Were the Earliest Christians Only Concerned About Oral Tradition?

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

April 26, 2012

I’ve spent the last week or so diving deeply (again) into the writings of the Apostolic Fathers.  The Apostolic Fathers are an informal collection of early Christian writings, roughly 95-150 AD, which include books like the Didache, 1 & 2 Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas, and letters from Polycarp and Ignatius.

In recent years, scholars have expressed increased skepticism about whether these writings can inform our understanding of the development of the canon.  What appear to be citations of and allusions to New Testament books are not that at all, we are told, but instead are best explained by these authors drawing upon oral tradition.  This preference for oral tradition is based on the belief that Christians were not really concerned about written documents yet–that doesn’t come about until the end of the second century.

Now much of this approach is certainly correct.  Early Christians did use and value oral tradition well into the second century.  And certainly it can explain many of the citations/allusions in the Apostolic Fathers.  But, must we insist that it can explain all of them?  Did early Christians really have an aversion to written texts?   These questions are too big to answer in a single blog post, but I think one of the Apostolic Fathers challenges this thinking head on: Papias.

Papias was Bishop of Hierapolis and wrote around 125AD (see inset picture!).  He tell us plainly about the written gospels of Mark and Matthew:

The Elder used to say: Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he [Peter] remembered. . . . Matthew collected the oracles in the Hebrew language,[1] and each interpreted them as best he could.

What’s particularly noteworthy is that Papias received his information directly from “the Elder” who is no doubt “John the Elder” he mentions elsewhere as a follower and disciple of Jesus himself.  Thus, although Papias is writing around 125 AD he is actually referring to a much earlier time when he received this tradition, probably around 90AD.

Here, then, is the key point: Papias attests to the fact that at the end of the first century, one of the primary ways Christians were receiving Jesus tradition was through written gospels, two of which were named Matthew and Mark (!).   This fact alone should challenge the notion that only oral tradition can/should explain citations in the Apostolic Fathers.[2]


[1] For a discussion of what is meant by the “Hebrew language”, and how this does not mean something other than Matthew is in view, see R.T. France, Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher, 53-66.

[2] Of course, some have tried to counter this point by pointing out that Papias seems himself to prefer oral tradition (Hist. eccl.   But, a number of scholars have pointed out that this statement by Papias is widely misunderstood.  But, we shall have to address that further in another post!





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