Believing Papias When It’s Convenient

reblogged from Barts Blog

In my previous post I stressed that, contrary to what you sometimes may have heard or possibly will hear, Papias is not a *direct* witness to what the apostles of Jesus were saying.  That is an important point because of the most important “testimony” that Papias gives, a testimony that is often taken as very strong evidence that the second Gospel of the NT was written by Mark, the companion of Peter, and that the first Gospel was really and truly written by Matthew, the disciple of Jesus.   If these claims were right, they would be highly significant.  Matthew would have been written by someone who was there to see these things happen; and Mark’s account would be based on arguably the most important witness to Jesus’ life..

Here is what Papias says.  Remember, when he indicates what “the elder” says, he is indicating what he has learned from a person who was allegedly “companion” of the elder; the elder was someone who allegedly knew the apostles.

“And 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: to leave out nothing that he heard or to include any falsehood among them.’”

This then is what Papias says about Mark.

And this is what he says about Matthew:

“And so Matthew composed the sayings in the Hebrew tongue, and each one interpreted [Or: translated] them to the best of his ability.”

In addition to my general doubts about the reliability of oral traditions – that will be the subject of my next book – (and recall, these are fourth-hand accounts we’re hearing from Papias), I have two clear reasons for thinking that these comments of Papias are not convincing “proof” about the authorship of either Matthew or Mark.   The first is that Papias can be shown not to preserve historically accurate information passed down from the apostles of Jesus.   The second is that what Papias actually says about Matthew is not true of our Matthew, making it appear either that he doesn’t have accurate information or that he is referring to some book other than what came to be our Gospel of Matthew.   And if he’s not right about Matthew, there’s no reason to think that he’s right about our Mark.

I’ll deal with the first reason in this post.  The short story, as I have mentioned in shorter order on the blog before, is that Papias is acknowledged by *everyone* — including the evangelical scholars who trust him with respect to Matthew and Mark – to preserve traditions that are *not* historically to be trusted.

Papias gives two traditions connected with the Gospel accounts of Jesus.  Neither one is considered by anyone I know as being anywhere near being accurate.   First is an alleged saying of Jesus:

Thus the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord, remembered hearing him say how the Lord used to teach about those times, saying:

“The days are coming when vines will come forth, each with ten thousand boughs; and on a single bough will be ten thousand branches.  And indeed, on a single branch will be ten thousand shoots and on every shoot ten thousand clusters; and in every cluster will be ten thousand grapes, and every grape, when pressed, will yield twenty-five measures of wine.

And when any of the saints grabs hold of a cluster, another will cry out, ‘I am better, take me; bless the Lord through me.’  So too a grain of wheat will produce ten thousand heads and every head will have ten thousand grains and every grain will yield ten pounds of pure, exceptionally fine flour.  So too the remaining fruits and seeds and vegetation will produce in similar proportions. And all the animals who eat this food drawn from the earth will come to be at peace and harmony with one another, yielding in complete submission to humans.”

This is a very interesting claim about what Jesus taught.  But no one thinks Jesus taught it.  So what does that say about the reliability of Papias’s sources for the words of Jesus and the traditions of his apostles?

The second tradition is even more interesting – fascinating even.  So, do you wonder how Judas died?   Here’s what Papias tells us, based on the “reliable” sources that he had at his disposal:

But Judas went about in this world as a great model of impiety.  He became so bloated in the flesh that he could not pass through a place that was easily wide enough for a wagon – not even his swollen head could fit.  They say that his eyelids swelled to such an extent that he could not see the light at all; and a doctor could not see his eyes even with an optical device, so deeply sunken they were in the surrounding flesh.  And his genitals became more disgusting and larger than anyone’s; simply by relieving himself, to his wanton shame, he emitted pus and worms that flowed through his entire body.

And they say that after he suffered numerous torments and punishments, he died on his own land, and that land has been, until now, desolate and uninhabited because of the stench.  Indeed, even to this day no one can pass by the place without holding their nose.  This was how great an outpouring he made from his flesh on the ground.

No one thinks this is what happened to Judas.  Which means that the two traditions of Papias that can be critically examined are clearly recognized as legendary, not historical.  Why then would anyone trust that Papias is reliable about something else he says – e.g., about Matthew and Mark?   Papias has been trusted in these  sayings, for example by conservative New Testament scholars, because these scholar want to trust him in these sayings, and for no other reason.   They want to trust him because he tells them what they want to hear.  And when he tells them something they don’t want to hear (in the other traditions he preserves) they choose not to trust him.   This is not critical scholarship.  It is uncritical scholarship.  Or perhaps we should call it what it is, credulous scholarship.

Categories: Christianity, History

1 reply

  1. is there any proof that Papias directly heard John the Elder or Ariston. It looks like he heard someone who heard them


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