What Exactly Did Jesus Say?
by Eric Lyons, M.Min.
Numerous times in the gospel accounts, the Bible writers recorded statements made by Jesus while He was on Earth. Puzzling to some Bible readers is the fact that, although Bible writers frequently recorded the same statements, they are not exactly (word-for-word) alike. For example, whereas Matthew recorded that Jesus told Satan, “It is written again (palin gegrapti), ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God’” (4:7), Luke wrote: “It has been said (eiratai), ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God’” (4:12). Although this difference is considered minor, and is referring to the same thing (the Old Testament), Matthew and Luke still recorded Jesus’ statement using different words. Why? Why did Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John not always record the words of Jesus exactly alike?
First, it is possible that some differences are due to Jesus having made both statements. It is unwise to think that every similar statement recorded by the gospel writers must refer to the exact same moment. In the example of Jesus responding to Satan’s temptation, it may be that Jesus repeated the same thought on the same occasion using different words. After telling Satan, “It has been said, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God,” Jesus could have re-emphasized the point (especially if Satan repeated the temptation) by saying, “It is written, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’” Thus, Jesus could have made both statements.
A second reason why differences exist among the gospel writers’ testimony of Jesus’ teachings is because the writers’ purpose was to record precisely what the Holy Spirit deemed necessary (cf. John 16:13), but not necessarily exactly what Jesus said. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21), one writer may summarize a person’s (e.g., Jesus’) words, while another writer may quote the exact words.
Consider the variation in notes taken by honest, intelligent college students in the same class on the Civil War. At the close of the class, when the notes of the students are compared and contrasted (as the gospel accounts are) differences are evident. If one student recorded that the teacher said Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address “in November of 1863 to honor those who died in the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg,” and another student wrote that Lincoln’s speech was delivered “on November 19, 1863 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania,” their notes would not be considered contradictory. Though there are slight differences in what the students indicate the teacher said, they both are faithful testimonies of what the teacher taught—one student simply chose a less definite style of note-taking (i.e., not mentioning the precise day on which the Gettysburg Address was given).
Throughout the gospel accounts, we find accurate statements that Jesus made, but not necessarily the exact quotations. Inspired summaries of what someone said does not take away from the sacredness of the God-given Scriptures, nor our ability to apply those Scriptures to our lives. What’s more, differences among statements recorded in the gospel accounts also may be the result of the statements being made at different times. In whichever category a difference among the gospel accounts falls, Bible students can be confident of the Bible’s reliability.