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Papias and the Gospels: Some Background

In my previous post I argued that sometime in the second half of the second century, an edition of the four Gospels was compiled by an unknown editor/scribe, and place in circulation in Rome, in which the texts were identified, definitively and possibly for the first time, as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.   Now the question is: why did these names come to be chosen?

This is a complicated question, and the answer is neither straightforward nor easy.   But I can state its broad contours simply:  for two of the authors, Matthew and Mark, there were much older traditions indicating that they had written Gospels, and the editor of the Roman edition of the four Gospels latched onto these traditions and assigned two of his Gospels to them; and for the other two Gospels, the unknown Roman editor used internal hints within Luke and John themselves to derive the names of their authors.

First I’ll deal with Matthew and Mark, beginning with this post.

The old traditions that Matthew the tax collector and Mark the “interpreter” or “translator” of Peter – his personal scribe – had written Gospels can be traced back to the writings of Papias, who produced an important work about half a century before my hypothesized Roman edition of the Gospels would have appeared; Papias was well known among early proto-orthodox writers.   To make sense of what he has to say about Matthew and Mark (not our Gospels, but the men Matthew and Mark themselves), I need first to provide some background on who Papias was and when he was writing and so on.

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Papias as an Earwitness?
The Four Gospels in the Muratorian Fragment



  1. Avatar
    toejam  November 22, 2014

    Q, Marcion’s Evangelion, Papias, Hegesippus, the first half of the Gospel of Peter… “Mmmmmm…. hypothetical discovery of lost texts” (in my best Homer Simpson voice). Can you imagine the bombshed that would result if these texts were discovered?

  2. Avatar
    francis  November 22, 2014

    Dr Ehrman:

    Don’t you think its odd that anything was written of the “Good News” since the early believers though the “Savior” was going to return very shortly..Why would they worry about it at all???

  3. Avatar
    Hank_Z  November 22, 2014

    Bart, I love this stuff you’re writing!!

  4. Avatar
    rbrtbaumgardner  November 22, 2014

    Question about the discovery of ancient texts: Are there scholars who actively search for “Q” or for “Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord” or other ancient texts or is always a matter of chance?

  5. Avatar
    Azeus  November 22, 2014

    Please don’t leave out what he says about Judas. I thought all of this had been resolved through Mimesis…hmmm. Forgive my facetious nature, Odysseus will be watching.

  6. Avatar
    Luke9733  November 23, 2014

    This may be something that you’ll cover in the next post, but based on the fragments that we do have from Papias, do you think it’s probable that he at least read some (or all) of the canonical Gospels? Or is it possible that he may have been referring to other writings entirely and not even know about the canonical Gospels?

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 23, 2014

    Please keep going. This is a very interesting series of posts. The history and reliability of the Gospels is the whole ball game.

  8. Rick
    Rick  November 24, 2014

    I hope you might touch on the Hebrew Gospel hypothesis and any likelihood Mathew may have written Q.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 25, 2014

      Short story: the Gospels were all originally written in Greek, and if Q existed (I believe it did), it was *used* by Matthew, not written by Matthew.

      • Avatar
        qaelith2112  November 25, 2014

        When you say “used by Matthew, not written by Matthew”, I’m guessing you mean the anonymous author who composed the gospel in question. The above poster, Rick, seems to be alluding to Maurice Casey’s conjecture (in the last book he wrote before passing away), that some portion of Q might have actually been authored by Matthew the tax collector in Aramaic. He doesn’t suggest that Q in its entirety was composed by this particular Matthew. He supposes that based on certain Aramaisms in some of the Q material, along with what Papias mentions about Matthew having recorded the “sayings” of Jesus in “the Hebrew language” (probably meaning Aramaic), and possibly some other reasons I’m forgetting, some collection of these sayings might have actually been composed by Matthew, included among the Q material, and used by the author of the gospel later attributed to Matthew. Casey, of course, doesn’t see Q as a single document so much as a hodge-podge of writings which were in circulation, some in Aramaic and some in Greek. Matthew’s sayings collection in his estimation would have been one of these bits. Because that piece might have been well known to have been compiled by Matthew, and this became a significant source for the gospel later attributed to Matthew, this is how Casey thinks that attribution came to be. It was known to have *included* material from Matthew but later came to be described as having been *written* by Matthew. I don’t know whether I agree with much of this, but I can see how it is at least plausible in some sense. I’ll have to go back and re-read that piece of his book.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 25, 2014

          Yes, it’s certainly possible. But it does seem a bit convoluted…

          • Avatar
            qaelith2112  November 25, 2014

            I agree — that, and the purely speculative nature of this conjecture (he can’t really show it as probable in any sense) are why I’m not inclined to accept it.

        • Rick
          Rick  November 27, 2014

          Yes, to this (very) lay reader, the point would be dating at least some of the Q material to a contemporaneous traveling companion of Jesus who heard (and recorded) what he said in his native language and hence had a higher credibility. Assuming he was a tax collector ( no reason not to) Mathew seems the only likely literate disciple.

  9. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  November 24, 2014

    Is it possible that this collection of sayings of Jesus supposedly written by Mathew could be Q? Does Q seem to be also originally written in Greek or could it be a Greek translation of a Hebrew text?
    Thanks a lot!

    • Bart
      Bart  November 25, 2014

      Q must have been in Greek, so it couldn’t be this text Papias is referring to. (Unless he got the language wrong)

  10. Avatar
    JoeWallack  November 26, 2014

    “His most famous work, the five-volume Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord, has been plausibly dated anywhere from 110 to 140 CE.”

    It looks to me that the only related direct evidence for dating here is Philip of Side:

    “Papias in the second volume says that John the theologian and James his brother were done away with by Jews. The aforesaid Papias reported as having received it from the daughters of Philip that Barsabas who is Justus, tested by the unbelievers, drank the venom of a viper in the name of the Christ and was protected unharmed. He also reports other wonders and especially that about the mother of Manaemus, her resurrection from the dead. Concerning those resurrected by Christ from the dead, that they lived until Hadrian.”

    Hadrian was Emperor 117-138. If the “they lived until Hadrian” part is a quote of Papias than the most likely meaning is that Papias wrote it after Hadrian. Most Christian Bible scholars I’ve seen exorcise Philip as dating evidence here claiming he doesn’t know what he is talking about. It’s possible though that it is not a direct quote and that the Hadrian reference is from Philip’s perspective and thus means during Hadrian’s reign.

    The indirect evidence does seem to support a later rather than earlier date. You have the supposed multiple chain of generational witnesses as you have pointed out and no one cites Papias as author evidence for the Gospels until Irenaeus of Lyons (yes, “Lyons”).

    Can you please give us your professional opinion regarding the value of Philip of Side as dating evidence here?


    • Bart
      Bart  November 26, 2014

      I guess the problem with relying too heavily on Philip of Side is that he was writing 300 years later (imagine trying to locate a particular Anglican bishop from the early 1700s in the reign of the proper British monarch, without any solid written records to go on)

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