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The very voice of a fictional Jesus

Blogger Steve Hays at Triablogue has posted and commented on some quotations from a 1999 paper and from a 2000 paper by usually-assumed-to-be conservative NT scholar Dan Wallace.

These are unpublished papers, but the contents of the 1999 paper came to light briefly in 2006 (I may post more later about the kerfuffle in 2006) and the contents of the 2000 paper came out to some degree in 2017, for those who actually read Mike Licona's Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? In that book, Licona takes from Wallace and adopts the view that Jesus did not say either, "I thirst" or "It is finished" from the cross but rather that these are "adaptations" by John of completely different sayings--respectively, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" and "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit."

Wallace, who is thanked and cited frequently throughout Licona's 2017 book, apparently didn't mind this citation of his views from 2000, though he has not published either that paper or the 1999 paper.

In both of these papers, and in Licona's usage, the term used for such extreme fictionalization of Jesus' words is the highly misleading term "ipsissima vox." Used by a more conservative scholar, such a phrase ("the very voice") merely means moderate and normal paraphrase, as in the differences between the Father's words at Jesus' baptism--"This is my beloved son" in Matt. 3:17 vs. "You are my beloved son" in Mark 1:11. Used by Wallace and Licona, it means more or less anything, including changing "My God, why have you forsaken me?" to "I'm thirsty" and even inventing people bringing Jesus wine in response to his fictional, literal cry of thirst. To say that this is the "very voice" of Jesus is an joke. To call this sort of thing "paraphrase" (as has been done) is utterly misleading.

Hays quotes two other conjectures of so-called "ipsissima vox" from Wallace (2000): These are that Jesus' promise of many dwelling places and going to prepare a place in heaven for believers in John 14 may be John's "adaptation" of the apocalyptic predictions of death and destruction in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24) and that Jesus' short comparison of himself to a vine and his disciples to branches (John 15:1-11) may be a "transformation" of the parable of the sower (Mark 4).

These pairs, of course, are nothing like each other. The notion that John would be giving the "very voice" of Jesus by transforming one into the other means that "ipsissima vox" means anything. If these "transformations" are "ipsissima vox," anything is. Jesus could be made to say, "I'll have the ham on rye" and, by this standard, that could be a "transformation" of some saying about the Father giving bread to his children or about how what goes into a man does not defile him. But it's just a paraphrase, right? It's the "very voice" of Jesus. What are you who object? Some kind of wooden literalist who thinks that the evangelists were writing down a verbatim tape recording of Jesus' words?

Hays makes the particularly good point concerning Jesus' words on the cross that, if we take the gospels to be reportage rather than heavily fictionalized works of art, Jesus himself may have not known just before the precise moment of his death and hence may well have said more than one thing (both "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit" and "It is finished") that might sound like "things intended to be his very last words." A dying man may say something and then add something else a moment later, and the mere fact that both sound vaguely "final" hardly means that the report of one is a fictional replacement for the other.

Back to the '99 paper, which I have cited elsewhere, including in the webinar "Six Bad Habits of New Testament Scholars." Since this paper concentrates on the synoptic gospels, with only occasional allusions to how John is probably doing much more alteration (which we then see in the 2000 paper), the examples are less radical. But as the title shows ("An Apologia for a Broad View of Ipsissima Vox"), Wallace viewed himself there as challenging his fellow evangelicals to lighten up. I have a copy of this paper and can confirm that he makes this explicit throughout.

His examples of a "broad use" are the usual grocery list of never allowing a variation to be just a variation. If Matthew left out Jesus' phrase "nor the Son" in Matthew 24:36 when saying that no man knows the day or the hour of his return (as textual scholarship seems to indicate), this must be because of Matthew's "high Christology." Jesus needed some help! "Facepalm, Jesus, why did you have to say that? People are gonna get confused about whether or not you're God! I'm not putting that into my version!" If Matthew 12:15 says of an incident, "He healed all" while Mark 3:10 says of the same incident, "He healed many," this can't be because the evangelists are telling the story in their own words. It must be because Matthew is concerned that people will think Jesus couldn't heal some of those who were brought to him.

And so forth.

This is what is wrong with NT scholarship, and as a set-up for the still wilder conjectures in the 2000 paper, it is entirely inadequate.

Hays comments:

Somebody might object that I'm quoting and commenting on unpublished presentations. However, the Christian faith is not supposed to operate like a secret society, where there's one message for the rank-and-file, and a different message for favored initiates. Christianity is a public religion. It's the same message for everyone, believers and unbelievers alike. There is no disciplina arcana. Christianity isn't supposed to have a dichotomy between what is said from the pulpit, for popular consumption, and what the preacher really believes–which he only shares with fellow elites.

Indeed, a split between what the preacher or scholar says where the public can hear him and what he says to groups of his fellow scholars is a recipe for theological and interpretive disaster.

I've noticed another trend, which is to publish things in books but hope that no one notices them with a critical eye. This is a variant of the "We can say it but you can't" trope that one sees in politics as well. If Scholar X publishes a book saying that John made something up out of whole cloth, that's legitimate. If a critic notes that Scholar X has said this and makes the point more widely known, with a criticism of the point, then that is an illegitimate attack.

I suspect that that is what is going on with the theories about the words from the cross that Dr. Licona publicized from his friend Dr. Wallace. Since Licona was agreeing with the theories and burying them in a book that some people might never read, his citing them from Wallace's unpublished paper was no problem. For a critic to emphasize that these theories came from an unpublished paper by Wallace and to make a point of this fact, much less making known other far-fetched theories from the same paper while disagreeing with them, may well (I predict) be treated by a double standard.

Needless to say, there is not the slightest evidence that John invented "I thirst" as a replacement for "My God, why have you forsaken me?" I have treated this point elsewhere. This is what I call an utterly unforced error. Indeed, terrible thirst was a common effect of crucifixion. Remember the facts on the ground? Jesus was being crucified?

And so on for the rest. There is no more reason to think that Jesus' promise to go to prepare a place for his followers is a fiction inspired by the Olivet Discourse than to pick any saying by Jesus at random in any of the Gospels and postulate that it is a fiction. The content of the passages is completely different. Since John's historicity is well-established in other ways, there is every reason to believe that Jesus did say that he was going to prepare many dwelling-places for believers. His words (as in the case of the synoptics) may have been moderately different than those recorded. He may have been speaking Aramaic which John translated into John's own distinctive Greek. On the other hand, both John and Jesus may have spoken a similar Greek-as-a-second-language, with Aramaic as their first language, so by no means is it clear that John's portrayal of Jesus' linguistic tendencies is radically different from the way that Jesus really spoke while the words of Jesus in, say, Luke are closer to his ipsissima verba.

In any event, these conjectures by Wallace are just more of the unevidential treatment of John as prima facie ahistorical--a kind of disease of New Testament scholarship. If it is a little surprising to find it in Dan Wallace, I'm afraid I must sadly advise readers to get used to such surprises. The notion of fictionalizing Gospel authors is far more entrenched among "conservatives" than you probably thought a year ago. That is certainly the case for me.

I note here as well that a pattern is emerging in which a scholar will have relatively conservative views about purely textual scholarship and will defend the textual integrity of the manuscript evidence for the New Testament but will actually have fairly liberal views on the interpretation of Scripture and the degree of fakery that the authors engaged in. If the scholar then also, say, debates Bart Ehrman on textual criticism, he gets a name as fidei defensor (defender of the faith), and laymen naturally assume that they can trust him on matters of the New Testament. The ambiguity of a question in common parlance like, "Is the New Testament text reliable?" as between its being reliably preserved from the original version and its being a reliable record of what happened also contributes to this problem of reputation. Increasingly laymen need to be more careful about making such assumptions about scholars, especially when they move from a specialty (as in Wallace's case) in lower criticism (purely textual scholarship) to wide-ranging conjectures in higher criticism (redactive conjectures and the like).

Now is the time when the laymen must, indeed, be wise as serpents, for unfortunately the immune system of the evangelical church is at a low level. Protecting scholars from any possible criticism or backlash from those who disagree with their views is now a higher priority than protecting the church itself from false teaching.

Comments (13)

Philosopher and logician, Douglas Walton, suggests that there are five levels when dealing with expertise in various disciplines. 1) novice (e.g. layperson), 2) advanced beginner, 3) competence, 4) proficiency, 5) expertise (e.g. scholar).[1]

We need more people in the middle positions who can judge with more confidence scholarly work, but with much fideism (though not all forms are bad) and/or anti-intellectualism (e.g. Col 2:8 rules out all forms of philosophy) in the church, this is difficult.


[1] Douglas Walton, Appeal To Expert Opinion: Argument from Authority (University Park, PA: Pennslyvania State University Press, 1997), 111.

My contention is that a reasonably well-read and educated layman can deal with these issues on the basis of general critical thinking principles, and that most of this stuff (to adapt a line of Plantinga on philosophy) is simply thinking really hard and carefully about things.

For example, in the general reliability of John, a layman of sufficient means ought to be able to see that the various attacks against reliability are more philosophical in nature, e.g. miracles can't occur, having a theological agenda mitigates against accurate reporting of things, similar events most likely refer to the same one-time-only event, and difference or variation in a saying of Jesus must be due to some sort of editing instead of Jesus merely saying things with a natural degree of variation over repeated events. You don't need an MDiv from a big-name school to identify these assumptions and formulate a coherent defense against those claims.

My own personal beef is not that scholars, even so-called conservative scholars, go down the "modern scholarhsip" path, but that (quite often) they don't identify their assumptions explicitly and acknowledge that their theories, reconstructions, and assertions depend intimately on those assumptions. Instead, the reader is taken to a world where higher-critical theories are taken naturally to be true. The connection between assumptions and conclusion is obscured, and the reader is left to think that such conclusions are objectively true in all cases. But what if these higher-critical theories and assumptions are not true? What if Jesus really cleansed the temple twice? What if St John the Apostle really was the primary source to the fourth gospel? What if Paul really was behind the so-called disputed Pauline epistles? What if John is at least reasonably reliable in things, and the gospels in general?

I'm glad people like Steve and Lydia are doing heavy lifting on these sorts of questions, and it is cheering to see that others think the way I think and are not willing to keep ceding defensible territory to opponents. I'm also very glad I don't have to publish in NT scholarship for a living, which would as I see it mean having to treat some silly critical frameworks as legitimate. Apologies if this seems like a semi-rant on my part, but it is good to get off my chest.

When it comes to higher-criticism, to use a star trek defense strategy, I am on yellow-alert, not so much red alert.

Caleb, I'd suggest you consider upgrading that alert status, considering that the Klingons have put a virus into the ship's water source.

Doubtful, since we (actually fictionally speaking) have signed the Khitomer Accords. Probably the Romulans (e.g. Ehrman, Carrier, etc). Or maybe the Dominion.

He may have been speaking Aramaic which John translated into John's own distinctive Greek. On the other hand, both John and Jesus may have spoken a similar Greek-as-a-second-language, with Aramaic as their first language, so by no means is it clear that John's portrayal of Jesus' linguistic tendencies is radically different from the way that Jesus really spoke while the words of Jesus in, say, Luke are closer to his ipsissima verba.

It's interesting that we really don't know what language Jesus was using.

From what I have read (multiple sources, none definitive), there were 3 main languages in play for the Jews of Palestine: Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. The Hebrew was their language of origin, as it were, and the entirely dominant language from the time of David on down until, I think, the Babylonian exile. Even after that, Hebrew was the language in which the Scriptures were recorded and recited, and that largely remained so through the time of Christ.

The Babylonian language was Aramaic (or an early variant of it?), and so not only did the Jews learn it in exile, many of the peoples of Asia Minor learned it from the conquerors, so it became a bit of a lingua franca in the region. It probably altered over time with local variation, but the Jews of Palestine generally knew Aramaic, especially the lower classes.

Greek was introduced when Alexander conquered everything in sight, and was then the language of civic rule. It was also the language of trade, especially trade that at some point went by ship.
So even if a trader was not Greek, often they knew enough Greek (for trading) to get by. The Greeks were big on education, so scholars learned Greek, and the schools at Alexandria were influential. The Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek in Egypt, (i.e. the Septuagint), and the Jews of the Diaspora often were Greek speaking. Even when the Romans came conquering, many of the Romans knew Greek, for that was part of their education system.

Hence in Jerusalem, there were plenty of "regular" people who spoke only or mainly Aramaic, the educated traditionalists (esp. the Pharisees) would have been fairly conversant with Hebrew (even if it was more a written than a spoken living language), and the moneyed classes and those who traveled (including traders and those of the Diaspora) would have at least some Greek. In the towns, there was apparently some variation as to which was dominant, some going for Aramaic, some for Greek, depending on the ins and outs of the wars of conquest. Probably in the synagogues, Hebrew was at least recognized enough so that when someone cited a passage of Scripture in Hebrew, everyone got the gist of it. The rabbis and anyone claiming to be learned in their religion would have had to know Hebrew enough to read it.

So when Christ cited a passage from Scripture, what language was he using? We don't know: it might have been Hebrew, or Greek, or he might have been using Aramaic. More likely, he VARIED it according to the situation and audience. It is a reasonable guess that when he was in the synagogue, he used Hebrew because that was customary in that situation. When he was with Pharisees he might have used Hebrew so they could not reject his claims because he "mis-"quoted the Scriptures. When he was with rich people he may have used mainly Greek. Almost certainly when he was with Pilate he used Greek, (like when Pilate was questioning Jesus and at the same time interacting with the priests: Pilate would not know Hebrew, and few others would have known Latin). But when he was in the countryside, or in the Sermon on the Mount, it is very plausible that he used mainly Aramaic as the best understood language of the masses.

So it is very likely that many of Jesus's sayings were translated to get into the (Greek) Gospels, but not necessarily all of them.

I find it astounding that some critical commentaries carry on a large debate about whether Christ would have spoken one of the languages, because "where would he have been taught it?" As if God needed to be taught a language in order to learn it. The Word Himself, needing to be taught a language. The very same God who enabled the Jews, on Pentecost, to each hear Peter in their own language? Go figure! How dumb do you have to be to debate this?

I've always been pretty sure that they probably read the Septuagint (Greek) in the synagogues.

The NT authors themselves are repeatedly citing the Septuagint. For example "A virgin shall conceive" is from the Septuagint.

So you discount the notion that the written Scriptures used in the synagogues would often, or even usually, be in Hebrew? (E.G. Luke 4:17) Although the Septuagint was started around 265 BC, it wasn't finished until much later, in the 130's BC. To me it seems unlikely that synagogues would (by choice) go with half Hebrew and half Greek Septuagint, before the whole thing was in translation. And without political pressure, I would find it odd that it would replace Hebrew texts in the synagogues generally, and once the Romans conquered the Greeks I can't see much sense in political pressure like that. I think it likely that in many places Hebrew was retained, even if not uniformly.

It is very likely that the Apostles themselves became much more cosmopolitan after Pentecost, and interacted very freely with more educated world travelers during their apostolic careers.

I don't exactly discount it, but I gather there's some evidence that the Septuagint was pretty widely read there. No reason why Luke 4:17 couldn't have been the Septuagint scroll. Nothing turns on it there, I gather, but it's extremely useful to know that the authors, when they refer to fulfilled prophecy, are often quoting the Septuagint. As in the example I gave about the virgin conceiving. Or Hebrews 10:5.

I agree that the Apostles (and many others) were conversant with the Septuagint. And that nothing critical (here) turns on whether they were using Greek or Hebrew to cite the Scriptures. I was mainly highlighting the issue of whether, when the (Greek) Gospel writers gave us Jesus' own words, they were giving Jesus' own Greek words, or doing a translation from Aramaic or Hebrew. Certainly we know that at times Jesus himself used Hebrew or Aramaic, because the writers actually state the word(s) in Hebrew or Aramaic and then translate for us, such as "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani". There is no reason to assume that Jesus nearly always spoke Greek and dropped into one of the others only on rare occasions, which the writers then pointed out by translating for us. It is far more likely that some of the time the writers simply give us the Greek for what Jesus said in Hebrew or Aramaic, so we are not getting "Jesus' own words" directly, but through translation. Which is perfectly fine, and nobody with sense would reject the Gospels' accuracy merely on that account.

Which language was more ideal for his audience a majority of the time?

Jonathan, according to what I have read, Aramaic would have been the predominant language, the first language of the majority especially of the lower classes. Except in fairly limited situations, a person would want to speak Aramaic to be understood by "the crowds".

Got it. Thank you Tony.

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