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Was Papias a Reliable Witness?

We have seen elsewhere in this website that the tradition that the first two gospels were written one of the twelve apostles (Matthew) and a close companion to another (John Mark, interpreter of Peter) is based on an unreliable tradition first written down by Papias around the year 130-140 CE.

Of course, conservative and evangelical theologians continue to try and argue for his reliability. One of the more recent attempts is Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Eerdmans 2006). Bauckham, admitting that modern scholars have regarded Papias testimony on Mark as “historically worthless,” [1] nevertheless tried to argue against this scholarly consensus. We will be reviewing his arguments here.

Bauckham’s argument is based on this excerpt from Eusebius of Papias’ writing:

Quoted in History of the Church 3:39:3-4
But I shall not hesitate also to put down for you along with my interpretations whatsoever things I have at any time learned carefully from the elders and carefully remembered, guaranteeing their truth. For I did not, like the multitude, take pleasure in those that speak much, but in those that teach the truth; not in those that relate strange commandments, but in those that deliver the commandments given by the Lord to faith, and springing from the truth itself. If, then, any one came, who had been a follower of the elders, I questioned him in regard to the words of the elders,—what Andrew or what Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the disciples of the Lord, and what things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I did not think that what was to be gotten from the books would profit me as much as what came from the living and abiding voice.

According to Bauckham this passage shows that Papias worked in the manner of a reliable historian. Firstly he summarily dismisses Eusebius’ statement that Papias was an idiot (History of the Church 3:39:13) by fiat, stating that “there is no reason why we should adopt this prejudiced attitude towards Papias.” [2] Then he cited the Apostolic Father’s use of the phrase “living…voice” above. The same phrase (i.e. “living voice”) when used by other ancient writers, such as Galen (c129 – c200 CE), Quintillian (c35-c100 CE), Pliny the Younger (c. 63-113) and Seneca (c 4 BCE – 65 CE) – refers to the importance of acquiring information firsthand and not through “a chain of tradition” or from books. This is then compared to the Greek historian, Polybius (c 230-120 BCE), who used another proverb warning people not to be “like those who navigate out of books,” to emphasize the importance of acquiring first hand eyewitness accounts in good historiography. Polybius compared proper historiography with good practice of medicine, and Galen, who was a medical doctor, also used the same proverb in another context – emphasizing the importance of learning the trade directly from the teacher rather than purely from books. Bauckham used this connection to conclude that the term “living voice” must also carry with it the connotation of careful historiography:

This historiographic context is the one in which Papias’ use of the proverb about the living voice most appropriately belongs. [3]

Bauckham’s argument is seriously flawed. As noted above, Eusebius did not think very highly of Papias’ intelligence. [a] He wrote this about Papias:

History of the Church 3:39:11-13
The same writer gives also other accounts which he says came to him through unwritten tradition, certain strange parables and teachings of the Saviour, and some other more mythical things. To these belong his statement that there will be a period of some thousand years after the resurrection of the dead, and that the kingdom of Christ will be set up in material form on this very earth. I suppose he got these ideas through a misunderstanding of the apostolic accounts, not perceiving that the things said by them were spoken mystically in figures. For he appears to have been of very limited understanding, as one can see from his discourses.

Despite Bauckham’s confident dismissal of this assessment, there are a couple of reasons why one should accept Eusebius’ word for this. Firstly, Eusebius had access to Papias' complete writing, which is now lost to us. Dismissing his assessment when we have so little to go on is ill advised. Secondly, we do have evidence that Papias was indeed a gullible and rather naive man.

A fragment of Papias’ writing, preserved by Apollinarius of Laodicea, a fourth century Christian bishop, tells of the fate of Judas. It is important to read this passage in full:

Judas did not die by hanging, but lived on, having been cut down before choking. And this the Acts of the Apostles makes clear, that falling headlong his middle burst and his bowels poured forth. And Papias the disciple of John records this most clearly, saying thus in the fourth of the Exegeses of the Words of the Lord:

Judas walked about as an example of godlessness in this world, having been bloated so much in the flesh that he could not go through where a chariot goes easily, indeed not even his swollen head by itself. For the lids of his eyes, they say, were so puffed up that he could not see the light, and his own eyes could not be seen, not even by a physician with optics, such depth had they from the outer apparent surface. And his genitalia appeared more disgusting and greater than all formlessness, and he bore through them from his whole body flowing pus and worms, and to his shame these things alone were forced [out]. And after many tortures and torments, they say, when he had come to his end in his own place, from the place became deserted and uninhabited until now from the stench, but not even to this day can anyone go by that place unless they pinch their nostrils with their hands, so great did the outflow from his body spread out upon the earth. [4]

Anyone who reads this will immediately notice a few things. Firstly this is a harmonization of the contradictory readings from Matthew 27:3-5 and Acts 1:18-19. [b] Secondly the additional details, like his swollen head, sunken eyes, bloated genitalia, body flowing with pus, emanation of worms and terrible stench are typical motifs used by ancient authors to describe the deserved sufferings of evil men before their deaths. Josephus in Antiquities 17:6:5 described Herod the Great’s suffering before his death to include putrefied genitals, emanation of pus and worms and bad stench. Acts 12:23 describes the death of Herod’s grandson, Herod Agrippa I by stating that he was struck by an angel and was “eaten by worms.” In other words the story about Judas suffering is an expected folkloric expansion of the brief accounts given in the Matthew and Acts. [5]

Obviously this fable recounted by Papias certainly did not come from eyewitness accounts. Yet he presented it quite matter-of-factly as though he was recounting real history!

There are further examples from available fragments of Papias’ writing of the basic unreliability of his writings. He was a teller of tall tales. In the fragment preserved by Philip of Side (c. 380 - c. 439), we hear of the daughters of Philip who would drank snake venom with no ill effects, of a woman resurrected and of those who were raised by Jesus surviving until the early second century!

The aforesaid Papias reported as having received it from the daughters of Philip that Barsabas who is Justus, tested by the unbelievers, drank the venom of a viper in the name of the Christ and was protected unharmed. He also reports other wonders and especially that about the mother of Manaemus, her resurrection from the dead. Concerning those resurrected by Christ from the dead, that they lived until Hadrian. [6]

We can now see why Eusebius noted that Papias writes of “strange parables” and “mythical tales.” The latter’s credulousness is strong evidence that Papias was as Eusebius described him: someone of “limited understanding.” As for his claim of diligent collection and remembering of the Jesus tradition from the elders, we have an example of this in Irenaeus. Irenaeus cited Papias as his source for this saying of Jesus about the millennium:

Against Heresies 5:33:3-4
As the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord, related that they had heard from him how the Lord used to teach in regard to these times, and say: The days will come, in which vines shall grow, each having ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each true twig ten thousand shoots, and in each one of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five and twenty metretes of wine…And these things are borne witness to in writing by Papias, the hearer of John, and a companion of Polycarp, in his fourth book; for there were five books compiled by him

The source of this saying attributed to Jesus is not from any extant Christian writing or oral tradition – but Jewish apocrypha! Compare the passage below from 2 Baruch, a late first century or early second century Jewish pseudepigraphical text.

2 Baruch 29:3-6
And it shall come to pass when all is accomplished that was to come to pass in those parts, that the Messiah shall then begin to be revealed. …The earth also shall yield its fruit ten thousandfold and on each (?) vine there shall be a thousand branches, and each branch shall produce a thousand clusters, and each cluster produce a thousand grapes, and each grape produce a cor of wine.

The above evidence tells us that Papias was not a careful historian but a credulous second century Christian who seemed eager to believe anything that confirms his faith in Jesus.

What about Bauckham’s claim that the use of the phrase “living voice” means that Papias was cognizant of the best practice of ancient historiography? A closer look at the evidence shows how such an interpretation is vacuous.

Firstly in three of the four examples given above, that of Galen, Quintillian and Seneca, the phrase “living voice” refers to the didactic desirability of a pupil learning directly from a teacher and not from books. They have nothing to do with collection of eyewitness information. Let us look at these quotes:

Galen (c129-c200 CE)
[G]athering information out of a book is not the same thing, nor even comparable to learning from the living voice. [7]

Quintillian (c35-c100 CE) Institutes of Oratory 2:2:8
[Y]et the living voice, as it is called, feeds the mind more nutritiously, and especially the voice of the teacher, whom his pupils, if they are but rightly instructed, both love and reverence. [8]

Seneca (c4 BCE – 65 CE) Epistle 6:5
You will gain more from the living voice and sharing someone’s daily life than from any treatise.

The quote from Pliny the Younger is even less useful. For it refers to the fact that listening to a well crafted speech is more pleasing than reading a book! Let us give the quote in full:

Pliny the Younger, Epistle to Nepos
"I have authors," you will reply, "here in my own study, just as eloquent." True: but then those authors you can read at any time, while you cannot always get the opportunity of hearing eloquence. Besides, as the proverb says, "The living voice is that which sways the soul;" yes, far more. For notwithstanding what one reads is more clearly understood than what one hears, yet the utterance, countenance, garb, aye and the very gestures of the speaker, alike concur in fixing an impression upon the mind. [9]

Even Bauckham admits that the phrase “living voice” is not used in any extant work on historiography! [10] As we have seen above, his argument depends on an extremely tenuous connection between Galen and Polybius. The fact that both writers happens to hit upon the same proverb, “like those who navigate out of books,” to describe proper practice in their respective professions does not by any means show that therefore the other phrase “living voice” – not used by anyone to describe proper historiography – was a standard reference at that time to proper historiographical practice!

How then can we explain the reason for Papias use of the phrase “the living voice”? Actually Papias did not even use that phrase, he wrote of the “living and abiding voice.” Bauckham admits that Papias’ expansion of the usual cliché is “unique” but goes on to suggest that it makes it “even more appropriate” as this indicates he is seeking eyewitness to Jesus’ life at a time when not many of them remains. [11] This is nonsense. Papias could have meant no such thing because, as we have shown, the phrase “living voice” has nothing to do with historiography. Papias phrase “the living and abiding voice” comes straight out of I Peter 1:23 which speaks of “the living and abiding” word of God! [c] Papias is drawing from the theological language of I Peter. His statement about “carefully learning and remembering” the teachings of the elders is reminiscent of I Peter 1:10 which speaks of the prophets having “sought and searched diligently” about salvation. In other words, Papias’ main concern was theological not historical. He was handing down the “true faith” as exhorted by I Peter. [d]

Contrary to Bauckham, the consensus position is firmly in place: Papias’ witness is “historically worthless.”

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a.Some apologists argue that Eusebius assessment was based purely on Papias’ belief in millennialism, in other words it was not an overall assessment of his intelligence. However the above quote, which includes the phrase “as one can see from his discourses,” clearly shows that Eusebius based his assessment on a broader reading of the second century Apostolic Father.
b.Matthew states that Judas committed suicide by hanging himself while Acts makes him fall headlong until his bowels falls out. We have given a detailed examination of the account of Judas’ death elsewhere in this website.
c.We know that Papias is familiar with I Peter as Eusebius tells us that the apostolic father referred to this epistle in noting the relationship between Mark and Peter. (History of the Church 2:15:2)
d.The argument for this section is inspired mainly by the blog of the Australian skeptic, Neil Godfrey


1.Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: p203
2.ibid: p.13
3.ibid: p22
4.Fragment 3, from The Apostolic Fathers Translated By J. B. Lightfoot & J. R. Harmer
5.Maccoby, Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil: p82-84
6.Fragment 5, from The Apostolic Fathers Translated By J. B. Lightfoot & J. R. Harmer
7.Quotes from Galen and Seneca are from Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: p.22
8.Quintillian's Institutes of Oratory
9.Pliny's Epistles
10.Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: p.23
11.ibid: p.27

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