Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 16

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by Neil Godfrey

16. Papias on John

A second (hitherto unknown) inner circle
In this chapter Bauckham argues that the author of the Gospel of John was John the Elder, and that it was this John who was the Beloved Disciple (BD). He begins by comparing the Synoptic “sources” with John’s. He reminds us that it was Peter, James and John (the Sons of Zebedee) who were the inner circle in the Synoptic Gospels, and that it was the Twelve who were the eyewitness authorities behind Mark’s gospel, first of the Synoptics. In the Gospel of John, on the other hand, we find that the synoptic trio of Peter, James and John, no longer occupy such a privileged place. They have been replaced, argues B, by the BD. But the BD is not alone. He is part of another circle, overlapping with the Twelve but distinct from the Twelve, and based at Jerusalem. This other circle of disciples close to Jesus consisted of the BD, Philip and Thomas and perhaps others of the Twelve, as well as Nicodemus, Lazarus, Martha and Mary. Bauckham once again fails to give any evidence for his conclusion that all these names formed an inner circle separate from, though overlapping with, the Twelve. There simply are no grounds for assuming that all these people comprised “a circle”. One can speculate that they did, and speculate that the BD was not just a metaphorical figure but a real person who knew them all personally, but B provides no evidence for his “argument”.

One can argue that there was an inner group of Twelve, as Meier does, since the prima facie evidence is clear: the Synoptics say directly that the Twelve did form an inner circle close to Jesus. And Meier, beginning here, argues his case, which I have already addressed. Bauckham does not even have the initial prima facie evidence, merely his speculation, and on the strength of that suggests that certain names, but not others, in the Gospel would have been in the group he speculates existed.

I was left waiting for B to explain why Peter, James and John were not also part of this second inner group but the closest he came to it was to make a passing reference to Peter’s ubiquity and to the Sons of Zebedee not being named personally and merely being found on the seaside fishing where one would expect them given that this gospel is “generally not concerned with them”. One is left supposing that Andrew and Nathaniel could also be in this group, and why not “Judas not Iscariot”, given this gospel’s unique interest in his exchange with Jesus (14:22)? But B is careful not to mention all the names of the Twelve that appear in a singular manner in this Gospel. If he had, he would have had to count possibly up to two-thirds of the original Twelve forming this second group!

How such a second inner circle very close to Jesus, so close in fact that one of their number, the BD, wrote the most authentic account of Jesus of all, yet significant enough to include Pharisees and members of the Twelve and women, could otherwise completely escape all notice till now, is surely a question that B’s hypothesis demands answering.

Papias again
Personally I take the paucity of evidence for the origins of Christianity as a warning against any temptation to be certain about any historical reconstruction. Yet Bauckham can confidently declare that the reason Papias replaced “Judas (not Iscariot)” with Matthew in his list of seven disciples (when he evidently copied their names sequentially from the Gospel of John) is:

because, when he was writing, Mathew’s Gospel was well known and the apostle Matthew therefore [was] and obvious source of oral traditions about Jesus (p.417-8).

He supplies no evidence for this declaration, and the assertion that “therefore” Matthew was an obvious eyewitness source is of course a completely circular conclusion. This is typical of the claims throughout this book.

Naive reading:
I need to clarify an expression I used in relation to my discussion of B’s first chapter and have possibly used several times since. When I say Bauckham is naively reading a text I do not mean he is uncritically taking its contents at face value (though there are a few times when he does that, too). I am meaning that he follows a practice found all too frequently among biblical scholarly writings, that of taking the self-reference of a text as the guide for interpreting the purpose and content of the text. So a text that claims to be the words of Papias is taken as the literal words of a literal Papias, however much acceptance or criticism one may bring to bear on what that “Papias” actually writes.

This is not hyper-criticism. It is simply applying commonly accepted common-sense standards of critical analysis consistently. No biblical scholar naively accepts the Gospel of Peter as really authored by Peter, even though many in the early church evidently did. It is simply shoddy scholarship not to require evidence external to a text to establish the claims of a text. Especially when we are dealing with a period of history where we know texts (Christian and non-Christian) were regularly “redacted” by editors for a whole host of reasons, and where texts were very commonly written in the names of others and claiming to be from a different time, again for multiple reasons. Plato wrote his teachings in the name of his famous deceased teacher Socrates. “Dictys and Dares” wrote as “eyewitnesses” to set the record straight on the Trojan war and expose the “falsehoods” told in Homer’s Iliad. In addressing the noncanonical gospels (of Peter, of James, of Mary, of Philip, of Judas, of Bartholomew, of Thomas, of the Twelve, of the Seventy, of Matthias, of Nicodemus, etc.) biblical scholars uniformly apply standard historical criteria to assess the value, nature and provenance of the texts. External evidence is applied to establish that we have no reason for accepting the self-reference of any of these texts. Yet when it comes to the canonical gospels those standards appear to be subsumed beneath the traditions of confessional interests. Scholars who insist on applying the same standards to these texts are quickly labelled “sceptics” or “radical critics” — as if those are bad words in scholarship.

B is reading a text in Eusebius that claims to be quoting Papias whom he says wrote around 150 years earlier. We know Eusebius was a propagandist for orthodoxy and that he did not always cite his sources with perfect accuracy. The text claiming to be by Papias may well have claimed to have been set 150 years earlier. But we have absolutely independent support for this apparent self-reference of the text at all. That Bauckham is prepared to build an entire hypothesis on such “evidence” is indeed most “courageous”.

Bauckham‘s deciphering of Papias and John

Bauckham now assumes:

  1. that Papias, like himself, also regarded the BD as literal character in the gospel,
  2. and that Papias would have known the real identity of the BD,
  3. and that Papias relied exclusively on the text of the Gospel of John to leave a clue that he knew the identity of the BD — even though he had much first or second hand knowledge of the teaching of this BD quite apart from the text of the Gospel.

The deciphering works as follows:

  1. what if Papias did not list the names of his disciples of Jesus according to the order of their appearance in the Gospel of John after all?
  2. what if instead he took their order from the appearance of three of them – Andrew, Peter, Philip – in John 1:35-51 and the last three – Thomas, James and John – from the list mentioned in John 21:2 (excluding ubiquitous Peter naturally)? (We “know” that Matthew replaced Nathaniel for reasons already speculated.)
  3. if so, then why would not Papias have related John’s 2 anonymous disciples in John 21:2 with the other elders he lists, Ariston and John the Elder?
  4. and Elder can refer to the extreme old age of that John, not necessarily to an ecclesiastical office,
  5. since Bauckham “believes” that the author of the Gospel of John also wrote the Johannine letters (again, no critical discussion historians normally ply to the evidence they work with, just “belief”), and the Johannine letters address some of their readers as “little children”, then surely we have further evidence that the Gospel of John was written by one acknowledged as an Elder,
  6. and recall our reasoning (in the absence of evidence) that the canonical gospels were probably associated with their names from the beginning, so that John’s Gospel was understood to be by a John,
  7. and since Papias is said to have said that he spoke of John the apostle in the past tense and John the Elder in the present tense,
  8. and since we have argued against the more consistent metaphorical interpretation of the BD that the BD himself wrote the gospel,
  9. then we may safely conclude that the author of the Gospel of John was none other than John the Elder, and that he was also the Beloved Disciple!

I am reminded of those astounding acrobatic feats where a half dozen climb up on each other and all juggle or spin hoops as they balance precariously on the sole support of the one set of shoulders below. But I am less amazed knowing that this remarkable feat has a solid base on which to perform.

Working out what Papias said about John
“Papias”(the evidence does not permit us to know if the name Papias here was a pseudonym or anything about the provenance and of this text) cites the names of seven disciples in the same order in which they appear in the Gospel of John. From this detail Bauckham confidently concludes that Papias believed that the Gospel of John recorded the correct chronology of the entire narrative of Jesus. This detail informs us that Papias believed John wrote the correct order in which the miracles occurred and that the Synoptics were inferior insofar as they got the chronology of Jesus’ life wrong.

The Muratorian Fragment (Bauckham places this at the earlier earlier of the two dates debated, the late second and fourth centuries), has misunderstood Papias in the same way Eusebius did, Bauckham argues. Both (along with some modern scholars, B laments) erroneously think Papias used the term “elders” to refer to the apostles of Jesus, since this was a term the original apostles applied to themselves. B cites 1 Peter 5:1-2 here.

Nevertheless, B does see the evidence of Papias behind the Muratorian Fragment despite its more obvious contradictions of his understanding of what Papias wrote. One such trace is the Fragment’s statement that John (B believes the Fragment has misinterpreted Papias by assuming the apostle John here) wrote the miracles of Jesus “in order”. Since Papias complained about “the order” of a gospel atttributed to Mark, and since he named 6 of 7 apostles in the same “order” in which they appear in John’s gospel, well, what else can one definitively conclude but that the Muratorian Fragment is another witness to that Papias must have written how the Gospel of John was the only Gospel that wrote the entire story of Jesus in correct chronological order!

Ironically none other than Loisy might find this conclusion plausible at least, but B could never accept Loisy’s reasons for to do so would be to blow B’s entire complex (of a harmonious Christian community in friendly rivalry all relying on “best historical practices”, with nothing less than honest eyewitness testimony and a complete assurance in the historical truth of the entire narrative) completely out of the water.

Against Eusebius and the Muratorian Fragment B believes Irenaeus alone understood Papias correctly. Irenaeus wrote that Papias’s reference to the elders was not to the apostles but to that generation who outlived the original apostles or “disciples of the Lord” (p.431). (B makes no comment on whether he thinks Irenaeus was also correct in understanding the Gospel of John portrays a Jesus who lived close to about 50 before his crucifixion.)

One senses in reading Bauckham that he accepts or rejects the reliability of sources or modern scholarly arguments according to whether they lend plausibility to his hypotheses. It is this binary test that settles their “reliability”. There is no serious attempt to address the critical issues, the debates and the arguments against his views. Not even in synopsis form in fine print footnotes.

Charles Hill on Papias
Bauckham concludes with an appendix that discusses Charles Hill’s research that posits the likelihood that Eusebius was copying or paraphrasing Papias in an earlier discussion about the Gospels of John and Luke. I may address this in more depth in a second post. Till then, I think a recent article by Charles Hill, “Papias of Hierapolis”, is of interest:

The earlier passage in Eusebius that discusses John and Luke (3.24.5-16) preserves much of Papias’ original vocabulary. The discussion of John and Luke expresses some concerns common to Papias’ discussion of Mark and Matthew:

  • each gospel had its origin in the preaching of one or more of the apostles
  • the evangelists wrote at the requests of others (including Matthew)
  • the same form of the word for “remember” to indicate the eyewitness source of all gospels
  • a concern for the correct “order” of the contents of the gospels
  • endorsement for each gospel from another accepted apostolic source

As for Papias’ interest in “living and abiding voice”, Hill says this

seems to reflect a common and proverbial preference for oral instruction from qualified teachers over what can be derived solely from books (p.312 of The Expository Times, Vol. 117, Number 8, 2006)

and cites L. Alexander, discussed by B in his second chapter.

Hill goes further to make the interesting suggestion that the books Papias was thinking of here, in particular in his context of his complaint about those who “have a great deal to say” and who “recall the commandments of others”, are the 24 books written by Basilides as an exposition of the Gospel:

Papias wrote 5 books on “the Lord’s oracles”, and titled them “Exposition [Exegesis] of the Dominical Logia”; Basilides wrote 24 books titled “Exegetica concerning the Gospel”.

Basilides claimed to have learned his Gospel tradition from Glaucias, an interpreter of Peter; Papias proclaimed the elder’s tradition that the gospel came from Mark, an interpreter of Peter.

Was Papias’s complaint about those who have much to say and rely on the traditions of others a dig at the Alexandrian Basilides and his 24 books that claimed to have been derived from Glaucias?

Hill concludes from the evidence available and the amount of conjecture it involves:

The coincidences are certainly suggestive, but so much remains unknown that this explanation too must remain a conjecture. (p.313)

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Neil Godfrey

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