Papias Mentions Mark and Matthew, but What about Luke and John?
When friends ask (as only a circle of apologists would) what ancient document would I like to see found in a new archeological discovery, I always say Papias’ Exposition on the Oracles of the Lord. Papias was a kind of human vacuum cleaner for oral traditions about Jesus. He pestered everyone he ran across about what they had learned from the disciples of Jesus, and he wrote down those traditions in the five volumes of his Exposition. Writing early in the second century, and with a ministry stretching back deep into the first, those five volumes must have been full of valuable traditions about the historical Jesus and the early Christian movement.
Unfortunately, those five volumes are lost to us. Only a few "fragments" have been left. But not even these fragments survive in their own manuscripts. Rather, they survive in the writings of Eusebius -- the prolific Bishop historian of the fourth century. Eusebius records two of Papias' traditions, about the Gospels of Mark and Matthew respectively:
Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord's sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements.
Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.
Eusebius also mentions that Papias makes use of 1 John and 1 Peter.
The significance of these traditions have been much debated by scholars and laypersons. But setting aside the worth of these traditions, let us deal with the fact that Eusebius does not recount any tradition from Papias about the Gospels of Luke and John. Most scholars agree that these gospels were written by then. Had Papias simply not heard of them? Did he make no statement about them – for whatever reason? Are most scholars simply wrong?
The answer to all these questions is that we cannot infer from the information we have whether Papias wrote about the Gospels Luke and John. As noted above, we are entirely dependent on Eusebius for what traditions Papias recounts about the gospels. And we have good reason to believe that Eusebius did not provide a complete catalogue of the traditions recorded in the earlier Christian writers. A prime example of this is what Eusebius tells us about Iranaeus. Though Eusebius accurately records what Iranaeus writes about the gospels, Revelation, 1 John, and 1 Peter, from his account we would not think that Iranaeus knew anything about the Acts of the Apostles or any of Paul’s letters. That is because Eusebius mentions nothing about any writing by Iranaeus that refers or alludes to any of those writings.
Fortunately, many of Iranaeus’ writings have survived and we know from them that Iranaeus was well aware of the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters. So why did not Eusebius tell us about those references? Afterall, he goes out of his way to tell us what Iranaeus wrote about the gospels.
The answer is that Eusebius never intended to recount all of the traditions about all of the orthodox Christian writings from the first century. F.F. Bruce, with some help from Bishop Lightoot, remarks:
If none of Irenaeus’s writings had survived, one could imagine some readers of this passage in Eusebius arguing from it that Irenaeus did not receive as scripture either the Acts of the Apostles or the letters of Paul. Such an argument could overlook what Bishop Lightfoot, in another connexion, called ‘the silence of Eusebius’. To those who argued in his day that Papias said nothing about the gospels apart from what is said in the few extracts from his work that Eusebius reproduces, Lightfoot pointed out that Eusebius is concerned to quote the testimony borne by earlier writers to the ‘disputed’ books; as for the acknowledged books, he takes them for granted, pausing only to mention any anecdotes or other points of interest occurring in those writers’ treatment of them. So here, Eusebius says nothing of Irenaeus’s well attested use of Acts and the Pauline letters, but thinks his remarks on the origins of the four gospels sufficiently interesting to quote.
F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, page174.
Perhaps Papias wrote that the Gospel of Luke was written by Luke the physician, a companion of Paul. Because that information was common knowledge and may not have added anything to widely accepted tradition, Eusebius may have seen no benefit in rewriting it as he saw no benefit in rewriting what Iranaeus had to say about the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters. In the end, however, all we can say about what Eusebius does not tell us about which early Christian writings Papias wrote about, is that we do now know what he does not tell us.
Updated: I corrected a "them" that should have been a "then." I did not mean to say that most scholars believed that Luke and John wrote the Gospels of Luke and John. What I mean to say is that most scholars believe those two gospels were written by the time Papias wrote his Exposition.