Christian Beliefs Before The Bible
In the beginning, there were no mp3’s or books, there was the oral word. In the first century, which served as the womb for Christianity, books were rare, since they had to be hand copied. So how could one communicate key ideas about Jesus before there were printing presses and books, even before there was a functioning New Testament collection of writings about Jesus?
One common question people have about early Christianity is how there could be a common faith, if there were no documents regulating that faith until somewhere between the late second to early fourth centuries. More importantly, could there not have been a wide variation in what was believed, given there was no official “Bible on Jesus” until this later time? The question is a fair one. Some think that the lack of such regulating texts means that there were a wide variety of faiths out there with none having the best claim to go back to Jesus. So the question is important.
However, the question also betrays the fact that we live in a culture of written and visual media, a culture distinct from the oral culture of the first century. In an oral culture, there were means by which ideas were “passed on” and “received” without primary use of the written word. That “passing on” was known as oral tradition. Not only did oral tradition exist but it was passed on with a degree of care and in forms that made its ideas easy to remember.
Three factors indicate that this tradition was rooted in the earliest teaching of Christianity and was handled with care: (1) it was rooted in churches tied to the apostles who had walked with Jesus, (2) it involved the short teaching units that could be memorized, and/or (3) it involved acts of worship such as hymn singing or religious rites that were repeated so that key ideas could be retained.
When Paul wrote the first letter to the Corinthians in the mid-fifties, some twenty years after Jesus was crucified, he referred to teaching the Corinthians and Paul had received. Such reception describes oral tradition passed on from one church to another to indicate what was key to the Christian message. In this case (1 Corinthians 15:3-5), the message was “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures” (Of course, the Scripture alluded to here is the Hebrew Scriptures of Judaism). Note how short this tradition is and how it contains basic teaching in very short and memorable lines. This was the character of early tradition in the church. Such teaching Paul would have received from what he would have regarded as primary sources.
I do not cite this material because it is a part of what we now know as the New Testament. I cite it because tradition evidences its presence in our earliest historical sources about early Christianity.
Luke 1:1-4 tells us that the earliest reports about Jesus came from those who walked with him. They were narratives about Jesus and “were delivered to us” (a phrase pointing to tradition) by “those who were from the beginning eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.” So tradition that taught the faith was found initially in materials rooted in accounts from those who walked with Jesus.
Another example of such tradition also comes in Paul’s letter to Corinth. Here he contrasts first century polytheistic culture with Christian belief. This texts reads, “For although there are many so called gods in heaven and on earth – as indeed there are many “gods” and “lords” – yet for us there is one God, the Father from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and for whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:5-6). Again, this text shows the recognition of Jesus as divine, functioning as Creator. The idea is expressed in a short and memorable contrast. It teaches that the church saw Jesus as working with God at the creation and as part of the divinity the church confessed.
Religious acts also taught. So when the church took communion, the idea that Jesus had died for people was encased in the declaration that the bread and wine pictured Jesus’ blood and body broken for them. Taking such a meal periodically in worship reinforced the most basic ideas that early Christianity taught about Jesus and his death. This rite was itself rooted in an act Jesus undertook with the disciples before he was crucified. Here a religious rite reinforces church teaching.
Hymns also worked this way. We can identify them in our sources because there are written with a poetic or balanced set of lines that points to a hymn. The start of one of these hymns is found in Philippians 2:6-8 (the entire hymn runs through verse 11). This hymn is embedded in a text written in the early sixties, so we know it is older than that and would have been sung as a way to recall the ideas expressed. It speaks of Jesus and says, “who though he existed in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient even unto death, even death on a cross.”
So long before there was a New Testament or a Nicean Council, our earliest historical sources reveal that key elements of faith were “passed on” in orally through hymns and short statements rooted in a theology that went back to those who walked with Jesus. They were passed on so that the basics of Christian faith were well known and affirmed by her earliest members.