Monday, November 15, 2010

A Review Of Michael Licona's The Resurrection Of Jesus (Part 4)


Licona writes:

"Although these short fragments [of Papias] preserved in the writings of others contain numerous references that identify Papias as a companion of the apostle John, they make no mention of the death or resurrection of Jesus and thus are of no value in our investigation." (p. 249)

I disagree. Here's what Papias wrote about the origins of Mark's gospel, for example:

"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." (cited in Eusebius, Church History, 3:39)

I want to note a translation issue that will be significant in our consideration of this passage. The term "presbyter" can be rendered as "elder", and that's how some translations of Papias have it. I'd prefer the use of elder rather than presbyter, for reasons I'll explain below. I'm using the presbyter translation for two reasons. For one thing, the online translations I normally use when writing on my computer render the passage that way. And addressing the translation issue might be helpful to people who would come across the presbyter rendering at some future point and wonder how it affects my argument.

The term elder can have more than one meaning. It can refer to an older person. It can refer to a church office. It can refer to both. Whatever the nuances involved in Papias' use of the term, it's likely that this source he's appealing to is somebody with a higher standing and longer history in the church than Papias had. That's why Papias would cite this person as a source of information about the past, the origins of Mark's gospel in this case.

At a minimum, we have a source who goes back even further than Papias who's saying that Mark's gospel reflects the testimony of Peter. And that testimony is framed in a historical genre. Papias' source is referring to Mark's mediation of what was remembered of Jesus' actions and words by a historical witness who had contact with Jesus. He's discussing the historical memory of witnesses. Richard Bauckham discusses this passage and other material in Papias at length in his book Jesus And The Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006), pp. 12-38, 202-239. As he documents, Papias uses terminology that was part of the historiographical language of his day. In other words, not only does Papias' source (the elder) say that the gospel of Mark reflects what Peter taught, but he also places Peter's testimony and Mark's gospel in a historical genre. It follows that Mark's references to an empty tomb and the promised appearances of the risen Jesus (Mark 14:28, 16:7), for example, are what the historical Peter taught about the historical Jesus. Thus, we have a source (the elder) who probably dates even earlier than Papias who's saying that Peter taught a historical empty tomb and the historical appearance of the risen Jesus to His disciples. That's a significant piece of evidence for the resurrection. It's not only evidence that Peter believed in the resurrection and his own experience of seeing the risen Christ, but also is evidence of how Peter defined the nature of that resurrection. Peter affirmed the empty tomb, which wouldn't be produced by a non-physical resurrection or one that involved being given some second body other than the one that died.

If we were to stop here, I think we'd have good reason to disagree with Licona's assessment of Papias. But we can go even further.

Who is Papias' source, the elder? Most likely the apostle John. If I'm right about that, then this passage in Papias becomes even more significant, and in more than one context. If I'm right, then we have John adding his affirmation of a historical empty tomb, a historical resurrection appearance, etc. to Peter's affirmation of those things. We would also have John affirming a traditional view of Mark's gospel in general, not just the parts about the resurrection. And John was in a good position to give us historical information about Peter. They were contemporaries. They knew each other. There's widespread early testimony that they had a close relationship. They frequently appear together in all of the gospels and in Acts, and they appear together in Galatians 2:9. When all four of the gospels, Acts, and Paul agree about something, that's significant. And there's no contrary evidence I'm aware of. What reason do we have to doubt that John and Peter had a close relationship? If Papias is giving us John's testimony, then not only is John a highly significant source himself, but he also was in a good position to give us information about Peter.

But is Papias' elder actually John? I've discussed the evidence in past threads (see here, for example), and I'll summarize it here.

Just before his quotation of Papias cited above, Eusebius writes the following:

"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." (3:39)

Eusebius tells us that an elder named John was one of Papias' sources. Earlier in the same passage in Eusebius, he gives us another quotation from Papias:

"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."

Notice two contrasts. For one thing, Papias distinguishes between what the first group said (in the past) and what the second group says (in the present). Apparently, Aristion and John were still alive. Notice, too, that the term elder is applied to John, but not to Aristion. And that same term had been applied to the apostles earlier. Thus, John seems to be part of the initial group, whereas Aristion isn't. (Perhaps John is being distinguished as one of the Twelve, whereas Aristion was only one of the seventy of Luke 10:1 or some other broader group.) But John is distinguished from the initial group in that he's still alive. Men like Matthew and Peter were dead, but John was still living.

So, Eusebius repeatedly refers to an elder named John who was one of Papias' sources. But in the passage on Mark's gospel, Papias doesn't just refer to an elder. He refers to the elder. Does that term sound familiar? It should. It's a term the author of 2 John and 3 John applies to himself (2 John 1, 3 John 1). And most early Christians attributed those two documents to the apostle John, the son of Zebedee. They also said he was the author of two other documents that use similar language (the gospel of John and 1 John). It's unlikely that they were wrong about all four authorship attributions. When an early source, like Papias, makes an unqualified reference to "the elder", the best explanation of that term is that he's referring to the apostle John.

Several ancient sources who had access to Papias' writings tell us that he was a disciple of John. See the collection of Papias fragments here. Eusebius argues that Papias' John is somebody other than the apostle, but the reasons he gives for holding that view are weak, and he's widely contradicted by other sources.

Furthermore, there are some reflections of John's writings in the fragments of Papias, which makes sense if Papias was highly influenced by John as one of his disciples. I've already noted Papias' use of "the elder", a term that John applied to himself. In most lists of the apostles, Peter's name appears first. But in Papias' list, Andrew comes before Peter, followed by Philip. That order (Andrew, Peter, Philip) is identical to the order in which Jesus calls the disciples in John's gospel (John 1:40-41, 1:43). The same passage in Papias uses the phrase "truth itself" (3 John 12), which is somewhat unusual. These characteristics of Papias' writings aren't conclusive in themselves, but they do add weight to the testimony of the many sources who refer to Papias as a disciple of John. Papias does seem to have been familiar with and to have been significantly influenced by the Johannine documents.

It can be added that referring to the apostle John as "the elder" would make even more sense in light of John's likely old age at the time when Papias was alive. Multiple ancient sources independently tell us that the apostle John lived to an old age. See here. The reign of the emperor Trajan is sometimes specified, which is close to the time when Papias would have been involved in church leadership. John was old and died close to the time when Papias would have been around to refer to him as "the elder".

Do we have any significant reason to reject Papias' status as a disciple of John? Not that I'm aware of. There's significant evidence for his relationship with John, but not against it.

As I documented above, Papias refers to a man named John as one of his sources, he places that John in the same category as the apostles, and he refers to that John as "elder" while refraining from applying that term to Aristion. When Papias makes an unqualified reference to "the elder" in his passage on Mark's gospel, he's probably referring to the apostle John.

Sometimes people will argue that there was some other John with whom the apostle was sometimes confused. Often, though, the people who make such an argument (Martin Hengel, Richard Bauckham, etc.) maintain that the second John was also a disciple of Jesus. Thus, the historical testimony of such a second John would have significance similar to that of the son of Zebedee. But the second John theory is dubious, for reasons I explain here and here. The New Testament scholar Donald Guthrie had a great line on this subject. He's discussing Dionysius of Alexandria, a third-century source who speculated about a second John:

"In this Dionysius foreshadowed, as a man born before his due time, those modern schools of criticism which have peopled early Christian history with a whole army of unknown writers, whose works attained as great a prominence as their authors obtained obscurity." (The Logos Library System: Deluxe Collection [Oak Harbor, Washington: Logos Research Systems, 1997], New Testament Introduction)

An appeal to a second John is a double failure in this context. If a second John had the sort of status that Papias' elder had, then the historical significance of his testimony isn't much different than what we would attribute to the testimony of the son of Zebedee. Besides, the evidence weighs against the second John theory.

But remember something I pointed out early on in this article. Even if Papias' elder wasn't the apostle John, the passage I've cited from Papias would be significant evidence related to Jesus' resurrection. Identifying the elder as the apostle John increases the significance of the passage, but the passage is significant regardless. Papias doesn't address the resurrection directly, but he does address it indirectly in a highly significant way in his passage on Mark's gospel.

Before concluding my comments on this passage about the gospel of Mark, I want to address one other potential objection. What if Papias' source, the apostle John, was only saying that some of Mark's gospel was derived from Peter, but not the portions about the resurrection? I don't think that objection holds up, for more than one reason. For one thing, it's an ad hoc restriction on a passage that's more naturally interpreted in a broader sense. Nothing in Papias' passage suggests that resurrection material should be excluded. It's more natural to take the passage as referring to the gospel of Mark in general. Eusebius introduces his quote of Papias by saying that it addresses "Mark, the author of the Gospel". Quoting what Papias said about the gospel in general would be more relevant than quoting what he said only about non-resurrection material within the gospel. Secondly, it seems unlikely that Papias' source, John, would provide such a positive assessment of Mark's gospel if that gospel excluded the resurrection or included a view of the resurrection significantly different than John's (and, by implication, Peter's). And John tells us that Mark recorded "whatsoever" Peter remembered about Jesus' words and deeds. He says that Mark didn't omit anything. How likely is it that Peter either didn't say anything about the resurrection or that Mark happened to be absent every time he did? Given what 1 Corinthians 15 and other early sources say about the prominence of the resurrection in early Christianity, both scenarios are highly unlikely. Furthermore, resurrection material is deeply interwoven into Mark's gospel (Jesus' predictions of His resurrection, the empty tomb account, etc.). The whole gospel leads up to it, which is true of the other gospels as well. Removing the resurrection material would require a major restructuring of Mark's gospel. That fact makes it even more unlikely that Peter taught some sort of Christian message that didn't involve the resurrection or that defined the resurrection in some significantly different way than Mark's gospel does. The idea that Papias' passage on Mark's gospel is only referring to non-resurrection material is dubious.

And I don't think the Mark passage in Papias is all that's relevant to Licona's assessment. Other material in Papias could be cited as well. Eusebius writes the following concerning Papias' premillennialism:

"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." (Church History, 3:39)

Presumably, such a "material" view of eschatology involves a physical resurrection. That tells us something about how this disciple of the apostles viewed the nature of the believer's resurrection and, by implication, the resurrection of Jesus.


  1. Very interesting post. It would be good to hear a response from Licona on this of why he omitted this evidence in light of what you have said.

    Concerning your last 4-5 sentences, I wonder if Papias' implied familiarity with the book of Revelation is a big reason why some scholars who follow Dionysius argue that the authorship of Revelation is the other John the elder, not John the Apostle.

  2. halo,

    Andrew of Caesarea tells us that Papias testified to the genuineness of Revelation along with Irenaeus and some other sources. The implication is that Papias affirmed the apostle John's authorship of the document, as Irenaeus and others did.