Bauckham, Richard. “Chapter 2, Papias on the Eyewitnesses.” Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.” Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006, pp. 12-38.
Papias, in the first half of the second century, wrote a treatise in five books, which Bauckham considers would be of great value in answering questions about the origin of the Gospel accounts. Unfortunately, the fragments preserved in Eusebius do not accomplish much. Bauckham notes that Eusebius had a low opinion of Papias, so may have selected quotations to portray him in a bad light (Bauckham 2006, 12). Papias may well have known Philip the evangelist, introduced in Acts 6. He certainly knew some of Philip’s daughters, who were prophets (Acts 21:8-9) (Bauckham 2006, 13).
Bauckham finds Papias’ work important because he specifically speaks about the time he was gathering information about Jesus’ words and actions, particularly giving insight into the testimony as eyewitness reporting, not as reporting of a written or oral tradition (Bauckham 2006, 14). Bauckham quotes from the prologue to Papias’ Exposition, where he says specifically that his inquiries were focused on the actual statements of Jesus and the early eyewitnesses (Bauckham 2006, 15). It is important to Bauckham that the elders, their companions, and Jesus’ disciples were still, largely, living and present at the time of Papias’ inquiries. Most of the apostles were dead, so could not give testimony themselves, but at least “Aristion and John the Elder were still teaching” (Bauckham 2006, 17). We note that Aristion cannot be identified but Papias considers him a personal disciple of Jesus. Bauckham does consider it possible that Papias was born between 50 and 70, and wrote his work between 110 and 130. He would have been well positioned to hear from many of the eyewitnesses and from their followers, even while the witnesses were alive (Bauckham 2006, 19). Bauckham considers this to be a corrective to the higher scholarship which considers the apostolic voice to be dead by the time of the composition of the Gospels. After all, the Gospels were probably being written about at the same time that Papias was gathering his information (Bauckham 2006, 20).
Papias did prefer a “living and surviving voice” rather than information in books (Bauckham 2006, 21). Bauckham observes, however, that Papias had nothing against books. He was writing a book, and used written sources frequently. However, pursuit of oral sources was, at the time, considered a typical way of gathering authoritative information, as described by scientists and philosophers of the time (Bauckham 2006, 22). There is an emphasis not so much on the chain of transmission of an idea as on the authority and reliability of the witness who delivers the idea. For this analysis, Bauckham relies heavily on the work of L.A. Alexander (Bauckham 2006, 22-23). Citing additional authorities, Bauckham demonstrates that the primary attention in period scholarship was given to personal experience or to interviews with personal witnesses. Books were written so as to preserve the record of the witnesses (Bauckham 2006, 24). This was a matter of responsible historiography. For this reason, Bauckham sees Papias as simply following normal practices in research writing (Bauckham 2006, 25). The “living voice” which Papias seeks out is not a metaphoric voice of a lengthy oral tradition, but the literal voice of a living eyewitness, reporting information at first hand (Bauckham 2006, 27). Bauckham notes that the prologue of Luke’s Gospel refers to the same priority. Interviews with eyewitnesses were recognized as the best way to obtain reliable information to be passed down (Bauckham 2006, 30).
Bauckham considers the question of whether Papias was interested in oral tradition. Drawing on the work of J. Vansina, Bauckham distinguishes between oral tradition and oral history. In oral tradition the ideas are transmitted via word of mouth for multiple generations. Oral history is collected in regard to events during the speaker’s lifetime (Bauckham 2006, 31). Papias, work, then, is oral history, not a matter of oral tradition. It is likely that some of his information was a generation removed. For instance, Papias gathered information from disciples of living elders who had known the first generation disciples. But he also gathered information from disciples of some still living first generation disciples (Bauckham 2006, 32). Much of the reason for receiving reports from secondary sources was due to Papias’ location in Hierapolis, not in the same location as the primary sources. Bauckham also observes that oral tradition depends on collective, communal stories. Papias chose not to record the collective traditions in his community but rather to seek specific, eyewitness, oral history (Bauckham 2006, 34).