Sunday, May 22, 2022

Reviewing the Ehrman-Gathercole Debate on Early Christology

This will be a brief review of the second 2014 debate on the "Unbelievable?" radio show between Simon Gathercole and Bart Ehrman on the topic of Christology, specifically a discussion of the earliest texts in the New Testament such as Romans 1.3-4 and Philippians 2.5-11. The discussion was sparked by the publication of Ehrman's How Jesus Became God and a response volume to which Gathercole contributed titled How God Became Jesus. Timestamps refer to the recording here; note that the timestamps might vary depending on how your browser loads the recording and other factors. The debate starts after the third minute, moderated by Justin Brierley.

In his initial comments, Ehrman says that this issue (who Jesus was) is "fundamentally important for everybody, whether they're a Christian or not a Christian." (4:55). This is a good take. Despite Ehrman's dubious conclusions on the historical Jesus, this remark is a refreshing point of agreement.

Clarifying his views on the evolution of early Christology, Ehrman goes on to say that "Christians didn't come out and call Jesus God for decades after his resurrection." (6:50) Later, he comments about how he changed his mind on the subject of Jesus' burial, saying that the traditions of Jesus having a tomb that was discovered empty are "probably not historical" (8:20). This was not the subject of the debate, so I will not be discussing it here. Those interested in a response to arguments from Ehrman and others concerning the historicity of Jesus' burial can consult this post from jobapologetics or this video from InspiringPhilosophy. Both links cite a plethora of scholarly sources for further research on the topic.

At the 12 minute mark, Ehrman summarizes the consensus dating of the Gospels, placing Mark around 65 or 70. Gathercole agrees with the chronology fleshed out by Ehrman. I don't think the evidence for these dates is strong enough to command the consensus they enjoy, but this is irrelevant to the topic of the debate so I will not discuss it here. I will post a review soon of Jonathan Bernier's new book on the topic.

The discussion of early Christology begins in earnest at 14:18, when Brierley introduces Philippians 2 as a purported example of early high Christology. For reference, here is the text from the NASB:

5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,
who, as He already existed in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,

but emptied Himself by taking the form of a bond-servant and being born in the likeness of men.

And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death: death on a cross. 

For this reason also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

This passage is regarded by some scholars to be pre-Pauline. At 18:00 Gathercole answers a question about how this conclusion is reached. He emphasizes the unusual vocabulary as one factor, though he qualifies that by saying that the difficulty with this approach is that the corpus of Paul's letters is tiny. This is generally a good principle: while unusual vocabulary is some evidence for non-Pauline origin, since the corpus is sufficiently large to get an idea of Paul's verbal and grammatical inclinations, writers use unusual vocabulary frequently so caution is warranted.

Returning to around the 16 minute mark, the conversation turns to various translation-related issues in the first section of the poem. Both Gathercole and Ehrman think that translating the first part of verse 6 as "being in very nature God" is dubious. Gathercole says that the more controversial part is "over the grasping bit" (17:00). Gathercole notes that translating it as "grasped" suggests that Jesus didn't already have equality with God, but the alternative translation of "exploited" suggests that he did have it but didn't abuse it. At 17:40 Ehrman comments that the word for "grasped" (harpagmos, from arpazō) isn't used very much. Indeed, this is the only occurrence of this verb in the New Testament. Due in part to time constraints, neither scholar lays out a case for preferring one translation over the other.

At 18:50, Ehrman summarizes his interpretation of the Christology of this creed as "Before Jesus became a human, he was a divine being with God in heaven, but he didn't want to seek equality with God... Then, God exalts him more highly than he was before." At 19:40, Ehrman notes that the language of every knee bowing and every tongue confessing is a quotation from Isaiah applied exclusively to YHWH. Thus, he argues, Jesus became equal with God after the resurrection.

At 19:33 Gathercole explains his interpretation of the Philippians passage. He notes that his primary disagreement is over the translation of harpagmos; he finds it convincing that this should be translated as saying that Jesus had equality with God but didn't want to hold onto it. He then comments as to the difficulty of treating a small hymn like this in isolation and suggests going elsewhere in Paul to find his high Christology. Specifically, he cites 1 Corinthians 8.6: "yet for us there is only one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him."

Seeing as the primary difference between these two interpretations of the Philippians passage depends on the translation of harpagmos, some comments about this are in order. Scholars have long debated the meaning of this word and the matters of syntax are complex. For those interested in reading more about this term, perhaps the best place to start is Roy Hoover's 1971 landmark study. [1] On the basis of his survey of other uses of the word, Hoover suggested a translation of Philippians 2.6 as "he did not regard being equal with God as something to take advantage of". This went without serious challenge until 1988, when J. C. O'Neill published a brief critique of Hoover's conclusions, arguing that harpagmos is best understood as robbery. [2] Gordon Fee took issue with O'Neill's critique, saying "by turning Hoover's findings into a 'rule', O'Neill eliminates the 'rule' by noting the exceptions. But that is not the same thing as eliminating Hoover's understanding of the idiom." [3] Most recently, Michael Wade Martin published a rebuttal to O'Neill's comments and proposed some refinements to Hoover's thesis. [4] Martin's primary conclusion is that the use of harpagmos itself is ambiguous and its meaning should be settled by context.  This latter position seems safest. I think the context provides a strong case for the equality of Jesus with God by 1) the wording "in the form (morphē) of God" and 2) the theological impracticality of translating harpagmos as "robbed". These considerations are not conclusive, though, so Pauline Christology should not be settled on the basis of this text alone.

There is little to comment on from the 30 minute mark to the 40 minute mark. Ehrman and Gathercole primarily discuss the divisions between creator and created in first-century Judaism, where they generally agree. Gathercole's central contention is that the worship of which Paul declares Jesus worthy would be unfitting for a created being: "If Jesus is a creature, then you jolly well shouldn't worship him." This conclusion comes from passages like Romans 1 ("worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator"). Thus, Paul viewed Jesus as uncreated.

At 39:30, Gathercole explains that a central problem with an exaltation or adoptionist Christology is that it would make a creature into a non-creature. Ehrman responds by saying that Jesus is still a creature, but now one who has been exalted to the level of God. He uses the analogy of a Roman emperor adopting a son. Further, Ehrman comments that Paul's condemnation in Romans 1 is irrelevant because 1) Paul is talking about worshiping idols, and 2) Jesus has now been exalted to the level of God, an uncreated thing. Later, Gathercole responds to 1) by agreeing that Paul is indeed condemning a specific brand of idolatry, but in doing so he reflects his belief that only the creator is worthy of worship. 

This is an interesting contention from Ehrman. One objection is that it's difficult to view a created Jesus as being equal to God, because the creature/creator distinction precludes any notion of metaphysical equality—the creator will always be greater than the creation.

Ehrman goes on to defend his view that Paul viewed Christ as a created being by saying that "from whom are all things" in 1 Corinthians 8.6 includes Christ. Gathercole references the second part of the verse saying that "through [Christ] are all things". Here I think he drops a good rebuttal. If Ehrman wants to argue that "from [God] are all things" necessarily implies that Christ is a created being (interpreting the "all" literally), then saying that "through [Christ] are all things" would imply that God exists through Christ. I doubt this is a position Ehrman would want to affirm, given his belief that Paul viewed Christ as a created being. Further, if God's existence depends on Christ, it would suggest that Christ is higher than God in some way. Thus, Ehrman would have to concede that God is excluded from the "all" in the phrase "through [Christ] are all things". This significantly weakens his argument that "from [God] are all things" necessarily includes Christ—if the second phrase permits an exception, the first one can as well.

At 44:00 begins the discussion of the "tunnel period". This is the period of about 20 years from Jesus' death to our first Pauline letter. Ehrman says that the best way to figure out what was going on Christologically during the tunnel period is to look at pre-Pauline creeds and hymns in the letters of Paul. While this is probably our best bet for elucidating early Christological beliefs, I don't think it can yield much certainty. Creeds are often condensed, for one thing, and leave out a lot of qualifications that might impact our interpretation. Another concern is that Paul is widely argued to have redacted Christologically inadequate creeds to make them compatible with his own Christology, but the speculation employed to reconstruct the original protocreeds is often quite tenuous and significantly hampers our ability to derive confident conclusions.

At 47:05 Ehrman brings up Romans 1.3-4 for the first time during the debate. Ehrman lays out a basic case for finding an adoptionist Christology in this text. In a few months I will be publishing a series of posts addressing various interpretations of Romans 1.3-4, including a comprehensive analysis of various redaction theories. That series will be reasonably exhaustive. Thus, I will limit my comments here to those of direct pertinence to the debate.

Here is the NASB translation of the text:

3 concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, 
who was declared the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.

"With power" can also be translated "by power" or "in power". I prefer the latter.

Gathercole's first response, at 48:30, is to emphasize the level of speculation involved in determining whether a given text is a creed. He does, however, think that there's a good chance Romans 1.3-4 is a creed. Where he disagrees with Ehrman is that the creed presents something radically different than what Paul believed. 

At 49:40 Gathercole says that it's much more speculative to say that Paul added "in power" to the creed. Ehrman's initial response seems to indicate that the inclusion of "in power" tells strongly against an adoptionist reading—Jesus became the "son-of-God-in-power" at his resurrection. Thus, if the creed originally taught an adoptionist Christology, "in power" would have to be absent. This is precisely what Ehrman argues: "in power" was probably a Pauline interpolation. Around the 51 minute mark, Ehrman lays out his principal argument for that conclusion—it's the only part of the second section that doesn't correspond to anything in the first section.

To see this, consider how Ehrman contrasts the elements of the creed in his book How Jesus Became God: [5]

A1 Who was descended
A2 from the seed of David
A3 according to the flesh,

B1 who was appointed
B2 the Son of God in power
B3 according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead

Since "son of God" corresponds to "seed of David", Ehrman argues, "in power" is left hanging.

Against Ehrman's argument we may adduce six responses. I will discuss these all more fully in my planned series on Romans 1.3-4:
1. We have to be careful what we conclude from parallelism arguments—it's highly speculative to assume everything will line up perfectly.
2. The strength of the argument is dependent on how we structure the creed. Scholars like Matthew Bates and Gordon Fee structure the various sections of the creed differently than Ehrman, making "in power" no longer unnecessary.
3. There are other parts of the creed that don't line up perfectly. For example, consider the phrases "according to the flesh" and "according to the Spirit of holiness". Technically, one could omit "of holiness" and still have an understandable creed. Someone might respond that the emphasis is on corresponding phrases, not word-for-word similarities—in that case, if "in power" modifies "Son of God" (as many scholars argue) it is no longer out of place. The same parallel dooms the response that "of holiness" is a necessary qualification for the office of "the Spirit"—"in power" could also be a necessary qualification for "Son of God".
4. Even if we accept Ehrman's structuring of the creed, James Dunn argues that "seed of David" and "Son of God" might have been regarded as insufficiently contrastive, because the seed of David was already considered to be the Son of God. Thus, "in power" preserves the antithetical parallelism.
5. There is precedent for this formulation in other Christological hymns (1 Tim 3.16, Heb 1.3).
6. "Son of God in power" is an expression not used by Paul elsewhere. This is not a particularly strong argument, but it's presence is slightly more probable if the expression originated elsewhere than if Paul used it himself.

Gathercole responds that scholars differ as to whether "in power" was there originally. He cites James Dunn's commentary arguing that "seed of David" and "son of God" don't contrast enough, and thus the "in power" is necessary to preserve the antithetical parallelism (point #4 above). At 54:13 Ehrman briefly responds: "My case doesn't rest on whether two words in Romans 1.3-4... there are other preliterary traditions that all point in the same direction." (ellipses indicate Ehrman's incomplete sentence, not an omission). While possibly due to time constraints, it's notable that Ehrman drops the issue after Gathercole provides Dunn's response. He then refers to his book, indicating that he makes a case there for viewing an adoptionist Christology as one of the earliest views.

Ehrman's comment that "there are other preliterary traditions that all point in the same direction" references passages in the speeches in Acts, though he doesn't bring them up in the debate. For engagement with these passages, see C. Kavin Rowe's paper "Acts 2:36 and the Continuity of Lukan Christology" and Michael Bird's book Answering Adoptionist Christology. 

In conclusion, I think Gathercole had the upper hand in this discussion, though both scholars provided robust defenses of their views. The debate covered a lot of ground, though it would have been interesting to see Ehrman defend his redactional thesis for Romans 1.3-4 a bit more. Ultimately, this debate did what all good debates should: offer an introduction to two competing viewpoints and provide resources for further research.

References and Notes
[1] R. W. Hoover, "The Harpagmos Enigma: A Philological Solution," HTR 64 (1971), 95-119
[2] J. C. O'Neill, "Hoover on Harpagmos Reviewed, with a Modest Proposal concerning Philippians 2:6," HTR 81 (1988), 445-49
[3] Gordon Fee, Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study. Hendrickson Publishers, 2007, 382
[4] Michael Wade Martin, "ἁρπαγμός Revisited: A Philological Reexamination of the New Testament's 'Most Difficult Word'," JBL 135 (2016), 175-94
[5] Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. HarperOne, 2014. 166 (eBook)

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Setting a Date for the Second Coming: Mark 9:1, 13:30, and Matt. 10:23

This post is the third in a series on the so-called “delay of the parousia”. See my previous posts here and here.

Three texts in particular have been used by many scholars to argue not only that Jesus thought the end of the world was “near”, but also that he more boldly set a generational deadline for it. Or, to borrow A. L. Moore’s word, these scholars argue that Jesus “delimited” the parousia within one generation. [1] 

The three texts given in support of this notion are:

Mark 9:1: “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”

Mark 13:30: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”

Matthew 10:23: “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

Mark 9:1

In her commentary on Mark, Adela Yabro Collins argues that Mark 9:1 refers to the parousia (the Second Coming of Jesus), and thus those to whom the verse is addressed (“some standing here”) are those who will “live until the coming of the Son of Man”. [2] She points to the perfect participle “has come” (ἐληλυθυῖαν) as signifying the full manifestation of God’s kingdom, the second stage after the kingdom has drawn near (1:15). She also notes that the kingdom’s coming in “power” resembles the language of the coming of the Son of Man described in 13:26 (“with great power and glory”). Both of these points are questionable. The use of ἐληλυθυῖαν need only signify the inauguration of the kingdom, not its completed arrival. Jesus elsewhere describes the kingdom having already come (e.g., Matt. 12:28/Luke 11:20), and the early Christians continued this already-not-yet theme (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:25 [the Messiah is already reigning]). And the while Mark does describe the parousia in terms of “power and glory”, even Paul, writing earlier, could use the same kind of kingdom-and-power language to refer to something that has already occured: “and he was marked out as the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). (The same phrase, ἐν δυνάμει, used). The enthronement scene of Psalm 2:7-8 is alluded to here, and Rom. 1:5 (“to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations”) echoes the language of the Son inheriting the nations and taking the earth for his possession in Psalm 2:8. For this reason N. T. Wright remarks, 

Thus, though the word “kingdom” is not explicitly mentioned, the way in which this extract… claims the biblical language of kingship for Jesus and declares that this kingship is “with power” and “for the sake of his name,” already indicates an answer to the question of Mark 9:1: yes, the kingdom of God has already come with power, when Jesus was raised from the dead and began to commission his emissaries to summon the nations to allegiance. [3]

(Wright’s point also weakens Bart Ehrman’s argument that Matthew 16:28 and Luke 9:27 omit the phrase “in power” from Mark 9:1 to soften the imminent expectation implied by it). [4]

What does Mark 9:1 refer to, if not the parousia? I think the standard alternative interpretation, which views the Transfiguration as the (or a) fulfillment of the coming of the kingdom, is correct. All the Synoptic Evangelists for this reason place the event immediately after the saying. Even Dale Allison, who argues that saying in its original context referred to an imminent parousia, concedes that the Evangelists have framed it this way. [5] Collins protests that 9:1 has nothing to do with the Transfiguration, because the verse is connected with the parousia described in 8:38, and the time marker in 9:2 (“after six days”) indicates that a new section. [6] Certainly 9:1 is connected with 8:38. But 9:1 follows the focus on the completed arrival of the kingdom in 8:38 with a focus on the foretaste of that future state in 9:1. In other words, there is a progression in Jesus’s words — “The kingdom of God will come in the future,” Jesus says, “and some standing here will be able to experience its inauguration even now.” As Craig Keener comments, 

This verse points to the future glory mentioned in the preceding verses by way of an anticipatory revelation of that glory they are to experience in 9:2-13. Because the future Messiah had already come, the glory of his future kingdom was also already present. [7]

And while Collins is correct that the time marker in 9:2 begins a new scene, by no means does it follow that this new scene can have no thematic continuity with the preceding one. Moreover, Collins herself concedes that 9:1 “is set off from the preceding sayings by the introductory phrase ‘And he said to them’ (καὶ ἔλεγεν αὐτοῖς).” Could this introductory phrase function as a transition between the theme of final judgment in 8:38 and the Transfiguration scene starting in 9:2?

Mark 13:30 

Scholars who see Jesus predicting the end of the world within a generation here have simply misread. The phrase “all these things” does not refer to the parousia (vv. 24-27), only the signs leading up to it (vv. 5-23). 


The structure of Mark 13 makes this clear. The disciple’s question in v. 4 pertains to “these things” (πάντα) and “all these things” (ταῦτα… πάντα). [8] This question is followed by Jesus’s answer in vv. 5-23. These verses are held together by an inclusio structure. The πάντα of verse 23 bookends the πάντα of verse 5. The phrase “I have told you all things beforehand” (v. 23) recalls the phrase “Jesus began to say to them” (v. 5). And the exhortation to “be on guard” (v. 23) mirrors the exhortation, “See that no one leads you astray” (the same Greek word is used, βλέπετε). Since vv. 4-23 are bookended by πάντα and ταῦτα… πάντα, it is only natural that ταῦτα πάντα of v. 30 should refer to the material within that section, not to the parousia material in vv. 24-27. [9]


Moreover, the parable of the fig tree in v. 29 should put to rest the idea that ταῦτα πάντα in v. 30 includes the parousia itself. The most natural referent of “all these things” in v. 30 is “these things” in v. 29. And in v. 29, Jesus does not say that the occurrence of “these things” means that the Son of Man is here, but that he is near. Indeed, if v. 30 included the parousia itself within “all these things” it would render v. 29 absurd: “when you see all these things (including the parousia) taking place, you know that the parousia is near, at the very gates”! [10]


George Beasley-Murray also points out that the saying in v. 30 resembles the saying preserved in Matthew 23:36/Luke 11:51. [11]

Matthew: “Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.”

Luke: “Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation.” 

In context, both sayings refer to the doom that it to fall upon Israel for its rejection of God’s messengers. As Beasley-Murray comments, “If Mark recognized this meaning he would have specifically related it to the ruin of the temple and all that is bound up with in within the discourse.” [12] That Mark 13:30 is so close to this logion supports the interpretation already suggested by the structure of the discourse.

Lastly, the interpretation of Mark 13:30 I am putting forward removes a tension with v. 32: “But concerning that day or hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” If one wishes to “harmonize” these two passages by suggesting that Jesus did predict the parousia within his generation without specifying the date more exactly, he is free to do so. But the broadness of time — “day” and “hour” in v. 32 and “time” in v. 33 — fits more naturally if 13:30 only refers to the events of vv. 5-23. Note as well the close relation these verses have with Acts 1:6: “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” [13] 

Jesus apparently understood the parousia’s timing to be a matter of God’s providence, and therefore focused more on moral exhortation (Mark 13:33-37) rather than eschatological speculation (cf. Didache 16:1, 2 Clement 12:1 [the time in unknown]; Shepherd of Hermas 9.5.2, Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 45 [it is a matter of God’s providence]). 

Matthew 10:23

Matthew 10:23 was the passage which Albert Schweitzer famously called “the first postponement of the parousia.” [14] Anticipating some scholarly interpretations of the passage today, he saw in it a failed prediction on Jesus’s part. 

On the other hand, some have suggested that the Son of Man’s coming in Matt. 10:23 is not even eschatological. Witherington, for example, suggests that Matthew could mean “that the disciples shall not have completed the missionary work in Israel that the early Jesus sent them out to do before he rejoins them.” [15] In support of this de-eschatologized interpretation he cites Matt. 11:19 (cf. Luke 7:34), which shows “that Jesus is capable of speaking of his present activities using the phrase ‘Son of Man’ and the verb ‘to come’ in its more common sense.” [16] He also points out that Matt 10:23 lacks any mention of the stock parousia imagery — angels, clouds, etc.. 

Another interpretation sees the Son of Man’s coming as fulfilled, or at least partially fulfilled, in the resurrection. This is the view, for example, of Leopold Sabourin. [17] In Matthew 10, Jesus sends out the disciples to preach the good news only to the towns of Israel. “Go nowhere among the Gentiles [ἐθνῶν] and enter no town of the Samaritans,” Jesus says, “but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:5-6). But this temporary command is exactly reversed at the end of the Gospel:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations [πάντα τὰ ἔθνη], baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (28:18-20)

Jesus now commands his disciples to evangelize to the “nations” (or “Gentiles”); before he told them not to. And Jesus in this passage tells us what accounts for this reversal: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Matthew’s language here is an allusion what is said about the “son of man” in Daniel 7:14. (Compare Matthew’s Ἐδόθη μοι πᾶσα ἐξουσία ἐν οὐρανῷ καὶ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς to Daniel’s καὶ ἐδόθη αὐτῷ ἐξουσία καὶ πάντα τὰ ἔθνη τῆς γῆς.) Thus Matthew shows his readers that the Son of Man’s “coming” in 26:64 was inaugurated in Jesus’s resurrection.

Yet one more interpretation holds that in Matt. 10:23 Jesus is not cutting short the disciples’ mission but describing a continued mission. A. L. Moore notes the composite structure of the discourse:

  1. 10:5-15: The immediate mission of the disciples, limited to the towns of Israel (v. 5). 

  1. 10:16-23: A more general mission to the disciples, where a Gentile mission is implied (v. 18). Matthew has transferred most of these sayings from the Olivet Discourse in Mark 13. 

  1. 10:26-42: Various sayings of Jesus.

It is also notable that each section ends with ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν (“truly, I say to you”; v. 15, 23, 42). [18]

Moore then points out that the saying in v. 23 must be interpreted within the more widespread mission of vv. 16-23, not the immediate mission of the disciples in vv. 5-15. This frees verse 23 from a having a delimited meaning — “V. 23b is neutral in respect of the duration of the work involved, simply affirming that it will not be completed before the parousia; and if v. 23a is understood in connection with v. 23b and the entire mission charge, this too is undelimited.” [19]

Stephen Witmer similarly argues for this view, noting that a) Matt. 10:16-22 describes an “extended period of time”, with the mention of the disciples before governors and kings, b) Jesus’s command not to go among the Gentiles in 10:5 contradicts his claim that they will bear witness before Gentiles in 10:18, indicating “that 10:16-22 refers to events beyond the immediate trip the twelve will make”; and c) Matthew omits the return of Twelve as found in Mark 6:30. [20] 

Of these options, Sabourin’s view and Moore’s view are best. I do see an eschatological meaning in the “coming” of the Son of Man here, contra Witherington’s suggestion. Sabourin’s view requires that vv. 5-23 be intended to portray one extended mission, limited to the towns of Israel, and that Matthew overlooked the discrepancy between v. 5 and v. 18. This, of course, is possible. But Moore’s view irons out this difficulty. 

In any case, Schweitzer’s insistence that the saying of Jesus in Matt. 10:23 is a false prophecy and represents the “first postponement of the parousia” is weak. 


[1] A. L. Moore, The Parousia in the New Testament. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1966). 

[2] Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary. Ed. Harold W. Attridge. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007) 412-413 (quotation from 413). 

[3] Wright, N. T. “Hope Deferred? Against the Dogma of Delay.” Early Christianity 9 (2018): 58-59. 

[4] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 130, calling this difference “huge”. 

[5] Dale C. Allison, Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998) 168. 

[6] Collins, Mark, 412. 

[7] Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Second Edition. (Downers Grove, IL: Baker Academic, 2014) 149. 

[8] It is not clear what to make of Mark’s two questions. Matthew more clearly separates the two, with the first pertaining to the temple destruction and the second pertaining to the end of the age (24:3). Robert Stein, Jesus, the Temple and the Coming Son of Man. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014) 64-69, argues that both questions in Mark refer to the temple destruction, and cites 11:28 as a parallel. Edward Adams, “The Coming of the Son of Man in Mark’s Gospel.” Tyndale Bulletin 56.2 (2005): 55, argues that the second question in Mark alludes to Daniel 12:6-7 and therefore refers to the final consummation.

[9] For this the argument for this inclusio, see Stein, Jesus, 67, 72. Cf. Ben Witherington III, Jesus, Paul and End of the World: A Comparative Study in New Testament Eschatology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992) 42-43, who similarly argues that the phrase “these things” characterizes vv. 5-23, as opposed to “those days”, which characterizes the parousia material. Therefore, he argues, Mark 13:30 (when you see “these things”) refers to material in vv. 5-23. See also C. E. B. Cranfield, “St. Mark 13.” Scottish Journal of Theology 6.3 (1953): 291.

[10] Stein, Jesus, 123-124. 

[11] George R. Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Last Days: The Interpretation of the Olivet Discourse.  (Vancouver, British Columbia: Regent College Publishing, 1993) 447-448. 

[12] Ibid., 448. 

[13] Thanks to Jason Engwer for making this connection.

[14] Albert Schweizter, “The Solution of Thoroughgoing Eschatology.” Pages 6-49 in. The Historical Jesus in Recent Research, ed. James D. G. Dunn and Scot McKnight. (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2005). 

[15] Witherington, End of the World, 40-41 (quotation from 41). 

[16] Ibid., 41. 

[17] Leopold Sabourin, “‘You Will Not Have Gone Through All the Towns of Israel, Before the Son of Man Comes’ (Mat 10:23b).” Biblical Theology Bulletin 7.1 (1977): 5-11. 

[18] Moore, Parousia, 143-144, see esp. n. 3. 

[19] Ibid., 145. 

[20] Stephen Witmer, “Keeping Eschatology and Ethics Together:

The Teaching of Jesus, the Work of Albert Schweitzer, and the Task of Evangelical Pastor-Theologians.” Themelios 39.3 (2014): 494. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Why I Think Papias Attributed the Fourth Gospel to John

Papias was a church elder in Hierapolis, a city in Asia Minor. His five-volume work, An Exposition of the Logia [1] of the Lord, is no longer extant, but parts of the work have been preserved in later writings, most notably Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History (HE). 

He is an important witness to the authorship of Matthew and Mark, his comments on which can be found in HE 3.39. But for whatever reason, we have no mention of the Gospel of John in Papias’s extant fragments. I am convinced, however, that we can reconstruct Papias’s view on the authorship of the Fourth Gospel through later sources dependent on him. If this is correct, it adds yet one more piece of external attestation to the Fourth Gospel’s authorship by John the apostle.

Prior evidence for Papias’s reliability 

And, I should add, a this would be a piece of attestation we have good reason to trust a priori. Some later writers thought that Papias was a disciple of John himself. Irenaeus calls Papias a “hearer of John” [2], Philip of Side says that Papias was a “disciple of John the theologian” [3], and the Anti-Marcionite Prologue to John calls him “John’s dear disciple”. However, the fragment attributed to Papias in HE 3.39.4 seems to suggest that he got his information from the disciples at one remove — Papias asks the “followers of the elders”, not the elders themselves, about the elders’ words. Even if Papias was not a disciple of John himself, he was at least only one remove from him. 


Papias was writing at an early time as well, much earlier than Theophilus of Antioch and Irenaeus, with whom discussions of external evidence for Johannine authorship often start. Robert Yarbrough has argued persuasively that Papias was writing between 95-110 AD, right at the close of the apostolic age. [4] Eusebius discusses Papias in book 3 of HE, where he discusses events no later than the reign of Trajan (97/98-117 AD), and in book 4 Eusebius opens up with the 12th year of Trajan’s reign (AD 109). Eusebius here places Papias as contemporaries of Polycarp and Ignatius, immediate successors of the apostles. [5] Yarbrough also writes: 

Eusebius’ Chronicon also furnishes a second and related clue for dating Papias. Eusebius places the aged apostle John, Papias, Polycarp, and Ignatius—in that order—in the same entry. Next to this entry Eusebius has, as part of his running table of dates, the year “100”. With this entry he concludes his treatment of the first century. Unquestionably Eusebius here links Papias with the apostle John as a Church leader at the close of the first century and as a contemporary of Ignatius and the young Polycarp. [6]

More importantly, Papias was gathering and compiling his material even earlier. In the fragment quoted in HE 3.39.4, he distinguishes between what the elders “had said” (εἶπεν, aorist tense) and what Aristion and John the Presbyter “were still saying” (λέγουσιν, present tense). When Papias was gathering information from the followers of the elders, John the presbyter was still alive. 

That this presbyter John is to be identified with John the son of Zebedee can be shown from a HE 3.39.4: 

And whenever anyone came who had been a follower of the elders, I asked about their words: what Andrew or Peter had said, or Phillip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and what Aristion and the presbyter John, disciples of the Lord, were still saying. [7]

It seems that Papias uses “disciples of the Lord” as a broader category which includes the Twelve as well as Aristion and the presbyter John. The phrase “or any other of the Lord’s disciples” follows Papias’s lists of the Twelve, and the synonymous phrase “disciples of the Lord” follows his listing of Aristion and the presbyter John. The category of “elder” seems to be confined to the Twelve, however. Immediately after speaking of “the elders” (τῶν πρεσβυτέρων), he proceeds to list members of the Twelve. The reason why Papias attaches the title of “presbyter/elder” (πρεσβύτερος) seems to be distinguish him as one of the Twelve from Aristion, who is not one of the Twelve. In short, the distinction Papias is making between those listed before καὶ (“and”) and those listed after is one of time, not apostolic status. Moreover, the article in the phrase ὁ πρεσβύτερος Ἰωάννης is best taken as anaphoric, so as to render the phrase something like “the aforementioned John”. If Eusebius were trying to introduce a new “elder John”, other than the John listed with other members of the Twelve, he would have written Ἰωάννης ὁ πρεσβύτερος. As it stands, the Greek syntax supports the interpretation that ὁ πρεσβύτερος Ἰωάννης is John son of Zebedee. [8] 

Thus John the son of Zebedee was still alive while Papias was inquiring of the followers of the elders, which means that he was compiling his material no later than 98 AD (AH 3.3.4), and probably earlier. What Papias reports concerning matters of first century Christiany, then, we have good reason to trust. (See [9] for the objection against Papias’s trustworthiness concerning his treatment of Judas’s death.)

Papias and the Fourth Gospel 

What exactly does Papias say concerning the authorship of the Fourth Gospel? 

To start, it is certain that Papias was at least familiar with John’s gospel, which the following fragment preserved by Eusebius shows: 

Along with the interpretations, I shall not hesitate to add all that I ever learned and carefully remembered from the elders, for I am sure of its truth. Unlike most, I did not delight in those who say much but in those who teach the truth; not in those who recite the commandments of others but in those who repeated the commandments given by the Lord. And whenever anyone came out who had been a follower of the elders, I asked about their words: what Andrew or Peter had said, or Phillip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and what Aristion and the presbyter John, disciples of the Lord, were still saying. For I did not think that information from books would help me as much as the word of a living, surviving voice. [10] 

The order in which Papias list the disciples — Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, and John — is the exact order in which they appear in John’s Gospel. [11]


But what did Papias say about Fourth Gospel? In the late second century, sometime after 180, the Anti-Marcionite Prologue to John reports that Papias had written that John dictated the Fourth Gospel: 

The gospel of John was published and given to the churches by John while he was still in the body, as Papias of Hierapolis, John’s dear disciple, has related in his five exoteric, [12] that is his last, books. He wrote down the gospel accurately at John’s dictation. But the heretic Marcion was rejected by John, having been condemned by him for his contrary views. Marcion had carried writings or letters to him from the brother in Pontus. [13] 

The only extant version of the Prologue is in Latin, and it is clearly a translation from a Greek text that is no longer extant. The statement that it was Papias who “wrote down the gospel accurately at John’s dictation” is certainly odd. F. F. Bruce, following Lightfoot, attempts to salvage the Prologue here and suggests that the word “He” in “He wrote down the gospel” was a mistranslation from an original “they”, either referring to “the churches”. He writes:

If Papias wrote apegraphon (imperfect tense), this could be either first person singular or third person plural. If he wrote apegrapsan (third person plural, aorist tense), this, in certain positions, could have been written apegrapsā, which then, by the obscuring of the stroke above the final letter, was misread apegrapsa (first person singular). [14]

As ingenious as this reconstruction is, it is unlikely that an original third person plural pronoun referring to “the churches” stood behind the text’s current “He”, because the author identifies “the churches” as those who receive the gospel, not those who publish it. It is more likely that the Prologue is simply mistaken that Papias wrote the Fourth Gospel. Nevertheless, we may justifiably cite the Prologue’s claim that Papias related the Fourth Gospel to John because it coheres with other evidence from sources that used Papias, which we now explore.

One of these sources is the Muratorian Fragment (MF). From numerous points of contact occur between the MF and Papias, we can infer a dependance of the former on the latter. [15]

1) In HE 3.39.15, Papias excuses Mark’s gospel for its lack of “order” (τάξει), citing the fact that Mark “neither heard the Lord nor followed him”. The author of the MF says that John wrote the “marvelous deeds of the Lord” in the Fourth Gospel “in their order” (per ordinem). In both accounts, the writer is explaining a Gospel in terms of order and eyewitness authority; for each Gospel, however, opposite answers are given: Mark is out of “order” because Mark isn’t an eyewitness, and John is in “order” because John is an eyewitness. Could the Fragment be preserving what Papias said about the Gospel of John in comparison to Mark’s gospel? Consider as well the first line of the Muratorian Fragment. It is cut off at what appears to be the end of a discussion of the Gospel of Mark. It reads: “…at which nevertheless he was present, and so he placed [them in his narrative].” This line, however fragmented, makes sense if we again compare it to what Papias says about Mark in HE 3.39.15 — specifically, that Mark was present at the preaching of Peter. In this case the Fragment would plausibly be preserving both Papias’s discussion of Mark and his discussion of John, and his comparison of both Gospels concerning “order” and eyewitness authority. 

2) Both accounts are concerned with “different beginnings”. The MF says that “though different beginnings may be taught in the individual books of the Gospels, nevertheless this makes no difference to the faith of believers”. [16] The Fragment also says of Luke: “Yet he himself had not seen the Lord in the flesh; [17] and therefore, as he was able to ascertain events, so indeed he begins to tell the story from the birth of John.” The MF’s concern to excuse the Gospels’ different beginnings parallels Papias’s use of the word τάξις. The word is τάξις best understood as referring not to chronology [18] but literary arrangement, in the sense used by the rhetorical schools. [19] For example, Dionysius of Halicarnassus in his critique of Thucydides writes: “Some blame his τάξις on the grounds that he did not adopt the proper beginning for his history, or give it its proper conclusion.” A proper beginning, writes Dionysus, is “a point which nothing could possibly precede”, and a proper conclusion is “an ending which is felt to have nothing lacking.” [20] Understanding τάξις to refer to literary arrangement rather than chronology also explains why Papias says that Matthew “arranged together [συνετάξατο]” the logia of Jesus in the Hebrew language. Here he affirms that Matthew has τάξις but not Mark, even though the two gospels are similar chronologically. [21] Papias may have in mind Mark’s abrupt beginning with John the Baptist as opposed to Matthew’s beginning with the genealogy and Virgin Birth. [22] (See my blog post here for more detail on Papias’s τάξις).

3) Not only is there conceptual interlocking between these two sources, but also similar vocabulary is used. Papias says that Mark wrote “some things [ἔνια] just as he recalled them” even though he wasn’t an eyewitness; The MF says that John wrote “particular points” (singula) because he was an eyewitness. 

4) Eusebius tells us in HE 3.39.16 that “Papias also used evidence from 1 John and 1 Peter”. The author of the MF, interestingly enough, cites 1 John in order to prove that John was an eyewitness of Jesus who wrote down Jesus’ deeds “in their order”. 

5) The Fragment states that John’s fellow disciples and bishops “had been urging” (cohortantibus) him to write a Gospel. While this statement finds no parallel in any extant writing of Papias, it does parallel a statement which Eusebius attributes to Clement of Alexandria and says is also supported by Papias (HE 2.15, cf. 6.14.7). Eusebius says of Clement’s account: 

Peter’s hearers, not satisfied with a single hearing or with the unwritten teaching of the divine message, pleaded with Mark, whose Gospel we have, to leave them a written summary of the teaching given them verbally, since he was a follower of Peter. Nor did they cease until they persuaded him and so caused the writing of what is called the Gospel of Mark… Clement quotes the story in Outlines, Book 6, and Bishop Papias of Hierapolis confirms it. [23]

In both cases, the writer describes a Gospel as having been written by the initiation of others. John was “urged” to write because of his “disciples”; Mark was “persuaded” to write because of Peter’s “hearers”.


A fairly strong case can be mounted for the hypothesis that Papias affirmed the Fourth Gospel’s authorship by John. The Anti-Marcionite Prologue to John says so explicitly, and its testimony is confirmed by the MF’s probable dependence on Papias’s information about John. These points therefore add to the weight of the external evidence for the Fourth Gospel’s authorship by one of the Twelve. 


[1] This is a hard word to translate; some translators prefer “oracles” or “sayings”.

[2] AH 5.33.4.

[3] Codex Baroccianus 142, cited by N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird, The New Testament in its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2019), 654 n. 25.

[4] Robert Yarbrough, “The Date of Papias: A Reassessment.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 26, no. 2 (1983): 181-191.

[5] HE 3.36.1-2. “Celebrated at that time in Asia was a companion of the apostles, Polycarp, who had been appointed Bishop of Smyrna by the eyewitnesses and ministers of the Lord. Distinguished contemporaries of his were Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis, and Ignatius, still a famed name as second after Peter to succeed to the bishopric of Antioch.” Trans. Paul L. Meier, Eusebius: The Church History. (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2007).

[6] Yarbrough, “Date of Papias”, 186.

[7] Trans. Meier, Eusebius, 112.

[8] See C. S. Petrie, “The Authorship of the ‘Gospel According to Matthew’: A Reconsideration of the External Evidence,” NTS 14 (1967-68): 21.

[9] One might counter this claim with evidence that Papias reports a clearly exaggerated tale of Judas’s death. For an analysis of this evidence, see Stephen C. Carlson, Papias of Hierapolis, Exposition of the Dominical Oracles: The Fragments, Testimonia, and Reception of a Second-Century Commentator. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 40-56. According to the fourth-century commentator Apollinarius of Laodicea, Papias wrote that “Judas was a terrible, walking example of ungodliness in this world, his flesh so bloated that he was not able to pass through a place where a wagon passes easily, not even his bloated head by itself. For his eyelids, they say (φασί)... [here he goes on to swollen and sunken eyes, bloated genitals with pus and worms coming out, and a death that stunk]” (40-41). But this quotation is suspect because it derives from a lost fourth-century commentary, and “[a]ll that remains of it are scattered quotations and plagiarisms by later commentators and cantina compilers”. Stephen Carlson is convinced that Papias only wrote, “Judas walked around as a great example of ungodliness in this world, as his flesh got so bloated that he could not pass through a place where a wagon passes through easily” (125). He writes, “The following sensational description — signaled by a change in information with φασί (“they say”) — cannot be independently traced back to Papias and probably belongs to the fourth-century sources of Apollinaris. In fact, it has more to do with the gruesome death of Galerius, which Eusebius and Lactantius declaimed in lurid detail. Both Galerius and... Apollinaris’s Judas enjoyed the well-deserved ‘deaths of the persecutors’ of popular imagination in the soil of the fourth century after the end of the Great Persecution” (56). What remains of Papias’s quotation can plausibly be explained “as a pedagogical example for other Christians about the dangers of greed”, according to Candida Moss, “A Note on the Death of Judas in Papias” NTS 65, no. 3 (2019): 388-397. For an explanation of Papias’s rhetoric as “ekphrasis”, see Christopher B. Zeichmann, “Papias as Rhetorician: Ekphrasis in the Bishop’s Account of Judas’ Death.” NTS 56 (2010): 427-229.

[10] Trans. Meier, Eusebius, 112.

[11] O’Connell concludes that “the odds that this correspondence is not by chance are greater than 99 percent.” Jake H. O’Connell, “A Note of Papias’s Knowledge of the Fourth Gospel.” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 4 (2010): 794. In reply to O’Connell, see Nevin Climenhaga, “Papias’s Prologue and the Probability of Parallels.” Journal of Biblical Literature 139, no. 3 (2020): 591-596.

[12] Bruce notes: “The Greek adjective exēgētikois was evidently corrupted to exōterikos (‘external’), which was taken over into the Latin version (exotersis) and explained by the Latin adjective externis; externis was then corrupted in the Latin transmission to extremis (‘last’).” F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 156.

[13] Trans. as found in Bruce, Canon, 156. 

[14] Bruce, Canon, 156 n. 21.

[15] Many of the following points are noted by Charles E. Hill, “What Papias Said About John (and Luke): a ‘New’ Papian Fragment.” The Journal of Theological Studies 49, no. 2, (1998): 586-587; Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Second Edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017) 427-428.

[16] I have chosen to use Charles Hill’s translation of varia principia as “different beginnings” because the Fragment is clearly concerned with Luke’s “beginning”: “Yet he himself [Luke] had not seen the Lord in the flesh; and therefore, as he was able to ascertain events, so indeed he begins to tell the story from the birth of John.” See Hill, “What Papias Said”, 586 n. 13. Eckhard J. Schnabel, “The Muratorian Fragment: the State of Research.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 57.2 (2014): 236-238, translates varia... principia as “various elements”. 

[17] Note how the MF here parallels Papias in the way that a Gospel writer who isn’t a direct eyewitness is excused. 

[18] Alistair Stewart-Sykes, “Τάξει in Papias: Again.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 3, no. 4, (1995), 489. Citing Philostratus’s appraisal of Apollonius’s accuracy τοῖς δὲ χρόνοις, he notes that ancient historians used different words when referring to chronology.

[19] See F. H Colson, “Τάξει in Papias. (The Gospels and the Rhetorical Schools.)” The Journal of Theological Studies 14.53 (1912): 62-69.

[20] On Thucydides 10. Trans. as found in Colson, “Τάξει in Papias”, 65.

[21] Trans. Dean Furlong, “Theodore of Mopsuestia: New Evidence for the Proposed Papian Fragment in Hist. eccl. 3.24.5-13.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 39.2 (2016): 217. I am assuming here that Papias is referring to the Gospel of Matthew of as we have it today, or at least a version of Matthew whose τάξις doesn’t vary substantially from our Greek text.

[22] Colson, “Τάξει in Papias”, gives five reasons Papias might have affirmed Matthew’s τάξις but not Mark’s: “...(1) his abrupt beginning, (2) his incomplete ending, (3) his habit of emphasizing trivial points and occasionally dealing inadequately with important ones, (4) the comparative absence of set speeches, (5) his inferior grouping, presents a complete contrast to the other” (67).

[23] Trans. Meier, Eusebius, 64.