Papias, Ehrman and the Gospels

Papias was one of the earliest patristic writers of the early church. His writings are thought to date 130 AD, however more recently, scholars have been moving towards a date of 95-110 AD. Anyways, Papias’s writings are lost but some of what he wrote has survived in quotations from the early church fathers (mostly Irenaeus and Eusebius). Papias is the earliest writer to tell us about the authorship of some of the Gospels;

And the presbyter said this. Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took special care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements … Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.

According to this very early author, there was a Gospel that had been written by the likes of a man named Mark, who was an interpreter of Peter, and that Matthew, one of the twelve disciples, also composed his own Gospel. Papias is awkwardly early for those who claim that random people were responsible for the composition of the Gospels in the 60’s to 90’s AD, and so one, Bart Ehrman, has sought to rationalize his views and reinterpret Papias. This will act as a refutation of Ehrman’s claims.

According to (and only) Bart Ehrman (since Ehrman hasn’t been able to convince any other scholar about this, see scroll to bottom), when Papias speaks of Mark and Matthew, he’s not talking about our Mark or our Matthew, rather, he’s discussing other early texts of some sort that were also called Mark and Matthew, and so Papias doesn’t provide any evidence about the authorship of the canonical Gospels. Ehrman especially argues that because Papias says Matthew was composed in Hebrew, which we know it wasn’t, this shows he was talking of a different Matthew. To me, this is wishful thinking. Here, I’ll show that Papias was talking about our canonical Mark and Matthew. It should be unsurprising Ehrman gets this wrong as he seems to have come up with the theory solely to combat Christian apologists.

a) Firstly, to use Papias’ claim that Matthew was written in Hebrew against identifying Papias’ Matthew with our Matthew won’t work. Here is what other church fathers say about the composition of Matthew;

Matthew composed his gospel among the Hebrews in their own language, while Peter and Paul proclaimed the gospel in Rome and founded the community. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, handed on his preaching to us in written form. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.1)

Origen in the first book of his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew writes;

Concerning the four Gospels which alone are the uncontroverted in the Church of God under heaven, I have learned by tradition that the Gospel according to Matthew, who was at one time a publican and afterwards an Apostle of Jesus Christ, was written first; and that he composed it in the Hebrew tongue and published it for the converts of Judaism.

Here, two other church fathers write of a Matthew that was written in the Hebrew language, yet it’s without doubt that both of church fathers were referring to the Gospel of Matthew. Likewise, Origen further tells us that his knowledge of Matthew being written in Hebrew was received by tradition, meaning that there was a tradition circulating in the early church that our Gospel of Matthew was composed in the Hebrew language. In other words, not only does Papias claiming Matthew was written in Hebrew not disprove he was talking about our Matthew, on the other hand, it appears to affirm this notion. Likewise, many early church fathers document that our Mark was written by the interpreter of Peter, and so when Papias notes this himself, it tends to affirm that he was talking about our Mark, not some other lost Mark and Matthew. In one odd conversation, someone has claimed that the testimonies above were just taken from Papias (without evidence). I’m not sure how this actually addresses the fact. If these authors took their information about Mark and Matthew from Papias, wouldn’t that imply Papias was talking about our Mark and Matthew? Otherwise, why would Irenaeus and Origen use Papias’s information on completely different texts to describe our Gospels?

b) This claim, that Papias was citing two Gospels named Mark and Matthew from the first century (they appear to have been written then considering how early Papias is) that is further different from our Mark and Matthew seems to be pushing credulity. This seems like a rather big coincidence and amazingly unlikely as well, it seems much more logical and reasonable to assume that when Papias tells us of two first century Gospels written by Mark and Matthew, that he’s talking about the ones that are known to us today. This explanation is much more historically probable than positing two gospels named Mark and Matthew from the first century that appeared to be canonical to Papias in order to dance around what is otherwise a clear testimony of who wrote what gospels. Indeed, this contrivance is shredded by Occam’s Razor.

c) Papias was a Christian writing anywhere from 95-130 AD writing about gospels under the names of Mark and Matthew. If this reference goes to a Mark and Matthew apart from the ones we have, then it looks like that these two gospels are entirely lost today. That they are lost today, despite knowing of so many quotations and having knowledge of so many specific early apocryphal works from the early church, seems to be best explained by simply stating that this lost Mark and Matthew never existed.

Here, I think I’ve demonstrated that when Papias is talking about Mark and Matthew, he’s talking clearly about the ones that have survived to us today (rather than some obscure lost works coincidentally circulating by the names of Mark and Matthew just like the canonical ones), and therefore, we ought to seriously consider and try to understand the testimony given to us. Personally, I do think one of Peter’s interpreters by the name of Mark wrote Mark (if someone was going to make up authorship to the gospel, they might as well have just said Peter wrote it) and that Papias gives good testimony for this, but I don’t think that the disciple Matthew wrote the Gospel (it was probably one of Matthew’s associates). This article, however, does not try to argue for the accuracy of Papias’ remarks, just that what he wrote means what it obviously means. Scholars are roughly divided when it comes to whether or not Mark was associated with Peter.

“It is also a speech of Peter, being placed within a sequence of episodes concerning Peter, and Papias thought that the author of Mark was the interpreter of Peter’s chreiai (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.39.15). If we add to this the striking similarities between Peter’s speech and the Markan story,88 the old hypothesis that the author of the first gospel based his story on a (Petrine) tradition which contained episodes concerning Jesus is as likely as the ones arguing that he created it from scattered collections of miracle stories, a synoptic apocalypse, disputations, didactic sayings, and parables, or that he composed an entirely new kind of textuality distinct from all that went before. Although there are several points of uncertainties in this reconstruction, it presents a plausible way of how the separately transmitted Jesus tradition became gospel tradition as it was used kerygmatically among the first Christians.” (Byrskog, Samuel, The Transmission of the Jesus Tradition in Holmén, Tom and Stanley E. Porter (eds.), Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, pg. 1492)

“Scholarship is sharply divided today on whether or not to accept the connection of Mark to Peter posited by Papias.” (Dewey, Joanna, The Historical Jesus in the Gospel of Mark in Holmén, Tom and Stanley E. Porter (eds.), Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, pg. 1841)

Note: Some have expressed skepticism that Ehrman really is the only scholar that believes Papias wasn’t referring to our Gospel. Of course, he is. Richard Bauckham, one of the most widely published and well-read scholars in the field, as well as a scholar who has personally published quite a bit on Papias (and so is more familiar with the scholarship on Papias than most others in the field), has explicitly stated that Ehrman is the only one who thinks this. Not only that, but he did this in a debate with Bart Ehrman himself. Ehrman was given plenty of time to respond to this specific statement by Bauckham and never disputed it, only spending his time restating why he thinks so. Something that would seem to completely solidify this point, that Ehrman is the only one thinking this, is that the most recent scholarship I can find on the Papias’ statements about Mark and Matthew offers zero space for discussion on whether or not Papias were discussing two diferent texts called Mark and Matthew. This 2018 paper, for example, by Gathercole, the editor of the New Testament Studies journal. Here’s another paper, from 2019 this time, that also takes it as a given that Papias was discussing our Gospels (pg. 164).

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