on the ipsissima verba (the very words) of Jesus

with Nick posting all his banter on, and buying up books on, inspiration and inerrancy (which he doesn’t seem to support) – I want to post a quote from Klyne Snodgrass’ Stories with Intent (Eerdmans, 2008).  With regard to the parables of Jesus he writes:

Evidence of an Evangelist’s style is not a determiner of origin or validity, and in fact we would be shocked if an Evangelisit’s hand did not show through.  Some parables may reveal an Evangelist’s hand more than others, but that does not tell us whether or not he has faithfully rendered the content and intent of Jesus’ telling.  If, as virtually anyone studying the Gospels grants, we do not have the ipsissima verba, the very words of Jesus, why should we be surprised at evidence of the shaping of the material?  Shaping of the material does not necessarily mean the distortion of it (33)….

We do not have the ipsissima verba of Jesus, nor should we expect them, and attempted reconstructions are not going to supply them.  James Dunn is right; the only Jesus accessible to us is the remembered Jesus, Jesus as he impacted his disciples.  Dunn’s position is reminiscent of Martin Kahler’s: the only Jesus that exists is the historic, biblical Christ.  Anything else is a figment of the imagination.  This is not to side with those who would deemphasize the historical analysis of Jesus, but it is a recognition of the nature of our documents (35).

I suppose this is heresy for the literalist fundamentalist but really, it makes perfect sense – modern day people probably expect something like a court reporter who types every word but in the first century, it just wasn’t like that and that is okay.  Instead of every word, we get the gist of what Jesus was saying, and not just with is parables.  I imagine the Sermon on the Mount and his Olivet Discourse are the same way, they are not verbatims but summaries (though some phrases and sentences probably are verbatim).  It’s the same with the book of Acts.  Most of the Speeches and Sermons in Acts are mere summaries and not verbatim accounts necessarily.

To me this puts a big dent in the inerrancy argument because we see so much human involvement in the shaping of the Holy Scriptures.   Are they inspired?  Certainly, and divinely so.  I am sure too, the Holy Spirit had an influence in the shaping of the text but I think some forget that when people become disciples of Jesus Christ, their personality and ability to think doesn’t disappear – it just gets redeemed.   It’s not like the Spirit grabbed Matthew or Mark or Luke’s hand and literally made them write what he wanted them to write.  Instead, he inspired them through his presence to write as they did – but simply the fact that Luke has more a focus on social justice then say Mark or Matthew goes to show, in my opinion, that there was significant human involvement in how the Scriptures were written. 

So, I believe the Holy Writ is inspired.  Is it inerrant?  In what sense?

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6 responses to “on the ipsissima verba (the very words) of Jesus

  1. Well, here at SBTS–where not affirming inerrancy would be consider heresy, espeically after the “conservative resurgence”–almost every professor (and to my knowledge, every professor) would say that we simply have the ipsissima vox, the very voice, of Jesus and would reject ipsissima verba on the grounds that what we have is already a translation from aramaic and Hebrew into Greek. The nature of translation is ipsissima vox. Of course, their doctrine of confluence, or compatibalism, in regards to salvation (as a reformed school) would play into their doctrine of inspiration as well.

  2. I agree with you. Although Scripture does not meet twenty-first century standards, it is still without error in its own right. Was Matthew’s, Mark’s, et al goal to be stenographers of the faith or to produce “Gospel”? Shaping of material does not explicitly make Scripture full of errors. Let’s honor the personalities and styles of the authors, as you mentioned.

    You might be interested in C. Kavin Rowe’s take on differences in the Gospels…

    http://www.faithandleadership.com/content/navigating-the-differences-the-gospels

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