The Synoptic Gospels’ Inerrancy: What Did Peter Say?

The synoptic Gospels seem to put different words into Peter’s mouth when he makes his statement regarding the identity of Jesus. Compare the following:

  • Matthew 16:16, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
  • Mark 8:29, “You are the Christ.”
  • Luke 9:20, “The Christ of God.”

In our thinking the event was so significant that it is hard for us to understand how Peter’s confession could be recorded with such differences in its wording.

Let’s consider some of the factors that might lead to such differences. First, Peter probably spoke in Aramaic, not Greek. Therefore, what we have represents a translation from Aramaic into Greek. For an example of what that might do to what someone actually said, see Mark 5:41.

  • Aramaic: Talitha kumi = Little girl, get up!
  • Greek (“which translated means”): Little girl, I say to you, get up!

Note the additional “I say to you,” which was not included in the Aramaic. The addition represents an interpretive element deemed necessary for Greek readers either to properly understand the full intent of what was said in the Aramaic or to hear the statement in a form which would be natural to the Greek language.

Second, the Gospel writers sometimes paraphrased what people said, rather than providing an exact word-for-word transcript of what was said. Theologians are accustomed to make a distinction between ipsissima verba (the exact words) and ipsissima vox (the exact “voice” or meaning).

Third, each Gospel writer chose when to shorten content in order to focus on their own Gospel’s emphasis or theme. Since Matthew emphasizes the qualifications of Jesus to be Israel’s Messiah in accord with the prophecies of the Old Testament, it is not surprising that he might have chosen to include Peter’s full confession. Peter links Jesus’ Messiahship with His divine Sonship just as references to the Davidic Covenant imply in texts like 2 Samuel 7:14, 1 Chronicles 17:13, and Psalm 2:6–8, and Psalm 89:27–29. After all, Matthew’s Gospel opens with the words, “The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, . . .” The human Davidic connection seems paramount to Matthew, as also the Messiah’s deity—Matthew 1:23 consists of the only use of “Immanuel” (“God with us”) in the Gospels. Luke’s “the Christ of God” (also in Luke 23:35) is unique to the New Testament. In both occurrences Luke records the words of others speaking about Jesus and who He is. Mark’s Gospel has the shortest form of Peter’s statement—just stating what he says and means quite concisely.

Note that none of the three writers make up what Peter says. All three statements say basically the same thing—just reflecting fuller or lesser content based on the original declaration. Matthew most likely preserves exactly what Peter had declared. Luke and Mark both give the essence of what he said.

Read also:

“The Synoptic Gospels’ Inerrancy: Geographical Realities”
“The Synoptic Gospels’ Inerrancy: Translation Differences”
“The Synoptic Gospels’ Inerrancy: Authors’ Choices”
“The Synoptic Gospels’ Inerrancy: Misrepresentation of Persons”
“The Synoptic Gospels’ Inerrancy: How Many People?
“The Synoptic Gospels’ Inerrancy: How Many Walking Sticks?”

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