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A Papias Mystery: What Was the Book He Wrote? Guest Post by Stephen Carlson

Stephen Carlson has graciously agreed to do a few more posts on his work on Papias.  Remember, Papias is that (very?) early second century church father who is later said to have written a five-volume work called the Exposition of the Sayings (or Oracles) of the Lord.   We don’t have the book any longer, and don’t really even know what was in it.  But several church fathers mention it and give a few quotations from it, some of them very intriguing indeed (including an alternative account about how Judas Iscariot died!).

In this post Stephen continues his explanation – based on a new book he is just now finishing up for publication.  For my money, this is the most interesting one yet, dealing with an intriguing question: just what kind of book was this that Papias produced?  (The other fascinating question that has no definitive answer – don’t know if Stephen will be dealing with this – why didn’t anyone preserve the book for posterity???)

Stephen Carlson is the author of The Gospel Hoax and The Text of Galatians and Its History.


The Genre Question

In this post, I would like to address the genre question: what kind of work did Papias write? Answering this question is important because if we knew what Papias’s goal was for his work, it can provide us with some context to appreciate better the remarks of his about Mark and Matthew that I mentioned earlier. It can also situate him within early Christianity and help us better understand how early Christianity developed, at least in Asia Minor of the early second century, and in Papias’s case how some of the texts and traditions which have survived were viewed from that early period. Since there is so little evidence of Christianity from this early period, Papias’s writings are precious for the historian of early Christianity indeed.

When we look at scholarly opinion for guidance about the nature of Papias’s work, however, we find that their views are all over the map, though some are more popular than others. The main reason for this is …

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Papias and the Writers of the New Testament: Guest Post by Stephen Carlson
Papias. How Do We Know His Context? Guest post by Stephen Carlson



  1. Robert
    Robert  April 12, 2019

    Excellent! Keep going. It looks like you may be able to avoid James Chalmers’ threatened lawsuit over your previous cliff-hanger.

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    AstaKask  April 12, 2019

    We know that several fake letters were attributed to Paul and the apostles. How sure are we that all the quotations from Papias really come from Papias?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 13, 2019

      Pretty sure in this case, since there are clear reasons for claiming (falsely) to be Paul when composing your own letter, but almost no reason to claim (falsely) that some quotation you’re giving comes from some guy named Papias.

    • Avatar
      Stephen Carlson  April 13, 2019

      That’s a major focus of my book. The issue mainly manifests itself in later writers who overlap what Eusebius says with differences and the question is whether they are distorting what they read in Eusebius or have independent access to Papias’s text.

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        Hngerhman  April 13, 2019

        Dr Carlson –

        Can’t wait to read the book. Given what you said about its structure, I’m assuming soft copy format (say Kindle) won’t be available?

        Curious, is there (or will your book include) a standalone compilation of Papias’s writings (as per others’ quoting him) and mentions? I.e., if someone wanted to read everything we (or I should say, you) have on Papias in one place, could one do that?


        • Avatar
          Stephen Carlson  April 15, 2019

          I’m not sure what formats Oxford will make available. As for your second question, the goal of the book is precisely that: putting everything ever said about Papias before the age of printing in one place.

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            Hngerhman  April 15, 2019

            Excellent – can’t wait.

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    Ask21771  April 12, 2019

    Various anthropologists have said in oral cultures the tradent (the one telling the story) is concerned with being as accurate as possible, do you have evidence that this is not true

    • Bart
      Bart  April 13, 2019

      There’s very hard evidence, amassed… massively. It’ simply isn’t true, and it’s not what anthropologists have found (at all). I deal with all this in my book Jesus Before the Gospels.

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    william.thomas.cox  April 12, 2019

    Imagine a future where (Heaven forbid! So to speak…) all we knew of Dr. Ehrman’s work was that he was a new testament scholar around the year 2000 and the titles The Triumph of Christianity, How Jesus Became God, and Jesus Before the Gospels. Then, one day, a fragmentary copy of Misquoting Truth is found referencing an as yet unknown work…

    A lot of the positions given here on what Papias wrote seems to depend on him and those who referenced him making very careful word choices. Would the title have been unambiguous to his contemporaries?

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      Stephen Carlson  April 13, 2019

      As for what the title could have meant to his readers, we can look at the writings of Irenaeus and Eusebius to see what logia (oracles) meant and assume that how they must of thought of his work. For the most part logia (oracles) meant “scriptures” to this readers; however, for Jerome, he goes with “sayings.”

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        vickgeo1981  May 25, 2020

        Logia is words. That’s what is mean, oracle is manteio

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    rivercrowman  April 12, 2019

    Bart, this is off-topic as you prepare for the soon-to-come blog debate. Your book “Did Jesus Exist?” was heralded by some Catholic/Christian apologists when they learned that in your view he *did* exist! … Now, as a nonscholar, I ask would there ever be a need for a book entitled “Did Paul Exist?” In other words, could he have been totally made up by some early church father or an outside writer? … I’m contributing $50 in advance of your debate. … Good luck!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 13, 2019

      Thanks for your donation! Yes, you will find one person or another questioning everything — including the existence of Paul I suppose. But it’s not a “movement” yet. Still, hold on to your hat!

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    bamurray  April 12, 2019

    You’ve mentioned the three key Greek words in this discussion – but what was the actual (direct quote) Greek title? (Secondarily, where and how often is it stated in our existing sources?) Thanks!

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      Stephen Carlson  April 13, 2019

      Eusebius, HE 3.39.1, calls the title λογίων κυριακῶν ἐξηγήσεως (exposition of dominical oracles). Apollinaris calls the work ἐξηγήσεως τῶν κυριακῶν λόγων (exposition of the dominical sayings); John of Scythopolis calls the work κυριακῶν ἐξηγήσεων (dominical expositions). Eusebius is probably the most accurate on this point.

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    doug  April 12, 2019

    Do you have any idea how some early Christian books like Papias’s disappeared? Were they deliberately destroyed? Did they just deteriorate? Were they thrown in the garbage? Torn up and reused for something? Or maybe some are buried or in a cave?

    • Avatar
      Stephen Carlson  April 13, 2019

      The main reason why books in antiquity disappear is that they stop being copied. The longevity of the writing material means that they can last centuries until they wear out, rot, or be destroyed by the fires that occur from time to time in urban settings. For the copy of Papias that Eusebius had access in Caesarea, we have some basis for speculation. Jerome mentions a preservation project fifty years later where certain books on degrading papyrus were copied to parchment. It is unclear if Papias made the cut on account of his theology and allowed to disintegrate. Even if it was recopied, it would also have to survive the sack of Caesarea in 640, which is around the last time we have the last direct quotations from Papias (in Andrew of a different Caesarea).

      • Avatar
        godspell  April 15, 2019

        In theory they can last centuries, but in practice that only holds true if the book isn’t used much. Books that see a lot of use don’t last long at all, and you’re absolutely correct–they need to be copied, or they will be lost.

        Papias’ work would have been for a specialized audience, wouldn’t you say? It’s not something you’d read to gain religious inspiration from, based on what we know of it. It would have little in the way of instruction for new Christians as to how they should behave, how they should worship. It was for people who were investigating (even then) how the church they were building had come into being in the first place.

        Acts of the Apostles is a religious work, much more than a historical one–a heroic narrative, where good triumphs over evil, faith over oppression. You can get inspired by that. That does not seem to be quite what Papias was writing. Still not what we’d call real historical writing today (not even at the level of Herodotus and Thucydides), but much closer to it than Acts.

        And there is still no real church establishment, as there was in the years leading up to the Dark Ages–no monasteries full of literate monks to preserve not only Christian history and belief but the accumulated knowledge of the previous centuries. (Without them, the study of ancient history would be a whole lot simpler now, since there’d be damned little to study). Papias was probably lost before the monastic movement got fully underway.

        So it would be of great interest to a few literate Christians, much less to most others. The copies that existed would see a lot of wear and tear as they were mined for source material by later writers–but there was less demand for new copies (and maybe some copies were jealously hoarded, because having them gave later writers like Eusebius an edge over their peers). A lot of work to copy a book that is interesting and informative to a few specialists, but not particularly inspiring to anyone.

        I would suggest that Papias was probably not a very compelling writer. There’s nothing in those quotes we have to indicate otherwise, anyway.

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    cristianp  April 12, 2019

    Dear Mr. Ehrman
    I ask: did not the church already know in the second and third centuries that John of Patmos and John the Evangelist were two different authors and that the Priest was the author of the Apocalypse? I understand that the very Eusebio of Cerasea does not put well to Papías de Hierapolis, expressing that Papías boasted of having met Juan Evangelista, when really the one he met was the Priest Juan. In the event that the church already knew it at such early times, why is it still committed to giving the authorship of the Apocalypse to the Evangelist?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 13, 2019

      I would say that “the church” didn’t have one opinion, but that different members of the church had a range of opinions. And Eusebius, who reports Papias’s views, may not have understood those views and believed they were exactly his own views, when they weren’t!

  9. fefferdan
    fefferdan  April 12, 2019

    Thanks very much for this. I have no basis to comment but am happy to learn.

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    forthfading  April 12, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    As a scholar of early Church Fathers yourself, when you examine the possible genres of Papias’ writing have you found one genre more compelling?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  April 13, 2019

      I think it was a commentary on Jesus’ sayings as Papias had heard them recited by other Christians, and possibly as he had seen them written down in books no longer available to us.

  11. Avatar
    godspell  April 13, 2019

    The mystery for me is where these books went, and I’ve been thinking about it. Papias was obviously a person of some importance in early Christianity, and you would think at least some of his book(s) would have survived. Except, of course, they were not really devotional works. Papias probably wasn’t much of a storyteller. He wrote the early Christian equivalent of scholarly works. No printing presses. Few libraries. Much need for kindling.

    Books only survived if there was a constant demand for them–leading to more and more copies being made. A few, like Eusebius, could see the importance of what Papias wrote, but to most it simply wasn’t a high priority (all the less when there were other works preserving key passages (and probably changing them). So the books were treasured by those few scholars–then they died. Their personal libraries were scattered among friends. No book depositories, either.

    The western empire falls a while later. Much more gets lost then. We don’t have to imagine barbarian hordes burning them. Books can die of neglect as easily as they do of Vandals (literal and metaphorical).

    I stayed at a house in Ireland last summer, in a small village, in a house belonging to the family of an old friend of mine. There were a lot of books stored in a shed by the house, old family possessions, some still in readable condition, but increasingly crumbling from exposure to the elements. Only my friend’s mother was living in the house, there was limited room in there for books, and though an educated woman (a schoolteacher by profession, as are two of her children) she wasn’t much of a reader by this stage in her life.

    I took one–a copy of Thomas Kinsella’s translation of The Tain, and later surreptitiously left it in a bookshelf at the bedroom of yet another relation of my friend, in Dublin. I wonder if she’s found it. Will she keep it?

    A book is not forever. We love them, or we lose them. For whatever reason, Papias wasn’t loved enough.

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