Monday, October 18, 2010

Oral tradition?

One of the stock objections to sola Scriptura in Catholic apologetics is the claim that oral tradition preceded the composition of the NT. However, orality is not the norm in Scripture. Let’s take a few examples:

Exodus 17:14

Then the Lord said to Moses, "Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven."

Exodus 24:7

Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, "All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient."

Deuteronomy 31:11

When all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing.

Joshua 8:34

And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law.

In these examples we see the interplay between the spoken word and the written word. At the same time, we also see the priority of the written word to the spoken word. The public reading of the word of God. The speaker is reciting a text.

I’d add that these are not incidental cases. For the Mosaic law is the foundational document of divine revelation.

Let’s take some further illustrations:

Jeremiah 36:8-10

And Baruch the son of Neriah did all that Jeremiah the prophet ordered him about reading from the scroll the words of the Lord in the Lord’s house.

In the fifth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, in the ninth month, all the people in Jerusalem and all the people who came from the cities of Judah to Jerusalem proclaimed a fast before the Lord. Then, in the hearing of all the people, Baruch read the words of Jeremiah from the scroll, in the house of the Lord, in the chamber of Gemariah the son of Shaphan the secretary, which was in the upper court, at the entry of the New Gate of the Lord’s house.

Nehemiah 8:1-3

And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.

Nehemiah 9:3

And they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day; for another quarter of it they made confession and worshiped the Lord their God.

Not only is the written word chronologically prior to the spoken word, but the written word is causally prior to the spoken word. For the speaker is simply reciting a text–like a speaker who delivers a prepared speech.

The speaker doesn’t ad lib, then commit his extemporaneous speech to writing. The process is just the reverse. He’s like an actor reciting a script. A mouthpiece.

Let’s move to the NT:

John 20:31

But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Revelation 1:1-3

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 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.

Revelation 1:11

"Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea."

Revelation 1:19

Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.

Revelation 2:1

"To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: 'The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.

Revelation 2:8

"And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: 'The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.

Revelation 2:12

"And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: 'The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.

Revelation 2:18

"And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: 'The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze.

Revelation 3:1

"And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: 'The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars."'I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.

Revelation 3:7

“And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: 'The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.

Revelation 3:14

"And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: 'The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.

Notice the sustained appeal to the written word. Jesus doesn’t tell John to pass along his message to the churches, by word of mouth. No. Jesus dictates a series of letters to the churches.

And, of course, John will also commit his visions to writing.


  1. It's freaky Hays, but just yesterday I was going over in my head most of those verses you cite today!


    The one that I was going to comment on as I read your thread you quoted so in passing I would only note it now.

    Revelation 1:1-3

    The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 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.

    I would ask, who has ever read "out loud orally" the entire book of the Revelation given to John?

    These are the Blessed of God, both who read it out loud and those who hear it read out loud!

    I was also thinking of one other from the book of Deuteronomy, here:

    Deu 17:18 "And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests.
    Deu 17:19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them,

    Deu 17:20 that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers,
    and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.

    What we see with papal primacy is this false religion making a man head and shoulders over the rest of the faithful.

    In Biblical Christianity, we see God conjoining us to Christ as the Head of the Body and all are co-workers together sharing one another's bounty. Of course, what do we bring to the marriage but our sinful natures and guilt, while Christ brings to the marriage all His Glory as the Eternal Son of God!

    What exactly is God thinking about this sort of exchange?

  2. The same spirit which inspired this written tradition inspired the oral tradition of the prophets; so in fact what is recorded in scripture, whether it comes from an oral or a written argument is God breathed. All scripture has the same character as the prophet's speech, whether preached or written. (2 Peter 1:19-21).

    It is true that the Bible has an oral tradition except that this oral tradition begins with the Holy Ghost and ends with the particular prophet who was inspired, enlightened, superintended to do work, either preach or write, as instructed. Thus the scope of this oral tradition is limited to one single human (the first).

    To abuse the scope of this oral tradition is wrong on a number of accounts. It is idolatry to celebrate the contribution human thought, premeditation and art in this process.

    Scripture is not merely the fruit of human thought, premeditation and art, rather it is also and equally God's word, and ex-spired (rather than in-spired), doubly authored where man is merely the secondary author. It is exactly because it is the primary author (rather than the secondary author) who initiates, prompts, enlightens, and superintendents each writer (or speaker) to do their work, that the product of this work, the resultant scripture, is essentially verbal in nature in the first place.

    Though the resultant revelation is not devoid of human character, and though it is clear from style that human writers have contributed much to the making of scripture, this ONLY shows that God has permitted the preservation of human form in the transmission of his word.

    Even so, basic faith dictates that the resultant Biblical theological tradition is essentially the unassisted domain of the primary author.

  3. What about the (closely related) stock Catholic e-bjection that "Jesus never wrote a book, nor commanded his disciples to compile a Bible, but instead He founded a [C]hurch"?

  4. Hi Tom,

    Always nice to hear from you. One obvious response is that we wouldn't even know Jesus intended to found a church unless the NT authors recorded his intentions in that regard.

    There is, moreover, a parallel between the OT and the NT. If the old covenant required documentation, we'd expect the new covenant to be documented as well. That's not something which needs to be spelled out, because it's one of those things that people understand without having to be told–given the OT precedent, of which the NT is a continuation and culmination.

  5. Also, though its not recorded we have no way of knowing that its true Jesus did not command his disciples to compile a Bible.