His Exposition of the Lord's Oracles in five books, the prime early authority as to the Gospel of Matthew and Gospel of Mark, is known only through fragments in later writers, chiefly Eusebius of Caesarea.
Eusebius had a bias against Papias on account of the influence which his work had in perpetuating, through Irenaeus and others, belief in a millennial reign of Christ upon earth. He calls him a man of small mental capacity, who took the figurative language of apostolic traditions for literal fact. This may have been so to some degree; but Papias (whose name itself denotes that he was of the native Phrygian stock, and who shared the enthusiastic religious temper characteristic of Phrygia, see Montanism) was nearer in spirit to the actual Christianity of the sub-apostolic age, especially in western Anatolia, than Eusebius realized.
In Papias's circle the exceptional in connexion with Christianity seemed quite normal. Eusebius quotes from him the resurrection of a dead person in the experience of Philip the Apostle — who had resided in Hierapolis, and from whose daughters Papias derived the story — and also the drinking of poison ("when put to the test by the unbelievers," says Philip of Side, by "Justus, surnamed Barsabbas,") without ill effect.
Papias also believed a revolting story as to the supernatural swelling of the body of Judas Iscariot. But if he was credulous of marvels, he was careful to insist on good evidence for what he accepted as Christ's own teaching, in the face of current unauthorized views. Papias was also a pioneer in the habit, later so general, of taking the work of the Six Days (Hexaemeron) and the account of Paradise as referring mystically to Christ and His Church (so says Anastasius of Sinai).
About his date, which is important in connexion with his witness, there is some doubt. Setting aside the discredited tradition that he was martyred along with Polycarp (c. AD 155) we have the witness of Irenaeus that he was "a companion of Polycarp," who was born not later than AD 69. We may waive his other statement that Papias was "a hearer of John," owing to the possibility of a false inference in this case. But the fact that Irenaeus thought of him as Polycarp's contemporary and "a man of the old time," together with the affinity between the religious tendencies described in Papias's Preface (as quoted by Eusebius) and those reflected in the Epistles of Polycarp and Ignatius, all point to his having flourished in the first quarter of the 2nd century. Indeed, Eusebius, who deals with him along with Clement and Ignatius (rather than Polycarp) under the reign of Trajan, and before referring at all to Hadrian's reign, suggests that he wrote about AD 115. It has been usual, however, to assign to his work a date c. 130-140, or even later. No known fact is inconsistent with c. 60-135 as the period of Papias's life. Eusebius (iii. 36) calls him "bishop" of Hierapolis, but whether with good ground is uncertain.
Papias uses the term "the Elders," or Fathers of the Christian community, to describe the original witnesses to Christ's teaching, in particular his personal disciples. It was their traditions as to the purport of that teaching which he was concerned to preserve. But to Irenaeus the term came to mean the primitive custodians of tradition derived from these, such as Papias and his contemporaries, whose traditions Papias committed to writing. Not a few such traditions Irenaeus has embodied in his work Against Heresies, so preserving in some cases the substance of Papias's Exposition.
English translations of his writings can be found in the Ante-Nicene Fathers.