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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Tradition

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(παράδοσις ), Jewish The Jews pretend that, besides their written law contained in the Pentateuch, God delivered to Moses an oral law, which was handed down from generation to generation. The various decisions of the Jewish doctors or priests on points which the law had either left doubtful or passed over in silence were the true sources of their traditions. They did not commit their numerous traditions (which appear to have been a long time in accumulating) to writing before their wars against the Romans under Hadrian and Severus. The Mishna, the Gemara, and perhaps the Masorah were collected by the rabbins of Tiberias and later schools. (See RABBINISM).

Many of their false traditions were in direct opposition to the law of God; hence our Savior often reproached the Pharisees with preferring them to the law itself. He also gives several instances of their superstitious adherence to vain observances, while they neglected essential things (Matthew 15:2-3; Mark 7:3-13). The only way in which we can know satisfactorily that any tradition is of divine authority is by its having a place in those writings which are generally acknowledged to be the genuine productions of inspired men. All traditions which have not such authority are without value, and tend greatly to detract and mislead the minds of men (2 Thessalonians 2:15; 2 Thessalonians 3:6).

In this respect, however, a notable division existed among the Jews themselves, which has been transmitted to the modern representatives of the two great parties. The leading tenet of the Sadducees was the negation of the leading tenet of their opponents. As the Pharisees asserted, so the Sadducees denied, that the Israelites were in possession of an oral law transmitted to them by Moses. The manner in which the Pharisees may have gained acceptance for their own view is noticed elsewhere in this work, (See PHARISEE); but, for an equitable estimate of the Sadducees, it is proper to bear in mind emphatically how destitute of historical evidence the doctrine was which they denied. That doctrine is, at the, present day, rejected, probably by almost all, if not by all, Christians; and it is, indeed, so foreign to their ideas that the greater number of Christians have never even heard of it, though it is older than Christianity, and has been the support and consolation of the Jews under a series of the most cruel and wicked persecutions to which any nation has ever been exposed during an equal number of centuries. It is likewise now maintained all over the world by those who are called the orthodox Jews.

It is therefore desirable to know the kind of arguments by which, at the present day, in a historical and critical age, the doctrine is defended. For this an opportunity has lately been given by a learned French Jew, grand-rabbi of the circumscription of Colmar (Klein, Le Judaisme, ou la Veriti sur le Talmud [Mulhouse, 1859]), who still asserts as a fact the existence of a Mosaic oral law. To do full justice to his views, the original work should be perused. But it is doing no injustice to-his learning and ability to point out that not one of his arguments has a positive historical value. Thus he relies mainly on the inconceivability (as will be again noticed in this article) that a divine revelation should not have explicitly proclaimed the doctrine of a future state of rewards and punishments, or that it should have promulgated laws left in such an incomplete form and requiring so much explanation, and so many additions as the laws in the Pentateuch. Now arguments of this kind may be sound or unsound; based on reason or illogical; and for many they may have a philosophical or theological value; but they have no pretence to he regarded as historical, inasmuch as the assumed premises, which involve a knowledge of the attributes of the Supreme Being and the manner in which he would be likely to deal with man, are far beyond the limits of historical verification.

The nearest approach to a historical argument is the following (p. 10): "In the first place, nothing proves better the fact of the existence of the tradition than the belief itself in the tradition. An entire nation does not suddenly forget its religious code, its principles, its laws, the daily ceremonies of its worship to such a point that it could easily be persuaded that a new doctrine presented by some impostors is the true and only explanation of its law and has always determined and ruled its application. Holy Writ often represents the Israelites as a stiff-necked people impatient of the religious yoke; and would it not be attributing to them rather an excess of docility, a too great condescension, a blind obedience, to suppose that they suddenly consented to troublesome and rigorous innovations which some persons might have wished to impose on them some fine morning? Such a supposition destroys itself, and we are obliged to acknowledge that the tradition is not a new invention, but that its birth goes back to the origin of the religion; and that, transmitted from father to son as the word of God, it lived in the heart of the people, identified itself with the blood, and was always considered as an inviolable authority." But, if this passage is carefully examined, it will be seen that it does not supply a single fact worthy of being regarded as a proof of a Mosaic oral law. Independent testimony of persons contemporary with Moses that he had transmitted such a law to the Israelites would be historical evidence; the testimony of persons in the next generation as to the existence of such an oral law which their fathers told them came from Moses would have been secondary historical evidence: but the belief of the Israelites on the point twelve hundred years after Moses cannot, in the absence of any intermediate testimony, be deemed evidence of a historical fact.

Moreover, it is a mistake to assume that they who deny a Mosaic oral law; imagine that this oral law was at some one time as one great system introduced suddenly among the Israelites. The real mode of conceiving what occurred is far different. After the return from, the Captivity, there existed probably among the Jews a large body of customs and decisions not contained in the Pentateuch; and these had practical authority over the people long before they were attributed to Moses. The only phenomenon of importance requiring explanation is, not the existence of the customs sanctioned by the oral law, but the belief accepted by a certain portion of the Jews that Moses had divinely revealed those customs as laws to the Israelites. To explain this historically from written records is impossible, from the silence on the subject of the very scanty historical Jewish writings purporting to be written between the return from the Captivity in B.C. 536 and that uncertain period when the canon was finally closed, which probably could not have been very long before the death of Antiochus Epiphanies, B.C. 164. For all this space of time, a period of about three hundred and seventy-two years, a period as long as from the accession of Henry VIII to the present day, we have no Hebrew account, nor, in fact, any contemporary account, of the history of the Jews in Palestine, except what may be contained in the short works entitled Ezra and Nehemiah. The last named of these works does not carry the history much later than one hundred years after the return from the Captivity; so that there is a long and extremely important period of more than two centuries and a half before the heroic rising of the Maccabees during which there is a total absence of contemporary Jewish history. In this dearth of historical materials, it is idle to attempt a positive narration of the circumstances under which the oral law became assigned to Moses as its author. It is amply sufficient if a satisfactory suggestion is made as to how it might have been attributed to Moses; and in this there is not much difficulty for any one who bears in mind how notoriously in ancient times laws of a much later date were attributed to Minos, Lycurgus, Solon, and Numa.

Under this head we may add that it must not be assumed that the Sadducees, because they rejected a Mosaic oral law, rejected likewise all traditions and all decisions in explanation of passages in the Pentateuch. Although they protested against the assertion that such points had been divinely settled by Moses, they probably, in numerous instances, followed practically the same traditions as the Pharisees. (See SADDUCEE).


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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Tradition'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/t/tradition.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, November 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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