Papias—and the Gospels of Matthew and Mark
ARE you a Bible lover? If so, the name of Papias (Paʹpi·as) will be of interest to you. Why so? Because his writings contain the earliest information we have on the origin of some of the books of the Christian Greek Scriptures, that is, apart from the testimony of the Scriptures themselves.1
Various dates are given for both the birth and death of Papias, but “no fact is known inconsistent with c. [A.D.] 60-135 as the period of Papias’ life.”2 He was a companion of Polycarp, who, it is said, had personally known some of the apostles,3 and he resided in the region of Phrygia in the province of Asia, today known as Asia Minor.
According to the second-century religious writer Irenaeus, Papias was a learned man and held in high esteem and respect as a reliable channel for the apostolic teachings.4 Eusebius, prominent church historian of the fourth century, however, gives contradictory testimony regarding Papias. First he speaks of him as “well skilled in all manner of learning, and well acquainted with the Scriptures,” and then later describes him as a man “of limited understanding” and one who had gathered “certain strange parables of our Lord and his doctrine, and some other matters rather too fabulous.”1
But the reason why Eusebius disagreed with Papias was apparently that the latter believed in a millennial reign of Christ upon earth.2 This, however, was the prevailing view of those professing Christianity in the second century.5 In fact, they held that the world would continue as it was for six thousand years and then would come the millennium for the seventh thousand years.6 They also understood that some Christians would gain a heavenly reward, whereas others would be rewarded with life in a Paradise earth.4 If, as Eusebius implies, Papias was inclined to apply figurative language in a literal way, nevertheless, the record concerning him indicates that “he was careful to insist on good evidence for what he accepted as Christ’s own teaching, in the face of then current unauthorized views.”2
As for his works, these consisted chiefly of a five-book commentary (most likely five chapters, the books being more like the shorter “books” of the Christian Greek Scriptures than ordinary books), entitled “Exposition of the Lord’s Oracles.” It has been quoted by a number of writers, and copies of it were in existence as late as A.D. 1218, but since then it has disappeared entirely.7
In his preface or introduction Papias explained his method. He carefully gathered information from those who had personally known such apostles as Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John and Matthew. He also noted that he did not take pleasure in those who spoke much but in those who taught the truth and that he preferred getting his information firsthand from living witnesses rather than from written sources.8 Most important of the fragments of his work that have come down to us is the one relating to the writing of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew:
“The presbyter [who, some say, may have been the apostle John] said this: Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For one thing he took special care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements.” “Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.”8
In other places Papias quotes from the first letters of both Peter and John, showing that they were used in his day. His testimony in favor of the book of Revelation is particularly noteworthy, he thereby being one of the oldest witnesses to its inspiration and creditability.5 He also mentions the Gospel according to the Hebrews, which, according to some, was Matthew’s Gospel in its original tongue.
The remarks of Papias regarding the Gospels of Mark and Matthew find corroboration in the Gospels themselves. What he states about Mark’s Gospel accounts for its vivid style, obviously that of an eyewitness; and its rapid-moving pace is just what we would expect if it were told by Peter or received from him. What Papias stated about Matthew’s Gospel also fits the facts, for it is clear that Matthew wrote first in Hebrew, as he prefers to quote from the Hebrew itself rather than from the Greek Septuagint Version, as was the custom of the rest of the Christian Greek Scripture writers. No doubt Matthew himself later translated it into Greek so that it might have a wider circulation. This would account for the fact that it does not read like a translation.
These early religious writers, such as Papias, who lived before the Council of Nicaea convened A.D. 325, are generally termed the “Ante-Nicene Fathers.” Concerning their testimony it has been said: “These writings . . . are primary evidences of the canon and the creditability of the New Testament. . . . These disciples are confessedly inferior to their Masters, they speak with the voices of infirm and fallible men, and not like the New Testament writers, with the fiery tongues of the Holy Ghost.” Yet they are of value.9
These writers may be said to give twofold testimony concerning the inspired Christian Scriptures. They give historical facts regarding the writing of these Scriptures, on the one hand, and, on the other, by their shortcomings they underscore the fact that the Christian Greek Scriptures are indeed of divine inspiration. The strongest evidences of the inspiration of the Christian Greek Scriptures, however, are found right in those inspired writings themselves.
1 M’Clintock & Strong’s Cyclopœdia, Vol. 1, p. 638.
2 The Encyclopœdia Britannica (1961 Ed.), Vol. 17, p. 238A.
3 Ibid., Vol. 18, p. 180.
4 A Literary History of Early Christianity, Crutwell, pp. 102-108.
5 History of the Christian Church, Schaff, Vol. 2, p. 696.
6 History of the Christian Religion and Church, Neander, p. 650.
7 The New Schaff-Herzog Religious Encyclopedia, Vol. 8, pp. 336-339.
8 The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Coxe, Vol. 1, pp. 151-155.
9 Ibid., p. 1.