Friday, May 25, 2012

Papias on Mark and Matthew

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.


  1. Mr. Lowell;

    Hello, I hope this finds you well. I found your assertion that the apostle Matthew could not have written the canonical Gospel of Matthew quite interesting. On what historical basis do you make such a claim? The patristic evidence concerning the canonical Gospel of Matthew is unanimous that Matthew not only wrote his first Gospel in Aramaic, but that he also the authored the Gospel bearing his name. That Matthew could not have written the first canonical Gospel is only a modern conjecture, and not a proven fact. Your assertion that “we have to rule out the possibility that he also wrote the Greek Gospel of Matthew” is a poorly defended position since (and I am only guessing with respect to your own position) it can only be based upon the assumption that Matthew would never borrow from Mark or any other source to write his own Greek Gospel. However, this reflects a modern sensitivity that ancient writers would not “plagiarize” from other trusted authors, which is clearly not the case as evidenced from the OT historical writings, as well as in the case of Luke’s Gospel, and with the shared material of 2 Peter and the epistle of Jude. The same is quite obvious with respect to ancient secular historians as well. Matthew, knowing that the Gospel of Mark was based upon Peter’s reminisces and/or preaching would have no qualms with borrowing this early apostolic kerygma to compose another Gospel for the Greek speaking Jewish believers in the Diaspora where he had relocated. Or maybe one might argue that Matthew would not have been competent enough in the Greek language to write a Greek Gospel. This again is merely a conjecture since we don’t know the extent of Matthew’s education. Since the historical witness points to him as also being the author of the canonical Gospel of Matthew the evidence argues that he was extremely proficient in more than one language. Additionally, that he was a tax collector before becoming an apostle, it is very likely that he was fluent in both Greek and Aramaic, and may have been fluent in Latin as well. But even if he was not originally fluent in Greek, there is no argument that demands that he could not have become more educated in the Greek language later in life. I didn’t earn my Ph.D. until I was in my late 40s, and my program required that I not only become proficient in Koine Greek, but also in 2 other research languages. Consequently, any assertion that Matthew could not have written a Greek Gospel, or that he would not have employed Mark’s material as a template for his own Gospel while adding on his own eyewitness testimonials and theological emphasis is only a poorly defended conjecture at best. Simply asserting an argument is a far cry from proving it.


    Monte Shanks

  2. Thanks for your comment.

    I probably overstated the evidence to say "we have to rule out the possibility that he also wrote the Greek Gospel of Matthew." On reflection I would now prefer to say, "it is quite unlikely that Matthew wrote the Greek Gospel of Matthew."

    For me, the evidence is very strong that Matthew wrote an Aramaic "Logia", and that someone else added the Mark components to it. It doesn't look to me like Matthew started with Mark's Gospel and then added his own bits, but rather the process seems to be the other way around.

    Matthew's Logia first, Mark's Gospel second, the canonical Matthew third.

    I take your point about this proposition being "poorly defended". Indeed, the above discussion is merely an assertion of the proposition I am putting. The defence is yet to come. In preparing a fuller case, I will take your comments into account, for which I thank you.

    Kind regards


  3. Mr. Lowell, et. al,

    Assuming that Mark wrote the first gospel seems to run contrary testimony of the apostolic fathers, and particularly of Papias, but also of those who placed Matthew first among the Gospels. It is based, from my research, on the idea that Mark being the shortest and having the least narrative matrix is likely the first. But Marcan priority ignores the part the source, which we now call Q and which Luke calls the te didache in Acts 2:42 and the things things which were from the first handed down to us from those who were eyewitnesses in Luke 1:2, played in the Gospels.

    It is reasonable to assume there was a source and perhaps many editions of that source that preserved the logia of Jesus. It was no doubt in oral form early, but very likely in written form later. Those logia seem to be preserved in all three of the synoptics - and that is the reason for the similarity of the pericopae in those Gospels.

    It is significant that these logia bear the marks of coming from a Hebrew original and are rather literal translations in which the Hebraisms of the originals are preserved.

    So if we accept that there was a source which, was the earliest teachings of the Apostles, Marcan priority is not necessary. Matthew may well have been first, even as Papias indicates. Each writer chose from the source those pieces that fit his rhetorical purpose. Some of the logia were used by all three synoptic writers. Some were used by one or two of the writers, but not by all three. In addition, the general chronology of the source was followed.

    That still leaves the question of Matthew's Greek Gospel. Most scholars reject the idea that Matthew was translated into Greek by a later writer. And I do as well. A translator would not have preserved the Hebrew idioms in the logia while at the same time smoothing out the narrative matrix provided by Matthew. But if Matthew made the translation or if Matthew simply rewrote the Gospel in Greek for Greek readers, the Gospel of Matthew could easily still have been the earliest.

    So, could Matthew have written in both Hebrew and Greek? I think we can assume that it was certainly possible. Matthew was a tax collector in Galilee where each of these languages and others were in use. It is probable that Matthew spoke and wrote Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic.

    Matthew also was very likely a Levite since he is called Levi in Mark and Luke. As a Levite, Matthew was likely to have had an education. Certainly he had a knowledge of the OT scriptures that was greater than any of the other gospel writers exhibit. He also uses the rabbinic method of referring to the OT passages he quotes - the remez. His education was certainly adequate to the task of writing in both good Greek and Hebrew.

    However, there is one more clue to an original Hebrew gospel in the Gospel of Matthew. It is in the genealogy of Jesus. Matthew records the family line of Jesus in very Hebrew-like language. He uses the word "begotten" (egennesen)while Luke uses the typical Greek construction using de.

    For those reasons I lean strongly toward Matthean authorship and Matthean priority. And toward Matthew being as close to an eyewitness account as we could expect since the source used was the teachings of the Apostles of whom Matthew was one.

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  5. Two of the biggest assumptions that many Christians make regarding the truth claims of Christianity is that, one, eyewitnesses wrote the four gospels. The problem is, however, that the majority of scholars today do not believe this is true. The second big assumption many Christians make is that it would have been impossible for whoever wrote these four books to have invented details in their books, especially in regards to the Empty Tomb and the Resurrection appearances, due to the fact that eyewitnesses to these events would have still been alive when the gospels were written and distributed.

    But consider this, dear Reader: Most scholars date the writing of the first gospel, Mark, as circa 70 AD. Who of the eyewitnesses to the death of Jesus and the alleged events after his death were still alive in 70 AD? That is four decades after Jesus' death. During that time period, tens of thousands of people living in Palestine were killed in the Jewish-Roman wars of the mid and late 60's, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem.

    How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus in circa 30 AD was still alive when the first gospel was written and distributed in circa 70 AD? How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus ever had the opportunity to read the Gospel of Mark and proof read it for accuracy?

    I challenge Christians to list the name of even ONE eyewitness to the death of Jesus who was still alive in 70 AD along with the evidence to support your claim.

    If you can't list any names, dear Christian, how can you be sure that details such as the Empty Tomb, the detailed resurrection appearances, and the Ascension ever really occurred? How can you be sure that these details were not simply theological hyperbole...or...the exaggerations and embellishments of superstitious, first century, mostly uneducated people, who had retold these stories thousands of times, between thousands of people, from one language to another, from one country to another, over a period of many decades?

    1. You're making a couple of unwarranted assumptions yourself. One is that modern scholars are accurate or can be trusted. In fact, ever since the advent of "Higher Criticism" (a misnomer if ever there was one) most modern scholars have been liberals and have therefore been eager to discredit the Bible by any means necessary. Your second assumption is that modern scholars have access to better information. Now that is SOMETIMES the case. But the ancient writers had access to sources that have since been lost. In addition, the earliest writers were at most two generations removed from the people who actually wrote the New Testament. Irenaeus, for example, was taught by Polycarp, and Polycarp was taught by the Apostle John.

      I would suggest that you pay closer attention to the Gospel of Luke. In the opening statement, he says that several people who were eyewitnesses of Jesus' ministry gave him accounts that they had written of that time period.

      As it turns out, virtually all of the honest scholars will admit that we have better historical evidence for Jesus than many of the other well-known people of antiquity. I would encourage you to study the evidence with an open mind.

  6. Newsflash: The majority of New Testament scholars no longer believe that eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels. It's not just my opinion, my Christian friends, it is the consensus of scholars.