Chiliasm (Part 4): Papias

Close Connection to Apostolic Teaching

Papias was the earliest and most influential of the early chiliasts. His purported connection with the apostolic authorities lent his teaching great weight among men like Irenaeus, and even with Jerome, a sharp critic of chiliasm. Though Eusebius belittled his intelligence and downplayed the directness of his apostolic sources, the general opinion during the early post-apostolic years was that this was a man who had enjoyed direct contact with the apostles’ teaching. Papias had said, “It is not so much that I have their books to read as that their living voice is heard until the present day in the authors themselves” (Lives of Illustrious Men, 18), and people accepted that claim.

Understanding of John’s Apocalypse

When he ascribed to Jesus as prophecy of a marvelously productive earth, in terms similar to a messianic prophecy in 2 Baruch 29 (Irenaeus, Haer., 5:33), people took notice. Irenaeus reported of Papias, who was “a hearer of John and a friend of Polycarp,” that he looked forward to a renewed earth:

The days will come in which vines shall grow, having each ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and each true twig ten thousand shoots, and in every one of the shoots ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give 25 metretes of wine. And when any one of the saints shall take a cluster, another will cry out, “I am a better cluster, take me; bless the Lord through me.” Similarly, he said that a grain of wheat would produce ten thousand ears, and that every ear would have ten thousand grains, and every grain would yield ten pounds of clear, pure, fine flour; and that apples, and seeds, and grass would produce in similar proportions; and that all animals, feeding only on the produce of the earth, man. (Irenaeus, Haer. 5.33.3)

Strong Words against Anti-Chiliasts

And not to believe in this millennia blessing was to manifest the wicked spirit of the carnal Judas Iscariot. This same Papias (in secondary quotations from other’s works) pictures Judas Iscariot not believing such fecundity, but all believers accepting it as a fulfillment the prophecy, “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb” (Isa 11:6ff., cited in ANF, 1:154). And, for not accepting this, Judas was pictured in the most disgusting terms: “For his body was so swollen that he could not pass where a chariot could pass easily, and he was crushed by the chariot, so that his intestines gushed out” (ANF, 1:153).


Old Testament

In his teaching about millennia fecundity, Papias may have been adapting a common mythological utopian motif;1 however, we need look no further than the Old Testament to see a likely sources. Amos is one such source: “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when the plowman shall overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it'” (Amos 9:13).

Here the rich language depicting an agricultural cycle of immense and speedy productivity takes on an eschatological significance. Far from being mere materialism, it is considered a manifestation of God’s blessing in the covenant (Lev 26:5). It’s language intended to denote covenantal paradisiacal fertility. That chiliasts should adopt this kind of language was only natural, and correct. There were other important passages with a similar message for the alert reader:

And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing. (Ezek 47:12)

This too could denote paradisiacal fertility. There is close association in this passage with imagery found in the Eden description: the river, the trees for food, the life-giving trees—all calculated to raise paradisiacal expectations in the mind of the reader.

Jewish Texts

Ethiopic Apocalypse of Enoch

Papias could, as well, have drawn on the images that could be multiplied from such sources as the Ethiopic Apocalypse of Enoch, which has a fructification passage that is almost certainly much older than the present text as a whole (Milik 1976, 190). First Enoch elongates Genesis 4–10 to cover the whole cosmic history in a mythic pattern of rebellion in the heavens, devastation on earth, punishment and cosmic restoration (Hanson 1977, esp. 197). Even if Hanson’s third-century BCE dating of this material is too early, as Collins insists (Collins 1972), one can conclude that this imagery was widespread in all branches of Judaism and that early Christians could hardly have avoided interacting with it. That proves to be the case: for example, we see obvious influence from 1 Enoch in the Epistle of Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Commodianus, Hippolytus, and Lactantius (Gregory 1983, 103).

2 Baruch

Papius’s fructification logion probably shares some literary affinities with 2 Baruch 29:5, which have already cited above.2 Placing them alongside each other shows this:

The days will come in which vines shall grow, each having ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each true twig then thousand shoots, and on each one of the shoots ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five and twenty metrets of wine. (2 Bar. 29:5)
The earth also shall yield its fruit ten thousand fold, and on one vine there shall be a thousand branches, and each branch shall produce a thousand clusters, and each cluster shall produce a thousand grapes, and each grape shall produce a cor of wine. (Ireneaus, Haer., 5.33.3)

Oral Teachings of Jesus

And of course Papias may be claiming to repeat the oral teaching of Jesus, which he could have learned through his purported apostolic connections. Gregory develops some possible Talmudic influences, but he seems to be forcing the evidence. Nonetheless, we can agree with his general description of the Jewish and Christian mileau influencing Papias, which described a paradise, both primeval and eschatological.

Works Cited

  1. Charlesworth, James H. The Pseudepigrapha and Modern Research, with a Supplement. Assisted by M. J. H. Charlesworth and P. Dykers. Septuagint and Cognate Studies Series 7. Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1981.
  2. Collins, John J. “Methodological Issues in the Study of 1 Enoch: Reflections on the Articles of P. D. Hanson and G. W. Nickelsburg.” In SBL Seminar Papers 1978. 2 vols., edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, 1:315–22. Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1972.
  3. Gregory, Joel C. “The Chiliastic Hermeneutic of Papias of Hieropolis and Justin Martyr Compared with Later Patristic Chilasts.” Ph.D. diss. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University, 1983.
  4. Hanson, Paul D. “Rebellion in Heaven, Azazel, and Euhemeristic Heroes in 1 Enoch 6–11.” Journal of Biblical Literature 96, no. 2 (1977): 195–233.
  5. Milik, Józef T., ed. The Books of Enoch Aramaic Fragments of Qumran Cave 4. In collaboration with Matthew Black. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976.


  1. Gregory has a thorough discussion of the possible sources and influences manifested in Papias’s use of this concept (1983, 87–113).
  2. 2 Baruch is generally dated between A.D. 50 and 100 (Charlesworth 1981).

Author: Dale A. Brueggemann

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