In addition, having been quite pessimistic about our ability to prove the authenticity of any Jesus tradition or to have the actual words of Jesus, both here and on Michael Kok’s blog, I want to note a counter-argument. Anyone who has read to a small, preliterate child will recognise the speed with which they are able to learn by heart the text of a favourite book. Any attempt to alter the words or skip pages is met with loud protests and some will also offer to ‘read’ the book to you, sitting down and leafing through the pages, turning at the right time whilst reciting the words for you. I suspect that some of Jesus’ teachings were produced often enough so the disciples who travelled around with him got to know them pretty much by heart. I still think that the time-lapse between when Jesus taught and the gospels were written down, combined with the vagaries of both individual and social memory mitigates against our being able to prove that the gospels contain Jesus’ actual words, but I don’t think that what we have is necessarily a long way removed from them.
On a related note, the sad news that Birger Gerhardsson passed away has been circulating, including on The Jesus Blog. Gerhardsson’s work focused on rabbinic teaching using memorization, and so is also obviously relevant to this subject. The Eerdmans Blog lists a number of other scholars who passed away this year.
See too Mike Kok’s several recent posts on topics such as whether social memory has replaced form and redaction criticism.
Finally, let me share share a video that Gavin at Otagosh shared a while back, presenting four views on the historical Jesus: