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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Unwritten Sayings

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UNWRITTEN SAYINGS . The name Agrapha or ‘Unwritten Sayings,’ is applied to sayings ascribed to Jesus which are not found in the true text of the canonical Gospels. That some genuine sayings of the Lord not recorded by the Evangelists should linger in the oral tradition of the early Church is only what we should expect, but of the extant Agrapha it is only a small number that meet the tests of textual criticism, or satisfy the requirements of moral probability. It is significant of the value of the canonical Gospels as historical records that outside of them there are so few ‘sayings of Jesus’ that could possibly be accepted as conveying a veritable tradition of His actual words. The Unwritten Sayings may be classified as follows:

1. Those in the NT . Two varieties meet us here. ( a ) Those which are found in some MSS of the Gospels , but whose authenticity textual criticism renders doubtful. Among the most important of these are Matthew 6:13 ; Matthew 17:21 , Mark 9:49 b, Luke 9:55 f., Luke 23:34 , which all find a place in TR [Note: Textus Receptus.] and are reproduced in AV [Note: Authorized Version.] , while RV [Note: Revised Version.] removes all of them except the last to the margin. To this list must be added the sayings of Jesus in Mark 16:15-18 and John 8:7 ; John 8:11 , the conclusion of Mk. ( Mark 16:9-20 ) and the Pericope Adulterœ in Jn. ( John 7:53 to John 8:11 ) being regarded by critical scholars as additions to the original texts, which may at the same time embody authentic traditions. Between Luke 6:4-5 Cod. D [Note: Deuteronomist.] gives the striking saying:

‘On the same day he saw one working on the Sabbath, and said to him, Man, if thou knowest what thou doest, blessed art thou; but if thou knowest not, thou art accursed and a transgressor of the law.’

( b ) Those outside of the Gospels . The most notable is Acts 20:35 , but to this may be added Acts 1:5 (cf. Acts 11:16 ) and the last part of 1 Corinthians 11:25 (‘This do, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me’). In the opinion of some commentators, James 1:12 ‘the crown of life which the Lord promised to them that love him,’ is ‘a semi-quotation of some saying of Christ’s.’

2. In Apocryphal Gospels . See these fully given in art. Gospels [Apocryphal], III. 1. 2 .

3. In the Fathers and other early Church writers (cf. p. 443). Only a few examples of these can be set down:

Clem. Alex. [Note: lex. Alexandrian.] , Strom . vi. 5: ‘Wherefore Peter says that the Lord said to the apostles, if then any one of Israel wishes to repent and believe on God through my name, his sins shall be forgiven him. After twelve years go forth into the world, lest any one say, We did not hear.’

Origen, in Jer . xx. 3: ‘But the Saviour himself saith, He who is near me is near the fire; he who is far from me is far from the kingdom.’

Origen, in Joh . xix., speaks of ‘the commandment of Jesus which saith, Prove yourselves trustworthy money changers.’

Tertullian, de Bapt . xx., commenting on the words ‘Watch and pray,’ addressed to St. Peter in Gethsemane, adds: ‘For the saying had also preceded, that no one untempted should attain to the heavenly kingdoms.’

4. In Mohammedan writers . A large number of Agrapha, collected by Professor D. S. Margollouth from el-Ghazzali’s Revival of the Religious Sciences and other sources, were published by him in a series of papers in ExpT [Note: Expository Times.] v. [1893 94] (cf. Hastings’ DB [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.] , Ext. Vol. 350, DCG [Note: CG Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels.] ii. 882). Though interesting and sometimes striking, these have no claim to represent original traditions, but are frequently traceable to Gospels canonical or apocryphal. The following are among the best specimens:

‘Jesus one day walked with his apostles, and they passed by the carcase of a dog. The apostles said, How foul is the smell of this dog! But Jesus said, How white are its teeth!’

‘Jesus said, Take not the world for your lord, lest it take you for its slaves.’

‘Jesus said, Whoso knows and does and teaches, shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.’

5. In the Oxyrhynchus papyri . Special interest attaches to the ‘Sayings of Jesus’ unearthed at Oxyryhnchus by Messrs. Grenfell and Hunt, all the more as they open a prospect of further discoveries of a like kind. The first series of these, published in 1897, contained some sayings that have Gospel parallels, but the following strike a note of their own:

‘Jesus saith, Except ye fast to the world, ye shall in no wise find the kingdom of God; and except ye make the sabbath a real sabbath, ye shall not see the Father.’

‘Jesus saith, 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.’

‘Jesus saith, 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 thou shalt find me; cleave the wood and there am I.’

More recently the same scholars discovered another papyrus with additional ‘Sayings’ of Jesus. In this case, unfortunately, the leaf was in a mutilated condition, and both re-construction and interpretation are difficult. A good account of this second series of ‘Sayings’ with the Gr. text as restored by Grenfell and Hunt themselves, will be found in an article by Professor Swete in ExpT [Note: Expository Times.] xv. [1903 04] p. 488, with which cf. his art. on the 1897 Oxyrhynchus fragment in ExpT [Note: Expository Times.] viii. [1896 97] p. 544. Here again some of the ‘Sayings’ have Gospel parallels, while others bear a more original character. From the two most important the following extracts (based on a text that is partly conjectural) may be given:

‘Jesus saith … If ye shall truly know yourselves, ye are the sons and daughters of the Father Almighty, and ye shall know yourselves to be in the city of God, and ye are the city.’

‘Jesus saith … Do nothing save the things that belong to the truth, for if ye do these, ye shall know a hidden mystery.’

Of the value of the Oxyrhynchus ‘Sayings’ very different estimates have been formed. But it is pretty generally agreed that, in their present shape at all events, they were not uttered by Jesus, and do not belong to the first Christian age.

J. C. Lambert.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Unwritten Sayings'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/u/unwritten-sayings.html. 1909.

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