When you read apologetics books and standard New Testament Introductions, you inevitably hear about ‘Papias’. The reason being that this 2nd century bishop allegedly made the earliest known post-apostolic statements on who authored the gospels we now call Matthew, Mark and Luke. Such Christian authors find it necessary to discuss what Papias said because the gospels of Matthew and Mark contain no indications (i.e., ‘internal’ evidence) of who authored them (the titles of the books generally believed irrelevant since it is inconclusive whether the titles were present on the original composition of those gospels). Without any internal evidence sufficient to sway the pendulum one way or the other, the earliest post-apostolic testimony on who authored the gospels (i.e., ‘external’ evidence) would be something that Christians would be interested in.
The first problem is that it is rather ironic that we need Papias to help decide gospel authorship, and therefore whether any gospel statement is first-hand or hearsay, since we also don’t have any first-hand statements from Papias. Papias’s statements on gospel authorship allegedly came from a book he put together called “Expositions of the Oracles of Our Lord”, the problem being that this book no longer exists. All that we have of it today are quotations from it that were made by other church leaders living 100 years after Papias, or longer.
Eusebius of Caesarea was a 4th century church historian and secretary to Constantine. It is from Eusebius’ work “Church History” that the most important quotations from Papias on gospel authorship come to us. Here is what Eusebius says:
Papias gives also in his own work other accounts of the words of the Lord on the authority of Aristion who was mentioned above, and traditions as handed down by the presbyter John; to which we refer those who are fond of learning. But now we must add to the words of his which we have already quoted the tradition which he gives in regard to Mark, the author of the Gospel. It is in the following words: “This also the presbyter said: Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not indeed in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things done or said 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.” These things are related by Papias concerning Mark. But concerning Matthew he writes as follows: “So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able.” And the same writer uses testimonies from the first Epistle of John and from that of Peter likewise. And 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. These things we have thought it necessary to observe in addition to what has already been stated. —–Eusebius, Church History, Book 3, Chapter 39. Schaff, P. (2000). The Post-Nicene Fathers (electronic ed.). electronic ed. Garland, TX: Galaxie Software.
Despite the relative clarity of the English translation of the Eusebius’ originally Greek-language Church History, Christian scholars continue to be divided on what Papias means due to several ambiguities in the Greek of the underlined portions, the one ambiguity I focus on for purposes of this thread is as follows:
Matthew wrote the oracles (Greek: logia, did he mean Matthew wrote the gospel, or the sayings?)
One inerrantist commentary says that ‘sayings’ is the more natural sense of the Greek word ‘logia’
Most significant is the debate over the meaning of logia, which does not naturally mean Gospel but sayings. Perhaps Papias is claiming that Matthew wrote down in Aramaic or Hebrew something less than a full-fledged Gospel but a collection of Jesus’ sayings (conceivably something like what modern scholars have labeled Q).53 Then either he or a later Christian reviser supplemented this source with other materials and turned it into the Greek form of Matthew we now know.
53 See T. W. Manson, The Sayings of Jesus (London: SCM, 1949), 16–20; M. Black, “The Use of Rhetorical Terminology in Papias on Mark and Matthew,” JSNT 37 (1989): 31–41. France (Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher, 58) protests that Papias’s previous use of λογία refers to an entire Gospel (Mark), but his evidence seems to point in the opposite direction. In the phrase “an ordered collection of the Lord’s λογία, ” it is the “collection” that refers to the entire document, whereas the λογία seem to refer to its constituent elements.
Blomberg, C. (2001, c1992). Vol. 22: Matthew (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (Page 40). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
If Papias intended ‘logia’ to mean ‘gospel’, then it could be argued that Papias was crediting Matthew with being the author of both narrative and Jesus-sayings in that gospel. But if Papias intended ‘logia’ to mean “sayings”, then Papias is crediting Matthew with authoring the sayings of Jesus that appear in that gospel, and Papias does not speak to whether Matthew was also the author of the narrative portions of that gospel.
The readers who think Matthew’s authorship of the Jesus-sayings implies his authorship of the narrative portions in that gospel too, are directed to a second-century collection of sayings of Jesus that contains no narrative, called the gospel of Thomas. The gnostic origins of that gospel are irrelevant, the issue under discussion right now is not whether the sayings of Jesus in the gospel of Thomas are orthodox, but whether it is not foolish or ignorant to believe that a gospel author around the time of the first and second centuries would have composed a collection of Jesus-sayings that lacked narrative. It is not foolish or ignorant.
It seems clear that Papias is a serious roadblock to fundies who would wish to say the story in the gospel of Matthew about Jesus rising from the dead draws primarily on Matthew’s own eyewitness memories. If even inerrantist commentaries, written by fundies who have the most to gain by interpreting Papias most favorably to themselves, still admit things that prevent dogmatic certitude about their own position, such as their admission that Matthew’s text could include revisions by an unknown scribal hand, then it would seem that fundies are never going to set forth the case for Matthew’s resurrection testimony being first-hand, with such persuasiveness that only fools would disagree…unless they willing to say that their own inerrantist scholars are fools?
In conclusion, the evidence from Papias is too ambiguous to justify the dogmatism with which fundies typically set forth Matthew as a first-hand account of the resurrection of Jesus. For this reason, skeptics are rationally justified in refusing to accept the fundie view that there is good evidence that Matthew’s resurrection testimony is primarly first-hand. There is no ‘good’ evidence of such, hence reasonable persons can reasonably disagree on the matter.