The Ever Convenient Papias

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by Neil Godfrey

I leave the following quotations from Bart Ehrman for readers to peruse and draw their own conclusions on what they indicate about pots, kettles and scholarly professionalism. My own bolded emphasis, I admit, is designed to lead you.

In Did Jesus Exist? (2013) Bart Ehrman on the reliability of the evidence of Papias . . . .

. . . The great church historian of the fourth century, Eusebius, dismissed Papias by saying that he was “a man of very small intelligence” (Church History 3.39).

Intelligent or not, Papias is an important source for establishing the historical existence of Jesus. He had read some Gospels although there is no reason to think that he knew the ones that made it into the New Testament, as I will show in a moment. But more important, he had other access to the sayings of Jesus. He was personally acquainted with people who had known either the apostles themselves or their companions. The following quotation of his work, from Eusebius, makes the point emphatically:

I also will not hesitate to draw up for you, along with these expositions, an orderly account of all the things I carefully learned and have carefully recalled from the elders; for I have certified their truth…. 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, or what Philip or what Thomas had said, or James or John or Matthew or any of the other disciples of the Lord, and what things Aristion and the elder John, disciples of the Lord, were saying. For I did not suppose that what came out of books would benefit me as much as that which came from a living and abiding voice.2

Eusebius summarizes what Papias claimed about his sources of knowledge about Jesus, a passage worth citing at length:

This Papias, whom we have just been discussing, 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 so he often recalls them by name, and in his books he sets forth the traditions that they passed along. These remarks should also be of some use to us….

And he 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….

And in his own book he passes along other accounts of the sayings of the Lord from Aristion, whom we have already mentioned, as well as traditions from the elder John. We have referred knowledgeable readers to these and now feel constrained to add to these reports already quoted from him a tradition that he gives about Mark, who wrote the Gospel. These are his words:

And this is what the elder used to say,

“When Mark was the interpreter [or translator] of Peter, he wrote down accurately everything that he recalled of the Lord’s words and deeds—but not in order. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied him; but later, as I indicated, he accompanied Peter, who used to adapt his teachings for the needs at hand, not arranging, as it were, an orderly composition of the Lord’s sayings. And so Mark did nothing wrong by writing some of the matters as he remembered them. For he was intent on just one purpose: to leave out nothing that he heard or to include any falsehood among them.”

So that is what Papias says about Mark. 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.”

And he set forth another account about a woman who was falsely accused of many sins before the Lord,3 which is also found in the Gospel according to the Hebrews…. [Eusebius, Church History 3.39]

This is such a valuable report because Eusebius is quoting, and then commenting on, the actual words of Papias. Papias explicitly states that he had access to people who knew the apostles of Jesus or at least the companions of the apostles (the “elders”: it is hard to know from his statement if he is calling the companions of the apostles the elders or if the elders were those who knew the companions. Eusebius thinks it is the first option). When these people would come to his city of Hierapolis in Asia Minor, Papias, as leader of the church, would interview them about what they knew about Jesus and his apostles. Many conservative Christian scholars use this statement to prove that what Papias says is historically accurate (especially about Mark and Matthew), but that is going beyond what the evidence gives us.4 Still, on one point there can be no doubt. Papias may pass on some legendary traditions about Jesus, but he is quite specific—and there is no reason to think he is telling a bald-faced lie—that he knows people who knew the apostles (or the apostles’ companions). This is not eyewitness testimony to the life of Jesus, but it is getting very close to that.

Where conservative scholars go astray is in thinking that Papias gives us reliable information about the origins of our Gospels of Matthew and Mark. . . .

Bart D. Ehrman (2013-03-18 17:00:00-07:00). Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (Kindle Locations 1510-1540). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

In Jesus, Interrupted (2009) Bart Ehrman on the unreliability of the evidence of Papias . . . .

In any event, Papias does not seem to provide us with the kind of information we can place a lot of confidence in. I should point out, in this connection, that scholars have almost uniformly rejected just about everything else that Papias is recorded to have said in the surviving references to his work. Consider another piece of fourth-hand information:

Thus the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord, remembered hearing him say how the Lord used to teach about those times, saying:

“The days are coming when vines will come forth, each with ten thousand boughs; and on a single bough will be ten thousand branches. And indeed, on a single branch will be ten thousand shoots and on every shoot ten thousand clusters; and in every cluster will be ten thousand grapes, and every grape, when pressed, will yield twenty-five measures of wine. And when any of the saints grabs hold of a cluster, another will cry out, ‘I am better, take me, bless the lord through me.’”

(Eusebius, Church History 3.39.1)

No one thinks that Jesus really said this. Or that John the disciple of Jesus said that Jesus said this. Did the elders who knew John really say this?9

If scholars are inclined to discount what Papias says in virtually every other instance, why is it that they sometimes appeal to his witness in order to show that we have an early tradition that links Matthew to one of our Gospels, and Mark to another? Why do these scholars accept some of what Papias said but not all of what he said? I suspect it is because they want to have support for their own points of view (Matthew really wrote Matthew) and have decided to trust Papias when he confirms their views, and not trust him when he does not.

The result of this quick examination of Papias is, I think, that he passes on stories that he has heard, and he attributes them to people who knew other people who said so. But when he can be checked, he appears to be wrong. Can he be trusted in the places that he cannot be checked? If you have a friend who is consistently wrong when he gives directions to places you are familiar with, do you trust him when he gives directions for someplace you’ve never been?

(Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 109-110)

Then three years after Did Jesus Exist?, this time in Jesus Before the Gospels (2016)

My readers will need to forgive me if I cover something here that I already talked about in my earlier book Jesus Interrupted. . . .

And so Papias is not himself an eyewitness to Jesus’s life and does not know eyewitnesses. Writing many years later (as much as a century after Jesus’s death), he indicates that he knew people who knew people who knew people who were with Jesus during his life. So it’s not like having firsthand information, or anything close to it. But it’s extremely interesting and enough to make a scholar sit up and take notice! . . . .

There is, though, a still further and even more compelling reason for doubting that we can trust Papias on the authorship of the Gospels. It is that that we cannot really trust him on much of anything. That may sound harsh, but remember that even the early Christians did not appreciate his work very much and the one comment we have about him personally from an educated church father is that he was remarkably unintelligent.

It is striking that some modern authors want to latch on to Papias for his claims that Matthew and Mark wrote Gospels, assuming, as Bauckham does, that he must be historically accurate, when they completely overlook the other things Papias says, things that even these authors admit are not and cannot be accurate. If Papias is not reliable about anything else he says, why does anyone think he is reliable about our Gospels of Matthew and Mark? The reason is obvious. It is because readers want him to be accurate about Matthew and Mark, even though they know that otherwise you can’t rely on him for a second.

Does anyone think that Judas really bloated up larger than a house, emitted worms from his genitals, and then burst on his own land, creating a stench that lasted a century? No, not really. But it’s one of the two Gospel traditions that Papias narrates. . . .

The only traditions about Jesus we have from his pen are clearly not accurate. Why should we think that what he says about Matthew and Mark are accurate? My hunch is that the only reason readers have done so is because they would like him to be accurate when he says things they agree with, even when they know he is not accurate when he says things they disagree with.

Ehrman, Bart D. (2016-03-01). Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (pp. 95-96, 100-102). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.



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Neil Godfrey

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27 thoughts on “The Ever Convenient Papias”

  1. We are indeed dealing with roughly at least fourth-hand information. If not tenth hand. The steps in this chain of transmission including among other steps, many of these say perhaps: 1) Eusebius’ accounts of 2) Papias, one or both speaking to 3) people would spoke to 4) elders, who 5) perhaps met a Mark who 6) was said to have gotten it from 7) Peter, who got it from 8) Jesus, who got it from 9) God. As narrated by 10) Neil. referencing 11) Ehrman.

    Here Ehrman though, probably rightly hints at times (if not consistently) that for this among other reasons, Papias is probably not reliable. However, I’d suggest that he nevertheless was taken as the source by authority. And, unreliable as he was,m in what he said, his existence and importance was seemingly accepted.

    Which means? That we have a likely real – and thoroughly unreliable – source, for the whole notion there was a real historical Jesus.

    Proving? The whole notion of a real historical Jesus, came from a thoroughly unreliable tradition. (Except for Neil’s part).

    Yes, Papias is extremely useful indeed. Especially to Mythicism. He seems to be a major source for Jesus stories. And he seems to be quite, quite unreliable.

      1. I did find references to a tradition that seems to have arisen, sometime after Papias’s work, that Aristion was one of the 72 disciples once sent, according to Luke, on a special mission by Jesus. But, since Papias clearly implies that Aristion was contemporary with him, that tradition is too improbable for credence.

        1. Papias implies that a. ‘Ariston was contemporary with Papias’?

          or b. ‘Ariston was contemporary with Luke’?

          or c. both? i.e Luke, Jesus, & Papias were all contemporaries together (in the late 1st century or early 2nd century)

  2. Bart’s statements in the three works cited aren’t contradictory.

    In DJE he says we can rely on Papias when he says that he was personally acquainted with people who had known either the apostles themselves or their companions.

    In each of the three works Neil cites, Bart consistently says we can’t rely on any information Papias transmits from his sources, including the attribution of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew to Mark and Matthew.

    But that then beggars the question: if we can’t trust Papias with the information he transmits from his sources, why should we believe he actually met those sources?

  3. 2016, arguing against conservatives: “So it’s not like having firsthand information, or anything close to it.”

    2013, arguing against mythicists: “This is not eyewitness testimony to the life of Jesus, but it is getting very close to that.”

    Conservative scholars know they can’t trust anything Papias says unless it serves their purposes. I submit Ehrman is guilty of the same fault he identifies in conservative scholars. Papias can be trusted to yield historical information that serves whatever argument is being made — otherwise he is totally unreliable.

    1. In addition to the problem of the unreliability of Papias, there is the related problem with respect to Ehrman’s use of Papias (that is, the inconsistency of Ehrman), which is also suggested by your comment here. That is, he attacks and dismisses DM Murdock (for example) because she is capable of overstatements and obvious errors, such as seeing a connection between the English word “son” and the English word “sun,” whereas the original sources are not in English. On the basis of these errors, he dismisses everything she says. He does not do the same with Papias. This inconsistent selectivity, which you note here, is at the heart of the historical Jesus enterprise.

  4. Could Papias be the James Dean of the 2nd century? Seems the same issues are at hand: since Papias garbles quotes and mixes up his sources, does that imply that he is completely wrong about all he says?

    But seriously, we are all at risk of slipping into a fallacy about stuff close to our hearts.

    In the discussion around Papias, the Ad Hominem and False Dichotomy fallacies appear to be most prominent;

    Papias is discredited as ‘unintelligent’ or ridiculous through the ages. But on what basis?
    And must it really be so that either Papias is correct in everything he says, or he is wrong in everyhing he says?

    1. We know nothing about who or what Papias was and less about the work attributed to this name. We know a range of cartoonish scenarios that make the figure represented by this name sound like an author of satirical fantasy/comedy. For more sane approaches to the tendency of biblical scholars to use “Papias” as a serious historical source see an earlier comment here.

      1. Agreed, and – in my view- Papias has been deliberately ridiculed by later Church Fathers; he deserves a fresh re-evaluation.

        The elephant in the room are Papias eschatological beliefs; Papias’ millennialism may have represented an authentic trend in the actual Christianity of the sub-apostolic age, especially in western Anatolia, but it was considered a heresy later and in other places.

        Eusebius held Papias in low esteem, and when he calls Papias “a man of small mental capacity” he may very well refer to Papias as a chiliast.

        Hence he has been ‘written out of history’, and his work was not preserved. But we do have extensive quotes from a number of sources.

        1. Papias is always “freshly re-evaluated” most favourably by scholars who find what he says of use to their arguments. That’s what the post is about.

          But no, Papias is rightly dismissed as a reliably historical source because of what the citable evidence tells us about what we do know and don’t know about him. We know absurd tales were attributed to him. No millenarianism there.

          When I say we don’t know who or what Papias was I include there that we don’t even know if Papias was anything more than a literary creation, a fictional narrator, — a question that was raised over a century ago as I quoted in the earlier comment I referenced above.

          We cannot validly rely upon as an authoritative source written by a complete unknown and in a context that is completely unknown and that is associated with tall tales. That would be as absurd as relying upon an anonymous writing filled with tales of the miraculous and indicating a close literary relationship with other theological texts and without any independent verification as a historical source.

          1. I’m certainly not arguing that Papias is a reliable historian, but I can’t dismiss everything he says (or is alleged to have said) so categorically.

            You could make the same argument around most historians in antiquity, such as Herodotus or Josephus: we now know that some of their stories are untrue; should we therefore just discard their complete works?

            Irenaeus (Adv Haer) is our main source, and he quotes Papias extensively; and then argues against Papias in several cases. Doesn’t make much sense to me that Irenaeus woiuld have made Papias up from whole cloth. Of course, ‘Papias’ could have been used as a representation of members of a certain class of beliefs, but that doesn’t change the argument.

            And I read your last paragraph with a smile, I trust it was intended that way. But it also says that we should take Papias as seriously as we do the evangelists.

            1. We don’t know if Papias was writing anything that could be taken as historical. Evidence actually suggests otherwise. We enter into speculation — unlike our readings of Herodotus and Josephus. I can’t see any valid comparison.

              (Yes, tongue was firmly pressed against the cheek key of keyboard with my last sentence.)

    2. Obviously not. The point, though, is that we cannot KNOW which things Papias said were right and which were wrong. He’s “unreliable”. Therefore we can’t use his witness as independent evidence of anything.

      If Papias said the sun rises in the East, we could have confidence he was correct, but only because we know he’s correct independently of his testimony on the matter.

      I think it’s a pretty simple point.

      1. Is it really that simple?

        The gospels talk about people that we know really existed (Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, Herod etc.), places that existed (Jerusalem, Tyre etc.), historical events (the census, Passover festival etc.) and so on.

        Because we KNOW that these elements of the gospels are right, does that make the stories about Jesus reliable?

  5. Irenaeus Adv Haer 33.3 gives this story:

    “*******************, related that they had heard from him how the Lord used to teach in regard to these times, and say:
    The days will come, in which vines shall grow, each having ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each true twig ten thousand shoots, and in each one of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five and twenty metretes of wine. And when any one of the saints shall lay hold of a cluster, another shall cry out, “I am a better cluster, take me; bless the Lord through me.” In like manner [the Lord declared] that a grain of wheat would produce ten thousand ears, and that every ear should have ten thousand grains, and every grain would yield ten pounds (quinque bilibres) of clear, pure, fine flour; and that all other fruit-bearing trees, and seeds and grass, would produce in similar proportions (secundum congruentiam iis consequentem); and that all animals feeding [only] on the productions of the earth, should [in those days] become peaceful and harmonious among each other, and be in perfect subjection to man.”

    This, according to Irenaeus, is a story about Jesus [the Lord].
    It’s not.
    It’s actually from 2 Baruch (Syriac Apocalypse) described by Wiki as a Jewish pseudigraphical work from the late 1C or early 2c.
    It’s not Christian.

    So why did Irenaeus denote it as Christian?
    Cos he got it from Papias, so he says.
    The next line after this extract is:

    “33.4. And these things are borne witness to in writing by Papias, the hearer of John, …”
    His source is Papias – so he says.
    Irenaeus then goes on to relate the familiar stuff about Papias and the gospel writers.

    And where did Irenaeus claim Papias got his vines and grapes story?
    “as the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord, related that they had heard from him”
    That’s the text that replaces the ****s at the front of the quote above.

    So the chain allegedly goes:
    John the disciple -> elders -> Papias -> Ireneaus.

    1. Irenaeus’ description of Papias as the “hearer of John” is contradicted by Irenaeus’ own chain of connection viz Papias only, apparently, claimed to have heard the elders who claimed to have heard John.
    2.The story is falsely attributed to Jesus so the story is therefore wrong.

    There are too many links consisting of unverified claims by unknown persons resulting in the false attribution of a mythical tale to give any of this any historical credibility at all.
    And ditto for the story that Irenaeus says Papias says about the origins of the gospels.

    If it were presented in such a manner in any other sector of history no reputable historian would give it any credibility at all.

    1. I wonder if Irenaeus is also a later-than-portrayed literary device to give the impression of being a significant intermediary, when he is really a creation or embellished tool of someone later eg. Eusebius or the like.

      1. Ta.
        I too wonder about alleged Irenaeus.

        There are interesting literary connections between Papias, Irenaeus and Polycarp and some aspects of such, focusing on the letter describing the Matyrdom of Polycarp, can be found here – based on a kick start from Neil Godfrey:


        Now I reckon there is such a smell of long dead mackerel about all these stories that I would impose the Principle of Contamination.
        Summarized thus by Stephen Law:

        “Where testimony/documents weave together a narrative that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims, and there is good reason to be sceptical about those extraordinary claims, then there is good reason to be sceptical about the mundane claims, at least until we possess good independent evidence of their truth.”


  6. Why is the story about the abundant wine so easily dismissed as not a saying by Jesus*? This appears to be the common view, and – I assume- this is held because it doesn’t appear in any of the gospels in this form. But do the gospels claim to cite each and every saying by Jesus?

    The abundant vine/wine theme is indeed a well know story, known in different sources and versions. Papias and 2 Baruch 29.5 tell this tale, but also 1 Enoch Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Joel use the vine/wine imagery. In every case (including Irenaeus’), it is told in the context of an end-time scenario. What gladdens the heart in this world will also gladden the heart in the age to come

    Is this really something that Jesus could never have said? For me, it comes pretty close to story of the wedding at Cana (John’s Gospel), where Jesus turns water into – abundant – wine. I read this wedding story also as a ‘preview’ of an end-time situation. John’s gospels interweaves ‘present day’ story telling with end-time prophecies this way in many places.

    So, I think it is a saying that does not clash with sayings or deeds ascribed to Jesus in the gospels. And that similar stories are told in Jewish literature doesn’t disqualify it at all, isn’t Jesus here to fulfil what was written?

    * I leave aside the question of historicity of Jesus here, just go with Jesus described in the gospels.

  7. “Why is the story about the abundant wine so easily dismissed as not a saying by Jesus”
    Could it be that you have answered your own question?
    “I assume- this is held because it doesn’t appear in any of the gospels”
    Or anywhere else in the NT.
    And the version cited is known to be verra verra close to that of Baruch and, again as you say, other Jewish writings?
    Basically we have no reason to attach something known to be in Baruch to alleged JC.
    If it’s by Fred why wonder if it’s by Bill?

    1. The NT (Fred) is filled to the rim with references to the OT (Bill).
      Some even argue that the gospels are complete retellings of the OT, with Apocrypha, Homer and Aesop thrown in for good measure.

  8. My view of Papias is that he is overall about as goofy as anyone in religion. But far more reliable than many thought. His 1) goofyness reflects the confusion that created Christianity. And we might 2) take him seriously when what he says fits in with, seems corroborated by, other information.

    His hints that gMark came from Peter could be partly correct in my opinion. Though its worth noting that even Peter himself was often unreliable, in turn (Mat. 16.23). For me in fact, Peter stands for the unreliable folk origins of the Jesus myth.

    Debatable hints that Matthew was composed in Hebrew are perhaps useful. And might be corroborated by bits of information. The name Matthew was originally Hebrew, they say.

    To be sure, I believe that any Petrine or Palestinian folk origins to Christianity were soon heavily edited and modified by Rome. The Greek and then Roman churches owned the Bible. Rome owned Jerusalem itself for that matter, after 64 BC.

    So I see some confused Jewish or Palestinian folk origins to Christianity. Origins soon greatly modified by Greco Roman authority. Papias is about as useful here as any of the other goofy or devious sources we have on Christian origins.

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