The Jewish Jesus: Were His Words Recorded Accurately? (Part 5)

How did we end up with the four books known as the Gospels?  How can we be sure they accurately captured the teachings of Yeshua?  It may surprise you to learn that Matthew, Mark, and Luke being the original authors of the books that bear their names is highly debated.  Early church tradition attributes the Gospel of Mark to John Mark (Acts 15:37; Col 4:10; 1 Pet 5:13), who was said to have derived his information from Peter.1Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Mk). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. We can say with a high degree of certainty that John was written by the John of Yeshua’s inner circle, but the other three gospel accounts were likely written by contemporaries of the original apostles.

Further proof that the gospels were not written by the disciples can be found in the history of oral transmission among rabbinic circles.  As surprising as it may sound, a student of a sage was not permitted to transmit the words of their master in writing.2In the first century A.D. the literature of the Pharisees was transmitted orally.  Later, around A.D. 200, the term “Oral Torah” was used to describe this literature, which was considered authoritative commentary on the written Torah. (See Shmuel Safrai, “Literary Languages in the Time of Jesus,” Jerusalem Perspective 31 [Mar/Apr 1991], p. 3  Today, this seems foreign due to our viewing orally transmitted material as inferior to what we find in written communication.  However, orally transmitted material by rabbis and their students was consistently nearly 100% accurate.  They understood if this material were transmitted in writing it would jeopardize its accuracy due to scribal errors.  As a result, transmitting the teachings of a rabbi via writing was prohibited. 3Babylonian Talmud Gittin 60b

The thought process behind this was that orally transmitted material could be verified by the number of people available to “fact check it.”  To illustrate this point, let’s read a familiar verse that most people have committed to memory or have at least heard repeatedly.   

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only child, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16

Did you catch that?  Because this verse is quoted so often, it’s easy to find the mistake.  He gave his one and only “SON” not child!  This small change does not alter the overall message, yet such a minor change was immediately recognizable.  Students of a sage were not permitted to change even a single word from their teachings. 4“A person must always transmit a tradition in the same words in which he received it from his teacher” (Mishnah Eduyot 1:3).  They were also required to cite their sources.  If you ever read rabbinic literature, you will see this through statements like this, “Rabbi Y in the name of Rabbi X.”  Rabbi Y is citing his source as something he learned from Rabbi X.  It can be hard for us to grasp the massive amounts of information that they had committed to memory, including scripture.  Today, many of us can’t even remember the phone numbers of our closest friends and relatives much less have a significant portion of the Bible committed to memory.

With this information in mind, it is safe to say that the first written account of Yeshua’s words and deeds were Greek works.  Most likely a translation of the oral Hebrew stories possibly written down by a bilingual follower of the Way.  This fact can help us to rationalize the seeming chronological discrepancies found in the four gospel accounts.  When the apostles were teaching using Yeshua’s words, they likely were not doing so in chronological order.  They were probably preached piecemeal, but being presented orally preserved their accuracy.  The authors of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all attempt to arrange the stories in chronological order.  Interestingly, Matthew and Luke share forty-seven stories.  However, they only agree on chronology once. 5Bivin, D. (2007). New light on the difficult words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context. Holland, MI: En-Gedi Resource Center, p. 36.  The earliest written record of Yeshua’s life and deeds undoubtedly focused on accurate quotation over proper order.  The latter is from Greek cultures need for an orderly account.  In ancient Jewish culture tying a story or saying to scripture took priority over preserving the historical context.  We see this in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel where the events of their lives are not presented in order.

Much debate has taken place over the order of the Gospels.  I believe it is a moot point.  The order is not what matters, and we will likely never know exactly how and when the events of Yeshua’s life and ministry played out chronologically.  This focus on chronology is also why many of Yeshua’s sayings and actions have been taken out of context in relation to their original setting.  We should concentrate more on what Yeshua said, which is accurate, and less about in which order he said them, which we will likely never know for sure.

Next time I’ll be exploring Jesus in the context of first century Judaism.  Until then, Shalom and Shalom!

References   [ + ]

1. Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Mk). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
2. In the first century A.D. the literature of the Pharisees was transmitted orally.  Later, around A.D. 200, the term “Oral Torah” was used to describe this literature, which was considered authoritative commentary on the written Torah. (See Shmuel Safrai, “Literary Languages in the Time of Jesus,” Jerusalem Perspective 31 [Mar/Apr 1991], p. 3
3. Babylonian Talmud Gittin 60b
4. “A person must always transmit a tradition in the same words in which he received it from his teacher” (Mishnah Eduyot 1:3).
5. Bivin, D. (2007). New light on the difficult words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context. Holland, MI: En-Gedi Resource Center, p. 36.
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Chris Pope

Chris lives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast with his wife and daughter. He has a heart for reaching people with the truth about Torah and is dedicated to seeking, teaching and living out the truth of the Word, from Genisis to Revelation. Chris grew up in Church and ran the gambit from Baptist to Non-denominational, but he admittedly was just a "pew warmer." His walk didn't truly start until a close friend asked him a simple, yet profound question. "What is Gods name?"

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