Did Paul misquote Jesus?


Jesus never actually said what is in Acts 20:35. It can't be found in any of the Gospels. Did Paul just make this up?


Acts 20:35: In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
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The word “agrapha” means unwritten or unrecorded and is used to refer to the sayings of Jesus not found in the Canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) but located elsewhere in other New Testament canonical writings. An instance of this is Acts 20:35 (above) where we observe “It is more blessed to give than to receive” are attributed to Jesus, yet it is not found in any of the Gospels.

How can this be? Does this mean that Paul made this up? Is this an error? Certainly not!

First, Paul may not have possessed the written Gospels before speaking the words in Acts 20:35. The Book of Acts was written between A.D. 60-64. And Matthew was written between A.D. 60-70, Mark between A.D. 62-69, Luke between A.D. 60-63, and John between A.D. 85-90. So, Paul may not have been able to rely on the written accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and surely John for his revelation!

However, Paul did not necessarily need the written accounts of the Gospels to know what Jesus had said. How? Jesus spoke personally to Paul numerous times during his life. He spoke to him during his conversion in approximately AD 32-36 (Acts 9:4-6; 22:8). We know Paul was a chosen vessel to bear the gospel before “the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). He didn’t need to confer with flesh and blood (Gal. 1:16) and in Galatians 1:11-12 wrote, “the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Did you catch that? Paul spoke “by the revelation of Christ”! Paul was constantly listening to “the Spirit of Jesus” who is the Holy Spirit (Acts 16:6-7; 22:18; cf. 1 Cor. 11:23; 15:3; 1 Thess. 4:15). He was not only “compelled by the Spirit” (Acts 20:22-23), but the Lord even spoke to Paul in visions (cf. Acts 18:9), and as an apostle he wrote the Lord’s commandment (cf. 1 Cor. 14:37). According to Peter, who was physically with Jesus during his earthly ministry, Paul literally wrote Scripture — “… as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:16). Thus the words “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35) are Scripture — true, clear, inspired, inerrant and infallible every bit as much as the four Canonical Gospels are. Jesus literally said these words at some point in redemptive history!

Second, Jesus did and said a lot of things not recorded in the Canonical Gospels. John writes, “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25; cf. Psa. 40:5; John 20:30). Hyperbolically speaking, "if all the seas were ink, and the limbs of every bush a pen, and all the stars of the sky were volumes, and all the children of men scribes, they couldn’t write all that Christ has done." [1] Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul are independent witnesses of the truth of Scripture. They each shared the truth of Christ. But as is very clear, not all of it is recorded for us in the accounts of the Gospels alone.

Third, it would be very peculiar for Luke, a historian, and who penned the Book of Acts under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, not to catch such a glaring error if indeed, it were an error. Actually, what we observe in Acts 20:35 is not an error at all. Rather, both Peter and Luke confirm how the “Spirit of Jesus” (Acts 16:7, NASB) is consistent with what Jesus literally spoke during his earthly ministry even many years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).

2 Timothy 3:16: All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

2 Peter 1:19-21: And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.


[1] My re-phrasing of Shirhashirim Rabba, fol. 4. 2, “if all the seas were ink, and the bulrushes pens, and the heavens and the earth volumes, and all the children of men Scribes, , "they would not be sufficient to write the law", which have learned, &c.'' John Gill’s Commentary (https://biblehub.com/commentaries/john/21-25.htm). Last Accessed 22 February 2020.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).