Agrapha – The Lost Sayings of Jesus

Those who have read my previous blog post, “Do We Have the Authentic Words of Jesus,” already know that the sayings of, and stories about, Jesus first circulated by word of mouth. Neither Jesus nor his immediate followers seem to have been educated to the point of being able to write. This was not uncommon in the ancient world where only 10% or fewer of the people could do so.

The stream of what scholars refer to as “oral tradition” flowed on without restriction, both geographically and linguistically, for centuries. It was probably not until at least four decades after the crucifixion that the first attempt at recording Jesus’s sayings in writing took place (the Gospel of Mark, if not earlier with “Q”). But the oral stream flowed on unimpeded. Picture the gospel authors as people dipping their buckets into the stream of oral tradition and capturing some of the contents in order to write it down. The authors do not capture all of the stream’s contents and the stream flows on. In fact, despite the appearance of numerous gospels between 70 CE and the end of the second century, the stream continued to flow, no one capturing everything in it. We can see evidence of this in the four New Testament gospels. Each gospel features sayings of Jesus not recorded in the other three. And there were more sayings besides these that were recorded in other written forms. They are called agrapha by scholars, meaning “not written,” i.e., in the four New Testament gospels.

Because of this uncontrolled stream that flowed for at least 200 years, scholars cannot help but ask if that stream became polluted over time. In other words, does every recorded saying of Jesus actually go back to the historical person? Clearly not. How one decides which are authentic is not the subject of this post. Instead, let’s take a look at some of the sayings attributed to Jesus that were captured in other written sources outside the four New Testament gospels. Perhaps some of these will strike you as something Jesus might actually have said.

A few sayings of Jesus not captured in the New Testament gospels can be found elsewhere within the New Testament. A well-known maxim attributed to Jesus is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Various forms of this saying were popular in the ancient world; Plutarch, for example, credits the 5th-century BCE Persian king Artaxerxes I with saying it. There is, of course, no a priori reason why Jesus could not also have said it. Another saying attributed to Jesus and found in Acts is, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 11:16).

Most of the agrapha, of course, can be found outside of the New Testament. Many were quite popular and quoted frequently by early church authors. One such saying concerns fasting, reinterpreted as abstaining from worldly preoccupation. In its earliest Greek form, Jesus says, “If you do not fast in regard to the world, you will not find the Kingdom of God. And if you do not keep the Sabbath as the Sabbath, you will not see the Father” (P. Oxy. 1.4-11). This saying, discovered in this 2nd– or 3rd-century papyrus fragment, may in fact be from an early edition of the famous Gospel of Thomas, found in a complete version in a fourth-century manuscript discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. The Gospel of Thomas is nothing less than a collection of over 117 sayings attributed to Jesus, many considered agrapha. Though, again, there is no particular reason why Jesus could not have made such a statement about fasting, many Christians in the second-century were teaching abstinence from worldly affairs, creating a movement that would eventually blossom into monasticism.

Another popular aphorism attributed to Jesus in many early sources is first found in the letter of the 2nd-century bishop Ignatius of Antioch written to the church at Philippi. It reads, “Do not let the sun go down on your wrath” (Ign., Phil. 12.1). My wife has paraphrased this to me on a number of occasions as “Don’t go to bed angry!” The sentiment may be quite ancient, however. We find an earlier expression of it among the collection of writings known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in 1947 and attributed to the Jewish sect of Essenes: “They shall rebuke each man his brother according to the commandment and shall bear no rancor from one day to the next” (Damascus Document 7.2).

Many compelling, if unfamiliar, statements attributed to Jesus are found among the agrapha. A widely-circulated saying is found in its simplest form in the Gospel of Thomas: “Whoever is near me is near the fire, and whoever is far from me is far from the kingdom” (Thomas 82). If this has to do with judgment, the saying strikes me as not out of place among such canonical sayings as Mat. 3:11, 7:19, 13:40, Mark 9:49, Luke 9:54, and especially Luke 12:49. Nevertheless, that may not be the saying’s original intent. The 4th-century Syrian church father Ephrem recalled the saying as, “He who joins me, joins with fire, and he who is far from me is far from life” (Exp. 83). In other words, it is preferable to be “near the fire.” The saying may have pagan roots and can be found in Aesop’s fables: “He who is near Zeus is near the lightning” (Aesopica 1:290).

A beautiful and popular saying attributed to Jesus can also be found in the Gospel of Thomas: “I will give you what eye has not seen and ear has not heard and hand has not touched and what has not entered the heart of man” (Thomas 17). Even in the 1st-century, there was a tradition that Jesus disclosed secret mysteries as part of his teaching, possibly in private to a select few. According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus said to his disciples, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables” (Mark 4:11). Paul wrote of “the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed” (Rom. 16:25-26). For Paul that mystery had to do with the salvation that comes from Christ’s death and resurrection. But other early Christians, especially Gnostics, traded on the idea of a secret mystery that was only disclosed by the heavenly Jesus to a select few. By understanding this mystery, according to the Gnostics, one gained secret knowledge (gnōsis) that resulted in salvation.

An unusual saying, appearing in several ancient sources, is here quoted from the largely lost Gospel of the Hebrews: “Then my mother, the Holy Spirit, took me by one of my hairs and carried me up to the great Mount Tabor” (Gospel of the Hebrews 2). This saying is not as strange as it may initially sound. A similar event is described in the Hebrew Bible.

“In the sixth year, on the fifth day of the sixth month, I was sitting at home, and the elders of Judah were sitting before me, and there the hand of the Lord God fell upon me. As I looked, there was a figure that had the appearance of fire: from what appeared as his loins down, he was fire; and from his loins up, his appearance was resplendent and had the color of amber. He stretched out the form of a hand, and took me by the hair of my head. A spirit lifted me up between heaven and earth and brought me in visions of God to Jerusalem” (Ezek. 8:1-3).

The parallels should be obvious. The prophet was confronted by a spirit, obviously a holy one from “the hand of the Lord God,” and, in an ecstatic vision, carried Ezekiel “by the hair” to Jerusalem. Jesus, too, was considered a prophet and was certainly one who had ecstatic visions as evidenced, for example, in this canonical passage: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). I would contend that, if the story of Jesus’s temptations in the wilderness goes back to Jesus, they represented visions he experienced at some point in his life. Note the transcendental quality of the story:

Then the devil took [Jesus] to the holy city [i.e., Jerusalem] and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down…” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “’You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him. (Matt. 4:5-11)

The only remaining elements to be accounted for in the agraphon from Thomas are the description of the Holy Spirit as Jesus’s mother and the location of Mount Tabor. That Jesus’s father was God and his mother the Holy Spirit fits in with some early Christian accounts of the Trinity. Gnostics, for example, considered Jesus a child of The One and Barbelo, an emanation from God known in some texts as the Mother, or the Mother of the Aeons (divine beings). The meaning of Mount Tabor is not as clear. According to later tradition, at least, this nearly 2,000-foot high Galilean mountain was the location of Jesus’s transfiguration (e.g., The Apocalypse of John the Theologian, ca. 100 CE; Cyril, Catechetical Lecture 12, 16; Jerome, Ep. Paula 13). A passage from the Hebrew Bible might have influenced messianic speculation: “As I live, declares the King, whose name is the Lord of hosts, like Tabor among the mountains and like Carmel by the sea, shall one come” (Jer. 46:18). The translation here is not altogether certain but originally referred to the 7th-century BCE Babylonian invaders from the north.

An extremely well-known, if brief, saying attributed to Jesus is here quoted from the 3rd-century Egyptian Christian theologian Origen: “Be skillful money-changers” (Comm. on John 19.7.2). Many earlier church fathers knew this saying and likewise attributed it to Jesus. The 4th-century Christian physician Caesarius of Nazianzus probably comes closest to understanding what may have been the original intent of the saying: “Be skillful money-changers, separating the spurious from the genuine” (Dial. 3, Interrog. 140). Ancient money changing required a keen eye and expert knowledge to avoid being cheated when converting coinage. The content of precious metals in ancient coins differed widely and it took an expert to evaluate their worth. That is why Tyrean shekels were the only coin acceptable in the Jerusalem Temple in the time of Jesus. Though such coinage did feature iconic symbols, the silver content was consistently high. It was the tables of such money-changers that Jesus is said to have toppled in the Temple precincts (Matthew 21:12). The point of the saying seems to be something like “test the spirits” (1 Thess. 5:20-21; 1 John 4:1; Didache 11).

Another non-canonical prophecy attributed to Jesus found wide currency among ancient Christians. It is quoted by 2nd-century Christian theologian Justin, “In whatever circumstances I come upon you, in them I will also judge you” (Dial. 47.5). Something of the spirit of Ezekiel is contained in this saying: “I will judge each one of you according to his ways, O House of Israel!” (Ezek. 33:20). The Jesus-saying heightens the apocalyptic element, however. The threat is clear – there will be no pleading for mercy once Christ has come. One will be judged immediately based on current conduct. For historians, this saying is clearly one from a later time. In what are likely authentic sayings of Jesus in the New Testament gospels, Jesus does not seem to speak of himself as the coming judge: “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” (Luke 12:14). However, the Gospel of John, which probably comes from a time after the composition of at least the first two gospels, elevates Jesus to divine status and he therefore assumes the mantle of judge: “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (Jn. 5:30). The tradents of this simple agraphon seem to belong to the post-Easter church by which time Jesus had become synonymous with the coming Son of Man and messianic judge.

There are many other such agrapha attributed to Jesus, some even coming from Islamic tradition. For a further look into these fascinating sayings, consider reading the Gospel of Thomas then seek out larger collections such as William Stroker’s Extracanonical Sayings of Jesus; Marvin Meyer’s The Unknown Sayings of Jesus; William Morrice’s Hidden Sayings of Jesus; or Joachim Jeremias’s Unknown Sayings of Jesus. Happy reading!

One thought on “Agrapha – The Lost Sayings of Jesus

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s