What in the world does a stenographer have to do with Jesus?
If you are familiar with a courtroom setting, you will know what a stenographer does. Stenographers record a verbatim transcript of everything that is said in a courtroom. They do this by using shorthand on a special machine that types syllable by syllable instead of letter by letter. This method enables them to write much faster than typing on a normal keyboard.
The Stenographer Problem
Some Christians may be shocked when they realize that a stenographer wasn’t following Jesus around to record his every word. This naturally leads to a question: Do the four Gospels contain the actual words of Jesus?
Here are two basic facts about Jesus and the Gospels that make the question even harder to answer:
- Jesus primarily spoke in Aramaic.
- The Gospels were written in Greek.
There are instances in the Gospels where we have the exact words of Jesus in Aramaic. Here are three of these instances:
“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Matthew 27:46).
“Taking her by the hand he said to her, ‘Talitha cumi,’ which means, ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise’” (Mark 5:41).
“And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened’” (Mark 7:34).
But what about Jesus’ words that we only have in Greek?
Did Jesus Speak Greek?
The first question to ask is whether or not Jesus spoke Greek. If he did, then the Gospels may contain Jesus’ exact words. Recently I had the opportunity to meet New Testament scholar Michael Licona and ask him about this after one of his talks. He gave me three reasons why Jesus probably spoke Greek at least some of the time.
First, Greek was the dominant language during Jesus’ time. This means that Jesus and his followers were surrounded by the language growing up. It’s not too far-fetched to think that he could have learned the language at some point.
Second, John 19:20 mentions that the sign on Jesus’ cross was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. This seems to indicate that many people coming to witness the crucifixion spoke Greek.
Third, Jesus had a conversation with a centurion as recorded in Matthew 8:5-13. The passage doesn’t mention anything about having a translator present and seems to indicate that Jesus spoke directly to the centurion. Since the centurion probably spoke Greek, why not think that their conversation was also in Greek? I would also add that Jesus had a conversation with Pilate (Matthew 27:11-14), and he might have spoken Greek as well.
So let’s say that Jesus did speak Greek at least some of the time. The problem still remains: Jesus spoke Aramaic most of the time.
Jesus’ Words or Jesus’ Voice?
Some Christian scholars argue that the Gospels contain the “voice” of Jesus. To put it another way, the Gospels contain Jesus’ message instead of a stenographer’s transcript. This distinction may be helpful, but I like to explain it a little differently.
When it comes to Jesus’ words, I like to break down what the Gospels contain and don’t contain:
What The Gospels Do Contain:
-Transliterations of Jesus’ Aramaic Words into Greek (cf. Matt. 27:46; Mark 5:41; 7:34)
-Direct Translations of Jesus’ Aramaic Words into Greek
-Paraphrases or Summaries of Jesus’ Aramaic Words into Greek
-Verbatim Transcripts of Jesus’ Greek Words
-Paraphrases or Summaries of Jesus’ Greek Words
What The Gospels Don’t Contain:
-Words Falsely Attributed to Jesus
-Misrepresentations of Jesus’ Words
Sometimes we have Jesus’ exact Aramaic words (Ephphatha) or exact Greek words (possibly the centurion conversation). Sometimes we have Greek translations of Jesus’ Aramaic words. Sometimes we have paraphrases or summaries of what Jesus said.
None of these are bad things. This is like our English Bibles, which are translations of the original Greek. Some translations are word-for-word and some are thought-for-thought, but most of the translations still reflect the gist of Jesus’ words.
Why a Stenographer Wasn’t Necessary
There are a few reasons why a stenographer wasn’t needed to record Jesus’ words. First, Jesus’ teachings were often short and memorable. Jesus said things like, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1); “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:9); and “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:31).
Jesus also used parables and vivid stories to communicate truth. Additionally, his disciples would have heard Jesus teach the same things many times. But we aren’t left to question whether or not the Gospel writers could remember every word spoken by Jesus.
As Christians we believe that the Gospels came to us by design. God had His hand in the process. Jesus even predicted that the Holy Spirit would help the disciples remember Jesus’ words:
“But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning” (John 15:26-27).
“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26).
Therefore we are confident that the Gospels contain Jesus’ actual words not because we trust the disciples’ memories, but because we trust the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
4 Things to Remember:
The Gospels faithfully represent Jesus’ actual words. In the end, the Gospel writers didn’t need to consult a stenographer’s transcript. Instead, God Himself made sure that they recorded Jesus’ words accurately. Here are four things to remember:
- Jesus probably spoke Greek at least some of the time.
- The words of Jesus in the Gospels are either his exact words, a translation of his exact words, or a paraphrase/summary of his exact words.
- The Gospels don’t put words into Jesus’ mouth or misrepresent his words in any way.
- A stenographer wasn’t necessary because Jesus’ teachings were memorable and the Holy Spirit helped the disciples remember his exact words.