Does Church Father Papias Prove the Gospels Existed in the First Century?
by D.M. Murdock/Acharya S
Adapted from Who Was Jesus? Fingerprints of The Christ
Christian apologetics for the early, first-century dates for the Bible's gospels rely on
the slimmest of evidence, including a very late third-hand testimony of a late second-hand testimony that the
evangelist Mark had written a narrative, supposedly based on the experiences of Peter as related by the
apostle himself. In the fourth century, Church historian Eusebius quoted early Church father and bishop Papias of
Hierapolis (c. 70?-c. 155? AD/CE) as referring to the "presbyter John" and stating:
This, too, the presbyter used to say. "Mark, who had been Peter's interpreter, wrote down
carefully, but not in order, all that he remembered of the Lord's sayings and doings. For he had not heard the
Lord or been one of His followers, but later, as I said, one of Peter's. Peter used to adapt his teachings to
the occasion, without making a systematic arrangement of the Lord's sayings, so that Mark was quite justified
in writing down some things just as he remembered them. For he had one purpose only—to leave out nothing that
he had heard, and to make no misstatement about it. (
39; Eusebius/Williamson, 103-104)
"Of Papias's life nothing is known."
Regarding the bishop of Hierapolis, the Catholic Encyclopedia ("St. Papias") says,
"Of Papias's life nothing is known." In other words, we do not even know who this person is whom Eusebius is
allegedly quoting regarding these purported earlier texts. According to Eusebius—in disagreement with
Irenaeus, who suggested Papias had known the apostle John—Papias had no direct acquaintance with any of the
…Papias himself in the preface to his work makes it clear that he was never a hearer or
eyewitness of the holy apostles, and tells us that he learnt the essentials of the faith from their former
pupils. (Eusebius 3.39:2; Eusebius/Williamson, 101-102)
"Papias himself in the preface to his work makes it clear
that he was never a hearer or eyewitness of the holy apostles."
The assumption that the "presbyter John" with whom Papias apparently had a relationship was the
same as the apostle John is evidently incorrect. Papias himself remarked that he received his knowledge
second-hand, even about the apostle John, when he stated:
And whenever anyone came who had been a follower of the presbyters, I inquired into the
words of the presbyters, what Andrew or Peter had said, or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew, or any
other disciple of the Lord, were still saying. (Eusebius 3.39; Eusebius/Williamson, 103)
These comments indicate that the bishop was not in direct communication with any of the
immediate apostles or disciples of the Lord. Indeed, Papias is merely passing along what he had heard from the
disciples' "former pupils." What exactly is meant by "former pupils?" Such a statement implies that these
individuals were either no longer followers or were deceased. If these individuals Papias is relying on were not
even Christ's followers at that time, why should we trust their statements?
Many of Papias's remarks, according to Eusebius, involved miracles, such as the raising of the
dead, which stretch the credulity. Are we supposed merely to take Papias's word on what else he was told by
these "former followers?" Moreover, even Eusebius does not think highly of Papias, remarking, "For he seems to
have been a man of very small intelligence, to judge from his books." (Eusebius 3.39; Eusebius/Williamson,
"For [Papias] seems to have been a man of very small
intelligence, to judge from his books."
Regarding Papias's purported discussion of an original "Gospel of Matthew," a collection of
Jesus's sayings in "Hebrew" or, rather, Aramaic, professor of theological studies and dean of the Graduate school
of Theology at Wheaton College Rev. Dr. Merrill C. Tenney, an evangelical Christian scholar, comments:
The testimony of Papias has been frequently rejected, since no trace of an Aramaic original
has survived and the language of the Gospel bears no marks of being a Greek translation. (Tenney, 150)
"The testimony of Papias has been frequently
Nevertheless, Papias's remarks about a book of sayings in Aramaic by Matthew may well refer to a
text extant in his time, which may have been used by the evangelists, whose gospels do not emerge clearly in the
historical record until the late second century.
Sayings Gospel of Matthew
Indeed, in some early Christian texts there appear sayings that seem to correspond to some found
in the gospels, but these isolated sayings or logia could easily be from earlier source texts utilized by
the evangelists as well. In "The Use of the Logia of Matthew in the Gospel of Mark," Rev. Dr. Charles A. Briggs remarks:
The Logia of the apostle Matthew, written in the Hebrew language, according to the testimony
of Papias, in the citation of Eusebius, was one of the most important sources of the Gospels. Certainly a
considerable portion of the Sayings of Jesus given in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke came from this source. It
is still in dispute, however, whether the Logia of Matthew was used by the Gospels of Mark and John.
Modern scholars have struck upon a sayings gospel called "Q" for the German term
Quelle, meaning "source." In New Testament Documents, Christian scholar F.F. Bruce logically
posits that Q is in fact based on the Matthaean logia, or sayings found in the Aramaic Gospel of Matthew.
Again, it would be reasonable to suggest that such a text or texts had been used by both the evangelists and early
Christian writers; thus, the existence of sayings in early Christian texts that parallel those found in the
canonical gospels does not prove the existence of the latter at the time the former were composed.
"Papias only speaks about a narrative by Mark,
which by no means conclusively refers to the canonical Mark as we have it."
Despite all these factors, Papias is one of the only pieces of evidence
Christian apologists offer as to the dating of the gospels. Yet, his testimony concerning these writings
of Mark and Matthew is not only second-hand but also too late to possess any value as concerns the earliest of
the gospels dates. Moreover, Papias only speaks about a narrative by Mark, which by no means
conclusively refers to the canonical Mark as we have it. Nor, as we have seen, is the Aramaic gospel of
Matthew the same as the canonical Matthew. Furthermore, from Papias's comments we can adduce that Mark was
never a disciple who had ever heard or followed Christ, as has been erroneously asserted by a number of
apologists claiming that Mark may have been one of the 70 or 72 disciples mentioned in the gospel of Luke
"From Papias's comments we can adduce that Mark was never a
disciple who had ever heard or followed Christ."
In addition, from Eusebius it appears that Papias—rumored to have some relationship with the
apostle John—does not mention any gospel of John! From this fact and other reasons, it can be safely stated that
the gospel of John did not exist at that time, i.e., the first quarter of the second century. Nor does Papias
mention Luke or give any indication of a narrative gospel of Matthew.
"In reality, the gospels do not emerge clearly in
the historical record until the last quarter of the second century."
In the final analysis, the purported testimony of Papias
—found only in Eusebius, writing some 300 years after Christ's supposed existence
—is worthless in establishing an early date for the canonical gospels. In reality and to reiterate,
the gospels do not emerge clearly in the historical
record until the last quarter of the second century, a fact that explains much about
their origin, contents and style.
For more information, see Who Was Jesus? Fingerprints of The Christ
Bibliography and Further Reading
Briggs, Charles A. "The Use of the Logia of Matthew in the Gospel of Mark." Journal of
Biblical Literature, vol. 23, no. 2 (1904), pp. 191-210.
Bruce, F.F. New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?
Eusebius. The History of the Church. tr. G.A. Williamson, New York: Penguin, 1989.
Tenney, Merrill C. New Testament Survey. MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985.
"When Were the Gospels Written?"
"Late Dating of the Gospels" (FreethoughtNation.com forum thread)