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Lost In Transmission?: What We Can Know About the Words of Jesus

In recent years, I have noticed that many of the twenty and thirty-somethings in my circle ask very pointed questions about the accuracy of the biblical text. Some of the questioners are devoted Christians; others are outside the faith, challenging the foundation of our belief system. Regardless of their background, they are familiar with History Channel documentaries about the Gnostic or Lost Gospels and they have seen movies like The Da Vinci Code.

C.S. Lewis famously argued that Jesus must be either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. There are no other legitimate options. Despite the brilliance of Lewis’ trilemma, his apologetic falls apart if one disposes with the historical data of Jesus given to us in the Gospels. The Jesus of the canonical Gospels must be either liar, lunatic, or Lord. But once you question the historicity of the biblical picture of Jesus, his identity is once again in dispute.

Enter Nick Perrin, former research assistant to N.T. Wright and now the Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. Perrin’s book Lost In Transmission?: What We Can Know About the Words of Jesus takes on the recent critics of the Gospels’ reliability in a winsome and readable manner for laypeople.

The impetus for Lost in Transmission is the recent work of Bart Ehrman. Ehrman has made the argument at the popular level that the words of Jesus have been corrupted beyond recovery – intentionally tampered with by the scribes who handed down the words of Jesus.

Readers of Ehrman are struck by the personal nature of his writings. Ehrman cannot reconcile the existence of a good God and the existence of horrifying, unspeakable evils. Perrin’s response is just as personal. He recounts his own spiritual journey as he dismantles the illogical theses of Ehrman.

Writes Perrin:

“This book is for different kinds of people. It is for the countless people out there who, though interested in Jesus, are afraid to believe because they think that we cannot know anything about him or his words. It is also for Christians who are afraid to think because they believe we cannot know anything about Jesus. And it is for Christians who, being unafraid to believe or think, have dared to ascend the intellectual climbing wall of their faith, but who, having been harnessed into the Enlightenment understanding of historical evidence, are unaware of the fragility of that harness.” (x)

Perrin believes that evangelicals need to do business with historical research. We dare not ignore the historical challenges to our faith: 

“When people succumb to that temptation of ignoring challenges to their faith, they are in the end demonstrating that they are more committed to the feeling of having a lock on truth than they are to truth itself.” (xxi)

In other words, Perrin sees our refusal to engage in the historical debate as a backhanded denial of the truths at the very heart of Christianity. We must never suppress the historical truths surrounding the life of Jesus Christ presented in the Gospels. For Perrin, history and Christianity are inseparable because of the nature of the resurrection.

“I do claim that for historical reasons we can have a great deal of confidence in the scriptural record of Jesus’ words – and for that matter, his deeds as well. My own confidence may initially be born of biblical faith, but it is not a faith willfully oblivious to historical realities. Nor is biblical faith to be afraid of historical inquiry; rather, it seeks out such inquiry. If faith and history collide, it might make a pretty mess for a time. But the only worse mess is a stillborn faith that insists on fleeing history and, ultimately, the world in which we live. Never let it be said that the self-revelation of Jesus Christ demands blind acquiescence. Rather, it demands we ask questions when we’ve come to realize, once again, that we don’t yet fully understand the implications of that revelation.” (42)

The above passage forms the heart of Lost in Transmission. Perrin’s book attempts to demonstrate the need for us to do business with historical inquiry and to answer historical questions correctly.

I benefited from Perrin’s focus on the Jewish-ness of Jesus. Failing to take into account Jesus’ Judaism leads to a failure to understand his words and deeds in the appropriate context.

Likewise, I enjoyed Perrin’s unmasking of the arrogance and exclusivity of Enlightenment liberalism. Perrin ably demonstrates the closed-mindedness of the Enlightenment perspective, even as it parades under the guise of openness. He writes: 

“It is hard, if not impossible, to take Jesus’ Judaism seriously and make him into a poster child for Western liberalism.” (62)

I also appreciated Perrin’s desire to not over-harmonize the Gospel accounts when he runs into apparent discrepancies. He recognizes the danger of the extreme harmonizing tendency to flatten out the different picture each Gospel author desired to present to the readers.

Perrin says we should let the Gospels be the Gospels:

“Luke’s Jesus has to be understood for what he has to say without Matthew’s Jesus interrupting. The problem with sending one evangelist in to rescue another is that this becomes an easy way to get the Gospels to say what we want to hear. To me, this is just manipulating the Gospels as a magician might manipulate a stack of cards.” (123)

Perrin’s critique of the Enlightenment does not lead him to make statements of utter certainty. He proposes what seems to be a chastened postmodern sensibility that accepts our lack of understanding regarding certain aspects of the Gospels.

Do not expect Lost in Transmission to solve every textual problem you have as you study the Gospels. Instead, enjoy the reflections of a scholar whose work will increase your confidence in the reliability and accuracy of the biblical text.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2009 Kingdom People blog


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7 thoughts on “Do We Know What Jesus Said?”

  1. Dan Martin says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Trevin. I’m going to point to your article from my blog, though unfortunately Blogger and WordPress do not play nicely together in showing the trackback. You have just given me a new book for my reading list.

  2. Trevin Wax says:

    Dan,

    Stay tuned. Tomorrow my interview with Nick will be posted!

  3. Richard W. Wilson says:

    How ironic it seems to me that in a discussion of the importance of seeing and knowing Jesus in his historical context that Trevin focusses his intro not just on the Evangelically obviously unhistorical fictional work of Dan Brown but also the unhistorical trilemma of C S Lewis. N T Wright has dismissed the latter (as well as the former) as unhistorical, and I think he is right. Claiming to be the Son of God is not equivalent to claiming to be YHWH, THE LORD. This is not to say that the Apostles didn’t make the claim that he was The Lord’s agent of and Lord of Creation, but the specifically Jewish biblical and historical context of the manifestation and incarnation of the Son of God would inherently prohibit the human Messiah from claiming to be God (the ahistorical C S Lewis and Athenasius notwithstanding) even while acknowledging that he was the Son of God. Historically speaking, being the Son of God is not equivalent to being God the Son. If the historical Jesus actually and explicitly claimed to be Yahweh he would rightly have been convicted of human sin (what other kind is there?). Historically speaking, having Jewish interlocutors or authorities charge Jesus with saying he was claiming to be equal to God the Father is not the same as Jesus claiming he was; in contrast Jesus himself said “my Father is greater than all,” and that can’t logically or biblically be equivalent to claiming to be equal to God, which he doesn’t say. I don’t think we can take Jesus’ Jewishness seriously and adopt wholesale much of what has come down to us as orthodoxly christian, doctrinally or ethically–we have agendas and commitments far removed from those of the historical Jesus, or so it seems to me.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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