Sunday, July 20, 2008

Time How Long

Hippolytus died in 236 AD, two centuries after the Apostles first began preaching the faith of Christ. It seems like a very long time before, yet he claimed to know what he traditional Apostolic doctrine and practice were, enough to know how things were changing in the 3rd Century.

On the surface, a ridiculous claim, like you or me knowing the stories told in the barracks of George Washington's Revolutionary Army. But let's make a few assumptions and so some math:

Assume that some people in the 1-3 Centuries lived to be 80 (probably high, but not un-heard of).
Marriage and children took place by age 15 (perhaps generous, but not unusual).
Children don’t remember much until they are 15 (probably excessively conservative).

Say St. John catechized a 15 year old boy in 100 AD and died soon afterward.
This boy died in 165 AD (80 y.o.)
He could have told his children about St. John in 115 AD.
He could have told his grandchildren about St. John in 130 (when they were 15).
He could have told his great-grandchildren in 145 AD (when they were 15).
He could have told his great-great grandchildren about St. John in 160 (when they were 15). These children could have lived as long as 225 AD!

Those great-great-grandchildren could tell their great-grandchildren second hand stories of St. John and third hand stories of Jesus in 225 AD! They could say, “My great-great grandpa, who taught me about Christianity when I was 15, was converted by St. John the apostle. Or another way, in 285 AD, there might have been a man who said, “I once met an old man who told me first-hand stories about Polycarp, who sat at the feet of St. John the Apostle.”

Next we must remember that literacy rates were incredibly small and the culture was primarily oral. Oral cultures are conservative, i.e., they retain language and stories much more accurately than literary cultures do. 1

Thirdly, consider this. Hippolytus was a disciple of St. Irenaeus who died around 202 AD. St. Irenaeus testifies that St. Polycarp (ca. 69-155) catechized him in the Christian faith, and Polycarp was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist. In an oral Christian culture that held to keeping the faith once-handed over from the Apostles, this makes a very close connection.

1 See this article regarding Somali oral culture; also, "Because oral societies have no effective access to writing and print technologies, they must invest considerable energy in basic information management. Storage of information, being primarily dependent on individual or collective recall, must be handled with particular thrift. It is possible to approximately measure oral residue “from the amount of memorization the culture’s educational procedures require.”[20]

This creates incentives to avoid exploring new ideas and particularly to avoid the burden of having to store them. It does not prevent oral societies from demonstrating dynamism and change, but there is a premium on ensuring that changes cleave to traditional formulas, and “are presented as fitting the traditions of the ancestors.” [21] (from Wikipedia). More scholarly citations can be found elsewhere. Go look :).


  1. Father Hollywood said...

    This is a really thought-provoking post!

    When I was 12 years old, I took an interest in genealogy. Every week I visited my great-grandma (born 1900) and she told me all sorts of stories about her grandfather (born 1839). I will pass these accounts on to my son, who, if he lives to be 90 years old (not a terribly unlikely scenario), he could be passing these on to his grandchildren near the year 2100.

    Another example is the 80 year-old woman I knew back in the late 1990s. She had been born in St. Joseph, Missouri. Her father was very old when she was born (about 70). Her father actually knew Jesse James, and saw his body just after he had been shot. I am separated from a contemporary of Jesse James by only one person.

    My buddy Elliott (who is maybe 50 years old today) met an old veteran when he was a kid - and shook hands with him. The old vet had himself shaken hands with Robert E. Lee (1807-1870).

    In the course of human generations, 200 years just isn't that far.

  2. Dixie said...

    Your post reminded me of this story about Jaroslav Pelikan.

    "Another family story locates the origin of his passion for tradition and its transmission early in his life. As a teenager, he had to decide whether his vocation was as scholar or concert pianist. One day at home in Chicago he was practicing a Beethoven sonata. A guest of the Pelikans was Jan Masaryk—son of Tomas Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia, and Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk, an American pianist who had met Tomas when she went to Europe to study piano with Franz Liszt. Suddenly Jan Masaryk shouted, “No, that should be an F-natural!” “But right here in the score it’s an F-sharp.” “That’s wrong. I heard from my mother that there’s a mistake in the printed score, and she heard it from her teacher, Liszt, who heard it from his teacher Carl Czerny, who heard it from his teacher, Beethoven.”

    from Valerie Hotchkiss and Patrick Henry in Editor’s Preface to the book, Orthodoxy and Western Culture.

  3. Past Elder said...

    Certainly an oral tradition can continue, and a couple centuries isn't that long for one to do so.

    Apparently there were several such, so their existence isn't the question.

    The question is: was Zephyrinus and the Roman powers that be really modalists, or was Hippolytus wrong about that, and if he was right then why did he cave, or if he was wrong then where does his "tradition" stand, and does that tell us that modalism was in fact the original orthodoxy or rather than Roman bishops have mixed truth with error for a very long time, etc.

    But to know someone who knew someone who knew Jesse James -- wow, now ain't that the dingest dangest thing, as the great Jesse James was fond of saying (or so I'm told from accounts of those who knew him).

  4. orrologion said...

    "...whether by epistle or word of mouth." :)

  5. Rev. Eric J Brown said...

    And to provide the entirely cynical point of view. . .

    And to think that the LCMS has existed as an organization for 161 years. Think on how faithfully we have passed on the organizational guidelines as established by Walther.

    And of course, the valued traditions and customs that our congregations were established with have remained firm and unshaken to this day.


    To be honest, I agree with your main point, that there is a reasonable expectation that tradition would be preserved, and probably more accurately than we would today. However, I think we can forget how quickly different customs and traditions developed in different places - and that this was understood. (In particular I like the description, I believe in the Didache, about the wandering guest preachers praying the liturgy as best they can - it wanders, it is different).

    We like to talk about the connection between doctrine and practice, but I think we can forget that within the bounds of proper doctrine there is room for much variation for in practice - although not in the way that we generally speak of "variation" today.

  6. Past Elder said...

    Hey, I'm all for conventions being conducted in German!

    That is an excellent point, that within orthodox doctrine there can be wide variation in practice -- and not in the way the term is generally used now.

    Unfortunately, the fact that legitimate variation exists is used to justify any and all variations, especially the ones this or that faction wants to introduce. Unfortunately for H, he has become a poster boy for elements in that crowd.

  7. Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

    Pr. Brown's point is mitigated a bit by the remarks Pr. Hall made at the outset: oral cultures are far more conservative and faithful in keeping things than visual cultures (like ours) are. I don't *have* to remember things, when I can put them on my PDA. The other factor, unique to America, is that precedent is almost irrelevant here. We've forsaken much of English common law, and everything is marketing-and-innovation-driven.

    The unworthy priest,

    Fr. Gregory Hogg

  8. Rev. Eric J Brown said...

    Actually, the focus on direct repetition depends upon the oral tradition in question. There are some oral traditions that require strict repetition of exact phrases, there are others that. . . almost work more like jazz in the sense that you have a learned base upon which you improvise. If you have a recording of a jazz piece, you have that song - but someone else could play it at a club the next night, and it would be different.

    Same with things like the Iliad and Odyssey - designed to be riffed on. It's not until something ceased to be merely oral and was written down that it acquired the permanence in Greek culture.

    So, I will be more than happy to admit that The Apostolic Traditions is a matter of a faithful riff - but it's the way they do it there in that town. Other "riffs" that are favored in other places develop quickly.

    Also, the very fact that it is written demonstrates that people were beginning to vary from it - bad riffs were coming, bad riffs man. Variation happens in oral tradition - at least in most western and semitic cultures.