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Today's Study

Acts 20:35: Missing Words of Jesus?

How complete are our Gospels? Have the authors missed anything? That is the issue raised by Acts 20:35. In this context Paul is defending his ministry to the Ephesian elders. They do not doubt his ministry, but Paul knows that after he leaves false teachers will come in and will (1) seek to discredit him and (2) attempt to establish a new pattern of ministry. Paul's own example of self-giving in ministry will help them distinguish the true from the false. Having noted his faithfulness in teaching and pastoring (Acts 20:18-21), Paul points out that he supported himself and his companions in ministry; he took no offerings from them nor raised money elsewhere. This was in part to teach them to "help the weak," to support poorer Christians financially. But then Paul quotes "the words of the Lord Jesus himself." The problem here is that we know of no Gospel context where these words appear. Where do they come from? What does this say about the nature and formation of the Gospels?

Jesus left no literature behind him. He taught his disciples as a rabbi would teach his students. They were expected to memorize the words and deeds of the teacher. That is why the earliest rabbinic writings come from the third century, although they contain some oral traditions going back to the first century. That was, of course, a time when memory was well developed. Any scribe in Palestine would have memorized the whole Old Testament.

The author of Luke-Acts tells us in the prologue to Luke (Lk 1:1-4) that in the years after Jesus' ascension "many" col- lected the words and deeds of Jesus into Gospels of one type or another. He distinguishes these writers from the "eyewitnesses," probably because the eyewitnesses themselves (such as the twelve apostles) felt no need to write, for they had seen and heard enough to last them a lifetime. Furthermore, he states that he himself used careful research to sort through these accounts in writing his own Gospel. Most scholars believe that one of the written sources he used was Mark's Gospel.

In any such process of research and writing some material is discarded for one reason or another. The author of the Fourth Gospel tells us that there was a vast amount of material that he could not include in his work (Jn 20:30; 21:25). Each Gospel author had the goal of providing certain information to the church and painting a portrait of Jesus from a particular angle; what did not fit into this plan had to be dropped. Scrolls only came in limited sizes.

The fact that such material was not included in this or that Gospel, however, does not mean that the stories or sayings were not genuine or were immediately forgotten. Many of them circulated in the oral tradition of the church for the first generation or two as the eyewitnesses and their first hearers told stories about Jesus. Some were later distorted and recorded in Gnostic Gospels such as the Gospel of Thomas. Such second-century or later works, dug up by archaeologists or found in the recesses of ancient libraries, have been heralded by some scholars as "secret sayings" of Jesus. These later heterodox Gospels contain such distorted versions of Jesus' sayings that they add nothing to our knowledge of him. In the first century, however, before there was a lot of distortion, some of these sayings found their way into orthodox and even canonical works, even though they were rejected by (or unknown to) the Gospel writers. For example, James 5:12 quotes a saying of Jesus which appears in a longer form in Matthew 5:33-37. Other short sayings in James also may well be sayings of Jesus (see Jas 1:27; 2:13; 3:18; 4:11-12, 17), but since James never tells us if he is quoting Jesus, we will never know which come from Jesus and which are his own coinage. But his readers probably knew, for in the first century when few could read the church memorized the teachings of Jesus and would have recognized them in print.

In Acts 20:35, then, Paul indicates that he knows a saying of Jesus that was not included in any of the canonical Gospels. We appreciate the fact that he tells us that it comes from Jesus, for that enables us to identify it. The author of Luke-Acts, who obviously knows the saying since he cites Paul as using it, does not include it in his Gospel, perhaps because it did not fit into his scheme or perhaps because he knew he would cite it later. His method appears to be not to repeat material if he can avoid it. So words of Jesus found in the Gospel do not appear in Acts and this one in Acts does not appear in the Gospel.

While we in the present age may lament the loss of a wealth of sayings and stories after the first century (especially given our own drive to preserve as much of the past as possible in museums, archives, libraries and on computer disks), we need to remember two things. First, orthodox Christianity believes in the Holy Spirit who oversaw getting what was necessary into the canon. What was not included might have been nice but was not necessary for us to have in written form. Second, believers in the first century had no New Testament to help them distinguish between accurate and distorted traditions. They had to rely on the personal interpretations of eyewitnesses. As the church grew and the eye- witnesses died, getting such a judgment became more and more difficult. Those first-century Christians who knew a major eyewitness would have had access to far more information about Jesus than we have today, but most Christians never met a single eyewitness and so actually had far less trustworthy information available than is contained in the New Testament.

We can be thankful for having what we do today in a form that all Christians everywhere can consult at the same time, assuming it has been translated into their language. We have sufficient fully trustworthy information about Jesus for the needs of the church, although we do not have exhaustive information or even enough to answer all of our questions or direct us in our personal lives. Yet what is needed in personal direction beyond Scripture Jesus is still quite capable of providing through his Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers, even if that does not come in canonical form and so cannot be imposed upon others.


Some scholars, such as Birger Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript (Uppsala, 1961), believe that some of Jesus' disciples (such as Levi/Matthew) were literate and may have taken a type of shorthand notes. But even if some of the sayings were recorded in writing, Gerhardsson admits that memory was the major means of preserving Jesus' teaching and that such notes were at best partial.

Matthew, Luke and John fill the longest scrolls available in that day. Each of them would have needed a second volume if he had wanted to include more information.

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