272: JESUS’S 5200 AUTHENTIC WORDS

The Bible contains only 5236 authentic words of Jesus. All the rest are most likely not said by him. “Who says so?” I hear you object “There must be at least 10,000 words uttered by our Lord in the four Gospels!” and “Who are you, an avowed atheist, to keep coming up with this idea of a ‘residual’ Jesus? You can’t cut God down to size!”

Well, let me try to explain. (My style is to use bullet points; it’s quicker to read and speedier to write.)

  • Forget John’s gospel, it’s fiction anyway (See Zingcreed post Is the fourth gospel fiction?)
  • Quotes from the gospel of Thomas are included
  • Some of the ‘ten thousand’ words are repeats as they occur in more than one gospel, so the duplicates can be eliminated for a start
  • My source for this assertion that there are only about 5200 words  is a  reputable Christian one, not an atheist one at all. It is the book….
  • The Gospel of Jesus according to the Jesus Seminar” edited by Robert W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar (Polebridge Press, 1999). It contains materials selected from the 2 reports of the seminar ‘The Five gospels: the search for the authentic words of Jesus’ (1993) and ‘The Acts of Jesus: the search for the authentic deeds of Jesus’ (1998), both of which I have read from cover to cover. I got them from Amazon in the States and I recommend them highly.These reports colour code the gospel verses according to what they suggest is their authenticity. Over several years they sorted through about 1500 versions of approximately 500 sayings attributed to Jesus, winding up with about 90 authentic sayings and parables. 90 out of 500: that’s only 18%!
    They explain their criteria for these judgements in detail. I for one am very impressed by the work of the Jesus Seminar. (They’re on Wikipedia, by the way.)
  • In this book all the RED sayings (authentic) and PINK (probably true) are included along with a smattering from the GRAY category (possibly true) and even a few words and phrases that were coloured BLACK (probably fictional)
  • This version of the gospels is a reliable, compelling and enlightening book to read. “It is a valuable volume for all those who include the  historical Jesus in their practice, worship or study” (publisher’s blurb.) “This book will excite, challenge, intrigue and threaten readers. It is a worthy contribution to the fascinating Jesus debate that has captured our generation.” (Bishop John S. Spong, author of Why Christianity must change or die.)
  • I marked all the quotes from Jesus in the margin, then I totted up the number of words to get the figure of 5236, say 5200 – I could well have made a few errors on the way. Of course no reputable theologian would waste his/her time conducting such a pointless exercise; but I’m my own theologian in residence, and I thought it could be educational.
  • So the residual Jesus comes into view a little more clearly as some of the chaff is blown away from the kernels of gospel grain. We’re hopefully hearing what the earliest listeners did, not stuff added to the written record later by the early church or by medieval copying clerks in monasteries.
  • Imagine, this whole religion is based on these 5200 recorded words of Jesus (and of course his deeds too!)

I intend to break them down, as I did with my 3 earlier analyses of books of the Bible: Proverbs, the Psalms, and the Epistle of James. (Links are provided below.) On first reading it’s clear that many of Jesus’s words were about the kingdom of God. His parables are mainly about the kingdom too. He spoke while healing, and he criticised the Jewish authorities. I list the percentages devoted to each topic below. A pie chart may be in order.

In future Posts, I’ll comment on his words one category at a time.

Simultaneously I shall be posting summaries of the teachings of sages who were roughly contemporaneous with Jesus. Men like Epicurus, Lucretius, Demosthenes, Aesop, Confucius. Jesus has to stand or fall on his own merits. Perhaps these other guys were better than him or at least clearer. JC is frustratingly vague and ambiguous much of the time.

I divided his words into ten categories, then totted up the number of words devoted to each. I used the English translation known as the Scholar’s Version, produced by the same Jesus Seminar.  Here is what I found. A few passages fell into two categories so were included in both. My ten categories are listed in order, the one with most words coming first.

1. PARABLES                                                                             2016 words  (39%)
2. THE KINGDOM OF GOD, OR ‘GOD’S DOMAIN’           1080               (21%)
3. PREACHING e.g. THE BEATITUDES                             797                (15%)
4. ORDERS, i.e. INSTRUCTIONS TO HIS FOLLOWERS 422                (8%)
5. APHORISMS, i.e. MEMORABLE MAXIMS                   398                 (7%)
6. HEALING                                                                                  220                 (4%)
7. TALKING TO THE DISCIPLES                                           184                 (3%)
8. QUOTATIONS FROM THE HEBREW SCRIPTURES      70                 (1%)
9. PRAYER                                                                                        24                 (0.5%)
10. SELF, i.e. JESUS’S WORDS ABOUT HIMSELF              20                 (<0.5%)
TOTAL: 5231 words

Now that I’ve statistically analysed his words, I’m glad I did it. Isn’t it interesting? It’s really educational too. It’s not merely a pared down version of the four Greek gospels. (I shall devote one Post to comments on each category listed here, starting with no.4: Jesus’s instructions to his followers. See links below.)

My views on the above list:

  • It indicates Jesus’s  priorities  in  what he is reported to have said. The Kingdom is at the centre of all he preaches. Sadly we cannot be sure what he meant by this term. (See my Post on the kingdom listed below.)
  • Its contents seem to me, at first glance, to be similar to Burton Mack’s oldest layer in the Q gospel (Lost? Don’t be! See the link below.)
  • The omissions are startling, and in my view refreshing:-
  • – He never says he is the son of God (The ‘Mother Church’ in Jerusalem led by his brother James the Just after his death, never thought he was divine either.) That’s the Incarnation out of the window then!
  • – He never says he is going to die for our sins. Eat your heart out, St Paul! That’s Redemption and Atonement out the window too!
  • – He doesn’t reappear after the crucifixion and chat to his startled mates either. Resurrection? What resurrection??
  • – Likewise the Trinity, what trinity??
  • – Heaven and Hell? Perhaps I missed them?

Conclusion? Jesus was a sage – a healer and teacher of wisdom in the Jewish tradition. Period.

If all this is new to you, don’t be too shocked. Most liberal clergy learnt all this at college, but some of them don’t want you to know about it. Remember, even though you read it on Zingcreed, a ‘Jesusite/Atheist’  website, the particular book which is the subject of this Post was written by a team of Christians. (May peace be upon them.)

My personal reaction to this ‘shrinking’ of the message down to 18% of the original length is…

  • How similar it is to the ‘God of the gaps’ described by writers such as John Robinson, the Bishop of Woolwich, in ‘Honest to God’ (1960’s). Secularisation of the western mind  fueled by scientific discoveries meant we no longer needed to bring in God to explain the mysteries of disease, bad weather, or natural disasters. God shrank as the scientific viewpoint expanded. So, today, we see scholarship eroding the scriptures that can be relied on  down to a hard core of authenticated words and acts. The sediment has been washed away leaving solid gold nuggets.
  • The old-time Christian religion looks like a house built on sand, with rotten plaster on the walls and Deathwatch beetles in the joists, and a few holes in the roof for good measure. The clergy (born liars, many of them) are in denial, papering over the cracks, pointing the brickwork and putting buckets out to catch the rain coming through the ceiling. The believers stick their heads in the sand like ostriches and avoid theology books at all costs.
  • I had Premier Christian Radio on for several hours as I dug my garden the other day. Every preacher quoted and expounded on St Paul and his ideas, at great length. Jesus wasn’t quoted at all in any of the half hour segments. Perhaps this is the way the church is going – just ignoring JC and his teachings altogether!??
  • What it comes down to – this massive ignoring of the facts (or at least the academic findings)  about the historical Jesus – is fraud. The churches are pulling the wool over peoples’ eyes, conning believers into believing things they know can’t be justified. It’s dishonesty on a massive, historically unprecedented scale. Different denominations making a nice living out of fishing for gullible pew fodder.
    Like the sardine shoals off the South African coast being hunted by dolphins from behind, gannets from above, and whales from below (as well as by men). There’s enough for every predator to get their tithe! (Thank you for providing the metaphor, David Attenborough!)

Related Zingcreed Posts:

(
1) the 14 authentic parables
(2) the 15 authentic kingdom statements
(3) preaching – the 15 authentic sermons
(4) 19 authentic instructions to followers
(5) the 17 authentic pearls of wisdom (aphorisms)
(6) the 8 authentic healing messages
(7) Talks to the disciples
(8) the 3 biblical quotations
(9) authentic words of prayer
(10) 20 words about himself

The doubts of Robert Funk of the Jesus Seminar
Jesus’s communist brother James (2) his epistle
Sages #1: Solomon (The book of Proverbs)
The Psalms – what a load of psychophantic paranoia!
Jesus was a sage, not a prophet, priest or king
Sages #2: Epicurus
The Kingdom of God, a kingdom of nuisances and nobodies
Q the hypothetical gospel
Sweet nothings – what Jesus didn’t say
What Jesus said in the oral tradition

[272: Linked & Indexed, t7c]

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