Was Papias a Reliable Witness?We have seen elsewhere in this website that the tradition that the first two gospels were written one of the twelve apostles (Matthew) and a close companion to another (John Mark, interpreter of Peter) is based on an unreliable tradition first written down by Papias around the year 130-140 CE.
Of course, conservative and evangelical theologians continue to try and argue for his reliability. One of the more recent attempts is Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Eerdmans 2006). Bauckham, admitting that modern scholars have regarded Papias testimony on Mark as “historically worthless,”  nevertheless tried to argue against this scholarly consensus. We will be reviewing his arguments here.
Bauckham’s argument is based on this excerpt from Eusebius of Papias’ writing:
According to Bauckham this passage shows that Papias worked in the manner of a reliable historian. Firstly he summarily dismisses Eusebius’ statement that Papias was an idiot (History of the Church 3:39:13) by fiat, stating that “there is no reason why we should adopt this prejudiced attitude towards Papias.”  Then he cited the Apostolic Father’s use of the phrase “living…voice” above. The same phrase (i.e. “living voice”) when used by other ancient writers, such as Galen (c129 – c200 CE), Quintillian (c35-c100 CE), Pliny the Younger (c. 63-113) and Seneca (c 4 BCE – 65 CE) – refers to the importance of acquiring information firsthand and not through “a chain of tradition” or from books. This is then compared to the Greek historian, Polybius (c 230-120 BCE), who used another proverb warning people not to be “like those who navigate out of books,” to emphasize the importance of acquiring first hand eyewitness accounts in good historiography. Polybius compared proper historiography with good practice of medicine, and Galen, who was a medical doctor, also used the same proverb in another context – emphasizing the importance of learning the trade directly from the teacher rather than purely from books. Bauckham used this connection to conclude that the term “living voice” must also carry with it the connotation of careful historiography:
Bauckham’s argument is seriously flawed. As noted above, Eusebius did not think very highly of Papias’ intelligence. [a] He wrote this about Papias:
Despite Bauckham’s confident dismissal of this assessment, there are a couple of reasons why one should accept Eusebius’ word for this. Firstly, Eusebius had access to Papias' complete writing, which is now lost to us. Dismissing his assessment when we have so little to go on is ill advised. Secondly, we do have evidence that Papias was indeed a gullible and rather naive man.
A fragment of Papias’ writing, preserved by Apollinarius of Laodicea, a fourth century Christian bishop, tells of the fate of Judas. It is important to read this passage in full:
Anyone who reads this will immediately notice a few things. Firstly this is a harmonization of the contradictory readings from Matthew 27:3-5 and Acts 1:18-19. [b] Secondly the additional details, like his swollen head, sunken eyes, bloated genitalia, body flowing with pus, emanation of worms and terrible stench are typical motifs used by ancient authors to describe the deserved sufferings of evil men before their deaths. Josephus in Antiquities 17:6:5 described Herod the Great’s suffering before his death to include putrefied genitals, emanation of pus and worms and bad stench. Acts 12:23 describes the death of Herod’s grandson, Herod Agrippa I by stating that he was struck by an angel and was “eaten by worms.” In other words the story about Judas suffering is an expected folkloric expansion of the brief accounts given in the Matthew and Acts. 
Obviously this fable recounted by Papias certainly did not come from eyewitness accounts. Yet he presented it quite matter-of-factly as though he was recounting real history!
There are further examples from available fragments of Papias’ writing of the basic unreliability of his writings. He was a teller of tall tales. In the fragment preserved by Philip of Side (c. 380 - c. 439), we hear of the daughters of Philip who would drank snake venom with no ill effects, of a woman resurrected and of those who were raised by Jesus surviving until the early second century!
We can now see why Eusebius noted that Papias writes of “strange parables” and “mythical tales.” The latter’s credulousness is strong evidence that Papias was as Eusebius described him: someone of “limited understanding.” As for his claim of diligent collection and remembering of the Jesus tradition from the elders, we have an example of this in Irenaeus. Irenaeus cited Papias as his source for this saying of Jesus about the millennium:
The source of this saying attributed to Jesus is not from any extant Christian writing or oral tradition – but Jewish apocrypha! Compare the passage below from 2 Baruch, a late first century or early second century Jewish pseudepigraphical text.
The above evidence tells us that Papias was not a careful historian but a credulous second century Christian who seemed eager to believe anything that confirms his faith in Jesus.
What about Bauckham’s claim that the use of the phrase “living voice” means that Papias was cognizant of the best practice of ancient historiography? A closer look at the evidence shows how such an interpretation is vacuous.
Firstly in three of the four examples given above, that of Galen, Quintillian and Seneca, the phrase “living voice” refers to the didactic desirability of a pupil learning directly from a teacher and not from books. They have nothing to do with collection of eyewitness information. Let us look at these quotes:
The quote from Pliny the Younger is even less useful. For it refers to the fact that listening to a well crafted speech is more pleasing than reading a book! Let us give the quote in full:
Even Bauckham admits that the phrase “living voice” is not used in any extant work on historiography!  As we have seen above, his argument depends on an extremely tenuous connection between Galen and Polybius. The fact that both writers happens to hit upon the same proverb, “like those who navigate out of books,” to describe proper practice in their respective professions does not by any means show that therefore the other phrase “living voice” – not used by anyone to describe proper historiography – was a standard reference at that time to proper historiographical practice!
How then can we explain the reason for Papias use of the phrase “the living voice”? Actually Papias did not even use that phrase, he wrote of the “living and abiding voice.” Bauckham admits that Papias’ expansion of the usual cliché is “unique” but goes on to suggest that it makes it “even more appropriate” as this indicates he is seeking eyewitness to Jesus’ life at a time when not many of them remains.  This is nonsense. Papias could have meant no such thing because, as we have shown, the phrase “living voice” has nothing to do with historiography. Papias phrase “the living and abiding voice” comes straight out of I Peter 1:23 which speaks of “the living and abiding” word of God! [c] Papias is drawing from the theological language of I Peter. His statement about “carefully learning and remembering” the teachings of the elders is reminiscent of I Peter 1:10 which speaks of the prophets having “sought and searched diligently” about salvation. In other words, Papias’ main concern was theological not historical. He was handing down the “true faith” as exhorted by I Peter. [d]
Contrary to Bauckham, the consensus position is firmly in place: Papias’ witness is “historically worthless.”
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