How do we know that what we read in the Gospels is what Jesus really said?
Well, for believers, their tradition tells them so. Christians believe that the church is guided by the Holy Spirit, and so the writings that were chosen for inclusion into the "canon" of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) were the ones that the early church felt most closely represent what Jesus said and did. That's the religious reason (more or less.)
But even if you think of it in secular terms, it makes sense to trust the Gospel accounts. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) were written relatively soon after the death and resurrection of Christ, and agree on the general outlines of the story. And Mark, the earliest Gospel, is generally thought to have been written about A.D. 70, only 40 years or so after Jesus's earthly life ended. There were still people around who had participated in Jesus's ministry and could say to Mark, "Hey, that's not the way it was!" Or, "You forgot to put that story in!" It would be akin to someone in our time writing about the Vietnam War or Watergate. There were still enough people around who would be able to inform whatever was written, by their first-hand experience.
On the other hand, many Christians today are, like me, not fundamentalists. We do not take every word in the Bible literally. We know the Gospels were compiled after a generation of oral histories, in which stories were probably altered slightly. That's what naturally happens as stories are passed on. And the Gospels were written by four different writers writing for four different communities. So even though it's about the same person, Jesus, the Gospel writers wrote things slightly differently, stressing different things, focusing on different things (depending on their audiences).
So there are bound to be a few discrepancies. And contradictions, too.
A few examples will suffice. Jesus makes only one journey to Jerusalem in the Synoptic Gospels, while he makes several in St. John's Gospel. The story of Jesus's birth in the Gospel of Matthew describes Mary and Joseph as living in Bethlehem, fleeing to Egypt, and then moving for the first time to Nazareth; while Luke has the two originally living in Nazareth, and traveling to Bethlehem in time for the birth and then returning home again. And when retelling the same stories and miracles, the Gospel writers use different words, even when they're quoting Jesus. What Jesus says on the Cross differs from Gospel to Gospel. But again that's not surprising, since you have four different people writing. They're all true -- and not in some vague, abstract philosophical sense, but in the sense that these things happened -- but it's not like reading a court transcript.
So when looking at different versions of the same story, or stories that seemingly conflict, how do we determine what it might be the closest to what Jesus said?
Scripture scholars use a number of tools to think bout these questions. For example, there is the criterion of "embarrassment." If something seems like it could have been potentially embarrassing about Jesus to the early Christian community, it's seen as the most accurate of the retellings. The most common example is Jesus's baptism. Doesn't it seem odd that Jesus would be baptized by John the Baptist? After all Jesus is the sinless one, right? So considering that, Scripture scholars suggest it's close to impossible that the Gospel writers would've invented something of that nature or create something that might have been embarrassing to Jesus and purposely place it in the story.
Another interesting criterion is the rare use of Aramaic words. Many scholars suggest that when an Aramaic word is preserved in the text of the Gospels, it most likely represents a striking phrase that Jesus himself used, which was remembered, pondered and treasured by his disciples and reverently passed on to the Gospel writers, aka the evangelists. Examples of this are Jesus calling his Father "Abba" (a version of "Dad"), his raising the little girl from her deathbed by saying "Talitha cum," (Little girl, arise) or his opening the ears of the deaf man by saying, "Ephphatha" (Be opened).
These are very likely connections with the very words -- literally -- of Jesus. It's astonishing (and beautiful for the believer) to think that we may be hearing the precise words and sounds that came from the lips of Jesus of Nazareth.
But there's another example that's often overlooked. In the Gospel of Matthew (5:22), Jesus talks about calling someone raca. Now, raca is an ancient Aramaic word meaning "fool." And, as I mentioned, given that the Aramaic has been preserved is most likely that we are hearing the precise word that Jesus used with his disciples.
This almost throwaway line usually gets short shrift in many Christian circles. And it's true that this same chapter in Matthew's Gospel raises issues that are seemingly more important. Jesus talks about himself as the fulfillment of the Law, for example. That's pretty important. He talks about adultery. He talks about divorce. He talks about lying. All these things are significant statements. But almost in the same breath, he talks about speaking kindly to one another, not slandering one another, not calling one another's names, and does so quite in the strongest terms.
Why do we overlook this? Probably because we do it so often.
"Whoever says to his brother raca will be answerable to the Sanhedrin [the Jewish court]," Jesus says, "and whoever says 'you fool' will be liable to fiery Gehenna."
That's strong stuff. If you engage in name-calling, you'll go to hell. Pretty surprising, given what Christians usually focus on. When's the last time you heard a Christian in public life speak in such strong terms about name-calling?
Lately, I've been thinking that 50 percent of the Christian message can be boiled down to two words: "Be kind." Jesus is reminding us to watch our tongues, to refrain from calling people names, to refrain from putting others down, to refrain from gossiping. To be charitable in our speech. Of course being Christian is a lot more than simply being kind; but without kindness we're not Christian.
It's especially important to hear Jesus's words in our digital age, when snarky blogs, terrible texting, snotty Facebook posts and mean-spirited Tweets zip around the Web and cause serious harm. And it's essential to hear in our 24/7-radio-shockjock-TV-talkshow-endless-gabfest age, when the easiest way to get people to tune into your show is to call someone else a jerk, or worse. "Fool," raca, is probably the mildest of imprecations that you've heard lately.
That goes for Christians speaking about other Christians, believers speaking about other believers, and anyone else with whom we disagree on religious matters. Take a look at any opinionated religious blog, on the right and the left, and you'll see all manner of terrible name-calling -- again, much worse than raca.
We ignore the invitation to practice personal charity, to treat one another with respect, to give people the benefit of the doubt, to avoid name-calling, to curb our tongues and to simply be kind, at our peril. And this is not simply feel-good religion. It's not simply wishy-washy niceness. It's not an excuse to avoid tough conversations. It is at the heart of the Christian life.
Speaking charitably about others is a simple thing, but hard to do. Trust me, I've engaged in this kind of trash talk myself from time to time. I gossip. I may even call people names, like "fool," behind their backs. It's a terrible thing to do.
How do we know this? Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms. So don't overlook this overlooked passage, which contains a word that we can be almost certain comes to us directly from the lips of Jesus.
Listen to his words and allow them to change yours.
James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest, culture editor of America, and author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, A Jesuit Off-Broadway and My Life with the Saints.