Saturday, March 10, 2018

Ipsissima verba

For some time now, evangelical scholars have drawn a distinction between the ipsissima verba and ipsissima vox of Jesus in the Gospels. I don't know when that category originated, although it goes back at least to Ned Stonehouse's Origins of the Synoptic Gospels (1963). Here's one definition:

Latin phrases meaning "the very words" and "the very voice" respectively, often used in the context of the quest for the historical Jesus. Ipsissima verba Jesu refers to the words or sayings that Jesus actually spoke in contradistinction to those merely attributed to him by subsequent tradition. Since Jesus probably spoke Aramaic and the NT is written in Greek, we probably do not have the ipsissima verba Jesu of Jesus apart from a very few exceptions (abba, ephphatha). Ipsissima vox makes a lesser claim: it designates words or sayings that give the sense but not the exact linguistic form of Jesus' speech. Soulen & Soulen, Handbook of Biblical Criticism (WJK, 3rd. ed., 2001), 88. 

Here's how a major evangelical scholar unpacks the distinction:

In examining the wording of Jesus' teaching in the Gospels, we must distinguish between the ipsissima verba ("his very words") and the ipsissima vox ("his very voice," i.e. the presence of his teaching summarized). One universally recognized reality makes assessing the presence of the exact words of Jesus difficult and argues for the distinction between verba and vox. In is that Jesus probably gave most of his teaching in Aramaic…[so] most of Jesus' teaching in the Gospels is already in translation.

A second factor also argues for this distinction. Most accounts of Jesus' remarks are a few sentences long. In fact, even his longest speeches as recorded in the Gospels take only a few minutes to read (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount or the Olivet Discourse). Yet we know that Jesus kept his audiences for hours at a time (e.g. Mk 6:34-36). It is clear that the writers give us a reduced and summarized presentation of what Jesus said and did.

Third, the distinction between verba and vox is valuable when we look at the way the Bible cites itself, i.e. the way the NT uses the OT. NT citations of the OT are not word for word, even when taking into account translation from Hebrew to Greek…If the Bible can summarize a citation of itself in this way, then to see the same technique in its handling of the word of Jesus should come as no surprise. 

One can present history accurately whether one quotes or summarizes teaching or even mixes the two together. To have accurate summaries of Jesus' teaching is just as historical as to have his actual words; they are just two different perspectives to give us the same thing. All that is required is that the summaries be trustworthy… D. Bock, "The Words of Jesus in the Gospels: Live, Jive, or Memorex," M. Wilkins & J. Moreland, eds. Jesus Under Fire (Zondervan 1995), 77-78,88.

In a later essay, Bock draws a distinction between "accuracy" and "precision", as well as "the principle of variation and gist". “Precision and Accuracy: Making Distinctions in the Cultural Context That Give Us Pause in Pitting the Gospels against Each Other,” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? J. Hoffmeier & D. Magary, eds. (Crossway 2012), 367,71.

Up to a point, these are valid distinctions. There are, however, some additional assumptions that often drive that distinction. 

1. One apologetic method is to bracket the doctrine of verbal inspiration and simply treat the Gospels (and Acts) as historical primary sources. 

2. However, for some NT scholars, that's not just an apologetic strategy. Even in principle, they really don't make allowance for verbal inspiration. They consider that theological rather than historical. For them, Mark is based on oral tradition, fallible memory, while Matthew and Luke, where they parallel Mark, are dependent on Mark. Likewise, they think Matthew, Luke, and John uses other sources and oral traditions. At best, the Gospels are based on fallible memories. On this view, even the ipsissima vox may well be several steps removed from what was available to the Gospel writers. 

3. BTW, there's a distinction between oral tradition and oral history. In oral history, you get a report straight from the lips of an eyewitness, whereas an oral tradition is more mediated. 

4. In addition, here's how a couple of dictionaries define "paraphrase":

to state something written or spoken in different words, esp. in a shorter and simpler form to make the meaning clearer.

a restatement of a text or passage giving the meaning in another form, as for clearness; rewording.

i) There can be different reasons to paraphrase what a speaker said. Sometimes to cut the dead wood. It isn't always necessary to reproduce an entire speech to convey the basic idea. 

Or it may be to forestall misunderstanding. We need to distinguish between the initial audience for something Jesus said and the readers of the Gospels. A reader may lack the full context. So a Gospel author might incorporate an editorial qualification, consistent with what Jesus intended. 

ii) The spoken word is more redundant than the written word. So Jesus had occasion to paraphrase himself. Say the same thing in different words. 

iii) One problem with the ipsissima verba/vox distinction is when that's applied to pithy phrases or sentences like the baptismal formula (Mt 28:19) or the "I am" statements in John's Gospel. There's no need to summarize what Jesus said on those occasions because these are already very simple statements. A pithy phrase or short sentence. How hard is it to remember "I'm the light of the world" or "Baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit"? That doesn't overtax human memory. 

So what some scholars claim is not that sayings attributed to Jesus are the gist of what he said, but editorial elaborations. An explanatory gloss. That's not reductive but expansive. That, however, is a different principle. It moves in the opposite direction. And it doesn't convey the same idea in different words.  

iv) Most listeners don't have verbatim recollection of long sayings. It's implausible to claim that the narrator is giving the gist of what Jesus said in Jn 13-17 if all the narrator has to rely on is fallible memory. I don't see how we're going to preserve historicity without reintroducing verbal inspiration. 


  1. From what I have read from you, the ipsissima verba and ipsissima vox is the difference between what Jesus spoke in Aramaic and what the apostle writers wrote in Greek. And that these two things have a real distinction between them as we see how the NT uses the OT. But would you say that we cannot speculate about the nature of the ipsissima vox (Aramaic) on the grounds that the Scripture does not have this way of describing the words of Jesus?

    1. There are sometimes debates about whether a statement attributed to Jesus in the Gospels only works in Greek. That it uses a Greek word for which there's no Aramaic synonym with the same semantic range. Mind you, there may be a feel occasion when Jesus did speak in Greek.

      One problem I have with that objection is that I doubt we have a large sample of Aramaic from that time and place, so for all we know, the Aramaic vocabulary available to Jesus may have had counterparts to Greek words.

  2. Good to raise these issues explicitly.

    At this point, I would say that the phrase "ipsissima vox" is being often used for what Bock himself called "jive" in his original article. Ironically, it was not long after that article was first published that his colleague, Dan B. Wallace, presented "An Apologia for a Broad use of Ipsissima Vox" in which he took Bock to task for an insufficiently *expansive* concept of "ipsissima vox." That Wallace was, in fact, advocating essentially what Bock had called "jive" (namely, nothing like real paraphrase under any normal meaning of that word) by what he called a "broad concept of ipsissima vox" became shiningly evident the following year, 2000 (if the 1999 article hadn't made it clear enough), when Wallace presented a second paper in which he said that it would be "ipsissima vox" if Jesus never said "I thirst" but that was a "redaction" on John's part of "My God, why have you forsaken me?" And the same for "It is finished" and "Into thy hands I commend my spirit." There are several other suggestions in the 2000 paper that are, if possible, worse.

    Similarly, Craig Evans and Mike Licona have both claimed that it would be an instance of "Ipsissima vox" if Jesus never said anything recognizably like "I and the Father are one" but John wrote up an entire scene in which this occurred as a theological explication of the sorts of implicit claims we find in Mark.

    At this point anybody who says that he is talking about "ipsissima vox" has to be asked to be extremely specific, because the phrase has certainly lost any clear meaning. Unfortunately, the word "paraphrase" is also being kidnapped so that it can mean almost anything as well.

    I would go so far to say that such uses of "the very voice of Jesus" or "a paraphrase" are outright deceptive. Plenty of laymen are likely to be confused by them, and all the more so if given in Latin, making it sound like a layman can't question them.

  3. It’s seems an irony that, on one hand, Jesus is famous as a teacher but precisely what he said seems in question. Moreover, it seems strange to posit solutions regarding ipsissima vox that can’t be tested, such as stand-alone statements from John.

    So I propose a test: what Jesus said to the Paralytic lowered through the roof, found in 3 Gospels, would be a good candidate for testing whether these redefinitions of ipsissima vox are necessary or are a distraction. In other words, if what Jesus is reputed to have said makes good sense in the texts that we have, why look further? If not, let the explanations begin.

    Jesus’ statement seems plain enough: basically, he said ‘Rise, take up your bed, and go home’. The details tell a different story: there 3 different terms for ‘bed’, 2 different verbs for ‘go’, only Mark has 3 imperatives, Matthew has ptc-impv-impv, while Luke has impv-ptc-impv. Also ‘and’ doesn’t appear in the same places in all three accounts, ‘your’ is found in different places, and ‘I say to you’ is found in Mark and Luke, but not in Matthew.

    So, how to account for all the variety?

    I’ll stop here. I have an opinion, but I don’t know how many rules of blog etiquette I am breaking by proposing a test in the first place.

  4. Those are all easily recognizable versions of what is obviously the same command in the same situation. Natural variety from different people telling the story account for them easily.

    The limits of recognizable paraphrase may have some fuzzy edges, and may also vary by context (whether I'm supposed to paraphrase the State of the Union Address in two paragraphs or whether I'm giving my recollection of a fairly short statement that my husband made to me yesterday), but they aren't really all *that* difficult.

    I tend to think that a more useful phrase at this point is "recognizable paraphrase." If you'd been there, and if you could understand the language, you would presumably have *recognized* both the scene in which Jesus healed the paralytic and the command to him to get up, pick up his bed, and go home. I think using a question like, "Could you have recognized this if you'd been there?" helps to focus the mind and the evaluation.

  5. If I had been there I likely would have been surprised by Jesus' sudden shift from speaking to the religious leaders to addressing the Paralytic. This surprising shift of audience is reflected in the texts, Greek or English, by a dash. In fact, if I were the Paralytic, I would have been surprised myself: I came to be healed but instead Jesus forgave me and turned my arrival into some kind of object lesson. Perhaps that is why Jesus specifically addresses him, to get his attention: "I am talking to you!" It might also account for Jesus using different language to make his point. I believe I could be faithful to the narrative in taking it this way.

  6. Honestly, I find it completely implausible the assumption of many scholars that Jesus taught almost entirely in Aramaic and/or Hebrew. Why would He do that given the fact that the lingua franca at the time was Koine Greek? Being a carpenter [possibly like a contractor], Jesus probably had to do business in multiple languages. According to Luke He knew God the Father had a special calling on Him from youth, and so it's likely He would intentionally learn various languages to be a better communicator in the future. For the sake of safety and general prudence, it would have been wise for any Jew to learn Greek and Latin because the occupying Goverment (Rome) spoke both languages. Joseph's travels with his family to Egypt and Bethlehem were probably via caravan. People in those caravans likely spoke Greek and Latin to get from place to place. Why would it be implausible that Joseph would be among them, or that he [as a Jew!] would teach his children the importance of education and languages? Many cultures that are polylingual often switch smoothly from language to language in order to better express their meaning in a single conversation. I don't see why Jesus couldn't have done the same thing. If Jesus really is the Logos [i.e. reason and word] of God, then it would make sense that He would have had a natural gift for acquiring and mastering languages. Besides, grew up in a situation that would encourage it.

    William Barclay wrote in chapter 2 of his book The Mind of Jesus the following:

    //Throughout the silent years Jesus was learning to dream. Nazareth itself is tucked away in a hollow of the hills, a secluded little town. But the extraordinary thing about Nazareth was that the world passed almost by its door. It has been said that Judaea was on the way to nowhere and Galilee was on the way to everywhere, for the great roads of the East passed through Galilee. Jesus had only to climb the hilltop above the cup-like hollow of Nazareth and the passing world was at his feet. From there he could look down on the great Road of the Sea, the road which went from Damascus to Egypt, one of the greatest highways in the world with its merchantmen and its caravans. From there he could see the strategic Road of the East which went out from the Mediterranean coast to Parthia and to the eastern bounds of the Roman Empire with its Arab traders and its Roman legions clanking on their way. From there, if he looked westwards, he could see the blue waters of the Mediterranean, with the sails of the ships and the cargoes of those who do business in great waters.


    1. So Jesus could climb the hilltop behind Nazareth, and from there he could see the roads coming and going to the ends of the earth. It was there that he must have dreamed his dreams, and it may be that it was there that something first said to him: 'I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself' (John 12:32).// END QUOTE [bold added by me - AP]

      F.F. Bruce wrote in chapter 4 of his The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable?:

      //Another interesting fact which comes to light when we try to reconstruct the original Aramaic in which our Lord's sayings in all the Gospels were spoken is that very many of these sayings exhibit poetical features. Even in a translation we can see how full they are of parallelism, which is so constant a mark of Old Testament poetry. When they are turned into Aramaic, however, they are seen to be marked by regular poetical rhythm, and even, at times, rhyme. This has been demonstrated in particular by the late Professor C. F. Burney in The Poetry of our Lord (1925). A discourse that follows a recognisable pattern is more easily memorised, and if Jesus wished His teaching to be memorised His use of poetry is easily explained. Besides, Jesus was recognised by His contemporaries as a prophet, and prophets in Old Testament days were accustomed to utter their oracles in poetical form. Where this form has been preserved, we have a further assurance that His teaching has been handed down to us as it was originally given.// END QUOTE

      Seeing that Jesus used poetry, rhyme and puns in Aramaic, why would Jesus pass up opportunities of making clever puns or play on words in Greek as in the case of John 3? I don't see why He couldn't or wouldn't do so. We know that the conversation in John 3 with Nicodemus occurred under the cover of night (John 3:2). Likely because he was trying to avoid people finding out that he wanted to talk to Jesus. He was after all a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews. He might have spoken to Jesus in Greek in order to try to maintain his anonymity, lest prying ears recognize his voice in Aramaic. While Jesus may have accommodated him by responding in Greek as well. So, the claim by some scholars that the conversation with Nicodemus couldn't have been historical because it only works in Greek doesn't necessarily follow.

  7. Yes, *if* the puns the scholars like to talk about are there in Greek (and scholars need to be more willing to realize that they are imagining puns), it's entirely possible that Jesus and Nicodemus really were speaking Greek. Nicodemus's name is a Greek name, which is some relevant evidence.

    The "nice" thing about Aramaic-to-Greek in the context of the verba/vox thingy is that it gives one a good example of a completely harmless notion of "not the exact words" that one can give to people and then (if one is teaching them to be careful with scholars) *contrast* with the nonsense that is being promulgated under that heading. Or, if one is a nonsense-promulgator, I suppose one can use the Aramaic translation issue as a cover for what one is really up to by giving that as an example while really having other things in mind that are much more problematic. To put the matter uncharitably.

    1. Excellent point about Nicodemus being a Greek name.

    2. I owe that point to Esteemed Husband.