Sunday, August 07, 2022

The Underestimated Value Of Papias' Comments On Mark

In his Church History, Eusebius cites some comments Papias made about the gospel of Mark. Those comments are often brought up in certain contexts, like discussions of the authorship of the second gospel. But the passage has been neglected in other contexts.

It's quoted below. I suspect all of the comments in the passage are from Papias, but the closing sentence could be taken as a comment by Eusebius. And the extent to which Papias is quoting the source he refers to as "the elder" (or "the presbyter") is disputed. In the quote below, I'll use regular text for the words of Papias, italics for the words of the elder, and bold for the words of Eusebius. This assumes a more pessimistic interpretation of the passage, in which Papias only quoted a smaller rather than larger amount of what the elder said and the closing comments came from Eusebius rather than Papias. I suspect this sort of interpretation is overly pessimistic. But let's assume it for the sake of argument, since I want to point out how much valuable information can be drawn from this passage even under such a pessimistic interpretation:

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. (3:39:15)

Notice the following, among other points that could be made:

- I've argued elsewhere, such as here, that the elder Papias refers to is likely the apostle John, the son of Zebedee, based on evidence outside the passage quoted above. But notice how this passage corroborates that conclusion. The gospels, Acts, and Galatians place Peter and John together in many contexts over many years. John was the sort of person who would have had the sort of interest in and knowledge about Peter reflected in Papias' quote.

- Even in an interpretation of the passage as pessimistic as the one I've presented above, we have three sources - the elder who lived in the first century, Papias who lived in the first and second centuries, and Eusebius who lived in the third and fourth centuries - affirming the accuracy of Mark's gospel. The elder refers to how Mark "wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ", Papias refers to how Mark "committed no error", and Eusebius refers to how Mark was careful "not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely".

- A point not made often enough is how relevant these comments are to issues of canonicity. The comments on Mark's accuracy aren't equivalent to affirmations of the scriptural status of his gospel, but they do offer partial corroboration that the document was viewed as scripture. And Papias tells us that the nature of Mark's gospel was being commented upon by the apostle John. Even under a scenario in which Peter was dead when Mark's gospel was written or Peter was alive at the time, but didn't comment on the document, John's commenting upon it would have had the potential to give it scriptural status by means of apostolic authority. When you add up all of the relevant evidence - the high claims sources like the elder and Papias were making about the document's accuracy, the ability of somebody like Peter or John to give the document scriptural status, the widespread acceptance of the gospel as scripture in early Christianity, etc. - the best conclusion to draw from that evidence seems to be that Mark was recognized as scripture by means of apostolic authority (affirmation of its scriptural status by one or more of the apostles). A scenario like what Papias refers to offers a good explanation for how a document not written by an apostle was so widely accepted as scripture so early. Papias doesn't tell us that John referred to Mark's gospel as scripture, but Papias does provide a historical context in which such an affirmation of the document's canonicity could have occurred, and he cites John advocating a high view of the document's accuracy. That's only partial corroboration of a traditional Christian view of the canonicity of Mark, but that partial corroboration has some value.

- Notice how many prominent early sources reflect a high view of Mark's gospel in one way or another. The gospels of Matthew and Luke are often thought to have used Mark as a source. Some people believe that Mark's gospel was received positively by Peter. And Papias refers to its positive reception by John. If the gospel was so widely known and commented upon so early, the widespread Christian perception that it was a canonical book with apostolic authority behind it is less likely to be mistaken accordingly.

- The background of Mark's gospel isn't one in which Peter or Mark is trying to remember or obtain information about Jesus for the first time a few decades after Jesus' death. Rather, it's a scenario in which Peter is repeatedly discussing the material publicly and is repeatedly heard doing so by Mark. So, the information was repeatedly being brought to mind and discussed publicly in the years leading up to the production of Mark's gospel. As early as the late first century, when the elder made his comments cited by Papias, Mark's gospel was viewed as a record of what Peter had publicly taught.

- And what he taught involved historical claims about a historical Jesus. The genre of the earliest Christian message and the genre of the record of that message in Mark's gospel were of a highly historical nature.

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