Papias: theologian or historian?

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by Neil Godfrey

Richard Bauckham places critical importance on the way Papias expresses his preference for a “living voice” over “books”, and argues that here Papias is informing readers that he follows “best historical practice” according to standards of antiquity.

Thanks to my life-long habit of frequenting second hand bookstores I have just come across my old 1965 Penguin paperback of G. A. Williamson translation of Eusebius and notice a small print footnote on these words of Papias:

For I did not imagine that things out of books would help me as much as the utterances of a living and abiding voice. 2 . . . . . . .

2. A reminiscence of I Peter i. 23.

Of course! Eusebius had earlier told us that Papias knew and quoted 1 Peter, citing specifically 1 Peter 5.13:

The church in Babylon, chosen like yourselves, sends you greeting, and so does my son Mark.

And of course this reference in Papias to the living and abiding voice is another allusion to that same epistle, 1:23:

the living and abiding word of God

That Papias is drawing on the thought and language of 1 Peter here is further supported, I suspect, by his related thoughts in this passage:

I carefully learnt from the presbyters and have carefully recalled . . . .

Compare 1 Peter 1:10

Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched diligently

We also have the familiar johannine language of “commandments” “faith” and “truth” which, no doubt, Loisy would find supportive of his thoughts that Papias was a promoter of the Johannine gospel into the church. In fact, reading Papias’s interest in passing on the true faith, avoiding those who have much to say while saying nothing, beside 1 and even 2 Peter and the epistles of John, one begins to sense that Papias is written as an ideal responsive audience of these epistles.

Methinks that the simplest and most obvious thought behind Papias’s preference for the “living and abiding word” was the handing on of the “true faith” in accord with the admonition of the pastoral epistle. Best historical practice? What does that have to do with “the guarantee of truth” from the “right sources”!

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Neil Godfrey

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