Thursday, July 23, 2020

John Before Papias, Pothinus Before Irenaeus

It's popular among modern critics of Christianity to overestimate the influence of individuals like Papias and Irenaeus. Supposedly, gospel authorship attributions during the patristic era were inordinately derived from Papias, for example. I've responded to that kind of assertion on other occasions, like here. On the alleged lack of traditional gospel authorship attributions prior to Irenaeus, see here.

A point that hasn't been made enough when these issues come up is how much Papias refers to his reliance on other sources. Read the discussion of him in section 3:39 of Eusebius' Church History, for example. Papias was gathering information from sources who were older than him and in other ways more prominent than he was, men like Aristion and the elder John. That's true even if you don't think the John in question was the son of Zebedee. Papias had influence on later generations (though less than is often suggested), but he also was influenced by those who came before him. And one of the subjects those earlier sources influenced him on was the origins of the gospels, including their authorship. Papias tells us that he tried to get information on Jesus and his disciples from anyone who was in a relevant position to inform him on the subject. It would be unreasonable to think that he only got information from the people he names for us in his extant fragments (e.g., Aristion) or their disciples. A church leader like Papias who was so interested in the subject, lived so long, and lived in such a significant part of the world surely would have heard from more sources than the ones whose names happen to appear in the fragments of his writings we have today. Irenaeus is obviously correct when he refers to how there were many people alive at that time "who had received instructions from the apostles" (Against Heresies, 3:3:3). But even if we were to limit the sources who influenced Papias to the people he names in his extant fragments, the fact would remain that he was influenced by multiple individuals who came before him, including on issues pertaining to the origins of the gospels.

Similarly, not much attention is given to Irenaeus' predecessor in the bishopric of Lyons, a man named Pothinus, who died beyond age ninety in the late 170s (Eusebius, Church History, 5:1:29). He was a contemporary of the apostles at a young age and a contemporary of the apostles' disciples as a grown man. When discussing a textual dispute over a passage in Revelation, Irenaeus appeals to copies of the book that were "ancient" in his day (Against Heresies, 5:30:1). He probably also saw old copies of the gospels, with the authors' names attached in one way or another (in a document title, on the spine of a codex, etc.). These are just a couple of examples of sources Irenaeus would have been influenced by (Pothinus, old gospel manuscripts), and more could be cited. Irenaeus names Papias as a source he consulted, but it would be absurd to suggest that he got his information on a subject like gospel authorship only from Papias or that all of his other sources, or even most, were relying only on Papias.

I was recently reminded of a relevant, but seldom discussed, passage in Nicephorus (fragment A7 here). He refers to a man named Pancratius and describes him as a disciple of the apostles who was active around the time when Papias wrote. As far as I know, we don't have much information about Pancratius. Nor do we know much about the individual named Aristion who's referenced by Papias. And there are many individuals referred to in the gospels, Acts, Paul's letters, etc. about whom we have little information. But they were in some ways more known and more prominent in their day than today, and men like Papias thought highly of them and sought information from them and about them. They had already shaped people's views about the origins of the gospels on a large scale before anybody like Papias or Irenaeus had an opportunity to do so.

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