Tradition is often the topic of passionate debate and discussion among Messianic believers. Unfortunately, it has also become a significant point of division between many individuals and congregations.
When we are encouraged by others in our congregations to do something or to believe something in regards to Scripture, we should always be like the Bereans and test everything against Scripture itself (Acts 17:11)... the whole of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17). If a person feels "led by the spirit" to speak, behave, or believe a certain way, they should test that spirit (1 John 4:1) and see whether what that spirit is telling them to do is in agreement or disagreement with Scripture.
Let us take a journey together through Scripture and see what it says about the matter of tradition... a "walk in the Word" so to speak. As we take this walk, may we say, believe, and do what is right, be merciful in our speech and actions, and walk humbly with the Lord (Micah 6:8).
Included in this text are references to all verses in Scripture that include references to "tradition". If you find a verse that is not referenced and think it should be, please contact the author.
Scriptural quotations are from the New American Standard Bible unless otherwise noted. Bolded text or other emphases in the Scriptural references are the author's.
The very first time the word "tradition" is found in the NASB is in Isaiah 29:13-
Then the Lord said, "Because this people draw near with their words And honor Me with their lip service, But they remove their hearts far from Me, And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote, Therefore behold, I will once again deal marvelously with this people, wondrously marvelous; And the wisdom of their wise men will perish, And the discernment of their discerning men will be concealed."
Interestingly, the Hebrew word for tradition, מסורה [mesorah], is not found in this passage. What is translated as "tradition" is מצות אנשׁים [mitzvot anashim] which literally means "commandments of men". G-d is not admonishing His people Israel because they have traditions but because they are basing their reverence/fear of Him on man-made commandments.
This is the first and only time the word "tradition" can be found in the NASB translation of the Tanakh. After a quick search of more than half a dozen different translations (including the KJV and Young's Literal) the NASB is the only translation to make any mention of "tradition" in the Tanakh.
Matthew 15 (and its parallel passage in Mark 7) records the first instance of "tradition" found in the Greek Scriptures.
"Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread. For God said, 'HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER,' and, 'HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF FATHER OR MOTHER IS TO BE PUT TO DEATH.' But you say, 'Whoever says to his father or mother, "Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God," he is not to honor his father or his mother.' And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition."
Some Pharisees and scribes (verse 1) inquire of Yeshua as to why His disciples break a specific tradition. The Greek word that is translated as "tradition" in this passage is παράδοσις (paradosis Strong's #3862). This word comes from another Greek word (παραδίδωμι - paradidomi) which means to hand over, give, or deliver.1
What is Yeshua's response to the accusation made against His disciples?
And He answered and said to them, "Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition [paradosis]?
G-d's commandments stand clearly above any traditions
Here Messiah establishes a clear heirarchy: G-d's commandments stand clearly above any traditions of the elders.
Note that He does not condemn them for following traditions but for placing those tradition above G-d's commandments. Interestingly, He quotes the Isaiah passage above and associates it with those who asked the question:
"You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: 'THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME. BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.'"
After Jesus called the crowd to Him, He said to them, "Hear and understand. It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man."
In a radical twist of irony, contemporary Christianity uses Yeshua's concluding words of this passage as justification to do exactly what He is teaching against. They follow the traditions of men (who say that anything can be eaten as food) and use those traditions as their reason to disobey the commandments of G-d.
Yeshua and Tradition- an Example
In another, later passage of Matthew we find Yeshua speaking about very specific Jewish traditions:
Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: "The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men.
Here we find two very specific examples:
- Phylacteries [Hebrew: tefillin]
- Tassels [Hebrew: tzitzit]
Absent any explicit instructions regarding how certain commandments were to be fulfilled, various traditions have arisen.
G-d's commandment regardingtefillin is found in Deuteronomy 6:8, Deuteronomy 11:18, Exodus 13:9, Exodus 13:16.
"You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and let them be as frontals on your forehead."
His commandment regarding tzitzit is found in Numbers 15:38.
"Speak to the sons of Israel, and tell them that they shall make for themselves tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and that they shall put on the tassel of each corner a cord of blue."
These commandments do not provide any details regarding how they should be performed. Absent any explicit instructions regarding how certain commandments were to be fulfilled, various traditions have arisen. We know from archaeological and historical evidence that there were very specific traditions that had arisen around these two commandments: how the tefillin was to be made and worn and how the tzitzit was to be knotted and tied.
If these traditions were "worthless" or "in error", here was the perfect opportunity for the G-d who had given the commandments at Mt. Sinai to correct His errant nation. What does Yeshua say in admonition and correction?
He corrects their motivations. His only point in this passage was that they did these deeds "to be noticed by men". He says nothing negative regarding the tradition itself which they were following in order to keep the commandments.
Throughout Paul's writings he speaks frequently of the praise of G-d but in only one letter does he explicitly praise men:
1 Corinthians 11:2
Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.
Paul is praising the believers in Corinth because they were holding firmly to the traditions. Was this because they were keeping Lent, Easter, and Christmas at Paul's instruction?
Not even close. All of those (as well as many other Catholic) traditions were not invented until centuries later. To what was Paul referring? Let's do some detective work regarding Paul.
In Acts 16, the men of Philippi seize Paul and Silas and take them before the magistrates.
and when they had brought them to the chief magistrates, they said, "These men are throwing our city into confusion, being Jews, and are proclaiming customs which it is not lawful for us to accept or to observe, being Romans."
In Philippi Paul is charged with proclaiming Jewish customs.
Interestingly enough, just a few chapters later Paul is falsely charged with the exact opposite: he is telling believers to not walk according to the customs of the Jews.
Acts 21:17, 20-24
After we arrived in Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly.
And when they heard it they began glorifying God; and they said to him, "You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. "What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. Therefore do this that we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads; and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law.
These are the same type of false charges that are brought against Stephen before he is martyred (Acts 6:14).
Later in the book of Acts Paul makes this declaration:
But perceiving that one group were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, Paul began crying out in the Council, "Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!"
Paul declares here that he is (present tense) a Pharisee not that he was (past tense) a Pharisee.
After his trial and his appeal to Caesar, Paul is taken to Rome. After he arrives Paul calls the leading Jewish men of the city together and makes this statement:
After three days Paul called together those who were the leading men of the Jews, and when they came together, he began saying to them, "Brethren, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans.
After he comes to faith in Yeshua and after all of his missionary work among the Gentiles Paul declares that he had done nothing to violate the customs of Judaism.
To the believers in Galatia Paul writes:
For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it; and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions.
The traditions which Paul gave to the believers at Corinth, those traditions which he was praising them for holding firmly, were almost certainly the traditions of Judaism.
Paul was extremely zealous for the traditions of his ancestors. His former way of life was to persecute the believers as a result of his zealousness. Did that zealousness evaporate with his faith in Yeshua? Not according to Acts 21:20. The thousands of Jewish believers there were noted because of their zealousness for the Law and the traditions that were associated with it.
What does all of this tell us? The traditions which Paul gave to the believers at Corinth, those traditions which he was praising them for holding firmly, were almost surely the traditions of Judaism.
A word of caution:
We cannot and should not assume that the traditions and customs of twenty-first century Judaism are the same traditions which Paul was teaching. A number of modern teachings and traditions have arisen from the bitter polemic between Christianity and Judaism over the past two millennia as well as from medieval mystical teachings. These influences were not present in Paul's day.
Does Paul's teaching of the customs and praising the Corinthians for following them contradict the words of Yeshua? May it never be! Paul's writings fit within the teachings of Messiah: traditions are fine as long as they do not violate G-d's commandments.
Paul continues to speak of the traditions he taught in his second letter to the believers in Thessalonica.
2 Thessalonians 2:15
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.
He later provides to them this rather remarkable command:
2 Thessalonians 3:6-9
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we kept working night and day so that we would not be a burden to any of you; not because we do not have the right to this, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you, so that you would follow our example.
To be entirely fair, Paul may simply be speaking of the tradition he provided of discipline and working in order to pay for his own food. Given the greater context of the remainder of Paul's writings that may be short-changing his intended meaning here.
What about Paul's admonition against tradition in Colossians 2?
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.
Here it is plain that Paul is speaking against the tradition of men. What is Paul speaking of? Jewish tradition or something else?
Let's get a bit of background on Colossae:
Paul had never visited Colosse- evidently the church had been founded by Epaphras and other converts from Paul's missionary travels. The church, however, had been infiltrated by religious relativism, with some believers attempting to combine elements of paganism and secular philosophy with Christian doctrine. Paul confronts these false teachings and affirms the sufficiency of Christ.2
Jewish tradition is not in view when Paul is dealing with these issues at Colossae. In fact, Paul later goes on to note the following:
Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind...
Self-abasement and worship of angels were definitely issues within the community at Colossae but they were not within the traditions of the Elders. There was a tradition in Colossae that the angel Micha'el had appeared to the city and saved them from a tremendous flood. There was even a temple built to him in the city.
Paul goes on to finish the chapter with this:
If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, "Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!" (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)--in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.
"Self-made religion, self-abasement, and severe treatment of the body" again are not part of the traditions of the Elders but are, however, part of Gnosticism.
Gnostics believed that matter, whether it be the physical universe or the humanly body, is evil. It is obvious that there is a great tension between spirit and matter. This effects many of their beliefs and especially the way they perceive(d) the world and God's interactions with it.
Gnostics believed that human beings were "sparks" or "droplets" of the very same spiritual substance (or essence) that God is. Somehow we we became trapped in our physical bodies from which we are to escape.3
Gnosticism taught that, because of the inherent evil of the flesh, that every action should be taken to wrestle the flesh into submission in order to free one's spirit from it. Paul's reference to "do not handle, do not taste, do not touch" fits squarely within their practices. While there are several commandments within the Torah regarding things that should not be handled or eaten, these are clearly G-d's commandments and not the "commandments of men". Paul knew that these Gnostic teachines violated G-d's instruction that certain animals were permitted for food and were sanctified by the Word of G-d and prayer (1 Timothy 4:4-5).
One example of a tradition that has arisen around a commandment in Scripture is the identification of the beginning of a month. In 21st century nomenclature, "new moon" means when the moon is entirely hidden to the naked eye:
In astronomical terminology, the phrase "new moon" is the lunar phase that occurs when the moon, in its monthly orbit around the Earth, lies between Earth and the Sun, and is therefore in conjunction with the Sun as seen from Earth. At this time, the dark (unilluminated) portion of the moon faces almost directly toward Earth, so that the moon is not visible to the naked eye.
Alternatively, the commonly held understanding of "new moon" for Hebrews is when the first sliver of the moon is sighted:
Each month the moon disappears and becomes invisible for about two days, or somewhat more or less–for about one day at the end of the old month, before it reaches its conjunction with the sun, and for about one day after its conjunction with the sun. Then it reappears in the evening in the west, and this night, on which it becomes visible in the west after its disappearance, is the beginning of the month. From this day on 29 days were counted, and if the new crescent appeared on the night of the 30th day, this 30th day was the first day of the new month. If, however, it did not appear on that night, the 30th day would belong to the old month and the 31st day would be the first day of the new month. And no matter whether the moon did or did not appear in the night of the 31st day, no attention was paid to it, for the lunar month never lasts longer than 30 days.4
Scripture, however, is silent on this particular detail so whether one chooses to observe "hidden" or "first visible" as the new moon we are choosing to follow a tradition. Neither contradicts what is given in Scripture.
These types of traditions simply serve to provide a mechanism by which we are to obey the commandments.
When Yeshua spoke against tradition it was only that it was held above the commandments of G-d causing violations of G-d's Law.
It is clear that Paul taught traditions to a number of congregations. It is entirely likely that those traditions included the traditions of the Elders as they were understood in his day.
When Paul spoke against tradition it was in reference to Gnostic-like traditions which also caused violations of G-d's Law.
Footnotes1. New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance [back]
2. Introduction to Colossians, The Life Application Bible, p 2156, ©1988 by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. [back]
3. Gnosticism - Theopedia, 11/14/2009 from http://www.theopedia.com/Gnosticism [back]
4. The Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah), Book 3, Treatise 8, "The Sanctification of the New Moon," translated from the Hebrew by Solomon Gandz, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1956, chapter 1, pp. 3-4. [back]