In order to have any true or adequate understanding of what the real revelation and teachings of Jesus were, two things must be borne in mind. It is necessary in the first place, not only to have a knowledge of, but always to bear in mind the method, the medium through which the account of his life has come down to us. Again, before the real content and significance of Jesus' revelation and teachings can be intelligently understood, it is necessary that we have a knowledge of the conditions of the time in which he lived and of the people to whom he spoke, to whom his revelation was made.
To any one who has even a rudimentary knowledge of the former, it becomes apparent at once that no single saying or statement of Jesus can be taken to indicate either his revelation or his purpose. These must be made to depend upon not any single statement or saying of his own, much less anything reported about him by another; but it must be made to depend rather upon the whole tenor of his teachings.
Jesus put nothing in writing. There was no one immediately at hand to make a record of any of his teachings or any of his acts. It is now well known that no one of the gospels was written by an immediate hearer, by an eye-witness.
The Gospel of Mark, the oldest gospel, or in other words the one written nearest to Jesus' time, was written some forty years after he had finished his work. Matthew and Luke, taken to a great extent from the Gospel of Mark, supplemented by one or two additional sources, were written many years after. The Gospel of John was not written until after the beginning of the second century after Christ. These four sets of chronicles, called the Gospels, written independently one of another, were then collected many years after their authors were dead, and still a great deal later were brought together into a single book.
The following concise statement by Professor Henry Drummond throws much light upon the way the New Testament portions of our Bible took form: " The Bible is not a book; it is a library. It consists of sixty-six books. It is a great convenience, but in some respects a great misfortune, that these books have always been bound up together and given out as one book to the world, when they are not; because that has led to endless mistakes in theology and practical life. These books, which make up this library, written at intervals of hundreds of years, were collected after the last of the writers was dead- long after- by human hands. Where were the books? Take the New Testament. There were four lives of Christ. One was in Rome; one was in Southern Italy; one was in Palestine; one in Asia Minor. There were twenty-one letters. Five were in Greece and Macedonia; five in Asia; one in Rome. The rest were in the pockets of private individuals. Theophilus had Acts. They were collected undesignedly. In the third century the New Testament consisted of the following books: The four Gospels, Acts, thirteen letters of Paul, I John, I Peter; and, in addition, the Epistles of Barnabas and Hermas. This was not called the New Testament, but the Christian Library. Then these last books were discarded. They ceased to be regarded as upon the same level as the others. In the fourth century the canon was closed- that is to say, a list was made up of the books which were to be regarded as canonical. And then long after that they were stitched together and made up into one book- hundreds of years after that. Who made up the complete list? It was never formally made up. The bishops of the different churches would draw up a list each of the books that they thought ought to be put into this Testament. The churches also would give their opinions. Sometimes councils would meet and talk it over- discuss it. Scholars like Jerome would investigate the authenticity of the different documents, and there came to be a general consensus of the churches on the matter."
Jesus spoke in his own native language, the Aramaic. His sayings were then rendered into Greek, and, as is well known by all well-versed Biblical scholars, it was not an especially high order of Greek. The New Testament scriptures including the four gospels, were then many hundreds of years afterwards translated from the Greek into our modern languages- English, German, French, Swedish, or whatever the language of the particular translation may be. Those who know anything of the matter of translation know how difficult it is to render the exact meanings of any statements or writing into another language. The rendering of a single word may sometimes mean, or rather may make a great difference in the thought of the one giving the utterance. How much greater is this liability when the thing thus rendered is twice removed from its original source and form!
The original manuscripts had no punctuation and no verse divisions; these were all arbitrarily supplied by the translators later on. It is also a well-established fact on the part of leading Biblical scholars that through the centuries there have been various interpolations in the New Testament scriptures, both by way of omissions and additions.
Reference is made to these various facts in connection with the sayings and the teachings of Jesus and the methods and the media through which they have come down to us, to show how impossible it would be to base Jesus' revelation or purpose upon any single utterance made or purported to be made by him- to indicate, in other words, that to get at his real message, his real teachings, and his real purpose, we must find the binding thread if possible, the reiterated statement, the repeated purpose that makes them throb with the living element.
Again, no intelligent understanding of Jesus' revelation or ministry can be had without a knowledge of the conditions of the time, and of the people to whom his revelation was made, among whom he lived and worked; for his ministry had in connection with it both a time element and an eternal element. There are two things that must be noted, the moral and religious condition of the people; and, again, their economic and political status.
The Jewish people had been preeminently a religious people. But a great change had taken place. Religion was at its lowest ebb. Its spirit was well-nigh dead, and in its place there had gradually come into being a Phara-saic legalism-a religion of form, ceremony. An extensive system of ecclesiastical tradition, ecclesiastical law and observances, which had gradually robbed the people of all their former spirit of religion, had been gradually built up by those in ecclesiastical authority.
The voice of that illustrious line of Hebrew prophets had ceased to speak. It was close to two hundred years since the voice of a living prophet had been heard. Tradition had taken its place. It took the form: Moses hath said; It has been said of old; The prophet hath said. The scribe was the keeper of the ecclesiastical law. The lawyer was its interpreter.