On The Chance Survival Of The Fragments Of Papias

It is likely that many people will have never heard of Papias before, and that is okay.  Most of the early leaders of the Church of God were fairly obscure people and only a few of them rise above the general cloud of obscurity that exists over that period and become part of the public consciousness.  Yet it is likely that your faith and understanding have been shaped in some way by Papias, even if you are not aware of it.  And indeed, if there is any writer who one would want to know more about in the ancient world, Papias would definitely be on any shortlist for those who want to know about the early Church of God, for a variety of reasons that I would like to discuss.  And if he is not as famous as some of the other Apostolic Fathers we have met [1], he certainly is someone who definitely belongs to be considered as an Apostolic Father because he was an associate of the Apostle John.  For that alone, as an ancient historical witness to the text of Revelation, he deserves to be remembered.

And yet he is barely remembered, despite that worthiness.  Let us comment on some of the aspects that make him worthy of being remembered, some of which we will look at in greater detail later on.  Papias wrote a five-volume commentary on the Gospels, which has been nearly entirely lost.  Fortunately, though, we have later historians (like Eusebius) who recorded what Papias had to say about the writing of the Gospels, allowing this early record of the Gospel writers to pass into history and not be forgotten.  Likewise, Papias was fond of speaking with and listening to the stories of those who accompanied the Apostles, which meant he was a collector of their stories.  Some of these stories likely went into his writing, and one can imagine that as an early Christian raconteur Papias was very appreciated in his own time.  In addition to this, Papias was the first known non-Apostolic defender of the premillennial view of Revelation, which is all the more important of a view to defend given that he knew the Apostle John personally and learned from him.  Some later writers like Iranaeus were less than enthusiastic about the view of the literal 1,000 year rule of Jesus Christ on earth, but the fact that Papias records it is of the greatest historical importance in defending the legitimacy of this prophetic view.

Yet, for all this, we barely know what Papias had to say.  Books of the fragments of his writings exist, but they are short works.  Out of at least five volumes of written material (if not far more) we have enough material to make less than 20 pages of reading from the combined references of Eusebius and Iranaeus, the two writers who quoted him whose works have survived.  We would undoubtedly want more to have survived from Papias, as he was certainly an interesting writer and anyone who listened to the stories of earlier believers and leaders with as much enjoyment as he is recorded to have done would undoubtedly be someone who would be worth reading or listening to ourselves if we had the chance.  Yet his volumes did not survive in toto and were likely not copied down to any large degree, perhaps because genuine apostolic belief and practice was even at the time of Papias becoming increasingly beleaguered as the Church made its fateful and longtime turn towards Hellenistic philosophy and away from the practices of the Apostles before them.

What kind of fragments survived among the writings of Papias?  According to Eusebius, passing on what was written by Iranaeus, only five volumes of his writing “An Exposition Of The Oracles Of The Lord” are known to have existed, and Papias makes no claim to have known the apostles himself (other than John) but rather to have received the truths of Christianity from those who had heard it from Christ and the Apostles (5).  He is often viewed in association with Clement of Alexandria as an early witness of the guilelessness of early Christianity (7).  A colorful story recorded about Judas’ bloating is attributed to him from later on (8) as are stories about the fruitfulness of the earth during the Millennium (9, 11).  Papias recorded miracles that occurred during the early days of the Church (13) and also recorded some of the reasons for the differences between Matthew and Mark among the Gospels (14).  He comments on angelology (16), John’s writing of Revelation (17), and even some matters as to the large amount of women named Mary into scripture and their identities (19).  In all of these ways the record of Papias is useful and intriguing and survives because it caught the eye of later writers.  While we would want more of Papias’ own writing to have survived unmediated, it is definitely worthwhile that his writing was striking enough to be cited and quoted by others.

There are some ironies or tensions relating to Papias and how he is viewed.  The editor of a collection of Papias’ fragments notes that while in one place Eusebius notes Papias as a most learned man while in another location he is viewed as being of small capacity (2).  Papias is known to have had a very high view of the oral traditions that he received from the companions of apostles as well as John, including (it should be noted) the prophetesses who were Philip’s daughters–who themselves also appear in scripture.  Yet even though he had a high view of oral tradition, he wrote at least five volumes of material (if not more).  And although he was a prolific writer, it is the bits of oral tradition passed on about the writing of the Gospels and the practices of the early Church, and not his more doctrinal material, that is largely remembered in the fragments of his writings that have survived.  It is unclear as to why Papias has such great ironies in that the doctrines he is known for are ones that are viewed poorly by contemporaries, but we can be thankful that Papias recorded what he did and that others thought enough of it to cite at least some of Paipas’ writings, so that he is not completely forgotten or unknown to contemporary readers.

[1] See, for example:





About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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