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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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