Did Papias Know the Apostle John?

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

April 4, 2016

I just received in the mail the latest issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.  And I noticed that it contained my review of Monte Shanks’ recent volume, Papias and the New Testament (Pickwick, 2013). (I can’t keep track of when my book reviews appear!).

Seeing this review reminded me of one of the key debates in discussions of the emerging New Testament canon, namely whether Papias, the bishop of Hierapolis in the early second century, knew the apostle John.  This is a key question simply because Papias provides one of the earliest explicit references to the gospels of Mark and Matthew.

So, where did Papias get this information from? And can this information be trusted?

Bart Ehrman, in his latest volume Jesus Before the Gospels, says no.  This information cannot be trusted.  Why?  Because, “Papias is not himself an eyewitness to Jesus’s life and does not know eyewitnesses” (112, emphasis mine).

But is Ehrman correct? Shanks makes the case in his book, a case that has been made by a number of other scholars before him (e.g., Robert Gundry) that in fact Papias got his information from the most reliable of sources, namely the apostle John himself.

And personally I find that case compelling.  We cannot repeat all the details in a blog post, but here are some highlights:

(a) Irenaeus and the majority of other fragments about Papias affirm that Papias knew John the apostle (Shanks, 288-291). Irenaeus’ testimony is particularly weighty given that he is even earlier than Eusebius and plainly states that Papias was a “hearer of John” (Haer. 5.33.4).

(b) Despite Eusebius’ confident declaration that Papias didn’t know John the apostle (Hist. eccl. 3.39), in his earlier work the Chronicle he actually affirms that Papias knew John (Shanks, 111-113). Obviously, Eusebius’ view had changed between his publication of the Chronicle and his publication of Ecclesiastical History (something that was not unusual for Eusebius).

(c) Papias states plainly that he “learned from the elders” (Hist eccl. 3.39.3).  A few sentences later, Papias describes the “words of the elders” as “What Andrew or Peter said, or Philip, or Thomas or James, or John or Matthew or any of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and the elder John, the disciples of the Lord, were saying” (Hist. eccl. 3.39.4). In other words, it seems that Papias uses the word “elders” to refer to the apostles.

(d) Eusebius admits that Papias learned directly from “the elder John” mentioned in the above quote. Although Eusebius thinks this is a John other than the apostle, it seems likely that he has misunderstood the words of Papias here. When Papias mentions the name John a second time in the statement above, it is best understood as a reference back to the apostle John due to the fact that both are called “elder” and the anophoric use of the article which points back to the prior John (Shanks, 19-21).

(e) Moreover, Eusebius’ idea of second “John” in Ephesus, one different from the apostle, is based on the faulty conclusions drawn by Dionysius of Alexandria, and fueled by his prejudice against Papias’ chiliastic eschatology.

(f) Papias was a colleague and contemporary of Polycarp. Since Polycarp knew John, it is quite likely that Papias would have as well.

Although not each of the above points are equally certain (or persuasive), they form a collectively weighty argument. An argument that suggests Papias got his information from John the apostle.

If so, then this is yet another reason to think that our canonical gospels were known by their traditional names by the end of the first century. And that is incredibly early testimony for the traditional authorship of the Gospels.

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