Question about Oral Tradition

Catholic and Orthodox apologists often point to pagans who could memorise such works as Homer’s Iliad to show that oral tradition was the norm in Ancient times and that it was reliable. But at the same time, didn’t these same pagans have stories about people who they believed to be historical, associated with their false gods, who are all dismissed by most people (including Catholics) as myths/fables?

What exactly sets the oral tradition of the Church apart from the oral tradition of the pagans? I mean, what exactly makes Church Tradition more historically reliable compared to pagan traditions?

Thanks in advance and God bless.

Big hangup for me as protestant thinking about Catholicism.

Ultimately it came down to the creator of the universe giving his promises to the church… Matt 16:18 and Matt 28:20. Pagans or anyone else has no such assurance.

I think the fact that tradition actually birthed the holy Scriptures gives it much credence. And that scripture itself actually points to Tradition. 2 Thess 2:15

And lastly the pedigree of the Church has been remarkable. Weeding out heresy for 2000 years.
I’ve been through the painful annulment process and so I’ve seen with my own eyes how carefully and thoroughly the Church handles her matters. I mean it took like 20 years of investigation before they finally canonized Mother Teresa who seemed like such a obvious lock for sainthood.

Taking everything into consideration, im very confident that the Church will not pull teachings out of thin air and is well aware of what’s credible and what’s not.


The Catholic Church has Sacred Scriptures and the writings of the early Church fathers to verify our traditions. I doubt that many pagans have as much in writing to back up their oral stories as the Church does.

There would have to be specific examples to state how one Tradition is reliable vs. pagan fables. The term is too broad to answer simply.

…well the same Person that warned that there would be no stone upon a stone left of the Temple (razed about 70 AD) stated that He would send the Church the other Paraclete (the Holy Spirit) Who would bring her to the Fullness of Truth as He would Reveal things to come and Guide her; incidentally, He also stated that not even the gates of hades (hell) would prevail against her–the Catholic Church is the only institution that has remained professing the Gospels for nearly two thousand years…

I suggest to you to inquire about the Shroud of Turin–science can only claim what it knows and it knows that it is a 3D image created by some sort of explosive energy where nothing known to tech (paint, stain, oil, etc.) was used to produce the image of a man the bears the signs of Crucifixion (both front and back); further, it states that the image itself is not infused (as per painting, staining, burning, etc.) onto the material itself but it is somehow above the surface; the only thing it agrees on is that a burst of energy must have created it–Scriptures tells us that at the instant of Jesus’ Resurrection there was an explosive release of energy. :hmmm::hmmm::hmmm:

Maran atha!


“Sacred” oral Tradition, isn’t just anything orally passed on. Oral Tradition still needs to pass the myth/fable test as well.


Bp Irenaeus in his work “Against Heresies” wrote that “all Churches must agree with this Church (the Church of Rome) on account of her preeminent authority”. Where did he say he received that teaching? He said It was taught by Peter and Paul at Rome, and passed on continuously by faithfuil men down to his day. Those faithful men he names, were 12 bishops of Rome, by name, in continuous succession from Peter, down to his day.

His readers know tradition is authoritative in both oral and written form, as Paul taught, 2 Thessalonians 2:15

You would do well to direct your steps, in your search for understanding, to The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, of the Second Vatican Council. It speaks well and eloquently of how “Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church.”

With prayers for you, as you seek.

In my opinion, the difference of the Christian tradition from the pagan traditions consists in: 1) the mighty deeds and supernatural signs of the Apostles, who transferred this tradition, 2) the fruits that Christian religion brought upon the people, 3) the explosive character of Christian religion: unlike the pagan myths, which deceloped within a long time and multiple generations, the Christian religion and its doctrine appeared within a short time span.

If I remember correctly, J.R.R. Tolkien, when persuading C.S.Lewis to convert (wih eventual success), told him that Christian teaching is a myth, but it is a myth which is true.

Belief in God and fear of God, service of the Truth (a Person, not a thing), demanded that the faith be handed on exactly as Jesus taught it to the Apostles. The bible itself is a tradition of the Church - the written tradition. But, the bible was produced by distilling and recording portions of the oral Tradition which Jesus delivered to the Apostles. The scriptures are not complete, but are considered to be sufficient.

Example: The prologue to the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 1, verses 1-4. Reading this, we can see that many tried and apparently failed to transmit the Tradition accurately in written form. Thus, Luke wrote his magnum opus for either a specific person or lovers of God in general. We see that he wrote it specifically to confirm the accuracy of the oral teaching that “Theophilus” had already received.

It was not intended as teaching, but as confirmation of teaching already transmitted.

Thank you for some of your answers.

I will address some of what was said, in order to clarify what this topic is about:

Concerning the Shroud of Turin, I am aware of its existence, and aware that it is genuine, but the topic is NOT whether Jesus Christ existed or not. Tradition doesn’t simply cover whether Jesus Christ existed or not, or whether He was Crucified or not, but it covers all the details, what He said and did, His ressurection and His true nature.

Concerning those who quote our Lord from Scripture, we must remember that it was Tradition which birthed the Scriptures, and we are discussing credibility of Tradition, at least compared to other oral traditions.

Someone brought up how organised the Catholic Church is today, pointing specifically towards the canonisation process. I should point out that the modern means of canonisation did not exist until the 16th century. This is another slight stumbling block which is related to this topic; how much development the Catholic Church had to undergo to get where she is today. I understand that everything has to undergo development overtime, but that’s not what I’m getting at. Just look at the Church of the Early Middle Ages before the Carolingian Renaissance, which was more relaxed, calmly and steadily converting pagans, and was dare I say it, arguably syncretic. Then compare this to the Church of the High Middle Ages, which was more organised, more disciplined, more erudite, and stood distinguishable from the rest of the world. My question is, if this much development could take place, then what of the development that could have taken place among the early generations of Christians, did they really faithfully transmit the Sacred Tradition to one another? I know these are weak speculations, but there are those who believe that the monarchial episcopacy was an innovation, and that bishops and presbyters were originally the same exact roles.

The historical details in the Gospels, which parallel (in part) secular historical records, give assurance that what is alleged has a basis both within and without the movement.

I just read Chapter II and it helps quite a bit, thanks very much.

I would just point out RE: “all the details”.

Jn 21: [25] But there are also many other things which Jesus did; which, if they were written every one, the world itself, I think, would not be able to contain the books that should be written.

That said, what we have is enough details to believe, even if we don’t have all/every detail.



I would just ask, how are you using “canon”?

The Muratorian canon for example…uratoria n.html points to the authority of the “Catholic Church”

That canon was from the year ~180 a.d.

It wasn’t the final canon, but it was a canon (list) of writings used by the Church at that time

I think you might be referring to the terms Presbyter and episcopy were sometimes interchangeable in early usage. For example

A bishop is also a priest. He has both functions (presbyter and episcopy). But not all priests are bishops.

By “all the details”, I meant the details about His birth, His childhood, His ministry, His teachings, His miracles, His resurrection, etc. These details are covered in Tradition, whether written or oral. His existence and crucifixion are also covered by archaeology, and writings from ancient historians.

Canonisation of Saints.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the term ‘presbyter’ in the early Church referred to ‘elders’, bishops did not start ordaining ‘priests’ until centuries later.

As an aside, If we had every single detail we would be in heaven already

(All links on this page are functional)

Some articles asking and answering some questions on the subject. I picked just a few :cool:

When did the custom of canonizing saints start, and is it true that canonizations are infallible?

There is a list of canonized saints, so why isn’t there a list of the damned?

Could a non-Catholic be canonized by the Catholic Church?

Are All Christians Saints?

Sanctity Beyond the Eyes of the Beholders

Why isn’t Noah a saint?

True, and that’s where we got the name Priest from

From the beginning, everything centered around the Bishop

For example:

Ignatius of Antioch, was a bishop ordained by the apostles ~68 a.d. and was a direct disciple of the apostle John. He writes his letters while under arrest, and being taken to Rome to be thrown to the lions in the year ~107 a.d.

in his Epistle to the Smyrnæans see how he references the bishop

…I introduced the Shroud of Turin to place the Man (the Word Incarnate) in History; since it is He Who Founded His Church and He Promised to send the other Paraclete (the Holy Spirit) Who would Reveal the Fullness of Truth to the Church and Who would abide (live) with and in her, we can ascertain that a high degree of accuracy would be found in Sacred Tradition (both Oral and Written). Further, Jesus Christ Himself attests that He will not leave the Church orphan but will remain with her till the end of times.

The Church, the portion that is made up of human frailty, is not divine nor all powerful; the Church, the portion that is Christ and the Holy Spirit, is fully Divine and Omnipotent–it is from this very essence that the Truth flows; regardless of the unfolding of the Truth (Doctrine, practices, terminologies), the Truth remains the Truth because its Source is God.

Maran atha!


Bump. I found something St. Basil said which helps, about how the Fathers guarded Sacred Tradition:

Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation? Well had they learnt the lesson that the awful dignity of the mysteries is best preserved by silence. What the uninitiated are not even allowed to look at was hardly likely to be publicly paraded about in written documents. What was the meaning of the mighty Moses in not making all the parts of the tabernacle open to every one?

Just one question about this statement, does this mean Sacred Tradition is/was esoteric?

I think that the problem we have is that we live in a society that claims “rights” and “freedoms” that have never truly existed… the right to “choose” or “freedom of religion” are examples of fallacy: the first, none of us were created with the right to choose to kill; the latter, the Church’s Founder was Crucified and His Church has forever been martyred for professing Faith in Him, the Truth!

Beginning with Stephan, Jesus’ Followers were persecuted to the point of death; the Church has enjoyed moments of calm before the various storms that have attempted to raze her. Those who sought her demise would stop at nothing to not only physically destroy her gathering buildings but also all of her members and Doctrine. Apostolic Tradition (both Oral and Written) have had to be safeguarded by those openly hostile to God and the Church and those who would disguise themselves as angels of light (members/supporters) in order to gut her from within.

Yet, as attested to by the surviving texts the early Church began to put into writing the Oral Tradition in the form of Doctrine–the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as well as the writings of the Church’s Fathers can be found free on-line… everyone has access to them…

Maran atha!


What I meant is, this disciplina arcani, or “discipline of secrecy”, was not the same as what the Gnostics claimed, right?

…sorry… yeah, Gnostics rely on “knowledge” while the discipline of secrecy safeguarded what was Reveal by God–Revelation never changes while “knowledge” is influenced by variant factors. Secret societies seldom welcome all into the fold while Christianity is 24/7 “come one, come all.”

The “discipline of secrecy” may have been necessary to safeguard the emerging Church–today such themes are only found in the likes of novels and science fiction (the de Vinci Code, etc.); in comparison, we still have “secret” disciplines amongst us, but these come from actual secret, and at times fabricated/mythical, societies–the tenet of the secrecy is to keep non-members from the “knowledge” acquired by the agency.

Maran atha!


DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit