I just received in the mail the latest issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. And I noticed that it contained my review of Monte Shanks’ recent volume, Papias and the New Testament (Pickwick, 2013). (I can’t keep track of when my book reviews appear!).
Seeing this review reminded me of one of the key debates in discussions of the emerging New Testament canon, namely whether Papias, the bishop of Hierapolis in the early second century, knew the apostle John. This is a key question simply because Papias provides one of the earliest explicit references to the gospels of Mark and Matthew.
So, where did Papias get this information from? And can this information be trusted?
Bart Ehrman, in his latest volume Jesus Before the Gospels, says no. This information cannot be trusted. Why? Because, “Papias is not himself an eyewitness to Jesus’s life and does not know eyewitnesses” (112, emphasis mine).
But is Ehrman correct? Shanks makes the case in his book, a case that has been made by a number of other scholars before him (e.g., Robert Gundry) that in fact Papias got his information from the most reliable of sources, namely the apostle John himself.
And personally I find that case compelling. We cannot repeat all the details in a blog post, but here are some highlights:
(a) Irenaeus and the majority of other fragments about Papias affirm that Papias knew John the apostle (Shanks, 288-291). Irenaeus’ testimony is particularly weighty given that he is even earlier than Eusebius and plainly states that Papias was a “hearer of John” (Haer. 5.33.4).
(b) Despite Eusebius’ confident declaration that Papias didn’t know John the apostle (Hist. eccl. 3.39), in his earlier work the Chronicle he actually affirms that Papias knew John (Shanks, 111-113). Obviously, Eusebius’ view had changed between his publication of the Chronicle and his publication of Ecclesiastical History (something that was not unusual for Eusebius).
(c) Papias states plainly that he “learned from the elders” (Hist eccl. 3.39.3). A few sentences later, Papias describes the “words of the elders” as “What Andrew or Peter said, or Philip, or Thomas or James, or John or Matthew or any of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and the elder John, the disciples of the Lord, were saying” (Hist. eccl. 3.39.4). In other words, it seems that Papias uses the word “elders” to refer to the apostles.
(d) Eusebius admits that Papias learned directly from “the elder John” mentioned in the above quote. Although Eusebius thinks this is a John other than the apostle, it seems likely that he has misunderstood the words of Papias here. When Papias mentions the name John a second time in the statement above, it is best understood as a reference back to the apostle John due to the fact that both are called “elder” and the anophoric use of the article which points back to the prior John (Shanks, 19-21).
(e) Moreover, Eusebius’ idea of second “John” in Ephesus, one different from the apostle, is based on the faulty conclusions drawn by Dionysius of Alexandria, and fueled by his prejudice against Papias’ chiliastic eschatology.
(f) Papias was a colleague and contemporary of Polycarp. Since Polycarp knew John, it is quite likely that Papias would have as well.
Although not each of the above points are equally certain (or persuasive), they form a collectively weighty argument. An argument that suggests Papias got his information from John the apostle.
If so, then this is yet another reason to think that our canonical gospels were known by their traditional names by the end of the first century. And that is incredibly early testimony for the traditional authorship of the Gospels.
Thanks for the information and great blog. Are you familiar with Richard Bauckham’s argument for the elder John being someone other than John the apostle, in his Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, based largely on the Papias quote? Do you find Bauckham’s argument persuasive?
B. D. Woods says
If ‘Bart Ehrman’ offers an opinion about any aspect of the Bible, New Testament, Christianity or Jesus Christ Himself, it is NOT usually bad to assume he is incorrect or, at best, misleading. Ehrman has a low opinion of the veracity of the Bible and does not hold traditional Christian beliefs. He could not, in all honesty, affirm the beliefs put forth in the Apostle’s Creed for instance. His stuff offered in the Great Courses curricula is tripe – shallow secular views based on dubious theories of Bible scholarship and long-discredited ‘higher criticisms’ promulgated in the late 1800’s. So if you read of Ehrman’s criticism OR support of some paper or book, know what Ehrman does and does not believe.
On a related topic, Dr. Kruger, do you know of any thorough response to MacDonald’s idiosyncratic theory that a Q+ and Papias himself were the actual sources of the Gospels? It seems very bizarre, depending on two hypothetically reconstructed documents, and pushing the composition of Luke-Acts, at least, up to 115 A.D, but all I could track down on reviews or blogs seemed surprisingly positive about it as a great new direction in research…
Michael Kruger says
Can you refer me to the original article/book by MacDonald that you have in mind? For generations, scholars have speculated that Matthew’s “logia” mentioned by Papias is a reference to Q, but I am not sure what specific angle MacDonald has…
The book “Two Shipwrecked Gospels” came out in 2012, it seems. I haven’t read the book, but the reviews at SBL summarize it, and I first ran across it when looking at his books on epic and the New Testament. There’s also a Wikipedia entry on it: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Q%2B/Papias_Hypothesis
Monte Shanks, Ph.D. says
I picked up the book and began to read it until I soon discovered that it was so full of unwarranted conjectures based upon the most undisciplined approach using Form criticism. When I began I thought I might write a review for it, but I jettisoned the idea as soon as I saw that it was plagued with subjective conjectures. After reading a significant portion I was surprised that someone was willing to print it. Nevertheless, I’m sure that some from SBL would give it a positive review.
The Wikipedia entry says that the SBL had a panel on the book in 2013…but that could be inaccurate. The two positive reviews, by the way, and from Kloppenborg and James McGrath.
And here’s a much more thorough and critical review: