Sunday, October 19, 2014

Papias, "The Living Voice," and a WW2 Veteran

I have recently befriended a 92 year old World War Two veteran of the Army's  First Infantry Division. Because he entered the service early in the war, he saw action for over two years in some of the most fierce and pivotal battles of the European theater. I have become enthralled with the stories of his childhood during the depression era, and of course, with his combat experience in the war.
D-Day June 6th 1944
Each time that I have sat down to talk with him I quickly loose track of time, and it is not uncommon for us to talk for three hours non-stop. I came away exhausted after one of our discussions because I had apparently been sitting on the edge of my seat, tense with anticipation, as he recalled his landing on Omaha beach on that fateful June day of 1944.

I could not help but wonder if this was the same feeling that Christians of the late first century had while they sat around the aged apostle John as he recounted his experiences with Jesus and the apostles. Irenaeus wrote that John lived a very long life;
"...the Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles." (Adv. Haer. 3.4; ANF1)
Polycarp of Smyrna (died ca. 155CE) is said to have recounted stories that he had heard as a young man from the elderly apostle John. Stories that Polycarp told when he was himself an old man (Adv. Haer.  3.4 and Iren. Frag. II; ANF1).
The most famous account of listening to the elderly John comes from Papias, who wrote in his Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord;
"I will not hesitate to set down for you, along with my interpretations, everything I carefully remembered, guaranteeing their truth. . . . And if by chance someone who had been a follower of the elders should come my way, I inquired about the words of the elders—what Andrew or Peter said, or Philip, or Thomas or James, or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and the elder John, the Lord’s disciples were saying. For I did not think the information from books would profit me as much as information from a living and abiding voice. (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.39.3-4)"[1]
Now that I have spent some time with this World War Two veteran, I understand better why Papias would write that he preferred a "living and abiding voice" over what he could read in written accounts. It is not that Papias refused to read books at all, but that he enjoyed sitting on the edge of his seat as the elderly John and the other aged apostles and followers of Jesus and the apostles recounted their stories and experiences. I cannot wait until the next time I can put down William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in order to sit next to this World War Two veteran and listen to his experiences first hand.

[1] Michael W. Holmes, ed., The Apostolic Fathers: Greek texts and English Translations (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 565.

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