Much OT and NT scholarship in the 20th cent. investigated the social contexts in which the narratives were transmitted orally before they were encapsulated in writing. A community or nation in constant change adapts its religious practices accordingly, and critics have been interested to go behind the literary sources of the Pentateuch, for example, to discern the process by which those sources attained their final form. Thus, attention was given to the life and aims of the Priestly editors from whom emerged the P source of the Pentateuch.
In NT studies work has been devoted to the process of transmitting the various items in the gospels which were identified by the Form Critics. There are two significant passages in 1 Cor. (11: 23–5 and 15: 3–5) in which Paul explains that what he passes on to his converts he had himself received and checked out at Jerusalem; the traditions about the Eucharist and the Resurrection as recorded by Paul therefore go back to the pre-Pauline era—the short period of time between the crucifixion and Paul's first visit to the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem (Gal. 1: 18). Paul asserts that he received the tradition ‘from the Lord’, and this might refer either to a direct revelation, as on the Damascus road, or, more probably, to the Lord (Jesus) as the source of a tradition that was passed on by a human chain of believers.
In Roman Catholic theology ‘tradition’, as defined at the Council of Trent in 1546, has a special meaning as a body of belief equal in authority with scripture. It has been held to consist of teaching given by the risen Jesus to the apostles during the forty days after the Resurrection (Acts 1: 3). Some Catholic theologians, however, regard tradition as the ongoing interpretation, within the Church, of revelation which is either explicitly or implicitly contained in scripture.
In Eastern Orthodoxy iconography is regarded as a mode by which the Holy Spirit conveys tradition, and icons of Christ are honoured along with the NT and both receive the same veneration; icons reveal in colour what the scripture proclaims by means of sentences.