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Papias on Matthew and Mark

In my previous two posts I showed why Papias is not a reliable source when it comes to the authorship of Matthew and Mark.   If you haven’t read those posts and are personally inclined to think that his testimony about Matthew and Mark are accurate, I suggest you read them (the posts) before reading this one.

In this post I want to argue that what he actually says about Matthew and Mark are not true of our Matthew and Mark, and so either he is talking about *other* Gospels that he knows about (or has heard about) called Matthew and Mark, that do not correspond to our Matthew and Mark, or he simply is wrong.

I’ll reverse the order in which his comments are given, and deal with Matthew first.

In the quotation of the fourth century historian Eusebius, we read this:

 And this is what [Papias] says about Matthew:

“And so Matthew composed the sayings in the Hebrew tongue, and each one interpreted [Or: translated] them to the best of his ability.”

The problems here are obvious….


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Why Are the Gospels Anonymous?
Believing Papias When It’s Convenient



  1. Avatar
    Jim  November 26, 2014

    I always hear the line that Matthew was the most “Jewish” gospel. It seems like the author constructed his gospel based on a lot of LXX material. The author of Matthew may have been a Hellenized Jew or a Gentile who was very familiar with Jewish traditions/practices. Is there any way to ascertain whether Matt was likely either a Jewish or Greek author?

    What are your thoughts re this author being Jewish? (also I promise not to ask any further questions about his foreskin status at the time of writing this gospel 🙂 )

    • Bart
      Bart  November 28, 2014

      Great question — and a tough one. I may post on it in a while, since I think others would like to know as well! (Over the years, I’ve looked at all the evidence and often simply feel like I’m sitting on the fence…)

  2. Avatar
    lbehrendt  November 26, 2014

    Bart, I’d love to hear you elaborate on the possibility that Papias “had a different Gospel in mind.” Is this a serious possibility in your mind? That there may have been multiple Gospel versions circulating in the 2nd Century associated with Mark and Matthew? And that Papias (no genius perhaps, but a church leader whose views should probably be regarded as representative of at least a portion of the Christian community of his day) latched onto the wrong Gospel versions? If so … isn’t all that fascinating to a text critic such as yourself?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 28, 2014

      My hunch is that he’s simply heard rumors about another Gospel — I doubt if he’s seen it — and rumors about different apostles writing them, and possibly a rumor that Matthew himself had done one. I doubt if he’s read a copy of it though (especially since it was allegedly in Hebrew).

  3. Avatar
    BobHicksHP  November 26, 2014

    I’ve wondered whether the Matthew mentioned by Papias was actually a Q-like document that did not survive antiquity. Later, the fact that Matthew had been mentioned as an “author” helped gain him the credit for the Greek document that bears his name. Are there reasons why an Aramaic logion credited to Matthew is unlikely, or is it just impossible to know at this point?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 28, 2014

      It *could* be — but I think we just can’t know for certain.

  4. Avatar
    Srhyner@comcast.net  November 27, 2014

    Hi Dr Ehrman,

    If Papias’ Matthew was principally a collection of Jesus’ sayings — which does not match with “our” Matthew — is it possible Papias was referring to (what we know as) the Gospel of Thomas? Could that have been originally written in Hebrew?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 28, 2014

      It was almost certainly written originally in Greek. My sense is that he has some other Gospel in mind that is in form and structure like what Thomas was made into later.

  5. Avatar
    dragonfly  November 27, 2014

    None of our 4 gospels fit his descriptions so I think we can be pretty sure he didn’t think any of them were the ones he was told about. From the quotes we have, I get the sense that Papius didn’t actually have the texts he was told Matthew and Mark wrote, just that he knew they existed. Is there anything to suggest he actually had copies of these?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 28, 2014

      Only if you think his comments refer to our Matthew and Mark.

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 27, 2014

    I hope you have a good Thanksgiving.

  7. Avatar
    FrankJay71  November 28, 2014

    I’ve been curious about this passage for quite some time. It’s attributed to Papias, in Exposition of thePOracles of the Lord 3. It seems to be a variation on the passage you cited in your last post. It says:

    Judas walked about in this world a sad example of impiety; for his body having swollen to such an extent that he could not pass where a chariot could pass easily, he was crushed by the chariot, so that his bowels gushed out.

    This passage is a cut and paste from http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0125.htm but it appears this way in several sites. So I’m wondering if it’s the same passage you cited, but translated differently, or from a totally different source. If i could find a side by side of the origional greek i would post it along with the passage, but I can’t seem to find it anywhere.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 28, 2014

      I’m away from home and don’t have my books with me, so I can’t check the sources. I’m not familiar with this version I’m afraid. Can you find an ancient reference anywhere?

      • Avatar
        FrankJay71  November 29, 2014

        I’ve been trying to track down the earliest source of the verse, but as far back as I’m able to go is circa 1885. The quote is from “The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to 325 A.D.” by Alexander Robert and James Donaldson. In a footnoot it seems that they are sourceing the quote to Theophylact of Bulgaria which supposedly contains the quote in it’s origional greek, but I’m unable to find a copy of it on the internet.
        Are you familiar with this work by Roberts and Donaldson? Is it generally reliable?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 29, 2014

          It’s a standard work on most early Christians’ scholars bookshelves. But when it comes to a quotation like this, one has to trace the source; I need to look at Theophylact to see if he has the quotation. As you may know, he lived at the end of the 11th and beginning of the 12th century — so he was a thousand years after Papias.

          • Avatar
            Jimmy  November 30, 2014

            There are two different editions from Papias. This can be found in Lake’s The Beginnings of Christianity Part 5 I think pages 22-30. There is Matthew on Judas, Acts on Judas, and then two editions commonly attributed to Papias on Judas, though one of them appears to be more connected to Apollinarius. Apollinarius seems to have copied Papias and lengthened it, that would be absolutely shocking would it not? Dr. Ehrman I have read that Eusebius would leave out Papias quotation because he did not like him because of Chiliasm. thoughts?


          • Bart
            Bart  December 1, 2014

            Yes, Eusebius callse Papias a “man of very small intelligence,” presumably because of his chiliasm.

  8. Avatar
    Scott  November 30, 2014

    Does this mean that Papias had not seen the gospels we know as Mark and Matthew? If he had, we are left with the situation where he imagined “what was to be got from [these] books was not so profitable” while many modern conservative Christians stake their lives on every jot and tittle.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2014

      I don’t think there’s any evidence that he had seen “our” Matthew, and probably not our Mark.

  9. Avatar
    Atethnekos  November 30, 2014

    Is it possible that Papias took “gospel” to mean something other that a discrete text? That perhaps he meant it as something like “point of view”. In this case any account, whether written or oral, could represent the gospel of Matthew (or Mark) if it fit the supposed point of view or that it putatively had come from Matthew (or Mark)?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2014

      When he talks about matthew “compiling” the sayings of Jesus and Mark “writing” Peter’s preaching, it sounds like he’s talking about texts.

  10. gmatthews
    gmatthews  March 15, 2015

    Do you believe (or has anyone else) that maybe what Papias thought of as Matthew’s gospel (written in Aramaic as he says) was what we know of today as the Gospel of the Nazarenes since it is believed to have been Matthew minus the first 2 chapters and written in Aramaic?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2015

      It’s been proposed. Unfortunately we don’t have the Gospel of the Nazarenes — just a few traces.

  11. Avatar
    Zboilen  October 19, 2016

    Hi Bart,

    I have two questions. The first is about why you think Papias isn’t talking about our Mark. You wrote, “If Mark was intent in particular “to leave out nothing that he heard” in all of his time with Peter as Peter proclaimed the things Jesus said and did – well, that can’t be said of our Gospel of Mark. This Gospel is remarkably sparse. You can read the whole thing aloud in two hours. Mark spent all those years with Peter and all he heard about Jesus was two-hours worth of material?”

    But Papias’ account says that Mark only wrote down some matters as he remembered them. Marks gospel does seem to be only some of what Peter may have told Mark.

    The second is about the reliability of Papias and Eusibius. Is there any doubt that Papias even wrote what he did about Matthew and Mark? As far as I know there are no surviving works of Papias. It would also seem that Eusibius isn’t even working with the original of what Papias wrote but probably a copy or a copy of a copy. We also don’t have any originals of Eusibius but copies at least 100 years later (I think). Why should we trust that Eusibius had a reliable copy of Papias? And why should we think that we actually have what Eusibius wrote? Is there any plausibility that a scribe didn’t corrupt any of these texts?


    • Bart
      Bart  October 20, 2016

      I think Papias says that Mark made sure not to leave out anything he had heard. But no, no one seems to think that the text of Eusebius has been tampered with at this point.

  12. Avatar
    modelthry  October 30, 2017

    Would you say that the Papias material is, at least, reliable evidence that early traditions existed about a Mark and Matthew who compiled some kind of writings about Jesus? Even if so, I don’t see much reason to assume those are the same people as the tax collector and the John Mark / Mark mentioned by Paul.

  13. Avatar
    Marko071291  March 21, 2019

    Hi Bart,
    Is there a full scale article on the subject of Papias testimony regarding the authorship of Matthew and Mark that you could recommend? Or a book…
    And one question: Michael J. Kruger in his book “The question of canon” makes a lot from the fact that Papias was a friend with Polycarp who was the student of John (I think he quotes Eusebius on this point). Does that mean that Papias was in a better position to find out informations about gospels, Jesus etc? What do you think about that?
    Thank’s! Kind regards from Croatia.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2019

      Yeah, I don’t buy that Papias-Polycarp-John connection. (For one thing: if Polycarp was so familiar with John, why does he frequently quote the Synoptic Gospels but not the Gospel of John?) Anyway, my former student Stephen Carlson is writing the definitive book on Papias, and hopefully it will be out soon (not yet advertised, but nearly finished I think)

      • Avatar
        Marko071291  March 25, 2019

        I’ve asked dr. Carlson and he gave me a full scale answer. His conclusion is that we have to evaluate Irenaeus’s statement in light of his stress on his own apostolic pedigree as he combats his theological opponents. It’s based on the fact that we can’t corroborate the connection between Polycarp and Papias in their writings. Regarding the “John connection” Carlson points out that in Papias fragments we are dealing with two John’s that are “the desciples of the Lord” and we can’t relate these Johns with any confidence to the various writings under the name of John.
        I would just point out that evangelical scholars are a bit sceptical when it comes to (for example) Justin’s claim about “Simon Magus – various gnostic teacher” connection or with any other “heretical” teacher from 2nd century -> important person from the 1st century connection. It’s interested how they loose that scepticism in dealing with Irenaeus Papias-Polycarp-John connection.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 26, 2019

          Yes, just as they’re skeptical of all other apostolic connections, for example that Valentinus was the disciple of Theudas who was the disciple of Paul.

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