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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Which Written Records about Jesus Are Trustworthy?

Don Stewart :: Did the Early Church Invent Some, if Not All, of the Sayings of Jesus?

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Did the Early Church Invent Some, if Not All, of the Sayings of Jesus?

Which Written Records about Jesus Are Trustworthy? – Question 12

One of the claims which is often made against the authenticity of the gospels is that the New Testament church, rather than accurately recording what Jesus said and did, read their own words and current needs back into four gospels.

When an issue arose in the early years of the church, and an authoritative answer was needed to deal with the problem, the believers merely created an incident where Jesus dealt with the matter. They would make Him comment on the issue so that they had authoritative answers to their current needs. Consequently, they would create an historical situation, and have Jesus address the problem in His day. This is why we find the gospels in their present form.

The New Testament Prophets Spoke for the Lord

In support of this view is the existence of the New Testament prophets. These prophets would preface their authoritative words to other believers by phrases such as, “thus says the Lord.” Since their words were seen to be the words of the Lord, there was no distinction made between what they said and what Jesus said.

Thus, the words that we find in the four gospels, which are attributed to Jesus, are not really what He said at all. Rather it was what the church put into His mouth to meet their needs of the time. This view, of course, would rob the gospels of any authority as well as having the church creating Jesus rather than Jesus creating the church. What are we to make of such an accusation?

Response

A number of responses can be made to the idea that the church created the words of Jesus. They can be listed as follows.

1. Jesus Created the Church, It Did Not Create Him

To begin with, Jesus Christ created the church; it certainly did not create Him. Jesus made this clear in His famous statement to Simon Peter. He said,

“Now I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.” (Matthew 16:18 NLT)

Jesus said that He will build His church. In doing so, He is in complete control of all things. Otherwise, the figure of Jesus Christ is reduced to the creative abilities of His disciples. However, any superficial reading of the four gospels will quickly demonstrate that these men were not religious geniuses! They certainly did not have the ability to create Jesus. The New Testament church is the creation of Jesus.

2. Jesus’ Words Were Distinguished from Those of Others

There is something else we must appreciate. The New Testament church purposefully and carefully made the distinction between what Jesus actually said during His public ministry, with the events that occurred afterward.

For example, the Apostle Paul distinguished between his words and the words of Jesus. He noted these differences in his first letter to the Corinthians when he wrote the following:

To the rest I say—I, not the Lord—if a brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is happy to live with him, he should not divorce her. (1 Corinthians 7:12 NET)

Paul was clear to distinguish between what he actually said, and what Jesus said. There was no confusing of the two.

3. The Words of the Prophets Were to Be Tested

Those who spoke in place of the Lord were called prophets. They did speak for the Lord. However, believers were to test the prophets. Paul wrote to the Corinthians about this necessity:

Two or three prophets should speak and let others evaluate what is said. (1 Corinthians 14:29 NET)

The people were told to evaluate the words of the prophets.

Paul said the same thing to the Thessalonians regarding prophetic messages. Indeed he command them to test everything. He wrote,

Do not treat prophecies with contempt. But examine all things; hold fast to what is good. (1 Thessalonians 5:20-21 NET)

The words of the prophets were to be tested, not blindly trusted.

In addition, the phrase the “Word of the Lord” coming from the prophets, does not necessarily mean the direct Word of Jesus. The Lord is God’s name. It can refer to Jesus, or it can refer to God the Father, or to God the Holy Spirit. Often it is just a general term for God Himself. It depends upon the context. There is no evidence whatsoever that when the prophets of the early church were saying, “Thus says the Lord” they were claiming that these words were spoken by Jesus during His public ministry.

They Were Never Told to Test Jesus’ Words

While the words of the prophets were to be tested and evaluated, never do we find Jesus’ authentic words being put to the test. They were not to test Jesus’ words, they were to believe and obey them! This is the distinction which is always made by the Lord Jesus and the New Testament prophets. Their words were to be tested, Jesus’ words were not.

In addition, we should note that the words of Jesus are always placed in an historical context in the four gospels. The gospels record that Jesus spoke these words on specific occasions to specific people. They do not merely consist of a list of Jesus’ sayings that were given without any historical situation.

Many Issues the Church Faced Were Not Covered by Jesus’ Words

There is something else. Many issues, that became important in the early years of the church, were not covered in the gospels, or dealt with by Jesus. Questions such as the role of women, how the Jews and Gentiles were to function together as believers in Jesus, the existence and exercise of spiritual gifts, as well as a number of other problems facing the church, were not addressed by Jesus, or recorded in the gospels. If the church was merely attempting to answer these questions by appealing to Jesus, then they would have had created instances where He spoke authoritatively on these matters.

Yet, the four gospels are silent on these, as well as a number of other issues that were controversial in the early church. It was only as the church grew that these issues became prominent. When they needed answering, these issues were not read back into the gospels to have Jesus supply the answer, but rather they were answered by the leaders of the church, the apostles of Jesus.

An Illustration of Why the Church Did Not Create Jesus’ Words: The Temple Tax

We can provide one clear illustration of why the gospels do not reflect problems that arose later in the church. This concerns the payment or non-payment of the temple tax. Matthew records what occurred:

After they arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Your teacher pays the double drachma tax, doesn’t he?” (Matthew 17:24 NET)

Jesus, we are told, did indeed pay the tax. This temple tax was an annual tax that Jewish males paid to support the temple in Jerusalem. While this was not a controversial issue in His day, it soon became one after Jerusalem, and the temple, were destroyed. After A.D. 70, the temple tax was still to be paid by the Jews, yet it was diverted to pay for the upkeep of the temple of the god Jupiter in Rome. Though the Jewish temple no longer stood, the Romans insisted the Jews were to continue to pay the temple tax. The idea that Jesus would encourage payment to this temple dedicated to a pagan god is preposterous.

Yet, if we are to assume that the early church merely read their problems back into the gospel accounts this is exactly what we would have to conclude for Jesus encouraged payment of the temple tax. The fact that Jesus paid the temple tax is one of many evidences that the gospels contain the exact words and teaching of Jesus from His time. Indeed, they are not from a later period in the history of the church.

We conclude that the church was careful to distinguish what Jesus said and did during His earthly ministry and the issues that needed authoritative answers in the later years. There is no evidence whatsoever that they conveniently had Jesus answer these questions during His public ministry.

Summary – Question 12
Did the Early Church Invent Some, if Not All, of the Sayings of Jesus?

One of objections that is often brought up against trusting what is found in the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John concerns Jesus words as found in the gospels and the New Testament church actually inventing them. It has been alleged that much of what is attributed to Jesus in the four gospels was in point of fact put into His mouth by the early church.

Supposedly when certain problems arose and a solution was needed the early church created a situation in which Jesus answered the problem.

Though such a thing never happened in Jesus’ life and ministry the New Testament “prophets” used this technique to teach God’s truth to the people. Therefore, much of what we read about Jesus in the four gospels consists of situations which never took place.

This theory, while popular in some circles, is without any foundation whatsoever. The evidence shows no such thing. Jesus’ words were always distinguished from the words of the early Christians. Indeed, they were never mingled. For example, Paul the apostle made it clear when he was speaking and when the Lord spoke. He never combined his words with those of Jesus.

Furthermore, we find that the words of New Testament prophets were to be weighed and evaluated. They were not blindly accepted by the early believers. On the other hand, Jesus’ words were never to be evaluated. They were to be believed and obeyed.

In addition, the issue of paying the temple tax shows that the early church was not putting later issues into the mouth of Jesus. The temple tax which Jesus paid for upkeep of the temple in Jerusalem was later used by the Romans to pay for the upkeep of the temple of Jupiter in Rome.

This occurred after the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. There was fierce opposition among Jews and Christians about paying this tax. There is no reason whatsoever to believe the church created a situation where Jesus would encourage payment of this tax for the upkeep of a pagan building.

This illustrates that there was no putting words in Jesus’ mouth by the early church leaders to settle contemporary issues. The gospels contain the things Jesus actually said and did. We have no reason to believe that they were invented by His earliest followers.

Did the Gospel Writers Use Previous Written Documents to Compile Their Accounts? ← Prior Section
Are the Four Gospels Historically Accurate? Next Section →
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