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Papias (working in the 1st half of the 2nd century) was one of the early leaders of the Christian church, canonized as a saint. Eusebius calls him "bishop of Hierapolis" which the Catholic Encyclopedia places "close to Laodicea and Colossae in the valley of the Lycus ("in Phrygia" was a slip), in short, Hierapolis of Syria.

His Interpretations of the Sayings of the Lord (his word for "sayings" is logia) in five books, would have been the prime early authority in the exegesis of the sayings of Jesus, some of which are recorded in the Gospel of Matthew and Gospel of Mark, Papias' own authority being "the presbyter John" and hearers of the Apostles, whom he also terms "presbyters". His book, however, has utterly disappeared, known only through fragments quoted in later writers, with neutral approval in Irenaeus' Against Heresies and later with scorn by Eusebius of Caesarea in "Ecclesiastical History", the earliest surviving history of the early Christian Church.

Eusebius was biased against Papias, whom he held in low estem. Accounts of his motivation differ: the influence which his work had in perpetuating, through Irenaeus and others, belief in a millennial reign of Christ upon earth, that would soon usher in a new Golden Age. Or perhaps resistance among Petrine Christians to accepting Joannine gospel. Eusebius calls Papias "a man of small mental capacity" (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.13), who took the figurative language of apostolic traditions for literal fact. Whether this was so to any degree is difficult to judge without the text available; but Papias, was nearer in spirit to the actual Christianity of the sub-apostolic age, especially in western Anatolia, than Eusebius realized.

Yet Papias admits in one of the fragments of his treatise that he had in no way been a hearer or eye witness of the apostles themselves. He says he gathered material from those who were their followers:

"I will not hesitate to add also for you to my interpretations what I formerly learned with care from the Presbyters and have carefully stored in memory, giving assurance of its truth. For I did not take pleasure as the many do in those who speak much, but in those who teach what is true, nor in those who relate foreign precepts, but in those who relate the precepts which were given by the Lord to the faith and came down from the Truth itself. And also if any follower of the Presbyters happened to come, I would inquire for the sayings of the Presbyters, what Andrew said, or what Peter said, or what Philip or what Thomas or James or what John or Matthew or any other of the Lord's disciples, and for the things which other of the Lord's disciples, and for the things which Aristion and the Presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, were saying. For I considered that I should not get so much advantage from matter in books as from the voice which yet lives and remains."

Thus Papias reports he heard things that came from an unwritten, oral tradition of the Presbyters, a "sayings" or logia tradition that had been passed from Jesus to such of the apostles and disciples as he mentions— in an order that is not random: Andrew, Peter; Philip, Thomas, James; John, Matthew. (Significantly, the Catholic Encyclopedia reports this as "disciples of the Lord"—Peter, Andrew etc.,—" the others consigned to an "etc." Compare with entries for James the Just, Gospel of Thomas.)

Table of contents
1 Loss of Papias' Interpretations of the Sayings of the Lord
2 Purported credulity of Papias
3 Papias' dates
4 External links

Loss of Papias' Interpretations of the Sayings of the Lord

To a mere observer of Church history, it seems extraordinary bad luck that Papias' treatise had not survived, not even to be quoted in any later Patristic writings. There are no further direct quotations from Papias after Eusebius, unless an epitome of Papias' work based on Philip of Side (5th century) has anything to add that was not simply gleaned from Eusebius' Hisory. Philip of Side makes a clear distinction between John the Apostle and John the theologian. (this needs confirming)

Papias' treatise had a wide circulation in the 2nd century, for Irenaeus was quoting from it, from his copy in Lugdunum (Lyon) in Gaul. What a loss for the early Church is this unfortunate coincidence, that all copies of the work should have been lost, every single one. For there must have been more than a few copies of such direct testimony with such unbroken provenance. Can it be possible that such a work was not considered extremely interesting and worthy of copying? That there was not a copy preserved in the Vatican Library? "For I considered that I should not get so much advantage from matter in books as from the voice which yet lives and remains," Papias says, and yet he had material that urgently needed to be preserved, and it filled five books.

No conclusion can be reached, but the questions are seldom asked in mainstream Christian traditions.

Purported credulity of Papias

Papias was as credulous of magical events and miracles as any Christian of his generation. To quote Eusebius' own credulitiesw would be unkind. Can they be characterized as "some strange parables and teachings of the savior, and some other more mythical accounts"? He also heard stories about Justus, surnamed Barsabas, who drank poison but suffered no harm. And another concerning the resurrection of a corpse, from the lips of a daughter of Philip the Evangelist (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 3.34.377-392). Yet other resurrections through faith were the stock-in-trade of every 3rd century homily.

According to his uncharitable interpreter Eusebius, Papias also believed a strange story as to the swelling of the body of Judas Iscariot. Judas became so big he could not pass where a chariot could easily. He was crushed by a chariot, so that his bowels gushed out (Papias Fragment 3, 1742-1744). If Papias was credulous of such stories, just how credulous was Papias of other claims, Eusebius means us to ask?

Papias' dates

About his date, which is important in connection with his credibility, there is Irenaeus' statement, later in the 2nd century, that Papias was "a hearer of John, and companion of Polycarp, a man of old time." Irenaeus was doubtless conflating the presbyter John, Papias' source, with the apostle John and with the author of the Gospel of John. If he was not, his subsequent interpreters certainly have confused these Johns. If Irenaeus' testimony is not mistaken, and if Polycarp was in fact born not later than AD 69 (see entry Polycarp, then there may be no reason to depend on a further, but disputed tradition, that Papias shared in the martyrdom of Polycarp, (ca AD 155) In sum, the fact that Irenaeus thought of Papias as Polycarp's contemporary and "a man of the old time," together with the affinity between the religious tendencies described in the fragment from Papias's Preface quoted by Eusebius and those reflected in the Epistles of Polycarp and Ignatius, all point to his having flourished in the first quarter of the 2nd century.

Indeed, Eusebius, who deals with him along with Clement and Ignatius (rather than Polycarp) under the reign of Trajan, and before referring at all to Hadrian's reign, suggests that he wrote about AD 115. It has been usual, however, to assign to his work a date c. 130-140, or even later. No known fact is inconsistent with c. 60-135 as the period of Papias's life. Eusebius (3.36) calls him "bishop" of Hierapolis, but whether with good ground is uncertain.

English translations of the surviving fragments of his writings can be found in links at the Ante-Nicene Fathers.

External links