Freethought Archives > Walter R. Cassels > A Reply to Dr Lightfoot's Essays



DR. LIGHTFOOT has devoted two long chapters to the evidence of Papias, although with a good deal of divergence to other topics in the second. I need not follow him minutely here, for I have treated the subject fully in Supernatural Religion[117:1] to which I beg leave to refer any reader who is interested in the discussion; and this is merely Dr. Lightfoot's reply. I will confine myself here to a few words on the fundamental question at issue.

Papias, in the absence of other testimony, is an important witness of whom theologians are naturally very tenacious, inasmuch as he is the first writer who mentions the name of anyone who was believed to have written a Gospel. It is true that what he says is of very little weight, but, since no one else had said anything at all on the point, his remarks merit attention which they would not otherwise receive.

Eusebius states that, in his lost work, "Exposition of the Lord's Oracles" (Logion kuriakôn exêgêsis), Papias wrote as follows:

"And the elder said this also: 'Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately everything that he remembered, without, however, recording in order what was either said or done by Christ. For neither did he hear the Lord, nor did he follow Him; but afterwards, as I said, [attended] Peter, who adapted his instructions to the needs [of his hearers], but had no design of giving a connected account of the Lord's oracles [or discourses] (all' ouch hôsper suntaxin tôn kuriakon poioumenos logiôn or logôn).' So, then, Mark made no mistake while he thus wrote down some things as he remembered them; for he made it his one care not to omit anything that he heard, or to set down any false statement therein." [118:1]

The first question which suggests itself is: Does the description here given correspond with the Gospel "according to Mark" which we now possess? Can our second Gospel be considered a work composed "without recording in order what was either said or done by Christ"? A negative answer has been given by many eminent critics to these and similar enquiries, and the application of the Presbyter's words to it has consequently been denied by them. It does not follow from this that there has been any refusal to accept the words of Papias as referring to a work which may have been the basis of the second Gospel as we have it. However, I propose to waive all this objection, for the sake of argument, on the present occasion, and to consider what might be the value of the evidence before us, if it be taken as referring to our second Gospel.

In the first place, the tradition distinctly states that Mark, who is said to have been its author, was neither an eye-witness of the circumstances recorded, nor a hearer of the words of Jesus, but that he merely recorded what he remembered of the casual teaching of Peter. It is true that an assurance is added as to the general care and accuracy of Mark in recording all that he heard and not making any false statement, but this does not add much value to his record. No one supposes that the writer of the second Gospel deliberately invented what he has embodied in his work, and the certificate of character can be received for nothing more than a general estimate of the speaker. The testimony of the second Gospel is, according to this tradition, confessedly at second hand, and consequently utterly inadequate to attest miraculous pretensions. The tradition that Mark derived his information from the preaching of Peter is not supported by internal evidence, and has nothing extraneous to strengthen its probability. Because some person, whose very identity is far from established, says so, is not strong evidence of the fact. It was the earnest desire of the early Christians to connect Apostles with the authorship of the Gospels, and as Mark is represented as the interpreter of Peter, so Luke, or the third evangelist, is connected more or less closely with Paul, in forgetfulness of the circumstance that we have no reason whatever for believing that Paul ever saw Jesus. Comparison of the contents of the first three Gospels, moreover, not only does not render more probable this account of the composition of the second synoptic as it lies before us, but is really opposed to it. Into this I shall not here go.

Setting aside, therefore, all the reasons for doubting the applicability of the tradition recorded by Papias regarding the Gospel said to have been written by Mark, I simply appeal to those who have rightly appreciated the nature of the allegations for which evidence is required as to the value of such a work, compiled by one who had neither himself seen nor heard Jesus. It is quite unnecessary to proceed to the closer examination of the supposed evidence.

"But concerning Matthew the following statement is made [by Papias]: 'So then Matthew (Matthaios men oun) composed the Oracles in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as he could.'" [119:1]
Dr. Lightfoot points out that there is no absolute reason for supposing that this statement, like the former, was made on the authority of the Presbyter, and, although I think it probable that it was, I agree with him in this. The doubt, however, is specially advanced because, the statement of Papias being particularly inconvenient to apologists, Dr. Lightfoot is evidently anxious to invalidate it. He accepts it in so far as it seems to permit of his drawing certain inferences from it, but for the rest he proceeds to weaken the testimony. "But it does not follow that his account of the origin was correct. It may be; it may not have been. This is just what we cannot decide, because we do not know what he said." [120:1] What a pity it is that Dr. Lightfoot does not always exercise this rigorous logic. If he did he would infallibly agree with the conclusions of Supernatural Religion. I shall presently state what inference Dr. Lightfoot wishes to draw from a statement the general correctness of which he does not consider as at all certain. If this doubt exist, however, of what value can the passage from Papias be as evidence?

I cannot perceive that, if we do not reject it altogether on the ground of possible or probable incorrectness, there can be any reasonable doubt as to what the actual statement was. "Matthew composed the Oracles in the Hebrew language," and not in Greek, "and each one interpreted them as he could." The original work of Matthew was written in Hebrew: our first synoptic is a Greek work: therefore it cannot possibly be the original composition of Matthew, whoever Matthew may have been, but at the best can only be a free translation. A free translation, I say, because it does not bear any of the traces of close translation. Our synoptic, indeed, does not purport to be a translation at all, but if it be a version of the work referred to by Papias, or the Presbyter, a translation it must be. As it is not in its original form, however, and no one can affirm what its precise relation to the work of Matthew may be, the whole value of the statement of Papias is lost.

The inference which Dr. Lightfoot considers himself entitled to draw from the testimony of Papias is in most curious contrast with his severe handling of that part of the testimony which does not suit him. Papias, or the Presbyter, states regarding the Hebrew Oracles of Matthew that "each one interpreted them as he could." The use of the verb "interpreted" in the past tense, instead of "interprets" in the present, he considers, clearly indicates that the time which Papias contemplates is not the time when he writes his book. Each one interpreted as he could when the Oracles were written, but the necessity of which he speaks had passed away; and Dr. Lightfoot arrives at the conclusion: "In other words, it implies the existence of a recognised Greek translation when Papias wrote ... But if a Greek St. Matthew existed in the time of Papias we are forbidden by all considerations of historical probability to suppose that it was any other than our St. Matthew." [121:1] It is very probable that, at the time when Papias wrote, there may have been several translations of the "Oracles" and not merely one, but from this to the assertion that the words imply a "recognised" version which was necessarily "our St. Matthew" is a remarkable jump at conclusions. It is really not worth while again to discuss the point. When imagination is allowed to interpret the hidden meaning of such a statement the consequence cannot well be predicated. This hypothesis still leaves us to account for the substitution of a Greek Gospel for the Hebrew original of Matthew, and Dr. Lightfoot does not assist us much. He demurs to my statement that our first Gospel bears all the marks of an original, and cannot have been translated from the Hebrew at all: "If he had said that it is not a homogeneous Greek version of a homogeneous Hebrew original this would have been nearer the truth." [122:1]

That Hebrew original is a sad stumbling-block, and it must be got rid of at all costs. Dr. Lightfoot is full of resources. We have seen that he has suggested that the account of Papias of the origin may not have been correct. Regarding the translation or the Greek Gospel we do not know exactly what Papias said. "He may have expressed himself in language quite consistent with the phenomena." How unlimited a field for conjecture is thus opened out. We do not know more of what Papias said than Eusebius has recorded, and may therefore suppose that he may have said something more, which may have been consistent with any theory we may advance. "Or, on the other hand," Dr. Lightfoot continues, "he may, as Hilgenfeld supposes, have made the mistake which some later Fathers made of thinking that the Gospel according to the Hebrews was the original of our St. Matthew." [122:2] Who would think that this is the critic who vents so much righteous indignation upon me for pointing out possible or probable alternative interpretations of vague evidence extracted from the Fathers? It is true that Dr. Lightfoot continues: "In the absence of adequate data, it is quite vain to conjecture. But meanwhile we are not warranted in drawing any conclusion unfavourable either to the accuracy of Papias or to the identity of the document itself." [122:3] He thus seeks to reserve for himself any support he thinks he can derive from the tradition of Papias, and set aside exactly as much as he does not like. In fact, he clearly demonstrates how exceedingly loose is all this evidence from the Fathers, and with what ease one may either base magnificent conclusions upon it, or drive a coach and four through the whole mass.

In admitting for a moment that Papias may have mistaken the Gospel of the Hebrews "for the original of our St. Matthew," Dr. Lightfoot, in his attempt to get rid of that unfortunate Hebrew work of Matthew, has perhaps gone further than is safe for himself. Apart from the general flavour of inaccuracy which he imparts to the testimony of Papias, the obvious inference is suggested that, if he made this mistake, Papias is far from being a witness for the accuracy of the translation which Dr. Lightfoot supposes to have then been "recognised," and which he declares to have been our first Gospel. It is well known at least that, although the Gospel of the Hebrews bore more analogy to our present Gospel "according to Matthew" than to any of the other three, it very distinctly differed from it. If, therefore, Papias could quietly accept our Greek Matthew as an equivalent for the Gospel of the Hebrews, from which it presented considerable variation, we are entitled to reject such a translation as evidence of the contents of the original. That Papias was actually acquainted with the Gospel according to the Hebrews may be inferred from the statement of Eusebius that he relates "a story about a woman accused of many sins before the Lord" (doubtless the same which is found in our copies of St. John's Gospel, vii. 53-viii. 11), "which the Gospel according to the Hebrews contains." [123:1] If he exercised any critical power at all, he could not confound the Greek Matthew with it, and if he did not, what becomes of Dr. Lightfoot's argument?

Dr. Lightfoot argues at considerable length against the interpretation, accepted by many eminent critics, that the work ascribed to Matthew and called the "Oracles" (logia) could not be the first synoptic as we now possess it, but must have consisted mainly or entirely of Discourses. The argument will be found in Supernatural Religion[124:1] and need not here be repeated. I will confine myself to some points of Dr. Lightfoot's reply. He seems not to reject the suggestion with so much vigour as might have been expected. "The theory is not without its attractions," he says; "it promises a solution of some difficulties; but hitherto it has not yielded any results which would justify its acceptance." [124:2] Indeed, he proceeds to say that it "is encumbered with the most serious difficulties." Dr. Lightfoot does not think that only logoi ("discourses" or "sayings") could be called logia ("oracles"), and says that usage does not warrant the restriction. [124:3] I had contended that "however much the signification (of the expression 'the oracles,' ta logia) became afterwards extended, it was not then at all applied to doings as well as sayings," and that "there is no linguistic precedent for straining the expression, used at that period, to mean anything beyond a collection of sayings of Jesus, which were oracular or Divine." [124:4] To this Dr. Lightfoot replies that if the objection has any force it involves one or both of the two assumptions: "first, that books which were regarded as Scripture could not at this early date be called 'oracles,' unless they were occupied entirely with Divine sayings; secondly, that the Gospel of St. Matthew, in particular, could not at this time be regarded as Scripture. Both assumptions alike are contradicted by facts." [125:1] The second point he considers proved by the well-known passage in the Epistle of Barnabas. For the discussion regarding it I beg leave to refer the reader to my volumes. [125:2] I venture to say that it is impossible to prove that Matthew's Gospel was, at that time, considered "Scripture," but, on the contrary, that there are excellent reasons for affirming that it was not.

Regarding the first point Dr. Lightfoot asserts:

"The first is refuted by a large number of examples. St. Paul, for instance, describes it as the special privilege of the Jews that they had the keeping of 'the oracles of God' (Rom. iii. 2). Can we suppose that he meant anything else but the Old Testament Scriptures by this expression? Is it possible that he would exclude the books of Genesis, of Joshua, of Samuel and Kings, or only include such fragments of them as professed to give the direct sayings of God? Would he, or would he not, comprise under the term the account of the creation and fall (1 Cor. xi. 8 sq.), of the wanderings in the wilderness (1 Cor. x. 1 sq.), of Sarah and Hagar (Gal. iv. 21 sq.)? Does not the main part of his argument in the very next chapter (Rom. iv.) depend more on the narrative of God's dealings than His words? Again, when the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews refers to 'the first principles of the oracles of God' (v. 12), his meaning is explained by his practice; for he elicits the Divine teaching quite as much from the history as from the direct precepts of the Old Testament. But if the language of the New Testament writers leaves any loophole for doubt, this is not the case with their contemporary Philo. In one place, he speaks of the words in Deut. x. 9, 'The Lord is his inheritance,' as an 'oracle' (logion); in another he quotes as an 'oracle' (logion) the narrative in Gen. iv. 15: 'The Lord God set a mark upon Cain, lest anyone finding him should kill him.' [125:3] From this and other passages it is clear that with Philo an 'oracle' is a synonyme for a Scripture. Similarly Clement of Rome writes: 'Ye know well the sacred Scriptures, and have studied the oracles of God;' [125:4] and immediately he recalls to their mind the account in Deut. ix. 12 sq., Exod. xxxii. 7 sq., of which the point is not any Divine precept or prediction, but the example of Moses. A few years later Polycarp speaks in condemnation of those who 'pervert the oracles of the Lord." [126:1]

He then goes on to refer to Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Basil, but I need not follow him to these later writers, but confine myself to that which I have quoted.

"When Paul writes in the Epistle to the Romans iii. 2, 'They were entrusted with the oracles of God,' can he mean anything else but the Old Testament Scriptures, including the historical books?" argues Dr. Lightfoot. I maintain, on the contrary, that he certainly does not refer to a collection of writings at all, but to the communications or revelations of God, and, as the context shows, probably more immediately to the Messianic prophecies. The advantage of the Jews, in fact, according to Paul here, was that to them were first communicated the Divine oracles: that they were made the medium of God's utterances to mankind. There seems almost an echo of the expression in Acts vii. 38, where Stephen is represented as saying to the Jews of their fathers on Mount Sinai, "who received living oracles (logia zônta) to give unto us." Of this nature were the "oracles of God " which were entrusted to the Jews. Further, the phrase: "the first principles of the oracles of God" (Heb. v. 12), is no application of the term to narrative, as Dr. Lightfoot affirms, however much the author may illustrate his own teaching by Old Testament history; but the writer of the Epistle clearly explains his meaning in the first and second verses of his letter, when he says: "God having spoken to the fathers in time past in the prophets, at the end of these days spake unto us in His Son." Dr. Lightfoot also urges that Philo applies the term "oracle" (logion) to the narrative in Gen. iv. 15, &c. The fact is, however, that Philo considered almost every part of the Old Testament as allegorical, and held that narrative or descriptive phrases veiled Divine oracles. When he applies the term "oracle" to any of these it is not to the narrative, but to the Divine utterance which he believes to be mystically contained in it, and which he extracts and expounds in the usual extravagant manner of Alexandrian typologists. Dr. Lightfoot does not refer to the expression of 1 Pet. iv. 11, "Let him speak as the oracles of God" (hos logia Theou), which shows the use of the word in the New Testament. He does point out the passage in the "Epistle of Clement of Rome," than which, in my opinion, nothing could more directly tell against him. "Ye know well the sacred Scriptures and have studied the oracles of God." The "oracles of God" are pointedly distinguished from the sacred Scriptures, of which they form a part. These oracles are contained in the "sacred Scriptures," but are not synonymous with the whole of them. Dr. Lightfoot admits that we cannot say how much "Polycarp" included in the expression: "pervert the oracles of the Lord," but I maintain that it must be referred to the teaching of Jesus regarding "a resurrection and a judgment," and not to historical books.

In replying to Dr. Lightfoot's chapter on the Silence of Eusebius, I have said all that is necessary regarding the other Gospels in connection with Papias. Papias is the most interesting witness we have concerning the composition of the Gospels. He has not told us much, but he has told us more than any previous writer. Dr. Lightfoot has not scrupled to discredit his own witness, however, and he is quite right in suggesting that no great reliance can be placed upon his testimony. It comes to this: We cannot rely upon the correctness of the meagre account of the Gospels supposed to have been written by Mark and Matthew, and we have no other upon which to fall back. Regarding the other two Gospels, we have no information whatever from Papias, whether correct or incorrect, and altogether this Father does little or nothing towards establishing the credibility of miracles and the reality of Divine Revelation.


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