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How Did Judas Iscariot Die? Readers’ Mailbag June 18, 2017

Two questions in this week’s Readers’ mailbag.  The first concerns the very strange tradition about how Judas Iscariot actually died, as found in the writings of the early church father Papias; the second is about modern evangelical Christian biblical scholars: how do they deal with the fact that our manuscripts contain so many textual variants?  If you have a question, feel free to ask, and I’ll add it to the ever growing mailbag.   QUESTION: Papias didn’t think very highly of Judas. I can’t remember exactly what he said, is his version closer to Matthew or Acts? Or a different tradition altogether?   RESPONSE: First some background.  Papias is one of the fascinating and virtually unknown figures from the early church.  He is normally thought to have been writing around 120 or 130 CE.  His major work was a five-volume discussion of the teachings of Jesus, called Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord.  We very much regret that we no longer have this book – it would have been the first known explanation of/commentary [...]

Papias and the Eyewitnesses

I have been discussing the writings of Papias, his lost five-volume Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord.  Scholars of the New Testament have long ascribed huge significance to this work, in no small part because Papias claims to have ties to eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus.   In my view this championing of Papias is misguided.   I say something about that in my new book on Jesus Before the Gospels (or whatever we end up calling it); I will probably be going into a more sustained analysis in my scholarly book that I’m working on next on memory and the historical Jesus. The excitement over Papias as a link to our eyewitnesses is based largely on the following passage that is quoted from his writing by Eusebius in his early-fourth-century Church History.  This was written about 200 years after Papias, but Eusebius had read Papias’s book and so could quote from it.   In his discussion of the book Eusebius mentions the references to Papias in the writings of Irenaeus, from around 180 CE, just [...]

A Fantastic Saying of Jesus in Papias

I have mentioned one of the intriguing traditions found in the now-lost Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord by the early second century proto-orthodox church father Papias (his account of the death of Judas).  Here is another one. In this one Papias is relating what he has heard that Jesus taught.  As you’ll see, it is not a teaching that is found in the New Testament Gospels, or in fact in any other Gospel source we have. What is most striking, in some ways, is that Papias claims that he has a clear line of tradition going straight back to Jesus to confirm the reliability of the saying:  he learned this from “elders” (that is, senior Christians) who heard from John the son of Zebedee, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, that this is something Jesus used to say.   So this is not an “eyewitness” account (or, rather, not an “earwitness” account) – it is an account that we get from Papias who got it from others who got it from John who got it [...]

Other Accounts of the Death of Judas

As I indicated in the previous post, there are two versions of the death of Judas Iscariot in the New Testament.   These versions have some striking similarities, but at the end of the day, I think they cannot really be reconciled with one another.   After the New Testament period, there were legends about Judas’s death that continued to be invented and circulated.  I discuss one of them in my college-level textbook on the New Testament, in a side-bar that I meant to be a kind of humorous human interest story.  Here is what I say there:  When trying to determine which stories in the Gospels are historically accurate, we need to look not only at the Gospels of the New Testament, but at all the surviving ancient narratives that discuss Jesus’ life. In many instances, however, the accounts are quite obviously legendary, written for the entertainment, edification, or even instruction of their readers. One occurs in a fourth- or fifth-century document known as the Gospel of Nicodemus (also called the Acts of Pilate). In one [...]

The Lost Writings of Papias

In this thread I have been discussing documents known from early Christianity that no longer exist and that I very much wish would be discovered.  So far I have talked about the lost letters of Paul, the writings of Paul’s opponents, Q (the source used by Matthew and Luke for many of their sayings of Jesus), and the Signs Source (a collection of Jesus miraculous activities used by the Gospel of John).   With this post I move outside the New Testament to indicate documents that certainly at one time existed that I wish we still had.   One such document was a five-volume book produced by a church father named Papias. We don’t have this long book any longer.   In fact we don’t have any of the writings from Papias.  We know about him, and his writings, only because later church fathers refer to him.  He is first mentioned in the writings of Irenaeus, the bishop of Gaul and himself the author of a long five-volume work that attacked heretics (especially Gnostics).  Irenaeus’s book is known [...]

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 [...]

2020-04-03T14:19:54-04:00November 26th, 2014|Canonical Gospels, History of Christianity (100-300CE)|

Believing Papias When It’s Convenient

In my previous post I stressed that, contrary to what you sometimes may have heard or possibly will hear, Papias is not a *direct* witness to what the apostles of Jesus were saying.  That is an important point because of the most important “testimony” that Papias gives, a testimony that is often taken as very strong evidence that the second Gospel of the NT was written by Mark, the companion of Peter, and that the first Gospel was really and truly written by Matthew, the disciple of Jesus.   If these claims were right, they would be highly significant.  Matthew would have been written by someone who was there to see these things happen; and Mark’s account would be based on arguably the most important witness to Jesus’ life.. Here is what Papias says.  Remember, when he indicates what “the elder” says, he is indicating what he has learned from a person who was allegedly “companion” of the elder; the elder was someone who allegedly knew the apostles.  “And this is what the elder used to [...]

2020-04-03T14:20:05-04:00November 25th, 2014|Canonical Gospels, History of Christianity (100-300CE)|

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 [...]

2020-04-03T14:20:21-04:00November 25th, 2014|Canonical Gospels, History of Christianity (100-300CE)|

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 [...]

2020-04-03T14:20:35-04:00November 21st, 2014|Canonical Gospels, History of Christianity (100-300CE)|

New Boxes: Oral traditions and the Dates of the Gospels

For the sixth edition of my New Testament textbook I have written twelve new “boxes.”   These are side-line discussions of interesting and relevant (if a bit tangential) issues of some importance for various aspects of the study of the New Testament.   I will post several of these, including these two here.  If these generate any questions, let me know, and I can follow up on them. The two are about the Gospels: the first has to do with the ongoing nature of oral traditions (which did not stop with the writing of the Gospels!) and the second with how scholars have determined the dates of the Gospels. ************************************************************** Box 5.2  Another Glimpse Into the Past The Church Father Papias and the Ongoing Oral Tradition  Oral traditions about Jesus did not cease to circulate as soon as the Gospels were written.  On the contrary, we have solid evidence that the traditions continued to thrive for a very long time indeed.  Hard evidence comes in the writings of a second-century Christian named Papias, the author of a [...]

Mark as Peter’s Scribe

QUESTION: Why are scholars almost certain that Peter did not give the general details of Jesus' life and ministry to his companion Mark, who faithfully recorded the details in Greek, in the style found in his gospel? I know you've said that someone such as Peter, aside from not knowing Greek, almost certainly wouldn't have had the ability to build the relatively sophisticated structure of Mark's gospel, but why couldn't Mark have "put form" on Peter's prosaic verbal account ? RESPONSE:                 This is a very good question, and as it turns out it is a bit complicated.   The first thing to say is that one has to look for *evidence* if one wants to think, for example, that Mark is recording the traditions given to the author by Peter.  The idea that he does so ultimately goes back to Papias. To begin answering the question, in this post I thought I’d talk about Papias and the tradition of the Gospels.  And rather than write it all out from scratch, I’ve decided simply to reproduce [...]

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