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Q. Are Jesus’ words in the Gospels the actual words he spoke?
A. In order to answer this question, we need first to look at the process by which the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – came to be written. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (section 126), we can distinguish three stages in the formation of the Gospels. Here they are:
Stage 1: The Ministry of Jesus The four Gospels are grounded in the very life, words and deeds of Jesus. Jesus taught, healed, and worked miracles. He died on the cross and rose from the dead. His followers witnessed and remembered these things.
Stage 2: Post-Resurrection Preaching of the Apostles (the oral tradition) After the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the apostles handed on his deeds and words through preaching and teaching. They now had a fuller understanding of who Jesus is and what he did and said than they had during Jesus’ lifetime. They could look back on the whole story of Jesus’ life, from the beginning of his ministry through to his resurrection and ascension. Also, they had the gift of the Holy Spirit, who came to them at Pentecost and enlightened their minds regarding the full truth of Jesus’ life and ministry.
Stage 3: The Writing of the Gospels by the Four Evangelists From all the stories and memories about Jesus, passed down by word of mouth or even already written down, each of the four evangelists (who each really represent a community of faith) selected what was suitable for his purpose. At times, the evangelist would combine, summarise or explain these traditions. The end result of this work was a written Gospel. Each evangelist composed his Gospel with skill and creativity – he was bearing in mind the needs of the particular community for which he was writing – but always in such a way as to tell us the honest truth about Jesus.
So, the Gospels are definitely historical: they are grounded in what Jesus did and said in his lifetime. However, they are not literal accounts of what Jesus did and said. They are not accounts such as would be supplied today by reporters using digital recorders.
What is critical to understand is that the truth of the Gospels is not affected by the fact that the Gospel writers do not always give us a literal account of Jesus’ words. The Gospel writers are people with a living faith motivated by a passion to share with others the new life which they, and their communities, have found in Jesus. Thus, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and in the light of the resurrection, they weave together the traditions they have received about Jesus from eyewitnesses in a way which most effectively conveys his life and message to their particular audience.
Having said all this, it must be noted that, using various criteria, biblical scholars are able to identify Gospel verses which are likely to be the exact words Jesus spoke. But, ultimately, this does not really matter. Each of the words of the Gospels conveys the meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry.
In the end, what is crucial is to know that the Gospels are documents which crackle with a living faith and are intended to enkindle that faith in others. They are aimed not primarily at narrating history – though they rest on an historical bedrock – but on arousing and sustaining faith in others – and those “others” include you and me!
Adapted from: Kathleen R. Fischer & Thomas N. Hart, Christian Foundations: An Introduction to Faith in Our Time, 65-66; Raymond E. Brown, Responses to 101 Questions on the Bible, 62-63.
Q. “The one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven” (Luke 12:10). This verse really frightens me. What does it mean?
A. The thought of an “unforgivable sin” has long burdened Christian consciences. We should not think of a particularly heinous kind of sin but of a pervasive disposition blocking salvation. As the Scripture scholar John P. Meier writes, “Since the Holy Spirit is the source of repentance and forgiveness, to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit and to reject his clear operations within one’s range of experience is to close oneself off from all hope of salvation.” This is an echo of what we read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss” (CCC, 1864).
So, there is nothing to fear in these words of Jesus! They are nothing but an encouragement to abandon ourselves more and more to the infinite love of our merciful God.
Q. I know that the Lord’s Prayer is in the Bible, but where does “For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever” come from?
A. The Lord’s Prayer is found in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4. As for the prayer, “For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever,” it is called a doxology. This doxology is not found in the earliest manuscripts of the Gospels; it was added to the Lord’s Prayer by the early Church. The words first appear at the end of the Lord’s Prayer in chapter 8 of the Didache – a catechism of sorts from the late first or early second century. The doxology certainly has biblical overtones: check out Rev 1:6, 4:11 and 5:13, and 1 Chron 29:11.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 2855) has this to say about the doxology: “The final doxology, ‘For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever,’ takes up again, by inclusion, the first three petitions to our Father: the glorification of his name, the coming of his reign, and the power of his saving will. But these prayers are now proclaimed as adoration and thanksgiving, as in the liturgy of heaven.”
You may be wondering why it is that the doxology seems to be part of the Lord’s Prayer in some other Christian Churches. According to one source, “Through a mistranslation of the Missal after the Reformation in England, the ‘Deliver us O Lord…’ prayer was omitted, and the doxology was put adjacent to the Lord’s Prayer. Over the course of time, it morphed into being part of the prayer, and is the common usage in many of the Protestant and Evangelical churches.”
Q. Do you have any suggestions for using the Bible in our daily prayer together as a family?
A. As families read and pray Scripture together, they grow in their awareness of God’s presence in their lives. When reading Scripture stories as a family, be sure your children know that the stories are from the Bible, God’s holy book. You might like to keep the Bible in a special place in your home, such as a specially decorated table (but keep in mind: the Bible is for reading, not just for looking at!). And remember to show reverence for God’s Word as you handle the Bible and as you speak the words of Scripture.
You might like to try this simple way of using the Bible in family prayer:
- Choose a time during the day that best suits your family schedule. You might consider incorporating this into a mealtime, or your children’s bedtime routine.
- Have one member of your family read a Bible passage aloud. Perhaps you could choose one of the readings, or a section from one of the readings, from the previous Sunday’s Mass. (Remember to take a bulletin home from Mass so the readings are at hand!).
- When the reading is finished, take a few minutes to talk about the story together. You might make connections between your family’s experiences and the Bible story. Or, talk about what it might have been like to be a person in the story. Another way to reflect on the story is to ask your children to tell you the story in their own words.
- Then share a moment of silent prayer together. Invite your family to enter into a moment of quiet and awareness of God’s presence. You might use these words: “Let us sit very still and become quiet for prayer. Remember God always loves us.” Developing the practice of being silent is a wonderful gift we can share with our children, and is also a gift we can give ourselves.
- Next, pray in your own words in response to God’s Word in Scripture, and encourage your children to pray spontaneously as well. This might be a simple prayer of thanksgiving or a prayer of petition to live the message of Scripture.
- To conclude your prayer, slowly and prayerfully make the Sign of the Cross together. If you have a very young child, you can perhaps trace the Sign of the Cross on his or her forehead.