Subjecting Papias to external controls. A first step

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by Neil Godfrey

This relates to my previous post on Bauckham’s chapter 16. I addressed the issue of “naive readings” of texts, explaining what I mean by that term. I won’t repeat the details here. (Any text can claim to be written by so and so and at a certain time. Scholars know that when it comes to the bulk of apocryphal “new testament” writings.)

So what external evidence do we have for the time when the Papias text was written?

Irenaeus (ca 175-185?) is the earliest to demonstrate any knowledge of Papias. Justin Martyr (ca 150-160?) knows nothing of Papias’ explanations of the origins of the gospels. Justin speaks of “Memoirs of the Apostles” but his knowledge of the gospel cannot be defined by what we know of the canonical narrative. See this archive.

If Papias was writing around 120-130 as many argue, then it is surprising that Justin knows nothing of the 2 (possibly 4 — see the Hill discussion in previous post) gospels in any way that Papias appears to have spoken about them.

Although the text of Papias appears to assert its author lived in the early part of the second century, external testimony suggests that the work bearing the name Papias as its author/narrator was not known till after Justin. The earliest evidence for the existence of the work is late second century. That is as much a fact as the self-reference of the text.

So the objective external evidence (very scant though it is) through which we must interpret the text of Papias scarcely supports the self-reference of the text of Papias. The most that the external evidence tells us about the text of Papias is that it appears to have made its appearance some time between around 160 and 175 ce.

If the details narrated by Papias about the origins of the gospels (whether Mark and Matthew only or, with Charles Hill, also re John and Luke) were historically true then it is surprising nothing of these was known to Justin. An explanation is called for in this regard.

But if, as I have suggested, Justin is testimony to a stage when the gospel narrative as we know it was still being sorted out and constructed, then Papias appears to appear as testimony to a later stage when the gospels had made their appearance. There is just one step between Justin and Papias that is missing — the pre-John stage. The evidence of Eusebius (agreeing with Hill that Eusebius also records Papias’ comments on John — see the last section of my comments on chapter 16) and the arguments of Loisy, strongly suggest that Papias was a propagandist to bring the Gospel of John into the fold till then consisting till then only of Synoptic gospels.

It is also most significant that Papias’s rationales for his understandings of the gospels of Mark, Matthew and John and Luke are essentially related to ecclesiastical or doctrinal authority:

  • none of the gospel authors wrote presumptuously but all were begged by necessity
  • all gospel authors recorded what had been taught by an apostle
  • all gospel authors relied on eyewitness accounts
  • the question of order was significant in all gospel accounts, with John being the only one to get the ‘order’ right
  • each gospel was endorsed by an apostolic authority

(See pp. 389-390 of Charles Hill’s The Johannine Corpus.)

This strongly suggests that “Papias” was part of the later stage of endorsing what became “orthodox” authority — a struggle that was of increasingly intense interest as the second century drew on and found its earliest dogmatic expressions in authors such as Irenaeus and Tertullian.

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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Subjecting Papias to external controls. A first step”

  1. Hi Neal. Christianity has traditionally used Papias to date the Gospels early and it is only relatively recently that Critical Christian scholarship has Confessed that Papias is probably not evidence of early Canonical gospels. The time has come to go beyond this Confession and consider if Papias is evidence of Late Gospels.

    We can already use Papias’ information regarding authors Mark and Matthew as evidence that “Mark” and “Matthew” either did not exist in Papias’ time or were not well known and that Papias was actually the Source of (mis)Attributing authorship of Mark and Matthew to what Papias was referring to, which was not Canonical. In other words, it was subsequent orthodox Christianity which attributed authors Mark and Matthew to the Canonical “Mark” and “Matthew”, and not Papias. Papias was not referring to Canonical “Mark” and “Matthew”.

    If we look at the Details of extant Papias I think we have the same situation. Papias never refers to the Canonical Gospels (of his time). It’s always the other way around. Papias is a Source for the subsequent Canonical Gospels. Consider:

    “To these belong his statement that there will be a period of some thousand years after the resurrection of the dead, and that the kingdom of Christ will be set up in material form on this very earth.”

    The Source for Revelation?

    “Judas walked about as an example of godlessness in this world, having been bloated so much in the flesh that he could not go through where a chariot goes easily, indeed not even his swollen head by itself. For the lids of his eyes, they say, were so puffed up that he could not see the light, and his own eyes could not be seen, not even by a physician with optics, such depth had they from the outer apparent surface. And his genitalia appeared more disgusting and greater than all formlessness, and he bore through them from his whole body flowing pus and worms, and to his shame these things alone were forced [out]. And after many tortures and torments, they say, when he had come to his end in his own place, from the place became deserted and uninhabited until now from the stench, but not even to this day can anyone go by that place unless they pinch their nostrils with their hands, so great did the outflow from his body spread out upon the earth”

    Probably the Source for Acts.

    “The aforesaid Papias reported as having received it from the daughters of Philip that Barsabas who is Justus, tested by the unbelievers, drank the venom of a viper in the name of the Christ and was protected unharmed. He also reports other wonders and especially that about the mother of Manaemus, her resurrection from the dead. Concerning those resurrected by Christ from the dead, that they lived until Hadrian.”

    Mark 16:16 “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that disbelieveth shall be condemned.

    17 And these signs shall accompany them that believe: in my name shall they cast out demons; they shall speak with new tongues;

    18 they shall take up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall in no wise hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

    Another Source for what we would all agree was Forged Canon.

    “Eusebius tells us that Papias in his lost books (Logi,wn Kuriakw/n evxhgh,seij) told a story “about a woman, who has been accused of many sins before the Lord” and that it was apparently also included in the Gospel of the Hebrews (so Eusebius). It is possible, even probable that the story is basically the same as the one we know today. This is already the understanding of Rufinus, a contemporary translator of Eusebius, who specifically labels the woman an adulteress.
    That Papias (ca. 125 CE) knew the story means that it existed already ca. 100 CE. This again makes it quite probable that the story contains a genuine Jesus tradition.”

    Another Source for what we would all agree was Forged Canon.

    Considering all this I Am sore Amazed/APauled that Bauckham can assure us that everything not quoted by Eusebius was probably Canonical. I suggest Bauckham borrow Spielberg’s DeLorean and go Bauckwards in time to the 2nd century so Bauckham can write his own Eyewitness account of what supposedly happened in the 1st century.


  2. Hi Joseph, Sorry to catch up with your comment so belatedly.

    I get a headache each time I try to rethink all the issues surrounding the evidence for the earliest attestations of the gospels and when they seem to have most likely been written. But I really do like what you are pointing to here about the possibility of Papias being a source — or at least referencing sources — for canonical gospels.

    I would like to compare what you have written here about Papias’ apparent knowledge of the Jesus/church narrative with what Justin appears to know. (Bauckham’s book of course is a waste of time — I only took the trouble to address it because of the extent of its scarcely critical acceptance among so many Christians. It was a tedious chore by the time I reached the final chapters I can tell you.)

    Thanks for some interesting thoughts. I am sure to follow up on some of these — will let you know when I do. Or you be sure to let me know if you get there first — please!

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