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Patristic Traditions on the Gospel Writers: Papias of Hierapolis

The writings of Papias, the bishop of Hierapolis, only survive in fragments quoted by other Patristic authorities. If one asks where Papias received his information, the church historian Eusebius quotes the relevant passage in Papias in Ecclesiastical History 3.39.3-4.  Since every act of translation is an interpretation, I have provided different translations below for the reader to see some of the interpretive decisions of different translations regarding whether Papias meant to identify the “elders” with the “disciples” or to distinguish them, whether John in the first list of seven disciples is to be identified with the elder John mentioned alongside Aristion or distinguished from him, and what Papias meant by his preference for a living word over books. Irenaeus of Lyons identifies the elder John with the Apostle John, while Eusebius distinguishes them as separate individuals.

Οὐκ ὀκνήσω δέ σοι καὶ ὅσα ποτὲ παρὰ τῶν πρεσβυτέρων καλῶς ἔμαθον καὶ καλῶς ἐμνημόνευσα συγκατατάξαι ταῖς ἑρμηνείαις, διαβεβαιούμενος ὑπὲρ αὐτῶν ἀλήθειαν.  οὐ γὰρ τοῖς τὰ πολλὰ λέγουσιν ἔχαιρον ὥσπερ οἱ πολλοί, ἀλλὰ τοῖς τἀληθῆ διδάσκουσιν, οὐδὲ τοῖς τὰς ἀλλοτρίας ἐντολὰς μνηνεύουσιν, ἀλλὰ τοῖς τὰς παρὰ τοῦ κυρίου τῇ πίστει δεδομένας καὶ ἀπ’ αὐτῆς παραγιγνομένας τῆς ἀληθείας· εἰ δέ που καὶ παρηκολουθηκώς τις τοῖς πρεσβυτέροις ἔλθοι, τοὺς τῶν πρεσβυτέρων ἀνέκρινον λόγους, τί Ἀνδρέας ἢ τί Πέτρος εἴπεν ἢ τί Φίλιππος ἢ τί Θωμᾶς ἢ Ἰάκωβος ἢ τί Ἰωάννης ἢ Ματθαῖος ἢ τις ἕτερος τῶν τοῦ κυρίου μαθητῶν ἅ τε Ἀριστίων καὶ ὁ πρεσβύτερος Ἰωάννης, τοῦ κυρίου μαθηταί, λέγουσιν. οὐ γὰρ τὰ ἐκ τῶν βιβλίων τοσοῦτόν με ὠφελεῖν ὑπελάμβανον ὅσον τὰ παρὰ ζώσης φωνῆς καὶ μενούσης.

But I will not scruple also to give a place for you along with my interpretations to everything that I learnt carefully and remembered carefully in time past from the elders, guaranteeing its truth.  For, unlike the many, I did not take pleasure in those who have so very much to say, but in those who teach the truth; nor in those who relate foreign commandments, but in those (who record) such as were given from the Lord to the Faith, and are derived from the truth itself.  And again, on any occasion when a person came (in my way) who had been a follower of the Elders, I would inquire about the discourses of the Elders – what was said by Andrew, or by Peter, or by Philip, or by Thomas or James, or by John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and what Ariston and the Elder John, the disciples of the Lord, say.  For I did not think I could get so much profit from the contents of books as from the utterances of a living and abiding voice. (J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, Fragment II)

“To confirm the correctness of my interpretations, I shall not fail to link up with them for you, first, all the sayings which I ever learnt carefully from the Elders [Disciples] and carefully drew from my memory. For, unlike the majority, I did not delight in those who have many clever things to say, but in those who teach what is true; not in those who recall the teachings of another [Paul ?] but in those who repeat the teachings given to the Faith by the Lord and springing from the Truth itself.  And, again, if anyone came who had consorted with the Elders [Disciples] I used to ask him about the sayings of the Elders [Disciples]—what Andrew or Peter had said, or Philip or Thomas, or James or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s followers.  And thirdly (I shall link up with my interpretations) things which Aristion and John the Elder [Disciple], followers of the Lord, say. For I have always thought to get more help from a surviving eyewitness than from the Books [i.e. ‘The Old Testament’; not ‘from books’]. (Rupert Annand, “Papias and the Four GospelsScottish Journal of Theology 9 (1956): 46.

“I also will not hesitate to draw up for you, along with these expositions, an orderly account of all the things I carefully learned and have carefully recalled from the elders; for I have certified their truth.  For unlike most people, I took no pleasure in hearing those who had a lot to say, but only those who taught the truth, and not those who recalled commandments from strangers, but only those who recalled the commandments which have been given faithfully by the Lord and which proceed from the truth itself.  But whenever someone arrived who had been a companion of one of the elders, I would carefully inquire about their words, what Andrew or Peter had said, or what Philip or Thomas had said, or James or John or Matthew or any of the other disciples of the Lord, and what things Aristion and the elder John, disciples of the Lord, were saying.  For I did not suppose that what came out of books would benefit me as much as that which came from a living and abiding voice” (Bart Ehrman, LOEB, page 99)

“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 has been in attendance on 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, 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.  For I did not think the information from books would profit me as much as information from a living and surviving voice.” (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, page 15-16)

But I will not hesitate to supplement at any time for you too the interpretations with whatever I learned thoroughly and remembered thoroughly from the presbyters, since I am confident in the truth on their account. For unlike many I was not delighted with those who say many things but with those who teach the truth, or with those who remember not the commandments of others but those given by the Lord to the faith and derived from truth itself.  But whenever someone who had followed the presbyters came along, I would carefully ask about the words of the presbyters, what Andrew or what Peter had said or what Philip or what Thomas or James or what John or Matthew or any other of the disciples of the Lord, and which Aristion and the presbyter John, disciples of the Lord say too. For I did not assume that whatever comes from books is as helpful to me as what comes from a living and lasting voice. (Stephen Carlson)


The next important quote of Papias on the Gospel writers is found in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.15-16.  Again, it is interesting to look at the interpretive decisions of the translators and in what they insert in brackets:  who is the one doing the remembering (Peter or Mark), did Peter adapt his teaching according to the needs of his audiences or in a certain literary form (chreiai or anecdotes), what does it mean that Mark did not write in order (taxis – literary arrangement, chronology, completeness) or only wrote down some things as he (Mark or Peter?) remembered them, what does it mean that Matthew put the logia (oracles) into a Hebrew dialect (Hebrew or Aramaic language or style?), and who are the “each” who interpreted (translated?) them as they were able?

καὶ τοῦθ’ ὁ πρεσβύτερος ἔλεγεν· Μάρκος μὲν ἑρμηνευτὴς Πέτρου γενόμενος, ὅσα ἐμνημόνευσεν, ἀκριβῶς ἔγραψεν, οὐ μέντοι τάξει τὰ ὐπὸ τοῦ κυρίου η λεχθέντα ἢ πραχθέντα. οὔτε γὰρ ἤκουσεν τοῦ κυρίου οὔτε παρηκολούθησεν αὐτῷ, ὕστερον δὲ, ὡς ἔφην, Πέτρῳ· ὃς πρὸς τὰς χρείας ἐποιεῖτο τὰς διδασκαλίας, ἀλλ’ οὐχ ὥσπερ σύνταξιν τῶν κυριακῶν ποιούμενος λογίων, ὥστε οὐδὲν ἥμαρτεν Μάρκος οὕτως ἔνια γράψας ὡς ἀπεμνημόσευσεν. ἐνὸς γὰρ ἐποιήσατο πρόνοιαν, τοῦ μηδὲν ὧν ἤκουσεν παραλιπεῖν ἢ ψεύσασθαί τι ἐν αὐτοῖς.  ταῦτα μὲν οὖν ἱστόρηται τῷ Παπίᾳ περὶ τοῦ Μάρκου· περὶ δὲ τοῦ Ματθαῖου ταῦτ’ εἴρηται· Ματθαῖος μὲν οὖν Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ τὰ λόγια συνετάξατο, ἡρμήνευσεν δ’ αὐτὰ ὡς ἧν δυνατὸς ἕκαστος.

“And the Elder said this also: ‘Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately everything that he remembered, without however recording in order what was either said or done by Christ. For neither did he hear the Lord, nor did he follow Him; but afterwards, as I said, (attended) Peter, who adapted his instructions to the needs (of his hearers) but had no design of giving a connected account of the Lord’s oracles.  So then Mark made no mistake, while he thus wrote down some things as he remembered them; for he made it his one care not to omit anything that he heard, or to set down any false statement therein.’  Such then is the account given by Papias concerning Mark. But concerning Matthew, the following statement is made (by him):  ‘So then Matthew composed the oracles in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as he could.’” (JB Lightfoot and JR Harmer, Fragment II)

“And the elder was saying this:  ‘On the one hand, Mark, becoming Peter’s interpreter, wrote accurately as many things as he remembered.  On the other hand, [he did] not [write] in order the things either said or done by the Lord.  For he had neither heard the Lord nor followed him.  But later, as I said, [he had followed] Peter, who was teaching in accord with the anecdotes yet not as it were arranging the Lord’s oracles, so that Mark did nothing wrong by writing some things as he related [them] from memory.  For he was thinking one thing beforehand of one thing, [i.e.] to omit not a single one of the things that he had heard or to falsify anything in them.’  Therefore, on the one hand, these things are related by Papias [or ‘to Papias’ as the one who heard the tradition]  concerning Mark.  Concerning Matthew, on the other hand, these things were said:  ‘On the one hand, therefore, Matthew did arrange the oracles in Hebrew ‘dialect.’  On the other hand, each one interpreted them as he was able.’” (Robert Gundry, “The Apostolically Johannine Pre-Papian Tradition concerning the Gospels of Mark and Matthew,” page 49-50)

“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 had heard or to include any falsehood among them…  And this is what he says about Matthew:  And Matthew composed the sayings in the Hebrew tongue, and each one interpreted [or translated] them to the best of his ability.’” (Bart Ehrman, Loeb, pg. 103)

“The Elder used to say: ‘Mark, in his capacity as Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately as many things as he [Peter?] recalled from memory – though not in an ordered form – of the things said or done by the Lord. For he [Mark] neither heard the Lord nor accompanied him, but later, as I said, [he heard and accompanied] Peter, who used to give his teachings in the form of chreiai, but had no intention of providing an ordered arrangement [suntaxin] of the logia of the Lord.  Consequently Mark did nothing wrong when he wrote down some things just as he [Peter?] related them from memory.  For he made it his one concern not to omit anything he had heard or to falsify anything.  This, then, is the account given by Papias about Mark.  But about Matthew the following was said:  ‘Therefore Matthew put the logia in an ordered arrangement [sunetaxato] in the Hebrew language [hebraidi dialectō], but each person interpreted them as best he could’” (Richard Bauckham, Jesus
and the Eyewitnesses
, pg. 203)

“And the presbyter would say this:  ‘Mark, who had indeed been Peter’s interpreter [hermēneutēs],  accurately wrote as much as he remembered, yet not in order, about that which  was either said or did by the Lord. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but later, as I said, Peter, who would make the teachings anecdotally but not exactly an arrangement of the Lord’s reports, so that Mark did not fail by writing certain things as he recalled. For he had one purpose, not to omit what he heard or falsify them.’  Now this is reported by Papias about Mark, but about Matthew this was said, ‘Now Matthew compiled the reports in a Hebrew manner of speech, but each interpreted them as he could.’” (Stephen Carlson)

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