Recently, a reader sent me the following question:
Hello Bruce. Who do you think wrote the red-letter words allegedly spoken by Jesus in the bible and do you think he actually existed at all?
I was in the Christian church for fifty years. I was a college-trained Evangelical pastor for twenty-five of those years. Saved at the age of fifteen and called to preach two weeks later, I believed the Protestant Christian Bible was the inspired (God-breathed), inerrant (without error), infallible (authoritative) Word of God. I believed every word from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21 was the very words of God (through the instrumentation of men).
I entered the ministry in the 1970s believing in the preservation of the Bible. God, throughout history, preserved his Word, making sure that humans always had the very words of God. For English-speaking people, the preserved Word of God was the King James Bible — 1769 revision. All translations contained the Word of God, but the KJV was the pure words of God.
In the late 1990s, I started preaching from the English Standard Version (ESV), believing it was a faithful translation of the extant Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts. I used other translations in my studies. I also read The Message devotionally. According to my Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) colleagues, I had become a stinking, filthy liberal, when, in fact, I had simply adopted twentieth-century scholarship regarding the Bible. Instead of seeing one particular translation as THE Word of God, I came to see that ALL translations were the Word of God, faithful reflections of the truth God wanted to convey. In my mind, the most important thing was for people to actually READ the Bible, regardless of the translation. Sadly, most practicing Christians rarely, if ever, read the Bible. And those who actually study the Bible? A small percentage of church-going followers of Jesus ever carefully and thoroughly study the Biblical text. Most Christians get their fill of the Good Book on Sundays, toss their Bibles in the back windows of their cars, in their trunks, or stuff them under their seats until the next Lord’s Day.
Many Bible translations print in red the words attributed to Jesus found in the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). I believed for the first fifty years of my life, that the words printed in red were actually spoken by Jesus Christ himself. That said, as a pastor, I never elevated the red words to a higher, more important status than the black words. Why? Jesus, as the second part of the Trinity, was God, the author of the Bible. Jesus “spoke” all of the words found in the Bible, not just the red words.
My beliefs about the Bible, of course, were shaped by my IFB and Evangelical upbringing and training. Unfortunately, I was not told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about the nature and history of the Biblical text. It was only after I left the ministry in 2005 that I began to carefully reexamine my beliefs about the Bible. I found books written by Dr. Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar at the University of North Carolina, to be extremely enlightening and helpful (and no, Ehrman was not the only author I read). By 2008, I had concluded that the Bible was not inerrant or infallible. Thus began the collapse of my faith. I continued to reexamine the central claims of Christianity, concluding that they could not be rationally sustained. In November 2008, I walked out of the door of the Ney United Methodist Church, declaring that I was no longer a Christian. In early 2009, I embraced the agnostic atheist moniker.
I learned that the gospels were written by unknown authors decades after the death of Jesus. I learned that the authors of Matthew and Luke likely used Mark as the basis for their books. I concluded that it was impossible to believe that the words in red were actually spoken by Jesus himself. All we have are unknown authors saying Jesus said this or that. We have no written texts by Jesus himself. Any beliefs to the contrary are assertions, not facts. Is it possible that Jesus spoke the words in red? Sure. But it is also possible that the authors of the gospels were just writing down decades-old oral stories or writing out-and-out fiction. It’s impossible for us to know if Jesus did or didn’t say the red words.
The emailer asks if I believe Jesus existed. If the question is whether I believe the miracle-working, divine Jesus of the gospels is real, the answer is no. I do, however, think a man named Jesus lived and died in first-century Palestine; that he was likely a rabbi or apocalyptic preacher. I am not, in any way, a mythicist. I see in the gospels a historical figure lurking in the shadows of a work of fiction. Simply put, Jesus existed, but the miracles and supernatural events attributed to him are fiction.
Thanks for the questions!
Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
Connect with me on social media:
You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.
Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.