Commentary on Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History 3.39

Text

In H.E. 3.39, Eusebius of Caesarea provides both information about Papias and quotations from Papias:

(1) There are extant five books of Papias, which bear the title Expositions of Oracles of the Lord. Irenaeus makes mention of these as the only works written by him, in the following words: “These things are attested by Papias, an ancient man who was a hearer of John and a companion of Polycarp, in his fourth book. For five books have been written by him.” These are the words of Irenaeus.

(2) But Papias himself in the preface to his discourses by no means declares that he was himself a hearer and eye-witness of the holy apostles, but he shows by the words which he uses that he received the doctrines of the faith from those who were their friends.

(3) He says: “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.

(4) 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.”

(5) It is worth while observing here that the name John is twice enumerated by him. The first one he mentions in connection with Peter and James and Matthew and the rest of the apostles, clearly meaning the evangelist; but the other John he mentions after an interval, and places him among others outside of the number of the apostles, putting Aristion before him, and he distinctly calls him a presbyter.

(6) This shows that the statement of those is true, who say that there were two persons in Asia that bore the same name, and that there were two tombs in Ephesus, each of which, even to the present day, is called John’s. It is important to notice this. For it is probable that it was the second, if one is not willing to admit that it was the first that saw the Revelation, which is ascribed by name to John.

(7) And Papias, of whom we are now speaking, confesses that he received the words of the apostles from those that followed them, but says that he was himself a hearer of Aristion and the presbyter John. At least he mentions them frequently by name, and gives their traditions in his writings. These things we hope, have not been uselessly adduced by us.

(8) But it is fitting to subjoin to the words of Papias which have been quoted, other passages from his works in which he relates some other wonderful events which he claims to have received from tradition.

(9) That Philip the apostle dwelt at Hierapolis with his daughters has been already stated. But it must be noted here that Papias, their contemporary, says that he heard a wonderful tale from the daughters of Philip. For he relates that in his time one rose from the dead. And he tells another wonderful story of Justus, surnamed Barsabbas: that he drank a deadly poison, and yet, by the grace of the Lord, suffered no harm.

(10) The Book of Acts records that the holy apostles after the ascension of the Savior, put forward this Justus, together with Matthias, and prayed that one might be chosen in place of the traitor Judas, to fill up their number. The account is as follows: “And they put forward two, Joseph, called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias; and they prayed and said.”

(11) The same writer gives also other accounts which he says came to him through unwritten tradition, certain strange parables and teachings of the Savior, and some other more mythical things.

(12) 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.

(13) For he appears to have been of very limited understanding, as one can see from his discourses. But it was due to him that so many of the Church Fathers after him adopted a like opinion, urging in their own support the antiquity of the man; as for instance Irenaeus and any one else that may have proclaimed similar views.

(14) Papias gives also in his own work other accounts of the words of the Lord on the authority of Aristion who was mentioned above, and traditions as handed down by the presbyter John; to which we refer those who are fond of learning. But now we must add to the words of his which we have already quoted the tradition which he gives in regard to Mark, the author of the Gospel.

(15) “This also the presbyter said: Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord’s discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely.” These things are related by Papias concerning Mark.

(16) But concerning Matthew he writes as follows: “So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able.”

(17) And the same writer uses testimonies from the first Epistle of John and from that of Peter likewise. And he relates another story of a woman, who was accused of many sins before the Lord, which is contained in the Gospel according to the Hebrews. These things we have thought it necessary to observe in addition to what has been already stated.

Commentary

Section 1

There are extant five books of Papias, which bear the title Expositions of Oracles of the Lord.

Papias’ five-book work was still extant in the time of Eusebius (d. AD 339/340). It is no longer extant today, but a number of fragments have been preserved in the writings of others.

Eusebius is the first patristic author to tell us the title of Papias’ work, Expositions of Oracles of the Lord. The Greek word exēgēseōs is singular and should be translated literally as “An Exposition.” The Greek word logiōn is generally translated as “oracles” (Acts 7:38; Rom 3:2; Heb 5:12; 1 Pet 4:11), meaning words from a deity. By using this term, Papias is referring to the divine origin of Jesus’ sayings. Later in this passage he says Mark and Matthew wrote down the oracles of the Lord. Since both gospels contain the words and deeds of Jesus it is possible Papias’ work also contained deeds of Jesus alongside the words of Jesus. The Greek word kyriakōn is best translated as “of the Lord,” referring to Jesus. The most appropriate translation of Papias’ title is An Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord.

Irenaeus makes mention of these as the only works written by him, in the following words: “These things are attested by Papias, an ancient man who was a hearer of John and a companion of Polycarp, in his fourth book. For five books have been written by him.” These are the words of Irenaeus.

Eusebius quotes Irenaeus saying Papias was a hearer of the apostle John and a companion of Polycarp (ca. 60-155), bishop of Smyrna (Her. 5.33.4).

Section 2

But Papias himself in the preface to his discourses by no means declares that he was himself a hearer and eye-witness of the holy apostles, but he shows by the words which he uses that he received the doctrines of the faith from those who were their friends.

Eusebius refers to Papias as writing “his [Papias’] discourses.” This implies Papias did not merely collect the sayings of or about Jesus. The title of his work implies he collected the sayings in order to clarify their meanings.

Eusebius challenges Irenaeus’ claim that Papias was a hearer of the apostle John. It is noteworthy that Eusebius does not argue that Papias could not have known any of the apostles and admits Papias knew followers of the apostles. In fact, Eusebius believes Papias was a contemporary of Polycarp, whom Eusebius believed to be a disciple of the apostle John, as well as other apostles (H.E. 3.36.1; 5.20.6-7; 5.24.16). Papias lived in a time and place where it was possible for him know to apostles; Eusebius simply denies that he, in fact, knew any apostles.

Section 3

He says: “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.

Eusebius now quotes from the preface of Papias’ work in an attempt to show Irenaeus was wrong about Papias hearing the apostle John.

A literal translation would be “the interpretations” instead of “my interpretations.” The work is not exclusively Papias’ interpretations (which is not to say the work did not contain any of Papias’ interpretations). He speaks of traditions he learned from the elders. He stresses that he faithfully and accurately committed the traditions to memory. Scholars sometimes think we must decide whether Papias is (1) guaranteeing the dependability or truthfulness of his works as an accurate transmission of the traditions of his sources or (2) guaranteeing that his work communicated the truth that was the product of their traditions. Monte Shanks proposes that both meanings are possible and need not be pitted against each other.

Who are Papias’ “elders”? From section 4 we learn they are the disciples of the Lord.

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.

Like Polycarp (Phil. 7.2), Papias takes pleasure in the truth instead of long-winded speculations and conjectures. The phrase “strange commandments” should be understood as “someone other than the Lord’s commandments.” Papias is saying it is only the Lord’s commandments that matter.

The phrase “but in those that deliver the commandments given by the Lord to faith,” means “to those that believe” or “to those that are possessed of faith.” Papias understood that Jesus entrusted teachings to his immediate followers for the purpose of educating those who would believe in him. Papias closes this section by saying Jesus is the truth itself, language found in the Johannine writings of the NT (cf. Jn 1:14, 17; 14:6; 17:19; 18:37; 1Jn 2:21; 3:19; 5:20; 2Jn 2-4; 3Jn 3-4, 8). The connection to the Johannine writings is easily explained if Papias knew the apostle John.

Section 4

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.

Section 4 describes how Papias would question travelers he came in contact with. As bishop of Hierapolis he would have wanted to protect his congregation from teachings that were contrary to apostolic teaching. Note that he is comparing the words of the travelers to the words of the elders. It is the words of the elders, not the words of the travelers, that Papias records in his book.

The Greek verb parakoloutheo means “go closely with, attend.” The translation “a follower of the elders” might suggest the person came after the time of the elders and was no longer in a relationship with them. However, the Greek simply means the person was present at the teaching of the elders and could be present again at some future time.

Papias thought it was necessary to question these travelers. The Greek word anakrinō can mean “to question, examine, conduct an examination, to judge, to call to account, to discern.” Was Papias simply trying to learn new information or was he attempting to discern the traveler’s orthodoxy? The fact that Papias compared the traveler’s words to the words of the elders implies he already knew the words of the elders. It also suggests he is testing whether the travelers knew the apostolic teachings.

Monte Shanks argues that the Greek text identifies the “elders” with the disciples of the Lord. The relationship between the two accusatives of the text is appositional, the second expression supplements the first expression. The alternative position is that the elders are a separate group than the disciples of the Lord. Shanks views such a reading as unnatural.

Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John, and Matthew were all eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry. Papias is probably referring to the apostle Philip instead of Philip the evangelist. The apostle Philip and his daughters settled in Hierapolis, where Papias was bishop at a later time. The apostle Philip is mentioned in section 9 and there is no reason to believe the Philip in section 4 is a different Philip. It is not clear whether “James” is James the son of Zebedee or James the brother of Jesus. James the son of Zebedee died sometime between AD 41-44 (Acts 12:1-2) whereas James the brother of the Lord died ca. AD 62. Given these dates, it is unlikely Papias learned anything from James firsthand. The aorist tense implies that these seven disciples were no longer speaking because they had died.

The switch to the present tense implies Aristion and the elder John were still alive during the period Papias is writing about (which should not be confused with the time he was composing his book). Both individuals are described as disciples of the Lord, just as the previous seven individuals were. We know nothing else about this Aristion.

One John or Two Johns?

The name John is mentioned once in connection with Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, and Matthew and once in connection with Aristion. The second time John is called “the elder John”. While Eusebius argues Papias is referring to two different individuals named John, it is worth examining Papias’ words ourselves in order to see if Eusebius’ interpretation is correct.

Monte Shanks notes that if we follow normal Greek grammatical rules the definite article (“the elder John”) should be understood as anaphoric, meaning it refers back to the previously mentioned apostle John. Recall that Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John, and Matthew are all identified as elders earlier in the passage. The first elder John is the same individual as the second elder John. Shanks goes on to say that if Papias was referring to a different John he would have omitted the article in order to avoid confusion. John is mentioned twice because, unlike the other elders, he was still alive and able to confirm the teachings of the apostles at some point in Papias’ own lifetime.

In some contexts the term “elder” can refer to an older man (Lk 15:25; Acts 2:17; 1 Tim 5:1-2). While the apostle John lived to an old age, the term “elder” is not used in that sense in this passage. Aristion is mentioned alongside the elder John as a disciple of the Lord whom Papias heard speak. Aristion must have been rather old by that time but he is not called an elder like John is. Elsewhere, Papias speaks of the elder John as someone who held exceptional authority. The term “elder” appears to refer to John’s position of authority, a position Aristion never attained. Other commentators propose that the term “elder” was a term of endearment. But in this passage Papias is not emphasizing that John was a dear old friend, but that he was one of the last surviving authoritative tradition-bearers from among the founding leaders of the church.

The preceding arguments support the position that Papias is referring to only one individual, the apostle John. As noted above, Papias writes as if the elder John held exceptional authority. No authoritative individual named John is mentioned besides the apostle John in any church father prior to Eusebius. This includes church fathers who had also read the work of Papias (e.g., Irenaeus). It is quite unnecessary to propose that there was an elder John, a disciple of the Lord and authoritative teacher, that was largely forgotten to history before Eusebius.

Oral Tradition

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.

Papias merely says he did not expect to learn as much from books as from the living and abiding voice. He does not say he could not learn anything from books. In fact, he later praises Mark for accurately writing down the teachings of Peter. It is therefore highly unlikely Papias is downplaying written traditions, such as those in the gospels. A man who did not care for books would not have written a five volume book himself. The words of Papias cannot be used to defend the position that the church in his day only preferred the words of charismatic preachers or itinerant prophets.

Papias valued the direct words of those who had been disciples of Jesus. He could learn more from talking to them than from reading a book.

It is noteworthy that Papias speaks of an “abiding” voice. This word appears approximately 100 times in the NT and over a third of its occurrences are in writings attributed to John. This is further evidence that Papias knew the apostle John.

Section 5

It is worth while observing here that the name John is twice enumerated by him. The first one he mentions in connection with Peter and James and Matthew and the rest of the apostles, clearly meaning the evangelist; but the other John he mentions after an interval, and places him among others outside of the number of the apostles, putting Aristion before him, and he distinctly calls him a presbyter.

Eusebius now states his position that Papias is referring to two individuals named John. He says the first individual is the apostle John and author of the fourth gospel. But he argues the second individual is a different John.

Eusebius thinks that Papias puts the second John outside the number of apostles because Aristion, who was not an apostle, is named before John. It is implied that Papias would not list someone who is not an apostle before someone who is an apostle. This argument carries little weight. The preceding quotation from Papias places Andrew before Peter despite Peter being the more prominent apostle. Papias also places Thomas before James, John, and Matthew and few would hold that Thomas is more prestigious than the sons of thunder or the first evangelist.

Eusebius notes that Papias calls the second John an “elder.” But this is not enough to support the idea that Papias is not speaking of the apostle. The preceding quotation from Papias refers to the apostles as “elders.” The term itself is quite general and could apply to apostles (1 Pet 5:1) and other church leaders (Acts 11:30; 1 Tim 5:17; Tit 1:5).

Section 6

This shows that the statement of those is true, who say that there were two persons in Asia that bore the same name, and that there were two tombs in Ephesus, each of which, even to the present day, is called John’s.

The existence of two tombs in Ephesus bearing the name of John is also attested by Dionysius of Alexandria (H.E. 7.25.16) and Jerome (Vir. ill. 9). But Jerome says that some regard both tombs as memorials to the apostle John. There were undoubtedly many men named John in Asia. The existence of two tombs bearing the name John does little to support the position that Papias is referring to two individuals named John in his passage.

It is important to notice this. For it is probable that it was the second, if one is not willing to admit that it was the first that saw the Revelation, which is ascribed by name to John.

Dionysius of Alexandria also suggested Revelation was written by another John, not the apostle John (H.E. 7.25). Dionysius thinks the style and other internal evidence suggests Revelation was not written by the author of the Fourth Gospel, whom he takes to be the apostle John. But Dionysius does not say who this other John was (i.e., he does not say it was John the elder). Eusebius himself offers little more than a suggestion that John the elder wrote Revelation. He concedes that others attributed it to the apostle John.

Section 7

And Papias, of whom we are now speaking, confesses that he received the words of the apostles from those that followed them, but says that he was himself a hearer of Aristion and the presbyter John. At least he mentions them frequently by name, and gives their traditions in his writings. These things we hope, have not been uselessly adduced by us.

Eusebius concludes that Papias did not receive words directly from the apostles. We have found Eusebius’ argument for this position lacking. He grants that Aristion and the elder John were disciples of the Lord, even if they were not apostles.

Eusebius says Papias gives the traditions from Aristion and John frequently in his writings. The Greek word paradoseis (“traditions”) is used to describe authoritative traditions that were handed down from recognized leaders with the expectation that they were to be preserved and obeyed (e.g., Mk 7:5-13; 1 Cor 11:2). This further supports the position that John is called the “elder” not because he is old but because he was an authoritative teacher. Apparently Aristion and John were significant sources for Papias.

Section 8

But it is fitting to subjoin to the words of Papias which have been quoted, other passages from his works in which he relates some other wonderful events which he claims to have received from tradition.

Section 9: The Apostle Philip

That Philip the apostle dwelt at Hierapolis with his daughters has been already stated.

Eusebius clearly speaks of the apostle Philip and his daughters, not Philip the evangelist and his four prophet daughters (Acts 21:8-9), dwelling in Hierapolis, the very city in which Papias was bishop.

But it must be noted here that Papias, their contemporary, says that he heard a wonderful tale from the daughters of Philip. For he relates that in his time one rose from the dead.

The pronoun is masculine in the phrase “their contemporary,” meaning Papias had been a contemporary of both the apostle Philip and his daughters. The pronoun would have been feminine if Papias had only been a contemporary of the daughters. Eusebius contradicts his earlier claim that Papias did not receive words from the apostles. He admits that Papias knew the apostle Philip.

He says the daughters of Philip are the source for Papias’ account of a man being raised from the dead. Philip of Side also says Papias’ book contained accounts of people who were raised from the dead. His time refers to the time of Philip.

And he tells another wonderful story of Justus, surnamed Barsabbas: that he drank a deadly poison, and yet, by the grace of the Lord, suffered no harm.

The second story, about Justus surviving the drinking of poison, is probably from Philip’s daughters too. The conjunctive clause kai au palin heteron (“and again another”) implies as much. Philip of Side also understood this report to have come from Philip’s daughters.

The story of Justus drinking poison and not dying calls to mind the longer ending to Mark. Mark 16:18 reads: “whatever poison they drink will not harm them.” By the last half of the second century both Irenaeus (Her. 3.10.5-6) and Tatian (Diatessaron 53-55) are aware of Mark 16:9-20. One wonders if Papias, writing several decades earlier, knows of its existence. If Papias knew of Mark 16:18 he may have mentioned his account as an example of Jesus’ words being fulfilled.

Section 10: Acts of the Apostles

The Book of Acts records that the holy apostles after the ascension of the Savior, put forward this Justus, together with Matthias, and prayed that one might be chosen in place of the traitor Judas, to fill up their number. The account is as follows: “And they put forward two, Joseph, called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias; and they prayed and said.”

See Acts 1:23.

Section 11

The same writer gives also other accounts which he says came to him through unwritten tradition, certain strange parables and teachings of the Savior, and some other more mythical things.

Eusebius says Papias preserved unwritten tradition, meaning oral tradition. What Eusebius meant by “strange parables” is uncertain. Irenaeus quotes a parable from Papias regarding the fertility of the millennium (Her. 5.32). Eusebius may have found this parable strange because he disagreed with Papias’ chiliasm. But it is quite possible he had something else in mind. Eusebius also says Papias preserved teachings that he believed originated with the Savior, Jesus Christ. What Eusebius considers “mythical things” is explained in the next section.

Section 12

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.

Eusebius tells us that Papias held to chiliasm, the belief in a reign of Christ on the earth for one thousand years before the general judgment of the dead. This is commonly referred to as premillennialism today. Its chief biblical support is Revelation 20:1-6. Chiliasts in the ancient church include the author of the Letter of Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian. Opponents of the doctrine include Caius, Origen, Dionysius of Alexandria, and Eusebius. Eusebius believes Papias misunderstood apostolic accounts, admitting that Papias’ sources were apostolic in nature. It is not clear whether Eusebius was referring to teachings spoken by the apostles or teachings spoken to the apostles.

Section 13

For he appears to have been of very limited understanding, as one can see from his discourses.

Eusebius’ unfavorable judgment of Papias as a man of “very limited understanding” may have been due to Eusebius’ hostility to Papias’ chiliasm. But it could also have been from the vocabulary or style employed by Papias in his discourses. Given the limited number of Papian fragments available to us it is difficult to judge how accurate Eusebius’ judgment of Papias was.

But it was due to him that so many of the Church Fathers after him adopted a like opinion, urging in their own support the antiquity of the man; as for instance Irenaeus and any one else that may have proclaimed similar views.

Eusebius goes on to say Papias influenced many church fathers after him, men that Eusebius could not similarly impugn. He chalks this up to the antiquity of Papias. This admission suggests Papias was not as incompetent as Eusebius says.

It was unthinkable for Eusebius that any independent critical thinker might come to believe in the millennium. He instead labeled Papias as the fountainhead of this theological error, which he contended was the product of Papias’s meager intelligence and faulty hermeneutic. Munck has appropriately observed concerning Eusebius’s entire treatment of Papias that “this mention of Papias’ work in Eusebius’ History is, as can be seen, entirely one-sided.” Eusebius’s value as a church historian can hardly be overstated; however, his lack of objectivity and balance when discussing those with whom he disagreed is an indelible blight upon his legacy.1

Section 14

Papias gives also in his own work other accounts of the words of the Lord on the authority of Aristion who was mentioned above, and traditions as handed down by the presbyter John; to which we refer those who are fond of learning. But now we must add to the words of his which we have already quoted the tradition which he gives in regard to Mark, the author of the Gospel.

Eusebius characterizes Aristion’s material as “accounts,” while referring to John’s material as “traditions.” “Traditions” bore the weight of authoritative practice and belief (e.g., Acts 15:6-30; 1 Cor 11:2), while “accounts” spoke of narratives and historical events (e.g., Lk 1:1). Again, this points to John the elder being called the “elder” because he was a recognized authority. This should not be taken to say that Aristion’s accounts were not valuable. Clearly they were valuable enough to Papias for him to preserve them.

Section 15: Mark

“This also the presbyter said: Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord’s discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely.” These things are related by Papias concerning Mark.

Eusebius tells us Papias’ tradition about the Gospel of Mark came from John the elder. While Eusebius does not believe this to be John the apostle, we have found his argument for his position lacking. It is most likely that Papias said he received this tradition from the apostle John. Eusebius says this information is a “tradition” (section 14), meaning he viewed it as authoritative teaching. Whether Papias or John agreed with his assessment is unstated.

Mark had become Peter’s hermēneutēs. Depending on the context the word hermēneutēs can mean either “interpreter” or “translator.” Both meanings may apply here. Mark was a “follower” (akolouthon) of Peter, implying a close relationship (1 Pet 5:13). This means Mark had ample opportunity to hear Peter’s message and discuss its meaning.

Mark is said to have accurately recorded Peter’s message. This included both what Jesus had said and what Jesus had done. Mark was not, therefore, creating or molding a message for his audience. The Gospel of Mark was not the culmination of traditions created by separate Christian communities to address their specific needs and with no connection to the words and deeds of the historical Jesus. The Gospel of Mark had its origin in the message of the apostle Peter, an eyewitness. Mark himself neither heard the Lord nor followed him. He was in no position to elaborate upon the story of Jesus.

It is said that Mark’s account lacks taxei (“order”). It is debated whether this refers to chronological order, to logical arrangement, or to literary style. Without additional context it is difficult to know what is meant. Many modern scholars believe Mark exhibits good logical arrangement and so this cannot be meant. Shanks cautions that we do not know who may have criticized Mark’s account or why it failed to meet their expectations, meaning our judgments on the matter may not be relevant. It is possible these criticisms were not even reasonable (e.g., from literary elites). If a lack of chronological order is meant, it may have been that because Mark was not an eyewitness himself he could not put Peter’s material in strict chronological order.

The incidental statement made by the apostle John that Mark had “neither heard the Lord nor followed him” is significant since it is would be the boldest of deceptions to say that Peter was the source of the Second Gospel if Mark was known to have been more than its simple translator and editor. If the apostle John, or Eusebius’s “John the elder,” or the late first-century church had known that Mark was the driving force behind the theological content contained in his Gospel then what possible purpose could such a statement serve? Was it the scheme of the late first-century church to attribute to Peter what it rightfully knew to be from the hand of Mark? Moreover, if Mark’s Gospel suffered from a lack of credibility then what possible remedy could be produced by such an ill conceived statement that only further distanced Mark from Jesus? If one were to conspire on how to make Mark’s effort less credible, then one could have hardly invented a more damning statement than the one made by the apostle John and Papias. It would have been far easier to produce a more reasonable and acceptable deception, such as simply stating that Mark himself had in fact been a distant follower of Jesus. But that is not what Papias documented for his audience.2

Peter is said to have “adapted his teachings to the needs of his hearers.” The Greek word chreia (“teachings”) covers a wide range of content. It can refer to anecdotes containing actions, sayings, or both. It is attributed to a character and regarded as useful for living. Peter adapted his message so that his audience could understand his message. Peter’s intent was not to create a connected account. This was left to Mark in the writing of his gospel.

The Greek word enia (“some”) cannot indicate an extended narrative like the second gospel. The phrase “some things” refers to Mark’s input, not that of Peter. It may refer to Mark acting as an editor, combining Peter’s accounts into a literary work. The majority of the gospel is based on Peter’s accounts and “some things” are from Mark’s editorial work.

Section 16: Matthew

But concerning Matthew he writes as follows: “So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able.”

The words, “So then,” suggest the passage about Matthew did not appear in the work of Papias immediately following the passage about Mark quoted by Eusebius, but it may have appeared in relatively close proximity. We cannot know whether this tradition about Matthew is from John the elder or not. Nor should we take the order of these passages in Eusebius to imply that Papias believed the Gospel of Mark was written before the Gospel of Matthew.

The Greek phrase ta logia (“the oracles”) is used in the New Testament and early church fathers to describe the oracles of the Old Testament prophets.3 As noted above under section 1, it refers to divine proclamations and could naturally be applied to the words of Jesus. The phrase indicates the value the early church placed on Matthew’s text.

Papias says Matthew wrote in the Hebrais dialektō (“Hebrew language”), which can refer to Aramaic or Hebrew. Aramaic, not Hebrew, was the primary language spoken by Jews in the promised land in the first century.

Despite the phrase normally being a linguistic reference, a small group of scholars takes the phrase to mean Matthew wrote in a Jewish rhetorical style rather than in the Aramaic language (e.g., Gundry, Kurzinger, Luz). Ancient rhetoricians could use the word dialektō to mean “style,” but usually with adjectives like “exalted,” “poetic,” and “one’s own.” It is also unlikely that a text written in Jewish rhetorical style would be so difficult as to need each one to interpret it “as he was able.” More likely is that an Aramaic text was translated by each one as he was able.

Most scholars understand Papias to be referring to a gospel written in Aramaic. Irenaeus (Her. 3.1.1), Eusebius (H.E. 5.10.3), Origen (Comm. in Jn. 6.17), Epiphanius (Panar. 30.13.1-30.22.4), Cyril of Jerusalem (Catechetical Lectures 14), and Jerome (Vir. ill. 3; On Matthew 12:13) preserve the same tradition. The relationship of this Aramaic gospel to the canonical Gospel of Matthew, written in Greek, is a perplexing question.

Though some or all of these [church fathers] may simply be following Papias, the widespread nature of this tradition, coupled with the lack of competing or conflicting traditions, suggests that we ought to take it more seriously.4

At one time Jerome (d. AD 408) believed an Aramaic version of Matthew’s Gospel existed in his own day in the library of Caesarea (Vir. ill. 3). He says it was first published in Judea for the sake of Jewish Christians and later translated into Greek by an unknown author. Jerome makes it clear that he did not see this gospel himself. Monte Shanks relates that Timothy C. G. Thornton makes a good case for the suggestion that Jerome was mistaken in his identification of this Aramaic work with Matthew’s initial gospel.5 According to Thornton, later in his life Jerome distances himself from his earlier assertion by saying “most people” called the Aramaic gospel the original Gospel of Matthew.

The Greek word hermēneuō can mean either “interpret” or “translate.” Since the context appears to be contrasting Aramaic and Greek texts, “translate” is the preferred translation.

Some scholars hypothesize that Papias may be referring to Q, the hypothetical source used by both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. If Papias is referring to Q, he is saying it was originally in Aramaic. The different translations he refers to could refer to translations like we find in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke (other translations may have existed as well). This might explain how the name of Matthew became attached to the first gospel.

Another possibility is that Papias is referring to what modern scholars call special Matthean tradition. Since this material was incorporated into the Gospel of Matthew it may explain how the apostle’s name became attached to the first gospel.

Section 17

And the same writer uses testimonies from the first Epistle of John and from that of Peter likewise.

Eusebius relates that Papias used “testimonies” (martyriais) from 1 John and 1 Peter. Eusebius believed 1 John to have been written by the apostle John (H.E. 3.24.17). His lack of Papian quotations from 1 John may be due to his desire to disassociate Papias from the apostle John. Elsewhere, Eusebius says Papias quoted 1 Peter 5:13 as proof that the author of the Gospel of Mark associated with Peter and that both were present in Rome when Peter composed his first epistle (H.E. 2.15.2).

And he relates another story of a woman, who was accused of many sins before the Lord, which is contained in the Gospel according to the Hebrews. These things we have thought it necessary to observe in addition to what has been already stated.

The story of the woman accused of many sins before the Lord sounds like the story of the woman caught in adultery that is found in some manuscripts of the Gospel of John (7:53-8:11). “Agapius of Hierapolis confirmed that Papias was aware of this pericope, and that Papias confirmed its association with the Fourth Gospel.”6 Eusebius does not say Papias took the story from the Gospel according to the Hebrews, only that the story is contained in that gospel. Thus, we cannot say whether Papias was himself familiar with the Gospel according to the Hebrews.

It is worth nothing that Eusebius does not associate the Gospel according to the Hebrews with Matthew’s Aramaic/Hebrew Gospel.

As noted above, Jerome stated that a Gospel written in Hebrew could be found in the library at Caesarea. It seems reasonable, therefore, to assume that Eusebius was aware of this Gospel since he was quite familiar with the library of Caesarea and because he knew some of the accounts contained in The Gospel according to the Hebrews; he did not, however, at this very natural point associate that Gospel with the Aramaic Gospel written by the apostle Matthew.7

Bibliography

Blomberg, Craig L. Matthew. The New American Commentary 22. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992.

Brown, J. K. “Matthew, Gospel Of”. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Second Edition. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2013.

Bruce, F. F. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 6th ed. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1981.

Cate, J. “Matthew, Gospel of”. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Davies, W. D., and Dale C. Allison Jr. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew: Volume I: Introduction and Commentary on Matthew I-VII. Vol. 1. 3 vols. International Critical Commentary. New York: T&T Clark, 1988.

Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction. 4th Revised Edition. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996.

Hagner, Donald A. Matthew 1-13. Word Biblical Commentary 33A. Dallas: Word Books, 1993.

Luz, Ulrich. Matthew 1-7. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.

McKnight, C. “Matthew, Gospel of, Hebrew Version of”. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Shanks, Monte Allen. Papias and the New Testament. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2013.


  1. Shanks 2013, 178 
  2. Shanks 2013, 187 
  3. Bruce 1981, loc. 426-427; Hagner 1993, xliv 
  4. Blomberg 1992, 40 
  5. Shanks 2013, 196 
  6. Shanks 2013, 200-201 
  7. Shanks 2013, 202 

2 thoughts on “Commentary on Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History 3.39

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.