In my books on the reception of the Gospels of Mark and John, I joined an increasing number of scholars in dating the publication of Papias’s Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord to the first decade of the second century (see this bibliography). These scholars include Vernon Bartlet, William R. Schoedel, Ulrich H. J. Körtner, Robert W. Yarbrough, Robert Gundry, Monte Shanks, Dennis MacDonald, Luke J. Stevens, and Stephen Carlson. Robert Yarbrough has a good overview of the arguments for an early dating in his article for the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, though I think he dates Papias’s books a little too early when pushing them into the first century. Here is a quick summary of the arguments:
- The late second-century bishop, Irenaeus of Lyon, identifies Papias as an “ancient man” (Against Heresies 5.33.4), so he may have been older that Irenaeus’s own teacher Polycarp of Smyrna.
- Eusebius’s Chronicle notes that John died in the third year of the reign of the Roman emperor Trajan (ca. 98-117 CE). Eusebius identifies Papias as the hearer of this John, but we will leave aside the question about whether this was the Apostle John or another elderly man named John for a future post.
- Eusebius places the bishops Papias of Hierapolis, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna during the reign of Trajan (see Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.34.1; 36.1-2; 4.1.1).
- The apostles, or at least the seven disciples of the Lord named in Papias’s prologue, had all died. Papias may have had contact with their followers or their followers’ followers (i.e. it depends on whether the “disciples of the Lord” and the “elders” were the same group or different groups). His other contacts include the daughters of Philip (probably the Evangelist Philip in Acts 21:8-9 rather than the Apostle Philip) who were prophetesses (see Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.4, 9).
- Papias was dependent on the Gospels of Mark and Matthew and the epistles of 1 Peter and 1 John. It is a debated point, but I would argue that Papias was not literary dependent on the Gospels of Luke and John and think that the author of Luke-Acts was probably writing at the same time that Papias was.
- Papias was writing before the ministries of Marcion and some of the influential “Gnostic” teachers such as Basilides or Valentinus.
The strongest argument against this early dating has always been that one of the De Boor Fragments (i.e. DBF 6C) seems to suggest that Papias spoke about how Jesus raised certain individuals from the dead who were still alive at the time of Hadrian, the emperor after Trajan (ca. 117-138 CE). This convinced scholars such as Martin Hengel (The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ, 65) and, more tentatively, Enrico Norelli (Esposizione degli Oracoli del Signore, 52) to date the publication of Papias’s work during Hadrian’s reign. Carl De Boor isolated seven fragments allegedly from Papias in a section summarizing Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History from a seventh-century Byzantine epitome of Church Histories. De Boor attributed these fragments to Philip, a fifth-century church historian from Side in Pamphylia. There were several responses from scholars who dated Papias’s work earlier. First, Philip of Side could be discredited as a poor historian (e.g., Schoedel, The Apostolic Fathers, 5.120). Second, it was pointed out that it was actually Quadratus of Athens, one of the first famous apologists for the Christian faith, who claimed that some of those whom Jesus raised from the dead were still living in his day in a writing that he addressed to Hadrian (cf. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4.3.1-2). Third, one scholar interpreted the De Boor fragment as speaking about Hadrian’s entire life, not just his reign (e.g., Shanks, Papias and the New Testament, 53-54; 216-219, 226).
After reading Luke J. Stevens, “The Origin of the De Boor Fragments Ascribed to Philip of Side” JECS 26.4 (2008): 631-657, I discovered how irrelevant the De Boor fragments really are to the question of dating Papias’s text. Stephen Carlson came to the same conclusion independently of Stevens and a few other scholars (Papias of Hierapolis Exposition of Dominical Oracles, 65-75). Basically, they show how there was little grounds for attributing the fragments to Philip of Side. Carlson does not really go into Stevens’ alternative hypothesis that some of them originated from Gelasius of Caesarea, a fourth-century church historian who wrote a continuation of Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, and others from a seventh-century epitomist. They also demonstrate how De Boor made a mistake in printing DBF 6A-C as one continuous fragment. They are adjacent fragments and the material immediately following the last one (i.e. DBF 6C on the resurrected ones who lived until the time of Hadrian) recaps the apologies written by Quadratus and Aristides. One of the manuscripts that De Boor did not have access to for these fragments, which is called Codex Vatopedi, even has a heading about Eusebius’s fourth book where these apologies were introduced. The epitomist moved on from Papias and was discussing Quadratus’s tradition about the resurrected saints.
The external and the internal evidence points to a date during Trajan’s reign for the publication of Papias’s Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord. The date could be narrowed down further if he wrote soon after the time he spent in the company of John. This is important because this allows scholars to date the emergence of the oldest traditions about the Evangelists Mark and Matthew. In the end, scholars should stop using the De Boor fragments to date Papias’s episcopacy and writing activity to a later period.