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What are the agrapha?


agrapha
Question: "What are the agrapha?"

Answer:
The agrapha are usually understood to be the sayings attributed to Jesus Christ that are not found in the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). The word agrapha means “unwritten” or “unrecorded.” Because the agrapha are not found in a single, unique work, but are rather sayings taken from various sources—including oral tradition, medieval liturgies, and Muslim literature—we cannot say whether or not all the agrapha are canonical or consistent with Scripture. We must look at each saying individually and evaluate it with Scripture.

We can divide the agrapha into a few general categories. First are sayings that are not found in the gospels but are nonetheless attributed to Christ in other parts of the Bible. For example, in Acts 20:35 Paul says, “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” The saying It is more blessed to give than to receive is attributed to Christ, but it is only found here, in the book of Acts. It is not found in the gospels. But, since Acts is a part of Scripture, and the apostle Paul is the one reciting, we know that this quotation from Jesus is canonical.

Another category of agrapha would include sayings attributed to Christ but which are really just summaries of teachings from the gospels. For example, Clement of Rome wrote in his first epistle, “For thus He spoke: ‘Be ye merciful, that ye may obtain mercy; forgive, that it may be forgiven to you; as ye do, so shall it be done unto you; as ye judge, so shall ye be judged; as ye are kind, so shall kindness be shown to you; with what measure ye mete, with the same it shall be measured to you’” (chapter 13). This seems to be a summary of some of the teachings from the Sermon on the Mount. While Clement’s paraphrase is not canonical, it is consistent with the teachings of Christ, being, as it is, a summary and condensation of some of Christ’s words from the canonical gospels.

A third category of agrapha might be supposed sayings of Christ that are at least “harmonious” with Scripture. These are not summaries or paraphrases of what Jesus actually said, but, at the same time, they do not conflict with Scripture. For example, this saying from the Coptic Apocryphal Gospels contains no erroneous doctrine: “Better is a single footstep in My Father’s house than all the wealth of this world.” We have no way of being certain whether such sayings were spoken by Christ or composed later and attributed to Him. If there is no conflict with Scripture, then agrapha of this type is, by definition, consistent with the Bible. But, since we have no proof such sayings are the actual words of Christ, we cannot consider them canonical.

Finally, we have the category of agrapha that includes sayings inconsistent with Scripture and which can therefore be rejected as actual sayings of Jesus. For example, the Gospel According to the Hebrews has Jesus making reference to “my mother the Holy Spirit”—words that are obviously incongruent with canonical revelation.

When we are confronted with any saying or idea that comes from a source outside of Scripture, it is always good practice to imitate the Bereans, who “received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). There are many purported “words of Christ” in circulation, but we must always compare what we hear and read with Scripture in order to determine the truth.

Recommended Resource: The Canon of Scripture by F.F. Bruce

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