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The Strength of Oral Tradition


In a world char­ac­ter­ized by the ratio­nal­ism of the Enlight­en­ment and the instant knowl­edge of Google, it’s hard to believe things have not always been so.

In the ancient world, ideas, cus­toms, sto­ries, and even his­to­ry were com­mit­ted pri­mar­i­ly not to books, but rather mem­o­rized through both poet­ry and song. They were pre­served through oral tra­di­tion. And of course, tra­di­tion sim­ply means to “pass on” or “hand down” a cus­tom, belief, or idea from one per­son to the next.

For exam­ple, Jude writes (1:3):

Fight hard for the faith which was once for all deliv­ered to the saints.

Deliv­ered’ is of the same Greek root (παράδοσις or para­do­sis) as ‘hand­ed over’—like in the case of Christ being hand­ed over to the Jews; cf. John 18:36—or even ‘tra­di­tion-ed.’

In St. Paul’s let­ters, he more than once speaks of tra­di­tion. He writes to Corinth:

I praise you, brethren, that you remem­ber me in all things, and hold firm to the tra­di­tions as I deliv­ered them to you. —1 Cor. 11:2

This is inter­est­ing, giv­en that his pre­vi­ous state­ment men­tions they do well in imi­tat­ing him in all things. What­ev­er ‘tra­di­tion’ is in this case, it is not a writ­ten doc­u­ment or a set of doc­trines one should mere­ly con­tem­plate in their hearts, but is rather some­thing that is lived and imi­tat­ed in the life of the Church. The apos­tle also wrote to Thessalonika:

Stand firm and keep the tra­di­tions which we taught you, whether by word or by let­ter. —2 Thess. 2:15

Luke’s Gospel was a com­pi­la­tion of tra­di­tion he received—likely both oral and written—as he pref­aces the narratives:

[T]hose who were eye­wit­ness­es and ser­vants of the word since the begin­ning have deliv­ered [this tra­di­tion] to us. —Luke 1:1

Giv­en that oral tra­di­tion exist­ed even with­in the ear­li­est days of the Church, we can now look at what these tra­di­tions were.

Were they the scrip­tures them­selves? This doesn’t seem like­ly, giv­en that the apos­tle Paul makes a delin­eation between his epis­tles and “oth­er tra­di­tions” in 1 Thes­sa­lo­ni­ans, not to men­tion the unan­i­mous wit­ness of ear­ly Church fathers—such as Saint Ire­naeus and Hip­poly­tus of Rome—who also dis­tin­guish ‘apos­tolic tra­di­tion’ from the holy scriptures.

To help put this all in con­text, let’s con­sid­er a few facts about oral tra­di­tion and mem­o­riza­tion in the ancient world.

As I men­tioned at the begin­ning, human­i­ty in antiq­ui­ty pre­served ideas, sto­ries, and his­to­ries through the use of both poet­ry and song—or through ‘the arts’ in gen­er­al, as we see with Chris­t­ian iconography—as well as by ‘mnemon­ic art.’

For exam­ple, Hip­pias of Elis (a Greek Sophist and con­tem­po­rary of Socrates) was able to mem­o­rize “the genealo­gies of heroes and men … the set­tle­ments, and in a word all ancient his­to­ry” of a peo­ple. When pressed on this issue by Socrates, he replied: “Let me hear them once and I’ll mem­o­rize fifty names” (Greater Hip­pias 285e). Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23–79) once claimed that Cyrus was able to name every sin­gle per­son in his army (thou­sands of peo­ple), and some of that same era were known to have been able to recount the names of every cit­i­zen in Rome. The Pla­ton­ist Charmides (164–95 B.C.) was able to recount whole books in the library at Athens from mem­o­ry. Seneca the Elder (54 B.C.–39 A.D.) claims “that he could recall 2,000 names or 200 dis­con­nect­ed vers­es in the order giv­en, or in reverse order” (Con­tro­ver­si­ae, Book 1, pref. 2).

Not only were ancients capa­ble of mem­o­riz­ing large amounts of infor­ma­tion, but there also exist­ed among some a cer­tain dis­dain towards the writ­ten word and towards ‘books’ them­selves. Socrates him­self nev­er wrote any­thing, and Pla­to relates his teach­ings in con­ver­sa­tions, rather than detailed trea­tis­es or sum­ma­riza­tions of information—which are ‘life­less’ and can be eas­i­ly mis­con­strued or twist­ed to mean some­thing oth­er than intend­ed (cf. 2 Pet. 3:16).

In one of his con­ver­sa­tions, Socrates shares the myth of Theuth, the Egypt­ian god of writ­ing, mea­sur­ing, and cal­cu­lat­ing. Thamus, the king of Egypt, tells him:

Since you are the father of writ­ing, your affec­tion for it has made you describe its effects as the oppo­site of what they real­ly are. In fact, it will intro­duce for­get­ful­ness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not prac­tice using their mem­o­ry because they will put their trust in writ­ing, which is exter­nal and depends on signs that belong to oth­ers, instead of try­ing to remem­ber from the inside, com­plete­ly on their own. You have not dis­cov­ered a potion for remem­ber­ing, but for remind­ing; you pro­vide your stu­dents with the appear­ance of wis­dom, not with its real­i­ty. Your inven­tion will enable them to hear many things with­out being prop­er­ly taught, and they will imag­ine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know noth­ing. And they will be dif­fi­cult to get along with, since they will mere­ly appear to be wise instead of real­ly being so. —Phæ­drus 275a–b

Socrates con­tin­ued to tell Phæ­drus that those who think writ­ing can yield any pos­i­tive results—especially in the dis­ci­plines of the arts or phi­los­o­phy —“must be quite naive and tru­ly igno­rant” (275c). In the end, writ­ing serves only as a reminder, but not as a true ‘teacher.’ This, he con­tend­ed, could only come through face-to-face con­ver­sa­tion and per­son­al interaction.

Almost all of the ancient ‘epics’—as we see with Homer, for example—are poet­ry. They are his­to­ry meant to be recit­ed, dra­ma­tized, or, bet­ter yet, sung. They are not mere­ly writ­ten down for some­one else to ‘read about,’ and pos­si­bly mis-inter­pret. They are lived from gen­er­a­tion-to-gen­er­a­tion in a com­mu­ni­ty, passed down from one fam­i­ly to the next.

If we look at the lat­er Chris­t­ian con­text, such as with the Sec­ond Coun­cil of Nicaea (A.D. 787), a canon demand­ed that bish­ops be able to recite the entire­ty of the Psalter by mem­o­ry. This would seem near­ly impos­si­ble were it not for a devel­oped capac­i­ty (in antiq­ui­ty, at least) for mem­o­riz­ing and retain­ing ‘tra­di­tions,’ not to men­tion the reg­u­lar prac­tice of singing through the Psalter, and espe­cial­ly in a monas­tic con­text. Monks are called to pray through the entire Psalter week­ly, singing through the appoint­ed Kathis­mas each day. They breathe the Psalms and prayers of the Church, and there­by ‘mem­o­rize’ her voice; they assume and become unit­ed with her ‘Mind.’

I would con­tend that the major­i­ty of apos­tolic tra­di­tions in the ear­ly Church are not writ­ten or even the scrip­tures them­selves, but are rather this more ‘artis­tic’ and even holis­tic expres­sion of the faith.

For exam­ple, and as already men­tioned above, the icono­graph­ic tradition—which pre­serves sacred truths regard­ing Christ’s gen­e­sis, life, death, bur­ial, con­quer­ing of Hades, res­ur­rec­tion, ascen­sion, and great and sec­ond coming—is an exam­ple of the ‘hand­ing down’ of shapes and col­ors that not only con­vey and pre­serve truth, but also mys­te­ri­ous­ly make present the heav­en­ly realities.

Anoth­er key exam­ple is the lives of the Saints (Menolo­gion, etc.), includ­ing our numer­ous fes­tal and dai­ly com­mem­o­ra­tions, all of which are pre­served in our remem­ber­ing them. These are not mere­ly writ­ten down in a book, but are lived out and expressed (on a year­ly basis) in the litur­gi­cal piety of the Church, com­mit­ting both them and their mean­ing to the col­lec­tive ‘mem­o­ry’ of God’s peo­ple. Accom­pa­ny­ing these cel­e­bra­tions (and even the com­mem­o­ra­tion of cer­tain icons) are songs and hymns which, just like the epic poet­ry of antiq­ui­ty, pre­serve and ‘hand down’ the his­to­ry of God’s peo­ple. They pre­serve and ‘hand down’ his divine man­i­fes­ta­tion through the lives of mar­tyrs, in the min­istry of the apos­tles, and in the lives of those who faith­ful­ly fol­lowed. The genius of singing our his­to­ry is shown in the real­i­ty that chil­dren are pre­dis­posed towards mem­o­ry through song. The Church ensures her preser­va­tion through each gen­er­a­tion by the encour­age­ment of pious par­ents to raise chil­dren ‘in the Church,’ and with our “psalms, hymns, and spir­i­tu­al songs” (Eph. 5:19).

Our litur­gies and prayer ser­vices are all tra­di­tions that have been ‘hand­ed down’ from one cler­gy­man or psaltis to the next. There are, of course, books one can read on how to per­form a litur­gy, but this pales in com­par­i­son to the action of doing liturgy—and this applies to both cler­gy and laity. We assem­ble to not only ‘do litur­gy,’ but also to pre­serve it through our repeat­ed ser­vice. By allow­ing chil­dren to par­tic­i­pate ful­ly in our services—by actu­al­ly treat­ing them as true and full Christians—we ensure the sur­vival of our faith to the next gen­er­a­tion, not to men­tion in the lives of chil­dren themselves.

Even if both the Inter­net and Google were sud­den­ly destroyed, our litur­gy and sacred prayers would not be lost; there is a pres­byter, lay­man, or elder­ly lady some­where in the Church that remem­bers all or part of our divine ser­vices. Even if every copy of the scrip­tures were one day burned, I believe our Ortho­dox monks, cler­gy, and laity could come togeth­er and write them anew—and with­out a ‘loss in trans­mis­sion’; that is to say, with­out a loss in tradition.

One of the strengths of Ortho­dox Chris­tian­i­ty is this reliance on oral tra­di­tion, even in a world where no one has to mem­o­rize any­thing. And this intel­lec­tu­al, and even spir­i­tu­al lazi­ness is much to our detriment.

Books can always be mis-inter­pret­ed or even per­vert­ed in a num­ber of ways, but the rhythms of our litur­gy, the songs in our hearts, and the sacred images of our incar­nate and risen Lord can nev­er be lost. They can nev­er be lost because they are tru­ly a part of each one of us; they are a part of our very life.

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