Posted by: chuckbumgardner | January 30, 2008

What Is the Apostolic Tradition?

In my thesis passage, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-16, the term “tradition” plays an important role.  Understanding that role requires an understanding of the broader concept of “tradition” in the New Testament. The following is some of the fruit of my study in that regard. (Any abbreviated references to secondary literature find expansion in the resource list in the previous post.)

Paradosis (usually translated “tradition”) is used in the New Testament as a technical term referring to the content of instruction that has been handed down authoritatively. The words paradidomi (“deliver”) and paralambano (“receive”) are used technically in the New Testament for the deliverance and reception of the paradosis. Passages with any of these three technical terms may help to illuminate the New Testament idea of tradition.1

In his ministry, Jesus used strong words against the “tradition of the elders” – the oral law of Judaism – which had in practice been invested with an authority equal to or greater than the canonical law of Moses (cf. Matt 15:1-9). Christ spoke against the very thing that Saul the Pharisee held dear: “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my peers among my people, because I was more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions” (Gal 1:14). When Paul the Christian uses the language of tradition in regard to his own teaching, however, he has something other than the oral law of Judaism in view.2 A survey of the relevant technical terminology in his epistles, as well as in the remainder of the New Testament, indicates that Paul delivered to his converts a new collection of tradition, consisting of certain interrelated categories of material, centered in the gospel: (1) a summary of the gospel message; (2) sayings and accounts of Jesus; (3) teachings of Christian doctrine; (4) moral and ethical guidelines for believers.3 To these categories might be added Jesus’ divine interpretation of OT Scripture referring to himself, recorded in Luke-Acts as having been explained to his followers.4 When Paul uses the language of tradition, he points to the ultimate authority for his teaching: it was external to himself and could be traced back to Jesus (cf. 1 Cor 11:23). 

It should be emphasized that Paul and the other apostles (using the term narrowly) played a unique role in regard to the Christian paradosis. They were the authoritative representatives of Jesus, and had received from him his teaching, the promise of the guidance of his Spirit in bringing to their minds all that he had said, and his direct commission to deliver his teaching to other believers. “Apostolic authority was not innovative authority,” Linda Belleville reminds us; instead, it “resided in a common core of traditions about the life and teaching of Jesus,” and therefore, “the apostolic task was that of faithful transmission of these traditions to new congregations, rather than origination.” (“Authority” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 57)

That being said, however, the apostles as authoritative representatives of Christ added to the tradition, expanding what they had received.5 This was accomplished as a result of the work of the Spirit, whom Jesus had promised would guide the apostles “into all the truth” and would declare to them “the things to come” (John 16:13). Because of the apostles’ unique position as the proxies of Christ and their direct reception of Christ’s teachings, “the apostle cannot . . . have any successor who can replace him as bearer of the revelation for future generations, but he must continue himself to fulfil his function in the Church of today: in the Church, not by the Church, but by his word (John 17:20), in other words, by his writings” (Cullman, “Tradition,” 80, emphasis his). Also due to their singular position, the apostolic additions to the content of the tradition are as binding upon the church as those handed down from Christ himself.


1 The words are used technically in the following passages. paradosis: Matt 15:2f, 6; Mark 7:3, 5, 8-9, 13; 1 Cor 11:2; Gal 1:14; Col 2:8; 2 Thess 2:15; 3:6. paradidomi: Matt 11:27 (?); Mark 7:13; Luke 1:2; 10:22 (?); Acts 6:14; 16:4; Rom 6:17 (?); 1 Cor 11:2, 23; 15:3; Gal 1:14; Col 2:8; 2 Thess 2:15; 3:6; 2 Pet 2:21; Jude 3. paralambano: Mark 7:4; 1 Cor 11:23; 15:1, 3; Gal 1:9, 12; Phil 4:9; Col 2:6; 1 Thess 2:13; 4:1; 2 Thess 3:6. Of course, passages which have reference to the tradition are not limited ot those with this technical terminology. Other NT terminology used vis-B-vis tradition includes didasko/didache (“teach” / “doctrine”: Rom 6:17; 2 Thess 2:15; cf. Acts 2:42; Rom 16:17; 1 Cor 4:17; Gal 1:12; Eph 4:21; Col 2:7; 2 Tim 2:2; Tit 1:9; Heb 5:12; 6:1-2), gnoridzo (1 Cor 15:1; cf. 2 Pet 1:16); histemi/steko (“stand” / “establish”: Mark 7:9; 1 Cor 15:1; 2 Thess 2:15; cf. 1 Cor 16:13), katecho (“keep”: 1 Cor 11:2; 15:2; cf. Luke 8:15; 1 Thess 5:21; Heb 10:23), krateo/antecho (“hold (fast) to”: Mark 7:3, 4, 8; 2 Thess 2:15; cf. Tit. 1:9; Heb 4:14; Rev 2:13-15; 2:25; 3:11); phulasso (“guard”: cf. 1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 1:14). As well, the apostolic tradition seems to styled as “the faith” (Jude 1:3), “the holy commandment (2 Pet 2:21) and “the (good) deposit” (1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 1:14).

2 This is reflected in Gal 1:9-14, in which the true gospel of Christ “received” by the Galatians (v. 9), is indirectly contrasted to the “traditions” in which Paul had been previously immersed.

3 (1) 1 Cor 15:1-8; Gal 1:9-12; 1 Thess 2:13. (2) Luke 1:1-4; 1 Cor 11:23-25; cf. 1 Cor 7:10-11. (3) 2 Thess 2:15; Jude 1:3; cf. 2 Tim 1:13-14; 2:2. (4) Acts 16:4; Rom 6:17 (?); 1 Cor 11:2; Phil 4:9; 1 Thess 4:1-2. A caveat: categorizing aspects of the tradition is helpful in certain ways, but it should noted with Cullman (“Tradition,” 67) that “neither Paul nor the early Church made a conscious distinction between different elements of the paradosis.” While this is true, Paul does specify the gospel message as given in 1 Cor 15 as have been delivered “first of all,” which probably refers to prominence both in time and importance.

4 Although the technical language of tradition noted above is not used, see Luke 24:27, 44-48; Acts 1:3. With two of his followers, “beginning with Moses and the prophets, he explained to them in all the Scriptures that which concerned himself.” Later, he appeared to the Eleven and their companions, referenced the fulfillment of the OT regarding himself, and “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” Before his ascension, he spent over a period of forty days speaking to his apostles “about the things concerning the kingdom of God.” Jesus’ authoritative interpretation is doubtless behind much of the use of the OT in the NT, and almost certainly referenced in 1 Cor 15:3-4 (“according to the Scriptures”).

5 These additions might include events which happened after the ascension (e.g., 1 Cor 15:8, grammatically part of the sequence beginning with 15:3), ethical instructions on matters to which Christ had not spoken directly (e.g., Acts 16:4 in reference to Acts 15; 1 Cor 7:12 as contrasted with 7:10), and what Paul characterizes as “mystery” – previously unrevealed aspects of God’s redemptive plan (e.g., 1 Cor 15:51-52; Eph 3:4-7).



  1. I note here that in Dunn’s article, “The Tradition,” he observes:

    “In short, the fact that almost all the references to the Jesus tradition in the writings of the earliest Christianity are in the form of allusion and echo should be take to confirm (1) that such letters were not regarded as the medium of initial instruction on Jesus tradition to new churches, and (2) that churches could be assumed to have a relatively extensive knowledge of Jesus tradition, presumably passed on to them when they were first established.” (173)

  2. […]  (some  good material here: […]

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