Christian belief despite the allegedly corrosive acids of HBC (103).
I think Plantinga gets it very right here. Modern evangelical scholars have embraced and accommodated the modern historical-critical method to their reading of the Bible (in this case the Gospels) in an effort to defend the faith against objections. The problem is that these are not objections raised by the faithful but by unbelieving skeptics. The faithful, in fact, find the “new” interpretations unconvincing, at best, and undermining the faith, at worst.
So, what can we conclude?
Jesus spoke Aramaic. That is clear from the Gospel quotations of his Aramaic speech. But it is not unreasonable to assume that he also spoke Greek and that the Gospel writers faithfully recorded his words in Greek. Not only did they rely on accurate written accounts and carefully preserved memories, but the Holy Spirit enabled faithful remembering (John 14:26). Agreements in the Gospel record do not have to explained through complex literary dependence theories. Any discrepancies in the account of speech from Jesus or other figures can also be reasonably explained through harmonization (e.g., distinctions between direct and indirect discourse, repetitions, partial citations, etc.) without abandoning confidence in the Gospels as faithfully preserving the ipsissima verba, which is essentially the default understanding of ordinary believing readers who have not been exposed to higher criticism.