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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