…over at The Catholic Weekly:
Here’s the deal: the Evangelists are not tape recorders. They are people telling, as best they can, the true stories of what Jesus said and did. But they are not always and everywhere giving us the exact words of Jesus.
We are getting eyewitness testimony (for more on that I strongly recommend Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses), but it is eyewitness testimony of sayings and events that are being relayed to an audience with specific needs, fears, loves, questions and pastoral issues that the Evangelist is trying to address using the wisdom Christ gave to him. And so the language used to tell it and the particular memories being shared will vary.
Don’t feel threatened by that. You do the same thing when you choose to tell that story about when Uncle Bill accidently backed his car out of the garage without opening the door and not the story of cousin Vinnie and his pet goat, in order to cheer up the friend who wrecked his car. He needs the Uncle story, not the goat story.
And it’s a great story. You’ve told it for years. Plus it’s really true. You aren’t making it up. But you don’t tell it exactly the same way every time. And when your wife tells it, she includes details you don’t because she was in the living room with Bill’s wife Sally and heard the crash but didn’t see what you saw.In short, the gospels have all the benefits—and problems—of eyewitness testimony mediated to us through a community that remembers Jesus and gets its information from both apostles and people recording apostles or other eyewitnesses.
Sometimes, no doubt, the words we read really are the exact words of Jesus. Jesus, like any good teacher, has a knack for casting his teaching in easy to remember phrases. For example, “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” are recorded in identical words in both Matthew 7:7–8 and Luke 11:9-10.
That could be because one is copying the other, but it is more likely that both are drawing from one common source of easy-to-remember sayings: Jesus and the community that circulated and remembered what he said and did.