Sunday, August 10, 2008

Possible and Plausible: Criteria of Authenticity, Christian Prophets and the Jesus Tradition

I've been re-working a section in my dissertation on the so-called "criteria of authenticity" in historical Jesus research. I thought I'd do a series of posts on the topic here as I flush out some ideas. I am quite interested in any feedback--especially from anyone whose done any work in this area already. For those who are not familiar, perhaps this will be a helpful introduction. This post will serve as a kind of introductory discussion.

The use of "criteria of authenticity" really came into its own in the middle of the 20th century, in large part as part of a response to the work of Rudolf Bultmann who had essentially denied the possibility of establishing a historically viable portrait of Jesus' ministry. Bultmann believed that the early Christianity community itself was responsible for many of the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels. (Incidentally, it has really only been relatively recently that scholars have come to consider the problem of ignoring the deeds of Jesus.)

The common term used to describe the historical Jesus research which responded to the skepticism of Bultmann is the "New Quest," i.e., as opposed to previous "quests"--particularly the work of Albert Schweitzer--to establish the truth about the historical Jesus.

While some disagree with the idea of identifying different categories of Life of Jesus research (e.g., the Old Quest, the New Quest, the Third Quest, etc.)--a position to which I have been sympathetic myself--I have found myself in total agreement with Michael Bird's assessment [cf. his outstanding article, “Is There Really a ‘Third Quest’ for the Historical Jesus?” in Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 24.2 (2006): 195-219] that such taxonomies are helpful in identifying various trends in research.

And there is no doubt in my mind that the "New Quest" marked a new trend in Jesus research in which writers placed great confidence in the use of the "criteria of authenticy" in the hope of distinguishing those teachings of Jesus in the Gospels which actually originated with him.

But before going further, let's address another question: According to such scholars, how was it that teachings not uttered by Jesus found their way into the Gospels? How was the historical memory of Jesus' public ministry so muddled? How did statements not made by the historical Jesus wind up being accepted as teachings of Jesus?

Some such as Bultmann have suggested that the answer may lie in the early Christian prophets. Such scholars suggest that in the early Church Christian prophets were believed to be able to speak "in the name of the Lord Jesus". In other words, somehow it came to be accepted that the risen Lord was speaking through certain individuals. Since it was believed that Jesus was speaking through them, the words the Christian community ended up giving equal status to such prophetic utterances as those words Jesus spoke during his earthly ministry. When the Gospels were written, the evangelists incorporated these teachings in their portraits of Jesus.

The most famous supporter of this position is M. E. Boring [Sayings of the Risen Jesus: Christian Prophecy in the Synoptic Tradition (SNTSMS 46; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982); idem., The Continuing Voice of Jesus: Christian Prophecy and the Gospel Tradition (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1991)].

The theory, however, has difficulties.

Is it possible that the early Christians believed certain prophets spoke in the name of the Lord Jesus, and that they accepted their words as being equal to those words spoken by Jesus himself?


And is it possible that they made no distinction between what Jesus said during his public ministry and what such prophets said in his name?


And is it possible that the names of these prophets who greatly influenced what the Church knew from the Lord would have been completely forgotten as irrelevant to the rest of the Church?


And is it possible that when the Gospel writers wrote their works they felt it acceptable to take such sayings and place them back onto the lips of Jesus, making it seem as if these were things he had said during his ministry?


And is it possible that this practice was seen as acceptable by those who had been eye-witnesses to Jesus' ministry, who offered no protest to this practice?

Why not?

And is it possible that if it wasn't acceptable to those who lived within the living memory of Jesus' minsitry that they did not launch a protest or if they did, it was successfully eradicated from historical memory?

Well, I guess, why the hell not?

But possibility and plausibility are two very different things.
Indeed, although many scholars have simply accepted the above reconstructed scenario as irrefutable historical fact--how dare you question a scholarly consensus?!--there is not a shred of evidence that this ever happened?! Not a single shred!

In particular I have been reading David Aune's discussion of the theory in Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 233-45. He concludes:
“German NT scholars, it appears, have seized the hypothesis of the creative role of Christian prophets because it both accounts for the additions to the sayings tradition and absolves the early Christians from any culpability in the forging of inauthentic words of Jesus. In spite of the theological attractiveness of the theory, however, the ahistorical evidence in support of the theory lies largely in the creative imagination of scholars” (245).
Likewise, see the discussion in James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, (CIM 1; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 186-92, in which he concludes:
“…[the] assumption of a vigorous prophetic activity in the earliest churches adding substantially to the Jesus tradition is hardly borne out by what we know about such prophetic activity. And our knowledge of how prophecies were received in the earliest churches raises a substantial question mark against any claim that distinctive or characteristic features of the Jesus tradition originated in prophetic activity. On the contrary, the likelihood is that the first Christian churches would have been alert to the danger of diluting or contaminating their vital foundational tradition by incorporating into it any material incoherent with its principal emphases” (192).
Moreover, see the work by David Hill, New Testament Prophecy (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott; Richmond: John Knox, 1979), whose work also poses problems for the theory.

The theory is rendered even less probable in the light of the work of three contemporary scholars whom I have discussed here before: Bauckham, Byrskog and Burridge. Richard Bauckham, particularly his recent work, Jesus and the Eyewitness (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2006), has raised serious questions about the belief that the Jesus tradition was passed on and ammended annonymously. While certain elements of Bauckham's book has been criticized, what is most compelling about it is his discussion of the work of Papias. Papias, a first-century Christian whose words survive in the writings of Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.3-4), recounts his insistence upon hearing the actual commandments of Jesus from those who were eye-witnesses to Jesus' ministry--eye-witnesses whom he specifically identifies as Jesus' disciples:
"And if by chance anyone who had been in attendance on the elders should come my way, I inquired about the words of the elder―[that is,] what [according to the elders] 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 Lord’s disciples, were saying. For I did not think that information from books would profit me as much as information from a living and surviving voice."
Moreover, Bauckham draws on other studies such as that by Samuel Byrskog [Story as History, History as Story: The Gospel Tradition in the Context of Ancient Oral History (Leiden: Brill, 2002)] who has also highlighted the fact that eye-witness testimony was a key part of ancient historiography. Luke, in particular, makes a point to mention his dependence on them in the introduction of his Gospel:
Luke 1:1-4: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, 2 just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent The-ophilus, 4 that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.”
And while Luke is the only one who mentions the use of eye-witnesses in his text, it is important to note that the Gospel titles themselves are linked with eye-witnesses: the early Church understood that Matthew and John were apostles and Mark was believed to have recorded Peter's eye-witness testimony. While these titles are assumed to be later additions by most scholars today, Martin Hengel has made a persuasive case for their authenticity (cf. The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ [trans. John Bowden; London: SCM, 2000]). For one thing the universal attribution of the Gospels from the earliest times to these four figures--there is not a single case of one of them being associated with someone else!--is indeed difficult to explain.

Finally, there is the work of Richard Burridge on the genre of the Gospels. Burridge’s work has been extremely well-received by the academic community. His argument is that contrary to the assumptions made by Bultmann and the New Questers, the Gospels are not sui generis--unlike all other literature--but that they clearly fall within a particular type of literature known to the people of the first-century world. In fact, comparing the Gospels with other ancient works (e.g., Plutarch, Seutonius, Lucian) it becomes strikingly apparent that they fit well within the genre of Graeco-Roman biography (bios). The Gospels therefore are NOT written to simply reflect the theology of the early Church―they are meant to convey to us about what Jesus taught.

If this is the case, it is hard to imagine--though not impossible--the evangelists retrojecting the words of later Christian prophets onto the lips of Jesus. Given what was stated above, it is hard to imagine that the Jesus tradition was passed on annonymously. There is no way we can be sure the evangelists would not have known the names of those who had received further words from the Lord through prophetic utterances. The tradition was not an annonymous amalgem of sayings--it was associated with authoritative witnesses.

Again, let me make the point one more time--we need to distinguish between possibility and plausibility. And given what we know about the early Church, it seems to me the idea that the early Church made no distinction between the words of later Christian prophets and the words spoken by Jesus during his public ministry just isn't plausible.

Next up, I will look at the various criteria used by historical Jesus scholars. Up first: dissimilarity.

Stay tuned...


Anonymous said...

It the words of Fr. Benedict Groschel on one of his programs in regards to the scholars: Where you there?

ordinand said...

Lookign fwd tot he rest of the series. I have placed some of my research on criteria at

Vinny said...

Personally, I thought that Bauckham’s reliance on Papias really undermined his credibility. Bauckham asserts that we have no reason to accept Eusebius’ “prejudiced” view of Papias as a man of little intelligence, but I cannot see what reason Bauckham had to reject it. Presumably, Eusebius had access to all five volumes of Papias' work and was in a much better position than Bauckham to evaluate its quality.

I was also disturbed by Bauckham’s failure to address some of the wilder stories that Papias passed along. For example, Papias did not believe that Judas hung himself after betraying Jesus. Instead, Judas lived and became so fat “that he could not go through where a chariot goes easily, indeed not even his swollen head by itself.” In addition, Judas’ genitalia spewed out “flowing pus and worms.” From what we know of him, which is very little, Papias does not appear to be the discerning historian that Bauckham makes him out to be.

James F. McGrath said...

On Vinny's point, it seems that the example of the death of Judas may be a good example of Papias knowing traditions passed on orally independently of the New Testament and its influence. There are two contradictory accounts of Judas' death in the New Testament, and only one says he killed himself. Papias may in fact show either a fuller form of the other story, or the way that story was elaborated between when Luke wrote it down and when Papias wrote.

I've just posted my own reflections on this subject in relation to the Gospel of John on my own blog...

Kyle said...

You might already know this, but after the book first came out, Chris Tilling did an extensive review of the book, which generated some good discussion including the things you mention here. Bauckham responded on Chris Tilling's blog specifically to what you mention above (as well as other things). He also did a Q&A with Chris at the end of the review series.

Here's the link:

Vinny said...


I first ran across Tilling’s review when I took a look at Bauckham’s book earlier this year. Bauckham’s responses to the questions about Papias struck me as little more than wishful thinking. We have a few fragments of Papias work that don’t appear to give us any reason to question Eusebius’ assessment of his intelligence. Nevertheless, Bauckham somehow knows that the rest of Papias’ writings in fact demonstrate that Eusebius was prejudiced against Papias.

I can’t see any basis for Bauckham’s conclusions about Papias’ reliability other than the fact that Papias’ reliability is a necessary element in Bauckham’s thesis. Can you?

DimBulb said...

I'm no scholar, but it seems to me that given the absence of material surviving from Papais, except for some quotes devoid of their broader context, it's as hard accepting Bauckman's appraisal as it is Eusebius'.

Vinny said...


I agree completely. One of the things that really struck me from Bauckham comments on Tilling's site was the following: "I know no better explanation of why we have so few quotations from Papias’s book." I doubt that Bauckham knows any worse explanation either.

In fact, why should Bauckham think that he should have any explanation at all? All we know of Papias' five volumes is a handful of passages and Eusebius' comment about his intelligence. Isn't the truth of the matter that we simply don't know much at all about Papias or what he wrote, much less what he thought about himself as an historian. Is any explanation really any less speculative than any other?

Brant Pitre said...

I appreciate a healthy skepticism as much as the next guy, but what are your criteria for simply jettisoning the early external evidence of Papias' witness to who wrote the Gospels, especially when (unlike your Judas story example) his account of who wrote the Gospels is multiply attested--indeed, unanimously agreed upon--in all of the extant early Fathers? Some of them, such as Irenaeus, are only two generations removed from the Gospel authors themselves (disciple of Polycarp, disciple of John). Papias himself is only a second generation, who claims to have gotten his information directly from disciples of Jesus. Is this simply to be cast out a priori? By what historical method do you then establish the authorship of ancient books, if all external evidence--indeed, arguably the earliest witness--is ruled out of court before even being examined?

As for Eusebius' comments about his intelligence, it is widely recognized that this is a comment about Papias theology (Irenaeus gives evidence in book 5 of Against Heresies that Papias was what would later be dubbed a "millenarian"), not a critique of his views of who wrote the Gospels--which is what Bauckham's book is about.

To the contrary, I found Bauckham's reliance on actual external evidence (rather than purely subjective speculation about imaginary Gospel authors and their imaginary communities) to be the strongest (not the weakest) part of his book. My own question is: Why stop with Papias? Why not examine with the same exactitude ALL of the external evidence regarding who wrote the Four Gospels and when they were written? This is how historians treat questions of authorship for other ancient books, such as Josephus, Philo, Caesar's Gallic Wars, etc. How is reliance on purely internal evidence justifie--apart from the scholarly myth that the Gospels were originally "anonymous"?

Kyle said...

I agree with you on some points and disagree on some others. For the sake of time, let me clarify a few points from my perspective.

1. The quote about Eusebius being of "little intelligence" comes specifically in response to his chiliastic views. Here's the full quote from Holmes 3rd ed. of "The Apostolic Fathers", Papias 3:12-13a, "Among other things he says that after the resurrection of the dead there will be a period of a thousand years when the kingdom of Christ will be set up in material form on this earth. These ideas, I suppose, he got through misunderstanding apostolic accounts, not realizing that things recorded in figurative language were spoken by them mystically. For he certainly appears to be a man of very little intelligence which one may judge from these words of him. Still, he was the reason that so many church writers after him held the same opinion..."

From my interpretation, Eusebius' quote isn't in regards to all of Papias' writings (as Eusebius obviously agrees with some of his statements since he uses them to justify apostolic witness in the gospels), but specifically in regards to his eschatology. Therefore, the quote is not seemingly in regards to the quality of Papias' five volumes as a whole neither in the specific context, nor in line with how Eusebius refers Papias (which is not always in a bad light).

2. You also say that Papias' reliability is necessary for Bauckham's thesis, and I agree, but only insofar as you mean his reliability as as claiming to be a historian and thus being familiar with what that meant in his contemporary context. That's what's important for the discussion of transmission and not whether or not he was in actuality a good historian. In my estimation, Bauckham does a very good job of comparing Papias to contemporary literature to show that Papias at least was familiar with good historiography, and familiar with accepted forms of transmission within his context and that of the greater Graeco-Roman world.

Furthermore, from my perspective, there is a difference between arguing for the historicity of Papias' five volumes, and arguing for the reliability of certain statements from within (and without) Papias' missing gospel account. Bauckham argues for the reliability of certain statements later on in the work (particularly in regards to the authorship of John), but these too are irrelevant to the section dealing with transmission pertinent to this discussion.

Bauckham makes this point clear in response to discussion on Tilling's blog when he says, "To say that Papias thought of himself as a historian and knew what good historical practice was suppose to be, is not necessarily to say he was particularly good at implementing such practice. I do not claim that he was and it's not the point I was interested in."

The point Bauckham is making in regards to Papias is that "the language of tradition, as used in the New Testament and related literature, entails neither cross-generational distance nor even orality to the exclusion of written records" (p.38). Papias therefore helps us to see how the church dealt with tradition, and Bauckham makes a very compelling argument that we should trust him in this regard. Personally, here I find his argument rather convincing.

Was Papias a good historian? We simply don't know since the full five volumes are no longer in existence. The Judas section, which comes from a reconstruction of a quote from Apollinarius (4th century bishop) is very funny, although possibly a legendary expansion on the Lucan tradition (as James makes note of above). This could have been a later legend or it could have been Papias' interpretation of that quote (he says in other places that his volume included both tradition and interpretation). We simply don't know. Does it influence Bauckham's argument that Papias claimed to be a historian and was familiar with contemporary historiography (whether or not he himself was a good historian)? Not in the least, which is why Bauckham didn't deal with this's simply irrelevant to his thesis.

The Judas account is a humorous story, which is why I think some of the non-scholarly critiques of Bauckham's work have focused on it. In reality, it doesn't actually work for or against Bauckham's contention since he's not claiming that Papias was a good historian, but simply that he knew what good historiography was (which he apparently did), and that he was therefore reliable in regards to discussing the transmission of early accounts.

3. You say, "All we know of Papias' five volumes is a handful of passages and Eusebius' comment about his intelligence."

I could be misinterpreting your words, but it seems as though you are saying that we have a group of direct quotation from Papias and then a quote in regards to the character of Papias where Eusebius says he was a man of little intelligence. If that's what you mean, then let me attempt to clarify some things.

I quoted the fuller context of the quote above, but also let me note that it comes from a ten paragraph discussion of Papias, some of which is in a positive regard and some of which isn't. The quote by no means stands alone, and is to specifically attack him for believing in a future, earthly millenial kingdom.

We actually have something like thirty fragments from Papias, some longer and some very brief. Still, it has been enough to warrant considerable academic discussion. If you are interested, Michael Holmes has a good bibliography on Papias in the introduction to "The Apostolic Fathers." Personally, I've enjoyed the work of Alexander, Lightfoot and Yarbrough, which are all in English. There's been plenty of good scholarly discussion Papias had not been accepted or dismissed in the past without lively discussion!

4. There's much more to be said. Simply put, Bauckham's work is only one small piece in a lively field of discussion. This post is evidence of that with mention of Dunn, Burridge, Aune, et. al. Whether or not you find Bauckham compelling, it is worth noting that there has been much recent scholarly critique of the Bultmannian school in recent years and from various angles, of which Bauckham only presents one.

4. This discussion of Bauckham has little to do with Michael's post (since his work only plays one small part in the overall critique), so I apologize for going off on this tangent. As such, I'm going to end my participation in it here. Thanks for your insights and thoughts Vinny! It's refreshing, since you've obvious read the book and are capable of an intelligent discussion. Too often I've read critiques online from people who clearly haven't read the book...and if they did, they must have been persons "of very little intelligence" to quote Eusebius again! You clearly are both intelligent and familiar with the discussion and that's refreshing. Have a great evening!

Vinny said...

As a skeptic, I frequently question conventional interpretations of scripture passages and suggest alternative understandings. I have learned to do this respectfully because others with more knowledge are frequently able to explain why my interpretation is untenable. There may be some context or some parallel passage elsewhere in the Bible of which I am unaware or some nuance in the Greek that does not come through in the English translation that I am using. This does not always happen, but it happens frequently enough that I am always conscious of the possibility.

If Bauckham had the opportunity to propose his theories to Eusebius, he might have experienced the very same thing that I have so frequently. Eusebius might have been able to point to a number of passages having nothing to do with millennialism that supported his assessment of Papias’ intellect. He might have been able to cite a number of passages in which Papias passed along traditions learned from John the presbyter that supported Eusebius’ conclusion that he was a different person than John the evangelist. Eusebius might have been able to cite multiple passages that supported his conclusion that Papias did not know any of the original apostles and that Papias was not referring to things he had learned thirty years earlier. When he wrote his church history, Eusebius had no reason to know that the vast majority of Papias’ work would be lost to future generations. If he had, he might have detailed his conclusions much more thoroughly.

Eusebius chose the passages from Papias’ that he believed were sufficient to illustrate the points he wanted to make about Papias, not the points that Bauckham wants to make. This is the problem with relying on a quoted passage for a purpose other than the one for which it is quoted. If Eusebius had wanted to illustrate Papias’ familiarity with “good histiography,” he might have chosen completely different passages. Bauckham’s interpretation may be plausible, but it still seems like pure speculation to me because it is based on a single passage that may or may not be representative of Papias on that issue.

Bauckham’s asserts that we have no reason to share Eusebius’ prejudice against Papias. However, the Judas story confirms Eusebius’ assertion that Papias was prone to pass along “strange parables” and “other more mythical things.” That would seem to be a reason to think that Eusebius knew what he was talking about. It may not be conclusive, but it certainly seems to me to be a matter that Bauckham should have dealt with.

Kyle said...

I'm sorry that this comment is the length of a full post. I would have linked to my personal blog, except I do not have one! Please forgive the length.

Skepticism is a good thing to have, and doubt can often be a fine starting point on the avenue toward truth. I absolutely agree with one of your points. We must quote Eusebius in the correct context, and not try to get a meaning out of his work that is not there, or incorrectly quote him in order to argue our own contention. Therefore, when he talks about strange parables, what is he talking about? When he calls Papias stupid, why does he say it? When he quotes Papias' prologue, why does he quote it? I think if we set these out more clearly that it will answer some of your skepticism, and actually show Bauckham's argument to be more in line with what Eusebius is doing in this section of writing.

You say, "Eusebius chose the passages from Papias that he believed were sufficient to illustrate the points he wanted to make about Papias, not the points Bauckham wanted to make." This is a good question, which is why laying out the fuller context will assist us. What if both Bauckham and Eusebius were both using Papias' prologue for the same reason and inquiry? In fact, are they not doing just that? Bauckham is concerned with Papias' prologue (as quoted in Eusebius) to make his point about Papias' reception of early traditions. Eusebius too is concerned with Papias' methods, as you can clearly see in the quote below.

Here is the quote from Eusebius (as recorded in the "Fragments of Papias" in The Apostolic Fathers ed. Michael Holmes):

-begin quote-

Papias 3:1-13
1 "Five books of Papias are in circulation, which are titled Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord, Iranaeus also mentions these as the only works written by him, saying something like this,

'Papias, a man of the early period, who was a hearer of John and a companion of Polycarp, bears witness to these things in writing in the fourth of his books. For there are five books composed by him.'

2 So says Iranaeus. Yet Papias himself, in the prologue to his discourses, indicates that he was by no means a hearer or eyewitness of the holy apostles, but shows by the language he uses that he received the matters of the faith from those who had known them,

3 'I will not hesitate to set down for you, along with my interpretations, everything I carefully learned then from the elders and carefully remembered, guaranteeing their truth. For unlike most people I did not enjoy those who have a great deal to say, but those who teach the truth. Nor did I enjoy those who recall someone else's commandments, but those who remember the commandments given by the Lord to the faith and proceeding from the truth itself. 4 And if by chance someone who had been a follower of the elders should come my way, or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord's disciples, and whatever Aristion and John the elder, the Lord's disciples, were saying. For I did not think that information from books would profit me as much as information from a living and abiding voice.'

5 Here it is worth noting that he lists twice the name of John. The first he mentions in connection with Peter and James and Matthew and the rest of the apostles, clearly meaning the Evangelist, but he classes the other John with others outside the number of the apostles by changing the wording and putting Aristion before him, and he distinctly calls him 'elder.' 6 Moreover, by these remarks he confirms the truth of the story told by those who have said that there were two men in Asia who had the same name, and that there are two tombs in Ephesus, each of which even today is said to be John's. It is important to notice this, for it is probably the second, unless one prefers the first, who saw the Revelation that circulates under the name of John. 7 And Papias, of whom we are now speaking, acknowledges that he had received the words of the apostles from those who had followed them, but he says that he was himself a hearer of Aristion and John the Elder. In any event he frequently mentions them by name and includes their traditions in his writings as well. Let these statements of ours not be wasted on the reader.

8 It is worthwhile to add to the statements of Papias given above some other sayings of his, in which he records some other remarkable things as well, which came down to him, as it were, from tradition. 9 That Philip the apostle resided in Heirapolis with his daughters has already been stated, but now it must be pointed out that Papias, their contemporary, recalls that he heard an amazing story from Philip's daughters. For he reports that in his day a man rose from the dead, and again another amazing story involving Justus, who was surnamed Barsabbas: he drank deadly poison and yet by the grace of the Lord suffered nothing unpleasant. 10 The book of Acts records that after the ascension of the Savior the holy apostles put forward this Justus with Matthias and prayed for the choice by lot to fill out their number in place of the traitor Judas; the passage runs as follows, 'And they put forward two, Joseph, called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus and Matthias; and tehy prayed and said..." 11 The same writer has recorded other accounts as having come to him from unwritten tradition, certain strange parables of the Lord and teachings of his and some other statements of a more mythical character. 12 Among other things he says that after the resurrection of the dead there will be a period of a thousand years when the kingdom of Christ will be set up in material form on this earth. These ideas, I suppose, he got through a misunderstanding of the apostolic accounts, not realizing that the things recorded in figurative language were spoken by them mystically. 13 For he certainly appears to be a man of very little intelligence, as one may say judging from these words of his. Yet he was the reason that so many ecclesiastical writers after him held the same opinion, on the grounds that he was a man of the early period - like Iranaeus, for example, and anyone else who has expressed similar ideas.

-end of quote-

Eusebius then continues by discussing how Papias received accounts of the Lord from Aristion and John the Elder. He then states, "For our present purpose we must add to his statements already quoted above a tradition concerning Mark, who wrote the Gospel," and he continues to quote Papias' discussion of how Mark used Peter as a source of his gospel. He then discusses Papias' quotes regarding the authorship of Matthew, and how Papias utilized the writings of John, Peter and the Gospel of the Hebrews.

If we were to outline the passage it would look like this:

v.1a - Intro to the inquiry of Papias' work
v.1b - Quote of Iranaeus' discussion of Papias
v.3-4 - Quote from Papias' prologue to his work
v.5-7 - Discussion of Papias' sources mentioned in the prologue (with special discussion on the two Johns)
v.8-10 - Discussion of Papias' other sources (Philip and daughters) and includes two amazing stories originating from them
v.11 - Brief mention of strange parables, teachings and mythical statements that came from "unwritten tradition"
v.12-13 - Discussion of Papias' eschatological views and his influence on contemporaries
v.14 - Discussion of Papias' other sources, John the Elder and Aristion
v.15 - Quote and brief discussion of Papias' saying concerning Petrine authorship of Mark
v.16 - Quote and brief discussion of Papias' saying concerning Matthew's gospel
v.17 - Discussion of further sources to be found in Papias' writing (John, Peter, Gospel to the Hebrews)

Bauckham is using Papias to contend that Papias saw himself as a historian and worked in line with contemporary historiographical methods. Therefore, he quotes Eusebius' quote of Papias in order to show how Papias, writing concerning a time in the late 1st century, gathered sources for his gospel. Eusebius is doing the exact same thing by discussing the origins of Papias' gospel accounts (which he views in a positive light). Therefore when you say, "Eusebius chose the passages from Papias that he believed were sufficient to illustrate the points he wanted to make about Papias, not the points Bauckham wanted to make," we now clearly see that they are in fact pursuing the same inquiry and thus Eusebius' discussion of Papias is not in regards to his intelligence or whether or not Eusebius considers his accounts valid (although the text seems to imply that he does value certain parts). Eusebius and Bauckham both are interested in how Papias received the traditions of the earliest church.

Now, let's consider the context of the other statements that you mention in your response. You say, "Bauckham asserts that we have no reason to share Eusebius’ prejudice against Papias. However, the Judas story confirms Eusebius’ assertion that Papias was prone to pass along 'strange parables' and 'other more mythical things.' That would seem to be a reason to think that Eusebius knew what he was talking about."

Are you using these quotes in the correct context of how Eusebius was using them? Let's consider each statement individually and see if your contention holds merit in regards to Eusebius.

First, Bauckham makes it clear that Eusebius' prejudice comes in regards to his millenarian views. As you can see clearly in the quote above, the phrase where Eusebius calls Papias a man of little intelligence comes directly in regards to his inability to interpret the chiliastic passages in a figurative manner. He does not make this statement when discussing his prologue, or his quotes concerning the origins about Mark, Matthew, etc. but specifically in regards to his millenarian views. There is no reason to think that his prejudice against his eschatology should be read into the rest of Eusebius' discussion of Papias. In fact, the rest of the passage seems to portray Papias' account in a rather positive light.

Second, in regards to the "strange parables" and "other more mythical things," we must balance this with the understanding that Eusebius clearly views much of Papias' work in a positive light. He seems fascinated by two stories received from Philip's daughters. He refers to these stories as "amazing" (thaumasion), which only carries a positive sense, and here specifically means that he found the stories to be "wonderful" or "marvelous," and thus he holds them in a positive light. Eusebius also specifically mentions that these specific strange parables and saying come from "unwritten tradition," as opposed to the rest of his discussion thus far which ties Papias' work directly to members of the earliest church, and later to their writings (i.e., v.1-10, v.14 and v.17). What is meant by "unwritten tradition?" He obviously says that since he is discussing the origins of Papias' work. Since this section is directly followed by the discussion concerning Papias' millenarian views and since the discussion logically follows, could it be possible that since the rest of Eusebius' discussion refers to the origins of Papias' work that he here may be trying to separate his chiliastic views from sourced tradition? In other words, could he with this sentence also be attempting to say that Papias' eschatology is incorrect? Interpreters are split. I would argue that he is, since it logically follows and seems outside of the larger context of his discussion of Papias.

Third, it seems more speculative to take the Judas story and speculate that this is what Eusebius is referring to in his quote. It seems much more likely that Eusebius is referring to those teachings and stories in Papias that Papias uses to support his chiliastic views. That is the context of the statement, and makes more sense in light of Eusebius' purpose with the larger section. Eusebius is not trying to discredit Papias, that's very clear, but in light of what he finds positive, he also clearly disagrees with his millenarianism and is trying to discredit this belief which was common in the earliest church. Therefore, to refer here to the Judas story makes little sense at all.

Finally, you say, "When he wrote his church history, Eusebius had no reason to know that the vast majority of Papias’ work would be lost to future generations. If he had, he might have detailed his conclusions much more thoroughly." You are absoutely correct. But what are the conclusions of Eusebius in regards to Papias from what we do have? 1. That he was a hearer of the apostles and disciples of the apostles. 2. That he sources many of his stories in traditions from the apostles, Aristion, John the elder, Philip, Philip's daughter, Gospel to the Hebrews, Peter, etc. 3. That certain stories in Papias' work which are strange and mythical are from "unwritten tradition" 4. That Papias held to millenial views that Eusebius considered a misunderstanding of the apostles since he was unintelligently unable to distinguish figurative from literal in their mystical visions.

I hope this context and discussion helps you to think through your skepticism in this regard to Eusebius' use of Papias and to see that your contention about Bauckham misusing Eusebius is unfounded. They both are using his prologue for the purpose of seeing how he received traditions at the end of the first century. I also thank you again for the good discussion, as it helps me to think through these topics as well and not blindly believe what I've read and studied. I also as someone who has been extremely skeptical about teachings, doctrines, history, philosophy, et. al. in the past, but have found that often if I pursue the truth hard enough I find that my skepticism was unfounded and that I often end up in a better place than I was before being skeptical, or at least on more solid ground. Thanks again! Have a good evening.

Vinny said...

Therefore, when he talks about strange parables, what is he talking about? When he calls Papias stupid, why does he say it?

The answer to these questions seems to depend on how Eusebius is translated.I was working from a translation that I found at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library website which has some significant differences from the Holmes translation that you cited:
11. The same writer gives also other accounts which he says came to him through unwritten tradition, certain strange parables and teachings of the Saviour, and some other more mythical things. 12. 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. I suppose he got these ideas through a misunderstanding of the apostolic accounts, not perceiving that the things said by them were spoken mystically in figures. 13. For he appears to have been of very limited understanding, as one can see from his discourses. But it was due to him that so many of the Church Fathers after him adopted a like opinion, urging in their own support the antiquity of the man; as for instance Irenæus and any one else that may have proclaimed similar views.

Unlike the Holmes translation that you cited, this translation makes Papias’ views on the millennium a subset of those strange parables and other more mythical things. Moreover, in this translation, Eusebius’ assessment of Papias’ intelligence is predicated on “his discourses” suggesting that Eusebius was taking into account the whole of Papias writings as opposed to the Holmes translation where Eusebius’s assessment is based only on “these words” concerning the millennium. Unfortunately, I lack the expertise to judge which translation is more accurate and I returned Bauckham’s book to the library so I am not sure what translation he was using.

Bauckham’s claim that Eusebius’ stupidity charge relates solely to Papias’ view on the millennium makes more sense under Holmes’ translation, however, that translation seems more disjointed to me. If Eusebius’ assessment of Papias’ intelligence is not based on a broader survey of Papias’ work, then the reference to “strange parables and sayings” seems to be just hanging there without much purpose.

When he quotes Papias' prologue, why does he quote it?

Eusebius’ discussion of Papias follows chapters in which he discussed Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp. His purpose seems to be to give an overview of the early Fathers whose writings had survived as he notes in chapter 38 “since it is impossible for us to enumerate the names of all that became shepherds or evangelists in the churches throughout the world in the age immediately succeeding the apostles, we have recorded, as was fitting, the names of those only who have transmitted the apostolic doctrine to us in writings still extant.”

As far as I can see, Eusebius quotes the prologue in order to demonstrate the limitations of Papias’ sources.I don’t see him expressing anything particularly positive about Papias’ writings. He uses the prologue to argue that Papias did not know the original apostles and that the John that Papias did know was not the Evangelist John. After discussing the prologue, Eusebius goes on to say (according to the translation at CCEL): “But it is fitting to subjoin to the words of Papias which have been quoted, other passages from his works in which he relates some other wonderful events which he claims to have received from tradition.” Eusebius goes on to cite several amazing stories that Papias reported. Thus, it seems to me that Eusebius is reading the prologue as showing that Papias did not have access to the apostles and supports that interpretation by inviting his readers to consider the wonderful events, strange parables, and more mythical elements that occur in his writing.

This is where I think the comparison of Eusebius’ purpose and Bauckham’s purpose becomes important. I think that Eusebius was trying to show that Papias work contained questionable material because Papias did not have direct access to the apostles and because Papias was not sufficiently discerning in the use of the sources he did have. Bauckham wants to argue that the prologue shows that Papias did have access to apostolic sources and that he was discerning in seeking out information from such sources.

The problem with Bauckham’s position is that Eusebius was familiar with the entirety of Papias’ work. In order to accept Bauckham’s argument you would have to assume that Eusebius’ opinion was not informed by that familiarity. He chose to quote the prologue because he thought it sufficient to illustrate the point he was making about Papias, but we don’t have any basis to conclude that it was the only passage that supported this point. Eusebius seems to have been an astute historian and I think we at least have to recognize the possibility that he could support his reading of the prologue and his assessment of Papias’ intelligence with many other passages. There is, of course, no way to know whether Eusebius had the Judas story in mind, but it is possible.

Eusebius concludes his discussion of Papias by quoting the passages that reflect the traditions about the gospels of Mark and Matthew. However, I don’t really see Eusebius saying anything in this part of the chapter to modify or soften his general assessment of the quality of Papias’ work. As a historian, Eusebius would naturally consider this evidence of early authorship traditions to be highly significant and worthy of mention. I would say that it is a credit to Eusebius’ integrity that he does not try to build up Papias in an effort to increase the weight of this evidence.
First, Bauckham makes it clear that Eusebius' prejudice comes in regards to his millenarian views.

I would respectfully disagree on this point. Depending on how Eusebius is translated, he views Papias’ millenarian views as simply a subset of those strange parables and more mythical things that are found throughout Papias’ discourses that reflect his limited intellect. Moreover, if those millenarian views were sufficient on their own to incite Eusebius’ prejudice, you might expect him to be more critical of Irenaeous and others who ascribed to the same view. Bauckman could of course be right but I don’t think the evidence is terribly persuasive much less conclusive.

For me the issue is what the rest of Papias writings would show if we had access to them. Would they show that Papias saw himself as a historian working in line with contemporary historiographical methods or would they show that he was a man of little intelligence prone to passing along mythical stories? What little we do have would seem to point towards the latter although the sample is admittedly very small. What we do know is that Eusebius did have access to the rest of Papias’ works and to the extent one believes Eusebius to have been a careful historian, his opinions deserve a lot of weight. Bauckham’s implicit assumption that the rest of Papias’ writings would corroborate his reading of the prologue is what I find so speculative.

Kyle said...

Once again thanks for the insightful response. I'm going to admit that this will probably be my last response (as they are taking too much of my time due to my overt wordiness) so I hope it is helpful and that possibly others can help you continue this discussion later.

It is obvious that your argument to the first question and the comment at the end is based on the translation from CCEL. I was using the Holmes edition which includes both the Greek and English text. I don't know your background in Greek, but let me give a very literal translation from the greek of the line in question so that it might help with our discussion:

For, he certainly appears (seems) to be one of little intelligence just as one can prove these words say.

Now, the CCEL translation of "discourses" is highly awkward. I would assume that the translation uses "discourses" to be woodenly literal in regards to the word "eipen" at the end, which usually refers to speaking. Any lexicon will tell you though that this often was used for in a broader sense. Possibly, in Schaff's context (this translation is from the mid-1800s mind you), the term "discourses" had a different connotation, or there was more value placed in a wooden translation, despite somewhat making the phrase awkward and unclear. Who knows? Either way, a better translation would be something like "as one may say judging from his words" or "as one may judge based on these words of him." Either way, the text is speaking about particular words and not about his greater writings. If he wanted to refer to all of his writings, Eusebius would have used a completely different Greek word instead of 'logon,' most likely he would have chosen a word based on 'gramma,' or 'grapho' as he does elsewhere in this passage when referring to Papias' work and writings.

Since the context of the line comes directly following his comment about his "misunderstanding" and "not realizing" how to interpret eschatology, it naturally flows that he says he has little intelligence in this regard. This point is only emphasized by the fact that he continues to discuss the effect of his chiliastic views in the following line. Therefore, the language and context both seem to imply that Eusebius is referring specifically to his millenarian views, which is also what Bauckham and and many other Eusebius/Papias scholars have argued.

Hopefully the above analysis of the greek from the Eusebius passage will help, and show that your contention that the phrase refers to the whole of Papias' work is both unnecessary and somewhat requires taking the phrase out of its immediate context and forcing it to refer to the entire section.

You are right on the greater context of Eusebius that he is quoting him in a string of discussions of the earliest church Fathers, but my question remains as to why he quotes Papias at all in the discussion. If he is quoting him to show as you contend "that Eusebius was trying to show that Papias work contained questionable material because Papias did not have direct access to the apostles and because Papias was not sufficiently discerning in the use of the sources he did have," then we have some other questions that must be asked.

If that is the case, then why does he only mention the strange stories one sentence and only talk about his radical views in four sentences out of a discussion containing some thirty or forty sentences? If that is the case, then why talk about the remarkable stories from Philip and his daughters that he finds "amazing" (clearly a positive adjective in the greek understanding), and then tie the character in the story with the witness of Acts, which he clearly sees as authoritative?

Why does Eusebius primarily focus on the specificity of Papias' sources and comments about the canonical gospels, and do so without negative response (except in regards to "unwritten traditions")? You contend that Eusebius is showing that "Papias did not have direct access to the apostles." This may be true, but that does not contradict what Bauckham is saying. Furthermore, I think Eusebius' particular argument is that Papias did not have access to John the apostle, but instead to John the Elder. This seems more in line with the context, tying it to the quote from Iranaeus at the beginning of Eusebius' discussion of Papias.

If as you contend Eusebius is arguing that "Papias did not have direct access to the apostles," and that "Eusebius seems to have been an astute historian and [you] think we at least have to recognize the possibility that he could support his reading of the prologue...with many other passages," then I would argue that Eusebius in this light is a good historian but makes a terrible argument, haha. He is arguing against someone who his contemporaries obviously held in high regard (Iranaeus). If there were many other passages to support his case in your argument, then why does he only rely on his personal interpretation of the prologue to make this case (and later try to defend Iranaeus by suggesting that his millenarian views were only based on Papias' misunderstanding)? Wouldn't Iranaeus have had a better perspective and understanding of Papias' prologue than Eusebius, and thus discredit Eusebius' argument in the context of the churches to whom he is writing? Eusebius being astute would surely know this, and if there were many other passages you would assume he would make note of them in regards to this specific argument, would you not? Instead, he doesn't make note of the strange sayings at this point of the argument, but later on just before discussing his radical eschatology (Eusebius' interpretation). Either way, it seems that it is a stretch (possible, but definitely a stretch) to argue that Eusebius had many other passages to support his interpretation of the prologue. In opposition, going by what information we do have, we see that Eusebius makes his argument based on his personal reading of the prologue, and does so having in mind an attempt to understand why Iranaeus took Papias to have heard directly from John the apostle. That is why he makes the argument concerning the two Johns immediately following. Therefore, there is nothing in this argument, even if true, to change the fact that Eusebius is interpreting Papias' prologue, and also looking at other quotes from Papias specifically in regards to the origins of the earliest church traditions and canonical gospels (as can be seen in my outline of the fragment above). I believe Bauckham is also interpreting Papias in order to find the origins of the canonical gospels, and contemporary methods for receiving traditions. Did the traditions come from unnamed community sources as form critics contend, or did they come from specific eyewitness accounts and those who heard from the eyewitnesses? Both Eusebius and Bauckham would agree it is the latter, and I will discuss that further below.

Therefore, with all of this said, let us reconsider Bauckham's argument which you seem to misrepresent in your discussion above. You say, "Bauckham wants to argue that the prologue shows that Papias did have access to apostolic sources and that he was discerning in seeking out information from such sources." Actually, the contention of Bauckham's book as a whole is to discuss the origins of the canonical Gospels, and the theories proposed in the last century by form critics, only relying on his argument from Papias in a small portion at the beginning. With his greater argument in mind, he believes that Papias "seems to have been in a good position to know some interesting facts about the origins of the Gospels" (p.13). Eusebius agrees with this statement, which is apparent by his discussion concerning the origins of the canonical gospels in regards to Papias, which he gives no evidence of disagreeing with.

You also claim that Bauckham "wants to argue that the prologue shows that Papias did have access to apostolic sources," but this is simply not the case. Bauckham contends throughout chapter 2 of his book that "traditions from members of the Twelve [Papias] claims at best to have had access only at second hand" (p.20). Therefore, your contention regarding Papias is false according to Bauckham's own words. Instead, he is actually arguing that Papias can be used to support his claim that "oral traditions of the words and deeds of Jesus were attached to specific named eyewitnesses" (p.20). He then argues that Papias' prologue was typical of contemporary Graeco-Roman historiography and it is therefore probable that the canonical Gospels based their claims on "specific named eyewitnesses" and not on anonymous church traditions or prophetic utterances of the early church, as form critics have argued for years.

In conclusion, Papias may have been a terrible historian, despite clearly showing an awareness of contemporary historiography (as is apparent in his prologue). The fact of the matter is that we simply don't know, and Bauckham never makes nor needs to discuss this point to make his claims about problems in form criticism, and eyewitness traditions in the canonical gospels. What we do know is that Papias' prologue makes it clear that many of the traditions he used came from named eyewitnesses, which Papias also argues for in regards to the earliest canonical gospel, Mark (as being from Peter). Eusebius seems to agree that the canonical gospels had origins in eyewitnesses of Jesus. When you combine this argument with the arguments from the rest of Bauckham's book, and then combine it with the efforts of the many other scholars listed in the original post, you see that form criticism has fallen under serious critique as of late, and that just as Michael a plausible response based on the evidence we have (and not speculation) is that, "the tradition was not an anonymous amalgem of sayings--it was associated with authoritative witnesses." Now, whether or not the canonical gospels were based on eyewitness testimony is a different question altogether from whether or not we should believe what they teach. I believe we should, but that's a different discussion altogether, and definitely not one for this discussion thread.

Thanks again for the extended discussion on Papias and Eusebius. It's been a fun discussion that has forced me to think through some issues in Eusebius. My primary studies have been in church history, so this discussion is the type that I truly love having. Thanks again!

Vinny said...


I appreciate the Greek lesson.

What about the difference between “to these belong his statement that there will be a period of some thousand years after the resurrection of the dead” and “among other things he says that after the resurrection of the dead there will be a period of a thousand years.” By the older translation, Papias’ millenarian views are explicitly a subset of a larger group of strange parables and more mythical things. Even under Holmes translation, “among other things” would seem to refer back to that larger group of oddities. Thus, the context for the “words” that showed Papias' lack of intelligence would be both the views on the millennium and the larger group of strange stories.

Another problem with Bauckham’s argument is that the prologue may indicate nothing more than that Papias was familiar with the jargon of historians. For example, the prologue to Luke’s gospel ostensibly claims that it was the result of a historical investigation. However, when we read the gospel, we don’t see him doing many of the things that ancient historians routinely did. He does not identify any of his sources or discuss their quality. He neither discusses any conflicts among his sources nor explains how he decided that one version of events was more reliable than another. Isn’t it naive to assume that Papias’ prologue really tells you anything about his understanding of contemporary historiography without seeing how he applied that understanding?