The Earliest Christian Traditions

Below is an excerpt from The Theology of Paul the Apostle by noted New Testament scholar James D. G. Dunn, where he briefly explores some of the earliest Christian traditions and how they are identified. Before we proceed, a bit of background information is required.

Many Christians assume that the order the books of the New Testament appear in is the order they were written in. In fact scholars for various reasons date the epistles of Paul as the oldest and the canonical gospels were actually written a decade or two later at the earliest. So while Dunn is writing about Paul, the apostle refers to traditions that precede him. Therefore, being the earliest extant Christian writings we have, the traditions Paul cites reflect some of the earliest things the first Christians ever said and believed. Now on to what Prof. Dunn has to say.


Kerygmatic and Confessional Formulae of Paul

A third notable feature of Paul’s introductory talk of the gospel in Romans is his immediate use of earlier Christian tradition. In Rom. 1.1-4 he continues to disrupt the normal epistolary greeting by inserting what most regard as a pre-Pauline formula (1.3-4):

…the gospel of God, which was promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scripture, concerning his Son who was descended from the seed of David in terms of the flesh, and who was appointed Son of God in power in terms of the Spirit of holiness as from the resurrection of the dead.

And in turning from his indictment of humankind (1.18-3.20) to his exposition of the gospel’s response, we find the same feature: Paul reaches almost instinctively, or so it would appear, for a formulation which others would recognize and acknowledge (3.21-26):

…the righteousness of God has been revealed, as attested by the law and the prophets… They are justified as a gift by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus,
whom God set forth as an expiation (through faith) in his blood, to demonstrate his righteousness in passing over the sins committed in former times, in the forbearance of God…

Intensive work on the question of pre-Pauline formulae was carried out in the 1960s and early 1970s, and the substantive findings of these studies still stand. Several variations of formulae which presumably served as summaries or even liturgical responses can be detected simply by the regularity of their form and the frequency with which they are repeated

(1) Resurrection formulae – “God raised him from the dead.” (2) Died for formulae – “Christ died for us.” (3) Handed over (paradidomi)” formulae – “he was handed (or handed himself) over (for our sins).” (4) Combined formulae – “Christ died and was raised.” (5) Confessional formulae – “Jesus is Lord.”

Some dispute the existence of such formulae. And it is true that they cannot be demonstrated conclusively to be any more than the characteristic speech of an author. But three factors weigh in favour of recognizing such snatches as indeed formulae which Paul instinctively echoes. One is the expectation that the first churches would inevitably develop such summaries in their preaching, catechesis, and worship. That is simply the almost universal experience of good homiletics, pedagogy, and liturgical practice. So, for example, Rom. 10.9 almost invites us to recognize it as echoing a baptismal confession: “If you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus our Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” In that sentence we could almost put “God raised him from the dead” in quotation marks also, as echoing the core of the preaching or catechesis which that baptisand personally appropriated and confessed in the words “Jesus is Lord.” That the confession can be identified in contexts of worship (1 Cor. 12.3), evangelism (2 Cor. 4.5), and paraenesis (Col. 2.6) strengthens the expectation outlined above. And the presence of “faithful sayings” in the Pastorals and what appear to be liturgical chants in Revelation (no doubt used on earth as much as in heaven!) confirms the same broad picture.

A second consideration in favour of recognizing Paul’s use of preexisting formulae is the point already noted – the fact that these phrases appeared so regularly, and not solely in the Pauline literature. This suggests a commonality of faith and of expression of that faith. Which in turn suggests that summary formulation like these were indeed in fairly widespread use in the earliest Christian churches.

The third consideration is one which brings us back to our present point in the following out Paul’s theological exposition in Romans. That is the brevity of the central passage, Rom. 3.21-26. It really is astonishing that, after such an elaborate and extensive indictment (1.18-3.20), Paul could be content to give the heart of his response to it in a mere six verses. The obvious reason for this is that he was able to quote a summary statement which was noncontroversial (for Christian leadership). By building his response around a widely recognized formulation describing the efficaciousness of Jesus’ death in displaying God’s saving righteousness as it deals with sins, Paul was able to make his point both briefly and effectively. This is all the more striking since he was writing to congregations (in Rome) which he did not know personally. In other words, Paul could take it for granted that such a formula, or indeed this particular formula, was one to which his readers would assent. This must mean, in turn, that in using the formula Paul was not adding anything which significantly altered or qualified it; otherwise he could not have made that assumption and would have had to argue his point more circumspectly and in more detail.

All this emphasizes Paul’s conviction that the central Christological claims of his gospel were in direct continuity with the gospel already being preached before his conversion. The point is not simply that he could make this claim (a claim which others might dispute). It is rather that he could and acknowledged as expressions of a shared faith in all the churches to which he wrote. He makes the point explicitly in 1 Cor. 15:1-3 that

The gospel which I preached (euengelisamen) to you, which you also received (parelabete), in which you have taken your stand, through which you are also being saved… {is the gospel} which I also received (parelabon)…

The continuity of and authority behind his gospel was not simply that of the scriptures. It was also that of the earliest formulations of the common faith in Christ.


Including what Dunn has already mentioned below is an incomplete list of passages that scholars commonly identify as early Christian traditions that predate the New Testament:

  1. Romans 1:3b–4
  2. Romans 3:24–26
  3. Romans 4:25
  4. Romans 8:34
  5. Romans 10:9
  6. Romans 11:33–36
  7. Romans 14:9
  8. 1 Corinthians 8:6*
  9. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
  10. 1 Corinthians 12:3
  11. 1 Corinthians 15:3b–5
  12. Galatians 1:4
  13. Galatians 3:26–28
  14. Ephesians 1:3-14
  15. Philippians 2:6-11
  16. Colossians 1:15–20
  17. 1 Thessalonians 1:9–10
  18. 1 Timothy 3:16b
  19. 2 Timothy 2:8
  20. Titus 3:5-6
  21. 1 Peter 1:3–5
  22. 1 Peter 2:22–23
  23. 1 John 4:2, 15

*1 Corinthians 8:6 was not in the original post I published but I have included it for the reasons I indicate in the post I linked to it to ensure a more comprehensive list.

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