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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Tradition (2)

TRADITION.—In its simplest and most primitive form, the conception of tradition involves what is contained in the English word delivery. Tradition is the act of transmitting the story of an event or the teaching of a master. From being thus first of all the act of transmission, it becomes in the next place the thing transmitted, and finally a whole body of narratives or teachings passed from generation to generation. In the history of all religions, traditions play a very important part. The times of Jesus and the Gospels were not exceptional in this regard. Explicit mention of tradition is made in Matthew 15:2-3; Matthew 15:6, Mark 7:3; Mark 7:5; Mark 7:8-9; Mark 7:13. Both of these passages refer to the same transaction, and therefore represent the same condition of affairs in the environment and the same attitude on the part of Jesus towards the subject.

The environment was as thoroughly pervaded by the recognition of the authority of tradition as any other that we know of, either in ancient or in modern times. In fact, it stands pre-eminent in this particular (Matthew 15:2, Mark 7:3). The Sadducees took exception to the prevalent state of mind (Josephus Ant. xiii. x. 6); but the attitude of the Pharisees was the very opposite, and exerted a dominant influence in the matter. In the Talmud it was written that ‘Moses received the oral Law from Sinai and delivered it to Joshua, and Joshua delivered it to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the men of the Great [Note: reat Cranmer’s ‘Great’ Bible 1539.] Synagogue. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence for the Law’ (Aboth i.). The Rabbis interpreted Exodus 20:1 as involving the idea that all that was to guide the Israelite into the knowledge of the nature and the law of God had been given to Moses on Mount Sinai. More expressly, they found the different parts of the complex rule of faith advocated in the phraseology of Exodus 24:12. The expression used in this passage is, ‘I will give thee the tables of stone, and the law, and the commandments, which I have written, that thou mayest keep them.’ The ‘tables of stone’ were understood to mean the Ten Commandments; ‘the law,’ the written prescriptions of the Pentateuch; ‘the commandments,’ the Mishna; ‘which I have written,’ the prophets and Hagiographa; ‘that thou mayest teach them,’ the Talmud (Berakh. 5a, lines 11–16). A place was thus made for a large body of precepts which do not appear in the OT Scriptures; and all this was of at least equal authority with the written Law, because given at the same time and through the same person, Moses. To the question why it was not written down at the same time as the written Law, the answer was that Moses did indeed desire to reduce it to writing, but was forbidden by God, because in the days to come Israel would be scattered among the Gentiles, and the written Law would be taken from them; the oral Law would then be the distinctive badge of the Israelite.* [Note: Hence the name Oral Law has prevailed in modern Jewish usage. (Cf. JE, art. ‘Oral Law’).]

By some it was held that the oral or traditional Law was even superior to the written, because the latter was dependent for its authority upon the oral testimony of Moses. In other words, the oral precedes and underlies the written. The covenant was founded not on the written, but on the oral word of God; for it is said, ‘after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel’ (Exodus 34:27).

From the nature of the case, tradition was not a clearly defined body. A large portion of it was simply a repetition of the written Law, with elaborations of detail and embellishments. Another portion consisted of distinct additions, a third of provisions looking to the strict observance of the Torah. As far as this tradition was prescriptive or legal, it was called Hălâkhâ (-khôth), i.e. decision (or decisions) having the force of statutes. As far as it was narrative, it was called Haggâdâ (that which is related). As a reiteration of the Mosaic Law, it was called Mishna (repetition). As a series of questionings into or investigations of the meaning of the Law, it was called Midrâsh (Midrâshîm). As a means of teaching, or the body of what was to be taught, it was the Talmud. The whole body of tradition together with the Prophets and Hagiographa, in fact the whole rule of faith with the exception of the Pentateuch, was called Kabbâlâh, that which is received. A doctrine of paralepsis was thus developed, to correlate with the doctrine of paradosis, ‘tradition.’

The administration or practical use of such a body of tradition was not an easy matter. In fact, for the average layman it was an impossibility; hence the rise of a class of men who devoted themselves to the work of studying it, and informing inquirers about it (see Scribes, Lawyers). But this method raised the interpreters of the Law to a place of authority. Interpretations of the Law were accepted as binding, because they said so, not because the Law was seen to involve them. The Law was obeyed not because its Divine origin was perceived, but upon the authority of men. Tradition thus came to be doubly the enthronement of human authority. On the one side, it massed together man-made rules and representations of God’s thought; on the other side, it wrought out man-made interpretations of the Law which truly came from God. For the former a direct Divine authority was claimed in the teaching that they were actually delivered to Moses on Sinai; some corroboration for each separate precept thus brought down was sought for in the written Law. For the latter not even this semblance of connexion with the known revelation of God could be adduced. In neither case could the stream rise higher than its source. The teachings of men came to take the place which belonged to those of God. It could not go further back than the elders (Fathers), and those who were called upon to accept it must do so upon the authority of human statements. Tradition thus canonized the media of communication, and lost sight of the value and validity of the things communicated on one side, and of the authority of Him from whom the communication came on the other. Whatever the claim for the Divine origin of the Mishna might be, the practical result of its acceptance was the exaltation of the means through which it came to the supreme place of authority.

Jesus’ attitude towards tradition relates itself decidedly to this aspect of it. He saw in it a means of transgressing the commandments of God. He denied first of all the Pharisaic teaching that tradition was of equal weight with the Law. He did not, however, definitely affiliate Himself with the Sadducaic teachings on the subject. As against the Pharisees, He taught that the Law of God could not come in conflict with itself, whereas between the traditions current and the Law there were conflicts. In many cases traditional prescriptions did stand in the way of the right observance of the Law (Mark 7:11 ff.). As contrasted with the Divine Law, He calls the tradition ‘your tradition.’ Finally, He classes all tradition with matters of form or lip-service. He relegates the application of it into the sphere of the non-ethical. So far as such traditions could be made serviceable in the promotion of ethical or spiritual ends, they might be unobjectionable, but they must in no case stand in the way of the clearly revealed will of God (Matthew 15:2-20, Mark 7:2-23. See also art. Corban).

Literature.—Barclay, The Talmud, 1878; Eisenmenger, Entdecktes Judenthum, 1711; Zunz, Die Gottesdienstl. Vorträge d. Juden2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , 1892; J. H. Weiss, Dor [1876], i. 1–93; Edersheim, LT [Note: T Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah [Edersheim].] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] [1886], ii. 205–211; Friedländer, The Jewish Religion, 1891, pp. 136–139.

A. C. Zenos.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Tradition (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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