Do We Have the Exact Words of Jesus in the Gospels?

Norman L. Geisler


 The question is sometimes raised as to whether the Gospel have the words Jesus said. Liberal critics deny this, assigning large portions of Jesus words to the Gospel writers but denying Jesus actually said them.  So, the writers are not reporting but are creating the words of Jesus.  However, evangelical scholars reject this and affirm that the NT is accurately reporting, not distorting, Jesus’ teaching.  So, when the NT says Jesus said it, then Jesus actually said it.   

However, as we noted elsewhere, “Of course, this does not always mean we have the exact words Jesus spoke (ipsissima verba), but we do have an accurate reproduction of their meaning (ipsissima vox).  After all, Jesus probably spoke in Aramaic and the New Testament is written in Greek.  So, even in the original, the New Testament authors were translating what Jesus said.  Also, a comparison of parallel passages in the Gospels reveals that the words Jesus spoke on the same occasion are not always exactly the same.  Sometimes one Gospel gives only part of what he said, and other times the wording is different, thought the meaning is the same” (N. L. Geisler,  A Popular Survey of the New Testament , Baker, 2007, p. 345). 

Another question is the role of the Holy Spirit.  When Jesus promised he would bring to the minds of the apostles whatever he had taught them (Jn. 14:26:16:13), does this mean that it was a word-for-word dictation of what Jesus said?  Not necessarily, although the Holy Spirit is capable of doing this, but this is not at all necessary to the doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture.  What was guaranteed by this Spirit-guided process was that they would remember all that Jesus taught them (Jn. 14:26) and that the Holy Spirit would “guide them into all truth” (Jn. 16:13).  That is, they would not forget any truth Jesus taught them, and they would not commit any error on the matter.  Giving the exact words is not necessary to accurately conveying what Jesus taught.  There are many ways to convey the same meaning without using the exact same words, and the Holy Spirit is capable of both.