Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The agrapha: Jesus’ extra-canonical sayings


Over the course of the last week I have come across a - to me previously unknown - source of Jesus’ sayings: the “agrapha,” and this straight from two places: first, Pope Benedict XVI’s off-the-cuff (!) remarks during the first day of the Bishops’ synod, where he quotes Origen quoting Jesus as saying “Whoever is close to me is close to the fire,” where the fire is God’s presence. Second, an article about the Servant of God Igino Giordani, where he reflects on Tertullian and St. Clement of Alexandria quoting Jesus as saying: “Have you seen your brother? You have seen your God.”

So, what are these “agrapha”? The word comes from the Greek agraphon - “non written” and refers to these sayings (sometimes also called logion/logia) not being found in the canonical Gospels, but instead having been (up to a point) handed down by word of mouth. As of today there are 21 that are generally though to be authentic, based on a specific set of criteria, spelled out in the Catholic Encyclopedia. They come from the rest of the New Testament (unsurprisingly) - i.e., being instances of someone quoting Jesus as opposed to Jesus being recorded as speaking directly as in the Gospels, from apocryphal sources - contemporary or near-contemporary sources to the Gospels that have not been included in the New Testament due to overall questions about their authenticity, from the Church Fathers - early Christian teachers quoting Jesus’ sayings passed down by verbal tradition and from the Oxyrhynchus Papyri – a set of manuscripts discovered in 1897 and 1904 dating from the early half of the 3rd century AD. While the current set numbers 21 such sayings, it is certainly open to extension if new sources are discovered and if their likelihood of authenticity is judged high. Also worth pointing out is the fact that these sayings are not attributed the same status as those of the canonical texts (more on that in the future post on Dei Verbum) and that a less stringent level of scrutiny is applied to them.

Nonetheless, if these sayings are likely to come from Jesus, there is great merit in knowing of them and understanding how they might shed new light on what is recorded about Jesus in the Gospels. Having the Pope himself quote one of them and having such a great Catholic writer as Igino Giordani reflect on them, should add further impetus to looking at them myself.

The following then are my favorites from among the full set found here, skipping ones found in the New Testament outside the Gospels, which are already familiar:
  1. Let your alm sweat in your hands until you know to whom to give it. (Didache, 1.6)

  2. Those who wish to see me and take hold of my kingdom must receive me in tribulation and suffering. (Barnabas, 7.11b)

  3. There shall be schisms and heresies. (St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 35)

  4. In what things I take you [by surprise], in those things I also will judge.(ibid, 47)

  5. The days will come in which vines will grow, each having ten thousand shoots, and on each shoot ten thousand branches, and on each branch ten thousand twigs, and on each twig ten thousand clusters, and in each cluster ten thousand grapes, and each grape, when pressed, will give twenty-five measures of wine. And, when one of those saints takes hold of a cluster, another cluster will clamor: I am better, take me, bless the Lord through me! Similarly a grain of wheat also will generate ten thousand heads, and each head will have ten thousand grains, and each grain five double pounds of clear and clean flour. And the remaining fruits and seeds and herbiage will follow through in congruence with these, and all the animals using these foods which are taken from the earth will in turn become peaceful and consenting, subject to men with every subjection. (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.33.3-4, quoting Jesus talking about what heaven will be like, his source being “Papias […] who was a[n] earwitness of John and companion of Polycarp”)

  6. Have you seen your brother? You have seen your God. (St. Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies, 1.19)

  7. Ask for the great things, and the little things will be added unto you. (ibid, 1.24)

  8. With reason, then, the scripture, wishing us to become such kind of dialectics, exhorts: But become approved moneychangers, rejecting the [evil] things, and embracing the good. (ibid, 1.28)

  9. Love covers a multitude of sins. (ibid, 4.8)

  10. No man can obtain the heavenly kingdom that has not passed through temptation. (Tertullian, On Baptism, 20)

  11. How can you say: I have kept the law and the prophets? For it is written in the law: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. And behold, many of your brethren, sons of Abraham, are clad in filth, dying of hunger, and your house is full of many good things, and nothing at all goes out of it unto them. (Origen, On Mathew, 15)

  12. On account of the sick I was sick and on account of the hungry I was hungry and on account of the thirsty I was thirsty. (ibid, 13.2)

  13. He that is near me is near the fire. He that is far from me is far from the kingdom. (Origen, On Jeremiah, 20.3)

  14. If your brother sins in word […] and makes satisfaction to you, seven times a day receive him. Simon his disciple said to him: Seven times a day? The Lord responded and said to him: Still I say to you, until seventy times seven. For indeed in the prophets, even after they were anointed by the holy spirit, the speech of sin was found. (St. Jerome, Against Pelagius, 3.2)

  15. And taking them along he entered into the place of purification itself and was walking around in the temple. And there came a certain Pharisee, a high priest, Levi by name, and he joined them and said to the savior: Who allowed you to tread on this place of purification and see these holy vessels, neither having bathed nor the feet of your disciples having been baptized? But after having defiled it, you treaded on this holy place, which is clean, on which no other man unless he has bathed and changed his clothing treads, nor dares to look at these holy vessels. And the savior immediately stood with the disciples and answered him: You therefore, being here in the temple, are you clean? The former says to him: I am clean. For I bathed in the pool of David and by one ladder going down by another I went up, and I garbed myself in garments white and clean, and then went and looked upon these holy vessels. The savior answered to him and said: Woe, blind men who do not see. You bathed in these flowing waters in which dogs and swine are cast night and day, and washed and smeared the outside skin, which even the prostitutes and the flute-girls perfume and bathe and wipe and beautify for the desire of men, but within they are filled with scorpions and all evil. But I and my disciples whom you say have not been baptized have been immersed in waters of eternal life. (Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 840, 7b-45)

  16. 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. (Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1)
What a rich harvest! There is much here to think and talk about, but I wanted to share it with you as soon as I could, hence the “bare” presentation. Enjoy!