I have begun to discuss the evidence provided by the early church father Papias that Mark was actually written by Mark.  He appears to be the first source to say so.  Does he?  And if so, is he right?

Here’s how I begin to discuss these matters in my book Jesus Before the Gospels (edited a bit here).


Papias is often taken as evidence that at least two of the Gospels, Matthew and Mark, were called by those names already several decades after they were in circulation.

Papias was a Christian author who 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. [1] It is much to be regretted that we no longer have this book.   We don’t know exactly why later scribes chose not to copy it, but it is commonly thought that the book was either uninspiring, naïve, or theologically questionable.  Later church fathers who talk about Papias and his book are not overly enthusiastic.  The “father of church history,” the fourth-century Eusebius of Caesarea, indicates that, in his opinion, Papias was “a man of exceedingly small intelligence” (Church History, 3.39).

Our only access to Papias and his views are

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in quotations of his book in later church fathers, starting with the important author Irenaeus around 185 CE, and including Eusebius himself.  Some of these quotations are fascinating and have been the subject of intense investigation among critical scholars for a very long time.  Of relevance to us here is what he says both about the Gospels and about the connection that he claims to have had to eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus.

In one of the most famous passages quoted by Eusebius, Papias indicates that instead of reading about Jesus and his disciples in books, he preferred hearing a “living voice.”   He explains that whenever knowledgeable people came to visit his church, he talked with them to ask what they knew.  Specifically he spoke with people who had been “companions” of those whom he calls “elders” who had earlier been associates with the disciples of Jesus.   And so Papias is not himself an eyewitness to Jesus’ life and does not know eyewitnesses.   Writing many years later (as much as a century after Jesus’ death), he indicates that he knew people who knew people who knew people who were with Jesus during his life.  So it’s not like having firsthand information, or anything close to it.  But it’s extremely interesting and enough to make a scholar sit up and take notice.

Richard Bauckham [In his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses] is especially enthusiastic about Papias’s testimony, in part because he believes that Papias encountered these people long before he was writing, possibly as early as 80 CE, that is, during the time when the Gospels themselves were being composed [Papias himself, as you can probably guess, says nothing of the sort].  Bauckham does not ask whether Papias’ memory of encounters he had many decades earlier was accurate.  But as that is our interest here, it will be important to raise the questions ourselves.

Two passages from Papias are especially important, as Bauckham and others have taken them to be solid evidence that the Gospels were already given their names during the first century.  At first glance, one can see why they might think so.  Papias mentions Gospels written both by Mark and by Matthew.   His comments deserve to be quoted here in full.  First on a Gospel written by Mark.:

This is what the elder used to say, “when Mark was the interpreter [Or: translator] of Peter he wrote down accurately everything that he recalled of the Lord’s words and deeds – but not in order.  For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied him; but later, as I indicated, he accompanied Peter, who used to adapt his teachings for the needs at hand, not arranging, as it were, an orderly composition of the Lord’s sayings.  And so Mark did nothing wrong by writing some of the matters as he remembered them.  For he was intent on just one purpose: not to leave out anything that he heard or to include any falsehood among them.”  (Eusebius, Church History, 3. 39)

Thus, according to Papias, someone named Mark was Peter’s interpreter or translator (from Aramaic?) and he wrote down what Peter had to say about Jesus’ words and deeds.  He did not, however, produce an orderly composition.  Still, he did record everything he ever heard Peter say and he did so with scrupulous accuracy.  We will see that these claims are highly problematic, but first consider what Papias says also about a Gospel by Matthew:

And so Matthew composed the sayings in the Hebrew tongue, and each one interpreted [Or: translated] them to the best of his ability.  (Eusebius, Church History, 3. 39)

There are numerous reasons for questioning whether these passages – as quoted by Eusebius — provide us solid evidence that the New Testament Gospels were given their names in the late first or early second century.

First, it is somewhat curious and certainly interesting that Eusebius chose not to include any quotations from Papias about Luke or John.  Why would that be?  Were Papias’s views about these two books not significant?  Were they unusual?  Were they contrary to Eusebius’s own views?  We’ll never know.

Second, it is important to stress that in none of the surviving quotations of Papias does he actually quote either Matthew or Mark.  That is to say, he does not give a teaching of Jesus, or a summary of something he did, and then indicate that he found it in one of these Gospels.  That is unfortunate, because it means that we have no way of knowing for certain that when he refers to a Gospel written by Mark he has in mind the Gospel that we now today call the Gospel of Mark.  In fact there are reasons for doubting it, as I will show in my next post.


[1] See the Introduction and the collection of all the fragments of Papias that I give in The Apostolic Fathers, vol. 2 pp. 85-118.