(This little essay originated as a comment in another blog just now, and I thought it might be worth sharing.)
As a historian — and this is one of the things that led me to Catholicism — I feel like it’s a fallacy of the doctrine of sola scriptura to presume that we have all the sources and aren’t missing any information. We have to remember that there were twenty, thirty, maybe forty years between the events of Christ’s earthly ministry and the writing of the earliest Gospel. For those decades, the Church wasn’t just sitting around waiting patiently for God to give them the New Testament so they could begin preaching the Gospel. The original mode of transmitting the Gospel was by oral preaching and teaching, by the Apostles going out into the world and spreading it by word of mouth. The churches they established were many and far-flung, but they were in touch with each other, by believers traveling among them, by the Apostles returning to visit the churches like Paul wrote about, bringing news and teaching.
We have to accept that we just don’t have all of that from Scripture. The writers of the New Testament didn’t record absolutely everything that happened or was going on between the churches. The Gospels, by their own admission, aren’t even a full account of everything Jesus said and did (John 21:25) — and such a thing isn’t even possible. No writer can record everything, not even a divine one — because He’s limited by the very earthly medium of paper and pen. The books of the New Testament very frequently refer to events we don’t know about and can only infer, to people we don’t know, even to letters we don’t have (1 Corinthians 5:9, 7:1).
Now, Protestants believe that everything they need for salvation is recorded in the Scriptures — and I like to think that God really did give them enough to get them into heaven, since He surely knew ahead of time that they were going to bolt. But that doesn’t mean that everything is in the Scriptures. On many points, the Bible is silent. That doesn’t mean, however, that there necessarily aren’t answers. The Tradition handed down by the Church — not vague, amorphous “traditions,” but historically documented testimony to the Church’s beliefs from the earliest ages — can shed light in many places, and complete our incomplete picture of the Early Church.
It’s very compelling to me to study the Bible and discover all I can about the people and places in it — but my salvation doesn’t hinge on which Mary was which or whether Jesus’s “brothers” were Apostles or even whether they were His brothers. Not even Tradition offers definite answers to many questions. Since I know I don’t have all the facts — not about the Early Church and certainly not about God — I’m content to just let some things be mysteries, things I wonder about but won’t know until I get to ask. I believe and have faith in the things I know for sure, and that’s that the Gospel is true and Jesus is my Savior.