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Papias. How Do We Know His Context? Guest post by Stephen Carlson

Now that Stephen Carlson has said a few things about Papias, in this post he is going to explain why it is so hard to know what Papias is actually saying in the fragmentary quotations of his writings that we have.   (Even though people / scholars quote them all the time as if we can tell exactly what he means.)  It all has to do with putting them in context.  But what if you don’t know the context?

This is the second of his two posts.  And he leaves us with a cliff hanger.  If you want to hear more, let us know!

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Context, Context, Context

Continuing the discussion, scholars of fragmentary texts wrestle with the difficult problem of context. As we all know, context is the key to interpretation. Like any other text, the quotations that constitute our fragments of Papias are not self-interpreting just by reading them as stand-alone statements. Readers need context to make sense of them, since their interpretation does not lie exclusively within the text. In fact, it is clear from Eusebius’s quotation that some key terms within the Mark testimonium point outside of itself and need additional resources to be understood. For example, the statement begins with a reference to someone called “the elder”: “And this what the elder used to say.” Who is this person? Another example occurs in the middle of his remarks: “For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but later, as I said, Peter.” What did Papias (or is it the elder?) say earlier and when? Next we get the statement that Peter “would give his teachings as needed, but not, as it were, making a compilation of the dominical oracles.” What are these dominical oracles? They must be important because they are mentioned in the title of Papias’s five-volume book project, Expositions of Dominical Oracles. Identifying what these key terms refer to is essential to understanding the statement as a whole, and Eusebius does not gloss them for us. We have to look beyond the bounds of the quotation for guidance as to what Papias could have meant.

This general hermeneutical problem is particularly acute for fragments, because they are texts taken out of their original contexts and placed into new ones. Shorn of their former context, fragments lose their connection to the meaning they once held, and, embedded in a new context, fragments are redeployed to do work the original author may have never contemplated. Certainly, Eusebius was interested in learning about the origin of his Gospel of Mark, but was that really Papias’s interest (or the elder’s)?

Like so many others, this was the statement that drew my attention to Papias. I had been (and still am) fascinated with the Synoptic Problem—how the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were sources for one another—and I thought that if we could only understand what the earliest Christians said about the origins of the gospels we can leverage that into our solution. Well, since then I’ve lost some confidence about the viability of this approach, but I did become convinced, even before I came to Duke where I took the opportunity to study with Prof. Ehrman, that the key to understanding any particular fragment of Papias lies in understanding generally what Papias was trying to do in his books, and this entails understanding specifically what each person who had actually read and quoted Papias was trying to do with him.

Now, the fragments of Papias have been edited and translated many times before. In fact, Prof. Ehrman himself has done so for the Loeb Classical Library in his edition of the Apostolic Fathers. Another good example is an update of the famous Lightfoot-Harmer edition of the Apostolic Fathers by Prof. Michael W. Holmes. (My personal favorite is an edition in Italian by Enrico Norelli.) When you compare these two English editions, however, you will notice that have a different number of fragments: Prof. Ehrman has 16 while Prof. Holmes has 28. This difference isn’t because one was so much better at finding the fragments than the other but because they have different editorial philosophies. Prof. Ehrman’s edition was minimalist, generally printing only those items that told us something about the text of Papias’s. On the other Prof. Holmes’s edition was maximalist, also printing items that talk about Papias even if they don’t inform us about the text of work.

My own approach to the fragments is both minimalist and maximalist, in fact more maximalist in one sense than Prof. Holmes and more minimalist in another sense than Prof. Ehrman. Like scholars of fragmentary works in classical studies, I make the distinction between testimonies and fragments and print two separate series of them. My notion of testimonies is reception-oriented and comprehensive: I look for any mention of Papias that informs us about the reception of Papias–how people thought of his life, thought, or work, no matter how unreliable, as long as they are referring to the right Papias. (There is another Papias who has sometimes been confused with our Papias!) My notion of fragments on the other hand is author-oriented and strict: I look at this wide array of testimonies and, understanding how Papias was received throughout antiquity and the middle ages, identify which witnesses seem to possess independent and reliable knowledge of Papias’s text, paying particular attention to when and where his quotations actually begin and end.

To this end, I have been scouring centuries of Christian literature, from the second to fifteenth, in Greek, Latin, Syriac, and, with help, Arabic and Armenian, looking for any mention of Papias I can find. As of this writing I have found almost a hundred of them. (I hesitate to put an exact number on them because I keep finding them, including one last week.) These testimonies are being edited for my edition of Papias’s fragments. Not all of them of course are reliable or useful as witnesses of Papias; most in fact are not. Many of them merely repeat what someone else had said earlier, sometimes with distortion. After filtering out the unreliable witnesses and those which don’t really have anything new to say about the text, I have winnowed this mass of information down to fifteen fragments plus the title, ten of which are found in a single chapter of Eusebius. My edition arranges these fragmentary bits and pieces of his work in the order I think they stood in his text. Only after all this work was done was I ready to assess the genre of Papias’s work, that is, what kind of work did Papias write. And the result surprised me. I had expected the first commentator on Jesus traditions in the Gospels but instead I got something else.


Jesus “Only” Adopted to be the Son of God?
The Writings of Papias: Guest Post by Stephen Carlson

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Comments

  1. Robert
    Robert  April 5, 2019

    “What are these dominical oracles? They must be important because they are mentioned in the title of Papias’s five-volume book project, Expositions of Dominical Oracles. Identifying what these key terms refer to is essential to understanding the statement as a whole, and Eusebius does not gloss them for us. We have to look beyond the bounds of the quotation for guidance as to what Papias could have meant.”

    Tease #1

    “Only after all this work was done was I ready to assess the genre of Papias’s work, that is, what kind of work did Papias write. And the result surprised me. I had expected the first commentator on Jesus traditions in the Gospels but instead I got something else.”

    Tease #2

    I’m totally bummed out today.

    5
  2. Avatar
    drumbeg  April 5, 2019

    “..the result surprised me. I had expected the first commentator on Jesus traditions in the Gospels but instead I got something else.” I would love to know and look forward to reading another post. Thanks!!

    7
  3. Avatar
    AstaKask  April 5, 2019

    He was, in fact, writing a cookbook!

    Yeah, we really need to hear more.

    6
    • Avatar
      Sixtus  April 6, 2019

      Yeah, as in the Twilight Zone it was all about how to serve man.

    • Avatar
      Eric  April 8, 2019

      “To Serve Man”

  4. Avatar
    Nichrob  April 5, 2019

    When can we purchase Stephen’s book? Will it be downloadable (nookbook) or solely paper?

  5. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  April 5, 2019

    Thanks much for the very informative Guest Posts. Do I want more? Sure! Maybe you could weave some of the “reliable” testimonies and fragments into some nuggets for us in another post (or two or whatever it takes). (Yikes, a mixed metaphor).

    2
  6. Avatar
    Rthompsonmdog  April 5, 2019

    Intriguing, please continue with this!

    2
  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 5, 2019

    Dr. Carlson: You have hooked my interest. What is the “something else”?

    The information that most struck me was that Mark was evidently the interpreter of Peter and wrote the “Gospel According to Mark” from his “memory” of what he had heard from Peter and others. So, this is far from taking dictation from Peter and is even farther from the “Gospel According to Mark” being an eyewitness account. So, exaggerations,. elaborations. and changes, as described by Dr. Ehrman, in “Jesus Before the Gospels” seems highly likely in that you have a Gospel author remembering, with all the memory problems described by Dr. Ehrman in his book, what he has been told by an eyewitness whose “memories” have also changed with time.

    Thanks and I admire your persistence in tracking down all of this about Papias. It sounds like quite an undertaking.

    2
  8. Avatar
    Raemon  April 5, 2019

    Bart, You wrote: “And he leaves us with a cliff hanger. If you want to hear more, let us know!”

    Indeed I DO want to know what Dr Carlson found out about Papias’ commentator role!

    2
  9. Avatar
    cbauer13  April 5, 2019

    Ok, I give, lol – what is the “something else”?

  10. Avatar
    Tom  April 5, 2019

    Quite the cliff hanger! More, please.
    When may Dr. Carlson’s book be published?

    • Avatar
      Stephen Carlson  April 7, 2019

      I’m not exactly sure. I’m finishing up the manuscript soon, but I worry how long the typesetting will take. Everything is presented in the original languages with a technical apparatus, plus translations on the facing page.

      4
  11. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  April 5, 2019

    Fascinating! Makes me want to compare all 3 translations. Sounds like it will be a while before your book is ready. You’ll have to let us know when it’s available.

  12. Avatar
    fishician  April 5, 2019

    So, Jesus said and did some things. Decades later after much oral tradition some people wrote down some of the this. Some clearly invented even more. Then people started writing commentaries on what had been written, and sifted out what they thought was correct. Then people quoted from those people to support what they thought was right. And along the way much (most?) of what was written was neglected or destroyed. And you scholars get to try and sort all this out. Good luck! But at least there must be some job security as it seems there will never be any end to this process! Really interesting, though.

  13. Avatar
    chesterd  April 5, 2019

    Oh we can’t stop there. What did Stephen Carlson learn?

  14. Avatar
    rborges  April 5, 2019

    I am interested in reading more, if possible.

  15. Avatar
    caseyjunior  April 5, 2019

    I really like the technical analysis and definitely want to hear the results. Please continue.

  16. Avatar
    doug  April 5, 2019

    I’m sure you’ve heard the quote “Text without context is pretext”.

  17. Avatar
    forthfading  April 5, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    You can’t leave us with this! We gotta know! What did Dr. Carlson discover? Also, as a fan of your scholarship for many moons, I am interested in what your thoughts are concerning Dr. Carlson’s findings.

    Thanks, Jay

  18. Avatar
    XanderKastan  April 5, 2019

    Very interesting. But you can’t stop there. I really want to hear the surprising conclusion.

  19. Avatar
    collettmp  April 5, 2019

    Yeah, we’re definitely going to need more. You can’t leave us hanging like that! 😅

  20. Avatar
    James Chalmers  April 5, 2019

    If you stop here, I may sue.

    5

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