The Fragments of Papias

By James M. Rochford

Papias was the bishop of Hierapolis in southern Asia Minor, living at the beginning of the second century at the same time as Ignatius (Ecclesiastical History, 3.36.2). Originally, there “were five books compiled by him” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.33.4). Donaldson and Coxe write, “Later writers affirm that he suffered martyrdom about AD 163; some saying that Rome, others that Pergamus, was the scene of his death.”[1] He probably wrote around AD 130. Jefford writes, “That he wrote during the early second century is unquestioned by most scholars.”[2]

It is disputed whether he was in direct contact of the apostle John. Irenaeus writes that Papias was “the hearer of John, and a companion of Polycarp” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.33.4). However, Eusebius challenges this: “Papias himself in the preface to his discourses by no means declares that he was himself a hearer and eye-witness of the holy apostles, but he shows by the words which he uses that he received the doctrines of the faith from those who were their friends” (Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.2). Another source tells us, “Taking occasion from Papias of Hierapolis, the illustrious, a disciple of the apostle who leaned on the bosom of Christ” (Papias, fragment in Anastasius Sinaita).

We don’t have anything of his writings, but history tells us that he wrote a five-volume work called Interpretations of the Sayings of the Lord. We possess only fragments of his writing found within the other writings of the church fathers. Irenaeus and Eusebius contain the most authentic citations, and in fact, the “most extensive percentage of our fragments about Papias is derived from the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius.”[3] Other ancient church leaders contain various fragments attributed to Papias: Apollinaris of Laodicea (4th c.), Jerome (AD 347-420), Philip of Side (5th c.), Andrew of Caesarea (AD 563–637), Maximus the Confessor (AD 580–662), Anastasius of Sinai (7th c.), and George the Sinner (9th c.). Jefford writes, “the choice of texts to be included has developed mostly through scholarly consensus and with some hesitancy. In any case, there are less than thirty fragments likely to be included in the corpus.”[4]

Key contents of Papias’ fragments

Eusebius claimed that he was of “limited understanding,” probably because Papias believed in a literal millennial kingdom (Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.12). Eusebius writes, “To these belong his statement that there will be a period of some thousand years after the resurrection of the dead, and that the kingdom of Christ will be set up in material form on this very earth” (Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.12).

Mark’s authorship of his gospel

Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not indeed in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord’s discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely.” (Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.15).

Matthew’s authorship of his gospel

“So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able” (Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.16).

John 7:53-8:11?

“He relates another story of a woman, who was accused of many sins before the Lord, which is contained in the Gospel according to the Hebrews” (Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.16).

Death of Judas?

“Judas walked about in this world a sad example of impiety; for his body having swollen to such an extent that he could not pass where a chariot could pass easily, he was crushed by the chariot, so that his bowels gushed out” (Œcumenius).

Did Papias prefer oral tradition over Scripture?

Some Roman Catholic theologians argue that Papias supported oral tradition over the authority of Scripture. After all, Papias wrote, “I did not think that what was to be gotten from the books would profit me as much as what came from the living and abiding voice” (Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.4). How does this statement fit within the evangelical doctrine of Sola Scriptura (“Scripture Alone”)? There are a number of ways of interpreting these words from Papias:

OPTION #1: Papias elevated oral tradition over Scripture. Of course, not even Roman Catholics would hold to this view. On the Roman Catholic view, Scripture and Sacred Tradition are coequal in their authority. So if we interpret Papias this way, then he would be outside the bounds of both Catholic and evangelical perspectives. It’s possible that Papias held to such a view, but we shouldn’t hold this to be authoritative for believers today.

OPTION #2: Eusebius selectively quoted (or perhaps misquoted) Papias to argue for the primacy of Sacred Tradition. Jefford comments, “Scholars often remain confused about the sources that Eusebius used in the composition of his work and are frequently suspicious that he has tailored his information to justify the authority of apostolic tradition behind certain influential churches of his day.”[5] This wouldn’t be too difficult to believe, seeing as how we are not reading the primary source of Papias, but rather a fourth century writer’s view.

OPTION #3: We could be misreading Papias’ statement. Look at his statement in the context. In the previous paragraph, we read,

But I shall not hesitate also to put down for you along with my interpretations whatsoever things I have at any time learned carefully from the elders and carefully remembered, guaranteeing their truth” (Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.3).

The term “elders” can refer to the apostles (see below). Since Papias didn’t see the apostles when they were alive, this could refer to reading their works. This statement (“learned carefully from the elders”) is separate from the second statement (“carefully remembered”). If the apostolic teaching was written, he wouldn’t need to remember it. In the next sentence, he writes,

For I did not, like the multitude, take pleasure in those that speak much, but in those that teach the truth; not in those that relate strange commandments, but in those that deliver the commandments given by the Lord to faith, and springing from the truth itself” (Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.3).

Here Papias is skeptical of oral teaching from heretics in his day. Papias rejected spurious teachers in favor of the “truth.” Could this refer to the written Scripture? Papias goes on to write,

“If, then, any one came, who had been a follower of the elders [the apostles?], I questioned him in regard to the words of the elders [the apostles?],—what Andrew or what Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the disciples of the Lord, and what things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say” (Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.4).

It becomes clear in this statement above that Papias is contrasting the false teachers with the apostles’ teaching. After distinguishing the false teachers from apostolic teaching, he writes,

“For I did not think that what was to be gotten from the books would profit me as much as what came from the living and abiding voice” (Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.4).

There is a difficulty in reading Papias as discouraging the written Scriptures here:

First, he isn’t contrasting the oral tradition of the apostles against the written tradition of the apostles. In context, he’s contrasting false teaching with the apostles’ teaching. The context simply doesn’t set oral and written testimony in contrast; it sets heresy from orthodoxy in contrast.

Second, the “books” might not refer to the Bible. The “books” could be referring to the writing of the false teachers. While Papias doesn’t explicitly write this, it isn’t hard to believe that the false teachers had “books” of their own. The false teachers exist in context—not the written Scriptures.

Third, the “living and abiding voice” could refer to the Scriptures. After all, the author of Hebrews writes, “The word of God is living and active” (Heb. 4:12).

This reading of Papias may very well be strained, but we simply have too little to work with in order to interpret his words. Eusebius quotes only a few short paragraphs out of context. Because we can’t read the larger context of Papias’ thought development, we simply shouldn’t confidently jump to the conclusion that “the books” refers to the Scriptures, whereas the “living and abiding voice” refers to oral tradition.

[1] Roberts, A., Donaldson, J., & Coxe, A. C. (Eds.). (1885). Introductory Note to the Fragments of Papias. In The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, p. 151). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.

[2] Jefford, C. N. (2012). Reading the Apostolic Fathers: A Student’s Introduction (Second Edition, p. 66). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

[3] Jefford, C. N. (2012). Reading the Apostolic Fathers: A Student’s Introduction (Second Edition, p. 64). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

[4] Jefford, C. N. (2012). Reading the Apostolic Fathers: A Student’s Introduction (Second Edition, p. 64). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

[5] Jefford, C. N. (2012). Reading the Apostolic Fathers: A Student’s Introduction (Second Edition, p. 64). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.