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The Traditions of the Elders

by Tim O'Hearn

And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the sabbath, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven sabbaths shall be complete: Even unto the morrow after the seventh sabbath shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall offer a new meat offering unto the LORD. (Lev 23:15-16)

Last year in these pages ("When Is Pentecost?", May 2002) I discussed the argument between the Pharisees and the Sadducees about what "Sabbath" is meant in this passage. The Pharisees argued from the oral tradition of the sages that this meant Shavuot (Pentecost) was fifty days after Pesach/Passover. The Sadducees argued from the plain reading of the passage itself that Shavuot was fifty days after the Sabbath after Pesach, thus always coming on a Sunday. This argument dated from before the time of Jesus, and he probably knew of the sometimes heated discussions that arose from this basic disagreement. Obviously the Pharisees eventually won out, because this year Pentecost falls on Friday, June 6.

There is more to this question than whether Peter's sermon in Acts 2 came on Sunday or Saturday. Even at the time the argument was current, the fundamental question concerned the validity of oral tradition. This has been a concern in the church for almost two centuries, and is still of vital importance. How much importance can we give, if any, to that which can claim to be handed down, orally or in writing, essentially from the first century? Can we practice anything in the church that can not be shown directly from scripture? Does tradition have any place in the church?

The Position of the Sadducees

The Sadducees held the "conservative" view. They said that in all things, not just this question, the only authority was what was written in the five Books of Moses. The "Oral Law" handed down from Moses through the priests and rabbis held no authority. If it was not written in the Law, it was neither binding nor generally desired. They generally held to the verbal inspiration of the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy) and that such inspiration ended with Moses.

As a result, the Sadducees rejected a number of doctrines held by most Jews during the first centuries either side of the birth of Jesus. Among such doctrines were the resurrection of the dead, and the existence of angels. "For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit: but the Pharisees confess both." (Acts 23:8)

This is essentially the view of most fundamentalist Christian churches, including most of the churches of Christ. The primary difference is that the Christian groups accept the whole of the scriptures that were also accepted by the Pharisees, and claim that inspiration continued through, but not beyond the first century. Thus, if it isn't found in the Bible (not including the Apocrypha) the church is not bound by it. Tradition has little or no place in our faith.

Among the doctrines denied by this position one would find Papal Infallibility (even when properly understood), the veneration of Mary, infant baptism, the use of musical instruments in worship, most church organization, and additional scriptures such as the Book of Mormon or the Qur'an (Koran). The general, and essentially valid, argument is that if one accepts anything not found directly in the scriptures then one can have no way of knowing which among contradictory "inspired" doctrines to accept. If, for instance, one accepts that the Holy Spirit still gives direct prophecy to men, which of the books earlier mentioned is correct? If the Latter Day Saints and the Muslims can not agree, then one or both can not be inspired by the same Spirit.

One of the basic teachings that came out of the Restoration Movement in nineteenth century America was that we can only bind as a requirement that for which we find a direct command in scripture, a necessary inference from scripture, or tradition of the apostles. In part as a reaction to the proliferation of Christian denominations that each appealed to a tradition of men, the Restoration preachers approached the view of the Sadducees in limiting the traditions that were acceptable.

The Position of the Pharisees

The Pharisees, and most other sects, held that the scriptures included the Prophets and the Writings (the Chronicles, the books of poetry, and the book of Daniel). Beyond that, certain practices and interpretations of the Law had been handed down orally since the time of Moses. This "Oral Law" held standing with the written Law. Some believed it was valid, but the written Law held more authority. Others said the Oral Law had equal, or in some instances, greater standing than the written Torah. In either case, the interpretations and decrees of the priests and rabbis were in some great degree binding on all Jews. Since these laws and rulings came down in an unbroken line from Moses, then (the Pharisees argued) obviously they have the authority of Moses behind them.

Today we hear the same argument by the Roman Catholic Church. The Popes go back in an unbroken line to Peter (though that would be a surprise to Peter–see "What Would Peter Say?", November 2000), so their rulings must have been authoritatively passed down. Ignore the fact that at one time there were two, or even three, properly elected Popes. Ignore that some Popes have ruled exactly opposite from some of their predecessors. Ignore, even, that historically the Popes of Rome were considered heretics by the older Greek church. The oral tradition is still, by this argument, valid.

Since Jesus was, in most things, the closest thing to a Pharisee without being one, it is interesting that he disagreed with them so strongly in the matter of the Oral Law. He accepted more than the Sadducees in that he acknowledged the validity of the Prophets and the Writings, yet he rejected the authority of man made traditions. "But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?" (Matt 15:3) What Jesus here condemns is not tradition, per se, but elevating tradition over the word of God.

The Position of Paul, the Pharisee

The apostle Paul was, to the end of his life, a Pharisee. He had been taught by one of the greatest rabbis of all time. Even after changing his life to follow the Messiah he claimed to be a Pharisee as far as his approach to the Law of Moses. (Acts 23:6) Perhaps because of that background, Paul taught that Christians should follow, at least on a limited basis, the tradition he taught. "Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ. Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the traditions, as I delivered them to you." (1 Cor 11:1-2) "Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle." (2 Thes 2:15) "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us. For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you; Neither did we eat any man's bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you." (2 Thes 3:6-8)

The passage from 1 Corinthians may indicate that the "traditions" of which Paul spoke were imitations of Christ. The passage from 2 Thessalonians 3, however, indicates a tradition that we have no direct record of Jesus saying anything about. In Galatians, Paul points out that he was taught directly by God, and had the same authority as the other apostles. But this still raises some questions about how much of Paul's authority, or anyone else's, we may consider as being a tradition as opposed to a direct command.

In answer to my original questions, it does appear that tradition has some place in the church. That tradition that we hold as binding may be limited to the traditions of the apostles themselves, and nothing beyond them. On the other hand, those who argue against congregational autonomy point out that the tradition of bishops over several congregations dates back to within two generations (possibly one) of the apostles, in spite of the scriptural teaching that each congregation was to have its own government. Other traditions, that few consider binding, give structure and continuity to our worship. We can not totally eliminate the "oral law" within the church. Some things have been passed down for generations, particularly in America, that make our assemblies what they are, even if they can not be found in the pages of scripture. Are they wrong, just because they are part of our "oral law?" Certainly not. They may be considered non-scriptural, but not unscriptural.

When is Pentecost/Shavuot? The Oral Torah won out on that. However, to most of us as Gentiles in the church, it doesn't really matter. We are not bound by that Law. And yet, we might still need to consider the arguments of both sides of the issue. Which was really right, the Pharisees or the Sadducees? Might they not have both been right, and wrong? That is why we need to study the written word of God; so that we may not fall into the traps that they experienced. "Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." (2 Tim 2:15)