Earl Doherty and the Apostolic Tradition
By Christopher Price
In Chapter 4 of his book, The Jesus Puzzle, Earl Doherty argues that the idea of an 'apostolic tradition' did not develop until the second century. By "apostolic tradition," Doherty means "a reliable conduit to those original witnesses" that provided a "supposedly unbroken chain of teaching and authority extending from the earliest apostles of the church." (Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle, page 43). But, according to Doherty the early Christians had no such concept: "There is not even the barest concept of a teaching passed on between generations, arising out of an apostolic past. Instead, as in Paul, true doctrine comes directly through revelation from God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, though some 'spirits' are false and come from the devil." Ibid.
Doherty goes on to discuss three examples of early Christian writings to show that there was no apostolic tradition. Several early Christian writings, however, do show--at the very least--the "barest concept of a teaching passed between generations." In fact, they show more than that. Even the examples Doherty proffers reveals that early Christians were concerned with established doctrine received from their forerunners in the faith.
A. The Didache, Chapter 11
First, Doherty cites to Chapter 11 of the Didache and argues it "contains instructions to the community on how to judge the legitimacy of wandering apostles, both in their teaching and their charismatic activity. Yet no part of this judgment is based upon the principle of apostolic tradition; there is no question of tracing authority or correctness back to Jesus or even to earlier apostles." Here is the relevant passage:
Despite Doherty's assertions, there is nothing in Chapter 11 about using direct revelation to test each apostle or prophecy. Rather, apostles are to be tested by something that sounds more like the apostolic tradition. An apostle's teaching must be tested by comparing it to "the things that have been said before" and "the decree of the Gospel." Far from testing each apostle's message by "direct revelation," the Didache instructs Christians to test them by comparing it to established tradition.
B. Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 13
Second, Doherty cites Hebrews 13:7: "Remember your leaders, those who first spoke God's message to you." He argues that "not only are those leaders not located in a line going back to the earliest apostles, the message is not from Jesus, but from God." Doherty assumes too much with too little. These leaders might very well go back to the earliest apostles. This passage alone, however, is not clear. What is certain is that the author is referring to established tradition--not direct revelation. Fortunately, elsewhere the author of Hebrews demonstrates awareness of the "apostolic tradition."
Here, the author refers to those who first heard the Lord during a ministry that was confirmed by signs and wonders--fitting aptly the Gospel traditions about Jesus. They are the source of the author of Hebrew's gospel, not a direct revelation.
C. First Letter of John, Chapter 4
Third, Doherty cites 1 John 4:1 and argues that "What is the test which determines whether a Christian apostle is speaking truth? This epistle was probably written in the last decade of the first century.... Instead, as in Paul, true doctrine comes directly through revelation from God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, though some 'spirits' are false and come from the devil." His citation is self-servingly selective.
1 John 4:1-3
The message of 1 John 4 is the opposite of what Doherty's theory would expect. Revelation must bow to tradition, not vice versa. Nothing is said about testing the spirit by another revelation from God. Here, we see that prophets are to be tested not by another revelation by a church member or leader, but by whether they ascribe to a specific teaching already established in the community--"that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God." Moreover, the author of 1 John is emphasizing that the ultimate standard of authenticity is whether the preaching focused on a historical, human Jesus ("come in the flesh").
This testing of prophecy shows a suspicion in prophecy and direct revelation. James DG Dunn refers to this as "a hermeneutic of suspicion" about direct revelation.
(James DG Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, pages 190-91)
Once again, therefore, Doherty's example damages his case. 1 John 4 expresses distrust of direct revelation. It subordinates it to the tradition already established in the church.
In addition to the problems created for his theory by his own examples, Doherty ignores several obvious passages that directly contradict his point.
A. Papias' Sayings of the Lord
Papias wrote his Exposition of the Lord's Reports between 110 and 130 CE. From Papias' writing we learn that by the early second century, Christians were already relying on "books" that passed along traditions about Jesus. Even so, Papias also found it valuable to learn about Jesus by seeking out those familiar with the apostolic tradition as a first hand account.
(Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.4)
(Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.15)
Papias is quite clear that by the time he wrote there were "books" which attested to the teachings of Jesus. It is highly doubtful that these books were hot off the presses, because by the time Papias wrote they appear to have become the established why by which Christians knew of the historical Jesus. Papias himself was not completely satisfied with those books. ("I concluded that what was to be got from books was not so profitable to me as what came from the living and abiding voice."). So he sought out those who were disciples of Jesus' disciples. ("If, then, anyone who had attended on the elders came, I asked minutely after their sayings. I asked what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, Thomas, James, John, Matthew, or any other of the Lord's disciples - things which Aristion and presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say."). Nor does Papias indicate that this was only a recent practice of his. It appears to be a longstanding one, as he collected stories from many people. Accordingly, there already exists in Papias' time books purporting to represent an apostolic tradition and Christians claiming to have known Jesus' disciples and repeating an apostolic tradition.
B. The Gospel of Luke
There is also the Preamble to the Gospel of Luke.
Luke places the very foundation of his own Gospel on what had been "handed down" by "eyewitnesses." Clearly a reference to a form of the apostolic tradition. Luke appears to make good on his word. His Gospel relies heavily on established sources such as the Gospel of Mark and Q, and probably the "L" source or sources.
C. The Didache Again
As mentioned above, the Didache, is dated from the end of the first century or beginning of the second.
The measure of a teacher's teaching was not divine revelation, but established tradition. The measure of true teaching is "the things that have been said before" and "the decree of the Gospel."
D. Hebrews Again
Hebrews 2:2-4, which Doherty and I date to before 70 CE. As discussed above, the author's audience received their tradition from those who had heard it from the Lord. Moreover, this is placed in a specific time frame, not an ongoing series of revelations from God.
In addition to the above references is the evidence of the Pauline corpus. Doherty discusses the Pauline evidence in the section following the one on "Apostolic Tradition." Here, I rebut Doherty's argument that Paul's references to having "received" and "passed on" tradition to his churches are speaking solely of a heavenly revelation to Paul. In reality, Paul passed on what he had learned from earlier Christians--most likely from the Jerusalem Church.
A. Paul's Revelation
Doherty begins by discussing what all agree is Paul's reception of a revelation from God.
Doherty ignores the first part of the passage, which states that no revelation (even from an "angel from heaven") could supplant the tradition already established in the church. This is the opposite of what Doherty seems to think was the practice among the early Christians. Moreover, Doherty mistakenly assumes that every time Paul uses the term "received" he can only be referring to a divine revelation directly from God.
B. Received and Delivered Tradition
That is not the case, as we can see in Doherty's next example.
1 Corinthians 15:1-5.
Here we have the core of the apostolic tradition. That Jesus died, was buried, was raised again according to the scriptures, and appeared to many of his followers. According to Doherty, however, Paul did not receive this as an oral transmission from any Christian predecessor, but it as divine revelation from God. There are two main problems with this.
First, even though Paul claims in Galatians that he had a direct revelation from God, he also concedes that he laid his preaching before Peter, James, and John--and they approved of it. The Gospel Paul was preaching was the same as they were preaching. And, it was the same that was being preached prior to Paul's conversion. That the Gospel Paul is referring to is the same one that was taught by the apostles is made clear in Corinthians (though Doherty ignores this passage):
1 Corinthians 15:10-11
Paul could not be more clear that the Gospel to which he "received" and "passed on" to his churches--that Jesus Christ was dead, buried, and rose again bodily from the grave--was the same one that was preached by the other apostles. In other words, it is no innovation of Paul, but established apostolic tradition.
So while Paul claimed a revelation from God, he also admitted that he was passing along the pre-existing church traditions. Dr. Thompson explains Paul's use of tradition as follows:
(MB Thompson 'Tradition' in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, page 944)
As Paul himself wrote to his recent converts:
Paul also wrote about how he submitted the gospel he was preaching to the apostles in Jerusalem. He is quite clear, it was the same gospel they had been preaching. The result of his submission was the approval of the other apostles.
Here Paul concedes that he "submitted" his preaching to the apostles in Jerusalem for their approval (that it might not be "in vain"). The result was positive, as the next passage shows.
Here Paul records how his preaching was accepted by the apostles in Jerusalem ("gave to me ... the right hand of fellowship"). But, even more importantly perhaps, Paul acknowledges that his gospel was "just as" Peter's. The only difference was to whom the message was being given. For Paul, to the Gentiles. For Peter, to the Jews. The message was the same. As recorded in 1 Corinthians: Jesus Christ risen from the dead.
What all of these scriptures show is that Paul's own direct revelation was subordinate to established tradition.
(James DG Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, pages 190-91)
Second, in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 and 15:1-5 Paul speaks of "receiving" and "delivering." This two step formula has a well established meaning in Judaism for the passing on of oral tradition. According to a leading Jewish scholar, "[h]e also discloses that the doctrines of Christianity were received and passed on--likely to be Greek translations of the two technical terms for the transmission of oral tradition within Pharisaism: kibel and masar." (Alan Se Galatians, Paul the Convert page 27; see also Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, page 229 "'Receive' and 'pass on' ... reflect standard terminology for the transmission of oral tradition").
C. Receiving the Eucharist
Although several leading scholars have recognized the significance of the two terms used here, it's usage in 1 Corinthians 11 has raised some questions:
1 Corinthians 11:23-25
Although Paul uses the "received" and "delivered" language, he also says it was "received from the Lord." So, is it divine revelation or a pre-existing tradition? CK Barrett clearly frames the issue:
(CK Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, page 265)
Leading Pauline scholars have concluded that Paul is still referring to established tradition, though one traced back directly to the Lord. That 1 Corinthians 15 had its origin with the Church is obvious. It is not a teaching of Jesus but a description of the early Church's central belief. With 1 Corinthians 11, we are dealing with a tradition explicitly established by Jesus himself. This explains the focus on the tradition's origins. Thus, 1 Corinthians 11 can be said to be received "from the Lord."
"By attributing the tradition directly to the Lord ('I received from the Lord'), Paul himself raises the question of whether he thought of it as a personal revelation from the Lord. But the fact that he feels no need to defend it as such (contrast Galatians 1.12) and uses the traditional terminology for receiving and passing on of tradition (as in 1 Corinthians 15:1, 3) points firmly to the conclusion that 11.23-26 was part of the traditions also mentioned in 11.2." (Dunn, op. cit., page 606 n. 37). According to FF Bruce, "[s]ince it related what 'the Lord Jesus' did and said, it was a tradition ultimately 'received from the Lord' and accordingly delivered by Paul to his converts." (FF Bruce Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, page100).
Further supporting a reading that Paul was passing an existing tradition is that the Lord' Supper account is represented by two different traditions. The existence of two traditions shows that an origin with Paul is very unlikely. "[T]here were clearly two slightly (but significantly) different versions of the form of and wording used at the last supper among the churches. One we may call the Mark/Matthew version; the other was common to Paul and Luke. It should be fairly evident ... that neither can be completely derived from the other. The most obvious explanation of their otherwise striking closeness is that they come from a common source or tradition.... There need be little doubt, then, that Paul did indeed derive his founding tradition of the last supper from common tradition, and nothing that Paul says in 11.23-26 counts against the view that the tradition itself stemmed ultimately from the event now known as the last supper itself." (James DG Dunn, op. cit., pages 607-08). (For a breakdown of the similarities and differences between the two accounts is demonstrated here.
D. Other Pre-existing Creeds, Liturgies, and Psalms
Finally, Paul elsewhere relies on established Church creeds, liturgies, and psalms. Such creeds can be detected by established indicators, such as the four-time repeat of "that' in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, or "received and passed on" as in 1 Corinthians 11 and 15, and the atypical vocabulary of well-attested passages, the use of theological approaches otherwise uncommon--such as the suffering servant motif, and the use of rhetorical forms and structures (RP Martin, 'Creed' in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, page191). According to Thompson:
(Thompson, op. cit., page 944)
E. Summary of the Pauline Evidence
In sum, the idea that Paul did not make the transmission of oral tradition a part of his ministry is contradicted in many ways. "Paul's letters show us that the apostle valued and used traditions, including those he inherited from the OT, from the sayings of Jesus, and from the creeds, hymns and catechisms of early Christian communities. For Paul, the Spirit did not supplant traditions, but supplemented their application, guided their production, and spoke through their use." (MB Thompson 'Tradition' in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters page 943). Paul concedes that the gospel he preached--specifically Jesus' being killed, buried, and resurrected as a path to salvation--was the same one that the Church persecuted while he was not a Christian, and the same one that Peter preached to the Gentiles, that he laid it before the apostles and obtained their approval of it. Paul even uses typical pharisaic phraseology to refer to the oral transmission of the narrative of Jesus' death, resurrection, and appearances, as well as the Last Supper. And, throughout Paul's letters he uses pre-existing church traditions and creeds not of his own invention.
Doherty’s argument that the early Church had no concept of passing along established tradition is refuted. Indeed, his favoured explanation—that the church obtained its teachings from direct revelation—is similarly weak. The early Christians, though making use of prophecy, were careful to subordinate direct revelation to established tradition. Even Paul, who claimed that his Gospel came directly from God, recognized that he had to subordinate his revelation to established tradition. Paul is also clear that the Gospel he preached was the same that the other Apostles were preaching. Accordingly, from Doherty’s own examples as well as from Papias, Luke, and the writings of Paul, we learn that the early Church did have an established tradition that was handed down by those who had witnessed Jesus—and this established tradition set the mark by which new revelation was judged.
© Christopher Price 2003.