Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Papias and the gospels

I've been listening to apologetics again. Every now and again in debates, an apologist pulls the 'evidence' of Papias out and muddies the debate waters considerably. Generally the debate gets bogged down at this point and no resolution is ever reached. The apologist thinks they have won.

Papias, you see, appears to offer early evidence in support of the claim that the gospel stories were written by eyewitnesses. His (early 2nd century) writings (now lost, but quoted by others) tell us that there was a written gospel by someone named Mark, who was a companion of Peter's, and whose gospel was a  record of the stories Peter used to tell, and also a written gospel by a disciple called Matthew, who was one of the original 12 apostles.

Apologists love this as it basically destroys all arguments that the gospels were written late and with no connection to the original disciples.

But I have a problem with the evidence of Papias used in this way, and it surprises me that I've never heard this rebuttal of Papias used in a debate. The thing is, Papias's description of the gospels of Mark and Matthew does not cohere with what we know about the two gospels we call by those names.

Papias says that the gospel of Mark he knew about was written in Greek but was not written in order. He also says that the gospel of Matthew he knew about was written in Aramaic, then translated into Greek, and was in order.

Over 200 years of textual study of the gospels have shown us that the order of events on our Mark and our Matthew are broadly the same, and also that our Matthew used the (Greek) text of our Mark as the basis of his gospel, which must have been composed in Greek. Also, as Matthew used Mark as the basis for all of his gospel, it looks quite unlikely that Matthew was himself an eyewitness. Why would an eyewitness use non-eyewitness material in preference to his own recollections?

In other words, if the gospel we know of as Mark is the same as the one Papias called Mark, then the gospel we call Matthew is not the gospel Papias knew as the one written by the disciple Matthew. If that gospel ever existed, it has been lost to history.

And furthermore, if our Mark is Papias's Mark, and Papias was right, then all three of our synoptic gospels are built on the wrong chronology of Mark's gospel.

Of course, our Matthew cannot be the same as Papias's Matthew, as it wasn't written in Aramaic, which must also give us pause to question whether or not our Mark is the same as Papias's Mark. We don't really know.

Whichever way you slice it, Papias is not good evidence that the synoptics are built on eyewitness testimony. All we can really learn from Papias is that there were written gospels in circulation in the early 2nd century, but that we have probably lost them.