2. Papias on the Eyewitnesses
Papias and His Book
Papias [traditionally ca. 60-130 CE] was bishop of Hierapolis, a city in the Lycus valley in the Roman province of Asia, not far from Laodicea and Colossae [modern-day Turkey]. He completed his major work, Exposition of the Logia of the Lord, in five books, sometime near the beginning of the second century, but sadly it has not survived . . . . As it is, we have no more than two dozen fragments surviving as quotations in later writers. (p. 12)
Eusebius of Caesarea thought that Papias was “a man of very little intelligence” (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.13) because he expected a paradise on earth at the second coming of Christ. But there is no reason for us to hold this prejudice since it appears that Papias was in a good position to know about the origins of the Gospels. Papias knew the daughters of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven (Acts 21:8-9). Eusebius mistakes this Philip for the Philip who was a member of the Twelve, but he does tell us that two of Philip’s daughters lived in Hierapolis and that Papias learned some stories from them (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.9).
The exact date when Papias completed his book is unknown. Eusebius associates Papias with the time of Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch (Hist. Eccl. 3.36.1-2) which points to a date before Ignatius’ martyrdom around 110 CE. Since Eusebius may have wanted to discredit Papias by dating his writing later than it truly was we do not need to be overly skeptical of this dating. Papias knew 1 Peter and 1 John (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.17) and Revelation (fragments 10 and 11 in Lightfoot, Harmer, and Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, 320-21) which points to a date after 100 CE.
Regardless of the exact date of composition, it is important to note that the passage from Papias to be analyzed by Richard Bauckham is about an earlier period, around the time the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John were being written. It is also important to realize that Hierapolis was at the crossroads of two major roads: one running east and west between Syrian Antioch and Ephesus, the other running from Smyrna (northwest of Hierapolis) to Attalia in Pamphylia (southeast of Hierapolis). Thus Papias was in an excellent position to collect traditions coming from Palestine and from Christian leaders who had settled in Asia.
Papias on the Eyewitnesses
Eusebius preserves the Prologue to Papias’ book, which, like the Gospel of Luke, was dedicated to an individual (whose name has not survived). It reads (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.3-4):
I shall not hesitate also to put into properly ordered form for you [singular] everything I learned carefully in the past from the elders and noted down well, for the truth of which I vouch. For unlike most people I did not enjoy those who have a great deal to say, but those who teach the truth. Nor did I enjoy those who recall someone else’s commandments, but those who remember the commandments given by the Lord to the faith and proceeding from the truth itself. And if by chance anyone who had been in attendance on (parekolouthekos tis) the elders should come my way, I inquired about the words of the elders — [that is,] what [according to the elders] Andrew or Peter said (eipen), or Philip, or Thomas or James, or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and the elder John, the Lord’s disciples, were saying (legousin). For I did not think that information from books would profit me as much as information from a living and surviving voice. (p. 15-16)
Bauckham begins helping us understand this passage by identifying the people Papias mentions. First, those who “had been in attendance on the elders” refers to those who, before passing through Hierapolis, had attended to the teachings of the elders. Due to a misleading translation (“had been followers of”) some think the passage implies that the elders were dead at the time Papias is writing about. This is not the case, the elders were still alive and teaching during the period Papias is writing about.
Second, despite Eusebius’ misunderstanding (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.7), the “elders” and the “Lord’s disciples” are two different groups of people, as indicated by Papias’ emphatic use of the term “elders” as opposed to merely using the term “Lord’s disciples”.
The elders are the senior Christian teachers in various cities of Asia at the time of which Papias refers in this passage. This is the sense in which Irenaeus, who knew Papias’ work well and several times quoted traditions of “the elders” (Adv. Haer. 2.22.5; 4.28.1; 5.5.1; 5.30.1; 5.36.1, 2; 6.33.3), probably from Papias, understood the term. Papias, living in Hierapolis, did not normally have the oppurtunity to hear these Asiatic elders himself, but when any of their disciples visited Hierapolis he asked about what they were saying. In particular, of course, he wanted to hear of any traditions that the elders had from the Lord’s disciples: Andrew, Peter, and the others. The apparent ambiguity in Papias’ words really derives from the fact that he takes it for granted that the words of the elders in which he would be interested are those that transmit traditions from Andrew, Peter, and the other disciples of the Lord. (p. 17)
Third, Papias, through his verb usage, indicates that Aristion and the elder John, unlike the other disciples named, were still alive in the period he is writing about. Papias wanted to know what Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John, or Mathew “said” (he uses the aorist verb eipen). In the case of Aristion and the elder John, Papias wanted to know what they “were saying” (he uses present tense verb legousin). John the Elder is distinguished from the John who was a member of the Twelve.
Many scholars have a hard time believing that Aristion and John the Elder had been disciples of Jesus, but this is because they have misunderstood this passage. Some scholars think that Papias is referring to a time when the elders were dead and others fail to distinguish the time about which Papias writes from the time at which he is writing. Even if we accept a late date for the composition of Papias’ book, such as 130 CE, there is nothing improbable about a twenty-something Papias hearing the words of the elderly Aristion or John the Elder around 90 CE. Papias would have been about sixty when he wrote his book. As a comparison, Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna and companion of Papias (Adv. Haer. 5.33.4; Hist. Eccl. 3.39.1), was martyred at the age of eighty-six between about 156 and 167 CE, which would make him between eleven and twenty in 90 CE. Moreover, Papias had direct contact with the daughters of Philip (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.9). If we accept the earlier dating argued for above, Papias could have been born as early as 50 CE.
Considering Papias’ age and geographical location it is not surprising that both Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. 5.33.4) and Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.7) note that Papias quoted Aristion and John often and possibly even heard their words himself. Since Papias is writing about the period when he was collecting oral traditions deriving from the disciples of the Lord and when most, but not all, of the disciples of the Lord were dead, he is most likely referring to the period between about 80 and 90 CE. This is about when Matthew and Luke were being written. “Thus what Papias says in this passage can be placed alongside Luke’s reference to the eyewitnesses (Luke 1:2) as evidence for the way the relationship of the eyewitnesses to the Gospel traditions was understood at the time when the Gospels were being written” (p. 20).
Papias’ claims in this passage need not be viewed as apologetic exaggeration since he is only claiming to have second hand access to the traditions from the Twelve and to have heard about the teachings of Aristion and John the Elder from their disciples. Thus we can trust that Papias is correct in noting that, when the Gospels were being written, the oral traditions concerning Jesus were attached to specific named eyewitnesses and were not, contrary to the assumptions of form criticism, being passed along anonymously in communities.
Papias expected to hear specifically what Andrew or Peter or another named disciple had said or specifically what Aristion or John the Elder was still saying. We can probably deduce that, just as these last two, long surviving disciples continued to repeat their oral witness in their teaching as long as they lived, so the other disciples were not just originators of oral tradition in the earliest period but authoritative living sources of the traditions up to their deaths. The oral traditions had not evolved away from them but continued to be attached to them, so that people like Papias wanted to hear specifically what any one of them said. (p. 20)
At the end of this section Bauckham notes some striking similarites between this passage from Papias and the Gospel of John:
- The order of the names in Papias’ list of the disciples mirrors the order in John 1:40-44 and 21:2. Papias omits the particularly Johannine disciple Nathanael and replaces him with the non-Johannine Matthew.
- Papias uses the term “disciple” instead of “apostle”. The Gospel of John never uses the term “apostle” in the technical sense.
- Papias’ reference to “the truth” recalls the reference to Jesus as “the truth” (John 14:6).
- Papias’ phrase “a living and surviving voice” may recall the the discussion in John 21 about how long the beloved disciple would “remain” or “survive”.
In later chapters, Bauckham will argue that the beloved disciple is John the Elder, an eyewitness to (parts of) the life of Jesus and the author of the Gospel of John. Bauckham does not mention it (at least in this section of the book), but if John the Elder did write the Gospel of John then these similarities would provide a good reason to trust Papias’ testimony, since he clearly did know some of the teachings of John the Elder.
“A Living and Surviving Voice”
Papias’ preference for oral tradition over books may seem paradoxical considering he wrote a book of his own and did not disparage the books of Matthew and Mark. However, his preference for a “living voice” was an ancient topos (Galen De comp. med. sec. loc. 6; Quintilian, Inst. 2.2.8; Pliny, Ep. 2.3; Seneca, Ep. 6.5). The topos referred to the actual voice of the teacher from whom one learns directly and not to oral tradition across generations. Thus, Papias is saying that if he preferred to get his information directly.
The historian Polybius considered the eyewitness (Greek autoptes) central to the method of ancient historiography. Of first importance was the historian’s personal experience of the events or places about which he writes. The second best method for history was the interrogation (Greek anakriseis) of a living witness (Histories 12.27.3). The third best approach to history was the reading of memoirs (Greek hypomnemata). The ancients wrote history books so that the memories of eyewitnesses would, in the words of Thucydides, remain “a possession for all time” (The History of the Peloponnesian War 1.22.4) or, in the words of Herodotus, “not be blotted out from among mankind by time” (The History of Herodotus 1.1).
[Papias] is portraying his inquiries on the model of those made by historians, appealing to historiographic “best practice” (even if many historians actually made much more use of written sources than their theory professed). That he himself wrote down the traditions he collected is not at all, as some scholars have thought, paradoxical. It was precisely what historians did. (p. 25)
Papias also says that he “inquired [anekrinon] about the words of the elders” using a verb similar to the cognate noun used by Polybius (see above) when referring to the historian’s interrogation of a witness (12.27.3). Elsewhere, Polybius says that anakriseis was the most important part of history since no single man could be at several different places at the same time (12.4C.3-5). Lucian of Samosata used the verb anakrinein in stating that the historian should assemble the facts after “much laborious and painstaking investigation”. He also stated his preference that the historian should be an eyewitness but, if he was not, he should listen to those who tell the more impartial story (Hist. Conscr. 47). Continuing on he says (Hist. Conscr. 48):
When he has collected all or most of the facts let him first make them into a series of notes (hypomnema), a body of material as yet with no beauty or continuity. Then, after arranging them into order (epithesis ten taxin), let him give it beauty and enhance it with the charms of expression, figure and rhythm.
Papias’ words mirror this process of placing notes into an ordered form:
I shall not hesitate also to put into properly ordered form (synkatataxai tais hermeneiais) for you everything I learned carefully in the past from the elders and noted down (emnemoneusa) well, for the truth of which I vouch.
Papias’ vouching for the truth of his writing is also a conventional part of ancient history (Lucian, Hist. Conscr. 39-40, 42).
So we may see Papias’ Prologue as claiming that he followed the best practice of historians: he made careful inquiries, collected the testimonies of eyewitnesses, set them down in a series of notes, and finally arranged his material artistically to form a work of literature. His preference for testimony of eyewitnesses, obtained at second or third hand, is therefore that of the historian, for whom, if direct autopsy was not available (i.e., the historian himself was not present at the events), indirect autopsy was more or less essential.
What is most important for our purposes is that, when Papias speaks of “a living and surviving voice,” he is not speaking metaphorically of the “voice” of oral tradition, as many scholars have supposed. He speaks quite literally of the voice of an informant — someone who has personal memories of the words or deeds of Jesus and who is still alive. In fact, even if the suggestion that he alludes specifically to historiographic practice is rejected, this must be his meaning. As we have seen, the saying about the superiority of the “living voice” to books refers not to oral tradition as superior to books, but to direct experience of an instructor, informant, or orator as superior to written sources. But Papias, uniquely, expands the usual cliche “living voice” to “living and surviving voice,” thereby making it even more appropriate to the context in which he uses it — the situation in which what he seeks are the reminiscences of those who knew Jesus and in which the passage of time has now been such that few of those people are still alive. (p. 27)
In his translation of Papias’ prologue into Latin, Jerome understands the words in this way (De vir. ill. 18). The phrase “a living and surviving voice” must refer to the immediately preceding words: “what Aristion and John the Elder, the Lord’s disciples, were saying.” In 1 Corinthians 15:6 Paul, like Papias, uses the verb menein (“to remain, to survive”) to say that most of the five hundred who saw the risen Lord were still alive.
Bauckham reiterates that Papias thought the Gospel traditions written down in the 80s CE had not lost a living connection with the eyewitnesses who had originated them. The period in which Papias, Matthew, Luke, and John collected their traditions would have been nearly the last time that one would be able to collect traditions linked to eyewitnesses and so it is no accident that it was during this period when the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John were written. Papias’ views are buttressed by Luke’s Prologue which states a connection to the eyewitnesses (autoptai). This refers to the disciples who accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry (Acts 1:21), including (Acts 6:4) but not limited to the Twelve (Luke 6:17; 8:1-3; 10:1-20; 19:37; 23:27; 24:9, 33; Acts 1:15, 21-23).
Oral Tradition or Oral History?
This passage from Papias has been used to suggest that early Christians favored oral tradition to written forms even after the Gospels were written. Bauckham’s study shows this to be wrong on multiple counts. First, Papias’ statements refer to a time before the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, or John were in wide use. Second, Papias wrote down the traditions because “the value of orally transmitted tradition would soon decline considerably once there were no longer any living eyewitnesses” (p. 30). Third, it is misleading to refer to “oral tradition” instead of “oral history”.
In Oral Tradition as History, Jan Vansina distinguishes between oral tradition and oral history. Oral tradition involves transmission by word of mouth for a period beyond the lifetime of the informant. On the other hand, oral historians can interview eyewitnesses and informants about recent events. As noted above, ancient historians placed an importance on eyewitnesses and Papias aspired to this best of historical practices. The writers of the Gospels would have been in an even better position than Papias to practice oral history.
Our analysis of Papias’ Prologue reveals two ways in which tradition reached Papias. The first route was:
- Specific (named) disciples of Jesus (now dead)
- (Intervening stages?)
- The elders (still living)
- Disciples of the elders
The second route was:
- Aristion and John the Elder (still living)
- Disciples of the elders
The first route would be classified as oral tradition while the second route would be classified as oral history. Note that the second route is more geographical than chronological, since the lapse of time would only involve the time from when Aristion or John spoke to the time a listener informed Papias of what was said. Those influenced by form criticism neglect “the importance of individual leaders, often very mobile, whose careers in Christian leadership often spanned decades and among whom the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry had a special position” (p. 33). Both lists above show that Papias knew tradtion was passed along by important individuals and not merely by a collective and anonymous tradition. Bauckham acknowledges that there was collective tradition in early Christian communities. His point is that the existence of a collective tradition does not exclude the role of particularly important and competent performers of that tradition. It was through the “verifiable channels of named informants” (p. 34) that Papias recorded the Gospel traditions.
Later second-century Christian writers also indicate that tradition was passed down from one named individual to another. In his Letter to Florinus (preserved in Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 5.20.5-6), Irenaeus recalled Polycarp’s transmission of the Gospel traditions (p. 35):
For I distinctly recall the events of that time better than those of recent years (for what we learn in childhood keeps pace with the growing mind and becomes part of it), so that I can tell the very place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit as he discoursed, his goings out and his comings in, the character of his life, his bodily appearance, the discourses he would address to the multitude, how he would tell of his conversations with John [in my view this is Papias’s John the Elder] and with the others who had seen the Lord, how he would relate their words from memory; and what the things were which he had heard from them concerning the Lord, his mighty works and his teaching, Polycarp, as having received them from the eyewitnesses (autopton) of the life of the Logos, would declare in accordance with the scriptures.
In future chapters Bauckham will determine whether the conclusions drawn about Papias are applicable to the Gospels. As a final comment he points out that the use of the word “tradition” in this section is a modern terminological distinctiion used for clarification by those researching oral tradition and oral history. It does not correspond to the ancient use of the word “tradition” (Greek paradosis) as can be seen by some passages from Josephus (C. Ap. 1.49-50, Life 361). Therefore, when we read the New Testament we should not mistake the word “tradition” for the modern term “oral tradition”.