Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt. 11
Three Voices on the Historical Jesus – No. 1: Papias
COVERED IN THIS POST:
- Papias’ Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord as revealed by Eusebius
- Papias’ uncertain chain of oral transmission
- Had Papias read any Gospels?
- Papias’ “Mark” and “Matthew”: not the canonical Gospels, and not read by Papias
- Papias quotes nothing from any version of our Gospels
- The bizarre things Papias does give us as sayings of the Lord
- By c.125, no written Gospels have reached the bishop of Hieropolis in Asia Minor
* * * * *
Evidence for Jesus from Outside the Gospels
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 98-101)
Ehrman now turns to three Christian writers of the late first and early second centuries who “convey information about the historical Jesus and certainly attest to his existence” in alleged ways which are “independent” of the Gospels. The first is Papias, a Christian bishop in Asia Minor writing around 120-130 CE, for whom we rely on Eusebius two centuries later, since Papias’ one known work is lost.
Despite Eusebius’ judgment that Papias was “a man of very small intelligence,” what is quoted from his Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord is supposed to represent good evidence of an historical Jesus. Ehrman quotes from Eusebius’ quote of Papias introductory words (History of the Church, III, 39.3-4), in which we learn:
that Papias will give an orderly account “of all the things I carefully learned and have carefully recalled from the elders. . . . Whenever someone arrived who had been a companion of one of the elders, I would carefully inquire after their words, what Andrew or Peter had said . . .
Juggling Elders, Companions and Disciples
Of key interest here is the question of what Papias meant by these “elders”. Scholars will admit to an ambiguity, that “elders” may not refer to the disciple followers of Jesus subsequently named (as some older scholars have preferred to read it), but only to earlier Christians who themselves had known those disciples of Jesus. (That is, “inquire after their words” refers back to the preceding “elders,” but not to the men he goes on to name, which are two different groups and layers of tradition.) This would give us a chain of:
disciples → elders → companions of elders → Papias
And indeed, such a chain would make better sense given the amount of time between the disciples’ activity supposedly following Jesus’ death and Papias himself.
that Papias enquired of anything said by “Andrew or Peter or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew” or “any of the other disciples of the Lord.” But then he goes on to refer to things said by “Aristion and the elder John, disciples of the Lord.”
This is exquisitely confusing.
While the first seven names coincide with disciples of Jesus of Gospel repute, nothing else is known of “Aristion.” And “the elder John” will hardly be synonymous with the just-mentioned disciple “John” (although some scholars—but not Eusebius—have chosen to interpret them as the same). Yet he and Aristion are labelled in the same way as “disciples of the Lord.” Either Papias’ listing of the first seven names is not derived from the Gospel story (which in any case would not have included an Aristion), or the phrase “disciples of the Lord” was being used a lot more loosely than we think, perhaps with the same meaning as “brethren of/in the Lord” of Pauline fame.
Are those first seven names legendary early leaders in the movement, who were at some point inducted into the Gospels as followers of Jesus? (The Peter, James and John known by Paul were undoubtedly such before two of them were co-opted by Mark to become members of the Twelve.) And with the phrase “the elder John” not being included with those named seven, this ought to rule out that the term “elder” in Papias’ quote ever refers to a disciple-follower of Jesus himself. In fact, the Greek word for “elder” here is “presbuteros” which is never used elsewhere for the disciples of Jesus. (Bauer’s Lexicon skirts the issue of apparent ambiguity in Papias by simply noting that the meaning of “presbuteros” there is “much-discussed.”) Normally it refers to a prominent and respected official, by reason of his age, holding some leadership capacity in Christian communities.
Thus Papias has presented us with a chain going back no further than seven named individuals who are simply referred to as “disciples of the Lord,” using the same phrase applied to two other individuals who were not followers of the historical Jesus. (The term disciples, mathētēs, can be used simply of someone who is a member of the faith community, and not necessarily one who sat at the feet of the master.)
We are thus left wondering whether there could be a difference between what that historical chain originally represented (perhaps with no historical Jesus at its root?) and what Papias and his contemporaries now understood by it.
What had Papias read?
In any case, we need to keep in mind that according to Papias’ introductory words, he has made an extensive and careful inquiry through apostolic tradition of what he evidently interpreted as sayings of Jesus; and we could assume that all of these would have gone into his Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord.
Now Eusebius, quite predictably, took Papias’ words to mean that Papias himself had “received the words of the apostles from those who had been their followers” (as does more than one modern scholar, such as J. Kleist, Ancient Christian Writers, p.105-6), despite the incompatibility of such an interpretation with Papias’ actual words. Ehrman quotes this remark of Eusebius without calling attention to that fact.
Eusebius goes on to say (39.11)
[Papias] sets forth other matters that came to him from the unwritten tradition, including some bizarre parables of the Savior, his teachings, and several other more legendary accounts . . .
Whether we can rely on Eusebius’ paraphrase here, he seems to have interpreted Papias as deriving his Expositions content from “unwritten tradition,” ruling out any source that Papias might have identified as the Gospels or any other written document.
One wonders, then, and for additional reasons to be seen, why Ehrman can state with such confidence that Papias
had read some Gospels, although there is no reason to think that he knew the ones that made it into the New Testament. (p. 98)
But Ehrman seems quite willing to assume that Papias had “read” the two documents which Eusebius reports he referred to, although he does not agree that they can be identified with canonical Mark and Matthew. (If Papias had in fact not read these documents one wonders just what gospels Ehrman thinks he would have read.)
And how does Eusebius lay out Papias’ own words about the documents he refers to? Eusebius first introduces the matter by setting two statements side by side (op.cit. 39.7):
This Papias . . . acknowledges that he received the words of the apostles from those who had been their followers . . .
. . . and he indicates that he himself had listened to Aristion and the elder John . . . and in his books he sets forth the traditions that they passed along.
Eusebius seems not quite sure what to make of the relationship between the two sources and what they supplied. He assumes that the earlier quoted “John” and “the elder John” are two different people, even if both are called “disciples of the Lord.” It seems evident that Aristion and the elder John were Christians Papias was personally acquainted with, either at the time he was writing or perhaps earlier in his life. And while specifics about the information received from the more distant elders and their companions remain vague, Eusebius lays stress on the fact that Papias “obtained from Aristion accounts of the Lord’s sayings” and similarly also “learned (about such accounts) direct from the elder John.”
Papias’ “Mark” and “Matthew”
He then proceeds (H.E. III, 39.15-16) to set forth two important examples of these accounts (here in Ehrman’s translation):
And this is what the elder [i.e., the elder John] used to say, ‘When Mark was the interpreter of Peter, he wrote down accurately everything that he recalled of the Lord’s words and deeds—but not in order’ . . .
And this is what he says about Matthew: ‘And so Matthew composed the sayings in the Hebrew tongue, and each one interpreted [or translated] them to the best of his ability.’
Though Eusebius is not specific (or perhaps Papias was not) as to who gave the latter information to Papias, one can perhaps assume that it was “the elder John” as well. So however we interpret Papias’ “Mark” and “Matthew,” he knows of them through one or two Christian notables in Papias’ own time, with no direct indication of where they got their information.
Now, Ehrman is quite willing to admit that, despite the preferred opinion of conservative scholars, Papias cannot be
referring to the books that we call Mark and Matthew. In fact, what he says about these books does not coincide with what we ourselves know about the canonical Gospels. He appears to be referring to other writings, and only later did Christians (wrongly) assume that he was referring to the two books that eventually came to be included in scripture. (p. 101)
However, Ehrman fails to point out that it is quite clear from Papias’ words that he himself had not seen the two documents he refers to. He has only been told of them by the elder John. We cannot even be sure that, whatever they were, the elder John himself had personally seen and read these documents. Indeed, Papias has so little to say about them that one wonders if they constituted anything other than unsubstantiated rumors and wishful thinking.
But if we allow some basis for them in reality, we know no more than that there existed somewhere in the Christian world at that time a collection of sayings in Hebrew (this, more likely, being a reference to Aramaic), along with another collection of sayings and anecdotes, both of which were currently being attributed to a source in legendary figures attached to the early faith movement and allegedly recounting words and deeds of an historical Jesus. What in fact those collections were originally about, who they were applied to (the teachings and miracle-working of a kingdom-preaching sect in general is a quite feasible option) cannot be said.
Once again, Ehrman is tracking down some theoretical ‘source’—in this case, even more removed and surrounded by uncertainty than his previous ones, with no knowledge at all of any particular item they contained—and labelled it “testimony independent of the Gospels” to an historical Jesus.
Where are Papias’ quotes from the Gospels?
The other reason why we can be reasonably sure that Papias had not seen these documents is that there is no sign anywhere that he ever included a saying or anecdote from them. (It is astonishing how often modern scholars state, based on nothing, that Papias’ work would have included sayings from the Gospels.) Even Eusebius, having the Expositions open before him, throws a light on nothing which resembles anything in the canonical Gospels, or even anything that might have been in the documents Papias has referred to — unless those documents were quite unlike anything scholars would like to read into his “Mark” and “Matthew.” Following his above-quoted words by Papias about them, Eusebius mentions one saying from Papias ‘catalogue’ “a story about a woman falsely accused before the Lord of many sins.” But this Eusebius identifies as something that is found in the Gospel of the Hebrews.
It is indeed curious that Eusebius can say,
In his own book Papias gives us accounts of the Lord’s sayings obtained from Aristion or learned direct from the elder John. Having brought these to the attention of scholars . . .
Yet what are these “sayings” Eusebius has brought to our attention? What is the end result of all Papias’ “careful learning from the elders” which he has “carefully recalled”? According to Eusebius, these are (using the G. A. Williamson translation):
. . . passages in which he tells us of certain miraculous events and other matters, on the basis, it would seem, of direct information [meaning, one assumes, oral tradition]…Philip the apostle resided at Hierapolis with his daughters: it must now be pointed out that their contemporary Papias tells how he heard a wonderful story from the lips of Philip’s daughters. He describes the resurrection of a dead person in his own lifetime, and a further miracle that happened to Justus, surnamed Barsabas, who swallowed dangerous poison and by the grace of the Lord was none the worse . . .
Papias reproduces other stories communicated to him by word of mouth, together with some otherwise unknown [better translated as “strange,” or “bizarre” as Ehrman does] parables and teachings of the Savior, and other things of a more legendary nature (op.cit. 39.9,11).
There are over a dozen fragments surviving from Papias’ work, and a few other references to him, found in Eusebius and several other 4th and 5th century commentators, such as Philip of Side. With the exception of the floating pericope mentioned above about Jesus rescuing a woman accused of adultery from stoning which, though usually allotted to John after 7:52, has no secure place in any single Gospel, nothing attributed by anyone to Papias could be said to derive from any version of a canonical Gospel.
What Papias does tell us
In fact, as in the examples quoted above, some of them are indeed bizarre and even repugnant, such as the gruesome death of Judas attributed to Papias by Apollinarius. Others relate to fanciful predictions about the coming thousand-year reign of the Messiah on earth. Papias even assures us that some of the dead raised by Christ survived until the reign of Hadrian (117-138)!
One wonders, if Papias truly had access to people who had known companions of Jesus’ apostles, why something of a better quality than all this could not have been gleaned through such a chain of transmission. Should traditions going back to “Andrew, Peter, James and John” not have given us something resembling the Gospel accounts or a few reasonably commendable teachings such as are found in those Gospels?
Or is this failure a sign that the Gospels were not preceded by, or founded upon, an actual historical figure with actual teachings, while Papias’ collection of oddball sayings represents the sort of things that began to be attached willy-nilly to the figure generated by the Gospel story. (Irenaeus reports [fr. 2] that Papias allotted to the Lord a saying closely paralleling a messianic prediction in 2 Baruch!)
It is clear that no Gospels have yet reached Papias
Any basis on which Ehrman can claim that Papias read some Gospel(s) seems non-existent. If anything from “Mark” and “Matthew” appeared in Papias’ Expositions, it is impossible that Eusebius would have passed up mentioning it. And the “sayings of the Lord” which the various fragments show were included makes Papias’ work look like a sensationalist product of a less than rational mind. Upon such a source, mentioning unknown documents Papias had not even seen or read himself, does the only supposed reference to the existence of written accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings rest prior to the time of Justin — or, if one prefers, prior to reports that Marcion slightly earlier was using a version of the Gospel of Luke.
Yes, we can postulate through literary relationships between the Gospels that earliest autographs, or Ur-gospels, probably went back a few decades prior, perhaps to around 90 CE for Mark. But the situation that Papias reveals has implications which Ehrman doesn’t even come close to acknowledging. Around the year 125 CE, the Christian bishop of Hieropolis in Asia Minor has access to nothing resembling a narrative Gospel of Jesus’ life, let alone anything remotely organized into a coherent account; and nothing of the standard of teachings found in our canonicals. This, supposedly 50 some years after the first Gospel was written, with the other three following before the end of the first century!
As we shall see in the case of Ignatius, Gospel elements of a basic sort seem to have filtered out to reach Christians like Papias, but actual copies of written Gospels are hard to perceive, or even to get a suggestion of, until at least three or four decades into the second century.
One explanation is that by Papias’ time, a number of Gospels may have been written, but as yet enjoyed little or no circulation beyond the narrow circle of communities which produced them. This was because they were initially regarded as allegorical stories, with only ‘rumors’ of them, misinterpreted by such as Ignatius as historical accounts, penetrating outward in piecemeal and haphazard fashion. Wide circulation would also have been impeded by the very absence we see within the broader Christian movement of any tradition about an historical founder on whose life these Gospels would have thrown an eagerly sought-after light.
And yet Papias is presented by Ehrman as one of his pillar sources outside the Gospels for the “conveying of information about the historical Jesus and attesting to his existence.”
. . . to be continued
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