We have here been considering the primacy of the Apostolic Tradition as a source of religious authority for early Christians. The Apostolic Tradition has three fundamental components:
- The proclamation (kerygma) of the Gospel
- The words of Jesus—sayings, teachings, parables—along with his example (of what he said and did), preserved and transmitted by the apostles to the early congregations
- The authoritative teaching by the apostles
3. Authoritative Teaching by the Apostles
We may begin by returning to our previous examination of Paul’s teaching on marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, which is based on three different authoritative sources:
- Verses 10-11: Paul cites a Jesus tradition (saying/teaching by Jesus) as a command— “not I, but the Lord”
- Verses 12-14ff: He gives a similar directive, for which no Jesus tradition was available, based on his own inspired apostolic authority— “I, not the Lord”
- Verses 25ff: He has neither a command from Jesus, nor an inspired directive of his own; rather, Paul offers an authoritative opinion (gnw/mh), as advice, or by way of a recommendation, for believers.
The last two sources fit under the same heading for this article, representing two kinds of authoritative apostolic teaching. The New Testament Epistles are replete with examples of apostolic teaching, which may be divided into three general categories:
- Theological and doctrinal teaching
- Ethical instruction, and
- Guidance on congregational activity and organization
Rather than selecting from the hundreds of passages that deal with these areas, it is perhaps more useful here to consider the place of the Apostolic Tradition as a whole, embracing all three of the components outlined above. The principal noun referring to this Tradition is para/dosi$, from the verb paradi/dwmi (“give along, give over”); it thus signifies something that is “given along”, or ‘handed down,’ from one person to another, and from one generation to the next. Our word “tradition” is cognate to the Latin traditio, which has a comparable meaning to para/dosi$.
Para/dosi$ occurs 13 times in the New Testament; however, eight of these are part of a single Synoptic episode (Mk 17:3, 5, 8-9, 13; Matt 15:2-3, 6). The other five occurrences are in Paul’s letters, thus making the word something of a Pauline term.
The earliest of these, in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, is significant, in light of our previous study on 1 Cor 7:10ff (cf. above). If we combine the evidence from both Thessalonian letters, it is possible to compare Paul’s eschatological teaching in 1 Thess 4:13-5:11 with that of 2 Thess 1:5-2:15. The teaching in 1 Thessalonians is rooted in “an account by the Lord” (or, “a word of the Lord,” lo/go$ kuri/ou), which could refer to a variety of eschatological sayings/teachings by Jesus, such as those contained in the “Eschatological Discourse”. The wording in 5:2-4ff almost certainly is based on sayings by Jesus as well.
By contrast, 2 Thessalonians 1-2 represents more distinctly Pauline teaching—that is, stemming from Paul’s own, inspired status as an apostle. He attempts to explain and expound the early Christian eschatological framework, such as is found in the “Eschatological Discourse”. Paul concludes his eschatological instruction with these words in 2:15:
“So then, brothers, stand firm and hold firmly to the (thing)s given along [parado/si$ plur], which you were taught, whether through an account (of speech) or through our (letter) sent to you.”
Paul includes his current eschatological instruction as part of the various authoritative apostolic teachings he (and other apostles like him) have ‘given along’ to the Thessalonians. The mention of an e)pistolh/ (epistle) simply means that the apostolic authority was the same, whether it was spoken (when the apostle was personally present), or conveyed through writing (when he was absent). It does, however, also anticipate the preservation of letters like 2 Thessalonians, and their eventual inclusion among the New Testament Scriptures.
The same noun (para/dosi$) occurs in 3:6, in connection with Paul’s ethical instruction. The faithful and upright conduct, to which he exhorts the Thessalonians, is contrasted (as a warning) with the conduct of “…every brother walking about (in a) disorderly (manner) and not according to the (thing) given along [para/dosi$] which you received alongside [vb paralamba/nw] from us”. The verbs paradi/dwmi (“give along”) and paralamba/nw (“receive along, take long”) are similar in meaning, describing the same dynamic from two different vantage point—i.e., the giving of the tradition (by an apostle), and the receiving of it (by the congregation). For examples of paradi/dwmi in this context, cf. Luke 1:2; 1 Cor 11:2, 23; 15:3; Rom 6:17; 2 Peter 2:21; Jude 3. For other instances of paralamba/nw, cf. 1 Cor 11:23; 15:1, 3; Gal 1:9, 12; Phil 4:9; 1 Thess 2:13; 4:1.
Another verb, which can be used, even more forcefully, for the giving (and preservation) of the Apostolic Tradition, is parati/qhmi, “set/place alongside”. This verb can be used in reference to the act of teaching (e.g., Acts 17:3), but it is not used this way in the NT Epistles. Rather, it specifically means “place (something) along into one’s care,” i.e., entrust it to someone (cf. Lk 12:48). It can refer to entrusting a person into another’s care (Acts 14:23; 20:32); however, in the Epistles, it is the Apostolic Tradition, we may say, that is entrusted. This is the specific context in the Pauline Pastorals, in which the apostle (Paul) “places along” the authoritative tradition(s) to ministers such as Timothy (2 Tim 2:2; cf. also 1 Tim 1:18), who will then transmit them to the believers (and congregations) under his charge.
The related noun paraqh/kh, derived from parati/qhmi, when used in this context, is more or less synonymous with para/dosi$, but entailing also the added meaning associated with the verb parati/qhmi described above. The Apostolic Tradition that is “given along” (para/dosi$) is also “placed along” (paraqh/kh) into the care of ministers like Timothy, to be preserved and guarded carefully. This latter noun occurs just three times in the New Testament, and all in the Pastoral Letters (1-2 Timothy). The main passage, in which the noun occurs twice, is 2 Timothy 1:12-14:
“…I suffer these (thing)s, but I am not ashamed, for I have seen the (One) in whom I have trusted, and I have been persuaded that He is able to guard the (thing) placed alongside [paraqh/kh] me unto [i.e. until] that day. You must hold (firm to the) under(lying) pattern of words being [i.e. that are] healthy, which you heard alongside [para/] me, in (the) trust and love th(at is) in (the) Anointed Yeshua; the beautiful (thing) placed alongside [paraqh/kh] you must guard, through (the) Holy Spirit th(at is) dwelling in us.”
Note the chain of transmission, presented as a chiastic outline:
- God guards [vb fula/ssw] the Tradition
- this Tradition was placed alongside [paraqh/kh] Paul
- Timothy heard it alongside [para/] Paul
- the Tradition was placed alongside [paraqh/kh] Timothy
- this Tradition was placed alongside [paraqh/kh] Paul
- Through God’s Spirit, Timothy is to guard [vb fula/ssw] the Tradition
- God guards [vb fula/ssw] the Tradition
Timothy is similarly commanded to “guard” the Tradition (paraqh/kh) at the conclusion of 1 Timothy (6:20). It is worth mentioning that most critical commentators regard the Pastoral Letters as pseudonymous ‘Deutero-Pauline’ works. As such, they likely would have been written toward the end of the first-century (c. 90-100), rather than the early 60’s. The specific emphasis on guarding the Apostolic Tradition (from false believers and ‘heretics,’ etc) does seem to reflect a later development, but it is possible that Paul could already be using such language c. 63-64 A.D. I tend to regard 2 Timothy (on objective grounds) as a genuine work by Paul, but find the arguments for pseudonymity reasonably strong in the case of 1 Timothy.
Similar critical considerations go into judging the date (and thus the context) of 2 Peter and Jude—two letters which share with 1-2 Timothy a concern for guarding the Apostolic Tradition against false believers. Note, for example, the wording of 2 Peter 2:21 in the overall context of the eschatological-ethical warnings in chaps. 2-3. Jude is even more pointed in this regard, with the warnings and exhortation framed by the grand statement in verse 3:
“Loved (one)s, (in) making all haste to write to you about our common salvation, I held (myself with) constraint to write to you, calling you along to struggle over the trust once (and for all) having been given along [vb paradi/dwmi] to the holy (one)s.”
By this rhetorical syntax, the author prepares his audience for the forceful warnings that follow. He “held (himself) with constraint” in writing, because he knew that it was necessary to give the tough message warning his readers against the dangers posed by false believers within the congregations. This statement, in my view, truly does represent a relatively late development, as can be seen by the way that the noun pi/sti$ refers, not simply to trust in Jesus, but to the authoritative (apostolic) Tradition as a whole.
In conclusion here, it is also worth mentioning the reference to the letters of Paul in 2 Pet 3:15-16, usually taken by commentators as a sign for a late dating of 2 Peter (and for its pseudonymity). Whether or not this critical opinion is valid (and it may be debated), there can be little doubt that the process of collecting and preserving the New Testament Letters was already underway by the end of the first-century. This very process implies a recognition of the authoritative character of these letters, insofar as they reflect (and preserve) the Apostolic Tradition. It is possible the apostolic missionaries and leaders themselves sought to preserve some written record of their teaching. To be sure, the letters written by the apostles would have been considered just as authoritative as their spoken words when personally present (e.g., 2 Cor 10:11; 2 Thess 3:14, and cf. the discussion above). Indeed, Paul urges the Thessalonians to have his letter read (out loud) to a wide audience (1 Thess 5:27). See also the way the author of the book of Revelation refers to his work (22:6-9, 18-19, etc).
By the end of the first-century, the writings of the apostles—some of them, at any rate—were effectively being treated as authoritative Scripture, on a par with the Old Testament Scriptures, even as the Apostolic Tradition, on the whole, superseded those very Scriptures. Around the same time (c. 90 A.D.), all four of our Gospels had been written, preserving, in a similar way, a different aspect of the Tradition. The process of producing a corpus of New Testament Scriptures was well under way.