By Gerd Lüdemann
Professor of History and Literature of Early Christianity,
University of Göttingen
Visiting Scholar at Vanderbilt Divinity School,
1. The Problem of the Phenomenon of Fictional Sayings
We cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.
"Paul", 2 Corinthians 13:8
It has long been a truism of Biblical criticism that the New Testament abounds in examples of words attributed to Jesus both incorrectly and subsequent to the actual or purported events to which those utterances are related. In reconstructing what Jesus actually did say, researchers have largely ignored the invented sayings in order to concentrate on the authentic passages. Exhaustive work has been done in the latter domain – examining how the sayings are connected and attempting to determine their specific context – in order to assemble as complete a picture as possible.
In this essay I propose to inspect the other side of the coin by considering a selection of the inauthentic words of Jesus – both clearly invented sayings and those that reveal noteworthy alterations to what must have been their original form. In the latter cases, of course, it will be necessary to include both versions. My collection of inauthentic logia will, I trust, enable the reader to see the fictional sayings as a collective phenomenon worthy of serious consideration. At the same time, they will yield an important image of the early Christian mentality and thus a better concept of how the early church came into being.
The origins of these reported sayings range from evangelists to prophets to personally chosen disciples of Jesus, though in no case do we know the source’s real name. But that is not at issue here; what matters is that the four Gospels of the New Testament contain a preponderance of invented sayings of Jesus and that these counterfeits are subject to objective analysis. They will be reproduced here to enable a quick overview. In longer texts, I have employed underlines, italics, capitals, and bold-faced type to foster an easy reading of the text.
The sayings will be grouped according to probable origin or, where this is unclear, according to their form. Where necessary I have included the words of other persons. The sheer abundance of inauthentic Jesus-sayings shows clearly that very soon after his sudden and dramatic death he became the center of a new faith. And from the very beginning Christians strove to imagine what answers Jesus would offer to the many questions that arose. Therefore, when his recalled words seemed no longer appropriate or when no bona fide answers were available, utterances had to be re-structured or invented to suit the existing situation. Behind the inauthentic words of Jesus, we can envision a movement whose members, justifying themselves in the face of both internal and external opposition, felt obliged to carry the message of their Lord to the world at large. At the same time, each invented text bespeaks and communicates a religious certainty that brooks no contradiction. In this latter phenomenon, of course, we see reflected the jealous and exclusivist One God of Judaism whose demands of total loyalty and obedience would, in the eyes of antiquity, tolerate nothing less.
Still more important, the pervasiveness of this inauthentic material in the writings of people who represent themselves as purveyors of ultimate truths must both qualify any claims of ethical superiority on behalf of the movement they represent and suggest the importance of this project for a thoughtful reassessment of their historical pretensions.
2. Fictional Jesus-Sayings and the Quest for Truth
Putting away falsehood, let every one speak the truth with his neighbor.
“Paul,” Ephesians 4:25
Any contemporary person who turns to the New Testament for objective information about Jesus is bound to come away feeling queasy. Although early Christians acclaimed truth as a component of holiness and condemned lying as one of the sins they had supposedly overcome, the utterances attributed to Jesus in the New Testament Gospels are for the most part heavily redacted or wholly invented sayings intended to edify the earliest Christians, many of whom were waiting for Jesus to return from Heaven. Unfortunately, the Church today often proclaims these texts to be the Word of God, even though scholars – many of them committed Christians – long ago discredited them as inauthentic.
It must however be remembered that the inventors of the revised words were convinced that Jesus did utter these sayings. As such, they were not acting deceptively, but rather they believed that by their actions they were responding to a higher truth. Nevertheless, it does not alter the fact that these Christians told lies and that, since the lies are still with us in the Holy Scriptures, that the transmission of falsehood continues unabated.
Clearly, this preponderance of spurious Jesus-sayings gravely undermines any assertions of their religious validity and obliges the serious reader to reassess the New Testament Gospels. Finally, since these many falsely ascribed sayings remain fundamental elements of the Christian tradition taught in both church and seminary, it seems evident that only a radical and sweeping reform could possibly save that tradition from increasing irrelevance and eventual self-destruction.
1 For a full treatment in German see Gerd Lüdemann, Der erfundene Jesus: Unechte Jesusworte im Neuen Testament (Springe: zu Klampen, 2008). – I thank my good friend Tom Hall for English assistance.