Bishop of Hierapolis (close to Laodicea and Colossae in the valley of the Lycus in Phrygia) and Apostolic Father, called by St. Irenaeus "a hearer of John, and companion of Polycarp, a man of old time". He wrote a work in five books, logion kyriakon exegesis, of which all but some fragments is lost. We learn something of the contents from the preface, part of which has been preserved by Eusebius (III, xxix):
I will not hesitate to add also for you to my interpretations what I formerly learned with care from the Presbyters and have carefully stored in memory, giving assurance of its truth. For I did not take pleasure as the many do in those who speak much, but in those who teach what is true, nor in those who relate foreign precepts, but in those who relate the precepts which were given by the Lord to the faith and came down from the Truth itself. And also if any follower of the Presbyters happened to come, I would inquire for the sayings of the Presbyters, what Andrew said, or what Peter said, or what Philip or what Thomas or James or what John or Matthew or any other of the Lord's disciples, and for the things which other of the Lord's disciples, and for the things which Aristion and the Presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, were saying. For I considered that I should not get so much advantage from matter in books as from the voice which yet lives and remains.
From this we learn that Papias's book consisted mainly of "interpretations"—it was a kind of commentary on the "Logia of the Lord".
The word logia, meaning "oracles", is frequently at the present day taken to refer to sayings, as opposed to narratives of Our Lord's actions (so Zahn and many others). But Lightfoot showed long ago (Essays on Supernatural Religion, 171-7) that this view is untenable. Philo used the word for any part of the inspired writings of the Old Testament, whether speech or narrative. St. Paul, Irenaeus, Clement, Origen, even Photius, have no other usage. St. Irenaeus speaks of corrupting the oracles of the Lord just as Dionysius of Corinth speaks of corrupting the Scriptures of the Lord. Logia kyriaka in Papias, in Irenaeus, in Photius, means "the divine oracles" of the Old or New Testament or both. Besides these "interpretations", Papias added oral traditions of two kinds: some he had himself heard from the Presbyters, para ton presbyteron; others he had at second hand from disciples of the Presbyters who happened to visit him at Hierapolis. The Presbyters related what the "disciples of the Lord"—Peter, Andrew etc.,—used to say in old days. Other informants of Papias's visitors were still living, "Aristion and John the Presbyter, the disciples of the Lord", as is shown by the present tense, legousin. We naturally assume that Papias counted them also among the direct informants whom he had mentioned before, for as they lived at Ephesus and Smyrna, not far off, he would surely know them personally.
However, many eminent critics—Zahn and Lightfoot, and among Catholics, Funk, Bardenhewer, Michiels, Gutjahr, Batiffol, Lepin—identify the Presbyters with Andrew, Peter etc., thus making them Apostles, for they understand "what Andrew and Peter and the rest said" as epexegetic of "the words of the Presbyters". This is impossible, for Papias had just spoken of what he learned directly from the Presbyters, ora pote para ton presbyteron kalos emathon, yet it is admitted that he could not have known many apostles.
Again, he seems to distinguish the sayings of the disciples of the Lord, Aristion and John, from those of the Presbyters, as though the latter were not disciples of the Lord.
Lastly, Irenaeus and Eusebius, who had the work of Papias before them, understand the Presbyters to be not Apostles, but disciples of disciples of the Lord, or even disciples of disciples of Apostles. The same meaning is given to the word by Clement of Alexandria. We are therefore obliged to make "what Andrew and Peter and the rest said" not co-ordinate with but subordinate to "the sayings of the Presbyters", thus: "I would inquire for the sayings of the Presbyters, what (they related that) Andrew and Peter and the rest said, and for the things Aristion and John were saying".
Eusebius has caused a further difficulty by pointing out that two Johns are mentioned, one being distinguished by the epithet presbyter from the other who is obviously the Apostle. The historian adds that Dionysius of Alexandria said he heard there were two tombs of John at Ephesus. This view has been adopted by practically all liberal critics and by such conservatives as Lightfoot and Westcott. But Zahn and most Catholic and Orthodox writers agree that Dionysius was mistaken about the tomb, and that Eusebius's interpretation of Papias's words is incorrect. For he says that Papias frequently cited John the Presbyter; yet it is certain that Irenaeus, who had a great veneration for the work of Papias, took him to mean John the Apostle; and Irenaeus had personal knowledge of Asiatic tradition and could not have been ignorant of the existence of John the presbyter, if there ever was such a person in Asia. Again, Irenaeus tells us that the Apostle lived at Ephesus until the time of Trajan, that he wrote the Apocalypse in the last days of Domitian.
Irenaeus had heard Polycarp relate his reminiscences of the Apostle. Justin, who was at Ephesus about 130-5, asserts that the Apostle was the author of the Apocalypse (and therefore the head of the Asiatic Churches). But if the Apostle lived at Ephesus at so late a date, (and it cannot be doubted with any show of reason), he would naturally be the most important of Papias's witnesses. Yet if Eusebius is right, it would seem that John the Presbyter was his chief informant, and that the had no sayings of the Apostle to relate. Again, "The Presbyter" who wrote I and II John has the name of John in all MSS., and is identified with the Apostle by Irenaeus and Clement, and is certainly (by internal evidence) the writer of the fourth Gospel, which is attributed to the Apostle by Irenaeus and all tradition. Again, Polycrates of Ephesus, in recounting the men who were the glories of Asia, has no mention of John the presbyter, but of "John, who lay upon the Lord's breast", undoubtedly meaning the Apostle. The second John at Ephesus is an unlucky conjecture of Eusebius.
A fragment is, however, attributed to Papias which states that "John the theologian and James his brother were killed by the Jews". It is not possible that Papias should really have said this, otherwise Eusebius must have quoted it and Irenaeus could not have been ignorant of it. There is certainly some error in the quotation. Either something has been omitted, or St. John Baptist was meant. That St. John is mentioned twice in the list of Papias's authorities is explained by the distinction between his earlier sayings which the Presbyters could repeat and the last utterances of his old age which were reported by visitors from Ephesus.
The most important fragment of Papias is that in which he gives an account of St. Mark from the words of the Presbyter, obviously St. John. It is a defense of St. Mark, attesting the perfect accuracy with which he wrote down the teachings of St. Peter, but admitting that he did not give a correct order. It is interesting to note that (as Dr. Abbott has shown) the fourth Gospel inserts or refers to every incident given in St. Mark which St. Luke has passed over. The prologue of St. Luke is manifestly cited in the fragment, so that Papias and the Presbyter knew that Gospel, which was presumably preferred to that of Mark in the Pauline Church of Ephesus; hence the need of the rehabilitation of Mark by "the Presbyter", who speaks with authority as one who knew the facts of the life of Christ as well as Peter himself.
The famous statement of Papias that St. Matthew wrote his logia (that is, his canonical work) in Hebrew, and each interpreted (translated) it as he was able, seems to imply that when Papias wrote an accepted version was current—our present St. Matthew. His knowledge of St. John's Gospel is proved not merely by his mention of aloes, but by a citation of John xiv, 2, which occurs in the curious prophecy of a miraculous vintage in the millennium which he attributed to Our Lord (Irenaeus, V, xxxvi). The reference in his preface to our Lord as "the Truth" also implies a knowledge of the fourth Gospel. He cited I John and I Peter according to Eusebius, and he evidently built largely upon the Apocalypse, from which he drew his chiliastic views.
It was formerly customary among liberal critics to assume (for no proof was possible) that Papias ignored St. Paul. It is now recognized that a bishop who lived a few miles from Colossae cannot be suspected of opposition to St. Paul merely on the ground that the few lines of his writings which remain do not contain any quotation from the Apostle.
It is highly probable that Papias had a New Testament containing the Four Gospels, the Acts, the chief Epistles of St. Paul, the Apocalypse and Epistles of St. John, and I Peter.
Eusebius says that Papias frequently cited traditions of John and narrations of Aristion. He had also received information from the daughters of Philip, one of whom was buried like her father at Hierapolis, and had apparently been known to Papias.
He related the raising to life of the mother of Manaimos (probably not the same as Manaen the foster-brother of Herod); also the drinking of poison without harm by Justus Barsabas: he may have related this in connection with Mark, svi, 18, as it is the only one of the miracles promised in that passage by our Lord which is not exemplified in Acts. It would be interesting if we could be sure that Papias mentioned this last section of Mark, since an Armenian MS. attributes it to Aristion. Eusebius says Papias "published a story of a woman accused of many sins before the Lord, which is contained in the Gospel according to the Hebrews". This appears to refer to the pericope adulterae (John 8).
The cause of the loss of this precious work of an Apostolic Father was the chiliastic view which he taught, like St. Justin and St. Irenaeus. He supported this by "strange parables of the Saviour and teachings of His, and other mythical matters", says Eusebius. We can judge of these by the account of the wonderful vine above referred to.
His method of exegesis may perhaps be estimated to some extent by a fifth book with the original ending of Victorinus's commentary on the Apocalypse, as published by Haussleiter (Theologisches Litteraturblatt, 26 April, 1895); for both passages are evidently based on Papias, and contain the same quotations from the Old Testament.
Eusebius was an opponent of chiliastic speculations, and he remarks: "Papias was a man of very small mind, if we may judge by his own words". It would seem that the fragment of Victorinus of Pettau "De fabrica mundi" is partly based on Papias. In it we have perhaps the very words to which Eusebius is referring: "Nunc igitur de inenarrabili gloria Dei in providentia videas memorari; tamen ut mens parva poterit, conabor ostendere". This passage probably preserved the substance of what Papias said, according to the testimony of Anastasius of Mount Sinai, at to the mystical application to Christ and the Church of the seven days of creation.
A wild and extraordinary legend about Judas Iscariot is attributed to Papias by a catena. It is probable that whenever St. Irenaeus quotes "the Presbyters" or "the Presbyters who had seen John", he is citing the work of Papias. Where he attributes to these followers of John the assertion that Our Lord sanctified all the ages of man, that Papias had inferred that our Lord reached the age of fifty, as Irenaeus concludes, nor need we be too certain that Papias explicitly cited the Presbyters in the passage in question. His real statement is possibly preserved in a sentence of "De fabrica mundi", which implies only that our Lord reached the perfect age (between 30 and 40) after which decline begins.
Of Papias's life nothing is known. If Polycarp was born in 69, his "comrade" may have been born a few years earlier. The fragment which makes him state that those who were raised to life by Christ lived on until the age of Hadrian cannot be used to determine his date, for it is clearly made up from the quite credible statement of Quadratus (Eusebius, iv, 3) that some of those cured by our Lord lived until his own time and the fact that Quandratus wrote under Hadrian; the name of Papias has been substituted by the egregious excerptor. The work of Papias was evidently written in his old age, say between the years 115 and 140.