Having investigated the authorship and nature of the Gospels, then, we are left with an important question, the question on which, obviously, everything hangs — what, exactly, are Jesus’s words?
As we saw, this question was easier to answer, at least in theory, with Moses. If we assume a general good faith on the part of the compilers of the books of the Bible, we can at least look at large chunks of Deuteronomy and Leviticus and see what seem to be whole, undigested pieces of revelation, which according to the text were either recorded in a book or memorized by His followers. The Books of the Prophets are more varied, as we have seen, running from the relatively straightforward revelations of Isaiah to the more mythic book of Job. And as we have seen in Jonah, there is no reason to think that original revelations and writings of the Prophet might not be incorporated into a later, and possibly mythologizing, book written about him.
This is the model we may wish to follow when trying to discern Christ’s words in the Gospel. If Jonah’s poem seems like an obvious interpolation of possibly genuine revelation from the Prophet into a book which otherwise, to all appearances, seems like it was written by someone else, perhaps it is also the case that whole pieces of Christ’s Revelation have been handed down to us by the authors of the Gospels, at least in substance. Indeed, if this is not the case, reading the Gospels can serve very little purpose, but the question of what, in the Gospels, constitutes His Word will be more easily resolved if we begin to see this pattern of interpolation and interpretation as common to the ancient records of the Prophets and Manifestations of God.
There are two points to consider in trying to find the words of Christ buried in the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The first is that we have these four (and possibly more) sources, who in many cases correlate quite nicely. This is not a foolproof method of getting at historical truth, of course; it is entirely possible that all four sources are relying on a common, faulty source. But it is, all things considered, always better to have more sources to work from.
The second point is that within the Gospels we find passages of Christ’s word in different kinds — of what might be called different “textures,” in that you can “feel,” as you read them, that they are different in character. There are, first of all, long passages of more-or-less uninterrupted speech from Jesus — John 13-17 is a good example, as is the Sermon on the Mount. Then there are passages of dialogue in context; and of these there are two types — those which are seemingly intended as history, and those which might be something else — allegory, let’s say, or else a recollection of His words which doesn’t necessarily have an exact moment in the history.
In particular, we might distinguish between stories and dialogues which could be moved around from place to place in the Gospel with no ill effect, and those which, logically, must stay where they are. Thus, for example, Christ’s words to Pilate could hardly appear earlier or later in the narrative, but the story of His temptation in the wilderness could easily be moved. This will admittedly give us a great deal of grey area, and by itself tells us very little. But in terms of separating different kinds of quotation of Jesus’ words, it will be helpful to notice that some stories and sayings are freestanding, and might well have had a life of their own in the Christian community before the Gospels were written.
Leaving aside scribal errors, which are not, in the overwhelming majority of cases, all that significant to the meaning of the text, we still find a great deal of variety between the four Gospels. Some stories appear in one book but not another — the Annunciation and Christmas stories are found in Matthew and Luke but not Mark and John, John the Baptist’s parentage and miraculous conception are only given in Luke, while John gives an entirely spiritual account of Christ’s origins that appears nowhere else — while other information appears somewhat contradictory — for example, Luke and Mark both give genealogies for Jesus but give us quite different lists. And all that, before He is even born.
This suggests that the Gospel writers were working from a variety of sources — some of it perhaps personal recollection, but some of it (pasages where Jesus is alone, or where it would otherwise have been impossible for the Disciples to witness the event) quite obviously not. Since we have established that the Gospel writers do not claim any special revelation from God, they were obviously collecting testimony, possibly their own experiences, but also the testimony of others, and also whatever was current in the Christian community at the time. Clearly, like several private investigators working on the same case independently, they each had a partial picture.
On the other hand, many passages are identical, or so nearly identical as to be obviously from the same source. For example, many of the parables are absolutely or nearly identical — see the parable of the wineskins (Matthew, Mark, Luke) or the parable of the mustard seed (Matthew, Mark, Luke). This seems to indicate either that there was a single source from which they all derived these sayings, or else that the sayings were the common property of the Christian community, either memorized and passed down orally or incorporated into numerous written sources.
Both the differences and the similarities, as well as some insight into how they might have come about, can be seen in the two versions of the Lord’s Prayer given in Matthew and Luke. Luke starts this way:
Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”
Which is interesting, because in Matthew, on the other hand, the prayer is given as part of the Sermon on the Mount, a clearly public venue as opposed to Luke’s rather private one, and as part of a general discourse on good behavior rather than in response to a specific question about prayer.
A few possibilities suggest themselves. First, as the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, if Christ was teaching this prayer, it is likely that He repeated it in a number of situations, and these two references may record two such separate moments of teaching. Additionally, of course, the Sermon on the Mount, a large, uncommented chunk of Christ’s teaching presented (as the name says) as a single sermon of Christ, could well be a pre-existing collection of sayings interpolated into the narrative by the Gospel writer. The Lord’s Prayer might therefore have simply been one of many sayings well-known to the early Christians, and passed around in different forms. If those forms involved differing frame narratives, we need not assume mendacity on the part of the Gospel writers, or even their sources; after all, it is clear in both cases that Christ gave instruction on the subject of prayer.
Let us say arguendo that, after all, the instruction was delivered to the crowds on the mountain — might not a simple misunderstanding account for the story being passed down to Luke as a private conversation between the disciples and their Lord? Here, indeed, we discover a possibility which we will revisit later: the idea that some sources will have been rather more complete, recording what appears to be a long, single passage of Christ’s words, while others will appear rather more disjointed, as though smaller fragments were collected and fashioned into a kind of (entirely well-intentioned) patchwork. One may argue, of course, that all such long passages of Christ’s teaching are patchworks of sayings, the smoothness of one over the roughness of another being simply a measure the skill of their respective redactors. Yet the sameness is as telling as the differences: Matthew’s version of the prayer contains every line of Luke’s.
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.
Why does Luke leave out several lines? This question is both unanswerable and not as interesting as the question, Why does he not add in any lines? To put it another way: if we believe that redactors, scribes and priests add things to or alter the words of Christ over time, then if Luke and Matthew’s versions of the Lord’s Prayer came from some distant common root, but through separate sources, we might expect to see some common phrasing, but with substantial differences. But this is not the case here. On the other hand, if the differences are due to error, we might expect the two to be the same, but with perhaps words or lines left out. This is even more likely if one was originally copied or memorized from the other.
Here are our alternatives:
- That, as the Catholic Encyclopedia guesses, these two versions of the Lord’s Prayer were revealed at different times, in different places, in different forms. (This is not unreasonable, especially from a Baha’i point of view — Baha’u’llah prefigured the Seven Valleys in the Gems of Divine Mysteries, and also recapitulated and recontextualized many of His Writings in the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf.)
- That Luke (or his source) copies from Matthew, or vice versa. If Matthew copies Luke, he adds some phrases (the most noteworthy being “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”). If Luke copies Matthew, he either hasn’t heard those phrases, doesn’t like them, or has forgotten them.
- That both of them have the prayer from a third source, but due to transcription error or faulty memories, the phrasings of one or both changed over time.
- That both of them have the prayer from a third source, but someone has deliberately altered the phrasings of one or both.
This is a formidable set of choices, and there’s no way to tell from the text which is the correct answer. But we should be cheered by several things. First, there is no direct textual evidence that the Gospel writers are not sincere in their beliefs. There are various theories that the Gospels are shaped, for example, to explain the fall of the Temple, or the lack of an immediate end of the world. This is supported by the text obliquely at best, but let us assume for a moment that it’s true. It makes sense that a true believer in Jesus as the Messiah might carve and select, pruning to create a Gospel pleasing to his own idea of Who Jesus was. In fact, this seems almost inevitable. It does not seem likely that a true believer would add his own words or make things up out of whole cloth. This is not my idea, but it’s a perfectly reasonable point.
(Moreover, even if Matthew is a villain, through and through, making up verses left and right, he would hardly dare to add to this verse, because he knows that Luke (or the common source) is out there! It’s one thing to accuse him of being a power-grubbing versifier; it’s another thing to call him straight up dumb.)
What about an honest interpolation? Suppose that Matthew added “on earth as it is in heaven” and the rest of it based on a sincere belief that it was correct, and that Luke’s text was the mistaken one? But this belief would have had to come from somewhere — a previous source or his own knowledge. In this case we find, at least, that Luke is independently confirmed, and also that Matthew, much closer to the situation than we are, believed that the longer version was earlier.
So, all things considered, we are left with a seeming likelihood that the longer version is the earlier. This way of reading Scripture (allowing, of course, for exceptions) seems more justified when we look at verse in context.