Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses - Part 18
Chapter 9. Papias on Mark and Matthew
While many scholars, though not all (e.g. Hengel, Byrskog etc.), have doubted the usefulness of the evidence from Papias concerning the origin of the Gospel of Mark, Bauckham provides in this chapter good reason to reject what he calls such ‘gratuitous scepticism’. He considers the most important argument in his favour the manner in which the Gospel of Mark itself indicates Peter as the principal eyewitness source, especially as it appears that Luke and John ‘both understood Mark to be making this claim’ (cf. chapters 6 and 7). Indeed, one of the major contributions of this whole book is that Papias’ statements have been thrust back on stage as credible evidence.
What does it mean, however, when Papias claims Mark was Peter’s ‘interpreter’ (this being the most likely translation of the Greek)? A ‘translator’ in those days could interpret very flexibly. For example, Josephus, Bauckham notes, claimed that his Antiquities (cf. Ant. 1.5, 17; 4.196) was simply a translation of the Hebrew scriptures! However, Bauckham argues that Papias, unlike Josephus, appeared to understand translation in a stricter sense and was ‘scrupulously accurate in reproducing Peter’s oral testimony’. Bauckham further argues that Papias was called Peter’s interpreter ‘not in the sense that he acted as such when Peter was teaching orally, but in the sense that he translated Peter’s words when he and Peter engaged in a process of setting them down in writing’.
However, this involves an understanding of the key words for recalling and relating from memory in Papias that many reject. These scholars will argue that the one doing the recalling is Mark, not Peter. However, while this is grammatically possible, Bauckham argues that Papias’ line of reasoning requires that Peter be the subject of the relevant verbs. Indeed, read in this way it is further evidence that Papias used ‘technical or semi-technical terms from literary and rhetorical discussion’.
Another couple of points of translation are then made in relation to the words chreiai, suntaxin and logia. The first surprise involves Bauckham’s discussion of the latter, which concludes with the claim that it refers not to ‘“sayings of the Lord” or “prophetic oracles of the Lord” or “prophetic oracles about the Lord,” but something like “short reports of what the Lord said and did”’. He then proceeds to argue that chreiai be best understood – so long as it is understood flexibly –, in light of Theon’s examples, as ‘brief narratives containing only actions, as brief narratives containing only sayings, and mixed types containing both actions and sayings’, for which the English term ‘anecdote’ would be the best translation. This discussion of chreiai leads to the conclusion that ‘There is no reason why the basic form of many of the chreiai in Mark should not have been given them by Peter in his oral rehearsing of the words and deeds of Jesus’.
Papias opines Mark’s lack of order. While Mark, for Papias, did very well according to good historiographical practice of faithfully recording his eyewitness source (Peter), it stopped short of being a true work of history given that it attempted no aesthetic arrangement or continuous narrative (suntaxis) of the chreiai.
And what does Papias say of Matthew and John? His descriptions always involve comment on two stages: the activity of an eyewitness (i.e. the question origin) and that of non-eyewitnesses (involving the question of the ‘order’ of the traditions). In doing this Papias wants to maintain that both Mark and Matthew lack proper order, which implies that Papias is making a comparison with another Gospel that differs in terms of chronology significantly from either Matthew or Mark. Bauckham suggests that it is likely that Papias’ measuring rod was John’s Gospel (especially plausible if, as Bauckham has argued earlier, Papias knew John’s Gospel). In summary, Bauckham proposes that:
‘[W]e find that Papias was contrasting the lack of order in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew with the order to be found in the Gospel of John. He took for granted that all three Gospels originated from eyewitness testimony, but, whereas the Gospel of John was actually written by an eyewitness, the Gospels of Mark and Matthew (in the form available to Papias) were at one stage of transmission removed from the direct report of the eyewitness in question himself’.Perhaps, Bauckham speculates, ‘it would have been the initial “publication” of the Gospel of John that required some such comment on the most obvious difference between this Gospel and those of Mark and Matthew’. In chapter 15 Bauckham will return to the evidence in John’s Gospel itself that seeks to establish ‘its author’s claim to offer eyewitness testimony additional and in some respects superior to that of the much better known eyewitness Peter, embodied in Mark’s Gospel’.
However, isn’t Papias simply wrong about what he says about Mark’s Gospel as evidencing no ‘order’? And doesn’t this throw a spanner in the works if much of the previous argumentation is based upon a fresh appreciation of Papias’ historical usefulness? Bauckham is forthright: ‘Papias’s contention that Mark did no more than record, with scrupulous accuracy, the chreiai as Peter related them, is mistaken’. However, and building on the work of Joanna Dewey, Bauckham argues that Papias is rejecting a certain type of ‘order’ in Mark’s Gospel. While Mark does structure his narrative in ways ‘characteristic of oral composition’ and appears to be based on an ‘already existing oral narrative’ (even if it be refined in writing), in light of such ‘ordering’ it is easier to understand ‘how easy it was for Papias to exaggerate Mark’s lack of order’. It would appear that this is not an order that Papias wanted to recognise. Furthermore, his ‘exaggeration also served his purpose well. Papias was engaged in explaining the differences between John’s Gospel and Mark’s in a way that favoured John’s “order” without denigrating Mark’s Gospel’.
Bauckham ends the chapter by noting a couple of independent sources that may, without any degree of certainty, provide further support that Mark was understood as Peter’s Gospel (he mentions Dial. 106.3 and Justin Martyr’s description of this Gospel as ‘the memoirs’ of Peter earlier). First, he notes Saying 13 of the Gospel of Thomas arguing that if ‘Matthew in this passage represents Matthew’s Gospel, then it becomes highly likely that Peter represents Mark’s Gospel’. Second he mentions the slightly ambiguous evidence found in the words of Clement of Alexandria (Str. 7.106.4). While these do not make the argument clear-cut, ‘evidence for the association of Peter with Mark’s Gospel independent of Papias ... are quite strong’.