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Bruce, Who Do You Think Wrote the Words Attributed to Jesus in the Bible?

bible literalism

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.

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    The Jesus myth (that he was the son of God) is so ingrained that people who live their lives without any reference to the Bible or church or religion will still say they believe it. My former denomination claims Jesus is coming back any minute, and has since the late 1800s. Got to say that reality isn’t in favor of these ideas. And I guess people who are indifferent to religion but claim to think Jesus is the son of God, are compartmentalizing it.

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      “people who are indifferent to religion but claim to think Jesus is the son of God, are compartmentalizing it.” That’s a good point. I wonder how many things I myself compartmentalize. That’s a way of not diving deeper to learn more, because we all have more immediate things we gotta do. And we may not want to stick our necks out.

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    Bruce, thanks for doing the hard work of reading all those verses of multiple versions of the Bible and the critical works and cogitating on them. I’ve only taken a handful of workshops over the years that discuss sections of the Bible, mostly from a historical point of view. That’s all I could handle at the time, sort of dipping my toe in here and there with someone to hold my hand, saying, “No, we don’t believe this literally, it wasn’t meant to be literal.”

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      “hat’s all I could handle at the time, sort of dipping my toe in here and there with someone to hold my hand, saying, “No, we don’t believe this literally, it wasn’t meant to be literal.””

      except for the parts that must be literal. alas, christians can’t quite figure out what their magic decoder rings say.

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    I was raised in a Southern Baptist church and attended a fundamentalist Christian school that used materials from Bob Jones University and Pensacola Christian College. Both took a literalist inerrantist view of the Bible. Imagine my surprise in a college course when I learned about canonization and other gospels and books that weren’t canonized, plus the fact that the Apocrypha books were canonized but Protestants chucked those writings. I remember thinking, why would God let the church go for over 1,000 years having canonized the Apocrypha and then being like, my bad, those books aren’t supposed to be in the Bible…..

    I don’t think Jesus the teacher literally spoke all those “red letter words”. I think there were concepts that his followers liked and passed along via oral tradition, and someone(s) wrote some of the concepts to share with other people, as storytellers and biographers are wont to do.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    I’ll never forget a time I assigned “The Apology” (a.k.a. The Trial and Death of Socrates) to college freshmen. Two students in the class were quite open about their Fundamentalist Christian beliefs. They insisted that those red-letter verses must have been spoken by Jesus, but they had no problem in thinking (not without reason) that Plato didn’t record Socrates’ exact words–or the events as they actually happened–in “The Apology.” In fact, they rather eloquently brought up the question of how Plato’s point of view might have influenced the telling of the story–or his recall of Socrates’ response to the charges against him.

    Now that’s compartmentalizing, if you ask me!

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Bruce Gerencser