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Yeshua in Context » Formation of the Gospels, General, Gospels as History » Chronicling the Formation of the Gospels #1

Chronicling the Formation of the Gospels #1

How did the things we read now in the books of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John get written down in the form we now have them? There are many decisions to make if we try to reconstruct a possible or probably story of gospel transmission. I’ll try to make the story interested, not too bogged down with long lists of sources and proofs. I’ll keep that kind of writing short and refer the reader to various scholars such as Mark Goodacre, Richard Bauckham, Paul Anderson, and others that I know I will find along the way have added something significant to an understanding of gospel transmission.

I’m already leaning against some ways of conceiving gospel transmission. Goodacre has me nearly convinced that Q is a too-convenient scholarly chimera. Bauckham has me convinced the form-critical view of a long process of oral tradition is off base. Anderson has me convinced the background relationships between streams in gospel transmission are not as simple as New Testament Introduction books make them out to be.

I will start this series in what may seem an unusual place. I think Richard Bauckham makes good sense beginning his Jesus and the Eyewitnesses here: in the lost writings of one bishop of Hierapolis, the good Papias, whose writings fortunately we at least have in the fragmentary form of quotations in later writers. What can the bishop of Hierapolis tell us about gospel transmission?

Papias was bishop in Hierapolis, not far from Colossae and Laodicea. Hierapolis was on the crossroads between the huge cities of Ephesus in the west and Antioch in Syria in the east as well as on a road between Smyrna and Attalia in Pamphylia. Many travelers would pass through Hierapolis.

Papias wrote a lost work called Exposition of the Logia of the Lord (logia means “sayings”). The work is lost except for quotations from it in later writers, especially in Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339 CE).

When was Papias’ book written? A standard date with evidence from an ancient source is 130 CE. But there is reason to believe this is wrong and that Papias’ work was during the time of Trajan (98-117 CE) and not Hadrian (117-138 CE). Bauckham prefers the date 110 CE. Here is what Papias said, some commentary to help understand it, and why it matters for theories about the formation of the gospels:

I shall not hesitate to put into properly ordered form for you everything I learned carefully in the past from the elders and noted down well, for the truth of which I vouch. 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. And if by chance anyone who had been in attendance on the elders should come my way, I inquired about the words of the elders — that is, what Andrew or Peter said, or Philip, or Thomas, or James, or John, or Matthew, or any other 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.
–cited in Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.39.3-4.

It is very important, as Bauckham reminds us, that Papias is not talking about something that happened at the time he wrote his account in 110 CE, but some that happened in the past. Bauckham suggests a reasonable date of 80 CE as the rough time period Papias “inquired about” the words of the elders. This makes sense as approximately the same era in which the gospels were written down (except Mark, being earlier).

The point is, Papias has no reason to exaggerate these “modest claims,” as Bauckham calls them. He could easily have been alive at the time of eyewitnesses and made notes about his inquiries into exact words and stories.

Bauckham notes that Papias describes four categories of people he talked to:
(1) Those who had been in attendance on the elders.
(2) The elders themselves, meaning leaders of regions of disciples in Asia Minor.
(3) The Lord’s disciples to whom Papias did not speak.
and (4) the Lord’s disciples John the Elder and Aristion to whom Papias did speak.

In case there is confusion, the difference between (3) and (4) is in the verb. Papias speaks of what those in (3) “said” and what those in (4) “were saying.” This explains why he separated out John the Elder and Aristion from the others.

The identity of John the Elder and the John from the first list of the Lord’s disciples seems apparent: John the Elder is not John the son of Zebedee, one of the Twelve. John the Elder is a different John. Bauckham thinks John the Elder is the same as the Beloved Disciple and author of the Gospel of John.

Whether that is correct or not is irrelevant for the purpose of this discussion.

What Bauckham is trying to show here is that Papias had a certain sense of historiographical integrity. It was about the importance of “the living and surviving voice.”

Bauckham will go on to show that the same principles of historiographical integrity are evident in the gospels, not only in Luke’s prologue, but in the use of named eyewitnesses. Bauckham has more than circumstantial evidence to back up his claim. He has clear and discernible patterns regarding named characters in the gospels.

For the purpose of this first installment, let me simply say that Papias wrote a book we wish we had in our possession. In this book he recorded the reminiscences and sayings of Yeshua that he gathered from two different chains of transmission:

THE DIRECT CHAIN: From (1) the Lord’s Disciples Aristion and John the Elder to (2) the disciples of the elders to (3) Papias.

THE INDIRECT CHAIN: From (1) the Lord’s Disciples (Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John, Matthew) to (2) a possible intervening stage to (3) the elders (still living) to (4) the disciples of the elders to (5) Papias.

In Part 2, we’ll consider ideas of historiography from the time of Papias and the evangelists. We’ll consider the red herring of Form Criticism and its assumption of a long chain of oral tradition. We’ll discuss Oral Tradition versus Eyewitness Testimony. We’ll look at some evidence that the evangelists shared Papias’ concerns about historiography. Most importantly, we’ll consider the evidence that the gospels were written in the time of living memory and not from some abstract chain of oral tradition which took on a life of its own.

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Filed under: Formation of the Gospels, General, Gospels as History

5 Responses to "Chronicling the Formation of the Gospels #1"

  1. James says:

    Thanks for starting this series. Definitely a topic I want to learn more about.

  2. Mike Gantt says:


    Like James, I am happy you are doing this study.

    As for this portion of what you wrote:

    When was Papias’ book written? A standard date with evidence from an ancient source is 130 CE. But there is reason to believe this is wrong and that Eusebius’ work was during the time of Trajan (98-117 CE) and not Hadrian (117-138 CE).

    Did mean to type “Papias” where you wrote “Eusebius”?

  3. yeshuain says:

    Thanks, James and Mike.

    Yep, Mike, you were right and I fixed it to read Papias instead of Eusebius.

    Derek Leman

  4. Herbert Roy George says:

    if you can also elaborate on why such arcane topics ( in the opinion of many) is actually important to our study of the scriptures….

  5. Jeff says:

    Herbert, it is study of those “arcane topics ( in the opinion of many)” that sets the background for the gospels. Christian scholarship is largely based on a western (Greek) mindset instead of the all important eastern(semitic) mindset. In order to fully undrestand the “New Testament” one must understand the context in which it was written.

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