Skip to: Site Menu | Main content

What Jesus Never Said1

Introduction: The Problem of the Phenomenon of Fictional Sayings

By Gerd Lüdemann
Professor of History and Literature of Early Christianity,
University of Göttingen
Visiting Scholar at Vanderbilt Divinity School,
Nashville, Tennessee

December 2009

1. The Problem of the Phenomenon of Fictional Sayings

We cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.

"Paul", 2 Corinthians 13:8

It has long been a truism of Biblical criticism that the New Testament abounds in examples of words attributed to Jesus both incorrectly and subsequent to the actual or purported events to which those utterances are related. In reconstructing what Jesus actually did say, researchers have largely ignored the invented sayings in order to concentrate on the authentic passages. Exhaustive work has been done in the latter domain – examining how the sayings are connected and attempting to determine their specific context – in order to assemble as complete a picture as possible.

In this essay I propose to inspect the other side of the coin by considering a selection of the inauthentic words of Jesus – both clearly invented sayings and those that reveal noteworthy alterations to what must have been their original form. In the latter cases, of course, it will be necessary to include both versions. My collection of inauthentic logia will, I trust, enable the reader to see the fictional sayings as a collective phenomenon worthy of serious consideration. At the same time, they will yield an important image of the early Christian mentality and thus a better concept of how the early church came into being.

The origins of these reported sayings range from evangelists to prophets to personally chosen disciples of Jesus, though in no case do we know the source’s real name. But that is not at issue here; what matters is that the four Gospels of the New Testament contain a preponderance of invented sayings of Jesus and that these counterfeits are subject to objective analysis. They will be reproduced here to enable a quick overview. In longer texts, I have employed underlines, italics, capitals, and bold-faced type to foster an easy reading of the text.

The sayings will be grouped according to probable origin or, where this is unclear, according to their form. Where necessary I have included the words of other persons. The sheer abundance of inauthentic Jesus-sayings shows clearly that very soon after his sudden and dramatic death he became the center of a new faith. And from the very beginning Christians strove to imagine what answers Jesus would offer to the many questions that arose. Therefore, when his recalled words seemed no longer appropriate or when no bona fide answers were available, utterances had to be re-structured or invented to suit the existing situation. Behind the inauthentic words of Jesus, we can envision a movement whose members, justifying themselves in the face of both internal and external opposition, felt obliged to carry the message of their Lord to the world at large. At the same time, each invented text bespeaks and communicates a religious certainty that brooks no contradiction. In this latter phenomenon, of course, we see reflected the jealous and exclusivist One God of Judaism whose demands of total loyalty and obedience would, in the eyes of antiquity, tolerate nothing less.

Still more important, the pervasiveness of this inauthentic material in the writings of people who represent themselves as purveyors of ultimate truths must both qualify any claims of ethical superiority on behalf of the movement they represent and suggest the importance of this project for a thoughtful reassessment of their historical pretensions.

2. Fictional Jesus-Sayings and the Quest for Truth

Putting away falsehood, let every one speak the truth with his neighbor.

“Paul,” Ephesians 4:25

Any contemporary person who turns to the New Testament for objective information about Jesus is bound to come away feeling queasy. Although early Christians acclaimed truth as a component of holiness and condemned lying as one of the sins they had supposedly overcome, the utterances attributed to Jesus in the New Testament Gospels are for the most part heavily redacted or wholly invented sayings intended to edify the earliest Christians, many of whom were waiting for Jesus to return from Heaven. Unfortunately, the Church today often proclaims these texts to be the Word of God, even though scholars – many of them committed Christians – long ago discredited them as inauthentic.

It must however be remembered that the inventors of the revised words were convinced that Jesus did utter these sayings. As such, they were not acting deceptively, but rather they believed that by their actions they were responding to a higher truth. Nevertheless, it does not alter the fact that these Christians told lies and that, since the lies are still with us in the Holy Scriptures, that the transmission of falsehood continues unabated.

Clearly, this preponderance of spurious Jesus-sayings gravely undermines any assertions of their religious validity and obliges the serious reader to reassess the New Testament Gospels. Finally, since these many falsely ascribed sayings remain fundamental elements of the Christian tradition taught in both church and seminary, it seems evident that only a radical and sweeping reform could possibly save that tradition from increasing irrelevance and eventual self-destruction.

1 For a full treatment in German see Gerd Lüdemann, Der erfundene Jesus: Unechte Jesusworte im Neuen Testament (Springe: zu Klampen, 2008). – I thank my good friend Tom Hall for English assistance.

Would you like to tell a friend about this article? Click Here

Comments (16)

This article seems to be an introduction to a book published in German last year. Does anyone know if an English translation of the book is in progress?
#1 - Peter Milloy - 12/28/2009 - 21:06

An English translation of the book is not in progress.
#2 - Gerd Lüdemann - 12/29/2009 - 04:46

How about a 2nd article discussing some of these sayings?
#3 - William Loughner - 12/29/2009 - 20:35

If anyone wants to look at the German original I am happy to send him or her a pdf file. As for the analysis of all the sayings of Jesus in English I refer the reader to my JESUS AFTER 2000 YEARS (Prometheus Books, 2001). My opinion has not changed.
#4 - Gerd Lüdemann - 12/30/2009 - 05:52

Gerd, my e-mail is (*******)

I'll be very happy if you send me the german pdf file.

Viele Grüße,
#5 - Benjamin Otero - 01/02/2010 - 20:33

What arrogance!
#6 - Tom Schneider - 01/11/2010 - 00:19

So where are the sayings? I am very interested in reading this. Major tease.
#7 - Ummmm - 01/16/2010 - 09:16

Here is a list of the inauthentic sayings I deal with in the book.




#8 - Gerd Lüdemann - 01/17/2010 - 10:32

"What arrogance!
#6 - Tom Schneider - 01/11/2010 - 00:19"


How is this arrogant? Is anything that is critical of Christian fundamentalism arrogant by nature? To even question the existence of the Christian god and the gospel? Can you please be more specific without getting defensive?

#9 - Matthew Green - 01/30/2010 - 18:23

"What arrogance!
#6 - Tom Schneider - 01/11/2010 - 00:19"

What is so arrogant about what Ludemann wrote?

Matthew Green
#10 - Matthew Green - 02/01/2010 - 17:55

Thank God for people like Proffessor Ludemann who are unafraid to tell the truth!!
#11 - leanne mcginney - 04/01/2010 - 20:18

Do you think it's a lie if a "prophet" speaks on behalf of his lord, and therefore the prophet's words (i.e, the church's) are also the lord's? Is this really a matter of unsubstantiated faith and not an outright lie? Either you accept the words as authoritative or you don't. Can a historian play the role of psychologist and determine that the prophet is deluded?
#12 - Gary - 04/06/2010 - 07:08

Yes,how refreshing to find a Christian scholar who is prepared to admit that there are errors in at least some parts of the Bible. I became very alarmed at the beginning of my research into the Bible and Jesus to find scholars using "very weak illogical,arguments" in an effort to fortify their proof that some aspect of the Bible was okay when it seemed that counter arguments were irrefutable.
I have spent a number of years spasmodically adding to the paper entitled "My Beliefs" mainly for my children to read seeing that I was the reason they were introduced to Christianity an for which I want to apologise.
I would be very happy to discuss my beliefs (or maybe, non-beliefs) and this dissertation with Professor Lüdemann and hear his refutation of aspects of it because he would be sure to give his honest appraisal rather than a Christian biased one and I would appreciate that. From my readings over the years he is the only apologist I could say this about, which is a shame. With more people like him I am sure I would not have turned so seriously or emphatically to "the other side".
Perhaps my brother-in-law, who is a former Seventh Day Adventist minister and scholar and has what I might describe as a realistic,open-minded, down-to-earth approach to religious matters, would be another.
I don't know about anyone else but Prof. Ludemann sounds like the person I would be happy to debate anything with as you would receive a closer-to-realistic response even if that was a condemnation of your thoughts .
#13 - Ron Grant - 12/29/2010 - 00:23

On what basis can you say that only 5 percent is true? How can anyone possibly know that?

When you say that the inventors of the revised words were convinced that Jesus DID utter these sayings and then later say that these inventors were lying? The very definition of a liar is someone who KNOWINGLY speaks falsehood.

What would be their motivation for lying? Simply to give the rest of the community answers to questions they had? Why? Why perpetuate a religion that doesn't answer such questions? For what motive? Did these inventors do this for power? That power didn't come until Constantine. What did they have to gain at that point in time?

It isn't enough to just say that parts of the Bible are untrue. You have to identify a motive and you have to come up with a replacement belief as to why the myth of the Bible exists.

If I'm missing something, please enlighten me.
#14 - Monte B - 04/21/2011 - 23:06

So what is left? What did Jesus say?
#15 - daniel - 12/17/2011 - 13:47

It is a matter of fact that a serious reader of the gospels sometimes finds himself trapped into controversies. For example, in some passages you see the love of the heavenly Father manifested absolutely in the life of Jesus. In Some other passages, you see the roughness of God the warrior justified by Him being Holy. It is a little bit confusing after hearing Jesus saying first : Love your enemies, then in another passage: bring my enemies ans slay them before me or something like that. Grace, law, a mixture of both, it's not clear. After all, how could any writer be qualified to describe the absolute universal God who has no boudaries as the minds of man do. I think God is Love and what has been attributed to God other than love and mercy is more likely man made for dominion nothing else.

Should Gerd Lüdemann be right,then what are the reliable sources that speak the true words of Jesus outside the canonical Gospels? None? Where do we go from here and to what end?
#16 - Tony Shelala - 08/26/2012 - 05:59

Use the form below to submit a new comment. Comments are moderated
and logged, and may be edited. You must provide your full name.
Inappropriate material will not be posted. Please do not post inappropriate web sites, they will be deleted.

E-mail (Will not appear online)