CHURCH FATHERS (10) — Fragments of Papias




Let us look now at another enigmatic document coming from our Fathers in the faith, people who were closer than we are to the Lord himself and to his first brethren, the apostles and the disciples. This document is known as Fragments of Papias.

Papias was probably a disciple of Saint John and Saint Polycarp. It is said that he was a follower of some doctrines that were not really orthodox (as millenarism). This may be reason why Saint Eusebius had mixed feelings about him.

Let us see this passage about Papias from a quite recent scholar: “Papius is known to us through St Irenaeus and Eusebius. He was bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia, a friend of St Polycarp, and, having conversed with the immediate disciples of the Apostles, belonged, at the latest, to the third generation of Christians. Critics are still debating whether the John, whose disciple he was, was St John the Apostle, or a presbyter of that name. Eusebius speaks of Papias as a feeble man of limited mental power. Papias composed only one work, the Explanation of the Sayings of the Lord, in five books. This treatise not only explains the words of Christ but also deals with His life. The author does not take the sayings of Christ from the Gospel text alone but relates parables from oral tradition, which Eusebius thought queer, reports a number of special utterances of the Redeemer, and a few stories which are pure fables. Among the latter are to be classed certain realistic descriptions of the millennium, in which Papias was a fervent believer. According as they see in John the presbyter, with whom Papias conversed, the Apostle John, or another personage of the same name, critics assign the composition of the Explanation to an earlier or a later date. Zahn places this composition in A. D. 125-130; Bardenhewer, 117-138; Harnack, 140-160; Batiffol, c. 150. Of the work of Papias we possess only a few short fragments given by St. Irenaeus, Eusebius, and Apollinaris. The two most important relate to the gospels of St. Mark and St. Matthew” (J Tixeront, A Handbook of Patrology, 1920).

So, as for the other documents we have seen before, we don’t have clear-cut information, due to the long time that has passed from the time they were composed. But still, let us not forget it, we have an abundant literature for early Christianity, more than what we have for other religious or philosophical traditions. We are grateful that we can still consult these documents, even if we know that in some cases, like this one of Papias or one of the Gnostic gospels, they have to be managed with care, because there is a mix of interesting things and good material on one hand and errors and fairy tales on the other.

These documents help us understand that the Church of the earlier times “was not that place of :love and peace” that some movies from Hollywood wanted us to believe. It was indeed a place of great excitement where divisions were not certainly absent. We may want to read carefully the early Christian literature, as the Letters of Saint Paul, to see how he often admonishes brothers in faith and puts them in guard against quarrels and divisions.

So, why is it important to know about Papias and what remains of his work? Because he gives us important information, especially about the evangelists Mark and Matthew. And also because he does not give only the account of words of the Lord but also the words of those who were around him: “Papias, at the end, was also worried about what the most intimate faithful of the Master thought, and of those who in some way had been his more or less direct witnesses. And also between them he had made an accurate selection, distinguishing well those who with cloying verbosity report the teachings of other people by those instead adhering to the teachings given from the Lord directly and arising from truth itself” (Giordano Oronzo. I commentari di Papia di Ierapoli. In: L’antiquité classique, Tome 39, fasc. 1, 1970. pp. 106-146).

We may define Papias as an earlier apologist, someone who tried, in the difficult but exciting times of early Christianity, to make sense of the good news that was given to the world.



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