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Fragments of Papias presented by Christian Classics Ethereal Library

Testimony of Irenaeus
Testimony of Eusebius


Papias was a bishop of Hierapolis (now in Turkey) in the early second century. Important testimonies were made by him that by who, when, and how two of Gospel accounts were written. Irenaeus, a bishop of Lyon in the second century, reported that he was a disciple of John, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. On the contrary, Eusebius, a bishop and a historian of the fourth century, postulated that there were two John, one who was an apostle of Jesus and the other called presbyter, and regarded that Papias was a disciple of the second John, the presbyter.

I argue in this page that testimonies made by Papias about apostles of Jesus in relation with the Gospel accounts are credible, even though some controversy still remains to be conclusive.

Most of my arguments are based on two books; Irenaeus' Against Heresy and Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History. I have quoted English translations of those books from the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. References and commentaries are attached to these translations in footnotes, which I did not retain below. Interested readers are encouraged to access to the original documents in Christian Classics Ethereal Library and read the footnotes of relavent passages.

Testimony of Irenaeus

In arguing against a heresy over the nature of coming Kingdom of God, Irenaeus refered to Papias in his Against Heresy, from which we learn the following:

  • Papias saw and heard from John, the disciple of Jesus,
  • Papias is a companion of Polycarp, and
  • Papias wrote five books.
  • The following is an excerpt from Irenaeus's Against Heresy.

    The predicted blessing, therefore, belongs unquestionably to the times of the kingdom, when the righteous shall bear rule upon their rising from the dead; when also the creation, having been renovated and set free, shall fructify with an abundance of all kinds of food, from the dew of heaven, and from the fertility of the earth: as the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord, related that they had heard from him how the Lord used to teach in regard to these times, and say:

    The days will come, in which vines shall grow, each having ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each true twig ten thousand shoots, and in each one of the shoots ten thousand dusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five and twenty metretes of wine. And when any one of the saints shall lay hold of a cluster, another shall cry out, "I am a better cluster, take me; bless the Lord through me." In like manner [the Lord declared] that a grain of wheat would produce ten thousand ears, and that every ear should have ten thousand grains, and every grain would yield ten pounds of clear, pure, fine flour; and that all other fruit-bearing trees, and seeds and grass, would produce in similar proportions; and that all animals feeding [only] on the productions of the earth, should [in those days] become peaceful and harmonious among each other, and be in perfect subjection to man.

    And these things are bone witness to in writing by Papias, the hearer of John, and a companion of Polycarp, in his fourth book; for there were five books compiled by him. And he says in addition, "Now these things are credible to believers." And he says that,

    when the traitor Judas did not give credit to them, and put the question, 'How then can things about to bring forth so abundantly be wrought by the Lord?' the Lord declared, 'They who shall come to these [times] shall see.'

    When prophesying of these times, therefore, Esaias says:

    The wolf also shall feed with the lamb, and the leopard shall take his rest with the kid; the calf also, and the bull, and the lion shall eat together; and a little boy shall lead them. The ox and the bear shall feed together, and their young ones shall agree together; and the lion shall eat straw as well as the ox. And the infant boy shall thrust his hand into the asp's den, into the nest also of the adder's brood; and they shall do no harm, nor have power to hurt anything in my holy mountain.

    And again he says, in recapitulation,

    Wolves and lambs shall then browse together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and the serpent earth as if it were bread; and they shall neither hurt nor annoy anything in my holy mountain, saith the Lord.
    Irenaeus Against Heresy, Book 5, Chapter 33

    Concerning the coming Kingdom of God, Irenaeus (and possibly Papias also) seems to regard it as very physical in nature. Recalling that Jesus raised from the dead in bodly form, I tend to accept this view too and do not see problems at the moment. However, this is a side issue.

    Irenaeus named in his Against Heresy only one John who was a disciple of Jesus, who leaned back against Jesus (Book 3, Chapter 1, Paragraph 1, John 13:25, John 21:20), and who wrote John's Gospel account (Book 3, Chapter 11, Paragraph 11), the second epistle of John (Book 1, Chapter 16, Paragraph 3), and the Apocalypse of John (Book 4, Chapter 20, Paragraph 11). Without argument, then, in the mind of Irenaeus, Papias was a disciple of John, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. Irenaeus himself was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of apostle John. Therefore, what Irenaeus testified about Papias, Polycarp, and John, I consider, weigh much credibility.

    Testimony of Eusebius

    Eusebius postulated from Papias' writing two distinct persons named John. Following is an excerpt from Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History.

    There are extant five books of Papias, which bear the title Expositions of Oracles of the Lord. Irenaeus makes mention of these as the only works written by him, in the following words:

    These things are attested by Papias, an ancient man who was a hearer of John and a companion of Polycarp, in his fourth book. For five books have been written by him.

    These are the words of Irenaeus. But Papias himself in the preface to his discourses by no means declares that he was himself a hearer and eye-witness of the holy apostles, but he shows by the words which he uses that he received the doctrines of the faith from those who were their friends. He says:

    But I shall not hesitate also to put down for you along with my interpretations whatsoever things I have at any time learned carefully from the elders and carefully remembered, guaranteeing their truth. For I did not, like the multitude, take pleasure in those that speak much, but in those that teach the truth; not in those that relate strange commandments, but in those that deliver the commandments given by the Lord to faith, and springing from the truth itself. If, then, any one came, who had been a follower of the elders, I questioned him in regard to the words of the elders,-what Andrew or what Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the disciples of the Lord, and what things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I did not think that what was to be gotten from the books would profit me as much as what came from the living and abiding voice.

    It is worth while observing here that the name John is twice enumerated by him. The first one he mentions in connection with Peter and James and Matthew and the rest of the apostles, clearly meaning the evangelist; but the other John he mentions after an interval, and places him among others outside of the number of the apostles, putting Aristion before him, and he distinctly calls him a presbyter. This shows that the statement of those is true, who say that there were two persons in Asia that bore the same name, and that there were two tombs in Ephesus, each of which, even to the present day, is called John's. It is important to notice this. For it is probable that it was the second, if one is not willing to admit that it was the first that saw the Revelation, which is ascribed by name to John. And Papias, of whom we are now speaking, confesses that he received the words of the apostles from those that followed them, but says that he was himself a hearer of Aristion and the presbyter John. At least he mentions them frequently by name, and gives their traditions in his writings. These things we hope, have not been uselessly adduced by us.

    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. That Philip the apostle dwelt at Hierapolis with his daughters has been already stated. But it must be noted here that Papias, their contemporary, says that he heard a wonderful tale from the daughters of Philip. For he relates that in his time one rose from the dead. And he tells another wonderful story of Justus, surnamed Barsabbas: that he drank a deadly poison, and yet, by the grace of the Lord, suffered no harm. The Book of Acts records that the holy apostles after the ascension of the Saviour, put forward this Justus, together with Matthias, and prayed that one might be chosen in place of the traitor Judas, to fill up their number. The account is as follows:

    And they put forward two, Joseph, called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias; and they prayed and said.

    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. 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. 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 Iranaeus and any one else that may have proclaimed similar views.

    Papias gives also in his own work other accounts of the words of the Lord on the authority of Aristion who was mentioned above, and traditions as handed down by the presbyter John; to which we refer those who are fond of learning. But now we must add to the words of his which we have already quoted the tradition which he gives in regard to Mark, the author of the Gospel.

    This also the presbyter said: Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord's discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely.

    These things are related by Papias concerning Mark. But concerning Matthew he writes as follows:

    So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able.

    And the same writer uses testimonies from the first Epistle of John and from that of Peter likewise. And he relates another story of a woman, who was accused of many sins before the Lord, which is contained in the Gospel according to the Hebrews. These things we have thought it necessary to observe in addition to what has been already stated.

    Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapter 39

    Concerning the coming Kingdom of God, Eusebius regarded what Papias reported strange. Papias was, of course, not perfect, so as Irenaeus, so as Eusebius, so as I myself. Papias might well have been displayed his misunderstanding about Jesus' teachings and Eusebius's judgement on this matter may be correct. However, this is a side issue.

    Eusebius postulated two John; one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, and the other a presbyter John, a disciple of Jesus and a friend of apostles. Of this, I consider as follows:

    Based on the above arguments, I consider that Eusebius' "two John theory" is less probable to be true than the existence of only one John, who was called both apostle of Jesus and presbyter. It is to be noted that an opposite view was held by the commentator who gave footnotes for the English translation at Christian Classics Ethereal Library, and an interested readers are referred to their arguments.

    By the way, Aristion, a disciple of the Lord, was not mentioned in the New Testament. However, this is hardly surprising since there were 72 (or 70) disciples of Jesus mentioned in Luke 10:1 and 120 mentioned in Acts 1:15.


    Note that Eusebius acknowledged "He [Papias] was himself a hearer of Aristion and the presbyter John" who were also, according to Papias, disciples of Jesus. Even if Papias was not a hearer or eye-witness of any of the twelve apostles of Jesus as Eusebius claimed, he was at least a disciple of disciple of Jesus. Therefore, whether Papias was a disciple of John, an apostle of Jesus as Irenaeus claimed, or a disciple of John, a presbyter as Eusebius claimed, he was a disciple of disciple of Jesus, whose testimony about what the apostles of Jesus did concerning the Gospel accounts, I regard, very credible. Fuller understanding of him would surely follow if his lost writings are somehow discovered.

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    Produced by Hajime Suzuki
    Special thanks to my wife Louise for her constant encouragement and patience