Apparently, I know more Latin than I think. At least that’s what a website told me (“Mental Floss”). It listed off a bunch of English words and said they all were all Latin loanwords: words like memo, alibi, agenda, veto, alias, versus, etc. (i.e., all very common and very popular “English” words that I know and use often). And yes, “i.e.” and “etc.” are also Latin loanwords (or are they loan abbreviations?). And the following phrases are also all Latin (that’s right, in this post we are broadcasting “all Latin, all the time”): phrases like alma mater (“nourishing mother”), bona fide (“in good faith”), alter ego (“other self”) and vice versa (“position turned”). But not all is bright in Latin land. We also have a very sad Latin expression, barba non facit philosophum (“a beard does not make a philosopher”), which is very upsetting because I really want my beard to make it so!
Here’s Point 1: A lot of people feel that understanding how the gospels were composed is boring, irrelevant, and some esoteric field of study best left to people sitting in ivory towers and who have degrees after their names. Besides, they already know how the gospel were composed. God composed them! They also tend to feel that people who ask such questions about the composition of the gospel think that the beard DOES make the philosopher (and that this whole endeavor is both useless and unhelpful). But I disagree wholeheartedly. See, the purpose of these posts goes beyond academic curiosity, but help us to understand how the gospels work. By comparing the gospels, we see something that we often overlook. We see the human author. Now, I don’t want to diminish that the Bible is God-breathed and that these words are not the product simply of human invention, ingenuity or spiritual illumination; BUT saying that the Bible is inspired does not mean that the words we read were dictated by God and then inscribed by the gospel authors. No, these books were written by real people with real personalities to real churches with real needs, and they were written using their real skills as authors. Yes, the Holy Spirit superintended the biblical authors to write down God’s truth faithfully. Yes, as a result of the Spirit’s work, when we read the Bible, we encounter God speaking to us in its words. Yes, that is only possible because the same Spirit that “hovered over the author is the same Spirit that is at work in us the readers” (Scot McKnight). But, no, that does not mean that the human author is of minor importance. I’ve had people chide me for prefacing a verse by saying, “Paul said” or “Matthew said,” arguing that the proper way to speak about any verse in the Bible is to say, “God said.” But Scripture is God speaking through human authors, and these human authors weren’t mere secretaries. They were co-agents with God’s Spirit in conveying God’s truth. And as such, it is of great importance for us to understand what the human author was trying to do with his words in his text and why he was doing it (to the best of our ability). I am not equating the two but, as an analogy, think of all the heresies that exist as a result of denying that Jesus was fully human. We end up in the same place when we deny the Bible is fully human.[Just as a side note: We must always remember that the real purpose of God’s inspiration of the Bible is not so that we can know it came from God, but so that we can know God through it. It is not a divinely-authored text book designed to teach doctrine, morals and behaviors. Instead, the Bible’s clear objective is to transform us so that we would be a people who love God and love others. Its purpose has never been about conveying information, but has always had the goal of transformation. Paul says as much in 2 Timothy 3:17. Note the “SO WHAT” that begins verse 17:
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
And that means that in our reading of the Bible, if we are not growing in our love for God and for others, we must be reading it wrong. End side note.]
Here’s Point 2 (and while Point 1 needed to be said, THIS is the main reason for the Latin introduction): When we read the gospels, we have to realize the difference between the Ipsissima Vox and Ipsissima Verba. Let’s look, for instance, at Peter’s confession of Jesus. We start off with Jesus’ question. We read it this way in each gospel. . . .
Mark 8:27 — “Who do people say I am?”
Matt. 16:13 — “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
Luke 9:18 — “Who do the crowds say I am?”
Now, note, all three authors quote Jesus as asking a question, but all three have Jesus saying something different. So, which author faithfully recorded what Jesus actually said? Now, that question scares some people because it sounds like someone got it wrong. And so, to protect the integrity of the gospels, they argue that what Jesus actually said was something like this: “Who do people, and I mean not just any people, not you and not the people in Jerusalem, but the crowds, those people, say the Son of Man is, knowing, of course, I am speaking about me because I am the Son of Man.” In other words, they go to great lengths to harmonize everything so that all three authors are absolutely right in what they report. They all heard the same long answer and simply picked the part that they wanted (but it was truly what Jesus said).
Now, let’s note their answers. . . .
Mark 8:28 — “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah;
and still others, one of the prophets.”
Matt. 16:14 — “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah;
and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
Luke 9:19 – “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others,
that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.”
Again, what exactly did they say? Was it behind door number one, two or three? Or do we harmonize all these answers (which isn’t very easy) and then have each author choose which part of the harmonization they want to use?
We are on a roll, so let’s continue. Note how Jesus responds. . . .
Mark 8: 29 — “But what about you? Who do you say I am?”
Matt. 16:15 — “But what about you? Who do you say I am?”
Luke 9:20 — “But what about you? Who do you say I am?”
Look! All three agree! See, they can play nicely together!
One last line. Let’s look to the conclusion of the passage and Peter’s response. . . .
Mark 8:29 – “Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah.’”
Matt. 16:16 – “Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’”
Luke 9:20 – “Peter answered, ‘God’s Messiah.’”
Ugh! We are back to everyone doing what is right in their own eyes! Why can’t we all just get along?
One more example, this time not involving direct speech. In Matthew 4 and Luke 4, we see Jesus’ temptation. In Matthew, the order of the temptations is this:
Stones to bread
Jump from temple
Kingdoms of the world
In Luke, the order is different:
Stones to bread
Kingdoms of the world
Jump from temple
Quiz time: what is the correct order of Jesus’ temptations? Correct answer: We don’t know! Why don’t we know? Ipsissima vox, baby! See, the gospel authors were primarily interested in recording the “very voice” (Ipsissima vox) of the speaker and not the “very words” (Ipsissima verba). Let me say that again. The biblical authors weren’t so concerned to transcribe the exact words spoken (or even the correct order of events), but were quite happy to provide a faithful rendering of the gist of what had been said.
In short, the gospels are not filled with verbatim statements (verbatim – that’s Latin, too!), but summaries. Now, I am not saying they made up things (I’ll say it more strongly: they didn’t), but they were very happy to summarize, paraphrase or explain things so that its significance would not be lost on their audience. They were also happy to arrange things out of chronological order if that served their purposes. Sometimes, there is a dramatic moment when the author preserves the Ipsissima verba (“the very words”), but most of the time, we will find that the authors were simply giving us a summary.
Two further considerations prove this. First, although the New Testament is written in Greek and we have Jesus’ words preserved for us in Greek, Jesus probably spoke in Aramaic, the dominant language of 1st century Palestine. If so, that means that the Gospels are already a translation. Second (and let me quote Darrell Block here): “Most accounts of Jesus’ remarks are a few sentences long. In fact, even his longest speeches as recorded in the Gospels take only a few minutes to read (e.g., The Sermon on the Mount or the Olivet Discourse). Yet we know that Jesus kept his audiences for hours at a time (e.g., Mark 6:34-36). It is clear that the writers give us a reduced and summarized presentation of what Jesus said and did.” As I said, Ipsissima vox, baby (“the very voice”)!
So, when we see slight variations and differences in wording and in order, don’t freak out, either by thinking there must be errors in the Bible or by trying to harmonize everything. Instead, relax and think Latin. What you are seeing is the very voice, a faithful summary of what was said or done that clearly shows its meaning, significance and intent. Does this explain why the Christmas accounts are so different? In part, yes. It shows us that the human authors were carefully selecting which parts of the story to tell so that they could provide a meaningful and cohesive summary of all that took place. They were not writing a mere history or even a bare biography. They summarized the accounts of Jesus’ life so they could show their audience the significance of who Jesus was. It may not be pure Ipissima vox, but it is the philosophy behind it; and a Merry Vox it is!
Now, you may not care about Ipsissima vox or Ipsissima verba, but trust me, this is great stuff! Let me prove that to you in Latin! In ancient Rome, a man could be described as barba tenus sapientes — “as wise as far as his beard” (meaning, he may look intelligent, but he’s not; the beard just makes him look smart”). Or he could be described as barba crescit caput nescit – “the beard grows, but the head doesn’t grow wiser.” Or he could be described as we said earlier as barba non facit philosophum – the beard does not make a philosopher! But trust me, if you toss around the words, Ipsissima Vox and Ipsissima Verba, at a party, beard or no beard, people will think you are a genius. In fact, they will jump to that conclusion, velocius quam asparagi conquantur – “faster than you can cook asparagus!”
Carpe Diem and Carpe Noctem! More next week!