We tend to distrust the spoken word. When we’re making a deal, our first response tends to be, “Can I get that in writing?” Not so in the second century. When the church father Papias wrote about Jesus’ sayings, he collected sayings from both written material and oral tradition. When he encountered conflicts between accounts, he had to decide which source to trust: written or oral?
Papias often chose the spoken word because he wanted to learn everything he could from the “elders”—referring to those who were taught by Jesus Himself. He makes a point of telling us he’d rather hear straight from those who heard from the elders than trust things that were only written down, showing us that, at least for Papias, oral tradition was a more trustworthy means of passing down truth.
“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 do not enjoy those who have a great deal to say, but those who teach the truth. Nor do 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. 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, Thomas, James, John, 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.” 1
Papias (ca. AD 60–130) wrote a series of books known as the Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord. 2 Irenae us, bishop of Lyons, says Papias was “a hearer of John and a companion of Polycarp.” 3 His writings have not survived; we know about them through scattered citations in the writings of other church fathers.
1. Papias, cited in Eusebius, Church History, 3.39.3–4. Translation adapted from Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Third Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 735.↩
2. F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed. rev.; Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1224.↩
3. William R. Schoedel, “Papias” in David Noel Freedman, Vol. 5, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 140.↩