Jesus spoke Aramaic, which is now a nearly dead language. This website and your Bible are in American English. The words that Jesus spoke were first translated into Greek in ancient times, and more recently they were translated through Greek into English. Aramaic is a fanciful and visionary language that is so different from dry and precise modern English that the two-step translation through Greek yields a result that seems closer to what Jesus intended to say than does a translation directly from Aramaic into English, so we have made our peace with the language issue.
Cultural issues are more complex, and must be kept constantly in mind. Jesus was an educated but working-class member of an oppressed Jewish community. And all of that matters. But most importantly, when and where Jesus walked the earth, to speak against the prevailing religion was a capital crime. And many of the truths that He came to teach skirted pretty close to that perilous edge, so He used some clever linguistic devices to stay alive for long enough to teach what He had come to teach. Here are three of the teaching devices that He used most often:
Truth is truth! And only the truth is what Jesus wants to put into our hands now. If something Jesus is quoted as saying in the Gospels is (a) blatantly inconsistent with other things that Jesus is quoted as having said in the Gospels; (b) inconsistent with what we have learned from the afterlife evidence; and perhaps even (c) just what those who were establishing Christianity would have wished that Jesus had said when He was on earth, then chances are good that we have spotted a later Roman addition.
I should especially note that as we have studied the afterlife evidence, we have come to know the genuine God as perfect, universal love devoid of human failings. So anything that makes God seem to be less than perfect cannot have come from Jesus. In addition, of course, any reference in the Gospels to “thrones,” the “elect,” the “end times,” or “sin” as the breaking of arbitrary human rules is derived from Roman Christian theology and therefore must be a later edit.
– It is important to be alert for terms that are anachronistic, factually erroneous, or doctrinal. In the passage quoted below, we notice the anachronistic reference to a “church,” the erroneous reference to a gated Hades, the impossible reference to handing “the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven” to a human being, the notion of “binding” on earth being in any way applicable to heaven, and of course the fact that this passage is exactly what the church-builders would have wanted Jesus to say. And of course “Petros” means “rock” in Greek, but Jesus spoke Aramaic! Here is the most blatant later addition of them all:
“I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (MT 16:18-19).
This next example is inconsistent with both the afterlife evidence and the meaning and tone of most other Gospel passages. It gives clergymen a handy threat to keep their flocks in line. It inserts the idea of a cross long before Jesus died on one. It warns us that we might lose our soul, when in fact that is impossible. And the last sentence is an anachronistic and erroneous reference to events imagined in the Book of Revelation. This passage is a particularly unpleasant lump of coal that we can gladly toss:
“Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds’” (MT 16:24-27).
– Some bits of coal are given away by their references to theological concepts that would have been unknown to Jesus. For example, the whole notion of a Trinity was proposed only after Jesus was crucified. Every Trinitarian reference in the Gospels therefore is a frank anachronism. So we must remove what would otherwise be an important sentence from the Great Commission:
“And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, (baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,) teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age’” (MT 28:18-20).
– Some obvious coal is cultural. When a passage has medieval details and a medieval feel to it, and especially if it doesn’t fit particularly well with either the rest of the Gospels or the afterlife evidence, then we have found a later edit. The core of this story, that what we do for the least person we are doing for Jesus, is beautiful, and it is true. But all this talk of a King and a throne and nations gathering must be later cultural edits. The notion that Jesus will return “in His glory” smacks of a fictitious End Times. And of course, the afterlife evidence and the Gospel words of Jesus insist that each of us is perfectly loved and neither God nor Jesus ever will judge us, so all that nonsense about sheep and goats gets pitched into the dustbin as well:
“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’
“Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ “The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me’” (MT 25: 31-40). >Here below is another parable with a similar message. We know from the afterlife evidence that there is no fiery hell. We also know that eternal damnation cannot happen. But Jesus may indeed have told a story that was something like this, thinking that those who in this lifetime fail to make spiritual progress might after death consign themselves to the outer darkness for a time: Jesus presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away. But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also. The slaves of the landowner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’
“And he said to them, ‘An enemy has done this!’
“The slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?’
“But he said, ‘No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them. Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn’” (MT 13:24-30).
What follows is Jesus’s reported explanation for this parable. From the thought that Jesus Himself sowed the good seed while an imaginary devil sowed the weeds right through to the notion of end times and a blazing furnace, this whole explanation is a later fabrication. By now, you should be spotting the signs:
“And He said, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, and the field is the world; and as for the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; and the tares are the sons of the evil one; and the enemy who sowed them is the devil, and the harvest is the end of the age; and the reapers are angels. So just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear’” (MT 13:37-43).
The whole of Matthew 24 is devoted to end-times prophecy (similar passages are in Mark 13 and in Luke 21:8-36). I have read this chapter repeatedly, trying to figure out what Jesus might have said that could have been the basis for so much that is inconsistent with the afterlife evidence and the teachings of Jesus. All I can conclude is that the Bible-builders wanted to tie the Book of Revelation directly back to Jesus, so they cribbed some of its ideas into His Gospels. When Jesus came to teach us how to use our many earth-lifetimes to better grow toward spiritual perfection, it is beyond nonsensical that He ever would have said, “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come” (MT 24:14), or “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (MT 24:34). The only part of this whole chapter that rings true is the Lord’s assurance that “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (MT 24:35).
– And then there are references to an appalling barbarism that still is at the core of Christian traditions. There is no evidence that having taken Christian communion makes any spiritual difference, whether on earth or in the afterlife levels. If we want to limit our reading of the Gospels to just what Jesus must have said, then we have got to turn each description of the Last Supper into a convivial farewell to friends in which Jesus asks them to remember Him whenever they dine together. It is impossible now to know whether the passage that follows is a complete addition, or whether it is the corruption of something that Jesus said about His teachings being as essential as food and drink. We may never know. What we do know is that Jesus never said anything like this! To this day, He likely remains appalled that you might believe that He ever said it:
“So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever’” (JN 6:53-58).
– There is a series of important Gospel phrases where Jesus is seen to be using a personal pronoun in a way that is out of character. It seems likely that to first-century people, their shorthand use of “I” or “me” for “my teachings” in reporting the words of Jesus would have seemed harmless. But it is clear to a modern reader, in view of the fact that religious affiliations are irrelevant when it comes to getting into heaven, that in each of these cases what Jesus was really talking about was His teachings:
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me” must actually have been said something like “My teachings are the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through my teachings” (JN 14:6). “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die” surely was said something more like “My teachings are the resurrection and the life. He who believes my teachings will live, even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes my teachings will never die” (JN 11:25-26). Note here, too, that for Jesus to be referring to His resurrection years before His death is an anachronism that means that we likely should pitch this whole passage as a suspect addition.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” has to have been said something more like “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes His teachings shall not perish, but have eternal life” (JN 3:16).Correcting all such mistakes is important, since there is no evidence whatsoever for either sacrificial redemption or the notion that only professed Christians will get into heaven.
– Some bits of coal can be spotted by the way they mischaracterize God. The genuine God that both Jesus and the not-really-dead describe to us is perfectly loving Spirit and entirely devoid of human failings. The Old Testament God in the minds of those who were constructing the Christian Bible was judgmental and quick to anger. You will see that it is easy to tell the difference!
“What He has seen and heard, of that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony. He who has received His testimony has set his seal to this, that God is true. For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand. He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (JN 3:32-36).
God has no wrath! Jesus doesn’t “give” the Spirit, but rather each human being is part of God as Spirit. The teachings of Jesus are not rules to be obeyed, but rather they are a prescription for living our best eternal lives. And finally, neither God nor Jesus ever is our afterlife judge. Tossing this one is an easy call.
Finally, here is a passage that we can imagine might have been, at its base, something that Jesus could have said. His efforts to wean people away from their religious superstitions began to cause disruptions within families, and as His time here grew short, you can see in some Gospel passages a little impatience that He hasn’t made more progress. He may well have said in exasperation some version of, “Look, this is going to get a lot harder. Who is with me?” An exhortation to greater devotion and renewed effort. I don’t buy the parts of this that seem ego-related, like “worthy of me” and “for my sake,” because that simply is not Jesus. His life on earth was an exercise in humility. I don’t buy the anachronistic reference to the cross, either. But Jesus could see that His work was disrupting His disciples’ personal lives, and He might well have dealt with that problem frankly. Even so, it is nonsensical to do as Christians do so often, and see a passage like this that is reflective of a long-ago moment in time as Jesus prophesying events that might happen thousands of years later.
“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.
“He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it” (MT 10:34-39).
We understand now that Jesus is a genuine historical figure, as well as a divine eternal Being. His Gospel words can be studied and verified. So trying to appreciate ever better what it was that the Lord must actually have said, what He meant by it, and how we can apply His words to creating our own best eternal lives as we share His truth with all the world can be our lifelong pleasure. The teachings of Jesus in the Gospels are demonstrated now to be the living Word of our infinitely loving God. And it is only when we follow them with joy as the philosophy that they are meant to be that we can at last begin to make our own best eternal spiritual progress.