TRADITION (Gr. paradosis, a giving over, by word of mouth or in writing). This term does not occur in the Hebrew OT. There are three types of tradition mentioned in the NT. First, the most common use, is the kind of tradition handed down by the Jewish fathers or elders that constituted the oral law, regarded by many of the Jews as of equal authority with the revealed law of Moses. Indeed, the Pharisees tended to make these traditions of even greater authority than the Scriptures (Matt.15.2-Matt.15.3; Mark.7.3-Mark.7.4). The Pharisees were incensed at Christ because he disregarded their traditions and also permitted his disciples to do so. A classic example of their traditions is recorded in the Gospels (Matt.15.2-Matt.15.6; Mark.7.1-Mark.7.13).

Paul refers to his former zeal for the traditions of his fathers (Gal.1.14). Josephus says that “the Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers which are not written in the law of Moses” (Antiq. 12.10.6).

The second type of tradition is mentioned in Col.2.8. Some scholars hold that this verse refers to Judaistic heresies, but the emphasis seems to be on the human, not necessarily Jewish, origin of these teachings.

The third type of tradition is the gospel truths that the apostle Paul taught. He uses the word three times (1Cor.11.2 asv; 2Thess.2.15; 2Thess.3.6 kjv). The meaning of this kind of tradition is “instruction” (niv “teachings”). Paul had taught the believers in Corinth and Thessalonica the doctrines of the gospel, and he urged them to keep those instructions in mind.——CEH

The Greek word paradidommi, from which paradosis (“tradition”) is derived, means “to hand something over.” The NT employs the verb in a variety of ways (Matt. 11:27; Acts 14:26; 1 Pet. 2:23), but the noun is reserved for teaching which has been handed down. Apostolic teaching-which included facts about Christ, their theological importance, and their ethical implications for Christian living-was described as tradition (1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15). It had divine sanction (1 Cor. 11:23; Gal. 1:11-16) and, once committed to writing, was to be preserved by the church (Jude 3; 2 Tim. 1:13; Rom. 6:17). Jesus rejected tradition, but only in the sense of human accretion lacking divine sanction (Mark 7:3-9).

In the patristic period, the apostolic paradosis was usually distinguished from the church's didaskalia, or teaching, but a looser usage of paradosis is also discernible. Legends about the apostles, liturgical practices, biblical interpretation, and unwritten teachings, said to have come either openly or secretly from the apostles, were included under this rubric.

The Council of Trent* extended this practice, saying that revelational truth is to be found “in written books [Scripture] and unwritten traditions.” Vatican I* also spoke of revelation being contained partly in the “written books” and partly in “unwritten traditions.” More recently this unwritten paradosis has been identified, not so much with the Magisterium's teaching, as with the church's religious perception (sensus fidei). Vatican II,* therefore, attempted to overcome the traditional polarization between Scripture and tradition by positing that there is only one source of revelation, not two. Scripture and tradition alike contain and reflect this one revelation, being its derivatives.

The Reformers distinguished between apostolic and post- apostolic tradition. The former they identified with divine revelation (cf. 1 Tim. 5:18; 2 Pet. 3:15; 1 Thess. 2:13), and the latter with human teaching. The latter was to be received only when it did not violate the former. The apostolic paradosis should be allowed to inform and structure Christian thought, providing an unchanging element of continuity through all ages.

G.H. Tavard, Holy Writ or Holy Church (1960); J.P. Mackey, The Modern Theology of Tradition (1962); J.R. Geiselmann, The Meaning of Tradition (1966); Y.M.-J. Congar, Tradition and Traditions (1967); F.F. Bruce, Tradition: Old and New (1971).

TRADITION, TRADITION OF THE ELDERS. Tradition is the collective wisdom of any given culture, the notions of its world view and the insights of its institutions.

Ancient near East. Tradition existed before the Neolithic food-producing revolution of the 9th-8th millennia b.c. It was formulated by two processes, the conservation of accumulated wisdom and the symbolization of ideas transmitted beyond the limits of horizontal communication. In effect, tradition in the ancient Near E was a complex literary vehicle which came into being before the innovation of writing. Ancient tradition was almost always verified and grounded in the religious ground-motive of the archaic-religious states. All of the most ancient literate cultures assumed that their writing system and its literary monuments were rooted in the very cosmos and enforced by the gods. To a great degree the keeping of tradition was a sympathetic magic bringing the microcosm of the town and its inhabitants into alignment with the universal macrocosm of the world-order. The traditional texts of the Sumerians, Elamites, Babylonians and Hittites as well as the Ugaritic tablets all follow this pattern. The proposal made by the negative higher critics of the 19th cent. that oral traditions existed previous to the enscriptured word of the OT, has never been proven. In fact, the very nature of “law” among human societies implies if not demands that some form of writing exists. To reduce the pre-Biblical cuneiform sources to the level of oral transmissions from the tribal “elders” of ancient amphictyonies is a gross misunderstanding.

OT. The writers of the OT are adamant in insisting that the word-revelation of God was not only antagonistic but antithetical to the traditions of the nations. The common Near Eastern assumption that hoary antiquity verified authority, an underlying motive in all tradition, is refuted in every book of the OT. The God and Word of the patriarchs is stated to be a God of present action, and this aspect is restated to Moses before the Exodus (Exod 3). The essential concept is that divine revelation is contrary to human knowledge. Nowhere does the OT support the word of any human group as authoritative; the traditions of the nations are judged and condemned. The three sacerdotal offices of the theocratic administration, prophet, priest and king, were God ordained and God centered. Almost all modern theories of the oral tradition of the OT presuppose the verity of the documentary hypothesis, “J,” “P,” and “E” or one of its modifications, the fragmentary hypothesis or the legendary hypothesis. It must be stated at the outset that these form the extant documents to a subjective historiographical method and in effect beg the question of origin. It is clear, however, that a degree of syncretism was in evidence so that the terms and styles of Ugaritic poetry and Canaanite architecture were absorbed by the Israelites after the conquest under Joshua. Undoubtedly the village elders during the period of the Judges followed formal traditions of justice (Ruth 4:1-3, et al.), which acted as insulations or hedges to the written Pentateuchal law. This intent to ring the oracles of Jehovah with additional and more precise requirements came to its fulfillment after the Babylonian Captivity. Under the later Judean kings and into the Hel. age, the various institutions of the Israelite monarchy became fixed and somewhat independent. The rise of the Temple administration ultimately placed the chief priest in the foremost executive position in the state during the Rom. period. With the expansion and solidification of the Temple services and powers a reliance upon tradition was a natural outcome. The ever-present threat of dilution of the core of the Jewish religious faith through syncretism with the paganism of the Pers. and Gr. world views enforced a greater stricture in the keeping of the law and a further development of tradition about the law. In the conflict between Judaism and Hellenism a new orthodox party appeared, the Pharisees. The enforcement of the Temple administration by the popular pharisaic movement fostered the further growth of a religious and cultural tradition. Archeological excavation at Masada and Qumran have produced ritual lavation pools and other ritual constructions not specifically mentioned in the OT, but frequently cited in later lit. Thus it can be assumed that many of the traditions which became fixed in the post-Biblical period had their origins in the Intertestamental age. Of specific importance were the various types of Temple taxes. During the OT period such taxes were based upon the commands of the Levitical code, but in the ensuing centuries the elaborate Temple hierarchy levied taxes in a great number of areas of the economy without specific Biblical warrant. These practices mentioned often in the Talmud and later still in the Responsa were sanctified by tradition alone.


The breakup of the Second Commonwealth into an array of religious and political parties left each to be founded and justified by tradition. The dependence upon oral authorities in the time-honored oriental fashion can be traced throughout the documents which have survived from this post-Hel. era. The Apoc. and Pseudep. were written at this time and they both include large portions of traditional method and material. In an age of turmoil and tension it is natural that men turn to a more stable and secure past and hallow its accomplishments, and the Intertestamental period did this in abundance. In the face of the mechanism of the Attic world view which now settled upon Asia, the remnants of the archaic religious states, Israel, Egypt, Babylon, Persia and Gaul all turned inward to their own past. The result was the movement toward neo-Platonism finally codified by Plotinus and his followers. The process of “hedging” the five Books of Moses by layers of oral tradition, commenting upon and solidifying the interpretation of the text, went on unabated throughout the period after the close of the canon. Much of this tradition was tr. from its Heb. and Aram. original into koiné Gr. In this manner it passed into the treasure of diaspora Judaism. The major alteration came about through the Rom. subversion of the Temple administration which resulted in a mistrust of the established interpretation of the law. In its place there appeared a vast number of apocryphal and apocalyptic renderings which are preserved in the DSS and the NT.


Dead Sea Scrolls.

The discovery of the DSS has cast much light on the formative period of the tradition of the elders, esp. since new collections such as 1QS have indicated that sectarian as well as rabbinic Judaism was in the process of expanding the law. The DSS display the same types of refinements of the tradition as seen in the Talmud: concern for the text of the five Books of Moses; detailed instructions on offerings and tithes; ritual cleanliness and defilement; instruction concerning rituals and verification of current practices. The zeal with which this tradition was carried out to the last letter of its content is demonstrated by the community of Qumran itself, a religious commune existing under the harshest conditions of life. As with the rabbinical traditions the DSS have a twofold purpose in view in their attempt to perfect the traditional system of the law: 1. To maintain against the encroaching paganism the ancient Israelite theocracy; 2. To preserve a remnant of purified Israel against the world until the apocalyptic release. This last futuritive ideal has often been overlooked in modern discussions of the Jewish traditionalism. In the DSS the apocalyptic mode is uppermost and foremost.

Tradition in the diaspora and the church.


H. J. Holtzmann, Kanon und Tradition (1859); C. Ullmann, Reformers before the Reformation, 2 vols. (1874-1877); A. Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus The Messiah, 2 vols. (1883); A. K. G. Harnack, History of Dogma, 7 vols. (1895-1900) see index; G. C. Aalders, De Profeten des Ouden Verbonds (1918); H. L. Strack and P. Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, I (1922) 610-720; B. H. Branscomb, Jesus and the Law of Moses (1930); H. Birkeland, Zum hebräischen Traditions-wesen (1938); J. Pedersen, Israel, Its Life and Culture, 4 vols. (1940) see index; S. Mowinckel, Prophecy and Tradition (1946); G. Widengren, Literary and Psychological Aspects of Hebrew Prophets (1948); E. J. Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament (1949) 10-100; D. Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (1956); P. Wernberg-Məller, The Manual of Discipline (1957); S. Mowinckel, “Tradition,” IDB, vol. 4 (1962) 683-685; R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (1969) 19-82.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

1. Meaning in Jewish Theology:

The term in the New Testament has apparently three meanings. It means, in Jewish theology, the oral teachings of the elders (distinguished ancestors from Moses on) which were reverenced by the late Jews equally with the written teachings of the Old Testament, and were regarded by them as equally authoritative on matters of belief and conduct. There seem to be three classes of these oral teachings:

(a) some oral laws of Moses (as they supposed) given by the great lawgiver in addition to the written laws;

(b) decisions of various judges which became precedents in judicial matters;

(c) interpretations of great teachers (rabbis) which came to be prized with the same reverence as were the Old Testament Scriptures.

It was against the tradition of the elders in this first sense that Jesus spoke so pointedly to the scribes and Pharisees (Mt 15:2 f; Mr 7:3 f). The Pharisees charged Jesus with transgressing "the tradition of the elders." Jesus turned on them with the question, "Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?" He then shows how their hollow traditionalism has fruited into mere ceremonialism and externalism (washing of hands, vessels, saying "Corban" to a suffering parent, i.e. "My property is devoted to God, and therefore I cannot use it to help you," etc.), but He taught that this view of uncleanness was essentially false, since the heart, the seat of the soul, is the source of thought, character and conduct (Mr 7:14 f).

2. As Used in 1 Corinthians and 2 Thessalonians:

The word is used by Paul when referring to his personal Christian teachings to the churches at Corinth and Thessalonica (1Co 11:2; 2Th 2:15; 3:6). In this sense the word in the singular is better translated "instruction," signifying the body of teaching delivered by the apostle to the church at Thessalonica (2Th 3:6). But Paul in the other two passages uses it in the plural, meaning the separate instructions which he delivered to the churches at Corinth and Thessalonica.

3. As Used in Colossians:

The word is used by Paul in Col 2:8 in a sense apparently different from the two senses above. He warns his readers against the teachings of the false teachers in Colosse, which are "after the tradition of men." Olshausen, Lightfoot, Dargan, in their commentaries in the place cited., maintain that the reference is to the Judaistic character of the false teachers. This may be true, and yet we must see that the word "tradition" has a much broader meaning here than in 1 above. Besides, it is not certain that the false teachings at Colosse are essentially Jewish in character. The phrase "tradition of men" seems to emphasize merely the human, not necessarily Jewish, origin of these false teachings.

The verb paradidomi, "to give over," is also used 5 times to express the impartation of Christian instruction: Lu 1:2, where eyewitnesses are said to have handed down the things concerning Jesus; 1Co 11:2,23 and 15:3 referring to the apostle’s personal teaching; 2Pe 2:21, to instruction by some Christian teacher (compare 1Pe 1:18).


Broadus, Allen, Meyer, commentaries on Mt 15:2 f; Swete, Gould, commentaries on Mr (7:3 f); Lightfoot, Meyer, commentaries on Ga 1:14; Lightfoot, Olshausen, Dargan (American Commentary), commentaries on Col 2:8; Milligan, commentary on 1 and 2Th (2Th 2:15 and 3:6); Weber, Jewish Theology (Ger., Altsyn. Theol.); Pocock, Porta Mosis, 350-402; Schurer, HJP, II, i, section 25; Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, II, chapter xxxi; Josephus, Ant, XIII, x, 6. Charles B. Williams