Readers have argued that there’s a position in between the Protestant sola scriptura (the scriptures only, as argued by the Reformation leaders) and the Catholic/Orthodox view that the teachings of early church leaders and church councils reflect the will of the Holy Spirit and thus carry the same weight as scripture.
They argue that the early church had the benefit of, not only the scriptures, but also the traditions — the oral teachings of the apostles. Now, in traditional Church of Christ thought, the scriptures are the only true authority, but the historical record gives evidence of what the scriptures truly mean. Thus, we supplement the scriptures with Tertullian and Irenaeus when it suits us. Not that they have any authority in themselves but they bear witness to a recollection of apostolic teaching.
The implicit — and rarely stated — assumption is that there was some body of apostolic teaching transmitted orally that supplements and completes the New Testament. Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that we’re now hearing voices that make this implicit assumption explicit — asserting that uninspired writings of the early church fathers must be studied and interpreted in order to understand the New Testament correctly. It’s not that these uninspired sources are themselves inspired, but that these men had access to an oral tradition now lost and recoverable only through diligent study of uninspired writings.
Now, this is not quite the same as the Catholic/Orthodox view, which would claim that the Spirit continues to work through through church tradition — that the church councils themselves carry authority; whereas the implicit (and increasingly explicit) Church of Christ view is that the apostles created an oral tradition that supplements the scriptures. The church has no authority to add to this tradition, but the tradition is binding.
There are verses that seem to support this view —
(1Co 11:2 ESV) Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.
(2Th 2:15 ESV) 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.
(2Th 3:6 ESV) Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.
And this conclusion is supported by such early church teachings as —
“So then, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye were taught, whether by word, or by Epistle of ours.” Hence it is manifest, that they did not deliver all things by Epistle, but many things also unwritten, and in like manner both the one and the other are worthy of credit. Therefore let us think the tradition of the Church also worthy of credit. It is a tradition, seek no farther.”
John Chrysostom, Homily on 2nd Thessalonians 4:2 (A.D. 404).
[S]eeing, I say, that the Church teaches this in plain language, that the Only-begotten is essentially God, very God of the essence of the very God, how ought one who opposes her decisions to overthrow the preconceived opinion… And let no one interrupt me, by saying that what we confess should also be confirmed by constructive reasoning: for it is enough for proof of our statement, that the tradition has come down to us from our Fathers, handled on, like some inheritance, by succession from the apostles and the saints who came after them.
Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius 4:6 (c. A.D. 384).
But if there be any (heresies) which are bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles, because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [that first bishop of theirs] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men — a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter. In exactly the same way the other churches likewise exhibit (their several worthies), whom, as having been appointed to their episcopal places by apostles, they regard as transmitters of the apostolic seed. Let the heretics contrive something of the same kind … .
Tertullian, On Prescription against the Heretics, 32 (c. A.D. 200).
When heretics show us the canonical Scriptures, in which every Christian believes and trusts, they seem to be saying: ‘Lo, he is in the inner rooms [the word of truth] ‘ (Matt 24.6). But we must not believe them, nor leave the original tradition of the Church, nor believe otherwise than we have been taught by the succession in the Church of God.
Origen, Homilies on Matthew, Homily 46, PG 13:1667 (ante A.D. 254).
Plainly, the early church held to the view that they had received instruction supplemental to the scriptures themselves. They cite “the Fathers” — early uninspired Christian writings — as authority. And so there’s a certain logic: Paul said he passed down certain traditions. The early church claimed to have those traditions. Perhaps there is indeed a body of instruction not found in the scriptures that was passed down generation to generation by the ancient bishops?
In each New Testament passage, “tradition” translates paradosis, which is also found in such passages as —
(Mat 15:2-6 ESV) 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” 3 He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 5 But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” 6 he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God
(Mar 7:3-9 ESV) 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4 and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) 5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ 8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” 9 And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!
(Gal 1:14 ESV) 14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.
(Col 2:8 ESV) 8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.
Paradosis literally means a handing over, but came to be used of any tradition — but especially the oral “law” of the Jews, memorized by the rabbis and passed down by mouth from generation to generation until the writing of the Talmud. The Wikipedia says,
Originally, Jewish scholarship was oral. Rabbis expounded and debated the law (the written law expressed in the Hebrew Bible) and discussed the Tanakh without the benefit of written works (other than the Biblical books themselves), though some may have made private notes (megillot setarim), for example of court decisions.
This situation changed drastically, however, mainly as the result of the destruction of the Jewish commonwealth in the year 70 CE and the consequent upheaval of Jewish social and legal norms. As the Rabbis were required to face a new reality—mainly Judaism without a Temple (to serve as the center of teaching and study) and Judea without autonomy — there was a flurry of legal discourse and the old system of oral scholarship could not be maintained. It is during this period that Rabbinic discourse began to be recorded in writing. The earliest recorded oral law may have been of the midrashic form, in which halakhic discussion is structured as exegetical commentary on the Pentateuch. But an alternative form, organized by subject matter instead of by biblical verse, became dominant about the year 200 C.E., when Rabbi Judah haNasi redacted the Mishnah (????).
Did the apostles create an oral tradition to be preserved by those who followed?
Therefore, when Paul speaks of his own teachings as paradosis, he means they were in some sense to be compared to the oral law. This thought bothered me for quite a long time. After all, Jesus and Paul speak very negatively of the oral law.
And so, to sort this out, I suggest what Einstein called a gedanken experiment, that is, a “thought experiment.” Or as we said in kindergarten, “Let’s pretend.” Let’s pretend that the apostles really did issue an oral law — a tradition — that was to be preserved in addition to the scriptures that became the New Testament. What would they have done?
Well, the idea has a clear parallel in Judaic practice. Quoting again from the Wikipedia —
According to Rabbinic tradition, Moses and the Israelites received an oral as well as the written Torah (“teaching”) from God at Mount Sinai. The books of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) were relayed with an accompanying oral tradition passed on by each generation. Jewish law and tradition thus is not based on a strictly literal reading of the Tanakh, but on combined oral and written traditions.
Of course, Christians don’t consider the oral law or “traditions” as binding, and certainly not handed down by God on Mt. Sinai. But that was the Jewish notion. One reason the Christian church has rejected the Jewish view is Jesus’ many harsh words spoken against the oral law and the teachings of the Pharisees, which were taken from the oral law. I think the traditional Christian view of the oral law is right.
But that doesn’t mean the early church couldn’t have had an “oral law” of its own. Indeed, it appears clear, from the passages quoted above, that Paul fully intended his oral instruction to be preserved by his readers and taught. And if his readers had considered Paul’s oral instructions as the equivalent of the oral law, they would have behaved as the rabbis behaved — they would have memorized the teachings and passed them on to the next generation by training each generation to recall the teachings verbatim. And if there ever came a time when the oral transmission of these precious teachings was in doubt, they would have written them down. There would be a Christian Talmud, a compendium of apostolic teachings preserved for generations and finally written down.
Now, the Jewish Talmud may be bought in a 73-volume set. It’s a LOT bigger than the Old Testament, and a scholar could dedicate a lifetime of study to it. And yet it was passed from generation to generation orally. It was memorized! It’s unimaginable to the modern mind that such a massive volume of tradition could be learned, much less memorized, but that’s why we have the Talmud today. It was preserved by memorization.
Therefore, had Paul created an oral tradition of this sort, it was certainly possible for his students to memorize it and pass it down from generation to generation. The Jews had been doing the same thing for centuries — and Paul was a Jewish rabbi. The church continued to have a strongly Jewish flavor for generations after Paul.
And so, yes, it’s totally possible that Paul did exactly this. There is nothing about Paul, the church, or the culture of the day that would prevent Paul (or the other apostles) from creating an oral tradition to supplement the written scriptures and arranging to have that tradition passed on from generation to generation, word for word, to be used by the church to guide it in matters not addressed by the scriptures. It’s totally possible.
But if that happened, where is it? Where is the Christian Talmud? Did someone actually take the time and trouble to write it down during the last 2,000 years? I mean, there were times of grave persecution, where surely the church felt severely threatened. There were surely generations where it would have been difficult to pass the memorized learning to the next generation, time when the tradition would have been written. Did it happen?
This is key: had it been written, it would have been written as apostolic tradition. The writer would have surely made the point that these traditions had been passed down from generation to generation, as such a claim would have been essential to giving these inspired traditions their proper weight in the church. And so, where are they?