How did Jesus’ listeners remember what Jesus said and did? They didn’t take notes, and Jesus didn’t leave any writings. There were no current newspaper accounts for them to check to refresh their memories. All they had was what they could personally remember, and yet they were able to go out after Jesus’ death and resurrection and share with others what they had seen and heard. Many years later they even recorded these things in the gospels.
How did they remember it all?
Jesus Made it Easy for His Listeners to Remember
Have you ever had a teacher or professor who was an expert in their subject and spewed facts all throughout the class sessions? How well do you remember the wondrous facts they related? Perhaps you took notes, but what if you did not and had to rely on memory alone? Had Jesus taught like that we would probably know nothing about him today. Instead, Jesus spoke and acted in ways that caught people’s attention and really made an impression.
Jesus told stories and parables. Who can forget the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, or the lost sheep? What about putting new wine in old wine skins? These stories create images in one’s mind that last a lifetime.
Jesus used imagery and hyperbole to make the essence of what he said easy to remember. The camel going through the eye of the needle is unforgettable, as is picking at the speck in someone’s eye. He spoke of the fires of Gehenna on several occasions. And he said ‘I am the bread of life; eat my body and drink my blood.’ Whether you think you understand these references or not, I bet you remember them.
Jesus wrote on the ground. It was on the occasion when a group of men were about to stone a woman to death for adultery. What did Jesus write? We don’t know, but I am sure those who were there remembered it for the rest of their lives.
Jesus used familiar passages from the Old Testament. Recall Jesus’ quote from of Isaiah in Nazareth at the beginning of his mission in Luke 4, and in which he omitted the reference to judgment. He also discussed Old Testament laws with ‘You have heard..but I say!’ What a shocker that must have been.
Jesus took dramatic actions. He ate with sinners and tax collectors, talked with women—even questionable women, Samaritan women, and Canaanite women. In his last public act, he staged a demonstration against the misuse of the Temple in a very memorable way.
Jesus healed people publicly. And these were no simple healings but included very severe physical issues like withered hands, leprosy, paralysis, and constant bleeding. He healed mental illnesses, which some thought were caused by demons, and he even dramatically healed Lazarus from a coma.
I am sure you can think of many more memorable examples. Had I followed Jesus during his short ministry, I don’t think I would have difficulty remembering what he said and did—I would have difficulty forgetting it!
Do the Gospels Relate Exactly What Jesus Said and Did?
Jesus’ words and actions were often very memorable, and many of them were written later in the gospels, but this does not mean that what we read in the gospels are precise details of his actions or are word-for-word what Jesus said. Jesus’ original listeners remembered the things that impacted them most, and they often remembered the significance of things, not necessarily the exact words or details. The gospels are not written as biographies but as reports of the impact Jesus had on the people around him.
When the gospels were written they also addressed issues going on at the time of their writing. It seems that Matthew reflects the later intensification of opposition from the Pharisees, so he emphasizes Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees in his gospel. John seems, perhaps, to be dealing with an early form of Gnosticism which influenced the writing of his gospel.
The audiences of each gospel writer also influenced what they emphasized in their writing—the Romans for Mark, the Jews for Matthew, and Gentiles for Luke. The writers also made connections between Jesus and familiar passages in the Old Testament, just as Jesus did, even though they often twisted the original meaning of the Old Testament passages to do so. Sometimes they used the Jewish technique of Midrash, which does not use literal interpretation; Matthew’s flight of Jesus’ family to Egypt is probably a good example.
Must we have the exact words of Jesus? Must we have the precise detail on things that happened? Why does that matter? I believe that the significance of what Jesus said and did, and the impact he had on his listeners, is more important. And yet, the picture of Jesus we see in the gospels is remarkably consistent, even though some details vary.
What Does This Do for Inerrancy?
We cannot claim the gospels present to us the precise words of Jesus or precise details of what he did, so I don’t think (for this reason and others) that we have any foundation for saying that the gospels represent the inerrant word of God. They don’t have to. They don’t need to.
Inerrancy is a very harmful assumption that often leads to rigid theological conclusions. But Jesus did not speak in terms of theology—God, sin, heaven, hell, the end times—so we should not be looking for clues to detailed theology in the gospels; Jesus spoke in broader terms of love, positive behavior, relationships, and the expanding kingdom of God on earth.
I think the gospel writers captured all this very well. We get to participate in the early followers’ experience of hearing and observing Jesus. And it is that which compels us to follow Jesus just as they did.