The Desperate Desire to Know What Jesus Actually Taught

But we can’t get there from here

Most of the devout would have no clue what I’m talking about, i.e., that we have no way of knowing what Jesus actually taught. Their holy gospels, inspired by a god, are chock full of the words of Jesus. So can’t they just pick up their Bible and read the wisdom of Jesus? But New Testament scholars—many of whom are devout believers—know that the gospels present major problems for historians. Not the least of which is identifying/verifying what Jesus actually taught.
The gospels describe a preaching Jesus who attracted large crowds, but the gospels were apparently written decades after Jesus died, by authors who wanted to promote the new break-away sect. There is no mention whatever of Jesus in documents that are contemporaneous with his supposed ministry. According to Mark, by the way, it could have lasted no more than a few weeks. In John’s gospel it lasted three years. Scholars have been struck for a long time by how much the gospel authors didn’t agree.
But even if we acknowledge that Jesus had a huge following, how can we verify what he taught? Here are some of the problems: given the illiteracy rate of the general population (by some estimates, 95 percent), who among his listeners would have been able to write down what he taught? Who among them carried around pens and paper (i.e., the ancient equivalents)? We can be sure that Jesus was not followed by stenographers, nor did he use a microphone. So it’s a big question: When were his words written down for the first time?
Maybe his closest followers wrote down his words? But were his disciples illiterate as well? Then there’s this issue: Jesus spoke Aramaic, but the gospels were written in Greek. How good were the authors at making the translations? The folks today who cherish their Bibles are also reading translations created by theologians who, far too often, want to “clean up” the language in the ancient texts.
Devout scholars have put considerable emphasis on the existence of “reliable oral tradition”—that is, the words/teachings of Jesus were handed down by word of mouth for decades before being written, at last, in the gospels. But how can we be sure that a story repeated many times over the years hadn’t been drastically changed/distorted? How could it possibly be determined that the oral tradition had remained “reliable”? As far as we know there was no “control committee” that monitored oral traditions as the stories spread far and wide. 
And it is a puzzle indeed that the letters of the apostle Paul have almost no information whatever about the life, ministry, and miracles of Jesus. Was Paul simply unaware of the oral tradition that supposedly existed? Or perhaps he just didn’t trust it. In fact, Paul bragged that his knowledge of Jesus did not come from those who had known Jesus: “For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin, for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1:11-12) Believers cherish Paul’s visions of the heavenly Jesus, but the rest of us have no reason to take his hallucinations seriously. 
What other devices have devout scholars come up with to argue that authentic words of Jesus have been preserved somewhere? New Testament academicians, aware that so many texts in Matthew and Luke are similar, became convinced a long time ago that both authors had access to an earlier document—now lost—made up largely of Jesus-script. This must have been their source, so the lost document was nicknamed Q, from the German word for source, quelle.
This idea has prevailed, with amazing staying-power, because it helps rescue the gospels from their desperate lack of historical foundation. This source supposedly was an early-stage preservation of the authentic Jesus teachings. But unless this document can be found, this is speculation, wishful thinking. Did this Q document identify its sources—but the gospel writers just failed to mention this vital information? And if Q suddenly popped into view—was actually located somewhere—how could its Jesus-script be authenticated, verified? This cannot be done with the gospels, and Q would no doubt present the same difficulties. 
Mark Goodacre, in his book, The Case Against Q, demonstrates in the first chapter that the Q idea has been promoted so vigorously that it’s hard to grasp that it is speculation. 
“…for most newcomers to the discipline, the interested outsider as well as the new student, Q will give the impression of being a concrete entity with recognizable parameters, a Gospel that has been ‘discovered,’ a once-lost text that has been found. The problematic element in this is that the newcomer is often refused access to the all-important fact that remains a hypothesis… its acceptance by so many, takes place in the context of rhetoric that discourages one from thinking about the question of its existence…instead, with its hypothetical nature hidden from view, students are not given the opportunity to ask the vital question of whether or not Q is a necessary hypothesis…” (p. 9, The Case Against Q)
We can be thankful that secular scholars—lacking Christian biases and agendas—have joined the analysis of the gospels. The obsession with Q has taken a hit, as Richard Carrier has stated candidly: 
“It is a hypothetical document, whose contents, redactional history and even nature (whether written or oral) are endlessly debated in the scholarship. There are serious methodological flaws in the defenses made of the existence and contents of Q, and it looks far more likely to me that what we call ‘Q’ was nothing more than additions made to Mark by Matthew, which were then redacted into Luke. I see no merit in assuming otherwise without very good evidence, and the evidence presented even by staunch advocates of Q cannot honestly be described as even ‘good’. Whereas the evidence for Luke using Matthew is very good.”  (pp. 269-270, Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt).
In his 5th and 6th chapters, Goodacre makes a detailed case for Luke reworking Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Luke breaks it up, reduces its size, and even relocates it to a plain! Matthew seems to have added the long sermon to his Jesus story because there is so little ethical teaching in Mark, whose focus was the approaching kingdom of his god. But it seems Luke didn’t care for the Matthew’s long Sermon on the Mount so early in the gospel—and that had to be fixed. Luke also wasn’t happy with Matthew’s wording of the first Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and changed it to “Blessed are the poor.” 
But, here’s the toughest question of all: Does the Sermon on the Mount (or Plain) derive from Jesus? Carrier presents his case against it:
The Sermon is “…a well-crafted literary work that cannot have come from some illiterate Galilean. In fact, we know it originated in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic, because it relies on the Septuagint text of the Bible for all its features and allusions. It relies extensively on the Greek text of Deuteronomy and Leviticus especially, and in key places on other texts. For example, the section on turning the other cheek and other aspects of legal pacifism (Mt. 5.38-42) has been redacted from the Greek text of Isa. 50.6-9. These are not the words of Jesus. This famous sermon as a whole also has a complex literary structure that can only have come from a writer, not an everyday speaker. And again, it reflects needs and interests that would have arisen after the apostles began preaching the faith and organizing communities and struggling to keep them in the fold. So it’s unlikely to come from Jesus.” (On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 465-466)
The New Testament is at war with itself, or rather, the authors of the various books had conflicting agendas and beliefs. They were no more united than Christians are today; indeed, they set the example for strife and division. Matthew wasn’t satisfied with Mark’s Jesus, thus added the long sermon. He also saw the value of razzle-dazzle: he added the virgin birth, a feature borrowed from other ancient cults (writing decades later, how could he possibly have known that Jesus’ mother was a virgin?). He added the angel descending from heaven to push the stone away from the tomb on Easter morning. Luke, not satisfied with Matthew’s anemic version of the virgin birth, added two huge chapters (80 and 52 verses) at the start of his gospel, linking the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus, giving speaking roles to angels. Luke

also tells the tale—found nowhere else—of Jesus appearing, post-resurrection, to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Here he borrowed elements from ghost folklore (see Robert Conner’s book, Apparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost Story). 
Most unnerving, most jarring of all, is John’s gospel with its drastically different portrayal of Jesus, including huge Jesus monologues that are missing from the other gospels (see my article published here, A Big Chunk of Cult Posturing in John’s Gospel). John deleted the virgin birth, the baptism of Jesus, and the Eucharist from the Last Supper—and in the bargain, gave Jesus a super-inflated ego. If the four gospel authors had been put in the same room, with orders to work out their differences, there would have been fist-fights.  
It’s been the business of the church to shield the faithful from all this confusion. Thus it promotes its cherished Jesus with ritual, ceremony, exquisite music, art and architecture—so many spectacular cathedrals in the world! How can Jesus be anything other than wonderful!
Churchgoers are not commonly encouraged to explore the world of New Testament academia: for many generations now, devout scholars have written thousands of books, doctoral dissertations, and articles in journals, trying to deal with all the headaches presented by their scriptures, trying to smooth out the contradictions and flaws, especially trying to overcome and divert attention from so much superstition and bad theology. The clergy can breathe sighs of relief because few of the folks in the pews show any interest at all in what goes on in the ivory towers.
A far greater danger however, is presented by the Bible that everyone owns. Here again, however, the clergy can breathe sighs of relief because so few of the laity bother to read the gospels carefully and critically. If they did so, they too would desperately desire to know what Jesus actually taught. For the very simple reason that there is so much bad, mediocre, alarming Jesus-script in the gospels, as imagined by the men who created these stories. There is such a jarring disconnect between the Jesus promoted by the church and the Jesus depicted in the gospels. Modern Christians might suddenly sympathize with the family of Jesus, who “…went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’”  (Mark 3:21)
David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, now being reissued in several volumes, the first of which is Guessing About God (2023) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available. 
His YouTube channel is here. At the invitation of John Loftus, he has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.
The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here