In 1994, I took my first academic courses in Biblical Studies. I took a class on the “Old Testament” and I took a class called “Jesus Seminar”. In the latter, I attended a handful of lectures and voting sessions at the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa (the longtime meeting place of the Jesus Seminar fellows). I was too naïve at the time to know how celebrated/infamous this group was. It wasn’t like Salmon Rushdie was presenting or anything.
At this stage in Jesus studies (for some), it was still perfectly acceptable to argue that a dominical saying contained the very words of Jesus, or the ipsissima verba Jesu. (I also took my first Latin class in 1994; volo condeco fervens puella… seemed like a good idea at the time.) In other words, some of the words in red, translated rigidly, conveyed what Jesus said word for word. As the popular narrative goes, the Jesus Seminar didn’t employ many of those red beads. But it wasn’t like the red beads were untouched. Ipsissima verba was a live possibility in 1994.
But here in 2013, this is not the case.
In one of my favorite books, Stories with Intent (2008), Snodgrass writes that “as virtually anyone studying the Gospels grants, we do not have the ipsissima verba, the very words of Jesus” (p.33ff). Here Snodgrass (crediting James Dunn) is simply reflecting a contemporary consensus. Similarly, Dale Allison’s recent successes have heralded the triumph of ipsissima vox. In other words, we can (in some cases) hear the “voice” of Jesus in those red letters. The crucial difference is that the vox position points to the red letters and says that Jesus probably taught something like this at some point. A move toward this position can already been seen in the work of Jeremias, Robinson, et al in the 1950s, but there was no consensus even in the 1990s. Today, even the maximalists among us are seemingly content to argue for a general “authenticity” of voice rather than exact phraseology. Finally, the emphasis on "memory" in post-Third Quest Jesus research only reinforces this sea change.
So when did this change? It seems that ipsissima verba just slipped quietly into the night. But are there any holdouts among professional historical Jesus scholars?