An Early “Sayings of Jesus” Text?

Scholars translate early collection of Christian writings

Sayings of Jesus

The Last Supper by Bartolomeo Schedoni (1578–1615). Courtesy Met Museum.

A small papyrus fragment might contain one of the earliest known lists of sayings of Jesus. Dated by papyrologists to the second century, the fragment, dubbed the “Sayings of Jesus,” includes sayings that closely parallel the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew and Luke as well as the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas.


Examining an Intriguing Text

While the relationship between the Sayings of Jesus text and other early Christian writings is not yet clear, the fragment provides new information about the written sources and oral traditions that circulated among early Christian communities. The text includes a number of sayings about leaving behind the cares of the world. Some of these sayings resemble passages in Matthew 6 or Luke 12, while other sections closely resemble sayings known from the Gospel of Thomas. Significantly, however, the sayings do not appear to quote directly from these sources, which suggests they originated from a common oral tradition, were written down from memory, or were intentionally altered by the author.

“The papyrus is about freedom from anxiety,” Jeffery Fish, one of the translators of the text, told Bible History Daily. “And despite some theological and perhaps anthropological differences, the overall thrust is really not very different from what we find in the canonical parallels, especially Luke. The text on this papyrus was apparently preceded by a parable about someone who mistakenly thinks that [safety] comes from amassing resources for yourself. Luke has a similar parable, but this text seems to reflect the version we know from the Gospel of Thomas. That’s a challenging message.”

The scholars, who published their research in the series The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, suggest the fragment dates to the second century. The papyrus is one of more than half a million fragments discovered at the archaeological site of Oxyrhynchus in Upper Egypt in the late 19th century. The collection of writings from Oxyrhynchus was a seismic discovery, containing some of the earliest written copies of New Testament texts and other early Christian writings, including the first-ever copy of the Gospel of Thomas. However, even though the Sayings of Jesus text comes from an archaeological excavation, it was discovered in secondary context in an ancient dump, meaning it could not be dated through traditional archaeological methods. Instead, the scholars dated the papyrus based on its paleography, comparing its writing and script to other dated fragments.

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The date is important as it would make the Sayings of Jesus text older than the Gospel of Thomas, and a potential source text for that work. However, the scholars suggest the opposite could also have been true and that the writer could have used an early version of the Gospel of Thomas to compose the Sayings of Jesus text.

“For me, the most interesting possibility is that this text may reflect a work that served as a source for the Gospel of Thomas, effectively showing us the context from which the quotations were extracted,” said Fish. “The Gospel of Thomas, in contrast to the Canonical Gospels, generally has short sayings, often with no apparent connections with the proximate ones.”

Nevertheless, the text certainly contains some of the oldest extant sayings of Jesus. Although only a small portion of the text survives, the original may have been a yet unknown gospel or a complete collection of sayings related to a particular topic. Similar collections of sayings can also be found in other early Christian writings, such as the works of second-century theologians Clement of Alexandria and Justin Martyr.

Read more in Bible History Daily:

The Gospel of Thomas’s 114 Sayings of Jesus

The Origin of Christianity

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

The Gospel of Thomas: Jesus Said What?

How to Break a Scholarly Monopoly: The Case of the Gospel of Thomas

Now Playing: The Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas

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