Papias    late 1st c. - mid-2nd c. CE 

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Greek church leader of the post-apostolic period whose Exegeses of the Logia of the Lord, a 5 volume commentary on the sayings of Jesus, provided the earliest record of information about the composition of the gospels. Papias' work is among the many texts known to ancient Christians that are now lost. But from the mid-2nd to the mid-4th c. CE it was used by church leaders from Palestine to Gaul. Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 180 CE) & Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 320 CE) cite Papias, although Eusebius expressed these reservations about the caliber of Papias' intellect:

I guess he got these ideas from a misinterpretation of the apostolic accounts. For he did not understand what they said mystically & in figurative language. For he obviously was a man of very little intelligence, as one can tell judging from his sayings. Nevertheless, it was due to him that so many churchmen after him adopted a similar opinion, basing their position on the fact that he was a man of the earliest era. (Eccles. Hist. 3.39.12-13).

About 130 CE Papias was bishop of Hierapolis in SE Asia Minor, just a few miles NE of Colossae & Laodicea. Other than that, little is known about the personal history of the man who is responsible for establishing traditions that

  • Matthew was written first; and
  • Mark records the testimony of Peter.

Papias mentioned hearing a John. Irenaeus, who countered gnostic speculations by claiming an unbroken chain of tradition from the apostles to the bishops, took this to mean that this bishop (Papias) was personally familiar with one of the most prominent apostles (John, son of Zebedee):

And Papias, who was John's auditor & Polycarp's companion, a man of the earliest era, also attests these things in writing the fourth of his books. For there are five books composed by him (Against Heresies 5.33.4).

Eusebius (Eccles. Hist. 3.39.2), however, corrected this impression by pointing out that

  • Papias mentions two Johns: one an apostle, the other an elder (presbyter); and
  • Papias claimed his traditions were derived from the elders (not apostles).

Papias was by his own admission an avid collector of oral opinions who did not put much value on book learning:

But I won't hesitate to put down for your benefit too all that I carefully learned and carefully recalled from the elders, guaranteeing its truth... And if anyone happened to come who had actually been a follower of the elders, I would inquire about the sayings of the elders. What did Andrew or Peter say? What about Philip or Thomas or James? What about John or Matthew or any of the other disciples of the Lord? And the things that Aristion and John the elder say, who were also disciples of the Lord? For I thought that things from books did not benefit me as much as the sayings of a living & abiding voice (Hist. Eccles. 3.39.3-4).

Clearly, Papias was no scholar. For he based his opinions on hearsay rather than on the comparison of texts. Moreover, Papias himself did not claim to be a disciple of "the elders," but rather a reporter who sought interviews with those who were their followers. Therefore, Papias' testimony is at best two steps removed from the apostolic generation, & even more from Jesus himself. This needs to be kept in mind in evaluating his comments about the composition of the gospels.

Papias, it should be noted, reported his sidelights on Mark first:

[John?] the elder also used to say this: Mark had been the interpreter (or translator) for Peter. And he wrote down as much as (Peter) told of the sayings & deeds of Christ --- accurately, but not in order. For he was not a hearer or follower of the Lord but, as I said, of Peter, who adapted his teaching as needed and did not arrange the sayings of the Lord in an orderly manner. And so, Mark made no mistake in writing some things down as he recalled them. For he had a single concern: to omit nothing of what he heard & to introduce no false statement (Eccles. Hist. 3.39.15).

After this detailed emphasis on Mark's care in preserving Peter's testimony unaltered, Papias' comment on the composition of Matthew is surprisingly brief and vague:

So, then, Matthew compiled the sayings (logia) of the Lord in the Hebrew language. But everyone interpreted (or translated) them as he could (Eccles. Hist. 3.38.16).

Note: Papias' testimony expressly excludes Mark from those who interpreted this "Hebrew" text of Matthew by portraying him as the interpreter who transcribed the oral teaching of Peter. Therefore, Papias does not provide a basis for the views of Augustine & later western Christians who think that Mark edited Matthew. Nor does Papias give any information about the relative sequence of the canonical Greek versions of Matthew & Mark.

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last revised 03 November 2020


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