Oral Tradition in the New Testament

Author: David Palm


David Palm

The Protestant doctrine of <sola scriptura>—that the Bible alone is a Christian’s authority in matters of faith and morals—was one of the central tenets on which the Reformers broke away from the Catholic Church. But in one of those strange quirks of history, <sola scriptura> lately has been one of the central tenets on which some Evangelical Protestants have returned to Rome.

Shortly after my wife and I announced our decision to be received into the Catholic Church, members of my family urged us to talk to my former seminary professors about our decision. We were glad to do this and made appointments with two of my favorite teachers, both professors of New Testament. In addition to fielding questions from them about the Catholic faith, I asked these men a question that had been instrumental in my own decision to become Catholic: "Where does Scripture teach that Scripture alone is our authority in matters of faith and morals?" If Scripture makes no such claim for itself, then the doctrine of <sola scriptura> is self-contradictory, and this undermines a central pillar of Protestantism. To me this question was critical.

I did not get a persuasive answer from either scholar, but one of them responded to my question with one of his own: "Does any New Testament author cite oral tradition as authoritative for doctrine?" His point was that if the apostles’ use of Scripture—for them the Old Testament—illustrates that they held to a doctrine of <sola scriptura>, then it seems reasonable that this pattern would hold for later Christians’ use of the New Testament. His argument is a good one, but only to a point.

One problem is that the question assumes the truth of the conclusion it is trying to establish. By asking "Where in the New Testament do you find such and such?" the questioner is limiting the discussion only to written revelation, but this is the very point we are trying to establish. We must have some evidence that all of God’s revelation comes to us in written form; we cannot merely assume this. So we are back to the original question, "Where does Scripture teach that Scripture alone is our authority for matters of faith and morals?"

Another difficulty is that the doctrine of the apostles came to them in oral form from Jesus. In one sense the entire Christian message is based on oral tradition and is only augmented by using the written revelation of the Old Testament. From this perspective, perhaps 90 percent of the New Testament is based on authoritative oral tradition (from Jesus), and the remain ten percent is from written sources.

But my professor was concentrating on the way the apostles treated Scripture. If we could find in the New Testament no case in which the authors drew on Jewish oral tradition as authoritative, one could make the case that <sola scriptura> is a doctrine taught by the apostles, if not explicitly in the pages of the New Testament, then at least implicitly by their example. While this is not as satisfying as being able to point to chapter and verse to support <sola scriptura>, it is a way out of the logical quandary that the doctrine generates.

New Testament Evidence

I could not address this question definitively at the time, but as I have read and studied Scripture since becoming Catholic and have found that the answer to my professor’s question is Yes. The authors of the New Testament do draw on oral Tradition in addition to Old Testament Scripture. In several instances, they explicitly cite oral Tradition to support Christian doctrine. Not only does this observation undermine the doctrine of <sola scriptura>, but it lends positive support to the Catholic position of Scripture and Tradition as parallel conduits through which God brings us his revelation.

We can divide these examples into two categories.

First, we find passages in the New Testament in which oral Tradition is cited in support of doctrine. This evidence is particularly significant because it shows that, for the apostles, oral Tradition was trustworthy when formulating and developing elements of the Christian faith. This becomes an excellent biblical precedent for the Catholic Church’s practice of basing some Christian dogmas primarily on Tradition rather than on explicit biblical testimony.

In a second category of passages, the New Testament authors draw on oral tradition, but not so explicitly in support of doctrine. Although these examples are not as important for our Catholic apologetic, they are significant in that they show the extent to which the earliest Christians, including the apostles themselves, reckoned with the twin witnesses of Scripture and Tradition when they expounded the faith.

Doctrinal Examples

Matthew 2:23

Scripture says that Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth after their sojourn in Egypt, "that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’" (Matt. 2:23). All commentators admit that the phrase "He shall be called a Nazarene" is not found anywhere in the Old Testament. Yet Matthew tells us that the Holy Family fulfilled this prophecy, which had been passed on "by the prophets."

The proposed solutions to explain this verse are legion. They range from trying to find some word-play on "Nazarene" in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, to viewing this text as loosely "fulfilling" a conglomeration of Old Testament passages that refer to a despised Messiah. The serious grappling by scholars with the text is admirable, but in the end their solutions seem farfetched.

It may be that we should seek resolution in simplicity. When read in Greek, the introduction to this prophecy differs from all the other "fulfillment" sayings in Matthew (for example Matt. 1:22, 2:15, 3:15, and others). Thus, the failed attempts to locate the Old Testament background to this prophecy, coupled with this unique introduction, suggest to me that the simplest solution is probably the correct one: Matthew is drawing on oral Tradition for this saying. If this is the case, it is significant that he places this prophecy on the same level as ones he attributes to specific authors of the Old Testament. This then would be an example of God’s own Word being passed on via oral Tradition and not through written Scripture.

Matthew 23:2

Just before launching into a blistering denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus delivers this command to the crowds: "The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice" (Matt. 23:2-3).

Although Jesus strongly indicts his opponents of hypocrisy for not following their own teaching, he nevertheless insists that the scribes and Pharisees hold a position of legitimate authority, which he characterizes as sitting "on Moses’ seat." One searches in vain for any reference to this seat of Moses in the Old Testament. But it was commonly understood in ancient Israel that there was an authoritative teaching office, passed on by Moses to successors.

As the first verse of the Mishna tractate Abôte indicates, the Jews understood that God’s revelation, received by Moses, had been handed down from him in uninterrupted succession, through Joshua, the elders, the prophets, and the great Sanhedrin (Acts 15:21). The scribes and Pharisees participated in this authoritative line and as such their teaching deserved to be respected.

Jesus here draws on oral Tradition to uphold the legitimacy of this teaching office in Israel. The Catholic Church, in upholding the legitimacy of both Scripture and Tradition, follows the example of Jesus himself.

In addition, we see that the structure of the Catholic Church—with an authoritative teaching office comprised of bishops who are the direct successors of the apostles—follows the example of ancient Israel. While there are groups of Christians today that deny continuity between Israel and the Church, historic orthodox Christianity has always understood the Church to be a fulfillment of Israel. This verse about Moses' chair illuminates why we say that the successor of Peter, when he gives a solemn teaching for the whole Church, is said to speak <ex cathedra> or "from the chair."

Whereas under the Old Covenant the administration of God’s people came from the "chair of Moses," Christians under the New Covenant look to the "chair of Peter" for direction on questions of faith and morals. But there is a notable difference between the magisterium under the Old Covenant and our teachers under the New Covenant. The successors of the apostles, and especially Peter’s successor, have the Holy Spirit to guide them into all truth, and they have Jesus’ promise that the "gates of hell will not prevail" against the Church (Matt. 16:17-19).

1 Corinthians 10:4

Paul shows how Christian sacraments—baptism and the Eucharist—were prefigured in the Old Testament. He treats baptism first: "Our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea" (vv. 1-2). Next he highlights the Eucharist, prefigured by the manna in the wilderness (v.3; cf. John 6:26-40), and the water that God provided for Israel: "All drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ" (1 Cor. 10:4).

The Old Testament says nothing about any movement of the rock that Moses struck to provide water for the Israelites (Ex. 17:1-7, Num. 20:2-13), but in rabbinic Tradition the rock actually followed them on their journey through the wilderness. In a further development, another Tradition, given by Philo, even equates this rock with preexistent Wisdom: "For the flinty rock is the Wisdom of God, which he marked off highest and chiefest from his powers, and from which he satisfies the thirsty souls that love God."

It seems that Paul is drawing on this Tradition, but he elevates it to even a higher level. Christ himself was the Rock who provided for the people of Israel, which in turn makes their rebellion all the more heinous (1 Cor. 10:5ff.). Paul does not hesitate to draw on stock oral Tradition to illustrate and enhance his presentation of the gospel. The details provided in these Traditions preserved under the Old Covenant shed fresh light on the preparation that God made through Israel for the building of his Church and on the characteristics of the Christian sacraments.

1 Peter 3:19

In his first epistle Peter tells of Christ’s journey to the netherworld during which "he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah" (1 Pet. 3:19). There is a growing scholarly consensus that the interpretive key to this verse is found in Genesis 6:1-7, in which "the sons of God" cohabited with "the daughters of men" and produced ghastly offspring. According to ancient interpretation, these "sons of God" were actually rebellious angels who sinned by mating with human women.

It appears likely that this is Peter’s view as well. "For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them to pits of nether gloom to be kept until judgment . . . then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial" (2 Pet. 2:4, 9). Note the close link to Noah and Geneses 6. Compare too Jude 6, which says that "the angels that did not keep their own position but left their proper dwelling have been kept by him in eternal chains in the nether gloom until the judgment of the great day . . ." These references are evidence that Peter has this traditional interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4 in mind when he writes of Christ’s preaching "to the spirits in prison."

Additional background is found in the extra-biblical book of 1 Enoch. In this work, which was popular both in ancient Jewish and early Christian circles, the righteous man Enoch (Gen. 5:22-24) goes at God’s command to the place where these sinful angels are imprisoned and proclaims their impending judgment and punishment for their sin.

The parallel to Peter’s epistle is too close to dismiss. It seems possible that Peter views Enoch as a "type" of Christ and that in 1 Peter 3:19 he portrays Christ as a "second Enoch," who goes to the spirit world and proclaims the final downfall of these evil spirits (compare Col. 2:15). Peter’s source for this analogy is Tradition, not Scripture.

This example is significant because it highlights one of the important functions that Tradition still plays for us. As is all too clear from the divisions within Christendom, Scripture may be interpreted in many different ways. Sometimes the Traditions passed on in the Catholic Church provide the interpretive key to certain passages. This was important in the early Church, because heretics of all stripes appealed to the Bible in support of their doctrine.

It is simply false to suppose that the early Church relied on <sola scriptura> to defend Christian orthodoxy. "There is no reason to infer," says J.N.D. Kelly in <Early Christian Doctrines>, "that the primitive Church regarded the apostolic testimony as confined to written documents emanating from, or attributed to, the apostles." Rather, the early Church Fathers argued that the interpretations of the heretics were not in line with the "rule of faith," that is, the deposit of Tradition passed on by the apostles to the bishops of the Catholic Church and preserved through an unbroken lineage.

A specific application of this is the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. The data of the New Testament concerning the "brothers and sisters" of Jesus are ambiguous by themselves, although I would argue that the biblical evidence leans toward the Catholic interpretation. But we have additional help in the form of the Traditions preserved in the early Church which say that Mary remained a virgin and bore no other children besides Jesus. So Tradition can sometimes serve as arbiter and interpreter in cases where the meaning of Scripture is unclear.

Jude 9

Jude relates an altercation between Michael and Satan: "When the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, disputed about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a reviling judgment upon him, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you.’ " (Jude 9).

As H. Willmering says in <A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture>, "This incident is not mentioned in Scripture, but may have been a Jewish oral tradition, which is well known to the readers of this epistle." Some versions of the story circulating in ancient Judaism depict Satan trying to intervene as Michael buries the body. Several of the Church Fathers know of another version in which Moses’ body is assumed into heaven after his death. Jude draws on this oral Tradition to highlight the incredible arrogance of the heretics he opposes; even Michael the archangel did not take it on himself to rebuke Satan, and yet these men have no scruples in reviling celestial beings.

This text provides another example of a New Testament author tapping oral Tradition to expound Christian doctrine—in this case an issue of behavior. In addition, this text relates well to a Catholic dogma that troubles many non-Catholics—the bodily Assumption of Mary. There is no explicit biblical evidence for Mary’s Assumption (although see Rev. 12:1-6), but Jude not only provides us with a third biblical example of the bodily assumption of one of God’s special servants (see also Gen. 5:24, 2 Kgs. 2:11), he shows that oral Tradition can be the ground on which belief in such a dogma may be based.

Other Examples

There are a number of other examples in the New Testament in which the writer likely draws on oral tradition, but not so clearly in support of any doctrine. For instance, Paul dips into rabbinic tradition to supply the names, Jannes and Jambres, of the magicians who opposed Moses in Pharoah’s court (2 Tim. 3:8). In the Old Testament, these individuals are anonymous (Ex. 7:8ff.). James tells us that because of Elijah’s prayer there was no rain in Israel for three years (Jas. 5:17), but the Old Testament account of Elijah’s altercation with King Ahab says nothing of him praying (1 Kgs. 17).

It is rabbinic tradition that characterizes Elijah as the quintessential man of prayer. And even the Golden Rule, "So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets" (Matt. 7:12) was anticipated by Jewish oral Tradition. Rabbi Hillel taught, "What you do not like should be done to you, do not to your fellow; this is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary."


Likely there are many more examples of the use of oral Tradition in the New Testament. Reference works such as Alfred Edersheim’s <The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah>, John Lightfoot’s <Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica>, and Strack and Billerbeck’s magisterial <Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Misrasch> contain a wealth of parallels between rabbinic tradition and the New Testament writings. One notoriously difficult impediment to such a study is determining which traditions pre-date the New Testament and which are exclusively post-apostolic; such decisions must be left to experts and range well beyond my own abilities. Nevertheless, I believe that the passages that I cited demonstrate that the New Testament authors drew on oral Tradition as they expounded the Christian faith. This fact spells real trouble for any Christian who asserts that we must find all of our doctrine in written Scripture. We know that the apostles did not teach the doctrine of <sola scriptura> explicitly in Scripture, and we know through their use of oral Tradition that they did not intend to teach it implicitly by their example either. The conclusion is that they simply did not hold to a principle of <sola scriptura>—and neither should we.

Catholics need not be shy about this issue. The Protestant reformers taught that <sola scriptura>—Scripture alone—is our authority in matters of faith and morals. But this doctrine is unbiblical. The Catholic Church teaches that Christian doctrine is <sola Verbum Dei>—from the Word of God alone—and this is what the Bible actually says about itself. The teaching of the Bible and of the Church is that God’s Word comes to us both through the writings of the prophets and apostles and through the oral Traditions that they handed on, and these are preserved by the Church through the leading of the Holy Spirit. The burden of proof is on any Christian who believes otherwise.

David Palm, a convert, freelances from Waukegan, Illinois.

This article is reprinted from the May 1995 issue of <This Rock> magazine. Catholic Answers, Inc.