A deeper analysis of the Greek brings out interesting aspects of the differences among similar verses in different Gospels of what Jesus said. In this article, we look at the most interesting or instructive of these difference.
There are three situations that explain the differences among the different Gospels.
- Words Complete: The differences represent similar things said at different times because real people rarely repeat the same things in exactly the same way in repeated presentations.
- Words Abbreviated: The differences represent abbreviations of what was said because recording and copying written text was a laborious process at the time. In the cases of recording, many could not write quickly enough to record everything that was said.
- Word Remembered: The differences represent what people remember being said, which is often not exactly what was said. And they often includes explanations of what was said because that is how the human mind works when it remembers. Not surprisingly, different people remember the same words differently.
None of these differences can be construed as wrong or even inaccurate. Word Complete and Word Abbreviated support each other in terms of vocabulary, but Words Remembered give us insight into how people interpreted what they heard, which is important because, in many cases, we lack the context to know what the words mean.
We will cover and give examples of each in this article.
There are many verses that I believe reflect, if not a complete presentation by Jesus, complete verses and groups of verses. For example, we can take Matthew's "Sermon on the Mount" as very representative of Christ's words at the time.
However, by "complete" we do not mean that we have the complete context of what Jesus was saying. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, it is clear that people were asking questions and that most of Christ's sayings in it are responses to questions.
How can we tell? Because in Greek ("you" is expressed with a different word if it's plural than if it's singular.) So, we can tell if Christ was addressing a group or an individual when he says, "you". This information is lost in translation of course, but it is clear that some statements are addressed to individuals in response to questions. There are also signs in the words that begin a verse that are hidden in translation. For example, a verse may begin with a "because" that does not in any way explain to the previous verse. The most obvious reasons for this is that someone asked a "why" question. This is hidden in translation by changing the "because" to "for" in translation. Similarly, many verses are translated to begin with an "and" when in Greek they begin with a "but". The change is made (so that) the verse doesn't contradict the previous statement of Jesus, but it most likely did contradict the question or statement that he is answering. Accurate translation makes this much more evident.
The analysis here assumes that the words in the Gospel are the actual words of Jesus, many of them recorded word-for-word at the time. This is only possible because Greek is a much more concise language than English and because there were known to be different forms of short-hand in use, specifically to record speakers. However, all that was recorded was (were) the words spoken. No speed-writing system of the time could record the questions as well as the answers, except in a few, isolated cases.
Given that Jesus spent years teaching, it should not be surprising that he said similar things in different ways. As anyone who has ever repeated presentations on the same topic to different audiences knows, people seldom say the same idea in exactly the same way, unless it is a particularly good line. Over time presentations change as you find better ways of saying similar things. For example, the two versions of the Beatitudes, in Matthew and Luke. Often these differences are very instructive because they show Christ's ideas from a different perspective.
They also demonstrate how he changed his presentation over time, to keep things interesting and to correct misconceptions. Of course, it is often impossible to know which version came first and which came later, but again, some forensic analysis of the text can help. For example, we can see example(s) in Luke where verses in the more detailed contents of Matthew are combined in different ways and new contexts. For example, Luke 6:45 combines ideas from the more detailed Matthew 12:35 and Matthew 15:18. These ideas grow naturally out of the contexts of Matthew, but we can also see how combining them in Luke adds a new perspective to them. And, since the Luke version is pithier, especially in the second phrase, which unfortunately is often mistranslated, it seems like a more refined form of earlier versions.
The miracle is that some sections of Jesus'("s" - remove the possessive 's' when it follows an "s". And BTW, tho many pronounce that second 's', it's not supposed to be pronounced.) words seem so complete. Given the language and writing instruments of the time, we should expect most versions would be abbreviated. This is especially clear in Mark, which, as a Gospel, seems to be an abbreviated version of much of Matthew.
This abbreviation was often intentional and reasonable. Spoken language is simply not as efficient as written language, especially when much of the spoken language is designed to entertain the listener. Shortening those words does no violence to the idea, preserving them in any situation where recording the entire context was impossible or impractical.
Memories today are not as trained as memories in Jesus'(s) era. When people were less literate, they were better trained in remembering verbal information. It is the only way they had for "recording it." While remembered information (is) unlikely to be word-by-word perfect, many would remember the ideas communicated accurately in terms of how they heard them,