Jesus and the Historical Speech

I realised quite quickly with my previous blog, that my critique of Mark’s words needed the support of some knowledge that I had not yet discussed. That knowledge revolves around ancient Roman culture and the historical speech.

Somewhere a bit earlier than 410BC, Roman historians began using what they called Oratio Recta, or straight talk. They would use direct quotations to express what historical figures said at events such as battles or government meetings. At first, historians held themselves to a high standard as expressed by Thucydides that a historian should be accurate in setting forth the essentials of what was actually said. Even then, the historians understood it to be impossible to be verbatim even if they had been present at the event. In most cases, however, the speeches were gathered secondhand and the historians did the best they could to express the essentials.

In the next few hundred years, the philosophical style of rhetoric became popular, and there came along some historians who felt that while the essentials were still important, making a speech better through their advanced literary skills could only improve what the original speaker was trying to say, and thus any attempt at verbatim went by the wayside.

Thus, by the time that the gospels were written, currently believed between 100-200AD, such methods were well established in the Roman and Greek cultures prevalent in Jerusalem at the time, as evidenced by the fact that as far as we know the New Testament was originally written in greek.

I am not telling you this to suggest that the quoted words of Jesus are unreliable or should be discarded. I am telling you this so that you understand that arguing over quibbles in word usage or attempting to understand the nuances of some spiritual matter via the exact words used by Christ is not likely to net you a capital T truth.

Even if we were to give all four authors of the gospel the benefit of the doubt, even if we were to say that they were there when Jesus spoke the words and did their best to be accurate, it would have been impossible for their human minds (barring all of them having eidetic memories) to get the words down verbatim. On top of this is the fact that Jesus spoke in Aramaic, and the words were written in Greek, already losing accuracy in the translation.

So, of course, we are going to use what we have to understand what Jesus was trying to tell us. Of course, we are going to find those specific words chosen by modern translators translating ancient translations to be powerful and trust them with our faith. However, to do so in ignorance, or to do so with no reservation about the truth of the matter is likely to set you up for a great disappointment when someday you come face to face with the Father.

So, when you hear me talk about Mark quoting John the Baptist, and I mention that he likely chose a set of words for effect, this is what I’m talking about. A historical and authorial version of the poetic license, whereby the point Mark is trying to make is more important to him than his accuracy to the actual events. I have found this to be true all through the New Testament, not to mention every story ever told by anyone ever.

The only way to guarantee accuracy is video or audio recording with proof that it hasn’t been edited in any way. This certainly was not available at the time. Maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll live to see time travel and we can get some of that. In the meantime, it’s okay to be a little bit sceptical of the exact wording. Let us all trust that the writers of the Gospel were like Thucydides and tried very hard to get down the essentials of what was said. Personally, on this, I trust Luke the most, as he specifically starts out saying that he did a lot of research and chased down people to confirm that what he is telling us is legit to the best of his ability.

So, next blog, let us move along with Mark and the baptism of Jesus!


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