History’s Detectives

saviour2The search for the historical anything is an exercise in fantasy and imagination, a good movie, but not good for much else. C.S. Lewis noted that reviewers of his books, speculating on how they were written and other such intimate historical matters, were almost universally wrong. He wondered out loud why we should presume historical critics of the past, sometimes of a past stretching back for millennia, should be taken at all seriously. Why should we consider with any weight any scholar’s statement concerning the background and shaping of St. Matthew’s gospel (to use only a single example)? The answer is simple: we shouldn’t.

This is not to say that we should not consider history, nor ask historical questions. It is rather to affirm that things in history have long since passed beyond the bounds of human knowing. Those who make great assertions about the historical reasons for their present decisions are not saying anything about the nature of history, but are revealing the nature of their ideological commitments.

The “history” with which we live today, is not, in fact, history, but those parts of “history” which are present. The Scriptures are not only a historical book, but are also a present book. I have a copy in my computer. Thus the Orthodox do not think of Tradition as something of the past, but something of the present. Tradition is literally, “that which is handed down,” paradosis. It is not a reference to that which was, but to that which is. Modernists do not reject the past when they ignore Tradition – they ignore part of the present for their own perverse reasons.

Every human being is himself a Tradition. The life which I have is not a new, modern creation which suddenly came into being. The better part of all human experience lives within me (in some form) in the record of my biology. However, the modern world treats us as though we were each a tabla rasa.

There is a false dilemma created by the modern consciousness (which itself is strange form of selective amnesia). The dilemma is to insist that all knowledge of the past, resides in the past, and that modernity can only approach it as detective and archaeologist. We dig for knowledge of the Roman empire when its language and history exist in our tongues. We are taught that these ancient lives belong to aliens, as though the past were another planet and not the extension of the present through time.

Many Christians suffer deep anxiety from this false consciousness. Some fool with a PhD announces that the Christian story is simply the propaganda of a Roman ruling class to pacify the Middle East (an actual recent Facebook headline), and the faith of the weak is shaken. A public whose knowledge of its own civilization extends no further back than the last episode of TMZ is undermined by every pseudo-historian’s claim (cf. Mary Magdalen, Gospel of Judas, Rudolf Bultmann, Jack Spong, etc.).

But these modernist delusions are not the enemy. Their invitation is to a world of false historicism in which the past is inherently lost and obscured. Christian fundamentalists (of whatever stripe) who search for historical remnants of Noah’s Ark (or other similar forays) in order to substantiate the historical claims of Scripture have already consigned themselves to lives of anxiety and their children and grandchildren to unbelief. For it is the nature of the modern conception of history that the past is lost. Even the discovery of its older artifacts is not its restoration to the present, but the unearthing of artifacts into the maw of historicist argument. Our knowledge of what is past, as a part of our present, properly rests on other grounds.

St. Paul’s treatment of the resurrection of Christ, makes use of what moderns would call “historical evidence”:

For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. (1Co 15:3-8 NKJ)

He cites the eyewitnesses – or so it would seem. However, the thrust of his statement is not to the eyewitnesses as such, but to that “which was delivered.” This is the paradosis, the Tradition.  For that which was delivered to the faithful in Corinth (as it was doubtless delivered to every Church of apostolic foundation, and to every Orthodox believer to this day) is the living content of the Apostolic witness. The resurrection of Christ is not news about a fact, but the very content of the Tradition itself. The historical evidence of the resurrection is the continuing life of the Church itself. The risen Christ is eaten and drunk by believers to this day. St. Paul adds himself to the list of “historical” witnesses. The exact character of that appearance is not described by Paul himself (it may be gleaned from the book of Acts). But he does not denigrate his own experience and witness – though it occurred at least three years after the ascension of Christ.

The security of our faith is not found within the diggings of archaeology or the arguments of textual scholars. It rests within the living Tradition, the paradosis, that abides in the Church. That Tradition does not lessen the importance of the witness within the Scriptures, nor the continuing emptiness of the tomb in Jerusalem. But it describes the proper nature and character of that witness. The witness of the resurrection is indeed that which is delivered to us – it abides.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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17 responses to “History’s Detectives”

  1. Columbina Avatar

    Thank you Fr. for this wonderful essay! A few years ago, I took some college history courses, and I was blessed to have as a tutor, a wonderful retired Priest from the Traditional Anglican Communion. He called such tendencies “presentism” and he showed me the folly of all that you are pointing out. He would applaud you standing up if he could read this entry. I also got all A’s in my classes. 🙂 You are, as usual, right on! Thank you Fr!

  2. david Avatar

    Galatians 1:11-19 is another passage for Paul’s witnessing of the resurrected Christ.

    “The Gospel I preach to you is no human invention. No man gave it to me, no man taught it to me; it came to me as a direct revelation from Jesus Christ.

    For you have heard of my past career in the Jewish religion, how I persecuted the Church of God with fanatical zeal and, in fact, did my best to destroy it. I was ahead of most of my contemporaries in the Jewish religion, and had a greater enthusiasm for the old traditions. But when the time came for God (who had chosen me from the moment of my birth, and then called me by his grace) to reveal his Son within me so that I might proclaim him to the non-Jewish world, I did not, as might have been expected, talk over the matter with any human being. I did not even go to Jerusalem to meet those who were God’s messengers before me—no, I went away to Arabia and later came back to Damascus. It was not until three years later that I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and I only stayed with him just over a fortnight. I did not meet any of the other messengers, except James, the Lord’s brother.” (Phillips)

    However, the objective is the authority of the Lord’s expressed will, over the authority of ancient faith tradition.

    The ancient faith traditions of people were not specifically targeted by Jesus, but rather, the Holy Father targeted the redemption of us all, despite our faith traditions, which to this present day, continue to veil His glory.

    It is good to honour traditions, so long as those traditions are an honour to Jesus’ sacrifice, which removed the ancient tradition of the veil.

    Matthew 27:50-51
    “But Jesus gave one more great cry, and died.
    And the sanctuary curtain in the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom.”

    Disciples of Christ must be judicious about heralding traditions because they are a part of our present day ancient faith. That is precisely what Jesus rebuked in Matthew 15.

    15 1-2 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem came and asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples break our ancient tradition and eat their food without washing their hands properly?”

    3-9 “Tell me,” replied Jesus, “why do you break God’s commandment through your tradition? For God said, ‘Honour your father and your mother’, and ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death’. But you say that if a man tells his parents, ‘Whatever use I might have been to you is now given to God’, then he owes no further duty to his parents. And so your tradition empties the commandment of God of all its meaning. You hypocrites! Isaiah describes you beautifully when he said: ‘These people draw near to me with their mouth, and honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. And in vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’.” (Phillips)

  3. fatherstephen Avatar

    David. I’m sorry but you have a typical Protestant misunderstanding of Tradition in Orthodox teaching. Holy Tradition is nothing other than the abiding presence of the Spirit in the Church. It is helpful to read the Scriptures in Greek. The English translations generally only translate “paradosis” as “tradition” when it has a negative meaning. You are not aware of the many times it occurs in a positive sense because your translations are distorted.

  4. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Presentism in the study comes people think of history as past and the people there as dead.

    As the great biographer of Thomas Jefferson noted the real study of history lies in communion, what he called “emothetic projection” so that you meet the person not just in imagination but in your heart as well.

    As such our knowledge of history is always contingent but not determined by the present. Just as our knowledge of the present is not complete without knowledge of the past but not determined by the past.

    It is the disease of the modern world to think that we can live and thrive without roots or fruit-a disembodied and dismembered individuality that is actually a form of insanity.

    History is not a collection of empirical facts but the tapestry of human experience woven together with threads of time and eternity. It is the narrative of our common and personal experiences with each other and our encounters with and (unfortunately) our rejections of God and His mercy. It is always present just as it is ever changing and elusive. Only real tradition–the handing forward of life and the continuity with God and His people in constant communion that is the antidote for insanity.

    That is the life and presence of our incarnate Lord in the Holy Trinity.

  5. Vladimir Avatar

    Thanks so much for this wonderful essay! I’ve been working to finish my history major, and this article is perhaps one of the best critiques of the historical and critical methods being taught today. You put into words all the discomfort I’ve had (for example) in the Greek study groups I’ve been attending. You’ve also reminded me what I find so lovely about our living tradition. God bless your labors!

  6. Dennis McVey Avatar
    Dennis McVey

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for the depth of understanding and insights you challenge us with in your writings. These are of the “Utmost” importance for our faith. You hit upon the deep areas that we all wish to know more deeply and have wondered about. I love the comments you express so clearly for us:

    “Those who make great assertions about the historical reasons for their present decisions are not saying anything about the nature of history, but are revealing the nature of their ideological commitments.” and

    “Tradition is literally, “that which is handed down,” paradosis. It is not a reference to that which was, but to that which is. Modernists do not reject the past when they ignore Tradition – they ignore part of the present for their own perverse reasons.”
    I used to tell a fellow that worked for me who was a staunch and I would say militant vegetarian, that if it hadn’t have been for quite a few developments contrary to his perspective, and unreasonable attitudes and beliefs, that he wouldn’t even be here to discuss the issue! I’m sure his mother benefited from some of the things he disdained, and therefore brought him into his very existence!
    I am just recently baptized Orthodox and have found answers to lifelong questions I never got answered in my previous endeavors and journeys. Orthodoxy deals with all the real issues and answers them with intelligence and fortitude. It makes sense, if you really think things through, and it is with gratitude that I continue to marvel at it’s sanity and inspiration!
    I look forward to more understanding!
    Adios, and God Bless! DM

  7. Perry Avatar


  8. Don west Avatar
    Don west

    Well spoken, Father. I greatly ejoy your posts.

  9. david Avatar

    Thank you for your answer.
    You are correct about my misunderstanding.
    I would like to understand these things as you understand them, and this is one reason I follow your writings. You are, to me, obviously led by the Holy Spirit.

    Nevertheless, understanding the proper Greek translation of paradosis, via Orthodox teaching has not been made requisite for one’s life in Christ.

    My understanding of the sin that Jesus rebuked in the Matthew 15 passage, is common, it invades at all locations where Satan has license to tempt.
    Also, this was the temptation which St. Paul made his break from, as he stated in the Galatians 1:14 passage.

    Do you have a preferred English translation, from which I might study? Recommendations for a humble protestant are welcome.
    Again, thank you and God bless.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    The “traditions” of men, was (and is) a reference to a body of teachings in the Jewish world at the time of Christ. There was the text of the Torah (the Books of Moses) that contained the commandments. Though, even in those books, a distinction was made between the teachings “from the beginning,” and those given through Moses. Christ makes this distinction when he critiques the Mosaic provisions on divorce and instead favors the understanding of the union of husband and wife from Genesis (cf. Matt. 19). The “traditions” were the collections of interpretive commentaries on how the Law was to be applied. Again, another example from the NT is:

    He said to them, “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. “For Moses said,`Honor your father and your mother’; and,`He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ “But you say,`If a man says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban “– ‘(that is, a gift to God),”then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother,”making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do.” (Mar 7:9-13 NKJ)

    Here, again, it is the “traditions,” meaning the collection of interpretations, in which, for Christ, the interpretation has been used to get around the obvious intent of the commandment itself – i.e. making a provision to get around the commandment to honor father and mother. Christ is not attack “tradition” as a concept, but a specific use of a specific set of Jewish teachings that had come to supersede the Scriptures themselves and their intention.

    But “tradition,” both as a noun and as a verb (we don’t have a verb “to tradition” in English – thus the Greek verb for this is often translated as “to deliver” or something like that) are frequently mentioned in a positive light. Especially we can see St. Paul say, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” (2Th 2:15 NKJ) These “traditions” Paul describes as “by word or our epistle.” Thus, what you and I would call the New Testament (the letters of St. Paul), he calls “traditions.” He also makes reference to the verbal “traditions.” In 1 Cor. 15:

    or I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. (1Co 15:3-8 NKJ)

    Here, the word “delivered” is the Greek verb to “tradition.” The “tradition” he delivers to them is nothing other than a Creed-like summary of the gospel of the resurrection. Similar to this is 1 Cor. 7:

    For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” (1Co 11:23-25 NKJ)

    The “tradition” (what Paul “received” and “delivered” – these are both Greek words that are technical words for the transmission of tradition) is indeed the “institution narrative” found later in the 3 synoptic gospels. What Paul is here describing is nothing other than an oral version of the gospel which we transmitted in his teaching and establishing of the Church in Corinth. The NT was not yet in written form. The content of the gospel was transmitted as “tradition” – taught in oral form (it’s worth noting that St Paul’s recitation of the story is pretty much verbatim with Matt., Mark and Luke).

    The Tradition of which we have such examples, and which he refers to “word or epistle,” including not just “text,” but understanding as well. The Church was not just given the data of revelation, but the right sense of its meaning. This abiding understanding of the gospel continues to be the living Tradition within the Church (and here I mean the Orthodox Church). It can be found in the Scriptures themselves, the very pattern of how and when they are read (the lectionary), the structure and content of the Divine services, even the ritual that surrounds the services which itself is a sort of “interpretation” of the Gospel, the form of the icons, the hymnography, the disciplines of fasting and prayer, the monastic life, etc. The whole of this – not simply ideas – but the life itself – is a living Tradition. Thus when St. Paul says, “But you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, (2Ti 3:10 NKJ)…” How can we follow his “manner of life” if that life is not given to us? The manner of life that is the living Tradition within the Orthodox Church is nothing other than the apostolic manner of life. If a man follows that manner of life, he will find himself being changed from glory to glory into the image of Christ.

    But historically, Protestantism, reacting to the corruptions within the medieval Roman Church, rejected all of the apostolic traditions as well, and sought to have the Scriptures only. But they ignored the commandment to keep those things also given “in word.” Thus they had no “manner of life” left by which to live the gospel. They suddenly found themselves lost in interminable arguments about the meaning of the text with nothing but their own opinions to guide them. The result is the vast array of denominations today.

    Theories that seek to “leap frog” the whole of the Church – such that claims to direct inspiration are used to supersede all forms of tradition – are simply not Biblical. That form of life is not the form taught and commanded in the Scriptures. St. Paul doesn’t tell the Thessalonians, “Ignore all traditions – pray and God will show you what to do.” It’s simply not what the Scriptures teach us. Many have fallen into this false teaching. Orthodox Christians are no more perfect than other Christians – they are just sinners as well. But they are sinners who seek to keep the apostolic commandments and follow the manner of life that was “once and for all delivered (traditioned) to the saints.”

    There really isn’t a translation that avoids some of the problems I’ve cited. Every reading of the Scripture needs to be accompanied by a good commentary. You cannot derive a good reading alone. I recommend the ORthodox Study Bible. It’s notes a generally quite good.

  11. Dino Avatar

    I also feel that the Orthodox ‘traditioning/delivering’ of a Spiritual Father’s spirit (‘fronema’) to his spiritual children is, perhaps, the safest (in the widest sense of that word) method for the Holy Spirit to engrave God’s Word in our hearts.
    Fantastic article Father.

  12. david Avatar

    Thank you for your time and the information.
    I do have the Orthodox Study Bible, it was a gift from a good friend. The New Testament of the Orthodox Study Bible is the NKJV, which is very similar to the other options.
    I will keep reading it, as well as your posts.

  13. Michael Patrick Avatar
    Michael Patrick

    David, this is really a matter for Fr. Stephen’s expertise but allow me to heartily recommend the Orthodox new Testament published by Holy Apostles Convent and Dormition Skete in Buena Vista, Colorado. If you search these words in Google or Bing you’ll find their web store:

    orthodox new testament holy apostles convent – web store

    It comes in two hardback volumes: Vol 1 is Gospels; Vol 2 is Epistles. It’s not cheap but the commentary it contains is more than worth the price.

    I also believe that the translation does not bias certain words in a Protestant direction. Again, however, that’s Fr. Stephen’s territory as I don’t read Greek.

  14. Henry Avatar

    Is there ever a time to question a tradition or at least the interpretation of a tradition? Can a tradition continue to live without change?

    An old Zen story presents the question to students who are culturally obsessed with the importance of tradition and lineage.

    When the spiritual teacher and his disciples began their evening meditation, the cat who lived in the monastery made such noise that it distracted them. So the teacher ordered that the cat be tied up during the evening practice. Years later, when the teacher died, the cat continued to be tied up during the meditation session. And when the cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the monastery and tied up. Centuries later, learned descendants of the spiritual teacher wrote scholarly treatises about the religious significance of tying up a cat for meditation practice.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    The kind of “traditions” you describe is not the same thing as is meant by “Tradition” in Orthodox thought.

    I like to use the illustration of grammar. Grammar is the stuff that we know even when we don’t know we know it. Every child who learns to speak a language learns its grammar. No one has to ever say to a child, “When you want to make a noun possessive, you have to add an “s””. They just learn the rule (and the exceptions). Later teachers will make them learn something we call grammar (or do they still teach this?). But we all know it.

    It is hidden. In a recent lecture I used this example:

    Life whoever have perish begotten His everlasting world so loved the that He believes for God in Him gave only that should not but Son. (Joh 3:16 NKJ)

    It’s John 3:16 only ignoring all of the grammar rules that govern word order in English. The word order rules are present in every Scripture, but, again, they are hidden, implicit even. But grammar is a tradition. It is handed down from generation to generation. It does change, but very slowly.

    Tradition, as the Orthodox understand it, is the “grammar” of the Christian faith. It allows us to use any number of words but always arranges them in a way that the grammar remains intact. To an extent, the Apostles’ Creed is an example of those grammatical rules. St. Irenaeus in the 2nd century wrote a work, On the Apostolic Preaching, which essentially was an exposition of something like the Apostles Creed. He called it “the Apostolic Hypothesis.” He saw it as a matrix of meaning and understanding that made it possible to rightly believe and rightly read and understand the Scriptures.

    His famous example was of a mosaic picture of a king. The gnostics, whom he opposed, were like a man who dropping the mosaic picture of a king, reassembled it. But lacking the right “hypothesis” made the picture into a fox. He said that the gnostics, lacking the Apostolic Hypothesis, used the Scriptures, but always read them wrong.

    The Tradition of the Church is the grammar of the faith. Sometimes it might mean “swing the incense in this way at this time.” That manner of swinging the incense might very well change. What will not change, however, is the grammar of the swinging. At present, as I understand it, we cense in a certain pattern that makes clear the central honor given to Christ, etc. If the pattern changed in such a way that the grammar became something else – then we’d be in trouble.

    So “traditions” change. But the Tradition has not. We still confess the same Christ, crucified dead and risen. He is the Tradition and grammar of the faith.

  16. PJ Avatar


    Have you ever read Fr. Louis Bouyer’s “The Church of God”? Bouyer puts too much stock in various critical methods of reading Scripture, but his vision is definitely Orthodox in many respects. Might be worth your time.

  17. PJ Avatar

    Fr. Behr’s “The Way to Nicaea” (two volumes, I believe) is a skillful treatment of the “apostolic hypothesis” and “apostolic canon of truth.”

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