I am reading and reacting to Rickard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.
Bauckham has argued that eyewitnesses like Peter stand behind the New Testament gospels and give us some assurance of their reliability.
He has impressively argued that Mark’s gospel has internal pointers to Peter as the eyewitness behind it. So he can affirm this relationship of the gospel to Peter even without the quotation from the Church Father, Papias.
Finally Bauckham does give us a full discussion of Papias. It is a detailed discussion. He goes through what Papias says about Mark and Matthew phrase by phrase. So I am not going to try to summarize that. I will just tell you the conclusion that Bauckham reaches.
It is a fascinating conclusion. He understands Papias to say that both Mark and Matthew rest on eyewitness testimony, but that both are flawed in terms of order.
About Mark, he says that Peter was the eyewitness. But when the eyewitness testimony of Peter passed through Mark, who translated it into Greek, it lost the chronological order someone who traveled with Jesus could have given it. Papias had written a commentary on the words and acts of Jesus, which we do not have. He chose an order for that commentary that differed from Mark’s order, so we have this quote from his introduction justifying the use of a different order.
There is a similar situation with Matthew. The author was an eyewitness. As such he could put the story of Jesus in proper order. But he wrote in Aramaic. This had been translated by various people who had each altered Matthew’s order. So the gospel of Matthew in Greek no longer gave us the original order. Thus Papias justifies following a different order in his commentary.
Bauckham presents good evidence that Papias knew the gospel of John. It was John’s order that he used in his commentary. Further, Bauckham thinks that the Elder John, whom Papias knew, wrote John. He has already argued that the Elder John, according to Papias, was an eyewitness, though not one of the twelve.
Only an eyewitness could present the gospel in proper order. Papias valued Mark and Matthew, but saw them both as filtered through non-eyewitnesses who did not know the chronological order of Jesus’ life. John, however, was an eyewitness and had written a gospel that preserved the proper order. So John’s order is the one Papias is going to follow in his commentary.
He believes that the order Papias cared about was chronological order. But in Luke the introduction also talks about how others have tried to make accounts of Jesus’ life, but that Luke is going to now put them in order (Luke 1:4). Luke, however, cannot mean chronological order. He uses a kind of geographical order to show the gospel going from Galilee to Jerusalem and then, in Acts, from Jerusalem to Rome. One of his devices is the story of the trip Jesus and the disciples make to Jerusalem. But this trip, when you compare the incidents with the other gospels, was obviously not put in chronological order.
From Papias’s point of view Luke would have been, like Mark, not an eyewitness. So he could not have put the story in order. Papias does not seem to have known Luke’s gospel. My point is just that for ancient writers order does not always mean chronological order.
It may have included chronological order for Papias. Some scholars, who do not think John is generally reliable, do prefer his chronology with its series of journeys to Jerusalem for various festivals (C.H. Dodd followed by several others including Paula Frederickson). The synoptics make everything seem to happen in one year or a few months. This may have been the problem with the order of Mark and Matthew that Papias saw.
Sometimes Bauckham tries to figure out what Eusebius may have purposely left out when quoting Papias. Eusebius, he thinks, may have suppressed Papias’s preference for John’s gospel. Maybe. But the one thing we know about why Eusebius did not think highly of Papias is that he disliked the millenial theology of Papias. Yet John’s gospel is the one least given to end-time prophecy. So Papias’s preference for John and Eusebius’s suppression of it are mysterious.
Some have thought that in the time of Papias Mark and Matthew were under attack by Gnostics and Papias is defending them. Bauckham’s overall understanding seems to me to be a better one. Papias is defending his own use of John as superior to Mark and Matthew. That makes sense to me.