Over the last number of years, I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. The Apostolic Fathers are an informal collection of early Christian writings, roughly 95-150 AD, which include books like the Didache, 1 & 2 Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas, and letters from Polycarp and Ignatius.
In recent years, scholars have expressed increased skepticism about whether these writings can inform our understanding of the development of the canon. What appear to be citations of and allusions to New Testament books are not that at all, we are told, but instead are best explained by these authors drawing upon oral tradition.
This preference for oral tradition is based on the belief that Christians were not really concerned about written documents yet–that doesn’t come about until the end of the second century.
Now much of this approach is certainly correct. Early Christians did use and value oral tradition well into the second century. And certainly it can explain many of the citations/allusions in the Apostolic Fathers. But, must we insist that it can explain all of them? Should we assume an author used oral tradition unless we can prove (without a shadow of doubt) that he used written tradition?
These questions are too big to answer in a single blog post, but I think there are reasons to challenge the idea that oral tradition should always be the default explanation:
First, early Christianity was not an oral religion. Sure, traditions of Jesus were transmitted orally, but this is not the same thing. We cannot confuse a medium of transmission with a mentality (or disposition) of early Christian culture. I have argued elsewhere that early Christianity was a religion of textuality, even if most its adherents were illiterate (as were most people in the ancient world). For more, see my Question of Canon, 79-118.
Second, the authors represented in the Apostolic Fathers were obviously literate. Not only were they producing written sources, but they show awareness of (and interact with) other written sources. Indeed, the letter exchanges in early Christianity were rapid and extensive (see such exchanges in Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians as one example).
So, if these authors were quite textually oriented, why should we assume they mainly drew on oral tradition? Of all the people in early Christianity likely to be influenced by written texts, it would’ve been these authors!
Third, by the time these authors wrote in the second century, earlier generations of Christians had already exhibited significant interactions with written texts. For instance, the authors of Matthew and Luke seemed to know Mark (and possibly Q) and interacted with these writings textually. John may have known the texts of the Synoptics. And all of these Gospels interacted with the text of the OT.
So, if first-century Christians interacted often with written texts, then why would we assume Christian writers in the second century only used oral tradition?
Fourth, a number of times the Apostolic Fathers actually mention that they know of written Gospels! As just one example, Papias was Bishop of Hierapolis and wrote around 125AD (see inset picture!). He tell us plainly about the written gospels of Mark and Matthew:
The Elder used to say: Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he [Peter] remembered. . . . Matthew collected the oracles in the Hebrew language, and each interpreted them as best he could.
What’s particularly noteworthy is that Papias received his information directly from “the Elder” who is no doubt “John the Elder” he mentions elsewhere as a follower and disciple of Jesus himself. Thus, although Papias is writing around 125 AD he is actually referring to a much earlier time when he received this tradition, probably around 90AD.
Here, then, is the key point: Papias attests to the fact that at the end of the first century, one of the primary ways Christians were receiving Jesus tradition was through written gospels, two of which were named Matthew and Mark (!). This fact alone should challenge the notion that only oral tradition can/should explain all citations in the Apostolic Fathers.
In sum, there’s little doubt that oral tradition still played a role in the second century and beyond. But, the evidence above suggests that there’s little reason to prefer oral tradition as the default, catch-all explanation for the Gospel tradition in the Apostolic Fathers.
On the contrary, the “bookish” nature of early Christianity, and its deep textual identity, suggests that we should be open to the idea that these authors—at least sometimes—knew and used written Gospel texts.
Dr Kruger wrote, “What appear to be citations of and allusions to New Testament books are not that at all, we are told, but instead are best explained by these authors drawing upon oral tradition.”
It would be very helpful to readers like myself to understand not only what conclusions the scholars have drawn, but more importantly how scholars came to those conclusions.
How do scholars tell the difference between oral and written tradition in general? Which features of the NT citations/allusions can be best explained by oral tradition, and which ones by written tradition?
Martyn Haynes says
Thank you! This is very interesting and wonderful to know. I appreciate your efforts!
Joshua Butcher says
Does the textual and literate aspects of the early Church have any impact the claims of Eastern Orthodoxy about the coequality of Scripture and tradition, or does that debate hinge entirely upon the Biblical data?
To have a fruitful debate, we need to define the terms clearly. Just out of curiosity I asked both Eastern Orthodox and Catholics what “Tradition” is, but received no clear answers to date, not one.
Loren J Golden says
For the Eastern Orthodox Church, “Tradition” consists largely of the teachings of the early Church Fathers, especially through the end of the Third Century, and most especially John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407), plus the Creeds issued by the first seven Ecumenical Councils—Nicæa I (325), Constantinople I (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (680), and Nicæa II (787).
For the Roman Catholic Church, “Tradition” generally consists of the teachings of the early Church Fathers (especially Augustine) and Medieval Scholastics (especially Thomas Aquinas), but especially (and authoritatively) all the Ecumenical Councils recognized by Rome (including the seven named above, recognized by Eastern Orthodoxy) and all Papal Encyclicals and Decrees.
Thank for taking the time to reply, Loren. As I understand it, the teachings of the Church Fathers and the Creeds are “witness” to “Tradition”, but they are not it. “Tradition” does not exist as a thing, or a collection of things, which is what makes it difficult to define concretely. It is easier to say what Tradition is not than to say what it actually is.
Bryant J Williams III says
I think it is this passage of Papias that led to the idea that “oral” was what was important to the early Church Fathers:
“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.”
It is the last sentence that is the problem. I take that sentence not the passing down of the oral tradition that was important more than the passing down of that tradition from a person who was an eyewitness or witness of the Apostles and of our Lord. It seems that Papias was trying to make sure that the tradition could be traced back to an Apostle or the Lord Himself not through other means. That does not mean that the written text was unimportant, as it is obvious regarding other remarks regarding Matthew and Mark, but rather that a word or two from a known Apostle or disciple that was important since it came from someone who was alive who had seen the Lord (elder John = Apostle John) or an Apostle.
We actually see evidence of this in the Scriptures themselves. In 2 Thessalonians 2:16, Paul exhorts the church, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.”
Further, even earlier, we have the deliverance of the Jerusalem council letter to all the churches (Acts 15:30, 16:4).
So, I don’t see how any serious scholar can legitimately claim that the early Christians were concerned with only oral traditions.
Sorry, one type: that’s 2 Thessalonians 2:15.
Bryant J Williams III says
Regarding the issue of “tradition” in Eastern Orthodoxy. The quotes are from Stephen Morris,
The Early Eastern Orthodox Church, A History, AD 60-1453.
Pages 15-16, under Martyrs and Martyrdom and the Diocletian Persecution, AD 303,
“Traditores (from hand over,” the same root as tradition, those practices and beliefs that were “handed over”) were those who handed over sacred books, liturgical objects, or those names of other Christians.”
Page 20, referencing a quote from Irenaeus,
“In his Against Heresies, Irenaeus argues that the Faith, the Tradition that the bishops have consistently maintained through time and across geographic locations, is sufficient to refute Gnostic teachers:
‘You will be able to resist [the Gnostic heretics] faithfully and boldly on behalf of the one and life-giving faith, which the Church has received from the apostles and imparts to her children. … “The tradition of the apostles, made clear in all the world, can be clearly seen in every church by those who wish to behold truth.” [Against Heresies 3;2-3].”
Spencer Tasker says
There is a need to differentiate between (oral) testimony & oral tradition. The latter involves not merely a mode of transmission but a body of content which is independent of the identity of those who transmit it. Testimony, on the other hand, gains special value by its relationship to the testator who is witness to events, which may include utterance (e.g. Irenaeus’ Letter to Florinus, wherein he recalls Polycarp’s direct experience of the apostles). Papias’ preference for the spoken word, in particular, reflects not an oral tradition but an attempt to record witness testimonies (in writing!) before those witnesses die off. Luke also says as much and taken in the wider tradition of classical historiography and its values this is perfectly normal. It also explains why all the gospels appear when they do – because that is when those who were personal eyewitnesses of the Messiah were dying out & there was a need to preserve their witness for the future.
Interestingly enough Qureshi’s work n the ending of Mark argues that it is as it is in order to leave room for the inclusion of a personal witness account following a public reading of the text. If this is correct then this makes for an interesting transitional phase in Christian textual culture.
The concern amongst biblical scholars with oral tradition has generally been tied to specific methodological assumptions and has either resulted from the misapplication of anthropology or from the kind of straw-clutching that ultimately begs the question.
In “The Hebrew Christ”, Tresmontant does a thorough job of demonstrating the Hebrew underlay of the gospels. Ditto for Carmignanc in “Birth of the Synoptics”. IE, the gospels are either contemporary accounts, or else based on contemporary accounts.
(Does anyone think that nobody bothered to take down the words of the one they believed was the expected messiah? Remember, Jesus was followed by hundreds of people, not just the twelve, and the seventy.)
When Rabbi Schneerson in New York was thought to be the messiah, his every word was studied. People leaned in close to listen to what he was saying when in conversation with someone else. If he smiled at you when he walked out of his house, it was a sign you were going to be blessed. Did the people of his day pay any less attention to Jesus?