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Believing Papias When It’s Convenient

In my previous post I stressed that, contrary to what you sometimes may have heard or possibly will hear, Papias is not a *direct* witness to what the apostles of Jesus were saying.  That is an important point because of the most important “testimony” that Papias gives, a testimony that is often taken as very strong evidence that the second Gospel of the NT was written by Mark, the companion of Peter, and that the first Gospel was really and truly written by Matthew, the disciple of Jesus.   If these claims were right, they would be highly significant.  Matthew would have been written by someone who was there to see these things happen; and Mark’s account would be based on arguably the most important witness to Jesus’ life..

Here is what Papias says.  Remember, when he indicates what “the elder” says, he is indicating what he has learned from a person who was allegedly “companion” of the elder; the elder was someone who allegedly knew the apostles.

 “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.’”


This then is what Papias says about Mark.

And this is what he says about Matthew:


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Papias on Matthew and Mark
Papias as an Earwitness?



  1. Avatar
    whicks1  November 25, 2014

    Thoughts that Papias’ “Matthew” is Q, or some variant. I realize the latter is Greek, but the whole part about writing down the sayings (and not actions/deeds/endings) seems to fit well enough.

  2. Avatar
    BrianUlrich  November 25, 2014

    Haha…it isn’t just “conservative New Testament scholars” who read sources selectively! I see it often. A somewhat more sophisticated version is when you start with something grounded in theory, find things in the sources that comport with the theory to declare authentic, and dismiss the rest as storytelling. I wrote my dissertation countering a case of that in my own field.

  3. Avatar
    gavriel  November 26, 2014

    If we assume that Papias wrote on the authorship of certain works, gospels or proto-gospels around 120-130 (Wikipedia claims the majority of scholars date him to 95-120), isn’t this strong evidence that our canonical Gospels were produced well ahead of this time?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 26, 2014

      It would suggest that Matthew and Mark were around before then; but he doesn’t mention Luke or John.

  4. gmatthews
    gmatthews  November 26, 2014

    In the second volume on the apostolic fathers that you edited for the Loeb library you say that you don’t include later Arabic quotations on Papias. Are those considered spurious?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 26, 2014

      Not necessarily. But the Loeb library includes only Greek and Latin texts.

  5. Avatar
    Kevin Nelson  November 26, 2014

    I think I see a subtle but significant difference between the two Papias quotes. In the first quote, he is actually naming a disciple (John) and assuring his readers that he is passing on what various elders heard from John. In the second quote, we get a much weaker “they say.” Not elders, not companions of the elders, just…”they.” In fact, I think I detect a slight note of skepticism from Papias himself about whether the Judas story was exactly true. That qualifier “they say” turns up not just once but twice.

    Anyway, it’s unlikely Papias ever met anyone who knew Judas. It seems much more plausible that he met people who knew Mark. On that basis alone, I’d attach more weight to what he says about how Mark wrote.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 26, 2014

      The problem is that we don’t have the literary context for Papias’s second quotation. I would assume that in his Expositions it would have been perfectly clear who the “they” was (from what he said in the sentence or two before this extracted quotation).

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 26, 2014

    People, using confirmation bias, hear and see what they want to hear and see.

    Do we think that the disciple Matthew could read and write Hebrew?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 26, 2014

      No, he would not have been trained in literacy in any language.

  7. Avatar
    lbehrendt  November 26, 2014

    Bart, I get what you’re saying about conservative NT scholarship, but are you saying that Papias is essentially worthless as an eyewitness to the formation and development of Gospel texts in his own day? Could we at least say that Papias provides evidence that Mark and Matthew were both associated with Gospels by 120-140 CE?

    Are you (as a text critic) at least intrigued by the possibility that in 120-140 CE, the “Gospel of Mark” did not appear to be “in order,” so that Papias felt the need to apologize for it (“Mark did nothing wrong …”)? Isn’t the usual complaint about Mark is that it’s too short? Who (besides Papias) has ever thought that Mark’s Gospel is not in order? And if Mark is not “in order,” wouldn’t this description apply as well to the other Gospels?

    I can see three possible explanations for what Papias said about order in Mark. First: Papias was crazy, or stupid, or otherwise completely untrustworthy. Second, what Papias knew as “Mark” was not OUR Mark. Third, that our Mark went through substantial rewriting/redaction during the 2nd century. I admit, the first of these possibilities may be most likely. But isn’t the third possibility intriguing?

    I could ask similar questions about Papias and Matthew, of course.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 26, 2014

      Yes, Papias would be clear evidence that it was thought that Mark and Matthew had produced some kind of Gospel.

      If Papias is apologizing for Mark’s “order,” it may be because he prefers the order given in another Gospel and feels compelled to explain why Mark gives a different order.

      • Avatar
        GregAnderson  May 28, 2016

        Perhaps Papias agreed with Luke’s author, on the disorderliness of Mark? He’s not mentioning Luke by name, but isn’t it curious that we have two ancient writers commenting on “order” within Mark?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 29, 2016

          Yes it is odd! But it may simply have been one of those things people said about Mark for some reason….

  8. Avatar
    Cpargeter  November 26, 2014

    Loving these posts Bart! Regarding the first of the 2 traditions, can you say why this saying of Jesus is dismissed by nearly everyone? Admittedly it sounds strange, but is it not unlike some of the more obscure parables of Jesus? I imagine Jesus might have said all kinds of weird things, many of which will have been left aside when the gospels were written. Regarding the second of the traditions, is this necessarily a reason to doubt Papias himself? Might he be reliably relating a lengendary tale told by one of the elders or even the disciples?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 26, 2014

      I guess it’s widely dismissed because it indicates a kind of apocalpytic/legendary extravagance otherwise not found on the lips of Jesus, but at home in later legendary traditions.

      • Avatar
        GregAnderson  May 28, 2016

        re: “The days are coming when vines will come forth, each with ten thousand boughs [etc]” Is that passage really more extraordinary, as a vision of the coming Kingdom, than telling 12 scruffy low-lifes that they will be sitting on 12 thrones somewhere judging the 12 tribes of Israel? Or that some creature called a “Son of Man” will descend from the heavens?

        Or are we, 2000 years later, simply more used to accepting the latter claims and not the former? That is, how do we really know, today, what was and was not extravagant speech of the 1st century? That seems like a difficult subjective judgement.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 29, 2016

          Yes, strange sayings of scripture almost always sound less strange to our ears than strange sayings outside of scripture.

  9. Avatar
    flcombs  November 26, 2014


    You do a great service by pointing these things out.

    For many of us the internet has been critical. I remember being often told in church things like “Papias and (other church fathers) verify it…”. Of course being basically trusting (a CHRISTIAN wouldn’t lie or mislead us!) and not having easy access we usually just had the materials we were given as many local libraries didn’t have the ancient writings. But with the internet giving easy access to translations of the documents that I’ve heard referenced for decades, information like in your post is easily available and I had found them very enlightening. We don’t have to be great scholars to at least check out quotes and basic context, and certainly to read “the rest of the story”. It’s a shame many don’t take the opportunity. The last time a fundamentalist started with the “Early Church Fathers” bit with me I started quoting some of these things from Papias and asking how the Matthew and Mark we have fits his description of them, etc.; as well as Justin’s statements about how there’s nothing in Christianity that can’t be found in “the sons of Zeus” and suddenly THEY didn’t want to talk about ECF statements any more! I don’t claim to be a scholar, but there are many basic things that can be easily checked now and someone just pointing them out empowers others to think and research for themselves.

  10. Avatar
    Wilusa  November 26, 2014

    I can think of two reasons for rejecting that first supposed “teaching” of Jesus. One: It seems like a pack of nonsense! Two: If Jesus said all that, with no one writing it down, it couldn’t possibly have been remembered and passed on, verbatim.

    Which of those reasons do you think is the one that’s led even conservative scholars to reject it?

  11. Christopher
    Christopher  December 13, 2014

    Some apologists have attempted to defend Papias, in his statement concerning what he’s heard about Judas, by saying that Papias is reporting these facts in jocund sarcasm. What do you think about this? In what tone and context is Papias relaying this information?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 15, 2014

      Really??? What a strange claim. I suppose if you have an author you revere and he says something that seems ridiculous, your only course of action is to say that he didn’t really mean it….

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