Tag Archives: the words of christ

Do We Have the Actual Words of Christ in the NT?


Missionaries often claim that Jesus said x or said y in the New Testament. I have seen you say that the NT does not contain the actual words of Jesus, is this a Muslim claim?


It is disingenuous for Christians to claim that Jesus said anything based on New Testament quotes. Traditionally in Graeco-Roman literature, under which the New Testament falls there are two main forms of quotations, ipsissima verba (the very words) and ipsissima vox (the very voice). The majority of New Testament quotes claimed to be said by Jesus fall under the category of ipsissima vox, meaning that someone has interpreted Christ’s alleged words and developed this quote according to their understanding of what was said. Similarly, this form of quotation also refers to invented quotes, where authors spoke (wrote) on behalf of others, based on the reasoning that they believe the quotes would have been accepted by the original speaker. Thus, it was and is common in Graeco-Roman literature to find works being written in other people’s names or quotes being manufactured and attributed to other people. Daniel Wallace, a conservative Christian scholar has said something similar regarding this topic:

Myth 2: Words in red indicate the exact words spoken by Jesus of Nazareth.

Scholars have for a long time recognized that the Gospel writers shape their narratives, including the sayings of Jesus. A comparison of the Synoptics reveals this on almost every page. Matthew quotes Jesus differently than Mark does who quotes Jesus differently than Luke does. And John’s Jesus speaks significantly differentyly than the Synoptic Jesus does. Just consider the key theme of Jesus’ ministry in the Synoptics: ‘the kingdom of God’ (or, in Matthew’s rendering, often ‘the kingdom of heaven’). Yet this phrase occurs only twice in John, being replaced usually by ‘eternal life.’ (“Kingdom of God” occurs 53 times in the Gospels, only two of which are in John; “kingdom of heaven” occurs 32 times, all in Matthew. “Eternal life” occurs 8 times in the Synoptics, and more than twice as often in John.) The ancient historians were far more concerned to get the gist of what a speaker said than they were to record his exact words. And if Jesus taught mostly, or even occasionally, in Aramaic, since the Gospels are in Greek the words by definition are not exact.

A useful distinction is made between the very words of Jesus and very voice of Jesus, known as ipsissima verba and ipsissima vox, respectively. Only rarely can we say that we have the very words of Jesus, but we can be far more confident that what is recorded in red letters in translations is at least the very voice of Jesus. Again, if ancient historians were not as concerned to get the words exactly right, we should not put them into a modernist straitjacket in which we expect them to be something they were never intended to be. – Source.

It is very difficult to claim that a quote belongs to the second category of ipsissima verba, that is, verbatim speech. Scholars differ on the very few instances where they believe Christ’s true speech may have been recorded. There is very little general agreement regarding these instances and each case needs to be inspected and qualified critically. Additionally, since we do not have the original words of Christ in their original language, there exists a difficulty in translating where language devices have been used. As such, this matter of a different language, after already being re-interpreted by someone other than Jesus makes the matter of knowing what Jesus actually said quite complicated. This is especially true in places where we have single quotes attributed to Jesus, without any other witnesses. How would we know that the one listening and recording, understood what was said? There is no way to know.

Therefore, the next time a missionary claims to have the very words of Christ, you may want to point out that this is historically untrue and that the quote itself requires extensive examination before qualification.

and God knows best.