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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
SAYINGS (UNWRITTEN).—Certain sayings ascribed to Christ, though recorded by early writers, are not found written in the Gospels, and therefore are known as the Agrapha, or Unwritten Sayings of Our Lord. They are not as numerous as might, perhaps, have been anticipated, in view of the recorded facts of Christ’s ministry, and the comparative brevity of the actual reports of His discourses. The active ministry seems to have lasted for nearly three years. The records convey the impression of preachings and teachings, continued from day to day, with only rare intervals of repose. The audiences were frequently very large; they came from all quarters; the interest was widespread and intense. The words of this Galilaean Rabbi, who attracted some and provoked the wrath of others, but could not be disregarded by any, did not die in their utterance. It was an age when the memory was much cultivated. Christ’s hearers would be ready to retain, and repeat at home, and amongst their friends, whatever had impressed them most in the new doctrines. It was a literary age also. Before the Third Gospel was written, many had already composed histories of Christ (Luke 1:1). The Fourth Evangelist states that he made a selection from available materials (John 20:30-31; John 21:25).
There must once have been a large amount of Agrapha—of teachings and sayings which have not reached us in the pages of Holy Writ. While these were for the most part current in Palestine only, a few would spread farther, through the visits of Hellenists, and even Greeks (John 12:20), to Judaea. But the work of converting the world was reserved for the preaching of Christ’s Apostles; and the converts’ knowledge of Christianity was derived from the traditions which were delivered by the Apostles, and which were subsequently superseded by the texts of the written Gospels. Meanwhile, the Hebrew Church of Palestine, which alone possessed first-hand knowledge of Christ’s teachings, faded and ultimately perished with the scattering of the Hebrew race. In these historical conditions we find the reasons why so little of the teaching of the Master has survived beyond the actual contents of the four canonical records. The entire collection of Agrapha, gathered from all sources, is not large. When what is apocryphal, or certainly spurious, has been eliminated, the residuum is found to be small in amount, and not very valuable.
The extra-canonical Sayings are preserved in some Manuscripts of the Gospels, and in those religious romances known as the Apocryphal Gospels, also in the Commentaries of the Fathers; but there are, besides, a few sayings which are Agrapha in that they are not included in the written Gospels, but yet possess high attestation as being parts of the text of Acts and 1 Cor. They stand, or fall, with the estimate held of the authenticity of those books. In Acts 20:35 St. Paul quotes the words of the Lord; ‘how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ This is a specimen of the traditions (2 Thessalonians 2:15) which were delivered by the first preachers of Christianity to their converts. In 1 Corinthians 11:25 St. Paul adds a phrase not found in the Evangelists’ accounts of the Institution, ‘This do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me’; but 1 Corinthians 11:23 may be interpreted to intimate that the Apostle had enjoyed a special revelation (‘I have received of the Lord’), independently of any tradition of the words heard by the Twelve. The report of our Lord’s last commands to His Apostles (Acts 1:4-8), though in part a repetition of texts in the Gospels, is distinct in some expressions, and Acts 1:5 has no parallel in the Evangelists. This verse is repeated by St. Peter in Acts 11:16.
The sayings preserved in some Manuscripts of the Gospels are of the nature of textual variations for the most part. A few are absolutely inadmissible on textual grounds; others are accepted only by certain critics. Those which are not universally admitted may yet be authentic traditions, though extra-canonical: relics of the many sayings which were not recorded by the Evangelists. The test of these, and of others which are handed down by the Fathers, is by comparison with the sentiments which are recognized as elements in the character of Christ’s teaching. The very ancient MS at Cambridge known as Codex Bezae, which exhibits many remarkable variations from the usual text of the Gospels, has between Matthew 20:28-29 the following:
‘But ye, seek ye from little to increase, and from greater to be less; but also when, having been invited, ye enter in to sup, not to go and sit down in the prominent places, lest a more honourable than thou should come in, and he that invited to the supper should come forward and say to thee, “Withdraw still lower”; and thou shouldest be put to shame. But if thou shouldest go and sit down in the inferior place, and one inferior to thee should come in, he that invited to the supper will say to thee, “Draw together still higher”; and this shall he to thee profitable.’
Between Luke 6:4-5 the following occurs:
‘On the same day he beheld a certain man working on the Sabbath, and said to him. “Man, if indeed thou knowest what thou art doing, thou art blessed; but if thou knowest not, thou art accursed and a transgressor of the law.” ’
These paragraphs are not supported by sufficient evidence to warrant their inclusion in the text of the Gospels: whether they are worthy to be considered part of those traditions of Christ’s teachings which preceded, and for a time accompanied, the written word, the English reader can judge for himself. Textual criticism has no place outside the region of documents.
The following Sayings, however, are in a different category. The evidence for them is so weighty that all are received into the text by some critics; but to others the evidence is insufficient; yet it will hardly be denied by any that the presence of the words in so many ancient documents stamps them with distinct authority, and demands their recognition as traditions of the Master’s teachings. We refer here to the Doxology (Matthew 6:13); the verse Matthew 17:21; the words, ‘and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt’ (Mark 9:49); ‘Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of Man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them’ (Luke 9:55-56); ‘Father, forgive them: for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34). All these passages except the last are rejected as parts of the text by the Revisers, and those of the same school of criticism; nor do they accept as undoubtedly genuine the story of the Adulteress in John 8, and the concluding verses of Mk.; yet the words attributed to Christ in these two sections, and in the texts cited above, must certainly commend themselves to unprejudiced ears as authentic reminiscences of the Master’s sayings, even if we refuse them a place in the canonical records.
The Sayings of Christ which have been preserved outside the NT by ecclesiastical writers, though not actually numerous, are too many for quotation in this article. The following are specimens; and, in different ways, of interest and importance.
Clement of Alexandria (Strom. vi. 5. 43) quotes Peter thus:
‘The Lord said to the Apostles, “If, then, any one of Israel wishes to repent and believe through my name on God, his sins shall be forgiven him. After twelve years go forth into the world, lest any one say, We did not hear.” ’
Origen (in Joan. ii. 6) has:
‘If any one goes to the Gospel according to the Hebrews, there the Saviour himself saith: “Just now my mother the Holy Spirit took me by one of my hairs and carried me off to the great mountain Tabor.” ’
Jerome quotes from the same Gospel as follows:
(a) ‘After the resurrection of the Saviour, it records: “But when the Lord had given the linen cloth to the priest’s servant, he went to James and appeared to him. For James had taken an oath that he would not eat bread from that hour in which he had drunk the cup of the Lord, until he should see him rising from them that sleep.” And again, a little farther on, “Bring me, saith the Lord, a table and bread.” And there follows immediately: “He took the bread, and blessed, and brake, and gave to James the Just, and said to him, ‘My brother, eat thy bread, inasmuch as the Son of Man hath risen from them that sleep’ ” (de Vir. illust. ii.).
(b) ‘There is the following story: “Behold, the Lord’s mother and his brethren were saying to him: ‘John the Baptist baptizes unto remission of sins; let us go and be baptized by him.’ But he said unto them: ‘What sin have I done, that I should go and be baptized by him? unless perchance this very thing, which I have said, is an ignorance’ ” (adv. Pelag. iii. 2).
(c) ‘We read, too, of the Lord saying to the disciples: “And never rejoice, except when you have looked upon your brother in love” ’ (in Ephesians 5:3 f.).
The ‘Sayings’ contained in a fragmentary papyrus of the 3rd cent., discovered at Oxyrhynchus, are in part equivalent to texts in the Gospels, but the following have no parallels:
(a) ‘Except ye fast to the world, ye shall in nowise find the kingdom of God; and except ye make the Sabbath a real Sabbath, ye shall not see the Father.’
(b) ‘I stood in the midst of the world, and in the flesh was I seen of them, and I found all men drunken, and none found I athirst among them; and my soul grieveth over the sons of men, because they are blind in their heart, and see not.’
(c) ‘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 shalt thou find me; cleave the wood and there am I.’* [Note: Other fragments of MSS containing words ascribed to Christ have lately been procured from the same place, but the text was not available when this article was printed. It is not unreasonable to anticipate additions to our store of Agrapha by future discoveries amongst Egyptian ruins.]
The so-called 2nd Ep. of Clement of Rome (c. iv.) has:
‘For this cause, if we do these things, the Lord said, “Though ye be gathered together with me in my bosom, and do not my commandments, I will cast you away, and will say unto you, ‘Depart from me, I know you not whence ye are, ye workers of iniquity.’ ” ’
Hippolytus (Philosph. v. 7) quotes the Gospel according to Thomas thus:
‘He that seeketh me shall find me in children from seven years old onwards, for there I am manifested, though hidden in the fourteenth age.’
Many sayings ascribed to Jesus have been collected from Mohammedan sources (cf. art. Christ in Mohammedan Literature [in Appendix]). One such passage is: ‘When Jesus was asked, “How art thou this morning?” he would answer, “Unable to forestall what I hope, or to put off what I fear, bound by my works, with all my good in another’s hand. There is no poor man poorer than I am.” ’ The last sentence agrees in sentiment with a well-known text; but these Mohammedan traditions of Christ’s words are for the most part of no value.
Literature.—Art. ‘Agrapha’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , Extra Vol. p. 343 ff., where a good bibliography is given. The following artt. are useful: ‘Sayings’ from Manuscripts and Fathers—Lock, Expositor, iv. xi.  1, 97; ‘Oxyrhynchus Sayings’—Swete, ExpT [Note: xpT Expository Times.] viii.  544, xv.  488, Cross and Harnack, Expositor, v. vi.  257, 321, 401; ‘Sayings’ from Mohammedan sources—Margoliouth, ExpT [Note: xpT Expository Times.] v. [1893–94] 59, 107, 177.
G. H. Gwilliam.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Sayings (Unwritten)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/s/sayings-unwritten.html. 1906-1918.