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The Writings of Papias: Guest Post by Stephen Carlson

I occasionally get questions about one of the most interesting but least known Christian authors of the early 2nd century, a man named Papias (writing in 120 CE? 140 CE).  Many readers consider him particularly important because he claims to have known and interviewed the companions of disciples of Jesus’ own apostles (it’s a bit confusing: but Jesus had his apostles; after his death they themselves had disciples; Papias knew people who knew these disciples of the apostles); moreover, Papias is the first author to mention a Gospel of Matthew and a Gospel of Mark. Pretty important.

Unfortunately, we don’t have his writings – only a few quotations of them, here and there, among the writings of later church fathers.  But these quotations are highly fascinating.

There has never been a definitive, full-length study of Papias until now.  (Well, until the near future.)  My friend and former student and Stephen Carlson has been working for years on the Papias fragments.   Stephen did his PhD in New Testament at Duke and is now a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry at the Australian Catholic University.   I asked him if he’d be willing to write a couple of guest posts on what he’s coming up with for his book, to titillate our interest, and he was.  So will have two posts, one today, and one tomorrow.   He will be happy to respond to comments/questions.

Stephen Carlson is the author of The Gospel Hoax and The Text of Galatians and Its History.




Papias in Fragments

I am thankful for the opportunity that Prof. Ehrman has given me to preview a bit of my forthcoming work in the Oxford Early Christian Texts series on Papias of Hierapolis. This early second-century commentator in Asia Minor wrote five books of Exposition of Dominical Oracles that has survived only in the form of scattered quotations by his readers. Now, one might think from this that he would be yet another obscure writer from the first centuries of early Christianity like Athenagoras, Dionysius of Corinth, or Apelles. That is not true. Scholars and laypersons alike are fascinated by this character. In fact, according to a search I made of this very blog, his name appears in the body or comments of 123 different posts over the years. That’s a lot of mentions for someone whose work has almost entirely vanished!

The reason for this is that, the few times Papias was quoted, it was for really interesting things. He was quoted by Irenaeus of Lyons in Gaul (c. 185) for a tradition about the afterlife supposedly from Jesus himself. He was quoted by Eusebius of Caesarea in Palestine (c. 325) for comments about some books that would eventually become part of the New Testament as well as his own relation to oral tradition. He was quoted by Apollinaris of Laodicea in Asia Minor (c. 375) for the gruesome example of the traitor Judas. And he was quoted by Andrew of Caesarea in Cappadocia, also in Asia Minor, (c. 625) on the fate of the fallen angels. Yet, out of all that has survived of his work, it is his statements on the writing of Mark and Matthew that have attracted the most attention. They are not just the earliest surviving statement of any kind outside of the New Testament on the origins of these two gospels, but they are also the most detailed before the fourth century.

Unfortunately, Papias’s statements do not come down to us intact and in context. Papias’s work is lost, after all. Rather, they have been preserved for us because Eusebius quoted them in his Church History like this:

14 . . . We now need to add to these statements of his a tradition which he set forth about Mark who wrote the gospel as follows: 15 And this is what the elder would say: Mark, who had indeed been Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately but not in order as much as he remembered about what was either said or done by the Lord. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but later, as I said, Peter, who would give his teachings as needed, but not, as it were, making a compilation of the dominical oracles, so that Mark did not fail at all by writing some of them as he recalled. For he took care of one thing, to omit nothing of what he heard or falsify anything among them. 16 So then these things were reported by Papias about Mark, but about Matthew these things were said: So then Matthew compiled the oracles in the Hebrew language, but each interpreted them as they could. (Church History 3.39.14-16).

The length and detail of this passage make it virtually irresistible for critics to bypass the layers of embedded discourse and treat this comment about the Gospels of Mark and Mathew as if they were a self-contained block of a tradition. It is not. The elder’s comment about Mark was presumably uttered not out of the blue but within some larger discourse context. This context is lost to us. Indeed, what the elder said is not by any means intact, but extracted, edited, and embedded by Papias into a different context of his own creation. Furthermore, Papias’s presentation of these remarks also does not come down to us intact, but only as preserved by Eusebius—and Eusebius’s agenda is different from Papias’s. Eusebius too extracted, edited, and embedded this statement into a context of his own making. We have to be cautious in interpreting it. As one scholar put it, “Papias says only what Eusebius wants him to say.” As a result, the most famous statement in antiquity about the origins of Mark and Matthew is a joint production of three different people, living at three different times, with three different purposes: the elder, Papias, and Eusebius. All of them have contributed to this passage in their different ways, and all of them had different purposes for discussing their writings. If we are to make sense of this, we will have do what scholars of fragmentary works have long known. We must deal with the fundamental issue of context.

Papias. How Do We Know His Context? Guest post by Stephen Carlson
Did Jesus Pray “Father Forgive Them” from the Cross?



  1. Avatar
    lobe  April 4, 2019

    Do the other things Papias is said to have reported diminish his perceived reliability when it comes to sources for the Gospels? For example, the gruesome account you alluded to, where Judas’ head swells to the size of a wagon. Does the fact that Papias (at least according to those who quote him) believe a tale like that shed doubt when he talks about Mark & Matthew, or do scholars view the two kind of separately?

    • Avatar
      Stephen Carlson  April 5, 2019

      Good question. The Judas example is complicated by the question of how much actually goes back to Papias, but it is the fertility tradition cited by Irenaeus that gives me pause. Even though Irenaeus claims it was conveyed by John the disciple of the Lord, it really looks that it is partially dependent on an apocalyptic text called 2 Baruch that was probably composed in the last decade of the first century. But because he seems to have a variety of sources, my approach is to take them on a case-by-case basis.

  2. Avatar
    James  April 4, 2019

    We have a copy of Dr. Carlson’s Ph.D. dissertation at our library (The Text of Galatians and Its History), and it strikes me as a truly remarkable example of contemporary technical textual criticism. The dissertation is freely available online at Duke University’s digital repository.

    When I first looked at the dissertation, I noted the committee members: Goodacre and Ehrman, co-chairs; and Marcus, Campbell, and Holmes. How common is it to bring together a panel of luminaries such as these? Perhaps at this rarefied altitude the number of scholars qualified for the topic is rather limited? I suspect this could also mean that Dr. Carlson was really tilling new ground in the field and truly captured their attention.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 5, 2019

      Yes, it’s a terrific dissertation. Around here, at both UNC and Duke, committees are *always* like that. A lot of brain power in a single room!

    • NulliusInVerba
      NulliusInVerba  April 5, 2019

      Couldn’t find it. Can you provide a direct link?

    • Avatar
      Stephen Carlson  April 5, 2019

      It sounds like a great panel, and it was, but in my time at Duke that caliber of dissertation committee was pretty typical.

  3. Avatar
    AstaKask  April 4, 2019

    Do we know who “the elder” was? I assume they are not talking about the KISS album.

  4. Avatar
    Gary  April 4, 2019

    I look forward to purchasing and reading the book. The writings of Papias are important. The truth is that conservative Protestant Christianity rises or falls on the writings of Papias. Without Papias, there is little evidence that any of the canonical Gospels were written by one of the original 12 disciples of Jesus, or for that matter, by any eyewitness. And without eyewitness authorship of the Gospels, the evidence for alleged sightings of a walking, talking resurrected corpse is weak. Read any book by one of today’s evangelical or fundamentalist Protestant Bible scholars (Bauckman, Craig, Licona, Habermas) and you will see just how important Papias is to their cause. It is amazing that a worldview that has so dramatically affected millions of people all over the world for centuries is based on a few alleged statements by a man prone to mysticism, whom Eusebius considered of poor intelligence, who claimed he had spoken with disciples of the disciples of Jesus. (At best, second hand information.)

    • Avatar
      The Agnostic Christian  April 9, 2019

      We must also take Eusebius’ statements of Papias with a huge grain of salt. By his time Christianity had moved on a bit and Papias was no longer in vogue. Papias may in fact represent something closer to the original that Eusebius didn’t like.

    • Christopher
      Christopher  July 22, 2019

      I totally agree. I’ve interacted with a few apologists and read their work concerning Papias. I’d love to interact with Dr. Carlson about their inferences and conclusions.

  5. bnongbri
    bnongbri  April 4, 2019

    Thanks, Stephen. I look forward to the book. It’s probably also worth noting that our manuscripts of Eusebius are pretty late, so generations of copyists should probably also be added to the “joint production” line-up.

    • Avatar
      Stephen Carlson  April 5, 2019

      Hi Brent, that’s a good point. The Greek ones are late (9-10th cent and later), but there is a very early Syriac translation, which more or less confirms the Greek.. The difficult part is that there appear some evidence of two recensions in the Greek manuscripts, and one is more positive about Papias than the other.

  6. Avatar
    NTDeist  April 4, 2019

    Is it possible that Papias is referring to a different “Gospel of Matthew”. The Gospel of Matthew in the NT was clearly written in Greek and quoted from the Greek Septuagint and not from the Hebrew scriptures.

    • Avatar
      Stephen Carlson  April 5, 2019

      Though Eusebius and presumably Irenaeus thought so, I don’t think Papias was referring any supposed Hebrew original of Matthew. Good thing too, since it probably never existed for the reasons you mention and more.

  7. Avatar
    fishician  April 4, 2019

    I hate it when vague terms are used instead of specifics, like who is “the elder?!” Name, please! Like the gospel writers not giving us their names. Or Paul saying 500 people saw the resurrected Jesus. Really?! Who? Where? When? But then I suppose none of these writers expected that scholars 2000 years later would be scrutinizing their work, or that so many people would build their beliefs and doctrines on what they wrote.

    • Avatar
      Stephen Carlson  April 5, 2019

      I hate that too. I’m about 90% certain that this elder is John the elder, but who this person is, I’m much less sure.

      • Christopher
        Christopher  July 22, 2019

        Dr. Carlson,
        Does your work go into detail about who this John the Elder is? Whether he is a separate person from John the apostle or not?

        • Avatar
          AJ0826  July 29, 2019

          Not sure about Stephens book, but I know that in Richard Bauckham’s book, ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses’, he talks a lot about this John the Elder. He (Bauckham) believes that this person was actually responsible for authoring the gospel of John.

  8. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  April 4, 2019

    Man, this sure puts things in context for me! I blog about my life (back to 1955), my parents’ lives (back to 1922) and my grandparents (1890) and I say, tongue-in-cheek, but quite seriously, ‘Hey, this is true! These things really happened!’ and every now and then someone who was there corrects me on a point of fact or detail and I learn anew how fragile and flexible ‘memory’ is. Hats off to our historians who patiently study fragments, and – especially – hats off to the honest way we know and acknowledge that our knowledge can change and grow and change over time!! I salute the fact that our real truth-tellers don’t write their stuff “in stone”!

  9. Avatar
    darren  April 4, 2019

    Are there any reasons to be suspicious about the fact the writings by very early Christians weren’t preserved? I just wonder whether the parts that agreed with current (third and fourth century) theology were kept, and the problematic stuff was “lost,” allowing early church leaders to cherry pick quotations from someone like Papias to back up their doctrinal arguments, and keep hidden the writings that disagree.

    • Avatar
      Stephen Carlson  April 5, 2019

      Sometimes we can only guess why writings by early Christians were lost, but in Papias’s case, Eusebius and Jerome tell us: they really hated his views on the carnality of the resurrection. According to Papias, there will be vast quantities of wine and bread for the saints to consume.

  10. Avatar
    JamesFouassier  April 4, 2019

    Professor Carlson, are we to presume that when Eusebius reports that Papias wrote that “Matthew compiled the oracles in the Hebrew language” he was referring to some work other than canonical Matthew, perhaps an earlier version of “Matthew” or the Gospel of the Hebrews? Thank you.

    • Avatar
      Stephen Carlson  April 5, 2019

      I’m pretty sure that Eusebius thought Papias was referring to a Hebrew version of the canonical Matthew, but I don’t think that’s right.

  11. Avatar
    Hngerhman  April 4, 2019

    Stephen –

    Thanks so much for the guest post. Very interesting indeed.

    In your opinion, what do you think Papias means by (what are the appropriate referents of) the terms ‘dominical oracles’ (pertaining to Mark) and ‘oracles’ (pertaining to Matthew)?

    Many thanks!

    • Avatar
      Stephen Carlson  April 5, 2019

      I made that the cliffhanger of my next post! If Dr. Ehrman is up for it and happy with the way things are going, I’d like to explore that in some more posts.

      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  April 6, 2019


      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  April 9, 2019

        When will then be now?!?!

        Ha. We’re all vigorously hanging on this cliff together!

  12. Avatar
    forthfading  April 4, 2019

    Dr. Carlson,

    Based on your extensive research on the fragments of Papias, do you feel that the Gospels of Mark and Matthew contained in the New Testament are the gospels referred to by Papias? Why or why not?

    Just out of curiosity, how did you work with Dr. Ehrman if he is at UNC and you attended Duke? Thanks for posting!

    Thanks, Jay

    • Avatar
      Stephen Carlson  April 5, 2019

      In my opinion, Mark probably yes, and Matthew probably no. My next post raises some of the issues involved, though with a cliffhanger. If there’s interest, maybe I could explore that in more detail in further posts.

      As for your other I did work with Dr. Ehrman when I was at Duke. Duke and UNC have an agreement where graduate courses are cross-listed so that Duke doctoral students can take UNC classes and vice versa. I took advantage of that twice, for a forgery class and for a textual criticism class. Also Dr. Ehrman co-directed my dissertation. Finally, there are monthly colloquia, one of which is sponsored by Dr. Ehrman, where we get to interact.

      • Avatar
        scissors  November 3, 2019

        Sorry I had to slam on the breaks and back up a quite a bit! I don’t suppose you’re still following this thread Dr. Carlson, but were you saying you think Papias was talking about GMark? If so, does that mean you think he was right about it?

  13. Avatar
    brenmcg  April 5, 2019

    Eusebius’s account of Papias’s account of the elder’s account of matthew doesnt appear to be very fanciful – does this give greater weight to their account of Mark?

    • Avatar
      Stephen Carlson  April 5, 2019

      It may not appear fanciful but it appears to be wrong–if he’s talking about our Matthew, because the Matthew we know was not written in Greek.

  14. Avatar
    Hngerhman  April 5, 2019

    Dr Carlson and Dr Ehrman –

    Does the Greek wording Papias uses regarding Matthew’s writing limit itself to Semitic languages per se, or can/does it also capture Aramaic-inflected Greek? Thanks in advance to both of you!

    • Avatar
      Stephen Carlson  April 6, 2019

      I think it means “in the Hebrew language,” but as we cannot be confident Papias was competent in distinguishing one Semitic language from another it is possible that he could be thinking of something in Aramaic by mistake. There are attempts to have the phrase mean “in a Hebrew style,” which could refer to Greek-language compositions, but I’m not persuaded.

  15. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 6, 2019

    If the author of Mark was not a Christian, couldn’t this help explain why the earliest copies of Mark did not have any accounts of a Resurrected Jesus?

  16. Christopher
    Christopher  July 22, 2019

    Does Dr. Carlson still respond to posts and questions? I have some great questions for him! This is a topic I’ve been heavily invested in, for some time, so I would love the opportunity!

    • Bart
      Bart  July 23, 2019

      He’s on the blog. Whether he responds or not — that’s up to him!

  17. Avatar
    Hngerhman  November 9, 2019

    Drs Carlson & Ehrman –

    Has Dr Carlson’s Oxford piece on Papias come out yet (I have not been successful in finding it)?


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