Mt 5:18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

Mr 13:31 Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.

Lu 21:33 Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.

These verses appear to say that the words of Jesus, and the jots and tittles of the law will not pass away. However, some claim that there are missing books, changes to the text of the scriptures, or lapses in the memory of the NT authors such that they wrote erroneously.

If there are missing "words", what hermeneutical principle permits us to ignore the plain teaching in favor of a metaphoric or hyperbolic meaning such that his word can pass away?

  • 1
    I've provided an answer, but this question is borderline in my opinion. It just seems confrontational and not open to getting a range of answers. The last paragraph seems like a rhetorical question with an implied answer of "None". I'm also feeling like you aren't asking questions in earnest, but pushing an agenda. I know you've denied it in the past, but actions speak louder than words. Commented Oct 31, 2011 at 20:35
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    I have never denied pushing an agenda. My statement was that all your contributors have agendas, and if they aren't met in some fashion they won't spend a lot of time here. My agenda has been plainly stated. I am looking for intelligent critical feedback on sensus plenior. My questions are designed to document the fundamental assumptions of the various hermeneutics that people use.
    – Bob Jones
    Commented Nov 1, 2011 at 0:01

2 Answers 2


There appear to be at least three distinct (unstated) questions here that need to be addressed first before we can answer the stated question.

What books, if any, are "missing"?

This really leads to a discussion of canonicity, which is outside the scope of the site. However, I'm not aware of any extrabiblical writings that would pass the tests of canonicity - authority, consistency and dependability. Most of the writings that are normally held up in this fashion, such as the Gospel of Thomas, are of unknown or spurious authorship, late in date (as compared to the earliest known manuscripts of the canonical writings) or inconsistent in message.

This site also talks about canonicity in the context of these supposed "lost" books. According to the linked article, the primary tests for (NT) canonicity used by the early church were:

  • Was the book/letter written by an apostle or one of his associates?
  • Did it agree with other recognized writings?
  • Was it used widely by the early church?

(Just so nobody thought that my explanation of canonicity came from thin air... :) )

What changes, if any, have occurred to the scriptures, and how do they affect our understanding?

We don't have the original autographs of any canonical book. Modern culture has spoiled us a bit - within the past 50 years or so, multiple technologies have been invented that permit perfect or near-perfect copying quite easily. For thousands of years, the only way to make a copy of something was to either write it out by hand, or (following the invention of the printing press) engrave or typeset it, again by hand. Copyist mistakes are clearly a possibility, if not likelihood. However, they also created various ways to ensure that such mistakes did not creep in. Having multiple copies of the various books, we can also trace back through different branches of copyists and determine with a fairly high degree of accuracy what the originals probably actually said vs. what has been introduced or mangled later by a copyist.

In addition, making copies was the only way to spread the manuscripts to a wider audience. They couldn't toss it on a flatbed scanner or run down to Kinko's to photocopy. They didn't have a pervasive Internet to spread information world-wide in seconds.

That said, even among manuscripts that differ, they are still surprisingly consistent. Certainly, if a majority (or significant minority) of copyists were intent upon injecting or modifying meaning, there would be many more differences and they would be more remarkable.

What "lapses in memory" may have caused supposed errors in the autographs?

I'm not exactly sure what you were referring to here - perhaps differing accounts of the same events by the gospel writers? Dr. Craig Blomberg answers this fairly thoroughly in The Case for Christ, but the core of his argument is threefold:

  • Literary purpose - unlike our modern concept of a biography, ancient writers did not necessarily write about events in chronological order, nor would they have recorded every saying word-for-word. Instead, they would have focused upon preserving meaning and drawing the reader's attention to relationships between events. Certainly, at the time of their writing, there would have been enough individuals still around who remembered the actual event and could have objected to any errors.
  • Theological purpose - the authors of the gospels each wrote with a particular goal or an aspect of Christ's life and ministry in focus. Therefore, their writings emphasized different things.
  • Many differences could be explained by the simple fact that eyewitness accounts will vary, even if all of them saw the exact same event. Some would catch certain pieces, while others might have skipped those but latched onto a different piece. Lee Strobel (the author of the book previously mentioned) makes the analogy to a reporter who also talks with other reporters at the same event, or records the interview or press conference on tape, to ensure that his notes are accurate.

So, to the stated question:

Is Jesus making a "plain" statement, and if so, what is it? And how do our answers to the unstated questions inform us?

Stating this a different way, what is the meaning of "pass away" in these verses? Cease to exist? Cease to apply? Are we talking physical destruction, spiritual loss (application) or something else?

The Matthew 5:18 passage is in a slightly different sense from the other two, both in its object and duration. In this case, the object is the Law/Prophets, and its duration is "until fulfilled". In other words, the Law/Prophets would be fulfilled - completed, satisfied, full - within the scope of Earth's existence. In fact, it would be within the scope of His ministry. Whether or not they continued to exist beyond that, it's really not covered within the scope of the statement.

Regarding the other two, if Jesus meant for these to be taken as literal or plain statements of fact, it's difficult to derive from the text.

The physical sense is extremely difficult to apply here - clearly, as mentioned above, we've lost all original autographs. Stuff breaks down - it gets old, fragile, lost, damaged, vandalized. When Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah, He clearly would have known that he did not hold the original autograph of that book - He was in a bywater synagogue, more than 400 years after its writing. The original autograph probably didn't even exist any longer, and certainly not in Nazareth.

Linguistically, we're also in a very different place. Very few of us speak fluent Hebrew, Aramaic or Koine Greek. Equally few of us speak Latin, the common language of the Church for about 1,000 years. We have multiple translations to and from multiple languages. It probably shocks some, but Jesus didn't speak in King James English. So if He meant the literal words that He spoke, they too are long, long gone. (And as Jon so ably noted while I was typing all of this, in many cases the gospel writers didn't even record everything He said.)

Finally, the overall context of the passage does not help in this regard either. Jesus was telling a parable to His disciples, and this statement in particular seems to be within that context; these words - the prophetic parable - would be fulfilled. It was not meant to cover the scope of His entire ministry.

  • Well said. One quibble: the two inventions that have done the most to change the way we think about preserving the past (photography and audio recording) are more like 150 and 125 years old respectively. I'd also suggest the printing press and etching prints have had a more significant impact on our expectations than you hint at. Commented Oct 31, 2011 at 22:32
  • I didn't intend to downplay them so much as to point out that, on the grand scheme of things they are very recent - and that until even more recently, they still suffered from potential "human" errors. Commented Oct 31, 2011 at 23:34
  • Great answer without castigating the author of the question!
    – Bob Jones
    Commented Nov 1, 2011 at 0:50
  • @Bob: I hope you don't feel castigated by me. If so, I apologize. I value your contributions when they are of high quality. I'm sorry we've been butting heads so much today. It's likely I haven't been in the best place to participate here today, so I'll lay low until tomorrow. Commented Nov 1, 2011 at 4:47
  • It would be more helpful if you had specific comments rather than general "this is crap". You can directly edit questions, ask clarifying questions in the comment or give an answer that points out the flaws in the question, all without addressing the author of the question directly. Isn't that the beauty of SE? And those methods avoid direct confrontation. This is beta, where you guys said you are exercising the software and the 'community'. So I tweak the questions a bit also. You'll get more aggressive questions than mine when it's public.
    – Bob Jones
    Commented Nov 1, 2011 at 13:45

Not all the words of Jesus are recorded. So whatever Jesus meant by, "Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.", it can't mean that all of his words were recorded and passed down in Scripture. Therefore, the authors of the Gospels must have made editorial decisions about which words to record and which to discard. (I don't see any reason to record that Jesus said, "Please pass the bread," for instance. But surely he said things like that all the time.)

Not just trivial words, but whole sections of his preaching are lost to history. Mark 1:21-22 (ESV):

And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.

I'd love to know what Jesus said that astonished the people, but it wasn't recorded.

So what did Jesus mean by "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." (Mark 13:31 ESV)? Clearly it does not mean that everything Jesus said will be remembered on earth. The context of this verse (and Luke 21) is the destruction of Jerusalem. To the devout Jews in his audience, such a thing would be a calamity of Biblical proportions. Jesus is offering his words as the stable point to cling to in the trouble he was prophesying.

  • +1 Right. We must not understand "words" in our literalist, rationalist Western sense, but in the sense of the full, complete message of the Gospel. Also, Jesus' words are not merely the words he spoke on earth, but the entirety of the Scriptures. Once again, if we are overly literalistic, some jots or tittles have past away; yet not the smallest details of the Gospel as revealed have actually passed away.
    – Kazark
    Commented Jul 15, 2012 at 20:20

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