Since the publication of J. G. Körner's De sermonibus Christi “agraphois” (1778), “agrapha” (literally “unwritten things”) has become the name for sayings attributed to Jesus, but not found (i.e., “not written”) in the canonical Gospels. Interest in collecting such sayings started in the sixteenth century, but Alfred Resch was the first to present the results of a systematic research in 1889. His extensive collection of more than three hundred extracanonical sayings has been substantially enriched in the twentieth century by new manuscript discoveries.
Within the New Testament, but outside the Gospels, there are a few sayings attributed to Jesus (Acts 1.4–8; 11.16; 20.35; cf. 1 Cor. 7.10 and 1 Thess. 4.15). Some sayings, though transmitted in some manuscripts of the Gospels, have not been adopted into the canon, and have been relegated to the critical apparatus of the various editions of the Greek New Testament (e.g., Matt. 6.13; 20.28; Mark 9.49 [codex D]; Luke 6.5 [codex D]; 9.55–56a; 11.2c [codex 700]; John 6.56 [codex D]). The fragmentary papyri (especially those from Oxyrhynchus in Egypt) discovered since the end of the nineteenth century, and the more extensive apocryphal gospels (especially the gnostic gospels discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi), contain a rich collection of “logia.” The most important is the Gospel of Thomas; other gnostic writings containing revelations and hymns also provide a large range of peculiar sayings. Numerous church fathers, from the second century on, quote words of Jesus that are only partially present in the Gospels, if at all. A few words have been found in ancient liturgies and church orders. The Talmud preserves two unparalleled sayings of Jesus (ʿAbod. Zar. 16b, 17a; S̆abb. 116 a–b). The Qurʾān and later Islamic writings also refer to several unknown sayings.
Oral tradition preceded and even for some time accompanied the written tradition of the Gospels. Therefore, in principle at least, some ancient sayings may have survived in oral form even after the Gospels were written, and later authors may have integrated them into their works. But it is also likely that an important figure like Jesus himself became the center of a creative tradition. Others' statements were attributed to him, and new sayings were created.
Taking into account the plurality of sources, spread over several centuries, there is naturally a great variety among the agrapha. They vary from possibly authentic sayings, through adaptations and combinations of sayings from the Gospels, to pure fantasy and tendentious creations. Several of them have been forged for a particular situation, for example, to support with Jesus' own authority a later (orthodox or heretical) concept or practice.
Each saying is in some way a witness to a certain concept and a particular setting. Certain collections, especially the gnostic logia, provide valuable information about various tendencies in early Christianity. In most cases, differences from the form and content of the canonical sayings, together with some evident peculiarity, clearly exclude authenticity. Among the several hundred agrapha, only a few have some chance of being really ancient and perhaps authentic. This complex documentation, therefore, adds little to a better knowledge of the historical Jesus or the earliest Christian tradition.
Examples of agrapha that have often been thought to be authentic sayings of Jesus are:
Be approved money changers.
The one who is near me is near the fire; the one who is far from me is far from the kingdom.
No one can obtain the kingdom of heaven who has not passed through temptation.
There shall be divisions and heresies.