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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 today as Against Heresies, and it was written around 180 CE.  It is clear from Irenaeus’s reference that Papias was an important figure in the earlier part of the second century (Against Heresies, 5.33.4)

Papias and his writings are referred to at greater length in the Church History of Eusebius (from the early part of the fourth century).  Still later sources also mention Papias, say clearly legendary things about him, and allegedly quote from his book.   In these later traditions Papias is sometimes said to have been a disciple of John, the son of Zebedee.  Even later legends indicate that he in fact was John’s personal secretary, to whom he dictated his Gospel.   But no one on the planet really thinks that is true.  Or at least no one that I’ve ever heard of.

What we learn from the more reliable non-legendary references to Papias is…

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  1. Avatar
    Adam0685  June 1, 2015

    Kinda related to your current series of posts, what is something you wish you knew as a scholar about Jesus or the early Christian movement that scholars don’t already know about currently. Any major unanswered questions?

    I think I’d like to know more about what Jesus said and did. We really don’t have much in the gospels or in the NT. I suspect we have a very incomplete record in the NT. Part of me wonders if we did have more information about what he said and did a very different picture of the historical Jesus would occur, but I’m just speculating.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2015

      There are a zillion things I’d like to know about both. I’d like to know *everything*. We know so little!!!

  2. Avatar
    spiker  June 1, 2015

    Interesting as always, but can we really say we don’t have writings from Paul’s opponents?

    Elaine Pagels, in her book on Revelations makes a very interesting argument that John of Patmos was
    precisely, though removed by a generation or so,
    one of these opponents. While I don’t have the direct quote from her book, I did find this summary
    in the Washington Post,

    “while John was portraying Rome as the beast, he was also warning Jewish followers of Jesus against associating with gentile followers of Jesus inspired by “that maverick called Paul of Tarsus [who] came out of nowhere and began to preach a ‘gospel’ quite different.” In this interpretation, the Book of Revelation was part of an early power struggle among Jesus’s believers, an internecine conflict defined by stark terms of good and evil, faithfulness and apostasy, salvation and damnation.”

    I’m sure someone with your depth of knowledge could sketch a rough idea from this of what Paul
    might have been responding to in, say, Galatians..


    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2015

      I’m not sure Paul himself was being opposed in Revelation, though it is certainly one option!

      • Avatar
        spiker  June 2, 2015

        Oh no, I didn’t mean to suggest that or for that matter that Pagels suggested it; However, John of Patmos may have been part of the tradition of Judaizers who DID oppose Paul’s teachings. CLEARLY, John’s views can not be read back into a debate from 40 years eariler. nor could Paul be held responsible for how later Christians understood his teachings, but they could provide important clues to what Paul’s critics may have been saying.
        So while we don’t have the letters of Paul’s critics. someone with your expertise might be able to fill in some of the blanks

        • Bart
          Bart  June 3, 2015

          Yes, that’s true. Or it may have been criticism of someone else!

          • Avatar
            spiker  June 6, 2015

            Forgive my muddled writing. Let me try another way. In Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics In The Book of Revelation, Elaine Pagels writes, page 53-54,

            “When John accuses “evil doers” of leading gullible people into sin, what troubles him is what troubled the Essenes: whether- or how much- to accommodate pagan culture. And when we see Jesus earliest followers, including Peter, James and Paul, not as we usually see them, as early Christians, but as they saw themselves- as Jews who had found God’s messiah- we can see that they struggled with the same question. For when John charges that certain prophets and teachers are encouraging God’s People to eat “unclean” food and engage in “unclean” sex, he is taking up arguments that had broken out between Paul and followers of James and Peter about 40 years earlier- an argument that John of Patmos continues with a second generation of Paul’s followers.
            For when we ask, who are the “evildoers” against whom John warns….Those whom John says Jesus “hates” look very much like Gentile followers of Jesus converted through Paul’s teaching. Many commentators have pointed out that when we step back from John’s angry rhetoric, we can see that the very practices John denounces are those that Paul recommended.”

            So first we can answer your question, yes it most certainly be of someone else or what I described as “later Christians”. If Pagels is right, I think we can say a couple of other things as well.

            That the New Testament does (unwittingly?) contain a non Pauline source and that it can tell us something, maybe even alot, about the substance of what Paul’s critics were saying (accusing him of?) about his teachings.

            In my reading, I think I can see why Paul, in Galatians, would be angry and even feel the need to stress both his credentials, if you will, and the belief that he got his teachings directly from Jesus.
            Of course, my scant knowledge would probably give me a very different understanding than someone with your expertise.

            What’s interesting here is that Paul, himself, was a Jew, or a Jews Jew as he described himself-but he came to very different conclusions, than his contemporaries about accomadate Pagan culture. Some of his contemporaries, after all, had actually gotten their understanding by spending time with Jesus, hearing him give the same speeches, making the same points, being able to ask questions. It must have been deeply offensive-probably as offensive as the idea of a crucified messiah was to Saul, to the likes of Peter, James and John to hear that their time honored customs being, what to their ears must have sounded like, trumped by Pagan customs.

          • Bart
            Bart  June 7, 2015

            My point is that there were lots of Christians who had such views, so there would need to be some reason for thinking that Paul or his followers were in mind, as opposed to others.

  3. Avatar
    qaelith2112  June 1, 2015

    This would be high on my list as well — 5 volumes of additional writings from that early on would be pretty awesome to have. I concur on ranking more from Paul and Q as the top 2!!

  4. gmatthews
    gmatthews  June 1, 2015

    Do you think Papias’ work was not preserved because, like Eusebius obviously does, he was dismissed by the majority of early church scholars (or at least a “sufficient number” of them) which lead to his work slowly disappearing (ie., it wasn’t copied enough at some point)?

  5. Avatar
    Stephen  June 2, 2015

    I don’t think non-scholars always fully grasp how sketchy our knowledge of the past is. There is no single complete Epic of Gilgamesh, a work lost for millennia. Sophocles reputedly wrote over a hundred plays of which only seven survive. (We tell ourselves they must have been the best ones but who really knows?) The work of the great poet Sappho, beloved throughout antiquity by the Greeks and the Romans exists only in fragments.

    Prof Ehrman are you ever haunted by the idea that our whole view of the development of Christianity might be altered because some unknown scribe misplaced a manuscript or had his work lost in a fire or in a robbery? Maybe we don’t know what we don’t know! Maybe the document we really want to see is one we don’t even know existed?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2015

      I’m not haunted by this having happened once, but having happened a lot!

      • Avatar
        vern.dewit  June 2, 2015

        No kidding! I only have to think about how Mormons manage to change their history to make Joseph Smith sound like a great prophet – and this in the modern era of books / press! Can you imagine how much we don’t know or have from around the time of Jesus? It’s shocking how little survived – and how much of that was filtered and changed for political or religious reasons. 🙁

  6. Avatar
    Jason  June 2, 2015

    Do Iraneus or any of the other patriotic sources insult Papias the way Eusebius does, and are there any indications in the surviving references to his works that demonstrate why Eusebius would have said that of him or does it seem to be largely a difference of their Christologies?

  7. Avatar
    rbrtbaumgardner  June 2, 2015

    Are there researchers who systematically attempt to find these ancient documents or when documents come to light is it pretty much by chance?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2015

      It’s usually by pure chance. (That was true of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library, e.g.,) Good question though; maybe I’ll blog on it.

  8. Robert
    Robert  June 2, 2015

    “In these later traditions Papias is sometimes said to have been a disciple of John, the son of Zebedee.”

    Irenaeus, the first to mention Papias, had already referred to him as a hearer of John. Eusebius’ quotation of Papias is ambiguous at best, but it seems to me that Irenaeus is already dating Papias at least a generation earlier than the reality.

  9. Avatar
    DanHelton  June 2, 2015

    Given some of the writings that have been preserved, I would give higher odds on Papias’ millenarian viewpoint, rather than his lack of intelligence, as the reason he is not preserved. In the European monestary libraries books had to be recopied every 500 years or so before they disintegrated. I’m sure a large number of once-extant texts were lost because no one thought they were important enough to be assigned to scribes for preservation.

  10. Avatar
    walstrom  June 2, 2015

    Papius strikes me as a character, not unlike Columbo (Peter Falk) the detective. Papius was not trying to solve a crime per se as much as he was investigating the aftermath of a state-sanctioned execution. He appears to be searching for clues. Naturally, we can’t begin to guess at all his motives, but suffice it to say he was driven far and wide.
    I compare him to Columbo because he must have asked rather off-beat and outside-the-box questions like the skillful Columbo. You might well say he used a different toolkit when it came to gathering clues. This, in turn, produced a different set of testimonies.

    Perhaps Papius was a devout skeptic determined to weed out legendary interpolations:
    “For I do not think that I derived so much benefit from books as from the living voice of those that are still surviving.”
    Whatever was reported which did not comport with ‘tradition’ may have rung dissonant to the ears of later traditionalists. (Georgius Hamartolos (ninth century) cites in his Chronicle the second book of Papias as authority for the incredible statement that John, the brother of James, was killed by the Jews at Ephesus.)

    By the time a universal (Catholic) church consolidated into a monolith of authoritarian pronouncements, Papius’ acceptance of a thousand-year reign for Christ appeared wrong-headed. After all, the Catholic church asserted for itself a kind of ‘final’ authority which was diluted by yet a future (millennial) salvation. You might say, Papius was a ‘useful idiot’ to the church, marginalized and eclipsed.


    Does it appear to you that Papius was viewed as more in line with Eastern Orthodox teaching (which ultimately led to the schism in the 11th century) rather than Western papal magisterium?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 3, 2015

      No, Papias was not an important figure for later controversies leading to the split; by then he was unknown.

  11. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  June 2, 2015


    When was the apocalyptic view no longer dominant in Christianity? Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  June 3, 2015

      It was on the way out by the end of the first century, although, of course, it always held sway in some circles. By the late second and early third century it was probalby no longer dominant. But i’m not sure when the tide decisively turned.

      • Avatar
        brensberger  June 3, 2015

        What is our earliest record of how church leaders explained away the failure of the end to come–the failure of Jesus’s prophesy that some of his hearers would not die before the end came? Seems that would be one of the most awkward of things to have to explain away.

  12. Avatar
    JEffler  June 13, 2015

    Thank you for this. Very intriguing article. Now, I hear that they find new papyri all the time, but of course it takes forever for them to release it. Do you think there could be a possibility to discover these writings?

  13. Avatar
    Kazibwe Edris  November 21, 2016

    dr ehrman ,

    your thoughts on the following quotes


    Papias refers to a Gospel of Mark. Mark is an incredibly common name. By using the phrase Gospel of Mark, there was no question to his audience what he was talking about. There was no possibility of confusing one gospel with another because there was only one Gospel of Mark that was widely known. If there were two or more, the name “Gospel of Mark” would lead to confusion.

    The tradition of “Mark the interpreter of Peter” is recorded in many other locations. It does not appear that Papias is the original author of this tradition but a recorder of it. Justin Martyr has another tradition that Peter recorded in his memoirs that two other disciples changed their names to mean “sons of thunder.” The Gospel of Mark records this specifically in 3:17. This is a reference to a connection between Mark and the memoirs of Peter independent of Papias. Thus, Papias is not the originator but a repeater of a tradition concerning the Gospel of Mark. He is, however, the earliest recorded example of this, but there are many others.


    Your first ground assumes that Justin was referring to the actual gospel of Mark whereas I was stating that Justin was referring to a tradition. This tradition is that it was written in Peter’s memoirs that John and James were referred to as the “Sons of Thunder.” I pointed out that the only reference to this was in the gospel of Mark as it exists today. This is evidence of a connection between GMark and the memoirs of Peter. It is independent of what Papias wrote as he does not talk about a story of Peter referring to these two apostles as Sons of Thunder or an independent tradition of the same. It is a phrase that appears in only one place: Mark, and it is attributed to the memoirs of Peter by Justin. We see multiple references of the same incident in other gospels, mostly because they relied upon Mark as the prevailing theory goes. This is an example of a tradition finding no other reference anywhere else which deals with the names of the apostles. What is more is that Justin is referring to a memoir of Peter. If you would like to go so far as to say this was the Gospel of Mark, that’s fine. What I am talking about is that this tradition concerning Peter is connected to the Gospel of Mark and only the Gospel of Mark. There are no other texts that have this, thus the Gospel of Mark is connected to a tradition of Peter and is independent of the other traditions connecting Peter, Mark and the Gospel of Mark.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 23, 2016

      My thoughts: this is someone with very firm opinions!

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