Papias on Mark and Matthew
Papias was an early Christian bishop from Hierapolis, in the Phrygian part of the Roman province of Asia. Papias was a common Phrygian name.[i] According to Irenaeus and Eusebius, Papias wrote his Exposition of the Logia of the Lord in five books. While these five books have not survived, we have fragments preserved by Irenaeus, Eusebius and others, with citations here taken from Eusebius.[ii] This work contained the recollections of the Christian elders Papias had known or from whom he had heard at second hand. From the fragments of this work that have survived we can deduce that his life overlapped with two direct disciples of Jesus, John the Elder and Ariston. It is possible that he heard these men speak when he was a young man, but if he did not actually hear them himself, he heard reports of what they had said. This places him only one step away from eyewitness testimony to Jesus’ life.
We can also deduce that his work included a number of speculations about the second coming of Jesus, some of which were attributed to John the Elder. This put him out of favour with the great Christian historian and antiquarian, Eusebius, who had a less literal view of Jesus’ promises of the second coming than Papias. Eusebius expressed a less than favourable view of Papias’ critical judgement, but this can be put down to the fact that Eusebius did not want to promulgate the millennial speculations of Papias. The consequence of this is that he only cited limited excerpts from Papias’ work, and so what we have is perhaps even more precious, given its provenance.
From the fragments Eusebius cited, we discover that Papias learnt from John the Elder what the latter knew about Mark and Matthew’s works. In regard to Mark’s work, Papias said that it was based on Peter’s preaching:
The Elder also said this, “Mark, being the interpreter of Peter, whatsoever he remembered he wrote accurately, but not however in the order that these things were spoken or done by our Lord. For he neither heard the Lord, nor followed him, but afterwards, as I said, he was with Peter, who did not make a complete [or ordered] account of the Lord’s logia, but constructed his teachings according to chreiai [concise self-contained teachings]. So Mark did nothing wrong in writing down single matters as he remembered them, for he gave special attention to one thing, of not passing by anything he heard, and not falsifying anything in these matters.”[iii]
Papias does not provide any additional identifying information about this Mark, even though Mark (Marcus) was a very frequently used Roman praenomen (forename). The failure to provide qualifying information indicates that Papias was referring to a well-known author who had produced a well-known work, and this points to the Mark of the New Testament, who played a central role in the early Church. Significantly, the Mark of the New Testament was invited on the first missionary journey with Barnabas and Paul. Even this information can be joined together with the Elder’s testimony to suggest that Mark had acquired a good knowledge of the stories about Jesus by the time of this missionary journey. This would have given him a specific role in this missionary enterprise, providing the reason for his inclusion in the mission beyond his personal connection with Barnabas.[iv]
Papias also spoke about another account, this time an account of Jesus’ teachings written by Matthew, whom we are entitled to identify with the Matthew who was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. Unfortunately, Eusebius’ citation of Papias on this subject is less fulsome than his citation in regard to the Gospel of Mark, but it follows on from it. The context indicates that Eusebius was continuing to cite Papias’ report of what John the Elder had said. Here Eusebius noted that this work was written in a Hebrew dialect.
Concerning Mark, these things were related by the father [John the Elder]. Concerning Matthew these other things were said, “Therefore, Matthew set in order the logia (“divine oracles”) in a Hebrew dialect, and each interpreted them, as he was able.”[v]
Matthew’s “Hebrew dialect” was what we now call a regional dialect of Aramaic, being the language used by Jesus, Matthew and the other disciples, as well as being the language used by the Jews in Judea, Galilee and the surrounding regions.[vi] Also, in the context of Papias' comments where Matthew’s Aramaic work was being compared with Mark’s work (which was known to be in Greek), it is likely that “interpreted” carries the meaning that Matthew’s work was translated into Greek.
Papias was not referring here to the Gospel of Matthew. We know this because he was referring to a work in Aramaic, and the Gospel of Matthew can be clearly identified as having been composed in Greek. Therefore, while we have no reason to doubt that Matthew wrote logia in Aramaic, we have to rule out the possibility that he also wrote the Greek Gospel of Matthew. It is more likely that someone else wrote the Greek Gospel of Matthew, and that this writer based his work on these logia written by Matthew. Indeed, a quick analysis reveals that the Gospel of Matthew actually consists of two main sources: the Gospel of Mark and another source. We can be confident that this other source was Matthew’s logia, as identified by Papias, since it is in these parts of the Gospel of Matthew that we find an account of Jesus’ life written from a particularly Jewish point of view. This is exactly what we would expect from a source written by Matthew, a literate Jew, writing in Aramaic, for a Jewish audience.
i J. B. Lightfood, St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (London, 1875), pp.48.
ii The Apostolic Fathers (ed. and trans. Michael W. Holmes; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), pp.722-767.
iii Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.15. Papias distinguished between the two men named John: one of these is in a list taken from the twelve disciples (including John), and the other one he called John the elder, who along with Aristion, was also a disciple of Jesus (3.39.4). Although Papias called all these men both disciples and elders, his special marker for the second John was John the Elder. So when he refers here to “the Elder” he was specifically referring to John the Elder, since this was his distinguishing title.
iv Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), pp.210-214, argued that Peter was actively involved in the writing of the Gospel of Mark. However, this seems unlikely since Papias’ explained that its “lack of order” could be explained that it was not written by an eyewitness; if Peter were so closely involved it would have nullified Papias’ explanation.
v Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.15-16.
vi Cf. John C. Poirier, “The Linguistic Situation in Jewish Palestine in Late Antiquity,” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism, Vol. 4 (2007), pp.55-134.