Christianity’s Oral Tradition

sermon_on_the_mountWhen the Catholic and Orthodox churches speak of Tradition, most of us in the modern world get the idea that they’re stuck in some ancient world and just can’t get with the times. This is a modern misunderstanding, not the misunderstanding of the Church itself. We have failed to understand the difference between Tradition and tradition – a distinction that the church understands quite well.

To put it simply, the position of the orthodox (small ‘o’) churches is – and always has been, for two thousand years – that the written New Testament is not everything that Christ taught. If you take a moment to think it through at all it becomes readily apparent that this must be the case.

We don’t know if Christ himself was literate. There’s no mention of it in the bible, one way or another. We do, however, know that no actual writings of his survive today. We also know that he lived and preached in a highly illiterate society. And the descriptions we have of his actual teachings don’t tell of him passing out textbooks. Instead we hear quite a bit about him speaking.

That’s right. Christ’s actual teachings were all oral.

The four gospels were written later, years after he died. Two of them – the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of John – are attributed to direct disciples of Jesus himself. But the other two aren’t even that. Longstanding Christian tradition says that Mark was a student of Peter, not Christ himself. And Luke is at least twice removed – he was a companion of Paul, who wasn’t one of Christ’s direct disciples either.

Bear with me for a moment and assume that the Christian tradition that these books are accurate is correct. It still seems incredibly unlikely that these four books alone contain everything about Christ’s life. What if we include the remaining 23 books?

Let me tell you something about writing and teaching. I’ve been a martial arts teacher for more than fifteen years. I can tell you definitively that there is no existing collection of books, articles, videos, audio recordings, or any other recorded medium that contains 100% of the knowledge that I’ve collected in that time. I have friends who have been teaching for far longer than that – some with literally half a century of teaching experience. The gap between their knowledge and what’s written is even larger. I know of one specific Kung Fu instructor who deliberately leaves things out of his instructional videos. That way he can always tell who learned it from one of his students and who learned from the video.

This isn’t limited to the martial arts. When I was earning my master’s degree in computer science I noticed the same phenomenon at work. The text books and journal articles we studied were nice. But at that level, a fair amount of instruction came straight from the professor’s lectures and simply wasn’t in the books at all.

This is simply how the passing of knowledge works among human beings. And the Catholic and Orthodox churches have never claimed any differently. When they use the word Tradition (big ‘T’) they aren’t referring to, “well, this is how we’ve always done it.” They’re referring to, “this is what we’ve learned from the sum total of what Christ actually taught us.” That includes the bible as its core component. But it also includes teachings that have been passed orally from bishop to bishop for two thousand years. This is a large part of what is meant by the term “apostolic succession.” The church claims that not only have we inherited the written Word of God, we’ve also inherited his spoken word that has been passed down to this day.

Unlike fundamentalists or some protestants, the church’s view is not that the bible is 100% correct in a literal sense. The church’s view is that the bible is 100% correct and inerrant when it is interpreted correctly – and correct interpretation requires knowledge of the oral traditions handed down by the apostles.

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4 thoughts on “Christianity’s Oral Tradition

  1. curtjester says:

    Chapter III of Dei Verbum puts this all in context pretty well concerning the Church’s view regarding scripture and interpretation.

    Usually when you talk to people about tradition they pretty much all equate it with the telephone game. Mainly because people are just not aware how accurately oral tradition can be passed down – especially when it is something important. Richard Bauckham (a Protestant scholar) book “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” is a masterful work regarding eye witness testimony and the accuracy of oral tradition. Very worth reading as it was recommended to me by my friend Jimmy Akin of Catholic Answers.

    • Russell Newquist says:

      Usually when you talk to people about tradition they pretty much all equate it with the telephone game. Mainly because people are just not aware how accurately oral tradition can be passed down – especially when it is something important.

      Interestingly, I have a post about exactly this coming up in the next few days. 😉

      • The Hammer says:

        Right in line with Bauckham’s great book, I’d also recommend an excellent Evangelical Protestant book I’m reading right now, [i]The Lost World of Scripture[/i] by John Walton and Brent Sandy. It’s all about the authority according to the oral traditions (in addition to the ones that became written Scripture), those traditions’ reliable transmission, and how that interacts with our present-day writing culture understanding of Scripture (a minority culture when one takes all historical cultures that Christianity spread to in account). Of course, they haven’t worked out yet how all their findings make Sola Scriptura ultimately impractical.

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