The Greek word Ἄγραφα (lit. “unwritten”) are utterances attributed to the Lord but not recorded by the evangelists in any of the Gospels. The Apostle John once wrote, And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written (John 21:25). Certainly, not all the words and works of Jesus were written in the Gospel, because at the beginning the Good News was transmitted orally. The evangelists recorded what they knew and what they were able to preserve in their memory. Could any of Christ’s words and instructions have been preserved outside of the Gospel texts? How could we ascertain the authenticity of these statements and separate truth from fiction? Are those agrapha of any use to us?
The existence of certain sayings of the Lord that were not recorded in the Gospels was known to ancient people, according to the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (Church History III 39. 11). Some words of Christ, which are directly referred to by the apostles, also fall into the category of agrapha. For example, Paul in his speech to the Ephesus church leaders cites the commandment of Jesus It is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35), but we will not find such words in the Gospel. Most often agrapha are found in various ancient manuscripts, such as Codex Bezae (D), in fragments of some papyri, in the works of early Christian writers and Church Fathers (St. Papias of Hierapolis, St. Justin Martyr, Origen, Tertullian, St. Didymus the Blind and others), as well as in liturgical and canonical church tradition. With time, even the “sayings” of Jesus found in the books of Jewish and Islamic tradition and even explicitly Gnostic and heretical sources began to be classified as agrapha. This led church and secular scholars to pay more attention to the problem of the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings and to develop strict criteria by which to judge whether Christ could have really said what is attributed to Him. Due to the fact that it can be difficult to determine the authenticity of the source, as well as the fact that archaeologists are constantly finding ancient texts and manuscripts, it is impossible to accurately determine the specific number of recognized legitimate agrapha, the number of which always varies.
The criterion of authenticity of agrapha is first of all their age, intactness and authority of the source. Moreover, agrapha must conform to the Gospel spirit of the Savior and not contradict other sayings of Christ. No less important is the similarity of style and the use of typical Gospel language. Many Church Fathers and theologians classified some brief, concise phrases and commandments written by the apostles as agrapha; for example, Origen believed that the commandment Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22) belongs to Christ Himself. The same conclusion can be drawn with respect to other similar expressions. Some agrapha, unanimously recognized as true sayings of Christ, can be found in a number of apocryphal narratives that reflect the ancient oral account of Christ and are very Gospel-like in spirit, but still have some distortions, such as the Gospel of the Hebrews. For example, it is this book that contains a more extensive dialogue between Christ and a rich young man, strikingly Gospel-like in spirit. “And the Lord said unto him, How thou sayest, I have kept the law and the prophets: for it is written in the law, Love thy neighbor as thyself: but, behold, many of thy brethren, children of Abraham, are covered with dirt, and are dying of hunger; and thy house is full of many a good thing, and they have nothing of it” (Gospel of the Hebrews).
The writings of some Fathers have preserved for us the indisputable words of Christ. For example, St. Justin the Philosopher cites the famous expression, Wherein I find you, thereby I shall judge you (Dial. 47). The authenticity of this statement is confirmed by the parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-12), where the same thought is expressed. Origen and Didymus the Blind cite the following words of Christ, He that is near Me is near the fire; he that is far from Me is far from the kingdom. This expression may hint at the Eucharist, which can either purify us from our sins or lead to perdition if we receive it undeservedly. This agraphon brings to mind other words of Jesus, I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled? (Luke 12:49).
More and more ancient manuscripts are found by archaeologists and one can find words attributed to the Lord in them as well. For example, a document called The Sayings of Jesus Christ was found in Egypt in 1897. Not all words in it have remained legible, but some phrases could be read. “Jesus says, I stood in the midst of the world, and was seen in the flesh by them. And I found that all were drunk; and I found no one thirsty among them; and My soul mourns for the sons of men: for they are blind in their hearts.” There are other alleged words of the Lord the veracity of which is disputed.
Thus, we can confidently assert the existence of certain words of Christ that are not recorded in the Gospels but are carefully preserved by the Church Tradition and found in the discovered manuscripts. Four canonical Gospels are enough for a Christian, but agrapha help to shed light on the already familiar phrases of the Savior and bring the joy of hearing the previously unknown words of the Lord, which have an instant sense of the Gospel beauty and power. The genuine agrapha are an invaluable treasure of Jesus’s words, preserved for us by God’s providence and by the grateful witnesses of the earthly life of Jesus.