Where did Jesus say "It is better to give than receive?"

A visitor to the CADRE site recently sent a question about Paul's statement in Acts 20:35 which records Paul as saying, "And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, 'It is better to give than to receive'." The reader wanted to know where Jesus said this. This was my answer:

You are correct in noting that this saying of Jesus quoted by Paul is not found anywhere in the four Gospels. My own study Bible says "This is a rare instance of a saying of Jesus not found in the canonical Gospels."

Does the fact that it isn't stated in the Gospels mean that it isn't reliably from the lips of Jesus? I don't think so. The Apolstle John said at the end of his Gospel (John 21:25): "Jesus did many other things as well.If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written." Obviously, this is exaggeration for the sake of making a point, but it means that Jesus did many more things that were written, and if he did many more things, it is reasonable to conclude that he also said many more things.

Does the fact that the saying comes from Paul mean that Jesus didn't say it? Certainly, Paul is not recorded anywhere in the Gospels as being a direct witness to anything Jesus said or did before the resurrection. But there are reasons that we can believe that Jesus was accurately quoting what Jesus said.

Paul certainly had knowledge about Jesus’ earthly ministry. In Galatians 1:18- 2:10, a letter that which almost universally acclaimed as authentically written by Paul, he reports that he met at least two times with those in Jerusalem who were apostles who had known Jesus Christ, and impliedly shows that what he was teaching was consistent with the Gospel as they understood it.

"Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas [Peter], and stayed with him fifteen days. But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord's brother. (Now in what I am writing to you, I assure you before God that I am not lying.) * * *

"Then after an interval of fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along also. It was because of a revelation that I went up; and I submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but I did so in private to those who were of reputation, for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain. * * * [S]eeing that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised (for He who effectually worked for Peter in his apostleship to the circumcised effectually worked for me also to the Gentiles), and recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, so that we might go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They only asked us to remember the poor--the very thing I also was eager to do."

Thus, three years after his Road to Damascus experience, Paul went to stay with Peter. Fourteen years later, he went back to the Apostles and discussed another matter with them of importance to his ministry. The first visit with Peter would have provided Paul with "a wealth of information" about "the life of our Lord—matters about which Paul would have intense interest, just as you and I do." (Was Paul a Man-Pleaser? (Galatians 1:10-2:10) Bob Deffinbaugh , Th.M.) On the second visit, "The apostles perceived the content of Paul’s preaching to be the same as that which God had given to them, differing only in the audience to whom Christ was proclaimed." (Ibid.)

Moreover, Paul’s knowledge of the Gospel is much more complete than the "documentary" would have you believe. Consider the following from an essay that I just published on the CADRE site entitled "In Defense of the Tomb: A Reply to Jeff Lowder":

"Listed below are some of the statements Paul makes that refer or in some cases, allude to Jesus. It should be noted at the out-set that Paul assumes his audience knows of Jesus and his life. His aim isn't to teach history, but deal with pastoral problems and give hope to the early church.

Gal. 3:16 -- Jesus was born a Jew

Gal. 4:4 -- Jesus lived under Jewish Law

Rom. 1:3 -- Jesus was from the house of David

1 Cor. 9:5 -- Jesus had brothers

1 Cor. 15:7 -- One of his brother was James

1 Cor. 15:7 -- Jesus had twelve disciples

2 Cor. 8:9 -- Jesus was poor

1 Cor. 15:7 -- Some of Jesus' disciples had wives

Phil. 2:5 -- Jesus was a servant who acted with humility

2 Cor. 10:1 -- Jesus acted with meekness and gentleness

Rom. 15:3 -- Jesus didn't act on his own behalf, but was accused by others

Rom. 6:6 -- Jesus was crucified

Rom. 4:25 -- Paul speaks of Jesus' death

1 Thess 2:14-15 -- Jesus crucifixion was brought on by Jewish instigation

1 Cor. 5:7 -- Paul alludes to the Passion week

Rom. 8:34 -- Jesus is at God's right hand

Rom. 6:4, 8:29; Col. 2:12 -- Paul talks about the nature of the resurrection, presuming it's physicality. He compares the resurrection to baptism, thus giving implic testimony to the empty tomb.

"In fact, Paul alludes to many of Jesus' teachings. Craig Blomberg's The Historical Reliability of the Gospels on pp. 228-229 mentions passages in which Paul alludes to many of Jesus' teachings. Some examples are:

1 Cor. 7:10-11 -- About divorce and remarriage

1 Cor. 9:14 -- Ministers being paid wages

Rom. 13:6-7 -- Paying taxes

Rom. 13:9 -- We are to love our neighbors as ourselves

Rom. 14:14 -- Ceremonial cleanliness

1 Thes. 4:15 -- Paul said to be vigilant in light of Jesus' second coming

1 Thes. 5:2-11 -- The second coming would be like the thief in the night

1 Cor. 7: 10;9:14;11:23-25 -- Paul refers to Jesus' words.

"As can be seen, Paul was in a position (with the apostles three years after his conversion, using the word historeo, thus being concerned with history) and a place (Jerusalem) to know the facts about Jesus. Paul also may have heard about many of the events listed above before his conversion. After all, as a Jewish zealot he had persecuted Christians and was in Jerusalem."

Obviously, the idea that Paul didn’t know anything about Jesus’ life or his teachings requires one to completely close their eyes and cover their ears.

Please keep in mind that Paul himself witnesses the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus and had other encounters with him as recorded ni Acts. We don't know the extent of what Paul learned in these encounters, but it could be that Jesus instructed Paul as to what he ought to be saying.

Finally, please keep in mind that as Christians, we believe that the book of Acts (like all of the canonical writings) was insipred by the Holy Spirit which authenticates the truth of its teachings. If Paul said that Jesus said something (and technically, we have Luke saying that Paul said that Jesus said something), we can believe it to be truthful because of the work of the Holy Spirit.

That ends the letter, but I want to add one final thought: the fact that the Bible records a saying of Jesus not recorded anywhere in the four Gospels does not open up the field to admission and acceptance of every extra-biblical statement attributed to Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas, largely agreed to be a late Second Century Gnostic writing, has many sayings of Jesus that are not recorded elsewhere in the Gospels even though it also includes several sayings of Jesus found in the Gospels. Most conservative scholars don't feel obligated to accept the words of Jesus in this Gnostic knock-off because enough doubts exist about the authenticity of the writing and the sources for this "Gospel" that it would be unreasonable to accept it in the same authority as the four Gospels. In fact, I would be very careful about accepting any words attributed to Jesus that are not set forth in the Christian Bible. Since the Acts verse is already in the canon of the Bible, and since the Book of Acts is one of the Books whose authenticity and canonicity are rarely questioned, I think this is one of the fairly rare quotes from Jesus that we can accept as authentic even if it never appears anywhere in the four Gospels.


Gone Fishin' said…
I had never noticed that what Paul claimed Jesus said is not found in the gospels. That's the coolest thing I've learned all day. Thanks guys.
John Fox said…
To me it sounds rather like something said by someone wishing to be on the receiving end... ;-)
Anonymous said…
Unfortunately, the Gospels do not report that Jesus ever said this expression. Only Paul, who never met Jesus at all, says that Jesus said these words. But Paul is not recorded anywhere in the Gospels as being a direct witness to anything Jesus said or did before the resurrection. In other words, Paul either made this up or is reporting what he heard from someone else. This is called hearsay.

But iss Paul to be trusted? No he has been caught lying many times. For example, he claimed Christ abolished the Law (Romans 6:14, 7:4, Ephesians 2:15-16). Yet the Gospels say that Christ did not come to abolish the law at all (Matthew 5:17-20, 19:17, 28:20, Luke 16:17).
Paul says that it is ok to lie as the ends justify the means. "I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, that I might gain them that are without law. ... I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel's sake" (1 Cor. 9.19-23).
BK said…
I posted a response to Anonymous' comment (immediately above) here.
csc said…
Although non-canonical, First Epistle of Clement chapter one also refers to this sentiment, thereby establishing it as a phrase used at the time amongst early Christians.
csc said…
Oh, and also: Paul was taught by Jesus Himself after ascension. So there you go!
Brian Smith said…
Is there a typo in your article. The one line in paragraph 4 says, "But there are reasons that we can believe that Jesus was accurately quoting what Jesus said." Did you intend to say, "But there are reasons that we can believe that Paul was accurately quoting what Jesus said."
Anonymous said…
Thanks for sharing ....
you said "But there are reasons that we can believe that Jesus was accurately quoting what Jesus said." tautology.

Koester thought Paul had access to a written saying source of Jesus saying like Gospel of thomas, but not that one.
Unknown said…
I just wanted to know why Jesus said “it’s better to give than to receive“ and what He meant by that.
I read your entire article which is more about how much you know than what Jesus’ quote means.
Maybe I missed something...
Jesse Albrecht said…
This comment has been removed by the author.

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