Debate: External Evidence for Jesus – Part 2

Debate: External Evidence for Jesus – Part 2 July 1, 2016

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NOTE: This post is now complete, as of 11:25 pm pacific time on Saturday, July 2, 2016.

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The first sentence of Joe Hinman’s argument from the external evidence of Papias makes a very dubious claim:

Papias was the student of the Apostle John.

By this, Hinman means that Papias had personal, face-to-face conversations with the Apostle John.

This claim was explicitly rejected by Eusebius, the the first historian of Christianity:

Yet Papias himself, in the preface to his discourses, indicates that he was by no means a hearer or eyewitness of the holy apostles, but shows by the language he uses that he received the matters of the faith from those who had known them… (Church History 3.39 quoted in: The Apostolic Fathers, edited & revised by Michael Holmes, p.563)

Hinman quotes from the Anchor Bible Dictionary article by William Schoedel on “Papias (PERSON)”.  In that article Schoedel agrees with the view of Eusebius that Papias was NOT an “eyewitness of the holy apostles”:

Eusebius already doubted the reality of a connection between Papias and the apostle John on the grounds that Papias himself in the preface to his book distinguished the apostle John from John the presbyter and seems to have had significant contact only with John the presbyter and a certain Aristion (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.3-7). …Eusebius’ analysis of the preface is probably correct…

Schoedel is not the only scholar who accepts the view of Eusebius.  An N.T. scholar who has looked carefully into this issue has also concluded that Papias did not have direct contact with John the apostle.  Richard Bauckham has examined this issue and provided a careful translation of the passage from Eusebius that quotes from the preface of Papias’ book:

I shall not hesitate also to put into ordered form for you, along with the interpretations, everything I learned carefully in the past from the elders and noted down carefully, for the truth of which I vouch. For unlike most people I took no pleasure in those who told many different stories, but only in those who taught the truth. Nor did I take pleasure in those who reported their memory of someone else’s commandments, but only in those who reported their memory of the commandments given by the Lord to the faith and proceeding from the Truth itself. And if by chance anyone who had been in attendance on the elders arrived, I made enquiries about the words of the elders – [that is] what [according to the elders] Andrew or Peter said, or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples [said], and whatever Aristion and John the Elder, the Lord’s disciples, were saying. For I did not think that information from the books would profit me as much as information from a living and surviving voice. ( Papias and the Gospels” by Richard Bauckham, October 6, 2012, p.11.  Phrases in brackets were provided by Bauckham as part of his translation of the passage.)

Bauckham provides this footnote about the translation of this passage:

My translation. Compared with my translation in Jesus, 15-16, based largely on Lightfoot, Harmer and Holmes, this is a more careful translation that embodies in a number of ways what I consider to be my better understanding of the passage in the light of further study.

Based on Bauckham’s translation and interpretation of this passage, Papias implies that there are several layers between him and Jesus (click on the image below for a clearer view of the chart):

Chain of Tradition

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That there were at least this many layers between Jesus and Papias makes perfect sense, given that Papias was probably writing between 110 and 130 CE.  If we suppose that there was an average of twenty-five years for each succeeding generation of Christian- tradition keepers, this puts Papias as receiving the Christian oral traditions about Jesus and the apostles shortly before 110 CE (click on the image below for a clearer view of the chart):

 25-Year Generational Cycle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Given that “John the Elder” is presumably a member of the group called “the elders”,  this implies that “John the Elder” received his information about Jesus from the apostles, just like the other people referred to as “the elders”, and NOT directly from Jesus.

In addition to probably being a member of the group called “the elders”, who received oral traditions “from” the apostles, the person “John the Elder” is presumably situated a couple of generations prior to Papias, and based on the reasonable estimate of a 25-year cycle for passing oral traditions on to the next generation of Christian-tradition keepers, this puts “John the Elder” and other elders (such as Aristion) chronologically about halfway between Jesus and Papias in the chain of Christian-tradition keepers.

So, we have at least two good reasons for doubting the claim that “John the Elder” (and Aristion) had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus.  Thus, we have good reason to suspect that (assuming that “John the Elder” and Aristion are being called “the Lord’s disciples”)  the expression “the Lord’s disciples” does not logically imply that they had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus.

Presumably (in the view of Papias), the apostles had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus, and Papias is claiming to have had personal, face-to-face conversations with people “who had been in attendance on the elders” or (based on the translation Hinman provides) with people  each of whom “had been a follower of the elders”.

But it is unclear whether “a follower of the elders” had face-to-face conversations with the elders, and it is unclear whether the elders had face-to-face conversations with the apostles.   For a decade of my life,  I considered myself to be a “follower” of Jesus, and a “disciple” of Jesus, but I never had a face-to-face conversation with Jesus, at least not with a physical, flesh-and-blood historical Jesus.  At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the risen Jesus commands his closest followers to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).  Clearly, Jesus did not expect to have physical, face-to-face conversations with every convert to Christianity.  Jesus believed that a person could be a “follower” or “disciple” of a man who was unavailable for face-to-face conversations.

In the book of Acts, Luke says that Saul (who became the apostle Paul) was making “murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” (Acts 9:1, NIV).  But it is clear that Saul was not just persecuting the apostles, but rather anyone who was “among those who call on this name ” (Acts 9:21) [i.e. the name of Jesus].  Saul was persecuting any Jew who converted to the Christian faith.  Most such Jews never had a face-to-face conversation with a physical, flesh-and-blood Jesus of Nazareth.  The expressions “disciple” and “follower” do not, in and of themselves, logically imply the occurance of personal, face-to-face conversations.

We have only a few brief quotes from Papias, and he does not provide a definition or clarification of what he means by “a follower of X”  or “a disciple of X”, so we cannot be sure that these expressions imply that personal, face-to-face conversations occurred between, for example “a follower of the elders” and one or more of “the elders”.   Nor can we be confident that “John the Elder” had personal, face-to-face conversations with the apostles or with Jesus.

If the average generational cycle was 20 years instead of 25 years, then there would be room for an additional generation of “elders” between the apostles and the followers of the elders (click on the image below for a clearer view of the chart):

20-Year Generational Cycle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Based on Bauckham’s general interpretation of this passage from the preface of the book by Papias, and given the unclarity of whether “followers” or “disciples” implies personal, face-to-face conversations, it is likely that there are either three generations (Apostles–>Elders–>Followers of Elders)  or four generations (Apostles–>1st Generation Elders–>2nd Generation Elders–>Followers of Elders) in the chain of Christian-tradition keepers between the Jesus and Papias.

Hinman admits that there is uncertainty as to whether Papias had contact with John the Apostle or John the Elder or both.  So, he broadens the basic premise of his argument to include both possibilities.

Here is how I would summarize Hinman’s argument concerning Papias (at least initially):

The Argument from the External Evidence of Papias

(1) Either Papias had personal, face-to-face conversations with John the Apostle, or Papias had personal, face-to-face conversations with John the Elder.

(2) John the Apostle had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus.

(3) John the Elder had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus.

THEREFORE:

(4) Papias had personal, face-to-face conversations with someone who had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus.

(5)  If Papias had personal, face-to-face conversations with someone who had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus, then Jesus was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person.

THEREFORE:

(6) Jesus was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person.

I have already indicated some significant reasons to doubt the truth of premises (1) and (3).

As it stands, this argument clearly begs the question.  In order to know that premise (2) was true, or that premise (3) was true, one would have to first know that Jesus existed, that Jesus was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person.  So, the assertion of premise (2) begs the question at issue, as does the assertion of premise (3).

But it would be unfair to charge Hinman with the fallacy of begging the question, because he did not clearly and explicitly lay out this argument.  This argument is my attempt to get at the unstated reasoning that bridges the logical gap between (1) and (6).  So, the problem of question-begging points to the need to revise the argument, to attempt to reformulate the argument in a way that does not so clearly and obviously beg the question at issue.  Such a revised version of this argument would more fairly be attributed to Hinman.

Presumably, Hinman would admit the possibility that John the Apostle (or John the Elder) was a deceiver who lied about having had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus, when no such conversations had actually taken place.  Presumably, Hinman would also admit the possibility that John the Apostle (or John the Elder) honestly believed that he had had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus, but was honestly mistaken about this belief.  Perhaps someone had deceived John the Apostle (or John the Elder) by pretending to be “Jesus of Nazareth” when in fact there was no “Jesus of Nazareth”.

Presumably, Hinman would also admit the possibility that John the Apostle (or John the Elder) communicated truthfully and honestly to Papias about their experiences and memories, but there was a miscommunication or misunderstanding by Papias in which Papias thought that John the Apostle (or John the Elder) was claiming to have had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus, when no such claim had been asserted or intended (e.g. perhaps John the Apostle had visions or dreams about Jesus in which he had conversations with Jesus, and his descriptions of these experiences were misunderstood by Papias as being ordinary memories of physical events).

Hinman would, presumably, admit that these are all possibilities in which his argument would fail, but Hinman would argue that these skeptical scenarios are unlikely, and that it is more likely the case that there was a truthful and accurate claim made by John the Apostle (or John the Elder) to Papias about having had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus.

So, the above argument needs to be revised to take into account the idea that Hinman would (presumably) allow the possibility of the various skeptical scenarios that I  just described.  One way to modify the argument for this purpose would be to revise premises (2) and (3) to be about claims made by John the Apostle or John the Elder.  However, if we modify (2) and (3), then we also must modify premises (4) and (5) in order to maintain the logical correctness (validity) of the argument, as well as the conclusion (6):

The Argument from the External Evidence of Papias (Rev. A)

(1) Either Papias had personal, face-to-face conversations with John the Apostle, or Papias had personal, face-to-face conversations with John the Elder.

(2A) John the Apostle claimed to have had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus.

(3A) John the Elder claimed to have had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus.

THEREFORE:

(4A) Papias had personal, face-to-face conversations with someone who had claimed to have had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus.

(5A)  If Papias had personal, face-to-face conversations with someone who claimed to have had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus, then it is probable that Jesus was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person.

THEREFORE:

(6A) It is probable that Jesus was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person.

With this revision, however, new problems appear.  Premise (5A) is doubtful.  Just because someone has claimed to have had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus does not mean that it is probable that this is the case.  To the extent that there were many Jews who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the messiah, the divine Son of God, and the savior of mankind, the claim to have had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus would have been an easy way to gain favor, power, and influence among those people.

Furthermore, what is the evidence that shows that John the Apostle claimed to have had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus?  The Gospels assert or imply this was the case, but we don’t know whether John the Apostle read any of the Gospels.  He might well have died before any of the Gospels were written.  Furthermore, even if he had read one or more of the Gospels, we don’t have any good historical evidence indicating that this happened and what his reaction was to those Gospels.  The problem is even more challenging when it comes to “John the Elder”  since we have virtually no information about this person.  So, premises (2A) and (3A) also seem doubtful, thus rasing doubts about premise (4A) which is inferred from (2A) and (3A).

It would be more fair to attribute the Rev. A version of this argument to Hinman than to attribute the initial argument to him.  However, there are various significant problems with the Rev. A version, even though it avoids clearly and obviously begging the question in the way that the initial version of the argument did.  Given the significant problems with the Rev. A version of the argument, and given that this argument was not clearly and explicitly stated by Hinman, I hesitate to attribute it to Hinman.

It might be that Rev. A is the argument Hinman had in mind, but there is a good chance that he had some other argument in mind, some other bit of reasoning to bridge the gap between premise (1) and the conclusion (6A).   I could continue attempting to make adjustments to the above argument, or to generate other potential arguments, but I think it would be more reasonable to throw the ball back into Hinman’s court and ask that he clarify his argument by explaining how it is that (1) is relevant to (6A).  Apart from such clarification, I might just be wasting my time tilting at windmills.

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There are a few more points in Hinman’s post on Papias that I want to specifically address.

POINT 1:

Does that [i.e. the view that Papias only had contact with John the Elder and not John the Apostle] weaken the case for the connection to Jesus?  I don’t think so because Aristion and elder John knew Jesus, they are called disciples.  He probably knew both [i.e both “Johns”] but if he only knew they [sic] latter two they were disciples.

The word “disciples” does NOT imply personal, face-to-face conversations with the teacher in question.  Hinman has not provided an argument showing that the word “disciples” has this meaning, nor that Papias uses the word with this meaning.  Given that we have only a few fragments of second-hand quotes of Papias, I doubt that there is sufficient evidence available to construct a plausible argument for this claim.

POINT 2:

There are indications from Eusebius that Papias had extended contact with the Elder John and with other disciples.  Eusebius writes “in his writings he trasmits other narratives of the words of the Lord which came form [sic] the afore mentioned Aristion and others which came from John the Elder”  moreover he goes on, “the elder used to say this also: … ” And here Eusebius is quoting Papias.  This phrase “the elder used to say…” indicates a personal acquaintance in more than one meeting.

The phrase “the elder used to say…” does NOT imply “personal acquaintance” nor does it imply that the speaker had ANY meetings with “the elder”.   This should be fairly obvious, but if not, one can simply refer to a quote from Irenaeus, which was provided by Hinman in his post on Papias:

Just as the Elders who saw John the disciple of the Lord, recalled hearing from him how concerning these times he used to teach that the Lord would say: … (part of a quotation by Hinman from Against Heresies 5.33.3-4, emphasis added)

By Hinman’s logic the phrase “he used to teach that…” implies that Irenaeus had personal, face-to-face conversations with John “the disciple of the Lord” (i.e. John the Apostle).  But clearly, Irenaeus did NOT have any such conversations, and never claimed to have any such conversations.  So, use of the phrase “he used to teach” does NOT imply that Irenaeus had face-to-face conversations with John the Apostle, and use of the phrase “the elder used to say” does NOT imply that Papias had any face-to-face conversations with John the Elder or with Aristion.

POINT 3:

Moreover, he changes tenses when he speaks of Aristion and Elder John, the [sic] he speaks in present tense, as though he’s still in contact with them.

Use of the present tense could indicate that Aristion and John the Elder were still alive at the time that Papias was inquiring the followers of Aristion and John the Elder about their knowledge of the sayings of the Apostles.  The translation by Bauckham says Papias was asking about what Aristion and John the Elder “were saying”, which is compatible with the idea of refering to a time in the past when Papias was inquiring about the words of Aristion and John the Elder who were (at that time in the past) still alive.  That time in the past might be several years  or even a decade prior to the time Papias got around to writing his book.

POINT 4:

…and he [i.e. Papias] moreover asserts that he heard in person Aristion and the presbyter John.  Accordingly he mentions them frequently by name, and in his writings gives their traditions. …  (part of a quote from Eusebius provided by Hinman)

Note that this does not appear to be a quotation of Papias by Eusebius, but rather an interpretation of Papias by Eusebius.  Since we are not given the exact words of Papias, we are being asked to rely on Eusebius to correctly interpret the words of Papias.  But what follows the word “Accordingly” appears to be the reason or reasons that are the basis for this interpretation: “he mentions them frequently by name” and “in his writings gives their traditions”.  If these are the reasons for this inference, then they are weak reasons, and that raises significant doubts about the inference or interpretation provided by Eusebius about what Papias was asserting.  Furthermore, if Papias did in fact have face-to-face conversations with Aristion and John the Elder, we would expect him to have mentioned that in his preface, rather than to imply that he received his information from people who were “followers of the elders”.  So, this is a second reason to doubt the interpretation provided by Eusebius in the above quote.

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