Tradition, Tradition of the Elders

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.

3. Intertestamental. 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.


5. 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.

6. Tradition in the diaspora and the church. As differences in languages, customs and locale separated the various Jewish communities of the dispersion, so independent traditions sprang up after the apostolic age a.d. 100-102 when Christian churches were commonplace. Judaism was put on the defensive and for centuries turned inward with the outcome of becoming meditative and passive. Christianity on the other hand, seems to have been divided at a very early date over the problem of Jewish sacerdotalism and the maintenance of the non-canonical law. The episodes of Paul’s resisting the Judaizers (Gal 3; 4) places the origin of this problem within the apostolic age. While the Western or Lat. church adopted the ritualism of the Jews, the Eastern or Gr. church was more inclined to syncretize the Gospel and the notions of middle Platonism. In many medieval church councils the force of Jewish ritual within the church was sanctified and in the Russian church an outright Judaizing tendency was in vogue. When the Renaissance sprang forth in Italy in the 18th cent. little attention was paid to the Jewish past although Islamics was a popular study. However, Biblical commentators from Nicholas of Lyra (a.d. 1270?-1340?) began to pay more heed to the Jewish traditions in the interpretation of both OT and NT. The revival of Hebraic studies was brought about by the efforts of Johann Reuchlin (a.d. 1455-1522) whose close association with the rabbinic schools of his time popularized the study of the traditions of medieval Judaism among the trans-alpine humanists. Strange as it may seem the Rom. Curia and the rabbis both derived their ultimate respect for tradition from the same sources and bolstered it with similar Aristotelian arguments, yet the church and its inquisitorial agents persecuted the Jews throughout the Middle Ages and the period of the Renaiss ance. The reforming influence which arose after the 12th cent. began at its inception to uproot the centuries of tradition. Luther did not altogether reject sacerdotalism, but he did place the Bible above tradition with his principle of sola scriptura. Calvin and his followers not only rejected sacerdotalism outright, but broke from all vestiges of tradition and their followers even rejected scholasticism. In the 19th cent., after Bonaparte’s defeat, rationalism succumbed to romanticism and a neo-gothic literary style appeared which treasured the medieval and oriental past. An aspect of this was the renewed interest in the legends and sagas of Scandanavia and the Ger. states. The Danish scholar Nikolai F. S. Grundtvig (a.d. 1783-1872) and the Ger. philologists Jacob Grimm (a.d. 1785-1863) and Wilhelm Grimm (a.d. 1786-1859) applied great attention to the study and collection of the old folklore. Soon the same insights were being applied to the Biblical text and the resultant traditionsgeschichte methode, “tradition-criticism method,” has been a standard feature of higher critical study of the Bible throughout the 20th cent. Although not without merit, the method has usually been applied on the basis of a humanistic origin of the text and its results have been overtly subjective. With the current interest in “oral history” this concept has been added and refined to the study of traditions both in Judaism and the Early Christian Church.

Bibliography 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.