The Bible often records conversations. This sometimes raises the question of whether the words transcribed are the exact ones spoken in that conversation or just a summary or paraphrase of them. There are two different approaches to records of speech, known as ipsissima verba and ipsissima vox. Ipissima verba (“the very words”) refers to the exact wording of a conversation. Ipissima vox (“the very voice”) refers to the gist of a conversation not being quoted verbatim.
Scripture is, generally, a record of history. When conversations are written down for historical purposes, the intent of the writer is often not to produce an exact transcript. Rather, the writer is summarizing, being careful to express the intended message of the one speaking. Newspapers and history books are examples of this. Rather than detail every word of a conversation, the writer often selects certain phrases to quote, uses approximate wording for the rest, and condenses the main points so that the meaning can be quickly understood. Many of the Bible’s conversations could conceivably fit the category of ipsissima vox.
In some cases, however, Scripture seems to record exact words. Again, this is common in historical records where a particularly important phrase or dialogue might be recorded word-for-word, exactly as spoken, or ipsissima verba. For example, Jesus’ statements from the cross are brief, which seems appropriate for a man dying from His injuries. It is also possible that certain sermons or speeches were recorded, in writing, as they happened by disciples such as Matthew. Luke, who was highly educated, certainly transcribed the words of the eyewitnesses whom he interviewed for his gospel.
Some scholars maintain that the conversations recorded in Scripture are largely ipsissima vox, not ipsissima verba. That is, the true meaning of the dialogue is presented, but the writers made no attempt at an absolute, word-for-word transcript. Two possible examples of ipsissima vox in Scripture are Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:1–15) and His discussion with the woman at the well (John 4:7–30). As records of the conversation, these passages clearly present the topics, positions, and ideas being discussed. However, some scholars say, they are probably not exhaustive, word-for-word dialogues. Both conversations can be read aloud in a short period of time. It is unlikely that Jesus’ conversation with either person was that quick or that they moved so quickly from point to point. The same is true of most of Jesus’ discourses as found in Scripture. It’s likely that Jesus spent some time explaining these subjects, not only one or two paragraphs of speech. As John says at the close of his gospel, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25). According to the ipsissima vox view, what we have recorded for us is a condensed, although still accurate, version of Jesus’ words and actions.
According to the ipsissima verba view, the dialogues and discourses of Christ were recorded verbatim. Certainly, this is well within the power of God to do. As Jesus said before leaving His disciples and ascending to heaven, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26). The Bible is history, but it is not secular history and should not be approached as an ordinary book; it is divine history, inspired by God Himself.
We emphasize again that the Bible is the written Word of God. Its contents are inspired and inerrant (2 Timothy 3:16–17)—which makes any debate over transcription less important than the actual words of Scripture. What’s recorded in the Bible is exactly what God intended. Whether a particular passage is a direct quote or a summary of an event, that passage is still inspired by God. Ipsissima vox or ipsissima verba, the accounts are exactly what the Holy Spirit desired to have written, as the human authors were superintended by God, and the narratives contain no error.