Papias of Hierapolis (Church History Vignette 1)

Papias of Hierapolis cherished the sayings of our Lord, and we would do well to follow him in that love! The Bishop of Hierapolis, Phrygia, Papias, was a disciple of John (which John is debatable, but likely the Apostle-more on that later) and a friend of Polycarp of Smyrna. He was born around A.D. 70 and likely knew St. Philip the Evangelist as well at St. John. Eusebius insinuates that Papias was not an intellectual powerhouse, but this opinion may have been negatively influenced by Eusebius' strong dislike for Papias' eschatological system (yes, they disagreed about that back then too). Unfortunately, it is difficult for us to ascertain how biased Eusebius may have been because we have so precious little of Papias' work extant. The Bishop's primary work, Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord, was extant as late as 1218, but is now lost except for fragmentary quotes in Eusebius and Irenǽus.

So, why do we care about Papias when we know so little about him? Well, in addition to being a faithful servant of Christ for most of his life and exhibiting a strong dedication to Christ's teachings, Papias provides several important proofs for the authenticity of the Scriptures. Expositions of the Oracles of the Lord references the episode of Christ meeting the woman taken in adultery (disproves the theory by some that that episode was a later interpolation). Papias quotes from and discusses both Matthew and Mark, I John, I Peter, Revelation, and, possibly, John's Gospel (disproves "late date" theories of these books). He also references the gospels with such expectation that his hearers would submit in the face of that teaching that it is obvious that the apostolic authority of the gospels was well established in the 2nd century (disproves "development of oral tradition" theory of the gospels)! Papias' discussion of these elements lends great credibility to the traditional Bibliological position that the Scriptures were, indeed, penned by the Apostles in the first century.

There is some disagreement about whether Papias was a disciple of the Apostle John or another man referred to as John the Elder (or John the Presbyter). Eusebius believed that Papias was a disciple of John the Elder, not John the Apostle. This position is a result of the quote below in which Papias seems (to some) to speak about two different men named John. Irenǽus (earlier than Eusebius) indicates that Papias was a disciple of John the Apostle. Dr. David Beale observes that perhaps Papias mentions the Apostle John twice-both with the Lord's Apostles and with the current leaders of the church-because John was still alive at the time of the writing. While I believe that Papias was the disciple of John the Apostle, the opposite position does not negate the value of Papias' life and work. There are many other traditions about Papias (i.e. that he was John's amanuensis, or scribe, for the writing of the Gospel of John) that are likely later interpolations/fabrications. We do not know much about this man, but we are very thankful for what we do know and for what that knowledge contributes to our defense against the critics of the veracity of the Scriptures.

Papias says:

"I shall not regret to subjoin to my interpretations [of the Lord's Oracles], whatsoever I have at any time accurately ascertained and treasured up in my memory, as I have received it from the elders and have recorded it to give additional confirmation to the truth, by my testimony. For I did not, like most men, delight in those who speak much, but in those who teach the truth; nor in those who record the commands of others [or new and strange commands], but in those who record the commands given by the Lord to our faith, and proceeding from truth itself. If then any one who had attended on the elders came, I made it a point to inquire what were the words of the elders; what Andrew, or what Peter said, or Philip, or Thomas, or James, or John, or Matthew, or any other of the disciples of our Lord; and what things Aristion and the elder John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I was of opinion that I could not derive so much benefit from books as from the living and abiding voice."

Further reading: Philip Schaff's article on Papias in History of the Christian Church.


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