Saturday, 13 May 2017

Luke and Papias

I'm reading through the second edition of Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. In effect, this means rereading the entirety of the first edition, as the second edition consists of the first with three additional chapters appended to the end. It's good for me to do so though, as I have not read the book since it came out in 2006, incidentally the first year of my doctoral studies, and am finding that I have largely forgotten the extent to which ideas that I have fully internalized and made part of my own understanding of early Christianity were ideas that I first encountered in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

Today, as I read, I stumbled across a paragraph that resonates strongly with me, given my current work on the dates of the New Testament. I would like to quote it at length, if I might be so indulged.
Papias in this passage [quoted in Eusebius, Eccl. hist. 3.39.3-4] speaks of a time before the time at which he is writing. The time when he collected oral traditions deriving from disciples of [the earthly] Jesus was in the past. At that time most of the disciplines of Jesus had died, but at least two such disciples, Aristion and John the Elder, were still alive. This must have been close to the decade 80-90 CE. According to most scholars, this is the time at which the Gospels Matthew and Luke were written, and a little earlier than the time at which the Fourth Gospel was written. Thus what Papias says in this passage can be placed alongside Luke's reference to the eyewitnesses (Luke 1:2) as evidence for the way the relationship of the eyewitnesses to Gospel traditions was understood at the time when the Gospels were being written (p. 19-20).
There is much in this passage with which I can readily give assent. I indeed think it likely that Papias was collecting the oral tradition about Jesus that he claims formed the basis of his work during the last quarter of the first century (I would add that I think it likely that he wrote his work probably around the time of Trajan's reign). I would of course agree that this is around the time that the majority of scholars date the compositions of Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John. But when both those points are granted, I find something jarring when I compare Papias' prologue (which Bauckham here discusses) with Luke's. This is best explicated if I quote both.
1 Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed (Luke 1:1-4, NRSV).
3 I will not hesitate to set down for you, along with my interpretations, everything I carefully learned then from the elders and carefully remembered, guaranteeing their truth. For unlike most people I did not enjoy those who have a great deal to say, but those who teach the truth. Nor did I enjoy those who recall someone else’s commandments, but those who remember the commandments given by the Lord to the faith and proceeding from the truth itself. 4 And if by chance someone who had been a follower of the elders should come my way, I inquired about the words of the elders—what Andrew or Peter said, or Philip, or Thomas or James, or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and the elder John, the Lord’s disciples, were saying. For I did not think that information from books would profit me as much as information from a living and abiding voice (Papias' prologue, as quoted in Eusebius, Eccl. hist. 3.39.3-4, following Holmes' translation).
Although these two prologues are formally quite similar, there is a stark difference in the content. Luke identifies as his primary sources persons who were eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning. He presents himself as in direct contact with the first generation of Christians, and it seems with persons who knew Jesus personally. There is no reference to depending upon others to tell him what these persons had said or were saying. By contrast, Papias identifies as his primary sources persons who knew such first-generation Christians and companions of Jesus. Now, this could in part be due to relative isolation: for whatever reason, Papias does not seem capable of traveling from Hierapolis, the way we read about other early Christian leaders traveling from their primary locales (I've come to suspect that he might have suffered from sort of disability that limited his mobility), and thus was dependent upon those Christians who came through the city to bring him information. By comparison, if the Lukan we-passages are to be taken as what they seem to prima facie suggest (namely that the author was a companion of Paul), then Luke was in fact in Jerusalem around c. 60 and in contact with at least James (cf. Acts 21:18). But I'm not sure that relative isolation suffices as an explanation. As Bauckham notes, Papias seems to have distinguished between those who companions of Jesus who were still alive and those who were not. It seems to me most judicious to think that Papias was collecting his oral traditions about Jesus some significant time after Luke had done much the same.

This correlates precisely with what we have already said here. One, following Bauckham, that Papias was gathering oral traditions around 80-90, and two, that Luke met with at least one, possibly more, eyewitnesses to Jesus c. 60. In and of itself, such correlation does not necessitate a date for Luke's Gospel c. 60, as argued by Robinson and the later Harnack, but it is certainly not hostile to such a date. Such coherence is an important test of any hypothesis, because the more coherence that we find the reasonable inferences that we might draw from data across a single author and even more from multiple authors, the more difficult it is to argue that these authors have contrived to persuade the readers of things that are not the case. As coherence mounts, arguments for authorial contrivance begin to leave the realm of historical hypothesis and rather shade into the realm of conspiracy theory.

No comments:

Post a Comment