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Papias as an Earwitness?

I have discussed Papias a number of times on the blog in the past, but have not given any substantial time to him in a about a year and a half.   He is an important figure for historians of early Christianity, because, as I pointed out in my previous post, he was a proto-orthodox author from the first part of the second century.   More than anything, conservative biblical scholars have latched on to Papias because in their opinion he provides direct evidence that the Gospel of Matthew really was written by Matthew, and the Gospel of Mark was really written by Mark.   I’ll be dealing with the evidence from Papias on both matters in subsequent posts.   What is even more remarkable is that some conservative scholars have actually argued that Papias gives us evidence about Luke and John, even though in none of the surviving fragments does Papias so much as *mention* Luke and John!!   Scholars can be amazingly inventive sometimes…..

Before discussng what Papias says about the two Gospel-writers that do get mentioned in the surviving fragments, I need to explain why it is that his witness is often taken to be so important.   The first reason is that he is writing so early in the tradition.   Scholars debate when his writings were produced, but usually they are dated between 110-140.  Some scholars (conservative evangelicals, for the most part) date him much earlier (that dating makes him more convenient for their purposes); no one really dates him much later.   But suppose his Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord were written in, say 120 or 130.   This would be the earliest commentary on Jesus’ sayings.  That would be significant.  Especially if we actually had the book.

But the other reason that his witness is taken to be important is because he himself, in one of his fragments, indicates that he had a direct line of transmission back to the apostles of Jesus, so that his claims about who they were and what they did are highly authorized by someone who would know.

This is what he says:


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Believing Papias When It’s Convenient
Papias and the Gospels: Some Background



  1. Avatar
    fishician  November 25, 2014

    Why would an omnipotent and omniscient god leave it to the likes of Papias to confirm who wrote the Gospels? It just boggles the mind to think God is so little concerned about the transmission of His truth that he leaves it to later church leaders to figure out who wrote what and what then should be accepted as truth. And of course it hasn’t worked as most people in the world continue to be “unbelievers” in the view of the “true” believers.

  2. Avatar
    JBSeth1  November 25, 2014

    Hi Bart,

    It sounds to me like Papias was saying the he put much more faith in the words of the followers of the Elders, than what was written in the books.

    So does this mean that Papias didn’t think that the books he was familiar with, were as reliable as the words of the followers of the Elders?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 25, 2014

      Apparently so!

    • Avatar
      BrianUlrich  November 25, 2014

      There’s a general pattern in world history of text taking time to be accepted as authoritative for individuals. What I mean by that is, you have oral transmission by trustworthy individuals, texts appear at a certain point, but only gradually does it become acceptable to rely on a text without learned authorities to properly explain and transmit information. This is true even with the Quran and IIRC the Torah – everyone revered them, but meanings were explained by guardians of tradition whose authority derived from their teachers. Do you think Papias could be representing this mentality? A sort of proto-apostolic succession doctrine before Irenaeus?

      Of course the side question is why people decided to begin producing written texts in various contexts: bureaucratic imperative, memory aides, concern to preserve teaching in the event of death with no time to pass on properly orally.

      • Bart
        Bart  November 26, 2014

        Yes, you get this in the Greek tradition all the way back to Socrates (Plato). Papias himself is not stating a preference for oral tradition per se, but to the specific line of tradition that he has back to Jesus.

  3. gmatthews
    gmatthews  November 25, 2014

    I get your line of thinking on the sequence from Papias back through time to the disciples, but he also says “…Aristion and the elder John, disciples of the Lord,…”. Is this John a John who wasn’t the previously mentioned disciple and is rather a later John (maybe the one who wrote Revelations?), but if so why does he follow the first clause by saying “…disciples of the Lord…” as if this elder John is truly a disciple of Jesus (I”m assuming there is no other context for a “disciple”)?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 25, 2014

      It’s hard to know — are they earthly followers of Jesus who were not among the 12? Or are they later “disciples” after Jesus’ death, and so not disciples in the same sense as the apostles. My sense is that it’s the latter.

  4. Avatar
    rbrtbaumgardner  November 25, 2014

    “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. For unlike most people, I took no pleasure in hearing those who had a lot to say, but only those who taught the truth, and not those who recalled commandments from strangers, but only those who recalled the commandments which have been given faithfully by the Lord and which proceed from the truth itself.”

    This reminds me a great deal of the beginning of the Gospel of Luke. The words “orderly account” jumped right out and then a statement about his sources. What do scholars make of this?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 25, 2014

      Either that he wants to provide a chronologically correct version or, more likely, one that is arranged in the way it should be — i.e., sensibly and correctly.

      • Avatar
        JBSeth1  November 26, 2014

        Hi Bart,

        Given that both Papias and the author of the Gospel of Luke both make this statement about an “orderly account”, do scholars have any thoughts regarding the possibility that Papias’ “orderly account” may have been the Gospel of Luke?


        • Bart
          Bart  November 26, 2014

          Do you mean that he may be contrasting Mark with Luke? Possibly — but it would be hard to prove. (And just because Luke says he wants to produce an orderly account doesn’t mean that he succeeded or was thought to have succeeded.)

          • Avatar
            JBSeth1  November 26, 2014

            Hi Bart,

            No, actually I meant something different.

            In your blog above, Papias says, “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.”

            I’m not sure if Papias ever actually wrote an “orderly account” of the things he learned, but if he did, it seems to me that this document may have looked something like one of our 4 existing Gospels.

            Furthermore, since the beginning of the Gospel of Luke starts out with a statement about the author of the Gospel of Luke writing up an “orderly account”, I was wondering if there is any chance that our Gospel of Luke, is, in fact this “orderly account” written by Papias?

            Thanks for you patience on this.


          • Bart
            Bart  November 28, 2014

            Ah, now *that*’s an interesting idea! But I don’t see how it could be possible. The traditions that he cites about Jesus are very, very different from what we find in Luke. Moreover, from these traditions and Eusebius’s comments about how he was a man of very limited intelligence, I’m not sure he could have pulled it off. But mainly it’s because his traditions about Jesus are so different from those of Luke.

  5. Avatar
    Ejaaz  November 25, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman, I’ve seen that several scholars, both liberal and conservative rely upon an “uncontrolled oral tradition”. Bauckham and Dunn have argued that the teachings and sayings of Christ were largely preserved through this tradition because of its uncontrolled nature. Their rationale is that the tradition was a “living one”, with “multiple witnesses” who would have corrected those were were mistaken or who were narrating invented traditions. I side with Bultmann and Kasemann in this case. I do not believe an uncontrolled tradition can miraculously control and sift through the inaccurate witnesses. Do you give any credence to the uncontrolled oral tradition theory?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 25, 2014

      If witnesses “correct” it, in what sense is it uncontrolled?

      My view is that no one *could* control the tradition and that there was *zero* possibility of any authority correcting what people said about Jesus. How could apostles or anyone else make sure that what people said, for example, in the privacy of their homes in some foreign land?

    • Rick
      Rick  November 27, 2014

      Given the group among which the stories were told were believers speaking about the … wonder of their Jesus, perhaps their credibility is less than casual observers in that they might tend to “outdo each other” in making stuff up?

  6. Avatar
    Kevin Nelson  November 25, 2014

    It sounds to me like Papias is using “elders” as a broad term that includes the disciples themselves. For one thing, he seems to count the “elder John” as himself being a disciple. (Though I’m not sure which John this would have been.)

    That would mean he had second-hand information about people like Mark and Matthew. Admittedly, there’s still a lot of potential for the tradition to have become garbled. But it doesn’t look quite as bad to me as it does to you.

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 25, 2014

    The different eyewitness accounts about the shooting in Ferguson are a good example of the unreliability of eyewitness accounts.

  8. Avatar
    Tom  November 25, 2014

    Dr. E, it’s posts like this that make your blog so worth while.

  9. Avatar
    Scott  November 25, 2014

    How do we get from “companion of one of the elders” and what what was said by “… any of the other disciples of the Lord” to the elders being companions of the disciples? I am failing to see that step in the chain based on the passage above? Is it somewhere else in Papias’ writing or perhaps gleaned from other research?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 25, 2014

      Th elders are not the disciples, but they are the “old folk” who know what the apostles said — so they appear to be the ones who, when younger, accompanied the apostles.

      • Avatar
        AJ0826  February 28, 2019

        In your book, Did Jesus Exist, you write:

        “it is hard to know from his (Papias) statement if he is calling the companions of the apostles the elders or if the elders were those who knew the companions.”

        I’m trying to understand what you mean by this last option… When you say, “or if the elders were those who knew the companions”, would this mean in other words, “or if there was a group of people between the apostles and the elders that were the companions of the apostles”? If that is what you are saying, what evidence at all in Papias would you be referring to that would make you think this? It seems obvious to me that the elders are the senior Christian teachers in Asia who were probably born around 20-40 AD, whose lives overlapped the apostles. And that Papias interviewed people who had heard these elders. Your quote from your book is confusing.

        Thank you.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 3, 2019

          Option one: The “companions” were also called “elders,” and were people who knew the apostles. Option two: The companions were NOT the elders. They were people who knew the elders, and the elders were the people who knew the apostle3s.

          • Avatar
            AJ0826  March 11, 2019

            Oh okay, that makes sense now! Thank you for your reply, Dr Ehrman! Much appreciated, sir.

  10. Avatar
    Scott  November 25, 2014

    One interesting take-away from Papias, above, is that the situation in early first century Christianity was so murky that Papias felt he had to be extra careful in who listened to in order to avoid error. Furthermore, written works were numerous and diverse enough for him to distrust them outright – kind of modern when you think about it 🙂

  11. Avatar
    bamurray  November 25, 2014

    How would you pronounce Papias’s name? Short “a,” long “a,” or is there no established pronunciation?

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 25, 2014

    I just read the article by James McGrath on the Patheos website about your new book. I guess his review seems reasonable enough except that a lot of it was a bit esoteric and over my head. Then, he gets to the first footnote where he claims that he is afraid that the conservative Christian context still shapes Dr. Ehrman’s understanding of New Testament texts. Huh????? I don’t know exactly what this means, but I have read other reviewers make a similar claim in reviewing your books. What does it mean? They need to explain this.

    I have now read your new book and the book written in reply to your new book and have also completed the Great Courses course on the subject. Obviously, what bothers people is the idea that people may have “made up” the theology that Jesus was/is God rather than it being so.. The only real question that I have is that the Bible does not seem to be a reliable source, but yet you quote it to establish stuff. I understand that the Bible is the best information we have and there is little other choice, but I still think one could quote a bunch of stuff from the Bible which is just not reliable of much of anything..

    • Bart
      Bart  November 25, 2014

      I think they imagine that I think only in terms of black-and-white without nuances. My own view, of course, is that this is *completely* wrong. I sense that people say that so they don’t have to deal directly with the kinds of issues I address head-on, but try to fudge them a bit. I don’t know if James is in that category or not.

      When one uses the Bible as a source, one *first* has to determine in which ways and for what passages it is reliable.

  13. Avatar
    simonelli  November 25, 2014

    Dr. Herman, Papias is interested only in the truth, he is not interested in long stories; it boil down to this: the truth verses the lies, for there is only one truth but there are many lies.
    In Galatians 3:13 I have found two lies about my Lord and about His accomplished works, for it reads: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’”
    1) It is ludicrous to say that He redeemed us from the curse of the law by allowing Himself to become a curse for us, just by dying while hanging on a tree.
    Before we go any further it is important for us to understand that the tree is only a tool to administer death to a condemned man. We must surely know that it is the sins that the man has committed that makes him accursed and not the way he dies.
    I am fully convinced that the above verse of Galatians 3:13 should read: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having FULFILLED THE LAW for us.”
    2) We would certainly and clearly see the LIE if we read Deuteronomy 21:23 in context with verse 22. We will then discover that part of verse 23 doesn’t apply to our Lord, for we read in Deuteronomy 21: 22-23: “AND IF A MAN HAS COMMITTED A SIN WORTHY OF DEATH, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, (23) his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day for he who is hanged is accursed of God, so that you do not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance.”
    We can all sorely see that the above scripture of verse 23 WRITTEN IN BIG LETTERS doesn’t apply to our Lord because our Lord was not guilty of having “committed a sin worthy of death,” In fact He was sinless, regard-less of how He appeared to those who witnessed, or condemned Him to death.

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