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 has emerged as an overwhelmingly important source in the last decade of New Testament scholarship as Richard Bauckham published his monumental monograph Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. The actual works of Papias are lost (all five books that he is thought to have written, which would be invaluable had they survived), however, some of the things Papias wrote have survived in fragments from quotations from other early church fathers (Irenaeus and Eusebius if I’m not mistaken). He was acquainted with the disciple John (not necessarily the one of the twelve) as well as Polycarp, who was a disciple of John. Papias is the very first writer to tell us about the authorship of some of the Gospels, indeed, this is what he writes;
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 remarkably early testimony from a figure who both knew John and Polycarp, 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 some, like Bart Ehrman, have sought to rationalize their views and reinterpret Papias. Indeed, here, we will refute this reinterpretation.
According to Bart Ehrman and his followers, when Papias speaks of Mark and Matthew, he’s not talking about our Mark, or our Matthew, rather he’s discussing other early ‘Gospels’ of some sort that were also called Mark and Matthew. Ehrman especially argues that because Papias says Matthew was composed in Hebrew, which we know it wasn’t, this lends validity to his argument. To me, this is wishful thinking. Here, I’ll argue to the best of my ability that Papias was talking about none other than our Mark and our Matthew.
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 is without a doubt that both of these church fathers, here, were referring to the Gospel of Matthew that we bear today. 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.
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. The fact that they are ‘lost’ today, despite we 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 ‘lost’ Matthew never existed to begin with, and therefore Papias wasn’t citing them.
d) Eusebius. The works of Papias were available to Eusebius, which is how he was able to quote from Papias. Eusebius had read Papias and knew the full context of the passage he was quoting from, and to his knowledge, Papias was talking about our Mark and our Matthew. Since Eusebius has this ‘insider’ knowledge that is otherwise unavailable to us now, and seems to be completely unaware of Papias making note of gospels completely apart from the ones we have, it’s best to trust the information available to Eusebius in that he got it right that Papias was talking about our Mark and Matthew rather than the alternative of saying Eusebius was completely confused when reading Papias’ works.
Here, I think I have demonstrated to the best of my ability 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.