Does the Bible contain all the words of Jesus Christ?
An article of faith among the Latter-day Saints states that the Bible is neither entirely complete nor entirely correct. Thus, they are interested in sayings not found in the New Testament that are ascribed to Jesus by early Christians. Such noncanonical sayings are called agrapha, from the Greek noun meaning "something unwritten." The idea behind the agrapha is that in the first century there were oral traditions about Jesus and his teachings out of which the New Testament Gospels were distilled, but all of those traditions were not included in those Gospels. Also, as the original disciples of Christ lived, they must have continued to add fresh reminiscences to the body of oral tradition surrounding the Savior. The Coptic Gospel of Thomas, part of the Nag Hammadi library from Egypt, alone contributes 114 such sayings. Although there is no way to determine the historicity of Jesus' noncanonical sayings, a few clues can help scholars gauge a statement's plausibility. For instance, if it seems to come from the correct historical setting, if it does not bear the mark of later political or religious agendas, and if it is found in several different sources, the agrapha is more likely to be genuine. Some agrapha that are of particular interest to Latter-day Saints are found in the second-century writings of Justin Martyr and in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, which attribute to Jesus sayings that elaborate on the doctrine of the Great Apostasy. Another important agrapha from Islamic literature has Jesus verifying the idea of a premortal existence. But overall, the agrapha have revealed few gems, and those sayings that seem genuine cannot be verified.
Stephen E. Robinson -
Stephen E. Robinson has been Professor of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University.