Oxyrhynchus Sayings of Jesus

OXYRHYNCHUS SAYINGS OF JESUS ŏk’ sĭrĭng’ kəs. A collection of sayings or apothegms purporting to be quoted from Jesus and surviving on four small fragments of papyrus written in Koine Gr. These were discovered in the systematic search for papyrus carried on at the site of the Hel. town of Oxyrhynchus, ̓Οζυρυνχυς, the modern Behnesa, 121 m. below Cairo and ten m. to the W of the Nile River. The mass of papyri fragments, scrolls and folios excavated from Oxyrhynchus were published by the British scholars B. P. Grenfell (1869-1926) and A. S. Hunt (1871-1934) and their successors in eighteen volumes and accompanied by several monographs during the 19th cent. The sayings attributed to Jesus are written on four separate and apparently unrelated fragments. The first was discovered soon after the first trench into the mound of the ancient Roman-age town was dug, after 11 January 1897. It was titled by its finders, Papyrus I, and contains a portion of the apocryphal Gospel of St. Thomas, a Gnostic work of the post-apostolic period. There are seven decipherable sayings each introduced by the phrase “Jesus says,” and apparently disconnected from each other except for the introductory phrase.

Preservation of such fragments leaves more questions unanswered than answers provided. The “sayings of Papyrus 1” are paraphrased as follows:

1. “Jesus says, Unless you fast from the world, you will in no way discover the kingdom of God.”

“If you do not keep the sabbath the whole week through, you will not see the father.”

2. “Jesus says, I stood in the center of the world and I was seen by them in the flesh, and I found all men drunk, but I found none thirsty among them.”

3. “Jesus says, My soul grieves concerning the sons of men because their hearts are blind so they do not see their plight and their poverty.”

4. “Jesus says, Wherever there are two together they are not apart from God, and where one is alone, I tell you I am with him.”

“Lift up the stone and then you shall find me, split the beam and I am there.”

5. “Jesus says, A physician does not treat those who know him.”

6. “Jesus says, You hear with one ear, but the other is closed.”

7. “Jesus says, There is nothing hidden (buried) which shall not be (raised) known.”

The question as to whether these or other collections of non-canonical sayings may in fact be based on some unrecorded true remembrance of the words of Jesus is related to the view of canon which is adopted. Since the apostles were in the prime position to judge the veracity of such texts and since their disciples took such pains to set down only their teachings, it is highly unlikely that a large body of such lit. would have survived. The evidence for an extensive body of oral tradition in the immediate postapostolic age is denied by the writings of the Pre-Nicene fathers, who appear to have shown the diligence and care necessary to differentiate between the true canonical books and the many spurious ones then in circulation. The difficulty of the location of the true origin of the sayings is impossible to solve and speculations are useless. In each of the sayings the theme of the “hiddenness” of the true message of Jesus and the need for nonrational means of obtaining the true knowledge are typically oriental and neo-Platonic, two chief features mentioned by the Gr. fathers as common in the heresies of their time.

One aspect of the sayings which demonstrates the essential character of the 3rd cent.-church is their simple reliance for authority on the words of Jesus. The authors of these spurious texts could seek no better authority for their notions than to insert them into the teachings of Jesus. The common notion that Christ did not construct an authoritative body of teaching, but that it was His followers who made up the true character of Christological authority, is thus destroyed. Another feature of the sayings is that they lack the inherent Sem. style and semantics of the actual quotations from Christ’s teaching as recorded in the gospels. They are prob. not based on Heb. or Aram. originals but were set down in either Coptic of Upper Egypt or Koine Gr. Final assessment of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri must await the results of newer archeological discoveries of Rom. era texts.


Ed. B. P. Grenfell and A. S. Hunt and others, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, 32 vols. (1898-1966); H. G. E. White, The Sayings of Jesus from Oxyrhynchus (1920); M. R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament (1924); N. Lewis, L’Industrie du papyrus dans l’ Égypte graeco-romaine (1934); J. Jeremias, Unbekannte Jesusworte (1948); J. Cerny, Paper and Books in Ancient Egypt (1952); H. I. Bell, Cults and Creeds in Graeco-Roman Egypt (1953); M. S. Enslin, “Oxyrhynchus Sayings of Jesus,” IDB Vol. III (1962), 614-616; C. K. Barrett, The New Testament Background: Selected Documents (1967); E. G. Turner, Greek Papyri (1968).