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What Kind of Book Was Papias Writing? Guest Post by Stephen Carlson

This is the second part of Stephen Carlson’s guest post on the important but now-lost work of the early-second century Christian author Papias.  In the previous post he talked about the mind-boggling abundance of wine and wheat there would be in the kingdom, based on Papias’s reporting of a “word of the Lord.”    Now he explains that saying, and in doing so develops a bold way of understanding what kind of book Papias actually was trying to write.   Most of us have long assumed it was a kind of commentary on Jesus’ teachings.  But was it?

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


Scholars have long noticed that this fertility tradition has important links with the late first-century Jewish apocalypse 2 Baruch 29.5 (“Also the earth will give its fruits, one in ten thousand. And one vine, there will be on it a thou­sand twigs. And one twig will make a thou­sand clusters, and one cluster will make a thou­sand grapes, and one grape will make a kor of wine.”). Yet there are some important differences. The numbers do not quite match up (with a thousand instead of ten thousand) and there is no mention of an analogous production of wheat. These new elements have been traced to a common Jewish style of exegesis of the Hebrew text of the final clause of Gen 27:28, “an abundance of wheat and wine”, in which the Hebrew word for “abundance” (rav) can be read or interpreted as the Hebrew word for “ten thousand” (ribbo). Now, Irenaeus’s knowledge of the Hebrew language was poor and it is unlikely that his contemporaries had any better knowledge, so it is likely that Irenaeus derived this application of the fertility tradition to a passage in the Hebrew Bible read messianically from his source. Furthermore…

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Interview for “Letters & Politics” on The Triumph of Christianity
Wine Flowing in the Kingdom: Guest Post on Papias by Stephen Carlson



  1. Robert
    Robert  May 10, 2019

    So you are Francis Crawford Burkitt redivivus! Or more in the line of Rendell Harris, perhaps? Have you also studied the Cyprian’s Testamonia, Melito of Sardis’ εκλογαί, or Gregory of Nyssa’s εκλογαί μαρτυριών?

    (Sorry, can’t do breathings and accents correctly on my phone).

    • Avatar
      Stephen Carlson  May 14, 2019

      Basically, but Rendell Harris gets lost in a dead end with his testimony book hypothesis.

      • Robert
        Robert  May 14, 2019

        Stephen, I really like how you’re using the larger context of Irenaeus to try and get an insight into Papias’ lost work. Was this your own idea, or had previous scholars already been doing this?

        It still seems kind of hazy to me, ‘though, especially the traditions supplementing the interpretations, rather than the interpretations supplementing the oracles.

  2. Avatar
    Kavsor  May 11, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman
    I have a question on a different topic.
    In the gospel of Matthew chapter 28 the soldiers who watched the tomb go back to the city and report to the chief priests all that had taken place (28:11). Giving the author of Matthew the benefit of the doubt and supposing for the sake of argument that he is reporting actual events, shouldn’t then the priests and elders who had the guy crucified because he was a troublemaker have been terrified by what they were hearing ?The same guy who called them hypocrites, snakes, brood of vipers before the crucification, is now back and he must be pretty pissed off having gone through all that abuse. If he was Bruce Banner before the crucification, he surely is the Hulk on steroids now, angry as hell. Strangely enough the priests and elders don’t feel threatened at all, cool as cucumber they engage in PR and discrediting the opponent by spreading rumours: ” tell people, his disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep” 28:13.
    What if someone had asked them how they knew who stole the body while they were asleep !?
    Dr. Ehrman I like to hear your take on this. Is the author getting sloppy towards the end? He has made the points he intended to make so he just wants to wrap it up? or is it more complicated?
    Thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  May 13, 2019

      Yes, within the narrative of the story they would have been terrified — but not because he could have done anything about it himself (since he was a weak nobody before dying, they would have assumed he would have been a weak nobody if he had a near-death experience); they would have been terrified that the people might rally around him and start calling him the messiah. That could cause riots, which would be bad.
      Lots of ancient narratives are not completely coherent (I’ve been reading Homer and Virgil lately!). But most readers never notice, and it’s possible the authors don’t either. (of course plenty of modern narratives are incoherent as well!)

  3. Avatar
    Hngerhman  May 11, 2019

    Dr Carlson –

    First, this series of posts is fascinating in themselves. Second, the structuring of your argument like a forensic investigation (without overtly anchoring the analogy) makes it a page turner. Thirdly, the progression from empirical to inferential to deductive to recursive testing: this structure of the reasoning of your arguments make them accessible to those of us without the ancient linguistic chops while still remaining rigorous. Not that my unscholarly opinion much matters, but I wanted to reflect that you strike a punchy layman-level chord here – with your topic and conclusions, but as importantly with your approach.

  4. Avatar
    Omar Osama  May 11, 2019

    do you think the writers who lied in their books
    lied about saying the christ is the god
    and he is in real a prophert

  5. Avatar
    brenmcg  May 12, 2019

    If papias believed jesus to be the lord of the old testament – could Papias’s “dominical oracles” refer to both what jesus said as lord of the OT and as a man walking around Galilee/Judea?

    • Avatar
      Stephen Carlson  May 14, 2019

      That’s a possibility and one way to get to the logia being sayings of Jesus, but I don’t think that fits with how Irenaeus uses Papias.

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