How Do We Know What Jesus Actually Said and Did?
I mean, the Apostles didn't follow Jesus around with an iPhone
It would have been easier for Catholic posterity if a scribe followed Jesus around during the years of His public ministry. It would also have been convenient if those selected by the Messiah to proclaim the Gospel to the world following Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension kept contemporaneous notes in the days and years after Pentecost. Alas, we have neither; but not all is lost.
Even though years went by before what we now call the Gospels were committed to parchment (or papyrus), both our logic and faith give us reason for hope that what is attributed to the words and physical deeds of the Lord on earth rings with the truth of historical accuracy. On the surface, this issue may be considered a bit bleak. Consider, for example, the following observation by Enns:
Rudolf Bultmann was one of the pioneers of form criticism that regarded the Synoptic Gospels as “folk literature.” The Gospel writers, according to Bultmann, actually collected and edited material and wrote the way the church traditionally understood the events rather than writing historically accurate events. Form criticism thus builds on source criticism and attempts to explain how Mark and Q arose. Mark is a product of the early church, which embellished the life of Christ. Matthew and Luke used Mark with additional embellishments to form their Gospels (they were not historical Matthew and Luke, but second-century writers). Therefore, most of the Gospels do not contain historical data but are embellishments of the early church. The embellishments occurred to encourage suffering Christians. These “inventions” became indistinguishable from historic fact.
Is there historical accuracy in what we read in the Gospels, in the Acts, in the letters of the New Testament? Fitzmyer analyzes The Biblical Commission’s Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels which was presented on April 21, 1964 by the Pontifical Biblical Commission to Pope Saint Paul VI, who thereafter approved the instruction and ordered its publication. According to Fitzmyer, there are three “stages of tradition” in which the historical accuracy of the words (and actions) of Jesus can be understood. First, we have an analysis of what Jesus actually did and said based upon what His apostles experienced directly as they accompanied the Lord in His divine mission on earth. Here the record appears sparse. Again, where was the scribe?
Second, we have the next generation of wordsmiths, so to speak, the testimonies of the apostles themselves in the times and places in which they preached the good news. We require a little faith here, but the bottom line is that we have no reason but to agree that the apostles were in fact being fidelious, true to what Jesus said and did. We the clearest example of this in the words of Saint Peter in Acts (10:36-41).
Third, and perhaps most importantly all things considered, in our faith we understand that what apostles gave to us about the historical Jesus was ultimately a function of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. As a central tenet of both our faith and the significance of Pentecost itself, the descent of the Holy Spirit was a cementing, if you will, of the words and deeds of the Lord to future generations through spreading the good news from those Jesus selected to carry on His mission in the aftermath of Jesus’s own ascension. In other words, through the intercession of the Holy Spirit Pentecost became the glue of the authentic transmission of the words and deeds of Jesus Christ in His divine mission of salvation, through those who experienced directly, and indirectly — let us not forget Saint Paul — the Word.
We see the synthesis of this historical understanding and transmission of the divine words and deeds of the Savior summarized most succinctly in this way by Fitzmyer:
The most significant thing in the whole document, when all is said and done, is that the Biblical Commission calmly and frankly admits that what is contained in the Gospels as we have them today is not the words and deeds of Jesus in the first stage of tradition, nor even the form in which they were preached in the second stage, but only in the form compiled and edited by the Evangelists. This form, however, reflects the two previous stages, and the second more than the first.
Again, relying to a significant degree upon our Catholic faith, the most important point to reflect upon in an analysis of historical accuracy is that we believe that by the Grace of God, by the intercession of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, in the end we gain immunity from formal error in our understanding and adherence to what is written in the New Testament concerning the words and deeds of our Savior Jesus Christ. To this end we have a departure from a traditional historical analysis. However, truth comes in many forms, as Fitzmyer instructs us:
The opposite of inerrancy is not simply historicity but truth. But there is poetical truth as well as historical truth, rhetorical truth as well as legal truth, mythical truth as well as the Gospel truth. If a passage in the Gospels contains historical truth, it does not simply contain it because it is inspired. The reasons for its historicity will be quite other than the inspired character of the text. The inspiration may guarantee such historical truth as is there, but it will not guarantee it any more than it would guarantee the poetic truth of the hymn to Christ in Phil 2. Its guarantee is not quantitative but qualitative and analogous. The inspired Gospel truth was intended by God to give us not simply a “remembered” account of the doctrine and life of Jesus, but a “preached” form of it, “so as to offer the Church a basis of faith and of morals.”
To those in whom faith is wanting or suspect, to those who rely on traditional historical analysis, it is understandable that questions are raised in that we do not have a more direct accounting of what Jesus Christ actually said and did in His mission of salvation on earth. What we do have, however, is both understanding and inspiration that those who directly witnessed the person of Jesus, those who experienced the fulfillment of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and those who subsequently gave their lives in martyrdom testifying to the Word all provided the Christians who followed them with the divinely inspired truth of the works of the New Testament in all its forms. Ongoing exegetical analysis provides increasing knowledge, insight, and inspiration of the words and deeds of our Savior on earth; on what Jesus said and what Jesus did.
Beare, F.W. The Historical Truth of the Gospels: “An Official Pronouncement of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.” Canadian Journal of Theology, 11 (4), 1965, 231-237.
Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008.
Fitzmyer, J. A. “Instruction Concerning the Historical Truth of the Gospels.” Retrieved March 7, 2022 from https://catholic-resources.org/ChurchDocs/PBC_HistTruthFitzmyer.htm
All of Dr. Plaud’s Missio Dei writings and reflections can be accessed here.
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