Did Jesus Say That?
Near the close of his words of exhortation to the Ephesus elders recorded by Luke in Acts 20, the apostle Paul reminded them of something Jesus once said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). The problem that many have with Paul’s quotation of Jesus, however, is that it nowhere appears in the gospel accounts, or anywhere else in Scripture outside of Acts 20. According to one Bible critic,
One of the great misquotes of Paul is found in Acts 20:35 where he says: “...ye ought to support the weak and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Nowhere in the New Testament did Jesus make such a statement. Paul’s oratory apparently got away from him (McKinsey, 1983, 8:4, emp. added).
Did Paul really make a mistake? Did he misquote Jesus? What logical explanation can be given as to why these words are not recorded in the gospel accounts?
First, there is no indication that the apostle Paul even possessed the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John during his ministry, nor did he need them in order to know what Jesus taught. In fact, they likely were written some years after Paul had already begun his missionary journeys, and probably after he reminded the Ephesus elders of Jesus’ statement about giving. The truth is, Paul did not rely upon the gospel accounts for his knowledge of Jesus. Rather, Paul received supernatural revelation directly from God. Jesus spoke directly to Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9; 22:8), “the Spirit of Jesus” kept him from preaching in Bithynia (Acts 16:7, ASV), and “the Lord spoke to Paul...by a vision” in Corinth (Acts 18:9). Paul was an inspired apostle (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:37; 2 Peter 3:16). The message that he preached came directly from God. To the churches of Galatia, he wrote: “But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ (1:11-12, emp. added). As important as the gospel accounts are to Christians in the twenty-first century, the apostle Paul did not need to consult them in order to know if Jesus ever taught, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
Second, Bible students must recognize that not everything Jesus said or did was recorded by the gospel writers. In fact, near the end of John’s gospel account, he commented on this truth twice, saying, “[T]ruly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book.... [T]here are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 20:30; 21:25). What’s more, none of the gospel accounts is exactly alike. What one writer recorded, another may have omitted. For instance, Luke noted that Jesus told the penitent thief on the cross, “[T]oday you will be with Me in Paradise” (23:43), yet Matthew, Mark, and John omitted this saying. Does this somehow discredit Luke’s account? Not at all. The fact is, all four accounts are independent witnesses to the life of Christ, and some contain more (or less) information on a particular subject than the others.
Is it possible for Paul to have cited a saying of Jesus (that may have even been fairly well known in the first century), but that was not recorded by the gospel writers? Certainly. Does this in any way discredit Him as an inspired writer or mean that he “misquoted” Jesus? Not at all.
McKinsey, C. Dennis (1983), “Paul, the Deceptive Disciple,” Biblical Errancy, 8:4, August.