Thomas L. McDonald has been a writer and editor for the past 25 years, covering technology, history, archaeology, games, and religion. He has degrees in English, Film, and Theology with a concentration in Church History. He’s been a certified catechist for twelve years, and taught Church History for eight. His other writing can be found at Weird Catholic.
The words of the Lord are recorded in the four canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and the beginning of Acts, but are there other texts that contain sayings (logia) of Jesus?
The Greek word “agrapha” literally means “unwritten,” and refers to a class of brief sayings not recorded in the Gospels. These words can be grouped into categories of diminishing credibility, with New Testament sayings at the top, heretical works at the bottom, and various categories in between. Let’s look at some examples.
The New Testament
The highest level of logia are those found in the New Testament but not in the Gospels or Chapter 1 of Acts. In Acts 20:35, St. Paul says
In all things I have shown you that by so toiling one must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
Although this is a well-known saying of Jesus, it’s not delivered directly by him, but rather is reported by Paul. The phrasing is considerably milder than other words of Jesus urging complete renunciation of possessions. The same words are found Histories, where Thucydides writes that the Thracians have a custom “that one should prefer to give rather than to receive. It was more shameful not to give, if one was asked to do so, than not to receive, if one had made a request.”
Paul also repeats sayings from the canonical gospels, and words said directly to him by Jesus, as on the road to Damascus. In 2 Cointhians 12:9, he quotes Jesus as telling him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
In 1 Thessalonians 4:15–17, we read:
For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.
Here, he invokes “the word of the Lord,” even though the passage is not treated as a direct quotation in translations. (Since the Greek does not have punctuation, quotes are derived from phrasing and context.) The passage suggests a close paraphrase of actual words said by Jesus.
A second level of agrapha is the manuscript tradition, which includes curious variants. There are two possible explanations for these: 1) a copyist expanded a familiar text to add a deeper or alternate meaning, 2) they represent a distinct oral tradition that was believed to convey a genuine saying of the Lord.
Some Biblical scholars argue that Mark ended abruptly at 16:8, with Mark 16:9-20 drawn from other gospels and added later to provide a more satisfactory ending. Similarly, the stoning of the woman taken in sin (John 7:53-8:11) is also missing from some manuscripts. If these indeed are changes to original manuscripts, they became canonical early, and thus are not agrapha.
Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis (5th century), on the other hand, inserts the following words into the story about the apostles plucking the ears of grain:
When on the same day he saw a man doing work on the sabbath, he said to him: “Man! If you know what you are doing, you are blessed! But if you do not know it, you are accursed and a transgressor of the law.”
This new saying is placed after Luke 6:4. On its face there’s nothing particularly problematic about these new words, but the emphasis on what the man knows, and how this knowledge could impact his salvation, may suggest a Gnostic influence.
The Freer Codex (5th Century) inserts the “Freer Logion” between Mark 16:14 and 16:15, and was known to St. Jerome. It may have been added as a gloss to explain the unbelief of the apostles and provide a better transition to their commissioning.
And they excused themselves with the words, “This aeon of lawlessness and unbelief is under Satan, who through the unclean spirits does not allow the true power of God to be comprehended. Therefore,” they said to Christ, “reveal your righteousness now.”
And Christ replied to them, “The measure of the years of Satan’s power is filled up. But other fearful things draw near, also (for those) for whom I, because they sinned, was delivered to death, that they might turn back to the truth and sin no more in order to inherit the spiritual and imperishable glory of righteousness in heaven.”
There are also scraps found in the manuscript dump at Oxyrynchus in Egypt. These include stray sayings of questionable origin, including "Unless you fast to the world, you shall not find the kingdom of God" and "A city built upon the top of a hill and established can neither fall nor be hid" among more problematic lines such as "Wherever there are two, they are not without God; and wherever there is one alone, I say I am with him. Raise the stone and there you shall find me; cleave the wood, and there am I."
The Church Fathers
At the third level we have the witness of the Church Fathers and early Church documents. The letters of Clement (the third successor to Peter), Ignatius, and Polycarp; the Epistle of Barnabas; the Shepherd of Hermas; and the Didache are among the earliest strata of post-Biblical Christian literature, and all were almost certainly used liturgically in the early Church even.
The letter of Clement, for example, includes a variant of the Beatitudes early enough that it might have been derived for oral testimony rather than the written Gospel. The Epistle of Barnabas, written in 130BC and attributed to a disciple mentioned in Acts, is even more striking. After an account of the ritual of the scapegoat in relation to Jesus, Barnabas 7:11 quotes Jesus saying
Those who wish to see me and attain to my kingdom must lay hold of me through tribulation and suffering.
One of the great losses to Christian history is On the Words of Our Lord by Papias, who sought and recorded eyewitnesses testimony about Christ and the apostles. Papias wrote at the turn of the century, heard St. John, and was a companion to Polycarp, a contemporary of Ignatius of Antioch, and a mentor to Irenaeus. Although copies of his work existed into the middle ages, they are now lost except for their quotes in the work of others.
In Adversus Haereses, Irenaeus says the following words were recorded in Papias and attested to by those who heard John themselves:
The elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord, related that they had heard from him how the Lord used to teach in regard to these times, and say: “The days will come, in which vines shall grow, each having ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each true twig ten thousand shoots, and in each one of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give one thousand litres of wine. And when any one of the saints shall lay hold of a cluster, another shall cry out, ‘I am a better cluster, take me; bless the Lord through me’.”
In like manner the Lord declared that a grain of wheat would produce ten thousand ears, and that every ear should have ten thousand grains, and every grain would yield ten pounds of clear, pure, fine flour; and that all other fruit-bearing trees, and seeds and grass, would produce in similar proportions; and that all animals feeding on the productions of the earth should become peaceful and harmonious among each other, and be in perfect subjection to human beings.
And these things are borne witness to in writing by Papias, the hearer of John and a companion of Polycarp, in his fourth book; for there were five books compiled by him. And he says in addition: “Now these things are credible to believers.” And he says that when the traitor Judas did not believe this and asked, “How can such growth be brought about by the Lord?,” the Lord declared, “Those who shall come to these times shall see.”
In his Dialogue With Trypho, St. Justin Martyr quotes Jesus saying “In whatsoever things I shall apprehend you, in them also shall I judge you.” The sentiment, addressing the second coming and last judgement, is found in Clement of Alexandria’s Quis dives salvetur as well as other Church Fathers.
Clement offers other sayings of Jesus. The first is mined from a student of the heretic Valentinus: “Save yourself and your life!” In Stromateis, Clement writes “‘Ask for great things,’ says Scripture, ‘and you will receive the small things in addition.’” There are echoes here of Matt 13:12, 25:29; Mark 4:25; and Luke 8:18, 19:26, but in a different formulation. Int he same works, Clement quotes Jesus saying, “My mystery is to me, and to the sons of my house." (See also: Matthew 15:24.) The Pseudo-Clementine literature provides another saying attributed to Jesus and used by other Church Fathers: “Be good money-changers!” In context, it’s often linked to Paul’s command to “test everything” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22), meaning that a good money changer is one who recognizes a false coin. The saying thus becomes a metaphorical call to discernment.
In his Homilies on Jeremiah, Origen approaches a particular agrapha carefully:
I have read somewhere as a word of the Savior (and I wonder whether someone has taken over the role of the Savior, or has quoted from memory, or whether what is said here is true). At any rate, the Saviour says in that place: “The one who is close to me is close to the fire. The one who is far from me is far from the kingdom.”
At this point the agrapha begins to wander into heretical territory, because the quote is from the Gospel of Thomas, an obviously Gnostic text with serious problems. It is impossible to tease out any potential genuine statements of Christ from nonsense placed on his lips by the compiler of Thomas, which may account for Origen’s caution when using the quote.
Apocrypha may indeed contain genuine traditions of the early Church and even the historical Jesus, but in the end their lack of canonical status makes them mere curios. The isolated sayings of Jesus found in scripture must of course be accepted as genuine, while those repeated by the Church Fathers demand our attention even if they don’t rise to the highest level of credibility. Manuscript variants and other texts help illuminate early Christian history, but are of limited spiritual value. In the end, only the books fixed as canon by the Catholic Church may truly be regarded as the word of God.
Futher Reading: The standard compliations are New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 1: Gospels and Related Writings and Vol. 2: Writings Relating to the Apostles; Apocalypses and Related Topics. The agrapha are covered in Vol. 1. The Apocryphal Gospels: An Introduction is a good overview.