Completing Christ's Words

All English translation seeks to "complete" Jesus's words in one way another. This article discusses how my way of completing Jesus's words differs from the "biblical" way of doing so. To understand what I mean, let us first discuss how understanding shapes translation. All translations seek to capture Jesus's words from a particular point of view. All are prejudiced, one way or another.

From this universality of human prejudice, it is reasonable to ask if the Greek source we use for translation is also the result of prejudices. The answer is a qualified "yes," but the history of the current source of the  Greek New Testament is interesting largely because of the variety of contending philosophies involved. This contention brought the consideration of the physical record, that is evidence, to the forefront. This prevented one philosophy from dominating another, favoring one source over another. The result is that the standard Greek version we use for translation is justified not by a given philosophy but by solid historical evidence. Indeed, it contains many things most Christian teachers are uncomfortable with, which is why it is change in translation. For those interested in the details, I can recommend How We Got the New Testament by Stanley E. Porter. Porter is an advocate of the Aramaic Hypothesis, with which I cannot agree, but his histeorical research is very thorough.

However, that Greek source must be "completed" in translation to English. A Greek word can have several meanings. Because Jesus's words were spoken, not written, tone of voice, inflection, and emphasis is all important for interpretation but we don't have access to that information. This leaves us only the bare bones of context. This means there is a choice to make about how complete that context is.

Two Methods of Completing Jesus's Words

Biblical translation generally chooses to trust that the prose of the Gospels provides a complete context. This means that the great majority of Jesus's statements were made in "sermons," where he was talking and no one was asking questions. This leads to a translation where Jesus sounds like a preacher in church, which is to say, preachy. The Greek word that mostly commonly means "certainly" in answer a question becomes "therefore" or "then" in a continuing monologue. The Greek word that means "because" in the answering of a question becomes a "for" in that continuing monologue. The result of these types of interpretations is choppy and strange. To correct this, modern translations add a lot of words that Jesus never said to his verses. Many phrases of explanation are added so today's reader can understand what the translator, or rather interpreter, thinks that Jesus meant. The result is a series of statement build around a certain philosophy.

My view is that many of Jesus statements were made as part of a discussion. What was recorded as a sermon was really a discussion where the questions and statement not made by Jesus were not recorded. This is what I call the Unrecorded Discussion Theory (UDT). What was recorded was what people of the time considered important and interesting: Jesus's answers. We must remember that making records of human speech was massively more difficult at the time. Recording and duplicating information was costly and time consuming. This means that only the "bones" of a discussion were recorded. In the case of Jesus, this means his words not those of the surrounding crowd.

In the "The Spoken Version" section of my analysis of Jesus's words, I  duplicate Jesus's words as accurately as possible, even duplicating word order when possible. I do not add to what Jesus said. Putting words in Jesus's mouth seems sacrilegious to me, even though it is widely practiced in Biblical translation. I uses the most common meanings of the Greek words involved rather than skewing them to create a monologue. Instead, I add dialogue from others.

Purposes Adding Dialogue

The purpose of adding dialogue is simply to frame Jesus's words. The frame should accomplish three things:

  1. Provide a smooth transition from what has come before.
  2. Explain any uncommon use of language or dissonant concepts.
  3. Tie together Jesus's teaching into a consistent whole.

My first goal is to provide a smooth transition. To many of Jesus's verses seem completely disconnected from what has gone before. In Matthew, we can pick any of Jesus's monologues, the Sermon on the Mount, the Sending of the Apostles, the Parables, and identify jumps where the topic seems to change inexplicably. This is especially clear when working with the Greek when the problem words are not edited out. So many of Jesus's statements begin with a "because" or "certainly" that appears to be an answer to a question, but these are changed to "for" and "therefore" to create a pedantic monologue. "Buts" are changed to "and" and "ands" to "buts" regularly so that one verse flows better into the next. Rather than change Jesus's words, I prefer to add dialogue from others to smooth the transitions in what he actually said. 

There are many dissonant aspects in various verses of Jesus's saying. By "dissonant," I simply mean that without a larger context, he seems to contradict himself.  For example, currently, I am working in Parables, Matthew 13:11 to Matthew 13:17. In these, verses, who are the "you" and "them" that Jesus refers to? If we assume that the "you" is the apostles and the "them" is everyone else, we have a problem. It means Jesus did not want the crowds that came to hear him to understand his meaning. My own prejudices don't allow me to accept this. Perhaps he used  analogies because he didn't want some people to quote him. This might be true, especially since the Pharisees may have been trying to gather evidence against him to take to Herod or the Romans, but why gather huge crowds if he only wanted a chosen few to understand him? If we add a little dialogue, the "you" becomes all those that came to hear him and the "them" becomes those who came only to attack him.

Finally, my prejudice is that Jesus's message was a lot more consistent than it appears in most Gospels. For example, the Beatitudes seem to offer a variety of different, disconnected and sometime inscrutable ideas. To correct this, Gospel translators change the words to make them seem more poetic. For example, the mourning are "comforted" in the translation, but in the Greek, they are "invited." The inscrutable part is that Jesus doesn't say where or what they are invited to. In my novelization of the Sermon, I provide a chant of "this realm of the skies" to unite this verse to all these Beatitudes. Using people's comments about Jesus's teaching in the Sermon provides better flow from verse to verse, which brings us back to our first point. We only have to assume that the themes and speaking style of the Sermon was a consistent part of his teaching that was not duplicated over and over again by the Gospel writers.

Methods of Reconstructing the Dialogue

My method of reconstructing the unrecorded part of this discussion are relatively simple. My methods follow my goals in doing the reconstruction.

  1. I provide question that lead logically to Jesus's response
  2. I use the uncommon words or dissonant ideas to formulate the question or comment.
  3. I assume questions refer to what Jesus has said earlier.

My first goal is to provide a smooth transition so that I can leave all of Jesus's word intact, ideally in the order spoken. Since my main goal is presenting Jesus statement as accurately as possible, this makes formulating the essence of the question simple. I simply assume Jesus is answering it. If Jesus is objecting with a "but," I provide something that he can object to. If he is agreeing with a certainly, I add a statement or question he can agree with. If he is starting with a "because," I have the question ask a "why." This method allows me to restore accurate translation to beginning of Jesus's statements, which seem to be particularly badly treated by Biblical translation.

My secondary goal is to explain why Jesus uses the words he does. I assume Jesus wasn't in the habit of calling people pigs and dogs so if he uses those words, he is echoing back the words that others are speaking to him. If he uses uncommon words, I assume he is doing so for a reason. If the reason isn't in the specific meaning of the words that are chosen (for example, their double meanings or humor), I assume that Jesus is simply answering a question in the terms that were given to him.

Finally, I assume that the questioner is part of the smooth flow of discussion. Jesus would be unlikely to respond to question out of left field. He would choose to respond to questions that let him address the points that he is making. He would, like any teacher, try to be clarify what he said and clear up the misunderstandings that people have about what he has said. I do not assume that the questioner always agrees with Jesus, indeed, the antagonist of the Jesus' story, the Pharisees, do not agree. But they too are dealing with the context of what Jesus has said. Therefore the discussion as a whole is organic. The unrecorded questions and comments spring naturally from what Jesus has said. Jesus's responses flow just as naturally from the questions and comments he gets.


None of this is to say that my own prejudices do not feed both my translation and dialogue reconstruction. After spending time almost every day with Jesus's words in the Greek, he and I have developed a particular relationship. I have a feel for the kinds of things that he would say and why. they spring from his character as I perceive it, but my perception is based upon my character. For example, I see a great deal of light-heartedness in Jesus. To me, his message is often "don't worry," "let it go," and "the burden of life is easy." Someone like Jonathan Edwards, whose works I respect,  would certainly not agree with my viewpoint and see Jesus as much more judgmental and condemning of people's shortcomings.

My basic work in dissecting the Greek of Jesus's words is simply to provide people with the ability to judge Jesus's words for themselves without the filter of anyone's translation, even my own. I simply provide my own translation and my reconstruction of a possible dialogue as a new perspective from which to view Jesus's teaching.