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Tradition and the Rule of Faith in the Early Church

Tradition and the Rule of Faith in the Early Church

by Ronnie J. Rombs

Essays explore the meaning of "tradition: and the rule of faith, written in honor of Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J.


Essays explore the meaning of "tradition: and the rule of faith, written in honor of Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J.

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Catholic University of America Press
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Essays in Honor of JOSEPH T. LIENHARD, S.J.

The Catholic University of America Press

Copyright © 2010 The Catholic University of America Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8132-1793-2

Chapter One


Paradosis and Traditio

A Word Study

Modern usage of the word "tradition" has so many meanings, and to some persons such negative and to others such positive connotations, that careful definition is required. A number of works in the 1950s and 1960s established the early Christian use of the words for and concept of tradition. The passage of time perhaps justifies a fresh examination of the evidence that in addition introduces some texts not in the usual repertoire.

Actual word usage does not support the modern distinction between Scripture and tradition, nor the identification of tradition with unwritten transmission. This study aims at comprehensive coverage of Christian usage up to the early fourth century and concludes with a summary look at the later fourth and fifth centuries. A complete examination of early Christian thinking about tradition would require looking at the cognate verb forms, but the usage of the nouns [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and traditio suffices for the purposes of this essay.

I offer the following classification of usage that groups content according to grammatical meaning.

A. The active sense of the act of handing over.

1. The handing over of objects.

2. Handing over, betrayal, surrender of persons or a place.

3. The passing on of teaching, especially by philosophers.

B. The passive sense of that which is handed on.

4. Any item of information.

5. Ancestral customs and attitudes.

6. Jewish interpretations and application of Torah—halakah.

7. The Christian message—from God, Christ, or the apostles, or from God or Christ through the apostles.

8. Apostolic or ecclesiastical practices—liturgical, organizational, and disciplinary.

9. Erroneous or heretical teaching.

10. Content indeterminate from the context.

Classical Greek Authors

The active sense of transmission predominates in classical Greek usage. Thus Thucydides refers (1.) to what Homer says in regard to "the handing over [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], delivery] of the scepter" (History 1.9.4). He also writes (2.), "at the surrender [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] of our city" (3.53.1). Plato provides an early instance of the word referring to the delivery of teaching or doctrine (3.): "Next let the teaching and imparting [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] of these things be discussed" (Laws 7, 803a). Aristotle uses the word for the transfer of goods (1.)—"In order that there may be no theft of public property, let the delivery [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] of goods occur in the presence of all the citizens" (Politics 5.7.11, 1309a)—and for the transmission of ideas (3.), in this case legends—"matters that grow out of the process of transmission [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]]" (Sophistici elenchi 184b).

Isocrates furnishes an example of handing over a person (2.): "He refused to obey them with regard to the surrender [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] of the slave" to punishment (17 [Trapeziticus].16).

Polybius offers a variety of usage. For the meaning betrayal (2.) note: "They had taken many cities in Spain and Italy, some by force, some by surrender [or betrayal, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]]" (History 9.25.5).5 For the act of teaching (3.) he says that one way of acquiring the art of generalship is from "the systematic instruction [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] by experienced men" (11.8.2). The passive sense of something received by transmission (5.) is represented by his reference to "whole cities accustomed to act nobly from tradition and principle" (16.22a.7).

Coming to the centuries at the beginning of the Christian era we find similar usages. A papyrus of the third century records (1.), "after the time of the delivery [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] of the grain" (Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 1257.3). Plutarch says (1.) that Numa "surrendered [resigned, handed over, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] the kingship" (Lives, Comparison of Lycurgus and Numa 1.1).

The philosophers provide an approximation of Christian usage. Plutarch reports that the Stoics say (3.), "The doctrine concerning the gods is last; therefore, they designate the delivery [transmissions, pa.ad.se..] of this doctrine the ultimate mystery" (Contradictions of the Stoics 9; Moralia 1035B). Sextus Empiricus parallels the "delivery [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] of laws and customs" (3.) to "instruction [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] of the arts" (Outlines of Pyrrhonism 1.11.23–24). The active sense shades into the passive (4.) in his observation about an upheaval "that does away with the continuity of historical tradition" (Against the Professors 5.105).

Pseudo Plutarch, The Education of Children, offers one of the rare pagan uses of the passive sense "that which is handed down," when he says of an anecdote about Demosthenes (4.), "This perhaps is an inauthentic and fictitious tradition [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]]" (9; Moralia 6D). The grammarians did use tradition for the content of grammatical rules (4.).

Classical Latin Authors

Latin shows the same priority of the active sense and something of the same range of usage for traditio as Greek does for paradosis. Cicero writes of the transfer (1.) or delivery [traditio] of property (Topica 5.28). Livy mentions that some cities (2.) were delivered up [tradi, surrendered] to the Romans and others were "set free without delivery [traditione, surrender]" (History 33.31.2).

There are several occurrences for the transmission of knowledge, the activity of teaching. Seneca, referring to a teacher and a physician (3.), says that "in the transmission [traditio] of such knowledge mind is fused with mind" (Benefits 6.17.2). Apuleius in reference to his third initiation into the mysteries of Isis, this time at Rome, describes it (3.) as "what remained lacking of what was given [traditioni]," having been performed twice (Metamorphoses 11.29).

The passive sense of an item of knowledge or belief (4.) is also evident. Two passages in Aullus Gellius are noteworthy as implying a negative evaluation. He reports (4.) that "there was a tradition [traditionem] that Nerio was said by some to be the wife of Mars" (Attic Nights 13.23.14). Again he writes that some use words without knowing their meaning (4.), "but follow an uncertain and popular tradition [traditionem] without investigation" (16.5.1).

Jewish Writings

The Septuagint is not relevant to this study. Paradosis occurs twice in Greek Jeremiah for the delivering up (2.) of King Zedekiah and Jerusalem to the king of Babylon (39 [= 32]:4; 41 [= 34]:2). Two manuscripts of 2 Esdras (= Ezra) 7:26 give paradosis (betrayal, delivered up) (2.) instead of "bondage" for the punishment received by those who do not obey the law of God.

Philo reflects the use by philosophers (3.): "For the instructions [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] and directions which come through men are slow, but those through God are exceedingly swift" (Drunkenness 31.120). I take the word as active here, but it seems to be passive, equivalent to ancestral customs (5.), in a passage that has the importance of referring to unwritten tradition:

For children ought to inherit from their parents in addition to property ancestral customs [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]], in which they were raised and have lived from their swaddling clothes, and not to despise them, inasmuch as the tradition [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] is unwritten. (Special Laws 4.28.150)

The passage continues by referring to written and unwritten laws. It may be, however, that the word is active here also (3.), referring to the unwritten, oral, transmission of the customs.

Josephus's Antiquities has similar uses: (2.) "A voluntary surrender [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] means safety" (Antiquities 10.10 [1.2]), and reference to the delivery of the watchword (1.) to the consuls at Rome (Antiquities 19.187 (2.3). I take as the active meaning (3.) that Josiah, king of Judah, was guided "by the counsel and tradition [teaching] of the elders" (Antiquities 10.51 [4.1]). This work also introduces other meanings. He summarizes the contents of the Antiquities as containing the tradition, the account (4.), from the first creation of human beings until the twelfth year of Nero's reign.

Relevant for New Testament usage is Josephus's description of the traditions of the Pharisees (6.):

The Pharisees handed down to the people by succession from the fathers certain laws that were not written in the laws of Moses. For this reason the Sadducaean group rejected these laws, claiming that (only) the written laws were to be held valid and that those derived from the tradition [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] of the fathers were not to be observed. (Antiquities 13.297 [10.6])

The reference here is to the oral law of the Pharisees, identified with the "tradition of the fathers."

Nonetheless, a frequent use in Josephus is for written accounts (4.). His history of the Jewish War "preserved the record [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] of the truth" (Life 361), and King Agrippa testified to its "record [or perhaps better here its transmission, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] (3.) of the truth" (Life 364). Josephus elsewhere uses tradition in the sense of an account for his own writings (4.). He refers to the written records of other nations as tradition. The Jewish books included the five of Moses (4.–5.), which "contain the laws and the tradition [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the account] from the origin of mankind down to his death" (Against Apion 1.8.39).

New Testament

Of the thirteen New Testament references, nine are to the traditions of the Pharisees (6.). These latter uses refer to an objective content, that which was handed down, and in each case the Latin uses traditio to translate paradosis. As to the source, the tradition is specified as "of the elders" (Mt 15:2; Mk 7:3, 5), "of men" (that is, human tradition—Mk 7:8), and "your [Pharisees' and scribes'] tradition" (Mt 15:3, 6; Mk 7:9). Their tradition was what "you hand on" (Mk 7:13). These traditions are contrasted with "the commandment of God" (Mt 15:3) and "the word of God" (Mt 15:6; Mk 7:13).

In addition to these eight passages from the Gospels there is Paul's reference (6.) to his life in Judaism, "being exceedingly zealous for the traditions [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] of my fathers" (Gal 1:14). The Pauline corpus also refers to "human tradition [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]]," in this case teachings of philosophers and human speculations (4. or perhaps 5.), contrasted with what accords with Christ (Col 2:8). The statement apparently refers to what is called the "Colossian heresy," but it is possible that the active meaning of "transmission" (3.) is intended, but in either case the human origin discredits the subject.

The above references give a negative evaluation of tradition, but Paul three times uses the word in a positive sense for what he delivered to the churches. He commended the Corinthian Christians, "because you observe the traditions [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Latin praecepta] even as I delivered them to you" (1 Cor 11:2). Practices are in mind (8.), probably the practice of veiling, which is the subject of the following verses. Matters of conduct, practice, are once more the subject when Paul writes of brothers living in a disorderly manner (8.), "not according to the tradition [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], traditionem] that they received from us" (2 Thes 3:6). Doctrine (7.), especially eschatological teaching, seems to be the content of the exhortation, "Hold fast to the traditions [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], traditiones] which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by our letter [1 Thes]" (2 Thes 2:15). The content was the same in both means of communication—orally and in writing. The message was public, not secret. In all three of these positive references to tradition Paul the apostle was the source, but the implication is that what was delivered was from the Lord.

Christian Apocrypha, Apostolic Fathers, and Apologists

An uncanonical gospel fragment from about the mid-second century uses paradosis in a sense common in Josephus and classical authors (2.). The rulers were unable to seize Jesus, "because the hour of his delivering up [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]]" had not come. Although Christian usage, unlike classical Greek, is predominantly the object transmitted, this passage shows that the word could keep its sense of the act of delivering.

Clement of Rome wrote to the Corinthian Christians, "Let us leave behind empty and vain thoughts and come to the famous and noble rule of our tradition [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]]" (1 Clement 7.2). One might think that the reference is to doctrine (7.), but since the author was addressing the schism, and from his standpoint sedition, of some in the congregation, behavior (8.) seems to have been in mind.

Eusebius's report on Papias contains frequent reference to tradition. The word, however, does not occur in Eusebius's quotations from Papias and appears to be his own designation for what Papias recorded (4.), a conclusion confirmed by use of Eusebius's characteristic phrase, "as" or "as if" in speaking of tradition (see below on Eusebius). The qualification "unwritten" for some of the traditions indicates that unwritten was not implicit in the word itself, even if the transmission was normally oral. Eusebius had a generally unfavorable opinion of Papias.

The text of the apology known as Epistle to Diognetus contains what appears to be a homily appended to it (chapters 11–12), so to the uncertainty of the date and authorship of the apology there is the added uncertainty of the origin of the final two chapters, which may be much later. Here is found a statement that reminds one of Irenaeus and later authors (I do not suggest him as the author but think of his time period):

The fear of the Law is sung, the grace of the Prophets is known, the faith of the Gospels is established, the tradition [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] of the Apostles is guarded, and the grace of the church leaps for joy. (Epistle to Diognetus 11.6)

The listing of Law, Prophets, and Gospels indicates that the next item refers to apostolic writings, so I have capitalized Apostles. The apostles are the source, and their teaching is the content of the tradition, that is, the Christian message (7.).

Although the verb "to deliver" is common in the apologists, the noun is rare. Justin Martyr called on Trypho the Jew to "despise the tradition [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] of your teachers" (6.) (Dialogue 38.2). Tatian referred to "the tradition [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] of the Greeks" (5.) (Oration 39.1). Minucius Felix, using a verbal form, repeated the claim that Rome's success was due to her adherence to ancestral traditions (5.) (traditas—Octavius 6.1).

Those Called Gnostics

The Valentinian Ptolemy in his letter to Flora claims to present teaching derived from the Lord and the apostles (9.): "If you are deemed worthy of the apostolic tradition which we also have received from a succession together with the regulation of all our words by the teaching of the Savior." Ptolemy was one of the principal targets of Irenaeus's refutation in Against Heresies, and his words closely parallel the claim of Irenaeus on behalf of the orthodox Catholic Church. Which came first? The lack of predecessors to Irenaeus's language among the orthodox and the place of the argument from tradition in Against Heresies (on which more below on Irenaeus) seem to indicate that a claim to a secret tradition derived from the apostles was first made by his Gnostic opponents, to which he opposed the public tradition of the church.


Excerpted from TRADITION & THE RULE OF FAITH IN THE EARLY CHURCH Copyright © 2010 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Ronnie J. Rombs is assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas. He is the author of St. Augustine and the Fall of the Soul and coeditor of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Alexander Y. Hwang is assistant professor of historical theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and author of Intrepid Lover of Perfect Grace: The Life and Thought of Prosper of Aquitaine.

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