The traditions of the elders.

Christian oral tradition in century II.


Attributed author(s).
Papias.
Anonymous elders.

Some of our many sources for primitive Christianity.

Irenaeus at a number of points in Against Heresies refers to the traditions of the elders. Some have thought that (at least some of) these traditions stem from Papias. Irenaeus, who flourished in the late second century in Lyons, France, wrote in Greek, but most of his work survives only in Latin translation. The original Greek is available only from patristic quotations. The traditions that he cites from the elders are often reckoned among the apostolic fathers.

Clement of Alexandria, a slightly later contemporary of Irenaeus from the opposite end of the empire, also transmits at least one saying under the name of the elders.

I include the numbers with which William R. Schoedel identifies each text in The Apostolic Fathers: A New Translation and Commentary, pages 124-127. Schoedel numbers only the Irenaean quotations.

Irenaeus.

From Irenaeus, Against Heresies 2.22.5 (Greek portion from Eusebius, History of the Church 3.23.3; Schoedel 1):

Illi autem, ut figmentum suum de eo quod est scriptum vocare annum domini acceptum affirment, dicunt uno anno eum praedicasse, et duodecimo mense passum, contra semetipsos obliti sunt, solventes eius omne negotium, et magis necessariam, et magis honorabilem aetatem eius auferentes, illam inquam provectiorem, in qua et docens praeerat universis. quomodo enim habuit discipulos si non docebat? quomodo autem docebat magistri aetatem non habens? ad baptismum enim venit nondum qui triginta annorum; ita enim, qui eius annos significavit Lucas, posuit: Iesus autem erat quasi incipiens triginta annorum, cum veniret ad baptismum; et a baptismate uno tantum anno praedicavit; complens tricesimum annum passus est, adhuc iuvenis exsistens, et qui necdum provectiorem haberet aetatem. quia autem triginta annorum aetas prima indolis est iuvenis, et extenditur usque ad quadragesimum annum, omnis quilibet confitebitur; a quadragesimo autem et quinquagesimo anno declinat iam in aetatem seniorem, quam habens dominus noster docebat, sicut evangelium *et omnes seniores testantur, qui in Asia apud Iohannem discipulum domini convenerunt, id ipsum tradidisse eis Iohannem. permansit autem cum eis usque ad Traiani tempora.* quidam autem eorum non solum Ioannem, sed et alios apostolos viderunt, et haec eadem ab ipsis audierunt, et testantur de huiusmodi relatione.

* This portion is available in Greek from Eusebius, History of the Church 3.23.3, who attributes these lines (correctly) to the second book.

...και παντες οι πρεσβυτεροι μαρτυρουσιν, οι κατα την Ασιαν Ιωαννη τω του κυριου μαθητη συμβεβληκοτες, παραδεδωκεναι τον Ιωαννην. παρεμεινεν γαρ αυτοις μεχρι των Τραιανου χρονων.

They, however, that they may establish their false opinion regarding that which is written, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, maintain that he preached for one year only, and then suffered in the twelfth month. They are forgetful to their own disadvantage, destroying his whole work and robbing him of that age which is both more necessary and more honorable than any other, that more advanced age, I mean, during which also as a teacher he excelled all others. For how could he have had disciples if he did not teach? And how could he have taught unless he had reached the age of a master? For when he came to be baptized he had not yet completed his thirtieth year, but was beginning to be about thirty years of age; for thus Luke, who has mentioned his years, has expressed it: Now Jesus was, as it were, beginning to be thirty years old* when he came to receive baptism); and [they affirm that] he preached only one year reckoning from his baptism; on completing his thirtieth year he suffered, being in fact still a young man, and who had by no means attained to advanced age. But that the age of thirty years is the prime of life for a youth, and it extends up to the fortieth year, everyone will allow it to be confessed; but from the fortieth and fiftieth year it declines already into the senior age, which our Lord had while he was teaching, just as the gospel and all the elders, who had dwelled with John the disciple of the Lord in Asia, testify that John delivered. For he remained with them until the times of Trajan. But some of them saw, not only John, but also other apostles, and heard these same things from them, and testify concerning the previously related matter.

* Refer to Luke 3.23.

As for John remaining until the times of Trajan, refer also to Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.3.4:

Sed et quae est Ephesi ecclesia a Paulo quidem fundata, Iohanne autem permanente apud eos usque ad Traiani tempora, testis est verus apostolorum traditionis.

Αλλα και η εν Εφεσω εκκλησια υπο Παυλου μεν τεθεμελιωμενη, Ιωαννου δε παραμειναντος αυτοις μεχρι των Τραιανου χρονων, μαρτυς αληθης εστι της των αποστολων παραδοσεως.

But also the church in Ephesus, which was founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them all the way up until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles.

From Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.5.1 (Greek from John of Damascus, Sacred Parallels; Schoedel 2):

Ubi ergo primus positus est homo? scilicet in paradiso, quemadmodum scriptura dicit: Et plantavit deus paradisum in Eden contra orientem, et posuit ibi hominem quem plasmavit. et inde proiectus est in hunc mundum, non obediens. quapropter dicunt presbyteri, qui sunt apostolorum discipuli, eos qui translati sunt illuc translatos esse; iustis enim hominibus et spiritum habentibus praeparatus est paradisus, in quem et Paulus apostolus asportatus audivit sermones inenarrabiles, quantum ad nos in praesenti; et ibi manere eos qui translati sunt usque ad consummationem, coauspicantes incorruptelam.

Που ουν ετεθη ο πρωτος ανθρωπος; εν τω παραδεισω δηλονοτι, καθως γεγραπται· Και εφυτευσεν ο θεος παραδεισον εν Εδεμ κατα ανατολας και εθετο εκει τον ανθρωπον ον επλασεν. και εκειθεν εξεβληθη εις τονδε τον κοσμον παρακουσας. διο και λεγουσιν οι πρεσβυτεροι, των αποστολων μαθηται, τους μετατεθεντας εκεισε μετατεθηναι, δικαιοις γαρ ανθρωποις και πνευματοφοροις ητοιμασθη ο παραδεισος, εν ω και Παυλος ο αποστολος εισκομισθεις ηκουσεν αρρητα ρηματα, ως προς ημας εν τω παροντι, κακει μενειν τους μετατεθεντας εως συντελειας, προοιμιαζομενους την αφθαρσιαν.

Where then was the first man1 placed? Clearly in paradise,2 just as it is written: And God planted paradise2 in the east, in Eden, and placed there the man1 whom he had formed.3 And thence he was cast out into this world for failure to obey. Therefore the elders, the disciples of the apostles, say that those who have been translated are translated thither, for paradise2 was prepared for just and spirit-borne men1, to which [place] the apostle Paul also was carried and heard words not to be uttered,4 as to us in the present; and those who have been translated remain there until the consummation, anticipating incorruptibility.

1 Or human.
2 Or the garden.
3 Refer to Genesis 2.3.
4 Refer to 2 Corinthians 12.4.

From Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.30.1 (Greek from a combination of Eusebius, History of the Church 5.8.5, and Nicephorus; Schoedel 3):

His autem sic se habentibus, et in omnibus antiquis et probatissimis et veteribus scripturis numero hoc posito, et testimonium perhibentibus his, qui facie ad faciem Iohannem viderunt, et ratione docente nos, quoniam numerus nominis bestiae secundum Graecorum computationem per literas quae in eo sunt, sexcentos habebit, et sexaginta, et sex, hoc est, decadas aequales hecatontasin, et hecatontadas aequales monasin. numerus enim qui digitus sex, similiter custoditus, recapitulationes ostendit universae apostasiae eius quae initio, et quae in mediis temporibus, et quae in fine erit; ignoro quomodo erraverunt quidam sequentes idiotismum, et medium frustruntes numerum nominis, quinquaginta numeros deducentes, pro sex decadis unam decadam volentes esse.

Τουτων δε ουτως εχοντων, και εν πασι τοις σπουδαιοις και αρχαιοις αντιγραφοις του αριθμου τουτου κειμενου, και μαρτυρουντων αυτων εκεινων των κατ οψιν τον Ιωαννην εωρακοτων, και του λογου διδασκοντος ημας οτι ο αριθμος του ονοματος του θηριου κατα την των Ελληνων ψηφον δια των εν αυτω γραμματων εξακοσιους εξει και εξηκοντα και εξ.... ουκ οιδα πως εσφαλησαν τινες επακολουθησαντες ιδιωτισμω και τον μεσον ηθετησαν αριθμον του ονομαος, ν´ ψηφισμα υφελοντες και αντι των εξ δεκαδων μιαν δεκαδα βουλομενοι ειναι.

But these things being so, and since this number stands in all the earnest and ancient copies, and since the very men who had seen John with their own eyes testify to it, and since the word teaches us that the number of the name of the beast according to the counting of the Greeks through the letters in it is six hundred sixty-six, that is, the number of tens shall be equal to that of the hundreds, and the number of hundreds equal to that of the units, for that number which expresses the digit six being adhered to throughout indicates the recapitulations of that apostasy, taken in its full extent, which occurred at the beginning, during the intermediate periods, and which shall take place at the end. I do not know how some erred, having followed a private [reading], and have set aside the middle number of the name, taking away a count of fifty and wishing there to be a single ten instead of six tens.

From Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.33.3 (Schoedel 4):

Praedicta itaque benedictio ad tempora regni sine contradictione pertinet, quando regnabunt iusti surgentes a mortuis, quando et creatura renovata et liberata multitudinem fructificabit universae escae, ex rore caeli et ex fertilitate terrae, quemadmodum presbyteri meminerunt, qui Iohannem discipulum domini viderunt, audisse se ab eo, quemadmodum de temporibus illis docebat dominus....

The blessing thus predicted pertains, without [fear of] contradiction, to the times of the kingdom, when the just, rising from the dead, will reign, when even the creation, renewed and liberated, will produce a multitude of foods of all kinds from the dew of heaven and the fertility of the earth, just as the elders who saw John the disciple of the Lord remembered that they had heard from him how the Lord would teach about those times....

See also the fuller text of this passage as applies to Papias.

From Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.36.1-2a (Greek from Anastasius, appendix to Investigations in Sacred Scripture 74; Schoedel 5):

Et quemadmodum presbyteri dicant, tunc qui digni fuerint coelorum conversatione, illuc transibunt, id est, in coelos; alii tute paradisi deliciis utentur; alii autem speciositatem civitatis possidebunt; ubique autem deus videbitur, et quemadmodum digni erunt videntes eum. esse autem distantiam hanc habitationis eorum qui centum fructificaverunt, et eorum qui sexaginta, et eorum qui triginta; quorum quidam in coelum assumentur, alii in paradiso conversabuntur, alii in civitate inhabitabunt; et propter hoc dixisse dominum multas esse apud patrem mansiones. omnia enim dei sunt, qui omnibus aptam habitationem praestat.

Και ως οι πρεσβυτεροι λεγουσι, τοτε και οι μεν καταξιωθεντες της εν ουρανω διατριβης, εκεισε χωρησουσιν, οι δε της του παραδεισου τρυφης απολαυσουσιν, οι δε την λαμπροτητα της πολεως καθεξουσιν· πανταχου δε ο σωτηρ οραθησεται, καθως και αξιοι εσονται οι ορωντες αυτον. ειναι δε την διαστολην ταυτην της οικησεως των τα εκατον καρποφορουντων και των τα εξηκοντα και των τα τριακοντα· ων οι μεν εις τους ουρανους αναληφθησονται, οι δε εν τω παραδεισω διατριψουσιν, οι δε την πολιν κατοικησουσιν· και δια τουτο ειρηκεναι τον κυριον εν τοις του πατρος μου μονας ειναι πολλας. τα παντα γαρ του θεου, ος τοις πασι την αρμοζουσιν οικησιν παρεχει.

And as the elders say, at that time1 also will those deemed worthy of a dwelling in heaven find a place there, and others will enjoy the luxury of paradise, and yet others will have the brightness of the city. But everywhere the savior will be seen, just as those who see him will be worthy. And [they say] that this is the difference in housing of those who bear the fruit of a hundred, those who bear the fruit of sixty, and who bear the fruit of thirty.2 Some will be received up to the heavens, others will dwell in paradise, and others will house in the city. And on account of this the Lord has said that in those of my father there are many mansions.3 For all things are of God, who supplies for all their harmonious houses.

1 Id est, at the time of the new heavens and new earth of Isaiah 66.22.
2 Refer to Matthew 13.8 = Mark 4.8 = Luke 8.8.
3 Refer to John 14.2.

From Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.36.2b (Schoedel 6):

Hanc esse adordinationem et dispositionem eorum qui salvantur, dicunt presbyteri apostolorum discipuli, et per huiusmodi gradus proficere, et per spiritum quidem ad filium, per filium autem ascendere ad patrem, filio deinceps cedente patri opus suum, quemadmodum et ab apostolo dictum est: Quoniam oportet regnare eum quoadusque ponat omnes inimicos sub pedibus eius.

The elders, the disciples of the apostles, say that this is the order and disposition of those who are being saved, and that they progress through such grades, and that through the spirit some ascend to the son, but that through the son some ascend to the father. the son then finally ceding his work to the father, just as also it is said by the apostle: For it is necessary that he reign until he puts all his enemies under his feet.

Schoedel translates two similar passages from Irenaeus, Declaration of the Apostolic Preaching, a work which survives only in Armenian. I do not know Armenian, so can offer only the English translation of each of these passages.

From Irenaeus, Declaration of the Apostolic Preaching 3 (Schoedel 7):

Now it is faith that does this for us, as the elders, the disciples of the apostles, have handed down to us.

The rule of faith follows.

From Irenaeus, Declaration of the Apostolic Preaching 61 (Schoedel 8):

As to the union and concord and tranquility of the animals, who are of different kinds and by nature hostile to each other and inimical, the elders say that it will indeed be so at the coming of Christ when he will rule over all.

From Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.27.1:

Quemadmodum audivi a quodam presbytero, qui audierat ab his qui apostolos viderant, et ab his qui didicerant, sufficere veteribus de his quae sine consilio spiritus egerunt eam quae ex scripturis esset correptionem.

As I heard from a certain presbyter, who had heard it from those who had seen the apostles, and from those who had been their disciples, the punishment in scripture was sufficient for the ancients concerning the things they did without the counsel of the spirit.

Eusebius, History of the Church 5.8.8b:

Και απομνημονευματων δε αποστολικου τινος πρεσβυτερου, ου τουνομα σιωπη παρεδωκεν, μνημονευει εξηγησεις τε αυτου θειων γραφων παρατεθειται.

And [Irenaeus] also makes mention of the memoirs of a certain apostolic presbyter, whose name he passes by in silence, and sets forth his exegeses of the divine scriptures.

Clement of Alexandria.

Late century II.

Clement also transmits a tradition under the name of the elders. From Eusebius, History of the Church 6.14.4-7:

Ειτα υποβας επιλεγει· Ηδη δε, ως ο μακαριος ελεγεν πρεσβυτερος, επει ο κυριος, αποστολος ων του παντοκρατορος, επεσταλη προς Εβραιους, δια μετριοτητα ο Παυλος, ως αν εις τα εθνη απεσταλμενος, ουκ εγγραφει εαυτον Εβραιων αποστολον, δια τε την προς τον κυριον τιμην δια τε το εκ περιουσιας και τοις Εβραιοις επιστελλειν, εθνων κηρυκα οντα και αποστολον.

Then under that he says further: But already, as the blessed elder used to say, since the Lord, being an apostle of the almighty, was sent toward Hebrews, Paul through modesty, as one sent to the gentiles, does not inscribe himself as apostle of Hebrews, both through honor toward the Lord and on account that he wrote the epistle to the Hebrews from his abundance, being a preacher and apostle of gentiles.

Αυθις δ εν τοις αυτοις ο Κλημης βιβλιοις περι της ταξεως των ευαγγελιων παραδοσιν των ανεκαθεν πρεσβυτερων τεθειται τουτον εχουσαν τον τροπον· Προγεγραφθαι ελεγεν των ευαγγελιων τα περιεχοντα τας γενεαλογιας, το δε κατα Μαρκον ταυτην εσχηκεναι την οικονομιαν· του Πετρου δημοσια εν Ρωμη κηρυξαντος τον λογον και πνευματι το ευαγγελιον εξειποντος, τους παροντας, πολλους οντας, παρακαλεσαι τον Μαρκον, ως αν ακολουθησαντα αυτω πορρωθεν και μεμνημενον των λεχθεντων, αναγραψαι τα ειρημενα, ποιησαντα δε το ευαγγελιον μεταδουναι τοις δεομενοις αυτου· οπερ επιγνοντα τον Πετρον προτρεπτικως μητε κωλυσαι μητε προτρεψασθαι. τον μεντοι Ιωαννην εσχατον, συνιδοντα οτι τα σωματικα εν τοις ευαγγελιοις δεδηλωται, προτραπεντα υπο των γνωριμων, πνευματι θεοφορηθεντα, πνευματικον ποιησαι ευαγγελιον. τοσαυτα ο Κλημης.

And again in the same books Clement sets the tradition of the earliest elders concerning the order of the gospels, in this way: He says that those of the gospels having the genealogies were published openly,* but that the gospel according to Mark had this economy: While Peter was preaching the word publicly in Rome and speaking out the gospel by the spirit, those who were present, who were many, called upon Mark, as having followed him from far back and remembering what was said, to write up the things that were said, and having made the gospel he gave it out to those who had requested it. When Peter came to know, he neither directly prevented nor encouraged it. But John, last of all, knowing that the bodily facts had been made clear in the gospels, urged by friends, borne by the spirit of God, made a spiritual gospel. So much for Clement.

* For translational details on the verb προγεγραφθαι, see the online article by Stephen Carlson.