Papias is important for several reasons. Let me highlight seven:
(1) He is one of dozens of early writers to testify to Jesus' historicity. He not only knew at least two firsthand eyewitnesses to Jesus, the apostle John and another disciple named Aristion; he also interviewed many others who knew other apostles and disciples of Jesus. From these, he gathered enough eyewitness testimony to fill five volumes! This 5-volume work was entitled The Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord (Fragment 3, Eusebius' Church History 3.39.1).Furthermore, he provides historical confirmation of Jesus' miracles: "As for those who were raised from the dead by Christ, he states that they survived until the time of Hadrian" (Fragment 5, Philip of Side's 5th Century Church History).
(2 & 3) In "Fragment 6" (excerpted from Eusebius' Church History, 3.39.15-16) he establishes the New Testament Gospels of Mark and Matthew as eyewitness accounts and confirms their authorship:
....but now, to the extracts already made, we shall add, as being a matter of primary importance, a tradition regarding Mark who wrote the Gospel, which he [Papias] has given in the following words]: And the presbyter said this. 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. [This is what is related by Papias regarding Mark; but with regard to Matthew he has made the following statements]: Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.
*For Mark also see Fragment 21.
(4) And in fragments 19 and 20, Papias confirms the authorship of the Gospel of John:
FRAGMENT 19: "Here begins the summary of the Gospel According to John: The Gospel of John was made known and given to the churches by John while he was still in the flesh, as a man of Hierapolis by the name of Papias, a beloved disciple of John, has related in the exoteric--that is, the last--part of his five books. Indeed, he wrote down the Gospel correctly as John dictated." (As preserved in the 9th Century Codex Vaticanus Alexandrinus 14, p.585 of Holmes' The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations)
(5) The apostle John is the author of Revelation (Fragment 3, Eusebius' Church History 3.39.6).
(6) He thereby, also provides valuable early testimony to their canonicity, serving as an important link in the "chain of custody" establishing their apostolic provenance (as being the work of an apostle or their associates is of primary importance in including any book in the canon of the New Testament).
(7) Finally, Papias was a disciple of John's and provides details about John's life that are not found in the New Testament, most importantly, his martyrdom:
a. The apostle John lived until the time of the Emperor Trajan, who ruled from 98-117 AD (Fragment 1).
b. In Fragment 5, Philip of Side's Church History (5th Century) tells us that the account of John's martyrdom was recorded in the second volume of Papias' Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord.
And from Fragment 6, which is preserved in The Chronicle of George the Sinner (9th Century):
After Domitian [fl. 81-96], Nerva ruled for a year, who, having recalled John from the island, released him to dwell in Ephesus. At the time he was the sole survivor of the twelve apostles and composed the gospel according to himself: he was held worthy of martyrdom.
For Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, who was his eyewitness, in the second volume of the Lord's Reports alleged that he was killed by Jews. Having clearly fulfilled, with his brother, the prediction of Christ about them and their own agreement about this and submission: for the Lord said to them, "Can you drink the cup I will drink?" [Mark 10:38f.] and they gave their assent willingly and agreed: You shall drink, I say, my cup and you shall be baptized with the baptism I am baptized. And reasonably: for God cannot lie. Thus, the erudite Origen also affirmed in his commentary of Matthew, that John was martyred, having intimated that he learned this from the sucessors of the apostles. And indeed the well-read Eusebius in the Hist. Eccl. [3.1] says: "Thomas was allotted Parthia; but John Asia, where he resided and died in Ephesus."
PAPIAS' UNIQUE POSITION
A little biographical information further demonstrates Papias' unique position to provide this testimony. Papias was one of the "apostolic fathers" (see my blog article on the apostolic fathers), that is he was a disciple of one of the apostles. He was bishop (lead pastor) of the church at Hierapolis and a disciple of the apostle John, who lived at the end of the first century and beginning of the second century. The city of Hierapolis (where Papias was bishop) was at the intersection of two roads that connected four major cities that were important centers of the early church: Syrian Antioch, Ephesus, Attalia and Smyrna. He, therefore, would have had unique access to travelers who knew Jesus or Jesus' disciples.
Over the years, he interviewed many who had known Jesus' apostles and disciples, and (as noted previously) he himself knew the apostle John and a disciple named Aristion. He collected the notes from these interviews and composed a five volume work on them, commonly known as the Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord. As Bauckham has noted, however, the Greek word logia that is translated "Sayings" almost certainly refers both to the things Jesus said and to the things he did (p. 214 of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses). The most likely scenario is that he collected these interview notes over a period of two or three decades (perhaps 85-110 AD) and finished composing this five volume work at the beginning of the second century (circa 110 AD or shortly thereafter, though some would place his work as late as 140 AD).
As Bauckham shows, Papias was heavily influenced by the tradition of ancient Greek historiography and its concern for eyewitness testimony. (Read the chapters from Bauckham's book referenced below for more details on this.)
Unfortunately, we only have a couple dozen fragments left from that work, which was known and used for several centuries but has since disappeared into history. A collection of 26 of these fragments can be found in Michael W. Holmes' edition of the The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations.
It would be amazing if this text would suddenly re-emerge from the sands of Egypt or ancient jars in a desert cave; but barring that, the fragments of Papias that we do have provide valuable early testimony linking the New Testament Gospels back to the apostles, those who were eyewitnesses to Jesus' ministry, death and resurrection (Acts 1:21-22).
RESOURCES FOR FURTHER STUDY
*Early Christian Writings hosts the text of the "Fragments of Papias" and a nice selection of resources.
*An article on Papias followed by a significant bibliography at EarlyChurch.org.uk
*The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations by Michael W. Holmes (an updated and revised version of the classic work by Lightfoot and Harmer) contains 26 "fragments of Papias" gleaned from various ancient texts. (Also available in an edition without the Greek texts, both of which can be found at the link given in the title above.)
*Eusebius' Church History has a section on Papias (Book 3, Chapter 39). Eusebius completed his history about 325 AD.
*Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham has three excellent chapters on Papias (chapters 2, 9 and 16) and you can read the first chapter (his overview of Papias) for FREE on Kindle (using the "sample": see button under the "Buy" button....OR using the "Look Inside" preview by clicking on the link above the thumbnail of the book's cover). These three chapters by themselves are worth the price of the book, as Baukham's careful study dispenses with a lot of misinformation and uncovers important details about Papias' important contribution. Chapter 2 is a general article on Papias. Chapter 9 explores what Papias tells us about the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. And Chapter 16 deals with what Papias tells us about the Gospel of John.