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Papias and the Writers of the New Testament: Guest Post by Stephen Carlson

Here is another post by Stephen Carlson on that mysterious figure named Papias, an early second century writer who claims to have had information from reliable witnesses about the authors of the New Testament, and who may indicate that the “John” who wrote the Gospel is different from the “John” who wrote Revelation.  Or does he?  If the *apostle* John did not Revelation, should it be in the New Testament?   Puzzling and hard to figure out — but here is what Stephen says about it.

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


What Papias Says About His Own Work

In our last post, we looked at the title of Papias’s work, Exposition of Dominical Oracles, and surveyed the considerable scholarly controversy about the nature of Papias’s work. Many scholars take the position that it was a commentary on the sayings of Jesus, perhaps with some narrative elements, but others contend that it was a commentary on at least the Gospel of Matthew, or a commentary on Revelation, or a commentary on Messianic passages in the Old Testament, or a narrative of Jesus’s words and deeds much like the Gospels. All of these options fit the basic meaning of the term “oracles” (logia), whether as inspired utterances of a divinity preserved from antiquity, or, as in first-century Jewish and Christian usage, the scriptures of the Old Testament, and eventually for later Christians like Irenaeus and Eusebius, all of scripture collectively. Since the title is suggestive of a large range of possibilities, in this post we look at what Papias has to say about his own work.

We are fortunate that the fourth-century church historian Eusebius quotes a large paragraph from Papias’s prologue, but to understand what is going on with this quotation, we first have to contextualize what Eusebius is trying to accomplish with it. Eusebius’s interest in Papias does not lie in the subject matter of Papias’s book, but rather in his witness to the writings that will make up the New Testament, an issue of fundamental importance to Eusebius. This why, for example, Eusebius gives Papias’s statement on the writings of Mark and Matthew, as well as mentioning that Papias made testimonies from 1 John and 1 Peter, but it is the apostolic status of the Revelation of John that interests Eusebius the most. Aware that there is a dispute over the authorship of the Apocalypse, Eusebius marshals Papias as evidence for the existence of more than one “disciple of the Lord” named John. In particular, this is what Eusebius tells us (Church History 3.39.1-5):

To see what the fourth-century Eusebius says about Papias, and why it’s significant for understanding the origins of the New Testament, you will need to belong to the blog.  Joining is easy and cheap, and gives you huge bang for your buck . And remember, every penny goes to charity.  So join!

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Wine Flowing in the Kingdom: Guest Post on Papias by Stephen Carlson
A Papias Mystery: What Was the Book He Wrote? Guest Post by Stephen Carlson



  1. Avatar
    lobe  April 25, 2019

    This series on Papias is awesome!

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    AstaKask  April 25, 2019

    From this small sample, it would seem that Eusebius was not a very nice man and probably liked proper Christian humility.

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    fishician  April 25, 2019

    I find it humorous how theologians then and now make a living explaining to people what the Bible actually means (“interpretations” and “expositions”, etc.). Apparently the supreme intelligence in the universe was not capable of writing a book that we common folk can understand properly without professional help!

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      flcombs  April 26, 2019

      And interesting that Christian claims of Jesus being the Jewish Messiah basically involve God giving the Jews the wrong information about what to look for or hiding it in symbology. You would think that a caring, loving god that wants everyone to be saved would make it very clear and unambiguous who the Messiah will be and related prophecies specific and not subject to interpretation.

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    fishician  April 25, 2019

    Forgive a 2nd entry, but this question relates to authorship of early Christian writings: Do we have even a fragment of anything that appears to have been written by someone who either saw or heard Jesus? The gospels don’t seem to be eyewitness accounts. Paul only claims a mystical connection to Jesus. The non-canonical writings in the names of the apostles (and others like Mary M) seem far-fetched and unreliable. So, is it a fair statement that we don’t have anything at all that was written by someone who actually saw or heard Jesus? (No, I am not a mythicist!) I’m thinking those who were eyewitnesses either 1) were illiterate, 2) didn’t see the need to write anything given the imminent coming of the Kingdom, or 3) didn’t see or hear anything worth writing about. Possibly 4) what they did write didn’t mesh with developing Christian theology and was therefore dismissed.

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      Stephen Carlson  April 26, 2019

      The traditional answer is that the Gospels of Matthew, of John, all the Catholic Epistles, and Revelation were written by those who have seen Jesus, but modern scholarship (including your host) calls them all into doubt.

      The attribution for Matthew rests in large part on Papias, and ultimately I don’t think he’s even talking about our Gospel at all.

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    Pattylt  April 25, 2019

    Quote: Unfortunately Eusebius does not pay any attention to the “interpretations” that were the primary object of Papias’s work and ignores the preceding context that could flesh out what Papias meant by the term.

    Do either you or Bart think it’s likely or really unknowable why Eusebius ignored the interpretations of Papias? At that early stage of Christianity, my money is on Eusebius not liking them/disagreeing with them. THe ability to pick and choose statements that agree with your beliefs and ignore the others is not something new!

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      Stephen Carlson  April 26, 2019

      Good question. I think the reason can be found in the quotation of Eusebius in the second to last paragraph (unfortunately not marked as such): “he says that after the resurrection of the dead there will be a thousand years when the kingdom of Christ will be set up upon this earth in bodily form, which I believe he got from misconstruing the apostolic accounts, not seeing that they were spoken by them in figures mystically. For it is apparent that he was a man of a middling mind, to judge from the words he says…”

      In other words, Eusebius hated his interpretations and thought he was stupid.

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    brenmcg  April 25, 2019

    I guess “the interpretations” here should have the same meaning as in Papias’s account of Matthew?

    “So then Matthew compiled the oracles in the Hebrew language, but each interpreted them as they could”

    • Avatar
      Stephen Carlson  April 26, 2019

      That’s a good possibility, but what the Matthew bit means is notoriously obscure. I’d like to explore that further in a future post.

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    brenmcg  April 25, 2019

    Do you think the two John’s here are the same?

    Both are elders and disciples of the lord. Papias liked to listen to second hand accounts of all the elders/disciples but also had first hand accounts of John the elder and Aristion.

    • Avatar
      Stephen Carlson  April 26, 2019

      Eusebius didn’t think the two Johns were the same, and he had the full text ahead of him. I’m inclined to agree because I can’t really find a plausible reason for why Papias would mention of the same John twice.

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  April 28, 2019

        But Eusebius wants there to be two Johns and this is the best evidence he can come up with.

        Aristion and John are both disciples but only John is an elder. And from Papias list of elders, “elder” appears to mean, for him, one of the 12.

        John is on of the elders Papias has spoken to. He mentions him twice – once for second-hand knowledge and once for first-hand. If Papias assumes his readers know who John the elder is this is a normal way of saying it.

        • Avatar
          Stephen Carlson  April 30, 2019

          It’s been argued before, I don’t really see the point of mentioning him twice, once for second-hand knowledge and then again for first. Presumably he also has access to Aristion’s utterances second-hand, but these are not mentioned. Moreover, the purpose of all this name dropping in Papias is an exercise in self-credentialing as someone properly instructed by the appropriate Christian teachers (the elders). That’s the point of the “living voice” remark that follows the list of Papias’s oral sources. A first-hand relationship makes any second-hand relationship immaterial and irrelevant.

  8. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  April 25, 2019

    Thanks once again (for expending our view of antiquity).

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    ZeroSheFlies  April 25, 2019

    Could “logia” refer to common sayings source(s) – rather than a text like Matthew – on which Papias offers his interpretation? If Papias prefers the “living voice”, could it not be a body of oral tradition rather a written text (such as Q or a Gospel)?

    • Avatar
      Stephen Carlson  April 26, 2019

      That’s a famous interpretation by Schleiermacher in 1832, which gave rise to the Q hypothesis. Nowadays Q supporters don’t think that interpretation is necessary. As your second question indicates, there is some tension between a written source of Jesus sayings and Papias’s preference for direct oral teaching over books. One would expect his Jesus sayings to have been learned orally. In that case, “oracles” would have to refer to individual sayings of Jesus. But the verb “compiled” in the Matthew statement indicates that the oracles/logia are in a written form.

      • Robert
        Robert  April 26, 2019

        Personally, I think it is time to partially rehabilitate Schleiermacher’s interpretation of Papias. Roger Grayson’s and James M. Robinson’s interpretation of λόγια as more or less equivalent to Mark’s account of ‘the things spoken and done by the Lord’ is not quite accurate. Papias does not say that Mark produced a disordered collection of λόγια, but rather that Peter (and therefore also Mark) did not ‘create a (ordered) collection of the dominical oracles’. That does not necessarily equate ‘oracles’ with Mark’s account of ‘the things spoken and done by the Lord’. Papias then says Matthew provided what was lacking in Mark’s account, an (ordered) collection of oracles in Aramaic, which were then in need of translation and interpretation. Papias provided various traditional interpretations of these oracles as well as other traditional items he heard from the elders.

        • Avatar
          Stephen Carlson  April 28, 2019

          I’m going to take a similar line on your reading of the Mark testimonium, but not however to resurrect Schleiermacher.

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        ZeroSheFlies  April 26, 2019

        Thank you for responding. Just a clarification: I was actually curious about a solution to the Synoptic Problem you briefly mentioned on the hypotyposeis.org website in 2004. Namely:

        “LTH: The Logia Translation Hypothesis, Wilson (1998). All three gospels are dependent on Greek notes (the “Translation”) which translated the Aramaic/Hebrew Logia of the Papias tradition`. I was assuming ‘the Aramaic/Hebrew Logia of the Papias tradition” was oral and much preceded Papias.

        • Avatar
          Stephen Carlson  April 28, 2019

          Thanks for that. It’s been a long time since I read Wilson and he never really published his views. If I recall correctly, Wilson saw these logia as written down into notebooks, which the synoptic evangelists independently excerpted. It was a kind of superset of the Jesus tradition.

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    Bewilderbeast  April 26, 2019

    Interesting to read “For it is not what comes from books that I assumed would benefit me as much as what comes from a living and lasting voice.” Isn’t he deliberately placing higher value on a source that is easier for him to make sure accords with his interpretation?

    • Avatar
      Stephen Carlson  April 26, 2019

      Well, it turns out that the “living voice” is a common expression in antiquity that states that the best way to learn–to be properly instructed–is to hear the material from the mouth of a master instructor rather than by reading it out of a book. There is a real sense that writing cannot capture the fulness of speech. Thus I see Papias as claiming that he has learned his material in the best possible way, by learning it directly from his teachers. In other words, it’s a way of establishing his credentials to pass on the oral traditions in his book.

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    joncopeland  April 26, 2019

    Thank you for these posts!

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    Hngerhman  April 26, 2019

    Dr Carlson –

    Does Eusebius’s use of ‘John’ in “John’s hearer” signify the John son of Zebedee or John the Presbyter? And depending on which, on what in Papias other than the existence of two Johns does Eusebius peg Revelation’s authorship?

    Thanks a lot!

    • Avatar
      Stephen Carlson  April 28, 2019

      Eusebius’s use of “John” in “John’s hearer” is in his quotation of Irenaeus. Eusebius thinks he has the proof in Papias’s prologue that, contrary to his understanding of Irenaeus, that this John is not the apostle but the elder. As for anything else in Papias that may pertain to Papias’s John as the author of the Apocalypse, Eusebius is aware of eschatological material in Papias, which he understands as relating to the millennium of Rev 20. I wish we had something more explicit.

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        Hngerhman  April 28, 2019

        Many thanks!

        Quick follow up – do you think Iranaeus was basing his “John’s hearer” on an interpretation of this same passage of Papias? If yes, then it would seem that Iranaeus would have gotten it wrong? If no, any pointers would be appreciated. Thank you!

        • Avatar
          Stephen Carlson  April 30, 2019

          No, not just the passage he quoted, because Irenaeus has access to the whole book if not the whole work of Papias. Eusebius tells us that Papias often mentioned John and Aristion by name, so Irenaeus has a lot more to go on. Nevertheless, it is curious that Irenaeus does not seem aware or at least too concerned with multiple John in Papias. My best answer is that even though Papias mentioned two Johns in his preface, there’s really only one John who was the principal source of his traditions.

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  April 30, 2019

            Ah, understood – so, to recap: (a) Eusebius is probably right that there were two Johns for Papias, (b) likely only one of them was a principal source for the traditions in Papias, and (c) Eusebius thinks this was John the Presbyter (not the apostle). Best sense: Was Eusebius likely correct?

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    AJ0826  July 29, 2019


    Papias mentions two other “disciples of the Lord”, John & Aristion. Is the scholarly consensus that Papias meant by this term that these men either were believed to be, or claimed to be, followers of Jesus? Or is there some other way this could be interpreted. What is your take on who these men were? Thank you, sir.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 4, 2019

      It’s hard to know how he means “disciples” here — whether he means actual members of the Twelve or companions of the one or more of the twelve or… something else. If Stephen Carlson is listening in here, he may be able to give a definitive answer.

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