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Q: How do we know that the red letters in the New Testament are what Jesus actually claimed and taught?
Lane, United States
A: What we know, Lane, is that Jesus never actually uttered the words printed in red in the red letter editions of the Gospels. This point is obvious from the fact that these red letter editions are printed in English, and Jesus did not speak or teach in English!
All right, I’m teasing you; but there’s a serious point here. The Gospels were written in Greek, but Jesus taught in Aramaic. So even a red letter edition of the Greek New Testament would not give us the actual words of Jesus.
Granted, Jesus probably spoke Greek, at least enough to get by in his trade as a carpenter, since Greek was the common language of the Roman Empire, as a result of the pre-Roman conquests by Alexander the Great. Even though the Romans spoke Latin, in their dealings with Palestinians, they probably conversed in Greek—hence, the arresting centurion’s question to Paul: “Do you know Greek?” (Acts 21.37).
But in teaching his fellow Jews Jesus would naturally have spoken Aramaic. So what we have in the Gospels are Greek translations of what Jesus claimed and taught. Only rarely do we get glimpses of the original Aramaic words spoken by Jesus, as for example, Jesus’ words from the cross given in Mark: “At the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’” (Mark 15.34).
Moreover, we need to keep in mind that in a culture that lacked even the device of quotation marks, the distinction between direct and indirect discourse can be blurred. Read the account of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John’s Gospel 3.10-21, ignoring the quotation marks introduced by the English translators, and ask yourself where John’s direct quotation of Jesus ends and John’s commentary begins…
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