Papias of Hierapolis on Writings vs. a Living Voice (“Some Baseless Speculations about…”, Part 6a)

For Yuri. Continued from parts onetwothreefour, and five.

Part six will need to be broken up into sections, so that I can release them at all, given that my workday is now 14 hrs long, with 1.5 hrs of commuting. After I am finished with the course I’ve laid out here, I’ll post them together in either a summary or a collection. 

Across these sections of the sixth post, I thought it was wise to linger over the transition from the earliest writings in the New Testament vis-à-vis our themes of writing vs. speaking, the role of the heart, and the nature of basically prophetic or oracular speech –particularly the writings of St. Paul in the years following A.D. 50 and 60– towards the third and fourth century.


There are attitudes such as we have outlined in the previous posts, Yuri, in some of the writings from the earliest generations of Christians, up through Isaac of Nineveh.

Papias of Hierapolis

It’s terribly sad that we only have fragments from Papias of Hierapolis (ca. A.D. 100); what survives of his works does so only in the citations of others (this one appear in Eusebius of Caesarea’s Ecclesiastical History III.39.1). Papias does show us a late-first century Christian culture in which there existed a rough collection of texts (it would have been somewhat idiosyncratic from place to place) that were used and acknowledged by the various earliest Christian communities, read aloud and used in their assemblies as a witness to the teaching of the disciples of Jesus — disciples whose personalities, mannerisms, customs, and words of command and counsel were still in living memory, together with the basic thesis of their preaching about Jesus.

Literary products such as the written gospels are by nature discriminating things, excluding and crafting their inherited material to achieve a certain effect; the mind and life and teachings and community of the authors of these gospels is always more abundant than what can appear in a carefully constructed text. The oral tradition in any place cannot simply be dumped into and as a text — even if one wished to. In such a world, one could opt for the stories from elders who could bear direct witness. In what fragments we have of him, Papias reports that he is not

unwilling to put down, along with my interpretations, whatsoever instructions I received with care at any time from the elders, and stored up with care in my memory, assuring you at the same time of their truth. For I did not, like the multitude, take pleasure in those who spoke much, but in those who taught the truth; nor in those who related strange commandments, but in those who rehearsed the commandments given by the Lord to faith, and proceeding from truth itself. If, then, any one who had attended on the elders came, I asked minutely after their sayings –what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord’s disciples: which things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I imagined that what was to be got from books was not so profitable to me as what came from the living and abiding voice. [1]

That translation is perfectly fine, I think, though Gamble translates this with helpfully different nuance:

And I shall not hesitate to append to the interpretations all that I ever learned well from the ancients […] and remember well, for I am confident of their truth. For I did not rejoice like the many in those who say much, but in those who teach the truth, nor in those who recall the commandments of others, but in those who recall those things given to the faith by the Lord and derived from the truth itself. But if anyone ever came who has followed the ancients, I inquired about the words […] of the ancients — what Andrew or Peter or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples said, and what Ariston and the presbyter John, the Lord’s disciples, were saying. For I did not suppose that things from books […] would benefit me so much as things from a living and abiding voice.  [2]

The Greek:

Οὐκ ὀκνήσω δέ σοι καὶ ὅσα ποτὲ παρὰ τῶν πρεσβυτέρων καλῶς ἔμαθον καὶ καλῶς ἐμνημόνευσα, συγκατατάξαι ταῖς ἑρμηνείαις διαβεβαιούμενος ὑπὲρ αὐτῶν ἀλήθειαν. οὐ γὰρ τοῖς τὰ πολλὰ λέγουσιν ἔχαιρον ὥσπερ οἱ πολλοί, ἀλλὰ τοῖς τἀληθῆ διδάσκουσιν, οὐδὲ τοῖς τὰς ἀλλοτρίας ἐντολὰς μνημονεύουσιν, ἀλλὰ τοῖς τὰς παρὰ τοῦ Κυρίου τῇ πίστει δεδομένας καὶ ἀπ’ αὐτῆς παραγινομένας τῆς ἀληθείας. Εἰ δέ που καὶ παρηκολουθηκώς τις τοῖς πρεσβυτέροις ἔλθοι, τοὺς τῶν πρεσβυτέρων ἀνέκρινον λόγους· τί Ἀνδρέας ἤ τί Πέτρος εἶπεν ἤ τί Φίλιππος ἤ τί Θωμᾶς ἤ Ἰάκωβος ἤ τί Ἰωάννης ἢ Ματθαῖος ἢ τις ἕτερος τῶν τοῦ Κυρίου μαθητῶν, ἅ τε Ἁριστίων καὶ ὁ πρεσβύτερος Ἰωάννης, οἱ τοῦ Κυρίου μαθηταί, λέγουσιν. οὐ γὰρ τὰ ἐκ τῶν βιβλίων τοσοῦτόν με ὠφελεῖν ὑπελἀμβανον, ὅσον τὰ παρὰ ζώσης φωνῆς καὶ μενούσης. [3]

Quick textual notes: Gamble helpfully changes the Greek πρεσβυτέρων to “ancients” (“elders” is probably the best translation, though it may be too familiar), though at the cost of consistency (it is translated as “presbyter” when next to John); παρηκολουθηκώς is really “follow”, though “attend” isn’t bad, and captures a sense. While καλῶς can (as I understand it) be “well” or “beautifully”, the “with care” translation I am undecided about.


Learning “from books” (ἐκ τῶν βιβλίων) is here contrasted with “the living and abiding voice” (ζώσης φωνῆς καὶ μενούσης); the writings, to a modern reader, appear to be regarded as a concession at best, and as a degradation at worst. There is clearly a body of writing that has begun to appear as authoritative at this point and earlier (why else would Matthew reply to Mark’s Gospel? –and Paul’s letters were already collected and read aloud in many churches, who were given copies of them or who requested copies of them; Paul himself seems to assume an enormous amount about the Jesus tradition, so much so that he rarely writes explicitly about it). Is Papias denigrating them? This preference for “a living voice” is not idiosyncratic to him, but seems characteristic of earliest Christianity, and seems to be an enduring feature that nonetheless is not hostile to written texts settling in alongside it — at first, as written selections and interpretations of the various oral Christian traditions. (James Dunn has written on this extensively, a good entry into his writings on this can be found here and here.) Are those oral traditions here being preferred to books and writings?

Gamble notes that literacy levels in the ancient world probably never exceeded 20% of the population (and were probably between 10-15%, if memory serves), though there were plenty of opportunities for people to hear texts read aloud, as that was the mode in which things written would have lived — texts in the ancient world were composed for the ear, not for the eye. The percentage of the Christian population that would have been literate would have mirrored the percentage of the general population, Gamble argues. Unlike Jews, Christians in the first two centuries seem to have had no extensive program for raising literacy levels among their own people — and this would not, it seems, have affected how acquainted they would have been with public texts, such as the Gospels, or even the Homeric epics. “Among the literate as well, it was as common to be read to as to read for oneself in the ancient world.” [4] Literacy seems to be important to roles of authority for early communities — reading aloud and writing texts for the community, and to other communities, are usually responsibilities for administrators, even if delegated.  As we will see when we look at the texts from Lucian of Samosata, possessing the skills of literacy could fast-track a convert into an ordained role of leadership in the early centuries. Papias seems to be no exception to this rule. The fragment we have cited from him, above, introduces his “Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord” — and both the “oracles” (logoi) and his commentary were written. It is not clear that any of the oracles he seeks to interpret were known only orally.

Gamble asks whether “the oral and written modes [were] so radically divergent as to be mutually exclusive”, and answers that “the spoken and the written”, while different, do not seem to be “so distinct as to make the two media mutually exclusive in a given community”. [5] Indeed, Gamble argues that the kerygma of early Christianity always appealed to the scriptural texts of Judaism, and so was never without a literary dimension. We will look more at compilations of testimonies in Judaism and early Christian communities in a later post, as these, it seems, were used more widely for itinerants and private individuals than entire texts of books from the Hebrew Bible would be — and the New Testament citations from the Hebrew Bible seem to confirm this.

Frances Young refers to these codices of testimonies when she writes about them, and Papias’ fragment with regard to them, that

[t]he transmission of the texts in codices is an important indicator, not only of the social status of the majority of Christians (clearly they belonged to urban business classes which were literate rather than literary), but also of the status accorded these books. Since their importance lay in their testimony to Jesus, they had a secondary function. As Papias put it, he preferred the living and abiding voice to books. But clearly testimonies, both oral and written, were valued in the new communities of believers; and doubtless, partly for convenience, but also because these believers were practical people who used notebooks every day for their business dealings, these testimonies were committed to codices. [6]

So what are we to make of this excerpt, then, if it does not denigrate texts? Gamble explicitly claims that this Papian fragment “is not denigrating texts”. [7] Gamble cites Galen of Pergamon (A.D. 129 — ca. A.D. 210) to show that preference for a “living voice” to “what is written” is proverbial among craftspeople, who seek tutelage from a master craftsman but who nonetheless use manuals; Gamble also cites Quintilian (ca. A.D. 35–A.D. 100) and Seneca the Younger (4 B.C.–A.D. 65) to show that similar phrases and sentiments were current among rhetoricians (who would practice rhetoric under the guidance of a tutor, but would use written notes and written examples, in the context of live demonstration and feedback) and in philosophical schools (where teachers would engage the community orally, but would refer to, and engage with, written dialogues and handbooks of sorts). In his analysis of the fragment from Papias, Gamble is citing an essay by Loveday Alexander; Loveday herself asks:

Was this [prejudice against the written word] a view peculiar to Christians in the second century? Are there other areas of Graeco-Roman culture where such a view would have found acceptance, or were the Christians alone in espousing this prejudice against the written word?

Loveday answers this question by citing Berger Gerhardsson, who himself wrote that the “opposition to letters” is not peculiarly Christian (though Papias espouses it), nor derivative of Judaism (though the Rabbis show it with regard to the Oral Law, too), but

a commonplace which we recognise from elsewhere in Antiquity, an attitude of scepticism towards the written word[.]

“Scepticism towards the written word”, but with qualification, it would seem: the “living voice” is contrasted to texts only insofar, it seems, as the texts are separated from the tutelage of those who apply them in a practice.


The texts Gamble cites casually are worth compiling here. They are taken from an article by Loveday Alexander titled “The Living Voice: Scepticism towards the Written Word in Early Christian and in Graeco-Roman Texts” (see fn. 8).

Cicero was, apparently, the first to report on the Greek phrase ζώσης φωνῆς (Cicero cites the Greek, suggesting that the phrase is not Latin in its origin; the Latin equivalent is “viva vox”), which had made its way to Rome in his day.

Regarding Papais’ “living voice” (ζώσης φωνῆς), Galen uses the same phrase in his On the Composition of Drugs according to Places, book six:

There may well be truth in the saying current among most craftsmen, that reading out of a book is not the same thing as, or even comparable to, learning from the living voice.

Ἀληθὴς μὲν ἀμέλει καὶ ὁ λεγόμενος ὑπὸ τῶν πλείστων τεχνιτῶν ἐστι λόγος, ὡς οὐκ ἴσον οὐδ’ὅμοιον εἴη παρὰ ζώσης φωνῆς μαθεῖν ἢ ἐκ συγγράμματος ἀναλέξασθαι. [8]

Seneca writes in letter six of his Letters to Lucilius that

There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with. I shall send you, accordingly, the actual books themselves, and to save you a lot of trouble hunting all over the place for passages likely to be of use to you, I shall mark the passages so that you can turn straight away to the words I approve and admire.

Personal converse, though, and daily intimacy with someone will be of more benefit to you than any discourse. You should really be here and on the spot, firstly because people believe their eyes rather more than their ears, and secondly because the road is a long one if one proceeds by way of precepts but short and effectual if by way of personal example. Cleanthes would never have been the image of Zeno if he had merely heard him lecture; he lived with him, studied his private life, watched him to see if he lived in accordance with his own principle. Plato, Aristotle and a host of other philosophers all destined to take different paths, derived more from Socrates; character than from his words.

In letter thirty-three of the same work he similarly writes that

“Zeno said this.” And what have you said? “Cleanthes said that.” What have you said? How much longer are you going to serve under others’ orders? Assume authority yourself and utter something that may be handed down to posterity. Produce something from your own resources. […] “Zeno said this, Cleanthes that.” Let’s have some difference between you and the books! How much longer are you going to be a pupil? From now on do some teaching as well. Why, after all, should I listen to what I can read for myself? “The living voice,” it may be answered, “counts for a great deal.” Not when it is just acting in a kind of secretarial capacity, making itself an instrument for what others have to say. [9]

We see here, Yuri, that “the living voice” is a stock term for the superior value of instruction delivered by a master to students; here Seneca is mocking the person employing the stock term, for the person does not live up to the stature of such a person, but is merely a parrot reciting what can be found in texts. We see here, however, in letter 33, just how important a rolling tradition was, a tradition to be internalized, learned live, and added to by how it changed the person receiving it, allowing for additions from the same fountain.

I neglected to include Pliny, whom Gamble also cites. In his letter to Nepos (Epistles 2.3), Pliny writes of a rhetor Isaeus, whose

reputation–and it was a great one–had preceded him to Rome, but it was found to fall short of his merits. He has consummate oratorical power, fluency and choice of expression, and though he always speaks extempore his speeches might have been carefully written out long beforehand. He speaks in Greek, and that the purest Attic; his prefatory remarks are polished, neat and agreeable, and occasionally stately and sparkling. He asks to be supplied with a number of subjects for discussion, and allows his audience to choose which they will have and often which side they would like him to take. Then he rises to his feet, wraps his gown round him, and begins. Without losing a moment he has everything at his fingers’ ends, irrespective of the subject selected. Deep thoughts come crowding into his mind and words flow to his lips. And such words–exquisitely choice! Every now and then there come flashes which show how widely he has read and how much he has written. He opens his case to the point; he states his position clearly; his arguments are incisive; his conclusions are forcible; his word-painting is magnificent. In a word, he instructs, delights, and impresses his hearers, so that you can hardly say wherein he most excels. He makes constant use of rhetorical arguments, his syllogisms are crisp and finished–though that is not an easy matter to attain even with a pen. He has a wonderful memory and can repeat, without missing a single word, even his extempore speeches. He has attained this facility by study and constant practice, for he does nothing else day or night: either as a listener or speaker he is for ever discussing. He has passed his sixtieth year and is still only a rhetorician, and there is no more honest and upright class of men living. For we who are always rubbing shoulders with others in the Forum and in the lawsuits of everyday life, cannot help picking up a good deal of roguery, while in the imaginary cases of the lecture hall and the schoolroom it is like fighting with the button on the foil and quite harmless, and is every whit as enjoyable, especially for men of years. For what can be more enjoyable for men in their old age than that which gave them the keenest pleasure in their youth?

Consequently, I look upon Isaeus not only as a wonderfully learned man but as one who possesses a most enviable lot, and you must be made of flint and iron if you do not burn to make his acquaintance. So if there is nothing else to draw you here, if I myself am not a sufficient attraction, do come to hear Isaeus. Have you never read of the man who lived at Gades who was so fired by the name and glory of Titus Livius that he came from the remotest corner of the world to see him, and returned the moment he had set eyes on him? It would stamp a man as an illiterate boor and a lazy idler, it would be disgraceful almost for any one not to think the journey worth the trouble when the reward is a study which is more delightful, more elegant, and has more of the humanities than any other. You will say: “But I have here authors just as learned, whose works I can read.” Granted, but you can always read an author, while you cannot always listen to him. Moreover, as the proverb goes, the spoken word is invariably much more impressive than the written one; for however lively what you read may be, it does not sink so deeply into the mind as what is pressed home by the accent, the expression, and the whole bearing and action of a speaker. This must be admitted unless we think the story of Aeschines untrue, when, after reading a speech of Demosthenes at Rhodes, he is said to have exclaimed to those who expressed their admiration of it: “Yes, but what would you have said if you had heard the beast himself?” And yet Aeschines himself, if we are to believe Demosthenes, had a very striking delivery! None the less he acknowledged that the author of the speech delivered it far better than he had done. All these things point to this, that you should hear Isaeus, if only to enable you to say that you have heard him. Farewell. [10]

It’s a long story to include as an adjunct to clarify, Yuri, but helpful to illustrate our excerpt from Papias.

Finally, as for Quintilian’s words, he writes, for a schoolroom context, that the rhetor must

 [5] adopt a parental attitude to his pupils, and regard himself as the representative of those who have committed their children to his charge. Let him be free from vice himself and refuse to tolerate it in others. Let him be strict but not austere, genial but not too familiar: for austerity will make him unpopular, while familiarity breeds contempt. Let his discourse continually turn on what is good and honourable; the more he admonishes, the less he will have to punish. He must control his temper without however shutting his eyes to faults requiring correction: his instruction must be free from affectation, his industry great, his demands on his class continuous, but not extravagant. [6] He must be ready to answer questions and to put them unasked to those who sit silent. In praising the recitations of his pupils he must be neither grudging nor over-generous: the former quality will give them a distaste for work, while the latter will produce a complacent self-satisfaction. [7] In correcting faults he must avoid sarcasm and above all abuse: for teachers whose rebukes seem to imply positive dislike discourage industry. […] [8] He should declaim daily himself and, what is more, without stint, that his class may take his utterances home with them. For however many models for imitation he may give them from the authors they are reading, it will still be found that fuller nourishment is provided by the living voice, as we call it, more especially when it proceeds from the teacher himself, who, if his pupils are rightly instructed, should be the object of their affection and respect. And it is scarcely possible to say how much more readily we imitate those whom we like. [11]

Texts as models can be imitated, but the “living voice” provides “fuller nourishment”, and proceeds from a living fountain of wisdom and virtue.


We saw in the fourth post, Yuri, that the apostles, as itinerant ministers, basically functioned as living oracles of sorts, urgent angelic messenger figures, preaching and teaching. They did refer to stable texts, and any one of them could, like Apollos in Acts 18:24, possibly be said to be a good preacher/eloquent speaker (ἀνὴρ λόγιος) who was “skillful with the writings [vi&., the scriptures]” (δυνατὸς ὢν ἐν ταῖς γραφαῖς), but their appeals to the texts occurred within the live preaching. (When Acts 4:13 says that Peter and John were “unlettered and unschooled” –ἀγράμματοί εἰσιν καὶ ἰδιῶται– it probably refers to their not being trained in Greek writing & speaking, &c.; in 2 Cor. 11:6, St. Paul speaks of himself as ἰδιώτης τῷ λόγῳ, usually “untrained / unskilled / rude / simple as a speaker”.)  The various apostles appeal constantly to the writings of the Hebrew Bible, and often engage in some forms of interpretation that suggest some degree of training, despite the dichotomy that is suggested by these phrases; Papias seems to be similarly drawing a distinction that means something other than the hard split we moderns are inclined to hear in it. Writing and orality are on a continuum; writings become alive in a living tradition.

As a penultimate thought, we should note that “the writings” are not yet here “the Bible” in our modern sense; they are a loose collection of texts that refer to the Hebrew Bible, which is not a single book — there are scrolls in Synagogues, not books, and the scrolls are many. The codices include many writings, and there likely would have been several codices concerning writings from apostles or about the Jesus tradition in congregations with any wealth. We’ll look at that issue later.

As a final thought, consistent with what I have set out to look at, Yuri, I should note that “books” apart from the “living and abiding voice” –some form of passed-down context of the transmission of a discipline or practice or way of life– seem to be regarded by Papias (and Galen, &c.) as somewhat lackluster.



Cited from the translation at, retrieved on 7/16/2018 at 1:24 A.M.


Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven, CT; Yale University Press, 1995), 30


Πολύκαρπος, Παπίας, καὶ Διόγνητος Polycarp, Papias, and Diognetus ed. Jacob N. Cerone & Shawn J. Wilhite (Wilmore, KY: GlossaHouse, 2018), 47-48


Gamble, Books and Readers, 8


Gamble, Books and Readers, 28, 29


Frances M. Young, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (Peabody MA: Hendrickson, 1997), 288


Gamble, Books and Readers, 31


Galen, De Compositione Medicamentorum secundum Locos VI, found online at on 9/21/18 at 11:48PM

English translation from Loveday Alexander, “The Living Voice: Scepticism towards the Written Word in Early Christian and in Graeco-Roman Texts” in The Bible in Three Dimensions: Essays in Celebration of Forty Years of Biblical Studies in the University of Sheffield ed. David Clines, Stephen Fowl, & Stanley Porter (Sheffield Academic Press, 2009), 225


Seneca, Letters From a Stoic: Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium transl. Robin Campbell (New York, NY: Penguin, 1990), 13-14; 71


Pliny, Epistles 2.3. found online on 9/21/18 at 11:09PM at , boldface added for emphasis.


Quintilian, Institutio Oratio [II.2.8] transl. Harold Edgeworth Butler (Cambridge, MA: Loeb, 1920/1980), 213 & 215. Boldface added for emphasis. Found online at*.html#2 on 9/21/18 at 10:41PM.


Header image is handwritten by Dostoyevsky himself regarding The Brothers Karamazov, and can be found here.

3 thoughts on “Papias of Hierapolis on Writings vs. a Living Voice (“Some Baseless Speculations about…”, Part 6a)

  1. Pingback: The Shepherd of Hermas Concerning Orality, Writing, and the Role of the Heart (“Some Baseless Speculations about…”, Part 6b) | Into the Clarities

  2. Pingback: Updated Post | Into the Clarities

  3. Pingback: Harry Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church, Introduction | Into the Clarities

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