Reformed Articles

Oral and memorial tradition

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And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read (Lk 4:16).

After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it” (Acts 13:15).

For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues” (Acts 15:21).

And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea (Col 4:16).

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near (Rev 1:3).

1. A stock objection to sola scriptura is that most early Christians didn’t have the NT. It supposedly took centuries for the NT to be canonized. Even then, literacy and distribution were limited. So Christianity can’t be a bookish religion. It had to rely on oral tradition. 

2. One problem with that objection is that it either proves too much or to little. Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are bookish religions. They have a textual orientation in the church fathers, as well as creeds and canons of ecumenical councils (not to mention papal encyclicals). Knowledge of Catholic and Orthodox theology has a textual basis. 

3. There’s a difference between the formal canonization of the NT and how it circulated. We know from early NT MSS that NT books circulated in collections, like the Gospels or Pauline epistles. Scribes copied subsets of the NT. So the NT books were already grouped and distributed prior to formal canonization. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition.

4. There’s a fundamental distinction between information that has its origin in an oral source and the oral transmission of information. Suppose I’m a 1C Jew living in Jerusalem. My teenage son tags along the crowds that follow Jesus as he travels the countryside. My son witnesses Jesus multiply fish and bread. He tells me what he saw. That’s word-of-mouth from the get-go. 

5. Compare that to my hearing the OT read aloud in synagogue every week. That involves oral transmission of a written text. The source of information isn’t oral but written. As a regular attendant at synagogue, my knowledge of the OT isn’t based on oral tradition but memorial tradition. My recollection of the lector reading the text. Due to repetition, I remember the gist of the OT. 

The public reading of the Scripture, a Jewish tradition that carried over into the church, gave Christians who might be illiterate or lack private copies of the Bible, regular exposure to the text of Scripture. That’s not oral tradition but memorial tradition. Not something that originates in word-of-mouth transmission but hearing and remembering a text. 

6. And the text is fixed in a way that word-of-mouth is not. Everyone hears the same text. A common frame of reference. Not a paraphrase of what someone recalls. Now, when we remember a text, we may paraphrase it in our mind, but the text itself is not a paraphrase of what someone remembered (or misremembered). 

7. Some Catholic apologists defend oral tradition on the grounds that it was good enough for the Patriarchs. But that’s a very careless comparison. The terms of the Abraham covenant are terse. That’s easy to remember and pass on by word-of-mouth. If hardly follows that if the Abrahamic covenant can be transmitted by oral tradition, then the content of Matthew’s Gospel or Luke’s Gospel or Romans can be transmitted by oral tradition. 

It’s possible to memorize the Gospels, but you have to have the script to memorize. You commit the text to memory. 

8. In addition, access to the text enables someone to refresh their recollection. If you don’t read or hear the text on a regular basis, it’s easier to misremember what it says and there’s no way to correct your faulty memory. 

9. Critics of sola scriptura fail to appreciate the nature and necessity of a standard. Sola scripture doesn’t mean it’s necessary for every Christian to have regular access to the Bible. Up to a point, memory is adequate. But it is necessary that the source and standard be available to the church. 

I have a clock by my bed, with an illuminated readout. The only time I set my clock is after a power outage. It’s possible that my clock runs a little fast or slow, yet it’s adequate for my ordinary needs. But when the power goes out, I need to know what time it is. Indeed, I need the exact time to reset my clock. 

I don’t need to check the official time every day or every week, but it is essential to have an official standard, and access to the source, to refer to on some occasions to check the accuracy of my clock. 

10. There are situations where we need to know what Jesus actually said and did. Not just my recollection. 

11. To take a comparison, some Christians have a scholarly knowledge of the Greek and Hebrew text of Scripture. Most Christians can get along with translations. But it’s necessary that the original be available to back up the translations. The necessity of the standard doesn’t demand universal access to the standard. But some Christians have to be in a position to go back and doublecheck a translation or interpretation against the source.