In historical Jesus studies, one of the well-known issues, due in part to the popular Jesus Seminar, is the deciphering of which sayings are authentic to the historical person of Jesus in first-century Palestine – as opposed to material added into the text by the authors of the Gospel accounts. The dichotomy is normally split between two groups of “authentic sayings” and “inauthentic sayings.” Thus, by using the right tools, we might be able to see what sayings hold the true teachings of Jesus and which sayings are later, inauthentic traditions inserted by Christian communities.
I believe such a dichotomy is far too simplistic and is taken to conclusions that do not necessary follow. I will develop this thought in what proceeds, but first, a few preliminary remarks: (1) Brevity is a skill I am practicing and thus will not make my comments as detailed as they perhaps ought to be. Do not take silence as a deliberate omission of information in order to advocate a certain position. A common saying is, “In theology, you have to say everything all the time or else people will think you deliberately left something out.” Unfortunately, I cannot say everything that may perhaps be helpful to mention. (2) I agree with most modern scholars that not all sayings found on the lips of Jesus in the Gospel accounts are authentic. This point will be assumed. (3) I believe Jesus is the Son of God, and I am a Christian dedicated to the Kingdom of God. What follows is a way of understanding the “inauthentic” sayings of Jesus through the lenses of one who has experienced the life changing power of God as revealed in Jesus.
Concerning the “sayings material” of the Gospels (those passages which tell of Jesus speaking), I propose we adopt the following three classifications:
- Authentic sayings.
- Accurate sayings.
- Legitimate sayings.
At first glance, these terms will appear synonymous. But in the context of historical Jesus and sayings material, I believe the qualifications can prove quite beneficial to the honest Christian.
By “authentic” saying, I mean exactly what most scholars mean when they refer to authentic sayings of Jesus: they are specific words and teachings that were spoken by Jesus himself. This is something we might call a quote. If we were to travel back in time and observe Jesus’ teachings, we would hear him say something nearly identical to these words. Examples would include perhaps the Parable of the Tenets in Mark 12 or the “Render unto Cesar what is Cesar’s…” saying. Of course, almost no saying found in the bible is a “direct quote” because Jesus spoke primarily in Aramaic, and the Gospels were written in Greek.
“Accurate” sayings may be conceptualized as those sayings ascribed to Jesus in the gospel accounts, which, although may not be something like a “direct quote,” nonetheless accurately reflect the content of Jesus’ teaching, philosophy, self-knowledge, understanding of God, etc. In other words, it is not directly what Jesus said, but he probably said something quite similar to the teaching in question. Whether or not a saying falls under the Accurate or Authentic category will be subject to much debate concerning each saying at hand.
“Legitimate” sayings are not authentic in the sense given above. But this by no means implies that one ought to dismiss all sayings material found in this category. Instead, we ought to view these materials as a “legitimate” insertion of Christian theology into the mouth of Jesus within the specific Gospel narrative. Jesus may not have said these words, but given his life, identity, and theology, these are materials all Christians ought to accept as bearing legitimate authority on our understanding of theology and Jesus. The most likely candidate for these kinds of sayings would many of those contain in the Gospel of John.
Given this schema, a Christian can accept the work of some modern, historical-critical scholarship, but without worrying too much his or her faith being damaged.
However, when it comes to research and theologies of the historical Jesus, I believe the “sifting through sayings” to be quite inadequate and outdated. The “sola sayings” method leaves a weak foundation. It is unfortunate that so many Christian apologists and popular level theologians ascribe to this strategy. In due time, I will sketch out my position on a better approach.