Oral Tradition in the New Testament

That there is not only solid evidence of oral tradition in the New Testament, but that Christians were commanded to hold to the oral tradition (along with the written tradition) is also based on solid evidence, and I will draw the immediate implications of these facts.

First, let’s examine the evidence (all emphases below added).

We note the preaching of the Gospel has always been by oral peaching, even if literary forms of the Gospel are canonized in our Scriptures. So we are not surprised to hear St. Paul say to the Thessalonians:

Because of this we also give thanks to God unceasingly, so that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you received not the word of men, but just as it truly is, the word of God, which also is at work in you who believe. (1 Thessalonians 2:13)

Indeed, the Apostolic transmission of this Gospel was essential to God’s redemptive plan for the cosmos. The writer to the Hebrews exhorts his readers:

[H]ow shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which in the beginning was spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him (Hebrews 2:3)

St. John echoes this:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have gazed upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life–and the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and we declare to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us–that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, in order that you also may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that our joy may be fulfilled. And this is the message which we have heard from Him and we announce to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:1-5)

From the beginning of the world, God’s redemption is communicated orally. Not only that, however, it is also transmitted from generation to generation orally. St. Paul writes:

The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, practice these things; and the God of peace shall be with you. (Philippians 4:9)

Note that St. Paul does not spell out in detail to the Church in Philippi all the things that they had “learned and received and heard and saw” in him here in his epistle to them. He presumes a certain content to their understanding, a content embodied by his way of life among them, that he need only note in summary here in his epistle. That is to say, there was an oral tradition in addition to his letter which he calls them to practice.

St. Paul goes on to say to St. Timothy:

Hold to the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 1:13)

St. Paul doesn’t say here, “Put into practice the Scriptures you have studied from your youth,” but enjoins upon them the things they hear and saw him say and do. Which is not to say that St. Paul would not want St. Timothy to put the Old Testament into practice; but it is to say that it was the oral tradition St. Timothy was to put into practice.

Note also that this exhortation, and the following one, are from the very same text that will later claim that all Scripture (the primary reference here is to the Old Testament) is “God-out-breathed,” and is profitable for the leaders of the Church in their ministry to Church members of teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness (3:16-17). Indeed, it is ironic that those who misinterpret these verses to teach the all-sufficiency of Scripture (over and against oral tradition), fail to reckon with the fact that St. Paul does not enjoin St. Timothy to “ask for the ancient paths of the Lord” (Jeremiah 6:16), but instead exhorts him to “hold to the pattern of sound words” which he had heard from St. Paul. He continues to exhort St. Timothy:

And the things which you have heard from me through many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be competent to teach others also. (2 Timothy 2:2)

Again: St. Timothy was not enjoined to write about it, nor to disseminate the Old Testament or St. Paul’s letter, but to disseminate what he had heard. I don’t deny the essentiality of the Scriptures, nor that Christians ought to hold to them and disseminate them. But I am pointing out that St. Paul commanded St. Timothy to do something quite specific: hold to the oral tradition and to pass it on.

Indeed, that this keeping of the oral tradition is important to the Christian way of life is further supported by the letter to the Hebrews. The author of Hebrews notes that the surpassing nature of the final revelation in Christ demands that we give earnest attention to that which we’ve heard:

On account of this we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away. (Hebrews 2:1)

Here, the emphasis on the oral tradition is clear: The author of Hebrews is writing that which will later be canonized as Scripture (and, I would argue, is Scripture from its initial composition) and could refer to the Old Testament Scriptures. But he does not encourage his readers to give more earnest heed to the Scriptures, but to the oral tradition that they had received. And that failure to do so would be for them to drift away.

The key to this oral tradition was its antiquity; i. e., it predates all the New Testament writings and goes back to “the beginning.”

Brothers, I am not writing a new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which you heard from the beginning. . . . Therefore let that which you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father. (1 John 2:7, 24)


This is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, that as you have heard from the beginning, that you should walk in it. (2 John 6)

Once again, adherence to the oral tradition is essential for the life of faith—doing so will enable us to abide in the Son and in the Father.

Not only does the final revelation of God in Christ begin with the oral declaration of St. John the Forerunner, it ends with the oral declaration of St. John the Revelator in the Apocalypse, as Jesus exhorts his Church in Sardis:

Remember therefore how you have received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you like a thief, and by no means shall you know what hour I will come upon you. (Revelation 3:3)

The Church in Sardis was called back to the oral tradition. Once again, whether or not we hold to the oral tradition has eternal consequences. For not only is the oral word to be heard, it is to be lived:

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you, of whom considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7)

Indeed, we do this so that we may increase our diligence and avoid dullness:

But we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, lest you become dull, but become imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. (Hebrews 6:11-12)

In fact, imitation is a frequent exhortation from St. Paul to his readers:

Therefore I exhort you, be imitators of me. . . . Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ. . . . Therefore be imitators of God as beloved children. . . . Be fellow imitators of me, brothers, and look out for those walking this way, just as you have us for a pattern. . . . And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, in that you received the word in much tribulation, with joy of the Holy Spirit . . . . For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus, because you suffered the same things from your fellow countrymen, just as also they did by the Jews . . . (1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1; Ephesians 5:1; Philippians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2:14)

And what is it that the readers are to imitate? The oral tradition as lived by the Apostles and those leaders who themselves are passing on the oral tradition.

The implications are clear: Christians ought not merely hold to Scripture alone, but are also to hold to that which has been believed “always, everywhere, and by all” (St. Vincent of Lerins, Commonitory, 2). It is essential to our life in Christ to do so, and if we are not doing so, we must repent and return again to that which the Church heard and received from the beginning.

The challenge, however, is not necessarily that there was an oral tradition–it seems even sola scriptura adherents would agree to that–but rather that there was an oral tradition in addition to the written tradition, and, further, what the content is of that oral tradition.

Here, due to the presuppositions surrounding sola scriptura, I am forced to articulate my case–if I am to have any chance as to plausibility and persuasiveness–within presuppositional constraints I do not accept. If I argue for oral traditional content that is also clearly expressed in the Scripture, my interlocutors will reply, “Ah, but this is just what we are claiming: all oral tradition is confined within the written tradition (i.e., the Scriptures).” If I argue for oral traditional content that is not clearly expressed in Scripture, then my interlocutors will reply, “Ah, but since this is not in Scripture, it is merely the tradition of men.” So, I’m sort of damned if I do, and damned if I don’t.

However, despite this seemingly impossible scenario, I will, in fact, demonstrate that there is an oral tradition that is different from but in concert with the written tradition. To do so I will have to confine myself to the earliest witnesses, the ones closest in time to the Apostles. For the closer historically I can be to the Apostles, the more plausible will be my case that the oral tradition for which I am providing citations is connected to the Apostles. Furthermore, I will also have to demonstrate that the oral traditional content I am claiming as apostolic is believed “always, everywhere and by all.” Since the earliest witnesses we have are few, demonstrating that at least two of these witnesses agree will have to at least plausibly suggest–if it cannot be conclusively proven due to the nature of the evidenciary limitations–that such beliefs were, indeed, held always, everywhere, and by all.

That being said, then, the following are some aspects of oral tradition which are not expressly stated or are obscure in the New Testament:

1. The extent of the canon of Scripture (Muratorian canon, citations by the Apostolic Fathers, St. Athansios’ festal letter).
2. Triune baptism accompanied with fasting, both by the baptisand and by the sponsors (Didache 7, St Justin’s First Apology 61).
3. Only one (Sunday) Eucharist celebrated by one president of the presbytery or bishop (1 Clement 41; St Ignatios to the Philadelphians 4).
4. Orderly succession of leadership from the apostles (1 Clement 44; St Irenaeus Against Heresies III.3).
5. A specific order of worship with specific prayers recited (Didache 9-10; St Justin’s First Apology 65-67).
6. Eucharistic elements are sacramentally the body and blood of Jesus (St Ignatios to the Ephesians 20; St Ignatios to the Smyrnaens 7; St Justin’s First Apology 66; St Irenaeus’ Against Heresies V.2,2-3).
7. Closed communion (no unbaptized communicants) (Didache 9; St Justin’s First Apology 66).
8. The Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) is the Christian Old Testament (as opposed to the Hebrew, or as it is later known, the Masoretic, text) (St Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho 71-73; St Justin’s Address to the Greeks 13; St Irenaeus’ Against Heresies III.21).

Clearly this is not an exhaustive list, and some items (Triune baptism; Sacramental Eucharist) are expressly stated in the New Testament but about them there is present dispute. But it is, nonetheless, a list of substantive items.

And it shows, I think, even to adherents of sola scriptura, that the tradition of the Church is both more than merely the content of the Scriptures and is apostolic in origin.


I have made reference above to St. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies as a source for several of the items of the apostolic oral tradition. Some might wonder how it is that I can claim that St. Irenaeus, who wrote his work c. A.D. 185, can lay a claim to faithful transmission of the oral apostolic tradition. Let me cite one passage from Against Heresies to make this claim clear:

4. But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time,-a man who was of much greater weight, and a more stedfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics. He it was who, coming to Rome in the time of Anicetus caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics to the Church of God, proclaiming that he had received this one and sole truth from the apostles,-that, namely, which is handed down by the Church. There are also those who heard from him that John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.” And Polycarp himself replied to Marcion, who met him on one occasion, and said, “Dost thou know me? “”I do know thee, the first-born of Satan.” Such was the horror which the apostles and their disciples had against holding even verbal communication with any corrupters of the truth; as Paul also says, “A man that is an heretic, after the first and second admonition, reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself.” There is also a very powerful Epistle of Polycarp written to the Philippians, from which those who choose to do so, and are anxious about their salvation, can learn the character of his faith, and the preaching of the truth. Then, again, the Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles. (Against Heresies, Bk III.3,4, emphases added)

In other words, we have this chain of transferral of the apostolic tradition: the Apostle John to St. Polycarp to St. Irenaeus. If 2 Timothy 2:2 above can be delineated thus: St. Paul to St. Timothy to faithful men to others–then we may note that the transmission from the Apostle John to St. Irenaeus is three connections where 2 Timothy 2:2 notes four, thus being well within the literal apostolic exhortation (and of course within its intended meaning).

One thought on “Oral Tradition in the New Testament

  1. Well summed. Your quotes also remind us of Jesus’ and the apostles’ emphasis on living the gospel, following the Tradition, doing it, and so fulfilling the royal law of love. Writing and reading surely are a part, a major subplot, in the story. Our speaking, use of the tongue for better or worse, surely also another. Both the written and oral word are very potent, essential parts of the story (read[!] James), but both the written and the oral word are subsumed by living or doing the truth, and, so to speak, embodying or being in the holiness of right words.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s