Q. How accurate are the direct quotes in Scripture? Would the Gospel writers, decades after the events that were recorded, have been able to report word for word precisely what was said?
A. First, we should note the difference between what we call today a direct quote as opposed to an indirect quote. A direct quote (typically reported within quotation marks) implies that the statement is reported precisely, word for word. An indirect quote (typically reported without quotation marks), implies that the general sense or meaning of the original statement is being reported, though not necessarily word for word. Example: She told them, “Hurry home now!” vs. She said they must come home right away.
It’s true that our modern Bible translations often employ quotation marks, which seem to imply a precise, direct quote. But such punctuation did not exist in the original Greek texts; it’s a later addition. So we can’t presume that every quote reflects precisely the original words spoken.
Nevertheless, Jesus told His apostles: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in My name — He will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you” (John 14:26). The sacred writers did not have to depend on unaided memories to recall accurately what Jesus and others had said decades before. The Holy Spirit enabled them to do so when necessary.
Note as well that the various Gospels sometimes provide slightly different wording when they quote the same statement of Our Lord or another person. For example, certain statements of Jesus at the First Eucharist (presumably not repeated on that occasion with variations) are nevertheless reported with small variations by Matthew (26:26–28), Mark (14:22–24), and Luke (22:17–20). These variations suggest that, at times, the four Evangelists were quoting indirectly rather than directly, expressing the sense of the statement without necessarily providing the precise wording.
In any case, even if some of these quotations are indirect rather than direct, they remain reliable reports of what was spoken by Jesus, His mother, and others. They tell the truth about what was said.
The Church’s position, stated most recently in the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (11), is this: “The divinely revealed realities, which are contained and presented in the text of sacred Scripture, have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”
In other words, the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments “have God as their author, and have been handed on as such to the Church herself.” God chose the authors, who used their “powers and faculties” to write exactly what He wanted written.
Therefore, the Church teaches that “the books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully, and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures.”